Parashat Mas’ei: An Oral History in Sight of Jericho

There is a Jewish custom of studying Torah in honor of a deceased loved one around the time of his or her yahrzeit. My family commemorated the third yahrzeit for my grandfather, Larry Eisen, zichrono livracha, this past Thursday, the 26th of Tammuz. The Torah study I’ve done in preparation for this d’var Torah has been dedicated in his memory. I hope I honor him by sharing these words with you today.

Before he passed away in the summer of 2008, I had the privilege of recording my grandfather’s oral history. He told me, chronologically, about his life, starting from childhood in Brooklyn, and recalled an early memory of running away from school every now and then in kindergarten. As he unfolded his life and memories to me, the details ebbed and flowed – some pieces were just outlines and dates, and sometimes he would vividly recall a story that he lovingly shared. My grandfather told me that he remembered his first middle-school crush, but wouldn’t tell me her name because it was still “too personal”. He told me that he served in the American army’s signal corps in World War 2, actually taking about a third of the oral history to describe to me in detail his experiences as a soldier. He reminisced about the time in 1945 when he was on a boat on the Atlantic with his platoon, traveling from Western Europe to the Phillipines via the Panama Canal, when suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the atom bomb had been dropped, the war had ended, and they watched the wake of the ship as it turned ninety degrees to head home to New York. My grandfather told me about his experience studying physics at NYU, his work in the sixties with early calculators for measuring explosions. He told me that while his first love of study was physics, he taught other subjects with some level of competency, sometimes keeping just a chapter ahead of his students. He told me, “oh yes, there was the time when I went to jail,” by which he meant the experience in which he taught astronomy in a medium-security prison, just because he’d been asked to; but, he remembered with a smile, “They wouldn’t let us go outside to see the stars. How can you teach astronomy and not let the students go outside?”

We find the Israelite nation at the beginning of this week’s parasha in Plains of Moav. If we think of the Book of Deuteronomy as entirely Moses’s final words to the Israelite Nation before they enter the Land of Israel, we recognize Parashat Mas’ei as the very last narrative parasha in the Torah. The contents of Parashat Mas’ei include the people’s Journeys; a mandate from God to possess the Land of Canaan and an outline of its borders; laws of ערי מקלט – cities of refuge for those who commit accidental manslaughter; and the resolution of the story of the daughters of Tslofehad, whereby it was decided that they could only marry those from within their tribe, so that the land they had inherited on behalf of their father would not transfer into the hands of another tribe. The parasha concludes, “אלה המצות והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ ביד משה אל בני ישראל בערבות מואב על ירדן ירחו” — “These are the commandments and Laws that the Lord commanded of the Children of Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan, near Jericho.” Nervous and uncertain, the Israelites face their future. As Kafka wrote in his work, The Castle, it would have been “‘A fine setting for a fit of despair,’ it occurred to [K.], ‘if I were only standing here by accident instead of design’” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, p. 19). Then again, perhaps not nervous and uncertain. In his translation and commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter points out that the fact that the book of B’midbar is concluded with the word “יריחו” is appropriate because “Jericho will be the first military objective when the Israelites cross the Jordan, and so the concluding word here points forward to the beginning of Joshua” (Alter on Numbers 36:13).

Parashat Mas’ei itself, particularly in the first third of the parasha, is like an oral history of the life of the Israelite nation, having been “birthed” forty years earlier with the Exodus from Egypt. Like my grandfather’s oral history, this recapitulation of the long forty-year journey from Egypt to the Israelites’ present camp just across the Jordan River from Jericho ebbs and flows.

When a person tells an oral history, we can generally assume that his motives for providing certain information in more detail than other information is that he finds those moments more defining, more important, or more relevant to his audience. Here, though, in Numbers 33, details about stories we consider most important to our modern Judaism are omitted: of the forty-two ventures listed, there is no mention of receiving the Torah, no mention of battling against Amalek, no mention even of the miracle crossing the Red Sea, though all of the locations for those events are simply listed; and we only hear more than just geographical details about four of the forty-two ventures. Looking at the details that have been included, we must ask ourselves, “Why are these the most defining moments that God and Moses want the Israelite nation to take with them / as they prepare to cross the Jordan River / and start a new chapter of Israelite history?”

First new detail:

· At the beginning of the parasha, when the Israelites are leaving Ramses, “… on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.”

This account of the Exodus echoes but still has a very different feeling than the one that we heard back in Sh’mot, chapter 10. As triumphal as this account still feels, being told about the Egyptians burying their dead is a new addition to the Exodus story for us — last we checked in Parashat Bo, we read about the Ten Plagues, how God explains that He Himself “brought Judgment on [Egyptian] gods,” but we don’t get any sense of the stark feeling this image brings us — mourning, mass deaths, a preoccupation with their own grief which is what allows the Israelites, according to Rashi, a safe departure from the Land. Well, at least a safe head-start.

Two more non-geographical details:

· STOP #5 – At Elim, “… where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date trees.”

· STOP #10 – At Rephidim, “… where there was no water for the nation to drink.”

My nine-year-old chevruta partner had a very insightful interpretation of why these particular details are necessary. One particular comment he made rang very true in response to the question, “Why would God and Moses point out that in Elim there was lots of water and lots of food, while in Rephidim there was no water?” “Well,” my chevruta pondered aloud, “maybe it’s because having no food and water was what made Jacob’s sons go down to Egypt in the first place. Maybe this was to show them that sometimes they have a good supply and sometimes they don’t, but that they will always survive and be successful.”

The last detail we are provided:

· STOP #33 – At Hor HaHar, “… which is on the edge of the land of Edom. And Aaron the Priest went up on Hor HaHar, on the word of God, and died there in the fortieth year since the Children of Israel left Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month.” (Aside, this means that the Yahrzeit of Aharon Kohen HaGadol is Rosh Hodesh Av, which, incidentally, is on Monday). “Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Hor HaHar.”

Why is the death of Aaron notable here? It seems to me that this mostly has to do with time-frame more than anything else. Thinking as the nation currently standing in front of Moshe, we remember this event — it was important to us, and it happened recently.

Now, Parashat Mas’ei tells of forty-two stations at which the Israelite camp was situated throughout their forty-year journey in the desert. (And what would a summer d’var Torah at Temple Emanu-El be like without some Math? So here we go.) Forty-two is a very important number. Firstly, its prime factors are two, three, and seven — all very important numbers to our tradition. Additionally, anyone who read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows that 42 is the “answer to the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” Rashi points out in the name of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan that, lest you think the Israelite nation was always moving, the first fourteen of these journeys all occurred in the first year of travel. These, Rashi says, are chronicled here to let us know that even though the Holy One sentenced the Israelites to wander the desert for forty years, you should not say that they were moving and wandering from journey to journey all forty years and never had any rest; […] rather, [of the forty-two] take fourteen away because these were all in the first year, before the decree (i.e. their travels from Rameses until they arrived at Rithmah.) […] Take away another eight journeys that were between the death of Aaron at Hor Ha-Har and the arrival at the Plains of Moav, and you’ll find that in all thirty-eight years of the decree since the negative report brought back by the מרגלים, the spies, the Israelites only traveled a total of twenty times.

But why retell this journey at all? What is so important that each of the forty-two stops be recounted so meticulously? A friend gave me a unique insight, taking our mind’s eye all the way back to B’reisheet. At the end of the first Creation story, God takes a step back and looks at everything He’s done, establishing Shabbat as not only a day “to rest and relax,” but also a day “to recount what we did during the week,” and say, “Wow, we did this?” Perhaps, continues my friend’s midrash, this is what this parasha is all about. Hindsight, reflection, is incredibly important. Perhaps the message God and Moses are trying to send is one of “look how far we’ve come”. Not everything is going to be easy, but look what experiences we’ve already had as a people — a dramatic move from slavery to freedom, experiences with times of plenty and times of drought and famine, death and transitions of leadership. As the Israelites look across the Jordan River, at the site of their next great step in nationhood, they are reminded that whatever they weather, with the help of God and with faith in their leaders they will succeed in whatever ventures they try. May we be blessed with the same faith and the same success.

Shabbat Shalom.

When Called to Guard

(Letter to Temple Emanu-El Providence community, June 2010)

By now you have probably received an email from Temple Emanu-El calling for “Shomrim”. You might already know that it involves signing up to spend an hour or two sitting with the body of a member of our community who recently passed away in the days before he or she is buried. It has come to my attention, though, that many of our members don’t really know what this mitzvah entails.

In the coming paragraphs I hope to give you a bit more insight into what “Sitting Shmirah” means, and I hope to encourage you to sign up when we are looking for shomrim.

Judaism considers the body to be a gift from God to man, to house the soul that lives inside it. Each morning we recite a blessing thanking God for allowing all of our bodily functions to work properly followed by a blessing praising God for “restoring the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body,” i.e. when we’ve woken up in the morning (these blessings can be found on p. 4 of the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur).

There is a sense in the Jewish afterlife tradition that as relatives say Kaddish for loved ones over the eleven months after they have passed on, the soul gradually rises toward the Throne of God. Since the soul is closest to the body just after he or she has died, and, tradition tells us, that the soul is most aware and most frustrated until the body has been interned in the ground, we keep the body, and the recently released soul, company until it reaches its final resting place.

When you sign up for Shmirah, you will be directed to the location where the body is being kept. Generally in our community Shmirah is served in the basement of the Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, but there have been instances where Shmirah has been served elsewhere. At Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, you will enter through the door in the back (facing the parking lot) and go down the stairs to where shmirah is observed unless there is a notice on that door indicating that Shmirah will occur somewhere else in the building. In some cases the body is in the same room but in a casket, in other instances, the casket is kept in the refrigerator to delay decomposition, but you would sit outside. In most circumstances, the body is not in a place where you can see it.

Once you arrive, there are a number of things you can do while you are “guarding.” It is customary either to read or discuss Jewish-themed texts or to recite Tehillim, from the Book of Psalms. Some suggest that you should only read those psalms which are appropriate to somber mood and the end of life. When I sat Shmirah for the first time, I learned from Cantor Brian Mayer that funerals are a “celebration of life, and hurt like hell.” He explained that because we direct our attention to the celebration of the person’s life we can say all of the Psalms because Tehillim, by nature, represent the whole spectrum of human emotion: fear, contentment, happiness, sadness, anger, resilience.

Here is my offer to anyone who is willing: If you are willing to serve as a Shomer this time around or in the future, I’m happy to sit with you or to find you a buddy who will sit with you. I understand if it’s not an experience you want to have alone the first time.

Keep in mind the following Gemara (based on Shabbat 127a and found on page 5 in the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur):

Here are the things that yield immediate fruit in this world and for which a fund is established for him in the World to Come: honoring mother and father; doing acts of lovingkindness; attending the House of Study punctually in the morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; welcoming a bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.

In our tradition, attending to the dead in our community is considered one of the highest mitzvot one can do since there is no expected return from the person toward which the mitzvah is directed. It is one of the highest but also one of the most important, since, as we know, it is not easy.

Reconstituting Old Melodies?

Full disclosure: this is a brainstorm. It will not lead to any definitive answers, I will not follow through to any conclusions; but if you have answer to these questions, I’m open to suggestions.

Jewish musical history is filled with a lot of extraordinary music, from the likes of Salamon Sulzer, Louis Lewandowski, Marcus Hast, I.L. Mombach, Froim Spektor, I. Gottbeiter, Israel Goldfarb, Samuel Goldfarb, and others. All incredible composers of varying degrees. All treated the synagogue service with majesty and glory. Except in cases that are few and far between, when melodies stayed beloved to the congregation in communal moments, their melodies have evaporated from communal memory, save from conservatories and seminaries who study them, more as relics than as living, breathing synagogue music.

There must be another way.

There has to be a way that we can preserve, or revive, these melodies. How do we bring them back? As much as these composers would be rolling around in their graves, is there a way for us to “update” these melodies so that they can function as congregational? Can we take snippets of old melodies and reconstitute them so that they work more easily for our constituents? A lost melody no longer exists. Can we at least preserve them as art song?

When We Have No Words

We learn from an early age how to tell stories and how to express our own needs to others. For the first eight to ten years of life, we develop our use of language for survival. When we become old enough to understand the world around us, when we grow to become metacognitive, we begin to use our language to put our emotions, our ideas, and our experiences in to words. Our ability to produce and process complex language is what differentiates us from all other living creatures. It is an incredibly difficult and incredibly human task.

If I asked you, right now, to compose a completely unique prayer, could you? What if I told you it could be about anything?

Try it. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

Of course, most people are really good at what we call “small talk”. Most of us can spend hours just “chatting” about everything and absolutely nothing. I can sit across a table from someone and commiserate about frustrating classes, talk about childhood memories, and waste away a whole few hours. But when it matters most, most of us are speechless. Positive and negative experiences – if they are intense, chances are, we have no idea what to say.

Luckily for us, Judaism gives us scripted lyrics for times when we find ourselves so caught up that we can’t find our own words. Not only do I find that more often than not these words are much more appropriate for a given situation than I could personally compose, but I also find comfort in the fact that I’m not the first one to say them; that uttering these words and phrases connects me to a whole history of Jewish communities.

There are many examples of Jewishly-prescribed words for lifecycle events. “Mazal Tov!” literally meaning “Good luck!” but colloquially meaning “Congratulations!” is a well-known example. A bit lesser-known but commonly used in synagogue is the expression of “Yishar Koah” (sometimes “Yishar Kohekha” for males or “Yishar Koheikh” for females) which literally means “May you have unwavering strength.” We use this phrase, perhaps peculiarly, often to congratulate those who have participated in the synagogue service, but also to congratulate someone on a great accomplishment as well. In his article entitled “Yasher Koach: May You Have Strength!”, Eliezer Segal explores the origins of saying “Yishar Koah”. He fascinatingly goes through the explanations of two rituals surrounding Torah reading, and suggests that the term is a remnant of both of those combined, and concludes that “Yishar Koah” actually literally means, “May you have the strength not to cause the Torah to fall.” (Usually I would summarize the article in more detail but it’s so interesting I’d rather you just read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!)

Judaism also provides us with words in times when we are stunned into silence. When a person is ill, we say tehillim, psalms, by their bedside, and we can recite a “mi shebeirakh” for them in the synagogue. When one hears that someone has died, Jewish practice prescribes the phrase, “Barukh Dayan Emet” – “Blessed is the True Judge”. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 59b states that even upon hearing bad news (this blessing can also be said when one hears other bad news), one recognizes the incomprehensible role that God has in this world. When we are faced with comforting a mourner, Judaism prescribes the traditional words, “haMakom yinahem etkhem betokh she’ar aveilei tziyyon virushalayim” – “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” And, when we ourselves are faced with coping with the loss of a loved one, we are prescribed the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, contrary to some popular belief, is not at all a prayer for the dead but rather a prayer of exultation to God and intended to sustain the living.

And for those times when we simply appreciate the world around us, Judaism also gives us blessings to say. Waking up, we are intended to say “Modeh ani lefanekha,” thanking God for restoring our lives and allowing us to wake up in the morning. The first part of davening that we say when we get to minyan in the morning is “Birkhot HaShahar,” which, if you read them closely, basically enumerate the steps in which we engaged to get ready and out of the house in the morning: (1) I woke up, (2) I opened my eyes, (3) I put on clothes, etc.

Most siddurim (plural of siddur) also contain a section of miscellaneous blessings or “birkhot hanehenin” – blessings of enjoyment, perhaps misnamed a bit. These include all kinds of blessings – blessings over food, over smelling sweet trees (welcome to springtime in New England!), over hearing thunder and seeing lightning, over seeing a rainbow. There are other blessings, also, for engaging in Torah study, for seeing a scholar engaged in Torah study, even for seeing “strange-looking people or animals.” Even in this case, when we might be stumped for words, our ancestors have suggested a response.

Being able to appreciate, produce, and process language makes us human. We consider ourselves the highest form of life because we can communicate with this complex system. But there is something else, I think, that makes us human: institutional and communal memory. We as people, as Jews, can benefit from the wisdom of our predecessors. In times of excessive joy and excessive hardship and sorrow, we lean on the words of those who came before us.

Perhaps our generation will produce words which are useful to the next generation. As we come up to Shavu’ot, I notice that perhaps this is one of those pieces that makes us a nation: not only are we connected horizontally with our contemporaries, but vertically to those who came before us and those who will come after us.

And now for another prescribed, but wonderful phrase:
Shabbat Shalom.

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.

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.

The Neutralizing Power of Music

In rehearsing with the Zamir Chorale of Boston tonight in rehearsal, I had another stark realization:

Music functions as a remarkable neutralizer.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean that music is neutral; it is anything but neutral. However, if you sit in a room in which everyone is unified by the music they produce, everyone is level. Especially in a choral setting, the only important thing is the unified sound. Age, ideology, religious belief, career, or sickness: nothing matters except for the music. It’s brilliant!

… maybe.

The realization that I really discovered was something I hadn’t thought about recently. That is, the realization that I really don’t know anything about the people with whom I sing.

With regard to some of my choirmates, I know their careers; I know that they have children but not necessarily how many; I know their voice parts. But that’s about it. I am conspicuously in the dark about people’s religious beliefs and practices, and the more I think about this, the more it surprises me. This is one of the only religious organizations in which I have ever participated that, of forty people, religious observance is not an “important” element of people’s religious identities. Some grew up religious, some still are, some not. I’m sure that when the choir goes on tours that include Shabbat the religiosity of our constituents is called into play, and is something to be shared. But otherwise, it’s not something that just “comes up” in conversation.

To some extent, I’m neutral about this issue. I find it interesting, but it does not affect me. To another extent, it frustrates me: in all of my other relationships with other Jews, religiosity is a large part of who we are and where we come from, where we go, and what we do.

I’m fascinated by the fact that by nature of our music, we come together, as Jews. We represent one nation, one people, united. Denominational difference transcends us, and our voices mix, as one. That’s all that matters. Jews, from all walks of life. As one we sing.