Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Good Jew....


Disclaimer: This is my own idea -- I don't know if any authority proposed or espouses this. I feel strongly that this is true, but it's only my feeling.

I speak often to my best friend, Michelle Nevada, since we don't live in the same zip, area or even Morse code. We often have very interesting conversations and oftentimes, talking to her helps me put my opinions and ideas into words. Today was no exception to this.

We were talking about religion and Judaism and what it is that makes someone a "good Jew". And I said that keeping Shabbat and keeping kosher are not what make you a good Jew. Those are G-d's gifts to us. What makes you a "good Jew" is how you treat other people. In other words, if you treat people with respect and do what you can to help others you are a good Jew even if you never kept Shabbat in your life.

There are two major groupings of Mitzvot (commandments) -- those between people and other people (called in Hebrew Bein Adam L'Haveiro -- between man and his friend) and those between people and G-d (called in Hebrew Bein Adam L'Makom -- between man the Omnipresent, or G-d).

The laws between people and other people are the laws about how to treat other people, like helping others, giving charity (called Tzedaka from the Hebrew word for justice), treating others with respect, things like that. The laws between people and G-d are laws like keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, putting up a Sukka and things like that.

The laws between people and other people are the laws that make getting along in this world, the world G-d created, easier. If we treat others with respect, they will respect us. If we help others, they will help us. If we are honest with people, they will trust us and be honest with us. Keeping these laws are what makes you a "Good Jew", a good person, a righteous person.

Shabbat and other similar laws, on the other hand, are G-d's gift to us. How many people do we know who are "on" 24/7, always available for work, always checking the stock market. I know myself that without Shabbat I would probably be on my computer all the time. But by taking 25 hours off for Shabbat, I have an opportunity to recharge my batteries. Shabbat is the origin of the "weekend".

So, if you are Jewish and think that you're not a good Jew because you go shopping on Saturday or eat ham sandwiches, I'll tell you you're mistaken. You're a good Jews if you are helping others. You are missing out on G-d's gift to you if you go shopping on Saturday or eat ham sandwiches. If you are a Gentile, you're a good person if you help others and keep the laws between people and other people (Gentiles are not permitted to keep Shabbat the way Jews do because Shabbat is a covenant between G-d and the Jewish people). If you will check out the 7 Noachide Laws (the laws that Gentiles are responsible for), you will notice they are all laws of how you interact with other people and other sentient creatures. These are the laws that make one a Good person, Jew or Gentile.

If you are a Jew and you want to begin to keep the laws in both categories, you start with a clean slate; you can decide at any moment you would like to accept the gifts that G-d has given us. You don't have to do anything other than what Nike says, "Just do it!", to make G-d proud.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What Do Women Want?


Disclaimer: I have to tell you, much as men seem to think that all women are monolithic in thought, I can't speak for all women; I can only speak for myself and I can only say that I've heard similar thoughts from some other Orthodox Jewish women. Many Orthodox Jewish women are perfectly happy and content to have men decide for them or live in the "the home is the woman's domain" and learning Tora in lecture classes designed for women only. Perhaps if I had gotten married at some point in my life and/or become a mother I might feel differently, but I doubt it since I've been feeling this way since I was about 5.

I'm often wonder why any Jewish woman wants to get married and give up just about everything of hers forever and ever and ever. All inheritance stuff (that women only inherit if there are no sons) and the "everything that's yours becomes your husband's" makes me wonder about the positive side of committing your life to a man's and makes me feel that women are not taken seriously.

I think it's rather pretentious for men to think that they can speak for women of all ages, eras, generations, etc. One of the problems is that men have a habit of objectifying women. Men, particularly those who haven't spent a lot of time with women, don't see women as serious discussion partners. They seem to believe that women are only experts (or even knowledgeable about) in the area of the home. But, particularly in the Modern Orthodox community, this just isn't true (and I'm not sure it ever was).

We don't live in ancient Israel, women often earn their own salaries and buy their own possessions. This is a new generation. Why should laws that were originally there to protect women in a time where they didn't usually earn their own way shackle women nowadays? And it's not just the property thing -- it's also stuff like Halitza and Get. Halitza is related to Yibum (Leverite marriage); when a man dies before he and his wife have had children, the man's brother is required to marry her. Required, that is, unless they perform Halitza . I don't know all the details of Halitza , but if a man's brother is either too young (under Bar Mitzva, aka age 13) or not interested, then the woman is stuck; she is not permitted to remarry.

The same issue applies to Get. Get is a Jewish divorce document. According to Jewish law (Halakha), a Get is given by the man and accepted by the woman. Men who are vindictive can keep their wives from getting remarried by not giving them a Get (the man would not have the same issues since strict Jewish law permits a man to have more than one wife while a woman is not permitted more than one husband). And, I must add, this is a huge problem in this day and age.

So, often when I ask men (usually my meaning is more rhetorical, but I often am given an answer, though I don't really want one, but I digress) why a Jewish woman would want to get married, they supply me with a rather flip answer that it is an accepted tenet in rabbinical circles that woman want to be married and this, I was just told, is still an accepted tenet. But this is not necessarily the case.

In the past few generations, there has been a growing number of women who have left their homes and families to find fulfillment elsewhere. There has been a growing number of women who have found marriage and motherhood unsatisfying. There is a growing number of women who just don't want to get married or be married in the first place. Seeing this, how can anyone say this "accepted tenet" is still true? It may have been true in an era when women's only opportunity for survival and gratification, her only opportunity to feel as though she accomplished something in her life, was through others, through her husband and children (like the Bach's mother-in-law, Sara, who earned a living for herself and Rav Yoel and his wife (her daughter) by being a seamstress and financially supported a Gadol (great Rabbi and commentator). So grateful was Rav Yoel that he took as his surname "Sirkis" which is a diminutive of the possessive of his mother-in-law's name Sara.) But this just isn't true today. And, I must add, that BECAUSE, in earlier days, this WAS the only way for women to find a sense of accomplishment, it is very likely that women suppressed that part of themselves for the most part. And, if that's the case, then that flip explanation that I have heard ad nauseum since at least my pre-teens probably never was true at all!

My displeasure with the attitude of men in this regard is that men often feel that, just because they have the power to decide for women, that they know what women want and what women are thinking and feeling and that's just not the case. Now, I must admit, I don't know much about what men are thinking or feeling (only, inasmuch as I can extrapolate from their own words or gezeirot -- statutes) I'm not out there claiming to know a man's "heart" (clearly I don't or I'd be in a relationship, but I digress) or out there making laws or statutes that men are obligated in. This has been my bete noire pretty much all my life.

I think it is important that more and more women begin to study what men do to become Rabbis. Whether or not a woman gets the title of Rabbi, we need to know what it is that the men are saying and what it is that they are saying about us. We need to understand the river of halakha and how psak (conclusions/decisions about what halakha is on specific issue) is arrived at. Toward that end, I am studying so I can be part of the dialogue. Men don't have a corner on the knowledge market or the analytical market. We need to shop in that market too.

Monday, July 25, 2011

True Love is not only Physical


One of my cousins (his Mom is my first cousin) just got married. He just post on FB in his status how awesome his wife is. He made me think about my standard שבע ברכות [Sheva Brakhot -- Literally 7 Blessings -- Sheva Brakhot is a period of one week after a wedding -- the first being at the wedding -- where the bride and groom -- חתן וכלה -- Hattan v'Kalla -- are feted by friends and relatives, during which people who couldn't get to the wedding can share in the couple's joy] דבר תורה -- D'var Tora -- literally words of Tora. In the past, particularly at Sheva Brakhot of my siblings, but also at Sheva Brakhot of friends, I have often been asked to speak.

The idea for this D'var Tora began on Purim. The first time I was in Israel, I was there on a program (called WUJS -- World Union of Jewish Students) and as part of the program, I learned in a serious learning group and one of the things we discussed was מגילת אסתר -- Megilat Esther -- the book of Esther. We analyzed the nuances of the Palace intrigue and the plot against the Jews by the evil המן Haman. Haman was so evil that a minor quibble with the hero of our story, מרדכי Mordekhai the Jew escalated into Haman decided to kill all the Jews from India to Ethiopia (127 provinces).

Haman's wife זרש Zeresh is mentioned a few times in the narrative, but always at times when Haman is asking advice or telling of his day and always in the phrase "זרש אשתו וכל אוהביו" (Zeresh his wife and all his loved ones) or similar phrases.

I occurred to me that this implied that Haman no longer loved his wife. יצחק Yitzhak (Isaac, the Patriarch), on the other hand, married his wife רבקה Rivka (Rebekka) and then grew to love her. So what is the difference between Haman and Yitzhak in this regard?

Haman, being an evil person, made his decision about who to marry based solely on externals, solely on looks. Yitzhak, on the other hand, realized that externals are not enough. You can't decide on a lifetime partner, a person to work with, build a home with, raise a family with, solely on external appearances. There has to be more.

My cousin, is one of the sweetest people I know, and one of the most caring. He is also moral and rooted in Tora values. I haven't yet met his wife (I hope to soon -- hint, hint, hint) but I'm certain that he made his decision based on shared values, shared interests and mutual desire to live a good Tora life.

May they always feel the spark of love they feel for each other now.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (aka Rambam and Maimonides)


Tonight, I went to my synagogue to see a showing of a movie about
Rambam (aka Maimonides). I had previously seen a Rabbi Berel Wein production of a movie about Rashi and enjoyed it immensely. I assumed I would like this one too, and I was not disappointed.

The movie told about the life of Rambam. There were interesting details that included scenes with Muslim zealots called the Almohads coming into Jewish Cordoba and giving the Jews there the traditional non-choice -- leave with just the possessions on your back, convert or die.

To some degree, I understand why Muslims (and a few centuries later, Christians) would give Jews the choice of convert or die. When you know you don't have the truth on your side, you need to keep people under the thumb of death threats. But Judaism is the truth and Jews understand this in a way that people whose version of the truth is anything but the truth will never understand. Because their version of the truth has more holes in it than all the golf courses in the world, they don't understand what the real truth looks like, so they don't understand why we can't give up our way of life.

I understand why the Karaites of Fustat, Egypt, had issues with Rambam. They didn't want the other Karaite Jews to realize that the truth in Rabbinic Judaism and leave the Karaite fold.

What I don't understand is why so many Ashkenazic Jews feel the need to force their customs and interpretations on Sephardic Jews. I don't understand they Sephardic Rabbis are often threatened (by threats of non-acceptance within the Orthodox community) for having different opinions or following their own halakha (version of Jewish Law). I have been learning Shulhan Arukh -- the Code of Jewish Law -- written by the Sephardic scholar Rab Yoseph Karo. In the Shulhan Arukh is also versions of the writings of the Polish Ashkenazic scholar Rav Moshe Isserles (Rama). Right there in one volume is not only the Halakhot for Sephardic Jews and for Ashkenazic Jews side by side. Both are equally acceptable.

Which sort of begs the question: why are so many Ashkenazic Jews bullying Sephardic Jews into discarding their own traditions? Why can't these people accept variations in Halakha that don't match their opinions? Can it be that they are concerned that their way isn't the truth?

Well, Torah bullies, ease your minds. Both versions are Tora, both versions are equally valid Tora paths. Stop trying to create a monolithic Judaism. Monolithic Judaism is antithetical to a living Tora and to the concept of Halakha as a growing, living, breathing, developing entity. Keep Rambam's dream alive and continue protecting his ideals.

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