Ner Tamid and Tish’a B’Av

As I was setting up the chapel for this evening’s Tish’a B’Av service and Eichah reading at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, dimming the lights, lighting the five shiva candles that sit on the Amud (Reader’s Table) during the service, it occurred to me that the symbolism of the Ner Tamid shining in the shadows is starker than ever on Tish’a B’Av.

The Ner Tamid, the “Eternal Light”, a symbolic light that is hung above the ark in synagogue sanctuaries around the world, is said to remind us both of the Menorah, the oil lamp, and the continuously burning fire on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

It occurred to me also that while we light the Shiva candles in memoriam for the Beit HaMikdash that was destroyed for the first time in 586 BCE and then the second in 70 CE, my kindling feels a bit like a victory. A reclaiming of the fire, if you will. While I know it is a custom to light these candles, and that they are, in most places, for ambiance more than anything else, it felt like I was remembering the fire that burned our Temple, that burned our People, throughout the ages. It felt like I was connected to that raging fire, and had tamed it.

As I look at these small flames, contained in glass, against the great Ner Tamid that glows a strong blue in the chapel at Temple Emanu-El, I remember how our Temple was destroyed. Our People consumed in raging flames not once, but many times throughout the last three thousand years. I remember how not only was our greatest structure consumed those two fateful days in Jewish history; I remember how many must have died that day in terror. How many families must have been torn apart. I remember the Ten Martyrs who we recall on Yom Kippur, including the great sage Rabbi Akiva. I remember the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were burned at the stake. I remember the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. The flaming bricks thrown through windows. I remember the over six million Jews and over five million other who perished in our own century. I remember the news reports of the suicide bombings in Israel during the first and second Intifada.

Tish’a B’Av is a day to reclaim our national fire. It is a day of mourning for all those who were senselessly and brutally murdered from within our own People. As we inhale, we sense just a bit of smoke entering our olfactory consciousness. We remember those who ascended tragically in flames. On Tish’a B’Av, we remember them.

And as our Ner Tamid sits proudly above the ark, where we keep the most sacred objects in our tradition, we remember that we live in a world where senseless hatred had not been eliminated. It has not left us. And as the sun sets now on Tish’a B’Av, we — no, I — resolve to be reminded daily, always, no longer to stare blindly at the Ner Tamid. To let it serve as a reminder of my vulnerability to anger and to hatred, and to not let it overcome me in my own lifetime. I pray that we each do the same.


When a House Becomes a Home

Today, Sunday, August 23, 2009, I hung a mezuzah on my doorpost, in the front of my house. It wasn’t just any mezuzah — it was one that my parents gave me. And it wasn’t any small event — it’s the first time I’ve ever hung a mezuzah on a home I call my own.

Today marks one week since I moved to Providence, RI (apparently ahead of the rabbinic schedule since the gemara gives us thirty days to hang a mezuzah!) and I am finally starting to feel settled. No, the boxes are not all unpacked, and, no, I do not have all the furniture I need and many of my beloved books are still in boxes; but I am finally starting to feel like this is home.

As I hung the mezuzah in front of my home, I thought about the b’racha that we say as we are mounting it:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lik’boa mezuzah.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us in His mitzvot, and has commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

The word “lik’boa” is the word for “affix,” but this is an example of a word that doesn’t have a good translation in the English language. It comes from the word “keva” meaning “permanent”. Like having a “makom kavu’a”, a permanent space, in davening.

Hanging a mezuzah is a spiritual experience. It is the point where someone becomes the owner of her own space. It switches a house into a Jewish home.

And then, of course, I bless my house with the traditional prayer:

Let no sadness come through this gate,
Let no trouble come to this dwelling,
Let no fear come through this door,
Let no conflict be in this place,
Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy,
and peace.

May it be a place of only happiness and prosperity, and may it do me well in my new life.

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.

Can You See Me? Do I Want You To?

As I spend time traveling back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ve seen a lot of people of different experiences. Black, white, doctor, lawyer, accountant, musician, rich, poor; I’ve seen them all. Each person is the product of his or her own unique history.

As I see each of these people, as I travel with them and share the streets on which I walk with them, I often feel like I want them to recognize me. I see Jewish couples walking down the street, clearly religious Jewish couples (the women in skirts and hats or sheitels, the men in kippot), and I wish that they could just as easily recognize me as Jewish. I stand next to a man boarding the bus with his trombone in tow, and I hear the echo inside of my head, “I’m a musician, too! I love music! I wish he would see me and talk to me.”

I am a young woman who loves being Jewish, who loves music, who loves art, who loves being silly and talking to people. At this point in my life, the only part of that whole set that strangers can outwardly see is that I’m a woman. And even then, in this day and age, does not mean that I have anything in common with the woman next to me. Yes, I frequently wear a necklace around my neck that has my name spelled in Hebrew; and on Shabbat perhaps I’m recognizably Jewish (though strangely, based on the kippah that I often wear). I occasionally wear earrings with music notes dangling from my ears. I sometimes rehearse music riding the subway on the way to a rehearsal. I have also had to travel with my guitar recently, back and forth from school this semester. All of these identify who I am; but what about when I am not defined by all of that? What about when I am walking down the street in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt? How recognizable am I? And would it be to my advantage or disadvantage that others could recognize me and place me into a category like the categories in which I have placed the people who surround me?

For a while in high school and at the beginning of college, I toyed with the idea of wearing long skirts all the time, adopting garb that would identify me, on the outside, as Jewish. Ultimately for practicality’s sake, I decided against converting my whole wardrobe in the end. However, I am left with a fascinating insight into the world in which I live, after meditating on my own thought process:

The fact that I could even consider consciously identifying myself in public as Jewish says something profound about the American society in which I live: I do not have to fear that others might recognize me as Jewish.

For whatever reason, I often have great conversations with cab drivers, internationally. In one such interesting conversation, sometime this fall, I asked a cab driver in Boston if he could please drive me to the Jewish Community Center in Newton, MA. He asked me if I was Jewish, to which I honestly answered, “yes”. Turns out, this cab driver happened to be a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, having survived Nazism and Communism in Russia. He said to me, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Someone asks you if you are Jewish, and you don’t worry that the one who is asking is going to beat you up if you say ‘yes’. That is why I moved here. Because that it what I want for my children.” As he drove, he and I continued to talk about the virtues of having grown up in a world that allows me to be fearless, that allows me not to assume the worst when someone simply questions a part of my identity, as they had to in Eastern Europe just sixty years ago.

As usual, the question remains unanswered. Do I want to be recognizable? In this day and age, I can be, without being terrified that something awful will come of it. Do I want people to be able to look at me and read my identity like a piece of newspaper? Well, maybe not. Perhaps that is the joy of getting to know people: you can’t really tell who they are without exploring a bit under their skin first. You can’t easily assume anything about others before you have said “hello”. Maybe, then, in different contexts it is nice to be identified, but in other contexts, it’s good just to have something to say after you’ve made first introductions. In a day and age that I sit and ponder how society looks at me, I am thankful that at least it isn’t any cause for concern.

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.

When Passion Becomes a Commodity

I love music — singing, playing, and watching conductors are all parts of that love, among other things. I sing because it changes my world, however temporarily; I sing because it brightens my day, soothes my soul, and heals my wounds. I have a passion for the music that I don’t have for many other things. Music and I have a great reciprocal relationship: I tend to it, and it tends to me.

As I think about pursuing a career in music, I must ponder the question: what happens when music becomes a commodity? What happens when a person sings or plays so much that the music no longer brings her that joy, that meaning, and instead brings her disdain and arrogance?

This past weekend I had the great opportunity to speak with many different people about their thoughts on music. I was intrigued (I will perhaps write later about last weekend, but I don’t have time for that right now.). I had the opportunity to watch a variety of conductors and musicians perform works that shed so much light on the world in which we currently live. The perfect harmony of the old and the new, in song. When speaking with one woman why she didn’t want to perform with us in Carnegie Hall next week, even though she would have been able had she wanted to, she responded, “When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing a choir if they’re not paying me.”

This came as a shock to me, honestly, as I am still wide-eyed about the fact that I even have the opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall once in my life. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for this individual, I do. She’s wonderful and efficient, and given that the concert is a lot of Jewish music to sing for someone who isn’t Jewish, perhaps I can understand why the music wouldn’t have as much personal meaning for her as it might for me. On the other hand, her statement did get me thinking, as statements often do (and taken out of context as they usually are). The reader of my previous writings will remember that often an utterance I hear sparks a response that was almost completely unrelated to its original context.

“When I perform in a choir, I get paid to do it. It’s not worth my time to sing in a choir if they’re not paying me.”

Such an unfortunate point of view! You’d think that music is something to be passionate about, something one does because, like I said earlier, it is uplifting and powerful and all-around a spiritual experience. You’d think. Well, amend: I think. I honestly don’t know if this woman is typical of musicians all-around. Most musicians I have met will make music on the job or off the job. What happens to someone that something they love becomes a commodity and that’s it? That it is only an essential part of their identity because it allows them to make money and nothing else? How could that happen to someone?

I have no answers, only questions. Unanswered questions. I’ll keep pondering, I suppose.

Depicting the Holocaust: A Problem

It is a constant struggle for us to figure out ways to represent the Holocaust that are respectful to those who perished. Often representatives from different groups wish to remind the world what happened in those dark years while Hitler was in power and the Nazi party ruled and ruined the lives of all it enveloped, so that the world can remember and renew our vow again and again that we will do what we can to ensure that it never happens again. The question is always: how?

Today, January 31, 2008, a group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was faced with this very issue. The Rio carnival has a reputation of being “a festival recognised worldwide for its joy, humour, entertainment and eroticism,” the lawyer of Fierj, the Jewish federation of Rio, explained in an article about the opposition toward a certain float depicting the Holocaust. He opposed the float because of the aforementioned characteristics, and represented Fierj in their fight against it, saying that “The monstrosity that is the Holocaust just cannot be combined with the excessively festive nature of the carnival.”

According to the same article, “The float is one of several that Viradouro was planning to use as the group parades down Rio’s sambadrome under its theme ‘It gives you goose bumps’. The other floats are set to portray cold, fear and birth.”

Does the memory of the Holocaust give you goose bumps? Does it sometimes infringe on your ability to sleep at night? Of course it does. How about the time of Pogroms? Or the Crusades? Or the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, in which the Church told many pagans, Jews, and others, that they were to convert, be expelled, or die. And yet, Mel Brooks can poke fun at both the Inquisition and the Crusades in his movie, “History of the World: Part I”. What is it about the Holocaust that makes us so opposed to those who want to depict it for an effect? What is it that makes it okay for people to create video games in which the player is a Crusader, reminding us of a time when thousands of Jews, and others, were killed in the name of Jesus Christ, but the idea of a video game in which players play the role of Nazi is abhorrent to us?

Don’t think I’m downplaying our pain still from the Holocaust. I am not. I am asking simply why we don’t share that pain when we think about the other events that were just as horrific? On Yom Kippur we read the martyrology, which tells of ten Rabbis who were brutally murdered in their respective time periods, just for being Jewish. This is perhaps less well-known, but this too doesn’t make you want to vomit?

The fact that people would want to dedicate a parade float to displaying anything resembling the atrocities of the Holocaust sickens me. A memorial is one thing. A display is another.

Try to have some respect for the Dead. They have been through enough.

American Jews or Jewish Americans?

In response to the recent PBS Special called “The Jewish Americans,” Shari Rabin posted in her Chutzpah Chronicles, part of the Washington Post’s “Faithbook,” an entry entitled “My Jewish Identity”. In it, Rabin meditates on Faithbook’s question, THE question, as she dubs it: 

“We know what ‘Jewish identity’ has meant in the past. What will it mean in the future? How does a minority religion retain its roots and embrace change?” 

Rabin expresses her concern that, in this day and age, we are first Americans and then Jews: while we don’t have to choose to do activities that distinguish us as American, we do have to consciously choose activities and friends that allow us to distinguish ourselves as Jewish. We have to actively seek out those Jews in our immediate world, and have to specifically live in places where we know there will be other Jews, lest we assimilate into secular society. I agree with Rabin’s assessment. But, as I posted as a brief comment to her above post, I am more concerned with a different, yet related subquestion: Are we Jewish Americans, as the title of the PBS special  indicates? Or, are we American Jews? Is there a difference?

In discussing this with my father last night, he neatly averted a clear response to the question by saying, “I am Jewish, and I am an American. They’re both adjectives. Why does one have to be more important than the other?” His answer rings somewhat true. I am an American. I have American values, believe in American government, and I thrive while living under American public law. But the core of me is Jewish. I identify with other Jews, anywhere in the world, while I don’t have the same connection with other Americans around the world. I live my life Jewishly, and I keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and let halakha rule my life. On the other hand, my Americana also defines my Judaism: American social values are the reason the Conservative Movement within Judaism started in the first place. The idea of “Tradition and Change” is an idea that can only rule if we are in a society that allows us to practice both, a luxury that not everyone in every country has.

To be a “Jewish American,” I would have to let the “American,” the noun of my existence, be influenced by my “Jewish” adjective nature. To be an “American Jew,” though, allows myself to be defined as a “Jew,” the true noun of my existence, and the core of my character, to be influenced by my “American” adjective nature.

I am an American Jew.