Sunday, January 24, 2010

Women and the Wall

By Susan Esther Barnes

There has been a lot of rhetoric flying around since Nofrat Frenkel was arrested at the Western Wall, or Kotel, in Jerusalem. Many reports suggest she was arrested for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the Wall, even though halachah, Jewish law, does not forbid a woman from wearing one. An article by Rabbi Avi Shafran, originally written for Am Echad Resources and published in the January 21 edition of J Weekly, says her offence was actually to “publicly read from the Torah opposite the stones of the Kotel.” He goes on to cite a passage in the Mishnah Torah which prohibits women from reading publicly from the Torah.

In splitting hairs about what, exactly, was Ms. Frenkel’s offense, Rabbi Shafran seems to ignore the point that all she wanted to do was to be allowed to pray at the wall in the same manner that men are allowed to pray there.

Marvin Schick, in the January 1 edition of The Jewish Week, says the women who want to be able to pray at the Kotel are sincere, but “This sincerity is embedded in egotism, in the attitude that what I/we want trumps long-standing religious practices, the sensibilities of others notwithstanding.”

Schick goes on to say, “I wonder whether it is all that difficult to understand that what has been labeled for far too long as out of touch or fundamentalist has proven to be essential to our survival as a people.” Further, he says, “Now that we have returned to Jerusalem and can pray at the Kotel, let us be respectful of the religious faith and teachings that indeed were the catalysts for our return to Jerusalem.”

I find it hard to imagine that others fail to see the lack of logic in the twisted reasoning of these men. They speak as if Judaism has always been static, that the laws were written down at the very beginning, and have never been re-examined or changed since. This is simply not true.

The most obvious example springs from the site of the debate itself, the Kotel, thought to be a remnant of the Temple where the Jewish people used to conduct our ritual sacrifices. When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, there was no place in which to conduct these sacrifices. Therefore, all of the laws regarding ritual sacrifice had to be set aside. The result was a tremendous change in how Jews practice our religion. Any who insisted Judaism could not exist if these changes were made were swept aside, and Judaism survived because of our ability to adapt and change to what was, at the time, the modern world.

It was only because Judaism recognized the realities of the world around it, and adapted, that it was it able to survive in the diaspora and thus have any chance of maintaining a people who would one day be able to return to Jerusalem. Thus, in contradiction to what Mr. Schick says, a refusal to re-examine the laws and to make changes where necessary was not a catalyst for our return, but could very well have been a course that would have prevented our continuation as a people.

Similarly, his statement that “We have returned to Jerusalem and can pray at the Kotel” is nonsensical when seen in the light that, although we have returned to Jerusalem, roughly only half of us can pray at the Kotel, because women may not do so.

Mr. Schick thinks it is wrong for the women to upset the sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox, who are a minority, but he does not seem to consider the egotism of the ultra-Orthodox who upset the sensibilities of the Conservative, Reform, and other denominations of Jews who constitute the majority in Israel and elsewhere in the world.

It is time for the Orthodox to take a sincere look at the strength of the Jewish people and to recognize that our survival has depended in large part on our ability to adapt to the changing world around us. It is time for us to recognize that laws and rituals have changed over time to meet our changing understanding of the world and the realities in which we find ourselves. We have in the past, and must continue, to make changes where they make sense while retaining the core of our Jewish beliefs and practices. This is how we will survive as a people.

It is time to recognize we are all b’tzelim Elohim, made in the image of God. Let all Jews who want to come and pray at the Kotel do so, in full voice. Does this mean the Orthodox should lose their ability to pray as they see fit? No. Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposes a solution in which the Kotel is divided into thirds. One third would be set aside for Orthodox men to pray, one third would be set aside for Orthodox women to pray, and the remaining third would be open to secular Jews and those of other denominations. Thus, every Jew would be able to pray at our holiest site in the way we see fit.

It is time to stop worshipping what we imagine to be immutable laws, written by mere mortals long after we received the Torah at Sinai. It is time to return to our root values, in which we respect all human beings and recognize the fallibility of our sages. It is time to recognize the need to correct our course and to realize we have been following the wrong path. It is time to allow all of our people to return to Jerusalem to pray.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Visiting Mrs. Louie

By Susan Esther Barnes

Periodically, I visit a woman in her 80’s who doesn’t get out as much as she used to, since she is now confined to a wheelchair. It’s hard for me to describe how I feel about going on these visits; it’s complicated. She always seems happy to see me, but she has friends and a daughter nearby, and I don’t see how a visit every once in a while from me can really matter. On the other hand, I know my Grandmother, may her memory be a blessing, would approve, because in some ways it is reminiscent of my visits to Mrs. Louie.

When we were kids, my sister and I used to visit our Grandmother and her brother, Uncle Mitch, may his memory be a blessing, for about a month every summer. Grandma and Uncle Mitch lived in an apartment in San Francisco. In the summer, they spent about half the week in their apartment, and long weekends in Felton, where Uncle Mitch had a part-time job as a courier and caretaker for what we called “the lodge” (interesting story there, but that’s for another time).

Periodically, when we were in San Francisco, Grandma would send us to the apartment across the hall to visit Mrs. Louie. Mrs. Louie was about Grandma’s age, and once when I asked why we went to visit her, I think Grandma said something vague about Mrs. Louie being lonely because her family and most of her friends had died.

Sometimes visiting Mrs. Louie was a little boring, and I remember she told us some of the same stories numerous times, but I don’t remember particularly disliking our visits with her. It had a feel of normalcy, like it was no big deal, but, on the other hand, I still remember it more than thirty years later, so there must have been more to it than that.

I remember I liked how animated Mrs. Louie got when she told us about the raccoons she and her husband used to feed where they used to live, and how sorry she felt for the people who bought the house after them and who probably wondered why so many raccoons showed up in the evening demanding dinner.

Similarly, when we were in Felton, periodically Grandma would take us down the hill to visit Mr. and Mrs. Wertheimer. I didn’t have the words for it then, but now I know the Wertheimers were morbidly obese. Each of them had a special piece of furniture to recline on, sort of like a couch with a raised part for their upper body, since they were too heavy to sit on regular furniture. Every year at Passover when we talk about eating while reclining, it reminds me of the Wertheimers’ couches.

I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning the Wertheimer’s weight. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to ask about it. As with Mrs. Louie, I didn’t particularly look forward to visiting the Wertheimers, but it wasn’t something I tried to avoid. Talking with them was like talking with any other grown-ups; it was just part of life.

As I got older, I encountered people who spoke down about people who were elderly or overweight. Even now, I know otherwise good-intentioned people who for some reason talk to the elderly in a different manner than they use with other people, almost as if they were talking to children. I never understood that. As far as I could tell from visiting Mrs. Louie and the Wertheimers, elderly and overweight people are just like everyone else. They aren’t more or less smart, or lazy, or interesting. They are just people.

It wasn’t until after Grandma died that I was mature enough to wonder why she made sure we visited Mrs. Louie and the Wertheimers every year. Maybe it was just because she was being nice to them. Clearly, they didn’t get out much, and didn’t get many visitors. I don’t think it was only because she liked visiting them herself; she could have done that without us.

I also came to wonder whether she was doing it for us rather than them. I wonder whether she was teaching us the value of having compassion for people who are lonely. I wonder if she planned for us to learn to see elderly and overweight people as people who are just like everyone else. I wonder whether, if I were given a chance to ask her why we made these visits, she would look at me in surprise and say, “It’s what we do.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Things You Would Have Said

By Susan Esther Barnes

Jon Carroll has been my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist since the death of Herb Caen. (Yes I know I'm dating myself here). Last week he wrote a column about a website called "The Things You Would Have Said." On its home page, this website says it is here for the following purpose: "Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know." People send in their letters to the website via email, and they are posted with the author's name and age, or anonymously, as requested.

The posts on this site provide a fascinating read. Some are heartwarming; others are heart wrenching. For those who have the time, I recommend reading them all, except I would suggest that animal lovers skip "Black Cat." (Trust me on this one.)

When I first learned about this site, I wasn't sure it was such a good idea. I believe if one person has something to say to another, they ought to do so directly, even if it feels overdue or awkward. Every time I have forced myself to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone, afterward I have been glad I did it.

Also, throughout my life I have told myself I won't second guess my decisions. I decided that as long as I sincerely try to make the best decisions I can with the information I have at the time, I won't berate myself later on if additional information I receive after the fact proves the decision to be less than optimal.

Still, with this reminder that there are many people who have been left feeling there is something they wish they would have said, I decided to take an inventory of the people in my life.

I thought about each person who is especially close to me, and wondered, "If I wanted to write a letter for the "Would Have Said" website, could I write a letter to this person? Is there anything I haven't said to him or her that needs to be said?" If the answer for any person were yes, then I would know that was a person I would have to contact soon so I could have a conversation with them.

Next, I took an inventory of people I used to be close to, but with whom I have lost touch. Was there anything there I needed to say? The most obvious person in this category is my ex-husband, but I really have closed that chapter in my life. If there were any outstanding items in this category, then it seems to me it would be my obligation to at least make an honest effort to find the person and talk to them before I sent something in to be posted on the website.

Finally, I thought about the people I knew who have died. In a case like this, I could definitely see sending a letter to the website. After all, there is no way to go back to have a conversation with someone who has died. Which, of course, is why I think it's so important to have these conversations with the living before it's too late.

However, it does occur to me that saying people should only send in letters to people they can't find or who have died is too simplistic an answer. In some cases, the writers may need to vent their anger, which most likely would not be well-received by the other person. In this case, writing a letter to the website would probably be more healing than an in-person conversation. For example, I don't imagine the person who wrote to her rapist would have been better off tracking down her attacker after all those years.

So, although I have some concern people may use this website as an excuse not to have the conversations they ought to have with the people around them, I also recognize it can provide a powerful outlet for those who feel they need a venue in which to express themselves. And perhaps reading the posts of others may prompt some people to have the conversations they need to have before it's too late.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More than Shelter

By Susan Esther Barnes

During the cold winter months, our synagogue is participating in a temporary rotating shelter for homeless men. The organization running the shelter provides the men with transportation to and from the synagogue and staff members to supervise them overnight. They also arrange for an organization to prepare and provide the men with dinner.

Our responsibilities are to provide a space in which the men can sleep, a restroom, tables and chairs where they can eat dinner, and a few people to coordinate with the shelter workers, to help serve the food, and to clean up after dinner.

If we were to do nothing more than fulfill our responsibilities as a volunteer organization under this program, it would be a great mitzvah, and I don’t imagine anyone would complain. We could treat these men as charity cases, but Jews don’t believe in charity. We believe in tzedakah, which many mistake as charity, but it means “righteousness,” and therefore it is not just about giving; it is about giving righteously.

So we have made a conscious decision not to treat these men as recipients of charity, but to treat them as guests. Our tradition tells us it is not enough to merely feed and house guests. It tells us we should make guests feel welcome, and we should provide them with entertainment.

When the men arrive each Wednesday night, they do not cross an empty threshold. Like members and visitors arriving for services on Friday night, they are met at the front door by volunteers who look them in the eye and welcome them as guests.

When they enter the social hall, they not only find a hot dinner prepared for them, they also find an array of fresh-baked snacks and desserts awaiting them, delivered earlier in the day by congregants they will never see or be able to thank.

During dinner, volunteers sit among them, eating the same food, and making conversation, as they would with dinner guests in their home. After dinner, congregants continue to chat with the men, or they play chess or other games with them. Those who wish to can view a movie on a large screen TV while they munch on hot popcorn.

Why do we do these things? Maybe it has to do with the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Maybe it’s because it makes us feel good. Maybe our traditions of remembering what it was like to be slaves in Egypt and what it was like to be thrown out of our homes and our countries help to remind us it is only through the grace of God that we have a roof over our head tonight.

And what does it matter? Does a look in the eye, a little conversation, a game of chess make any real difference? Rachel, one of the volunteers who comes every week with her two young sons, wrote, “Last year we were told that some of the men stay clean on Wednesday nights because they love coming [here].” And it strikes me that if even one man can cast off his addiction for even one day because of what we do, then it means, perhaps, we have given him some hope. And yes, it makes all the difference in the world.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

In the Still and the Flurry

By Susan Esther Barnes

It is 7:45 in the morning. I’m alone in the synagogue. There are no clergy here yet, and the only staff member at work this early is directing traffic outside. It’s cloudy out there. The only illumination in the sanctuary is what little natural light filters through the stained glass overhead, plus the flickering from the ner tamid (eternal light) over the ark. The room is silent.

As I step into the sanctuary, I know I have stepped into a special place. Immediately I experience a strong feeling of power and of serenity. I walk to the front of the room and sit down. I love to be in this room when it is full of people; I love to be in this room when I am alone. Normally I would sit here and soak it in, but this is not my place to be at this time.

I stand back up, and walk to the entrance of the synagogue. I stand just outside the door, in the place where I have stood so many times before. The street across the parking lot from me is a frenzy of activity. Cars are driving back and forth, in and out of the parking lot across the street, where parents are dropping off their kids at the public elementary school. A much smaller number of cars are turning into the parking lot directly in front of me, dropping off their kids at the religious school.

As the cars drive to and fro, in and out of the parking lots, like flurries of snow tossed by the wind, it is almost eerily silent. From time to time, I hear children or their parents, or a car door closing, or a wheeled backpack being pulled across the pavement. But mostly I just hear the gentle whoosh of the tires of the many cars on the street as they dance their ballet to a music I cannot quite make out.

And it occurs to me, as I stand here on the threshold between the still sanctuary at my back and the busy street before me, that I should be contemplating the experience of standing on the threshold between two very distinct worlds. Yet it is clear these are not two different worlds at all. The power and the serenity that greets me in the sanctuary is the same power and serenity that permeates the dance of the cars and the parents and the kids. It is all one. And I am grateful to be given this chance to see it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ethics and Kashrut

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last week, a kosher poultry processing plant in New York was shut down due to health violations, including a lack of soap and sanitizers in the employee restrooms and processed chicken being stored in a tank without running water. This case brings to mind the much larger kosher meat processing plant, Agriprocessors, which was the center of a huge bruhaha a little over a year ago when it was accused of being in violation of labor laws as well as the mistreatment of animals.

At the time of the Agriprocessors scandal, the question arose, “How can meat be considered kosher if the animals and the workers are mistreated?” After all, one of the purposes of kashrut (the set of Jewish dietary laws) was to make sure the animals to be eaten would be slaughtered in a humane way, causing as little pain to the animal as possible. In other words, the animals were to be treated with compassion, and thus ethics and kashrut appear to be bound tightly together.

However, in the December 2009 issue of the journal Sh’ma, Daniel Alter writes, “Talk of the ethics of kashrut hurts Jewish ethics. It renders a tradition that possesses immense wisdom irrelevant at best and nonsensical at worst.” He later goes on to say, “Ethics is ethics; kashrut is kashrut,” as if they were two completely unrelated things.

This idea that one can separate ethics from the dietary laws – or anything else for that matter – is a foreign one to me. I would argue that ethics do, and should, permeate every part of our lives, from what we eat, to what we wear, to how we behave when we drive to work in the morning. How can we say food is “kosher,” meaning “fit” to eat, if the animals and/or the workers were treated unethically? Can something truly be considered to be ritually pure if it was prepared by someone who wasn’t paid a living (or even lawful) wage? What would be the point of ensuring an animal is killed quickly and painlessly if it were allowed to suffer needlessly in the days beforehand?

When we say laws are unrelated to ethics, or when we claim the letter of the law is more important than its ethical considerations, then we are worshipping at the altar of the idol of the law. And I think we all know bad things happen when we start worshipping idols.