Saturday, October 29, 2016

Rabbi Joe mansplains it all

Over the past week, I have seen many beautiful and moving posts about women's experience over Simchat Torah, the last of our autumnal holidays, defined by the experience of dancing with a Torah scroll. Over Shabbat, I learned that my mother was one of those women at Jerusalem's Beit Boyer who pioneered "Sitting with the Torah on Simchat Torah," as Shira Pasternak Be'eri so lovingly described.
However, I thought it was inappropriate for me to weigh in, as yet another man telling women what and how to feel about this challenging holiday. I still think that. But I do I feel the need to address my fellow men, especially regarding a troubling phenomenon I've witnessed on social media.
The argument runs something like this: "Maybe women in YOUR community feel the need to dance on Simchat Torah [with or without a Torah scroll], but in MY community they're perfectly happy celebrating vicariously by watching their husbands, fathers, sons and young daughters dance [because females age out of Simchat Torah as soon as Donald Trump starts contemplating dating them]."
Now, that's not a real quote per se, but a composite. Still, I could not help but wonder for how many centuries we men have been speaking for women, declaring that a certain quirk of Jewish law "doesn't bother them." It didn't take long to come up with a list of the Top 12. Why Top 12? Because I like to go one step beyond the Nostalgia Critic.
  1. A woman has no right to expect to meet a man before they marry. (BT Kiddushin 41a)
  2. A woman should expect her husband to marry as many women as he wants (except for kings, they're limited to 18). (BT Sanhedrin 21a).
  3. A woman may be divorced against her will. (BT Gittin 21a)
  4. A woman may receive her bill of divorce in the mail, even though her husband has cancelled it en route. If she then remarries, she is an adulteress and forbidden to stay with the latter man. Oh, and their children are bastards. (ibid. 33a)
  5. If a man dies without children, his brother may take his widow, sexually, with or without her consent or any ceremony (BT Yevamot 8b).
  6. A ritually impure woman may not enter a synagogue. (Rema, OH 88:1)
  7. She may not touch a holy book. (ibid.)
  8. She may not pray. (ibid.)
  9. She may not say any blessings. (ibid.)
  10. A woman does not need any formal Jewish education. (BT Kiddushin 29b) A woman must not study Talmud. (JT Sota 3:4, Maimonides, Talmud Torah 1:13)
  11. A woman should not work outside the home. (Maimonides, Ishut 13:11).
  12. A young woman's becoming a bat mitzvah is nothing to celebrate. (Everyone before Ben Ish Hai, Re'eh 17)
Now, in each of these cases, Jewish law at some point rethought the matter. But what about the decades, centuries, millennia before? How long were Jewish men declaring that women were OK with this, that they had no objections to it, that their femininity somehow was enhanced by the enticing possibility of being raped by their brother-in-law or having their kids made bastards by their ex-husband or being told that God didn't want His name in their mouths while they fulfilled the biological imperatives that God gave them?
I don't have an answer. On the contrary, I have a question, which you, my brothers, must ask: How do the women in your lives, in your communities, synagogues and workplaces, feel about this? There's a revolutionary way to find out: ask them. And then listen to what they have to say. And we Jews, male and female, might find a new list of items to rethink in the future.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Load of Bull

Sukkot is a holiday full of color and conviviality, from the brightly decorated makeshift huts that give the festival its name to the assortment of flora we wave and weave, to the nightly gatherings for dancing, singing and maybe a bit of traditional fire-juggling.
Image: Yael Bloch. We don't allow fire-juggling inside the sukka.
Image: Yael Bloch. We don't allow fire-juggling inside the sukka.
There's just one part of the holiday that seems a bit drab: the Torah reading. Let me give you a taste (Num. 29:13-20).
And you shall offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet smell to the LORD; 13 young bullocks...
And on the second day you shall offer 12 young bullocks...
And on the third day 11 bullocks...
And that is the most exciting part, the only detail that varies from day to day, as we read the same verses FOUR TIMES in a row.
But then you get to the special psalm for today, the third day of Sukkot, as we recall offering the 36th of 71 Sukkot bulls. In Psalm 50, Asaph speaks powerfully of God calling Israel to judgement at "Zion, the perfection of beauty... Gather my saints together to me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice." And what is the ruling?
8I will not reprove you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, to have been continually before me. 9I will take no bullock out of your house, nor he goats out of your folds.
10For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. 11I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.12If I were hungry, I would not tell you: for the world is mine, and the fullness thereof. 13Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? 14Offer to God thanksgiving; and pay your vows to the most High:
There's also a message for the wicked:
16 What have you to do to declare my statutes, or that you should take my covenant in your mouth? 17Seeing you hate instruction, and casts my words behind you.18When you saw a thief, then you consented with him, and have been partaker with adulterers. 19You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son. 21These things have you done, and I kept silence; you thought that I was altogether such an one as yourself: but I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes.
Asaph's version of the Heavenly Court seems far more interested in bullying than bullocks, an appropriate thought for a day exactly one week after Yom Kippur. There is only one offering which is praised in Psalm 50: the toda, thanksgiving.
23Whoever offers to God thanksgiving honors Me, and whoever sets the path I will show the salvation of God.
Perhaps this is reflected in the Midrashic teaching that in the future, all sacrifices will be discontinued except for the toda (Lev. R. 9:7). However, there is another interpretation (ibid. 1), that toda here means what it does in Joshua 7:19: confession.
Grant honor now to Lord God of Israel, and give Him toda: tell me what you did, do not hold back from me.
Confession and thanksgiving are really two sides of the same coin. But they cannot be the be-all and end-all. To earn salvation, we must take action and "set the path," as the Midrash goes on to explain:
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who maintain the roads.
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who faithfully teach the youth the written word and the oral tradition.
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are the storekeepers who sell to the public after giving the poor their portion (R. Jose be-R. Judah in the name of R. Menahem be-R. Jose)
"Whoever sets the path" -- these are those who illuminate the public thoroughfares.
Sukkot is the Season of Our Joy, but it is also a time of judgement. What better time to ponder what sacrifice truly means? Whether the bullocks et al. of Sukkot are literally reinstated or not, we know what it takes to restore the honor of Zion.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The OTHER Ten Commandments

Yesterday, amidst the spiritual high of Yom Kippur, I was struck, mostly by my almost-four-year-old with a rubber sword, but also by a poem wedged into the musaf (additional) service in the Ashkenazic liturgy.
Musaf of Yom Kippur, third of the five prayers of the day, is dominated by a recounting of the High Priest's service in the Temple, followed by a series of dirges lamenting all the stuff we miss in our Templeless times. But in between the two series, we have a short paragraph talking about what Yom Kippur is in the modern era.
  1. A day on which eating is forbidden
  2. A day on which drinking is forbidden
  3. A day on which washing is forbidden
  4. A day on which anointing is forbidden
  5. A day on which having sex is forbidden
  6. A day on which wearing shoes is forbidden
  7. A day of establishing peace
  8. And friendship
  9. A day of abandoning envy
  10. And competition.
We might call these the Ten Commandments of Yom Kippur; after all, the Talmud (b. Ta'anit 30b) does say that this was the day on which Moses came down from Sinai with the Second Tablets.
We spend a lot of time agonizing about the first six; I think the closest the Jewish people came to civil war in the last decade was about #6 and the Crocs Heresy. But what about the final four? Those are not about abjuring, but adjuring. Instead of ignoring our personal needs and wants, we are commanded to engage with our neighbors.
Is it because it's easier to stay away from snacks for 25 hours than snark? Maybe it's because we'd rather ask people about how they're fasting rather than how they're doing. I wonder if any of my rabbinical colleagues have been asked if one may set up a snide remark, then come back and deliver the punchline nine minutes later?
The good thing about the "Second Tablet" of Yom Kippur is that we keep it going. There are no more fasts for the rest of the month, but there are plenty of occasions to rejoice, to welcome, to harmonize and to engage. There are many more situations in which we may forgo covetousness and contention. We spend a whole week as guests in our own homes, right before the rain and cold arrive. It's almost like we're trying to empathize with those who have no adequate shelter, or something.
I hope you had a good fast. But the experience on Yom Kippur should be just the beginning.