Purim is the quintessential children’s holiday, right? It’s the Jewish version of Halloween, when we dress up in costumes and and make lots of noise during the synagogue service and get treats, right? No wonder that Purim in many synagogues is attended primarily by families with grade school age children. As the children age out of the years when they look cute dressed like Esther, a Disney princess, Haman, or the season’s hot villain or superhero (Darth Vader, Spiderman, or Superman), they stop coming. The parents, who are only coming because their children look so darn cute in their costumes, also stop coming.
Purim is in fact not a children’s holiday, but an adult holiday. Not along the lines of a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, which reported on an Israeli retailer trying to shake things up by selling adult oriented Purim costumes. Don’t all nurses wear fishnet stockings? Shouldn’t every cat costume come with a bondage mask and whip? Wouldn’t a police officer costume be incomplete without a latex bodice? And for the ultimate in bizarre religious syncretism, how about dressing as a sexy Santa for Purim?
Like all sophisticated Jewish experiences, Purim is an adult holiday that makes room for children. The story of Purim, a provocative piece of literature, raises questions about the lengths we should go to fight evil, the limits of taking revenge, and the extent to which we should hide our Jewish identity in the public sphere. The book of Esther can be read as a revenge fantasy or a fantasy of what we would do if only we had the power to shape the world in our favor.
The news coming out of Persia these days is awfully dark. It’s not hard to find articles coming out of Iran baldly stating the desirability of a world without Jews and giving legal and moral justification for taking steps to annihilate Israel. Just in case the lesson of the 20th century has begun to fade, Purim is a reminder that Haman is not a relic of some dark day in history, but rather a living threat in our world today.
A strong religious practice does not hide us from the reality of the world, but neither does it constantly beat us over the head with it. The function and purpose of Purim is to give us momentary relief from hatred and violence, to allow us to experience a moment of pure joy unadulterated by evil and suffering. This is something, I would argue, that adults need much more than children. I hope you will join your Ahavas Israel family on Wednesday evening, March 7, for our Purim celebration.
Tu Bishvat is a multi faceted holiday, actually quite complex. It is correctly considered a minor holiday, but like many such days, it has accumulated layers of meaning over the centuries. Religious Schools and the Jewish National Fund and Ecological Organizations have not done Tu Bishvat a favor by narrowing the focus to planting trees, recycling, and singing about planting trees (“maybe apple, maybe apricot”), thus obscuring the rich and deep meaning.
Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the first century Mishnah. The first Mishnah in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins, “There are four New Year’s Days.” The 15th of Shevat, or Tu Bishvat (Tu = tet-vav, tet = 9, and vav = 6), is designated as the New Year for the planting of trees. Leviticus 19:23 prohibits eating the fruit from trees for the first three years after they are planted. Tu Bishvat was designated as a somewhat arbitrary “birthday” for trees, so any tree growing before that time would automatically become 1 year old on that day. This was important for calculating ma’aser, tithes. The day was chosen for a very practical reason, because in Israel, at least, it falls past the midpoint of the winter, just before the time that the fruit trees would begin blooming.
In the 16th century, Jews following a mystical tradition invested Tu Bishvat with additional meaning, and began to celebrate a Seder on that day drinking four cups of wine and eating different kinds of foods from the land of Israel, celebrating both the land of Israel and our desire for redemption and peace in the world. They focused on three different kinds of fruits – those with inedible skins, those with inedible pits, and those that are eaten whole. Each represents a different level of God’s creative energy in the world. The Seder also focuses on the Tree of Life, a representation of 10 mystical emanations of God.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the Jewish National Fund was born, the Zionist movement was focused on rebuilding the land of Israel. Tu Bishvat became a time to plant trees. Planting eucalyptus trees was a way to absorb water and drain the swamps which were a major source of malaria carrying mosquitos. Many of us remember the JNF blue boxes, and collecting money to fund the forests of pine trees planted around Israel. In the late 20th and early 21st century, it has been recognized that some of the early efforts to drain swamps and plant non-native trees have damaged the ecology of Israel. Thus, the focus of Tu Bishvat has added an aspect of examining the impact that we have on the natural world, and trying to live more in harmony with God’s creation.
Tu Bishvat this year is celebrated on Wednesday, February 8. The Beit Sefer B’yahad/United Jewish School will hold a Tu Bishvat Seder for the students that afternoon.
I am sending the following letter to the leadership of my local Federation. I invite you to do the same.
In the past year, we have seen the tension in Israel between Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and everybody else go from bad to worse. We have seen Hareidi campaigns to force women to sit at the back of the bus, signs in some neighborhoods restricting women to sidewalks on one side of the street, a campaign to remove images of women from public spaces, male IDF cadets walking out during ceremonies in which female soldiers were singing, and an eight year old girl from a religious family being harassed and spit upon while walking to school, because some Hareidi Jews didn’t think she was dressed modestly enough.
The non-Orthodox movements still do not receive support from the state, because the ministry of religion is controlled entirely by the Orthodox chief rabbinate. The government of Israel spends at least $450 million a year on Orthodox programs and institutions. There are 3000 Orthodox rabbis on the government payroll. Masorti gets, by comparison, less than $50,000 and no Masorti or Reform rabbi gets government funding. No Masorti or Reform rabbi serves as a rabbi in the IDF, though some have served in combat positions.
It is clear to the leadership of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel that the best thing for Israel and for Judaism would be a separation of religion and State, but the Reform and Masorti (and modern Orthodox) movements simply do not have enough power to move Israel in that direction. There were Masorti services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 64 locations this year, and there is a network of 30 Reform congregations. It is clear there is an openness and interest in non-Orthodox Judaism, but they are limited by a severe lack of funding.
Money alone will not solve this problem, but an infusion of funds into the non-Orthodox movements will help them grow and will fund their campaigns for greater freedom of religion in Israel. I call upon the Federations of North America to take 5% of the money that they would send to National Federation and send it directly to the Masorti and the Reform movement in Israel, with the goal of strengthening freedom of religion in Israel.
The month of Tevet, falling in late December – early January, contains the fast day of the 10th of Tevet (this year, Thursday, January 5) commemorating the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and culminated in the destruction of the Temple. In 1951, the Israeli chief rabbinate decided to turn this day into a memorial day for Shoah victims whose date of death is unknown. Despite this, in 1954 the Israeli Keneset passed a law creating a Holocaust Memorial day on the 27th of Nisan, a day approximately midway between the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the celebration of Israel Independence Day. Nevertheless, the 10th of Tevet remains the official Yahrtzeit day for victims of the Shoah whose actual Yahrtzeit is unknown.
Sometimes, Jews complain that Judaism has too many holidays. I sympathize. However, I think the human being has an psychological need to mark and celebrate time. Freethinkers have a calendar of events that often include seasonal celebrations, such as winter solstice parties, as well as regular gatherings. I sometimes wonder whether the over-commercialization of Christmas is related to the relative paucity of sacred days of the Christian calendar. If our calendar doesn’t give us enough of a variety of days to celebrate, then we will take the celebrations that we have and expand them.
Sacred days are event magnets. Rarely does a holiday commemorate only one event. Most Jewish holidays, like the 10th of Tevet, have multiple associations. The Biblical festivals, which began as Harvest festivals, accumulated additional layers of meaning. the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were destroyed, is also the day on which Jews were exiled from Spain in 1492 as well as other national calamities and exiles.
As Americans, we live our lives by the rhythm of the secular calendar. The day of the week often determines when we will wake up, where we will go, and what we will do. We know what the next holiday is because that gives us a break from our routine to look forward to.
To live a dedicated Jewish life, we live our lives by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. We are aware of the number of days until Shabbat, and that determines when we wake up, where we go, and who we see. If we know the day of the month, then we also know the phase of the moon and approximately how many days until the next holiday, which not only breaks our routine but also most likely will require some preparation to celebrate properly.
The Jewish calendar ought not be something to resent (or worse, to ignore). Rather than seeing it as an intrusion on our lives, we might see it as an opportunity to examine a different dimension of our lives. In the short, cold days of winter, isn’t it nice to have Tu Bishvat (February 8), Purim (March 8), and even Pesah (April 7) to look forward to?
I have written in the past about the historical Hanukkah, and how the miracle of one jar of oil lasting for eight days is missing from the historical record. Although this is the story that we teach children, I think there is a much more powerful and important lesson in the real story of Hanukkah.
I had an appointment last month to meet with a ten year old non-Jewish boy and his father. The son had been reading about Hanukkah and had some questions. He asked me if it was OK to light a menorah. Rather than giving him an immediate answer, I asked him why he wanted to light the Hanukkiah. I wanted to know what it would mean to him, to light the Hanukkah menorah. At first, he couldn’t answer the question very well. It wasn’t a question that he had considered. I had the impression that he liked the exotic nature of participating in another religious’s ritual, that he thought that lighting a menorah sounded fun. After speaking for a bit, however, I was impressed at the seriousness of the young man. It became apparent that he had done some serious reading about Hanukkah – he just hadn’t connected all of the dots. He was able to describe the ritual of lighting candles very precisely and he knew the history of Hanukkah, but he hadn’t connected the history of the holiday to the ritual of the celebration of the holiday.
I led him through a series of questions – first, we talked about Thanksgiving. I asked him to tell me why we celebrate Thanksgiving, to describe the historical Thanksgiving, and to explain why the Pilgrims ended up on the shores of North America in the first place. He quickly came to the conclusion that one of the stories behind Thanksgiving is a story of a group of people seeking religious freedom.
I then asked him to relate this to the story of Hanukkah. He told me how the Maccabees fought against the Syrian army to purify the Temple. I suggested that the Syrian-Greek culture was being imposed on the Jews against their will, so Hanukkah was also a celebration of religious freedom.
I told him a story that happened in 1993 in Billings, Montana. Among other acts of hate, Swastikas were painted on the door of the synagogue and a Jewish home was defaced. The non-Jewish community responded by painting over the defaced property. In late November, beer bottles and cinder blocks were through through the windows of Jewish homes displaying hanukkah menorahs. Churches began distributing pictures of menorahs, and within days thousands upon thousands of Christian homes were displaying menorahs in solidarity with the Jewish community.
Generally, I do not support the idea of non-Jews appropriating our rituals and symbols. However, my message to this young man was that as long as he understood that the light of the menorah is intended to be a call for religious freedom, that I would understand why he felt compelled to light the candles. I offer you the same message – don’t light the Hanukkah menorah because God produced an eight day supply of oil where only one day’s worth was expected. That’s a cool magic trick, but God can do better. Light the Hanukkiah because the faith of a small group of Jews in God and Torah was so strong that against all odds, they achieved religious freedom. That’s a miracle worth celebrating.
I have been serving on a committee overseeing a city-wide project beginning this fall and continuing into next year called “2012: The Year of Interfaith Understanding.” I spoke about the personal and communal benefits of interfaith dialogue on Yom Kippur, referencing this project and suggesting that you take on the obligation during 2012 to read at least one serious book about a religion other than Judaism; and then read or research the questions that come up to find out how Judaism answers the same questions. Over the course of the next year, I will have other suggestions and opportunities for participating in interfaith dialogue, learning, and worship. One such suggestion is to participate in the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service, this year to be held at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, November 21. As of the deadline for the bulletin, the location had not yet been confirmed (watch your eVoice or Shabbat announcement page or call the office for location information).
Of all the American holidays, Thanksgiving is the most Jewish, and also the most explicitly religious. It has obvious roots in the Biblical festival of Sukkot; in addition, there is an offering mentioned three times in Leviticus called the todah, or Thanksgiving, offering. The religious attitude of thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. How fitting that in our country, Thanksgiving has become a time for members of different faith traditions to come together and give thanks. The city-wide Interfaith Thanksgiving service has become a meeting point for Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Protestants of various denominations, Bahai, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Native American, and non-theists to meet, share texts and teaching on gratitude, and appreciate each other’s musical offerings.
If you are a regular participant in this service, I am grateful for your presence. If you have never come to the service, I ask you to give it a try. I think you’ll enjoy it, and by your very presence you will be making an important statement about the importance of the inclusion of all faith groups in the religious landscape of West Michigan.
I don’t need to expend a huge amount of effort to convince most of you that the synagogue experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not “fun.” Yet, you also understand that it is an important experience – otherwise, you would not come. As a narrow snapshot of Jewish life, the High Holiday experience is psychologically valuable, when done right. However, it is incomplete. Life is not just about the serious moments … it is also about the playful moments. A view of Jewish life that includes only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is distorted towards the serious and heavy. I invite and encourage you to capture the other side of the emotional scale, the side of Sukkot and Simhat Torah. The singing, dancing, and eating of Simhat Torah are the antidote for the chanting and sitting (or standing and prostrating) of the earlier holidays.
Jews are an intellectual bunch. We tend to be excessively proud of educational accomplishments and the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners. Judaism values study. However, Judaism also values action. Judaism done right is more than an intellectual activity – it is a celebration of life. Simhat Torah provides balance. It is about Torah, but it is not intellectual. It is experiential. It is about using our bodies and our breath as in the Shabbat poem Nishmat kol chai, “The breath of all that lives praises you, Adonai our God” (page 334, Siddur Sim Shalom). From our limbs to our tongues, from our knees to our back, our songs, our lips, our eyes and heart – all join together to “laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing [God's] holiness and sovereignty.”
Sukkot breaks us out of our normal pattern of service and worship of God through primarily intellectual channels, to a more physical expression of our commitment to a Jewish life. We cannot fulfill the obligation to eat in the Sukkah by conceptualizing the role of the Sukkah in Jewish tradition, or discussing the historical context of its development. We can only do the mitzvah by putting our body into it, say a berakha, and eating something.
The physical labor I bring to building and decorating a Sukkah each year is as important to me as the money I give to Tzedakah or the time I spend in shul praying or studying. It is very easy in this world of offices, parking lots, highways, and cars, to forget the glory and power of the world around us. Our buildings are solid, our cars have powerful engines, and it is very easy to forget just how fragile we and our lives really are. All it takes is an earthquake a flood, a tsunami, a famine, or a hurricane to remind us of the power of nature. As I sit in a fragile Sukkah, open to the elements, I am very conscious of the physicality of my being. When I say shehehe’yanu on that first night, I am better able to appreciate the miracle of my existence because of the physical effort I put into constructing the Sukkah.
I wish you all a meaningful and joyous Yom Tov.
My goal for bulletin articles this year is to reflect on the theme of holiday celebrations. I believe that many adult Jews carry around within them a distorted picture of Jewish holidays based on the education they received in religious school. Religious school education is not necessary bad education, but it is unsophisticated. It is designed for elementary age children (most religious school do not re-teach holidays to high school students). Therefore, each month I want to address an aspect or theme of one holiday on a adult level.
Eating apples and honey and honeycake, gleefully throwing bread into a pond during Tashlikh, hearing the shofar and counting the seconds of the tekiah gedolah are the hooks that sweeten and enliven Rosh Hashanah. The real meaning of the holiday, the part that we might try to teach to children but that they are not yet capable of understanding on the deepest level, is how we might embrace renewal and how we might experience real and fundamental change in the way we behave and respond to the world. This is the stuff that people pay big money to therapists to do, and spend months and years doing.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to renewal relationships that have gone bad or simply become stale. Atonement is the goal, and the deadline is Yom Kippur. The period leading up to Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is the time to examine how we have failed to nurture the relationships in our life, both with the people around us and with God.
The most difficult pill to swallow on Rosh Hashanah is the idea that we are responsible for everything that has happened or will happen to us. “It’s not my fault,” should no longer be in our vocabulary. We should behave as if everything we do affects what happens to us. If we are a victim, it is because we placed ourselves in a position to become victimized. This is a radical notion which may not be objectively true, but this is the message that Rosh Hashanah delivers, and this is the only way that full transformation is every possible – when we accept full and total responsibility for our lives. Rosh Hashanah rejects the “blame game,” in which people and organizations and political factions seek to blame the “other” for things which have gone wrong. Rather, we are encouraged to look within ourselves to see what we have done to cause the problem. We may not be the sole cause or even the primary cause, but the theology of Rosh Hashanah believes that it is more useful for us to root out our contribution to the problem, since ultimately that’s all we can control.
In this month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, here are some things that you can do to achieve a sense of repentance and renewal:
Make a mental list of things you want to do better in the coming year. Consider what personality trait or traits led you do do the things you regret. Consider the following questions:
In what way does Judaism serve as a guide in your life? Do you draw upon Jewish wisdom to help you make business or personal decisions? Does Judaism feel inadequate or too antiquated or irrelevant to address your day to day needs? Do you feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of knowing how to ask the right questions of Judaism, in order to get the answers you seek?
During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, use the following questions to enhance and guide your prayer experience:
At what points in the service are you moved? Emotionally by the cantor? Intellectually by the Siddur? Intellectually or emotionally by the rabbi’s words? Physically by the incessant chatter of the people sitting behind you?
What emotions do you feel (here’s a sample list from a to z – out of order)? – boredom, apathy, joy, fear, worry, compassion, eagerness, friendship, pettiness, verisimilitude, happiness, insult, xenophobia, zealotry, uneasiness, sadness, rage, openness, questioning, jadedness, genuineness, decisiveness, nasty, tentativeness, magical?
In what way does Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue facilitate a prayer experience ? At what points does the liturgy, the sometimes free translation of the prayers, or the commentary and additional readings, move you to a deeper examination of your life? What does the experience of High Holiday services do for you, how does it affect you? As a general question, do you consider it to be the responsibility of the synagogue and the prayer book to engage you, or do you consider it to be your responsibility to engage with the synagogue and the prayer book? To address the (Divine) elephant in the room, what role does God play in this whole drama? Is God a commanding presence, a relationship presence, a supportive presence, a demanding presence, an imperious presence, an irrelevant presence, an ineffectual presence, an emotional presence, a non-presence?
Note: I have not read most of the books on this list. They have been recommended by colleagues (the annotation came from the recommendation or from book reviews). Please comment on this post – suggest other worthwhile summer reads, or let us know what you think of any of the books on this list.
Choosing My Religion: A Memoir of a Family Beyond Belief by Stephen Dubner.
The free world: A Novel, by Bezmozgis, David. A novel tracing refusenik family who gets an exit visa and finds themselves in Rome waiting to get a visa to America or Canada. The story has a sense of reality, as told by someone who knows the experience from the inside.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem – James Carroll. The History of Jerusalem.
The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition, David Hartman. The struggle between commitment to Jewish religious tradition and personal morality.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot. It’s about race, and gender, and poverty and science, education and love. The story of the HeLa cells, taken from her cancerous tumor and used for medical research, becoming a multi-billion dollars industry – without the knowledge or consent of family, and without any renumeration.
Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, Shaye Cohen. The connection between Brith Milah and Jewish Identity considering Jewish and Christian sources on the question.
You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, Joyce Antler. It has some fun sections as well as serious scholarship about the stereotype of the Jewish Mother.
Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe, Elisheva Carlebach. Would you believe that a book about Jewish calendars and almanacs of the 15th to 18th centuries can be a gold mine of information about Jewish values and beliefs and their interaction with the external Christian society?
Sacred Treasure, The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discovery of Forgotten Jewish History in and Egyptian Synagogue Attic, Mark Glickman, and Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, Adina Hoffman, Peter Cole. The compelling story about the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, and the subsequent fate of its collection and the people who have studied them.
I’m God, You’re Not: Observations in Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego, Lawrence Kushner. A wonderful collection of essays.
Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living, Naomi Levy. Quite moving and inspiring.
Hush, Eishes Chayil. Eishes Chayil is of course a pen name. Hish is a book about the sexual abuse that goes on in the Orthodox community. Fiction, based on the facts that no one talks about.
Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Judy Klitsner. 2009 National Jewish Book Award winner. Close reading of the Biblical stories – for example, it shows how the story of the Hebrew midwives builds upon, and is based upon, the Tower of Babel story in Genesis.
The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson. Interesting, probably thoughtful, definitely quite funny, and it evokes a lot of questions and conflicting feelings.
I brought a group of college students to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills Michigan today. The experience of visiting Holocaust museums always leaves me uneasy. While walking through the exhibit and listening to the docent, I am constantly asking myself, ‘What is the intended outcome of such a visit? What impression is it meant to give the visitors?’
The tour began with a nod towards the Armenian holocaust, with a look at a special exhibit by an Armenian artist. The implied message is, ‘See, Jews are not unique. It happened before, and no one noticed. There has always been tremendous evil in the world, and unless we recognize the signs and take action, it will happen again we will be guilty of complicity.’ At the same time, however, we wonder why, if Jews are not unique, there are no museums of the Armenian Christian Holocaust? Why don’t they remember and shout out warnings to the world, as we do?
The tour guide made the point over and over again that Jews are not unique. ‘Who is the Jew,’ he asked. ‘Every and any one of you,’ he answered. The average citizen who knew what was happening and let it happen made the Holocaust possible. You have to believe that it can and will happen again. You have to believe that you might be among the next set of victims, unless you understand how to watch for the signs and how to take action.
Then we approach the introduction to the permanent exhibit, pausing at a list of Jewish Nobel prize winners. A sign points out that Jew make up less the one percent of the population, but comprise 25 percent of the Nobel prize recipients. We are asked to imagine what the world destroyed when 40 percent of world Jewry was wiped out. We are invited to imagine how much better the world would have been if the brilliant potential of European Jewry had been allowed to flower.
I wonder what my students took away from the experience. I wonder what the two predominantly (or completely) non-Jewish grade school groups who were also visiting today took away from their experience. Did they absorb the message that Jews are better and smarter than other people, and therefore our tragedy is monumentally worse than the Armenian Holocaust? Or did they absorb the message that the same philosophy that gives birth to Jew hatred also spawns hatred of people of color, people with disabilities, and/or people of any minority religion?
The exhibit seems to want it both ways. On one hand, Jews are just like anyone else, and the next victim could be you. Other other hand, Jews are a unique treasure.
We realize that Jews have ritualized memory and the importance of remembering things, good and bad, to a depth possibly unmatched by other ethnic or religious groups. Deep down, however, I think there is deep Jewish ambivalence about what to do with the Holocaust memory. We have been trained by Passover and Purim and Yom Kippur to reenact our most important memories in order never to forget them. On the other hand, we recognize that the Holocaust was an intensely painful and deeply dysfunctional period of our history, and we understand that unlike our other historical memories, this one does not have a positive lesson unless we can convince other people to join with us in taking responsibility for the evil and guarding the world so it will never happen again.
Students — Tell me: How do you understand the experience you saw and heard today?