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.

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.

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.