Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Consult with a Pharmacist

By Susan Esther Barnes

I spent a couple of weeks this month looking at a certain area of my body that was a little red, a little irritated, a little swollen, but no big deal. “It will probably go away on its own, right?” I thought.

I don’t like to go to the doctor for every little thing. I’m not the type of person who seeks medical advice for a cold or flu. Plus, I hate antibiotics. They mess up my digestive system. And this looked suspiciously like a candidate for antibiotics, not of the topical ointment variety.

Finally, my husband (have I mentioned lately how wonderful he is?) talked me into making an appointment with my HMO. I was gratified that the nurse practitioner was somewhat stumped. The two things I least want to hear from a medical professional in a case like this are, “This is nothing. Why are you wasting my time?” and “This is serious. You obviously should have come to see me immediately when this appeared.”

She said she would consult with a doctor more knowledgeable in this area, and she’d call me later. That afternoon, I received a call from another nurse, telling me I need to take anitbiotics, an anti-inflammatory pill, use a warm compress on the area twice a day, and make an appointment for a follow up visit with my regular doctor in one week.

When I went to pick up my medication, the cashier asked me whether I would like to speak with the pharmacist. I said, “Yes.” I highly recommend speaking with the pharmacist any time you’re about to take a medication that you haven’t taken before, or haven’t taken in a long time.

I had no reason to believe the pharmacist would tell me anything helpful in this case. I can read the instructions that come with prescriptions, and I’m the kind of person who really does read them, including the list of possible side effects. Nevertheless, I said, “Yes, I would like to speak with the pharmacist.”

The pharmacist told me how often to take the medicine, which was clearly marked on the bottles. She also pointed out that the anti-inflammatory medication is supposed to be taken with food, and the antibiotic is not supposed to be taken with food, so I can’t take them both at the same time.

I mentioned that it’s too bad I can’t take the antibiotic with food, because antibiotics always make me nauseous. She said, “Well, I recommend you take it with a cracker or a piece of toast. That won’t hurt anything, and will help to protect your stomach.”

I said, “Thank you, that will help. But antibiotics really mess up my whole digestive system,” and I listed a couple of side effects we don’t need to go into here. So she said, “Eat one yogurt a day. That will help replace the good bacteria that are being killed by the antibiotic. But don’t eat the yogurt, or anything else with calcium, within two hours of taking the antibiotic, or the calcium will prevent at least some of the antibiotic from being absorbed.”

I replied, “I usually take a calcium supplement with dinner. Should I stop taking that while I’m on the antibiotic?”

“No,” she said, “As long as you don’t take the calcium within two hours of the antibiotic, you’ll be fine.”

To sum up, if I hadn’t talked with the pharmacist, I would have seen the warning about not taking calcium with the antibiotic, but I would have worried about the calcium supplement, and may have needlessly stopped taking it for a while.

Furthermore, I would have had no idea that it would be okay to eat a cracker or two with the antibiotic to protect my stomach. And it’s likely it wouldn’t have occurred to me to eat the yogurt to help with the good bacteria, and even if I did, I may have skipped it due to worries about the calcium. Talking with her was well worth my time.

So far, after two doses each of both medications, my stomach and digestive system feel fine. I know it’s still early, and things could go downhill later, but so far so good. Which is a new experience for me with antibiotics.

I know we’re all in a hurry, and it seems like we have better things to do than waiting in a line for a consultation when we just want to get our medicine and go home, but I highly recommend making the time. You never know what you’ll learn.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Is Santa a Christian Symbol?

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of my posts at TC Jewfolk prompted a writer at the Twin Cities Star Tribune to write an article titled "Is Santa a Christian symbol or a relgious holiday poacher?"

Author Susan Hogan cites some interesting theories about how Santa isn't really Christian. In the end, though, where the Santa figure came from isn't as relevant to my original article as what he symbolizes now.

Ask any American what holiday Santa symbolizes, and the answer you will get is, "Christmas." What does Santa do? He brings Christmas presents. And what is Christmas? Even though many secular people celebrate this holiday in a non-religious way, ask any Christian in any church what Christmas is about, and they will tell you it's a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus.

So maybe, technically, Santa is a Christian symbol once removed, but he is inextricably tied up in Christmas, a major holiday celebrated by Christians, celebrating the birth of a person of enormous importance to their religion. He may not be about, as Susan Hogan writes, "ho-ho-holiness," but neither should we pretend he is unconnected to one of the two major Christian holidays.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shabbat in a Hotel Room

My latest post at TC Jewfolk is here.

Read about how I ended up sitting in a hotel room on Friday night, with two candles, a bottle of wine, and a challah on the table, along with a prayer book in my lap and my cell phone beside me.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Good Stereotype

By Susan Esther Barnes

A friend of a friend recently made a couple of comments on Facebook, saying that Jews are good with money and with numbers.

My response to him was, "Maybe you meant your comments about money and numbers as a compliment, but promoting sterotypes about any group is neither accurate nor helpful, IMHO."

He then said, "Promoting sterotypes is different than accepting them. Why fight something that is sterotypically good instead of accepting it? Hebrew language is based on numbers as well so mathmatics and language are taught from a young age, there is nothing wrong with it. IMHO."

Unfortunately, Facebook isn't a good place to have a discussion like this. A blog isn't either, really, but at least it's a place where I have the room to set out my thoughts on the subject.

I will start by agreeing that there is nothing wrong with teaching math and language from a young age. In fact, as far as I know, in most countries and cultures both of these things are taught from a young age. Everyone learns language, certainly, and most school-age children have at least some basic math skills. There is nothing special about Jews teaching these things to kids.

There are, however, several problems with repeating stereotypes of any kind, including those that may sound, on the surface, to be positive.

First of all, stereotypes are generalizations placed upon groups of people, and as such, they are inaccurate. If you take a random group of Jews, you will find some who are great with money and numbers, some who are terrible at them, and some who are somewhere in between. The same would be true of any random group of people from any religion or country.

Add to this the fact that many people were not born Jewish, but joined us through conversion. Do you think something in the conversion process suddenly makes these Jews better at numbers and math than they used to be? Is there something magical about learning Jewish history, traditions and rituals that imparts these skills upon converts? I think not.

Second, when people say Jews are good with money, this often refers to all sorts of other, less benign-sounding sterotypes. For instance, people say Jews will try to bargain you down on prices, they say Jews will try to cheat you in financial situations, they say Jews will charge you interest rates that are too high, they say Jews run the banks in this country, etc. Like the stereotype of "good with money," some of these things may be true of some Jews, but they are untrue of the majority of us.

Third, sterotypes like these can be demeaning. If I am Jewish and I am good with numbers, by applying this sterotype to me you are insulting me. You are saying that my years of studying, my hard work, my hours spent doing homework and memorizing multiplication tables don't matter. You are saying my skill with numbers is not due to my hard work and diligence, but is rather simply a product of my religion or perhaps my genes. This kind of thinking causes resentment when a Jewish person does better than a Gentile in math classes. It is the kind of thinking that can lead to antisemitism.

Further, if I am Jewish and I am not good at math or numbers, you are telling me I am flawed. Gentiles can be bad at these things, but if I am Jewish and I am bad at them, there is something fundamentally wrong with me. You are telling me I am not, truly, one with my own people. I am, in your mind, an outlier, unusual, not okay.

Fourth, there are Jewish laws about lashon hara, the "evil tongue." The Chafetz Chaim, a great scholar of lashon hara, said that not only should we not say bad things about people in public, we should not say good things about them in public either. That is because saying something good may prompt someone else to say something bad.

For instance, if I say, "Isn't Betty's dress lovely today?" someone else might say, "Yes, usually she looks like such a slob." Similarly, if you say, "Jews are good with money," it might prompt someone else to say, "Yeah, that's how they got away with all those mortgage scams."

So please, dispense with the stereotypes. I am, like you, an individual. Please have the courtesy to try to see me as I am, not as you think people like me ought to be. And I promise, I will try to do the same with you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Your Questions Answered # 6

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and I think they deserve an answer. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

Are Orthodox Jews Respected in General by Other Jews?
This is a fascinating question. My first reaction is that I suspect that most secular and non-Orthodox Jews don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Orthodox Jews. Like any group of people, of course, it’s a bad idea to generalize. There are a wide range of opinions among non-Orthodox Jews regarding Orthodox Jews. Some people don’t respect the Orthodox at all, while others hold a deep respect for them. I’m sure every flavor along the spectrum in between those two extremes is represented as well.

I would say that, for many, Orthodox Jews are viewed as an anachronism, like the Amish. We respect that they want to live their lives that way, but we don’t want to live our lives that way, and we don’t like it when they try to force their views on us. I’d say the more they treat us with respect, the more we’re inclined to treat them with respect. Respect is, after all, a two-way street.

What does it mean when your mezuzah falls?
If your mezuzah falls onto the ground, it means you didn’t affix it properly to your doorpost. Seriously, there is no magic here. It is not a sign of anything bad. Pick it up, kiss it if you like, and affix to the doorpost more firmly. No worries.

What happens if a person dies during the Days of Awe?
The Days of Awe are the 10 days between, and including, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Under Jewish law, we don’t observe shiva (the seven days of mourning) and we don’t bury people during holidays. This includes the week of Pesach (Passover) as well, which affected me when my father, alav hashalom, died two days before Pesach.

You should always consult with a rabbi in a case like this, but if a person dies during the Days of Awe, I would suspect that the burial would take place as soon as possible after Yom Kippur ends, and shiva would start then.

What is the meaning of challah?
Challah is a special braided bread we eat on Shabbat. The practice goes back to the days of the original mishkan, the tent we carried with us in the desert, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, and had within it tables on which bread would be placed.

Unlike in Christian ceremonies, in which bread or wafers symbolize, or “become” the flesh of Jesus, challah in Jewish ritual is just bread.

What to do at a shiva minyan if you don’t read Hebrew
Having just attended a Sikh funeral this week, I know what it feels like to be at a service and to not understand the language being used. Some Hebrew prayer books contain a transliteration, which shows you how to pronounce all the Hebrew, using English letters. However, even lifelong Jews can have trouble reading a transliteration out loud if it is a prayer with which they are unfamiliar.

Therefore, if you’re not comfortable reading Hebrew and you don’t know the prayers, I would suggest you listen respectfully, and stand up and sit down when others around you do so. You do not need to genuflect, bow, or kneel at any time.

If you’re lucky, some of the service will be in English. The amount of Hebrew used will vary depending on the practices of that community, the leader, and the preferences of the family that is in mourning.

Why doesn’t my Orthodox colleague wash her hands?
If your Orhtodox colleague doesn’t wash her hands, it means she has poor hygiene. There is nothing, to my knowledge, in halacha (Jewish law) or Orthodox practice that would prevent an Orthodox Jew from washing his or her hands when appropriate, such as after using the restroom or when their hands are dirty.

In fact, Orthodox practice requires one to wash one’s hands on some occasions when secular people may not wash their hands, such as before eating a meal with bread, and upon leaving a cemetery.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via those interesting search terms.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In Memory of Mark Edw. West

By Susan Esther Barnes

Our dear friend, Mark West, died on Sunday evening, after a long and valiant battle with cancer. His mother asked us to post memories of him on Facebook, and below is what I wrote:

“When I think about Mark, what always springs to mind is movement. Whether it was him always opening a door behind us when we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, or the way his whole body moved when he told stories or laughed - not just his face was animated, but his whole torso, plus his arms and legs - it was always about movement. He was like a meteor, a shooting star, on the move, full of brilliant light, and then gone way too soon.”

In his honor, below is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 1928 poem, “Dirge with Music.”

I am not resigned to the shutting away of
loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look,
the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses.
Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know.
But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than
all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Exile vs. Redemption

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last week I attended a fascinating lecture at the Osher Marin JCC by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The lecture, and the excellent Q&A afterward, covered a broad area. Below is a summary of his main theme, on exile and redemption. I hope to write about additional topics from the evening later.

Rabbi Hartman explained that, for about 2,000 years, Jews looked at the world through two lenses: exile and redemption.

After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, Jews dispersed throughout the world, and lived in exile. No matter what country we lived in, we were a small minority, subject to the whims of the leaders of whatever country we inhabited. We could only live in certain areas and hold certain jobs, sometimes we had to wear certain identifying badges or clothing, and at any time we could be killed. We were without power.

During those 2,000 years, we believed that our exile would end during the time of the Moshiach (messiah), so at the end of exile there would be redemption. Redemption meant perfection, with no more sickness, war, or suffering. In the time of redemption, everything would be fine.

When Israel became a country, Rabbi Hartman says, Jews continued to see the world through the same two lenses.

Some say our exile is over. We were able to gather in our own land, we have power over our own lives, so therefore, redemption has come. Everything is perfect, these people say, and anyone who criticizes Israel is either uninformed, or a traitor. This is all they see.

Others say we are still in exile. Israel is surrounded by enemies. We could still be attacked at any moment, and in fact, rockets continue to fall in Israel on a regular basis. We don’t have the time, these people say, to worry about things like morality when what we need to focus on right now is survival. Redemption has not come, so therefore we are still in exile. This is all they see.

Rabbi Hartman suggests that we need to recognize that the Jews in Israel are no longer in exile. They have power, and they are home. The Jews in North America are not in exile, either. We also have power, and we also are home. However, things are not perfect, and we have not found redemption, either.

We need to find a new lense through which to view the world – one that is neither exile, nor redemption – in order to focus on reality.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Germs and Words Circling the Bed

By Susan Esther Barnes

This is a conversation I had with my husband last night:

Me: I can't believe I haven't caught the cold you had last week.

Him: Me, either.

Me: I don't know how many times I woke up during the night to find you breathing your germs right in my face.

Him: That wouldn't be a problem if you stayed on your side of the bed.

Me: There are two cats, plus me, on my side, but only one of you. We should get three-fourths of the bed. You should feel lucky for what you get.

Him: I don't think so.

Me: Do you think we should trade in our queen bed for a king so we'll have more room?

Him: No, we don't need a king. I don't feel like we're too crowded.

Me: Ok. I still feel lucky I didn't catch your cold, with you breathing on me like that.

Him: That wouldn't be a problem if you stayed on your side of the bed.

Gotta love that man.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Three Ways to Prepare for Christmas - If You're Jewish" at TC Jewfolk

Read my latest post on TC Jewfolk: Three Ways to Prepare for Christmas - If You're Jewish.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Frequent Attendance at Services Says About You

By Susan Esther Barnes

Fellow blogger Heshy Fried recently posted something titled, “Are You Just a Jew on Shabbos?

Setting aside the grammatical error – the title seems to ask whether you are also something other than a Jew on Shabbat (such as, for instance, an American or a mother), from the context of the post it is clear he meant to ask whether you are Jewish only on Shabbat, and not during the rest of the week.

It’s a fair question. If you only go to Shabbat services and do nothing else Jewish during the week, then, I suppose, you are, to his way of thinking, a Jew only on Shabbat. However, the post goes on to talk only about attending services during the week, as if attending services is the only way to be Jewish.

Look, I’m a big fan of synagogue services, for many reasons. They bring people together. They help build community. There are some prayers, like the Mourner’s Kaddish, that we only say when we have at least 9 other Jews with us, and the synagogue is a convenient place to gather those people. Rabbis are professional teachers, and through their sermons they can help us discover insights we might never find alone. The list goes on.

However, to imply that going to services is the only way to be Jewish is way off base. The majority of Jewish ritual practice has traditionally taken place in the home. Chanukkah is celebrated as we light candles at home. Pesach (Passover) is celebrated with a ritual meal and the telling of the Exodus story at home. Shabbat candles are lit at home every week. Sukkot are built, eaten in, and slept in at home.

Even prayers are often said at home, or wherever we happen to be. There are morning and evening prayers. There are prayers over food before and after we eat. There are prayers for when we go to the bathroom, when we see a rainbow, when we encounter someone we haven’t seen in a long time, etc.

There are all sorts of things we are commanded to do throughout the day, no matter where we are. Don’t place a stumbling block before the blind. Be kind to the widow and orphan. Don’t say hurtful things. There are, literally, hundreds of mitzvot, most – I would argue all – of which do not require one’s presence in a synagogue.

There are people who attend synagogue frequently because it is a commandment to say certain prayers that require a minyan. Some attend frequently because it brings them closer to God. Some attend frequently for the feeling of community they get. Some attend frequently but don’t believe in God, or they are unsure of God.

Different people attend services for different reasons. So what does frequent attendance at services say about you? It says you attend services frequently. That is all. To read any more into it would be a mistake. Nobody knows your reasons unless you talk with them about it, and even then they may not truly understand.

Attendance at services does not equal being Jewish. If that were all there were to Judaism, what a poor, sad bunch we would be. Being Jewish includes many, many things, and God willing, we will all spend our lives exploring the possibilities, without judging others based on one small piece of it, such as whether they show up at the synagogue during the week.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Haveil Havalim #337

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

We had a little glitch this week with submissions not reaching me properly. Jack helped by providing me with a workaround, but if you sent in something and you don't see it here, most likely it was an oversight due to the system issue. Also, I didn't get any submissions for the end of the week, so if you sent in something on Thursday or Friday and you don't see it here, it's nothing personal. Please submit it again for the next HH.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

We Need More Hosts!
Hosting the Blog Carnival is easy. Just contact Jack through the Blog Carnival website here, and tell him what day you can host. You will receive links to posts as they are submitted through the week. You can read them as they come in, and build your Blog Carnival post over time, or do it all at once - whatever works for you. Or, if you don't have time to read all the links, at the end of the week the Carnival will send you an email with HTML you can copy and paste that puts together the whole post for you with one easy cut and paste. So please host - we need you, and it will build traffic to your terrific blog!

Mordechai Torczyner writes about a recent visit to his shul by England's Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and intellectual learning vs. inspiration in To Educate or to Inspire? posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Jacob Richman presents Good News from Israel: New: Learn Hebrew Chanukah Video posted at Good News from Israel.

Yehoishophot Oliver presents Modeh Ani: Essence facing Essence posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen.

Sharon A says incitement to hate is growing, and provides examples,in Incitement to Terror « The Real Jerusalem Streets posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets's Blog.

Gail Rubin J.D. writes about a recent event at U.C. Davis in UC Davis Jewish Studies Program Presents the Anti-Israel Narrative and Censors Questions posted at Pro-Israel Bay Bloggers.

Harry treats us to an amusing - in some ways, but not in others - only-in-Israel story in The Israeli version of ‘the dog ate my homework’ posted at Israelity.

Sharon A uses photos to show us one way the Jerusalem landscape is changing in Meet you at Mashbir « The Real Jerusalem Streets posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets's Blog.

What do LBGQT interests have to do with how Palestinians are treated? Harry explains in A pink light unto nations or a ‘pink wash’? posted at Israelity.

Zman Biur has some good news about driving in Israel in Roadkill myths IV: End-of-2010 update posted at Biur Chametz.

Batya writes about the uniquely Israeli experience of sharing rides in B"H, Thank G-d, Great People! posted at me-ander.

Harry presents >Train construction ahead posted at Israelity.

Julie presents Jerusalem Playground Reviews -- Agenda and Parameters posted at >Walkable Jerusalem.

Julie writes a review of a park in Gan Gidon (Gideon Park), Baka -- Jerusalem Playground Review #3 posted at Walkable Jerusalem.

Batya presents The Rich Strike and The Poor Suffer posted at Shiloh Musings.

Jay3fer reacts to an ad that mentions "kosher style" food in Cranky Complaints-Lady Cooks Kosher-Style posted at Adventures in Mama-Land.

Mrs. S. presents Heblish: The Everywhere You Look Edition posted at Our Shiputzim: A Work In Progress.

I wonder, What Would You Like to Have Happen When You Die? posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Rutimizrachi encourages us to treat eachother kindly in One small kindness. And another. And another... posted at Ki Yachol Nuchal!.

Mordechai Torczyner gives some teaching tips in Rabbinics 101: How to teach a class posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Batya shares some photos and commentary on clowning in Clowning Around and A לך לך Lech Lecha Lesson posted at me-ander.

Batya presents Who's Having The Last Laugh? Matriarch Sarah and The Modern State of Israel posted at Shiloh Musings.

Food Reviews:
Daniela presents Elite's "Chocolate Para" Kids Cake posted at Isreview.

Daniela presents Lipton's Pyramid Jasmine Green Tea posted at Isreview.

Daniela presents Elite's Peanut Butter flavored Pesek Zman posted at Isreview.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page. Also, please sign up to host one or more future editions. It's fun and easy, and will be much appreciated!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What Would You Like to Have Happen After You Die?

By Susan Esther Barnes

There is abundant speculation about what happens to you after you die. Will there be a spirit or consciousness (or something) that lives on after you die, or not? If so, what will it be like? Do Heaven or Hell exist? What about Purgatory? If you are going to be resurrected after the Moshiach (Messiah) comes, what does your spirit do in the time between death and the world-to-come?

Some people think they will be reincarnated as animals, others think they will be reincarnated as people. Some believe you get a trip straight to either Heaven or Hell, and some think there is an intermediate place, called Purgatory or something else, where at least some people will stop first before heading one way or the other.

Some, such as the ancient Egyptians, believed it was important to entomb dead people with food and other supplies they would need in the afterlife. It is commonly understood that Muslims believe martyrs will get 72 virgins, which I never understood. First, you would need a body to “enjoy” the virgins, and second, once you had sex with them, they wouldn’t be virgins any more, so what is the point?

Of course, there is no way for us to answer these questions while we’re alive. We won’t find out until we die. There are so many diverse opinions, I have often wondered, “What if what happens to you after you die is whatever you believe will happen?” If you believe death is the end of your consciousness, then it is. If you think you’re going to Hell, then you are. If you think you will be reincarnated, that is what happens to you.

So, if you were in charge of creating your own afterlife, what would you want it to be like? Given the choice, what would you want to have happen?

I have a hard time imagining a Heaven where everything is perfect all the time. It seems to me that would get boring after a while. Maybe it’s just a lack of imagination on my part, but I don’t consider it to be a goal toward which I want to strive.

I hope that after I die I will get to stick around at least long enough to attend my funeral and burial. I’m curious to know what people would say about me.

Our chevra kadisha recently spoke about experiences in which people felt the spirit of those who had died were still with them. One woman talked about how she keeps the spirits of her dead loved ones close to her. I have often wondered whether that is fair to the dead people. If we keep them with us, are we delaying them from being free to go on to whatever they are supposed to be doing next? Does it not matter because time isn’t the same after you are dead, and we will be joining them in death relatively soon, anyway?

It is my fond hope that, after I die, God will answer my questions, although I suspect that what I consider to be burning questions now may not matter to me at all once I am dead. Who shot JFK, from where, and how? What would have happened if Gore had won the Presidency instead of Bush? When was the Torah first written down, how much of the stories in it really happened as they were written, and how did that horrible passage about not lying down with a man as one would with a woman get in there? These are some of the things I would like to know.

Once my curiosity is satisfied, however, I’m not really interested in just hanging out and partying. I hope I am able to come back to earth in a new body, and that I’m given a chance to try again. I have made a lot of mistakes in this life, and I expect to make even more. I keep learning as I go, but there is so much more to learn, I know this lifetime will not provide me with all the wisdom I would like to gain.

So, I guess my wish for an afterlife would be this: I would like to stick around the earth for at least a short while, visiting my body, my family, and my friends, and have a chance to attend my funeral and burial. Afterward, I’d like to have at least my burning questions answered. Then, I’d like to have a chance to come back to earth, where I would be allowed to continue to struggle, learn, and grow.

What would you like to have happen to you?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review of Meir Shalev's New Book at TC Jewfolk

Read my review of Meir Shalev's fun new family memoir at Meir Shalev Doesn’t Disappoint With His Latest Book, “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner” posted at TC Jewfolk.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Does it Matter That You’re Performing Mitzvot if You Haven’t Converted Yet?

By Susan Esther Barnes

This post was inspired by Skylar Curtis’s Why We’re Probably Crazy After All posted on her blog You’re Not Crazy, and the comments that follow it.

To be clear, I’d like to say that I have never met Skylar, which I am sure is my loss. I have been following her blog for the past year or so, and from what I have seen there, Skylar appears to be an intelligent person who is sincerely and diligently seeking an Orthodox conversion despite the many obstacles she has encountered.

In no way should this post be taken as an opinion about Skylar. This isn’t about her. It’s about a way of thinking that I find disturbing. I don’t know Skylar, I don’t speak for Skylar, and I am not qualified to render an opinion regarding to what extent she may or may not think along the lines I am about to describe. For all I know, she may, in fact, completely disagree with the following line of thought.


The post referenced above starts, “Pre-conversion, it is very frustrating to feel that your actions (your mitzvot) don’t matter. After all, you’re not Jewish. You’re not required to do anything.”

Subsequently, it goes on to list various mitzvot and other actions, such as, “That it will matter that you spent thousands of dollars and who knows how many hours on seforim,” “That it will matter that you defended Jews and Israel,” “That your Jewish knowledge will finally be more than useful Jeopardy answers,” and “That it will matter that you have suffered anti-Semitism.”

What disturbes me about this post is it implies that performing mitzvot doesn’t matter if one is not Jewish, as if the mitzvot have no intrinsic value of their own.

Yes, the mitzvot are commandments that only Jews are required to do. However, if they don’t matter in any way except that they are things Jews are commanded to do, if they have no intrinsic value in and of themselves, then what that means is that God just commanded us to do a bunch of random stuff for no reason other than to allow us to follow God’s commands (and, perhaps, to reap from God some sort of reward for doing them, much like a dog gets a treat for rolling over at its master’s command).

I don’t believe God wants us to do mitzvot just to prove we’re willing to follow meaningless, random commandments. I don’t think God treats us like dogs doing tricks. I believe God gave us the commandments because God knows that when we perform the commandments, especially when we do them in a thoughtful and meaningful way, we improve our lives and the lives of those around us. I believe God gave us the commandments in order to help us to be a “light unto the nations,” so we could, through our example, suggest to the world that there may be value in doing certain things and behaving in certain ways.

For instance, when I spend money and time on seforim (books in general, or, more specifically, books about Jewish thought and scripture), it matters because I gain knowledge and understanding. When I follow the laws of kashrut, it matters because I learn about the ingredients of the foods I am eating, and I pay more attention to what I am putting into my body. When I follow the mitzvot regarding lashon hara (for instance, spreading rumors or unkind stories of others), I improve my relationships with other people.

Whether or not one is Jewish, it appears self-evident to me why it would matter that a person would defend Jews and Israel, or why it would matter that one has experienced anti-semitism, or any other kind of bigotry or discrimination.

If one can perform a host of mitzvot and not feel that any of them matter, that they have no value and have provided no benefit to themselves or anyone else, then I fail to see why that person would want to convert to Judaism. Why take on the burden of commandments that don’t matter except insofar as they allow you to do random, otherwise meaningless things that Jews are commanded to do?

This view of the commandments is expressed explicitly by commenter Mikeage, who wrote, “The purpose of mitzvos is to do them _because_ they are commanded; hence the term ‘commandment’. Period.”

I believe that to take this view is to greatly underestimate the transformative power of the mitzvot. It devalues both the mitzvot themselves and Judaism in general. We may do mitzvot because we are commanded to do them, whether or not we understand their benefit, but that does not mean they have no benefit beyond some unknown reward we may get from God later on. God forbid.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Applying to Learn About Jewish End of Life Care

By Susan Esther Barnes

I recently filled out the application to attend the training for “Kol Haneshema: Jewish End of Life Care,” given by the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

This isn’t a class you can take on a whim. It’s 40 hours of intensive training, and to participate you have to fill out a four-page-long application. Then, if your application passes muster, you get an interview. It’s only after the interview that you find out whether you’re going to get into the class.

I can understand why they do all the screening. I’m sure the last thing they need is people of the wrong temperament barreling into the Jewish Home and making the residents feel uncomfortable. Also, I suppose they don’t want to waste their time and effort training people who aren’t going to follow through once the class is over to actually visit people who are elderly and/or dying.

I found the application to be quite interesting, although one question struck me as a bit odd. It asks whether the applicant has ever attended a funeral. When I saw that I thought, “Everyone who’s applying is an adult, and most of us are probably at least in our 30’s or 40’s, so of course we’ve all attended a funeral at some point, right?”

It turns out I was wrong. I recently visited my 83-year-old mother, who informed me she has never been to a funeral. Go figure.

I was pleased to find I’ve already done most of the stuff they ask about in the application. Yes, I have been to a funeral. Several, in fact. Yes, I have spent time with someone who was very sick and/or dying. Yes, I have seen (even washed!) a dead body.

The application also asked questions that took some thought to answer, such as the effect that my experiences with serious illness have had on me, what kinds of situations or patients I think I’ll have the most difficulty working with, and why I’ve chosen this kind of volunteer work over others that are available.

I must have answered at least some of the questions right, since I have an interview scheduled on December 1, with the fabulous Rabbi Elliot Kukla. Stay tuned for what comes next.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Visiting the Sick: Lesser Standing and Greater Stature

By Susan Esther Barnes

Every year, my synagogue’s chevra kadisha – the group of people who visits the sick, comforts mourners, etc., receives additional training. These classes are a good way to bring new members of the group up to speed, as well as to give current members additional information.

In a recent class, we discussed a quote from Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 39b, which says, “’The mitzvah of visiting the sick has no limit.’ With regard to what does it have ‘no limit?’ Abaye said, ‘Even an individual of greater standing should visit someone of lesser stature.’”

What does this interpretation of Abaye mean? I’m pretty sure he’s not saying people of high standing should visit short people. It seems to mean that people in high positions in society should visit the sick, even if it means visiting someone lower in the hierarchy.

Setting aside that I’m not a big fan of hierarchies, the idea that those higher up should visit others lower down seems like a no-brainer to me. Of course, everyone, on up to the King or President, should engage in the mitzvah of visiting the sick.

As with anyone else, of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. I once knew a woman who was hospitalized with pneumonia. When her boss walked into her hospital room, she thought, “How nice it is that she came to visit me here.”

Then the boss took out a pile of paperwork for the hospitalized woman to work on, and her husband quickly kicked the boss out of the room and told her not to come back. It’s no mitzvah if the “visit” is to increase the patient’s workload, rather than to provide comfort.

I find myself thinking what a good thing it was that this woman’s husband was present to throw the boss out. Why would the Talmud encourage people of greater stature to visit those beneath them, without any further instruction?

One of the problems facing people in the hospital is they may feel a loss of power. They are confined to a room for most, if not all, of the day and night, for the most part they don’t get to pick what they wear or eat, and they have little to no control over who walks into their room, or when.

Shouldn’t the Talmud remind the person visiting to keep in mind the balance of power, so the boss doesn’t forget that this poor hapless employee may not feel they are able to kick the boss out even if they’re feeling tired, or put-upon in some way? Shouldn’t the Talmud say that if a boss is visiting a worker, they should not pressure them to come back to work before they are ready?

Maybe the Talmud assumes that the person of lesser stature will be so flattered to get a visit from someone higher up that there is no need to worry about these things, but I just don’t think that is a reasonable position to take.

I also find it interesting that the Talmud doesn’t seem to say anything about there being an obligation for those of us who are farther down on the social ladder to visit those sick people who are farther up.

I understand there are other places in the Talmud in which it discourages us from appearing to be trying to curry favor with those in the upper classes. I can certainly see how this could be a concern.

There is a rabbi who used to work at our synagogue, and her husband, also a rabbi, still works there. I have taken classes from this woman, as well as from her husband, her father (yet another rabbi) and her mother. One could argue they are all of “higher stature” than me.

When this woman’s grandmother died, I wanted to attend the shiva minyan, but I wondered how it would look. Would the family, or others, think I was just there to “brown nose” with higher-ups, or would they see my visit as sincere?

I wrestled with the question for a while, and I could see how the same issue would come up for me if, God forbid, anyone in their family were hospitalized and I needed to decide whether to visit them. In the end, I decided to go to the shiva, concluding that since God and I knew the visit was sincere, I shouldn’t be overly concerned about what others might think.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, why is it that the Talmud, which addresses so many issues, does not address this one? Why does Abaye mention visiting people of lesser stature, but not visiting people of greater stature?

Does this mean Abaye took for granted that those of us of lesser stature will visit those further up, or does it mean he doesn’t think it is necessary or desirable for us to do so?

If any of you have references to any place that the Talmud addresses these questions, I’d appreciate it if you could let me know.

Were High Holy Day Services Boring? Next Year, Try This (at TCJewfolk)

Learn how you can make your High Holiday Services deep and meaningful by reading my post Were High Holy Day Services Boring? Next Year, Try This at TCJewfolk.

Monday, October 17, 2011

22 Things I've Never Done

By Susan Esther Barnes

This post was inspired by Mama’s Losin’ It, who got it from Pioneer Woman.

I am 47 years old.

And I’ve never:

1. Questioned whether God exists.

2. Eaten tuna fish.

3. Met either of my grandfathers.

4. Met a melon I didn’t like.

5. Been happier with my life than I am now.

6. Been baptized.

7. Changed a diaper.

8. Thrown up on an amusement park ride.

9. Used my EpiPen on myself.

10. Felt sorry my parents chose not to surgically correct my deformity.

11. Donated blood.

12. Learned how to whistle.

13. Visited either of the countries where my parents were born.

14. Cut down a tree.

15. Understood why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

16. Written a song.

17. Worn a miniskirt.

18. Voted against marriage equality.

19. Gotten a traffic ticket.

20. Broken a bone in my body.

21. Gone to bed hungry.

22. Regretted hugging anyone.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Haveil Havalim #334 - the Sukkot Edition

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

As a general rule, I don't post more than three submissions by the same person, so if you sent in more and you don't see them here, that's why. Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

We Need More Hosts!
Hosting the Blog Carnival is easy. Just contact Jack through the Blog Carnival website here, and tell him what day you can host. You will receive links to posts as they are submitted through the week. You can read them as they come in, and build your Blog Carnival post over time, or do it all at once - whatever works for you. Or, if you don't have time to read all the links, at the end of the week the Carnival will send you an email with HTML you can copy and paste that puts together the whole post for you with one easy cut and paste. So please host - we need you, and it will build traffic to your terrific blog!

Now, on with the submissions! Sukkot - the festival of the booths - started this week, and many people start to build their sukkah right after Yom Kippur, so I added a special Sukkot section this week.

Sukkah STL: A Contemporary Twist on Ancient Tradition posted at A/N Blog has photos of ten unique sukkot on display as part of a sukkah-building contest.

I present a photo essay of our efforts building one of the sukkot at our synagogue this year in Assembling the Synagoge Sukkah posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Perry Block presents a cute, funny Sukkah story in The Year We Built the Sukkah posted at Nouveau Old, Formerly Cute.

Sharon A presents Sukkot photos from Israel in 10 Sukkot Favorites « The Real Jerusalem Streets posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Jacob Richman offers several Sukkot resources in Educational Resources and 34 Cool Videos for Sukkot posted at Good News from Israel.

Rivkah Lambert Adler writes a heartwrenching story about what it's like to feel left out on the women's side of the mechitza in The Story of Yom Kippur and Me posted at Bat Aliyah.

Once you get past the typos, G.A. has written some interesting advice to the Orthodox in God's Sukkos Message to Orthodox Jewry posted at Dov Bear.

Friar Yid tells us how a comic book led him to think about observing shabbat in Baby Steps toward Shabbat posted at Friar Yid.

I have never written in a siddur, but Mordechai Torczyner suggests we might want to try it in Write in your siddur posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Joel Katz presents news and more news in Religion and State in Israel - October 10, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - October 10, 2011 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

A new center which wishes to build community in Jerusalem is open, according to Esser Agaroth's post The Jerusalem Soul Center's Grand Opening! posted at Esser Agaroth.

Was it wrong for Israel to release the body of a Palestinian while Gilad Shalit is still being held captive? Batya says yes in Gilad Shalit, Jonathan Pollard, Biblical Yona and Our Responsibility as The Jewish Nation posted at Shiloh Musings.

Batya presents thoughts on the prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit The Death Penalty for Terrorism Would Keep Us Safer posted at Shiloh Musings.

Esser Agaroth says Christians are practitioners of foreign worship, so they should not be welcomed in Judea, Samaria, or Binyamin, in A Post-Yom Kippur Message To "Right-Wing" Jewish Writers posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya presents Arab Terrorism Endangers The Entire World posted at Shiloh Musings.

Mordechai Torczyner presents an interesting look about the cultural challenges of synagogue fundraising in The Taking Shul: The Challenge of Shul Fundraising posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Read my review of an interesting new book in Hoffman's "The Dovekeepers" a Fascinating Look at Four Women's Lives After the Second Temple's Destruction posted at TCJewfolk.

Yosef offers us a couple of kosher recipes in Baked Tilapia with Sweet Potato and Spinach Hash posted at This American Bite.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Words Matter

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’m old enough to remember when people in wheelchairs were called crippled. Then the idea arose that there should be convenient parking spaces for people with mobility issues, but signs saying “Crippled Parking” didn’t sound palatable, so they went with “Disabled Parking.”

Then there was a big push to stop talking about “Disabled” and to say instead, “Differently Abled.” Somewhere in there the word “Handicapped” became popular, and now we mostly just have blue paint and signs with the internationally recognized depiction of a person in a wheelchair. I guess the lobby for people with canes, walkers, and prosthetic legs was asleep at the switch the day that decision was made.

This odyssey of a condition in search of an acceptable descriptive word is one category of what has come to be known as “political correctness” or “being PC.”

Another form of political correctness is the disapproval of the way a word is used. For example, the word “gay” has come to mean “homosexual.” In the online video games I play, the word “gay” used to be used frequently as an insult, in reference to something of which the speaker disapproved. The implication was that homosexuals are not okay, so therefore calling something “gay” meant that thing also was not okay.

Because I don’t agree that gay people are not okay, I used to speak up when the word “gay” was used in this way. Sometimes I received an apology, but more often I received a response along the lines of, “You get offended too easily, and I don’t have to change what I say. You are the one with a problem,” or “I’m not going to let you PC police take over the world.”

I’m happy to say that the people I play with online now no longer use the word “gay” in this way, but I know it is still used this way in other venues, and there is still a backlash when people encounter what they perceive as overzealousness in the pursuit of political correctness.

Sometimes people misuse a word in order to emphasize a point. See, for example, this article and related comments,in which Johnny Depp compares photo shoots to being raped, and later apologizes for his poor choice or words. Many commenters say they don’t think the actor should have had to apologize; they think he shouldn’t have caved in to political correctness.

This use of the word “rape” is one way some words are used because of their power to shock or to convey a strong message. The trouble is that, in this world in which the media, celebrities, advertisers and others are constantly fighting for our attention, formerly powerful words are overused. As a result, they can lose their impact or even their original meaning.

Words whose impact is being diminished by inappropriate uses include words important to Jews and Zionists, such as, “Hitler,” “Nazi,” and “apartheid,” along with a whole host of other words which are important to the public at large. The more these words are overused and misused, the more they lose their meaning.

I had a friend once who used to swear like a sailor. Every sentence was punctuated by words that fifty years ago would never be used in polite company. The trouble was, when the time came that she truly wanted to emphasize something, she couldn’t do it. She had no powerful words left. They had all been devalued to the point that what would be shocking in other circumstances was, coming from her mouth, routine.

Although I do have some concern that we do, at times, go too far in trying to moderate the speech of others, that concern is outweighed by my fear that our language is being diminished by the incorrect use of words and the overuse of words meant to grab attention.

Like the story of the boy who cried, “Wolf,” I fear the day will come when the word we mean really is “rape,” or “Nazi,” or “apartheid,” but we will not be heard because these words have been so overused that they have become meaningless. I am concerned that if, one day, an issue needs our dire attention, it will be lost in the cacophony of bold headlines and exclamation points, and we will not notice it until it is too late.

So, at the risk of being overly “PC,” please, people, watch your language. Don’t use words that convey something other than what you truly mean. Don’t try to shock when shock is not necessary. Think about your words before you say them.

In the beginning, God created the world with words, and it is said that the world can be destroyed with words as well. Words matter.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Assembling the Synagogue Sukkah

By Susan Esther Barnes

Above is a photo of the t-shirt I wore for to assemble the sukkah at our synagogue this morning. Actually, we assembled two of them. Below is a photo essay of the big one we assembled in the back courtyard. We also assembled a much smaller one in the front.

This is the third year I have helped to assemble the synagogue sukkot, and it's a lot of fun.

First, we arrived at 6 am to start assembly. The first task was to lay out all the pieces. It was still dark outside, so Marc brought his own lights to wear!

Next, we put together the frame:

Then, we raised the frame and secured the pieces together:

Marc was able to set aside his lights as the sun rose higher:

We attached the lattice:

More lattice. My apologies for getting the sun in the corner of the photo.

We're done, and the sukkah is ready for the palm fronds to be added on top and for the kids to add their decorations!

I hope to take a couple more pictures at our congregational dinner in the sukkah on Friday so you can see it with the palm fronds and decorations.

Review of "The Dovekeepers" at TCJewfolk

Looking for something interesting to read? See my review of Alice Hoffman's new book The Dovekeepers at TCJewfolk for one good option.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Having Your Picture Taken is Nothing Like Being Raped

By Susan Esther Barnes

According to CNN,Vanity Fair recently interviewed Johnny Depp, who compared having his picture taken to being raped. Below is the quote:

“It is obvious that being photographed all the time hasn't gotten any easier for the actor. ‘You just feel like you’re being raped somehow. Raped. The whole thing. It feels like a kind of weird—just weird, man,’ Depp says of getting his photo snapped. 'Whenever you have a photo shoot or something like that, it’s like —- you just feel dumb. It’s just so stupid.'"

Let me clear this up for you, Johnny, since you’re so gravely misinformed.

Being raped isn’t like standing around in a nice warm room with makeup artists and hairstylists helping you look good while a photographer snaps your picture and tells you how talented you are. It isn’t like being in a place where you can reach for a bottle of water or your cell phone on a whim. When you’re being raped, nobody listens to you when you say, “No, stop, I don’t want to do this.”

It isn’t just weird. It doesn’t just feel dumb or stupid.

Being raped is more like thinking your life if going along like normal, and then suddenly, and without warning, knowing your life is about to be irrevocably changed for the worse. It’s about being thrown onto the cold, unforgiving ground by someone bigger and stronger than you. It’s about there being nobody, nobody at all, who can possibly help you.

Being raped is realizing, for the first time in your life, that you have absolutely no control whatsoever over what is happening to you and your body. It is knowing that no matter what you say or do, you cannot stop what is happening to you. It is about having your clothing and your dignity literally, and I do mean literally, stripped away from you by a complete and utter stranger.

Being raped is painful, mentally and physically. It is, above all else, a brutal act of violence. Being raped is not knowing whether you will live through the next hour. It is not knowing whether you will ever see your family and friends again. It is not knowing whether your dead body might be dumped someplace where nobody will ever find it.

Being raped is knowing, even if you survive, that you may never get over it. It is fearing you may have contracted a deadly disease. It is being scared that you may become pregnant from the seed of this monster who has attacked you. It is suspecting you may never be able to have a normal relationship with a man ever again. It is the complete loss of your ability to ever walk down a street alone again without fear.

Being raped means sitting in a hospital room, feeling violated all over again, as you describe the incident to the doctors and the police. It is spreading your legs to yet another stranger so they can gather evidence from within your body.

It is the beginning of years of struggle, of trying to make sense of how such a thing could have happened to you, of blaming yourself for what was, without a doubt, not your fault. It is about looking into the eyes of others and seeing their pity. It may mean reliving the incident over and over again, for lawyers, and in front of the public for a judge and jury.

Being raped is the end of life as you knew it, and the beginning of a life you never asked for.

So no, Johnny, I’m sorry, being photographed is nothing like being raped. Get over it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Your Questions Answered #5

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and I think they deserve an answer. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

How to Respond to Lashon Hara
Lashon hara means “evil tongue.” Sometimes it is referred to as gossip, but it is anything harmful one person may say about another. The best way to determine whether something is lashon hara is to ask, “Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary?” If the answer to any of these questions is no, then you should not say it.

If someone speaks lashon hara about you, the best thing to do is to speak with that person privately. Tell the person how their words have hurt you, and ask them not to do it again. Unfortunately, the problem with lashon hara is that once the words are in the public square, some people will continue to believe them even if the original source recants.

If someone starts to speak lashon hara to you, you should tell them you don’t want to listen to such things, and if they persist, walk away. If you are consistent in not listening to this kind of talk, people will eventually get the picture, and will stop coming to you with it.

Can I place a mezuzah on a coffin?
A mezuzah is properly placed on the doorpost of a person’s home. It belongs on buildings where people live, sleep and eat (some synagogues have a mezuzah on the door, but others don’t because nobody eats or sleeps there).

A coffin contains a dead person. The person inside is not living, and can no longer sleep or eat. Therefore, it is not appropriate to put a mezuzah on a coffin.

What does “building a fence around the Torah" mean?
In the Torah, there are 613 laws. It is important to observant Jewish people to follow as many of those laws as possible. Therefore, the rabbis instituted some extra rules in order to try to make sure that nobody breaks a Torah law by mistake.

Making up those extra laws is called “building a fence around the Torah,” because if you don’t cross the line of that extra rule (or fence) then you can’t get close enough to the edge of the law to break it.

One example is the line in the Torah that tells us not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” In order to be safe, the rabbis tell us not to eat any meat or dairy together. And in order to make sure we don’t eat meat and dairy together by mistake, the rabbis made a bunch of other rules about having separate dishes and cooking utensils for meat and dairy, waiting a certain amount of time before eating dairy after a meat meal, etc. These extra rules are the metaphorical fences around the Torah.

When God calls, do we have an option?
Great question. God gave us free will, so we always have an option. God may call, but we may choose not to follow that call.

That said, sometimes we feel compelled to do something, and we do it, and it isn’t until later that we realize God was calling us to do that thing. In that case, we had an option, but we may not have known at the time that we had chosen to do God’s will.

Also, in my experience, God is persistent. When God calls softly and we resist, God calls a little more loudly. The longer we resist, the stronger God’s call becomes. God can make things uncomfortable for us when we don’t answer the call. So, although we have the option not to do God’s will, in the end we’ll have a better life if we follow the call when it comes.

Why don’t Reform Jews follow the commandments?
Although there are many levels of observance among Reform Jews, many Reform Jews follow many of the commandments. In fact, whether they know it or not, many people who are not Jewish also follow many of the commandments.

The main difference between observant Reform Jews and observant Orthodox Jews is that the Orthodox Jews follow halacha, which consists of many “fences around the Torah” as described above. If one looks at the 613 commandments in the Torah, one will not find many that an observant Orthodox Jew follows which an observant Reform Jew does not.

On the other hand, in the Reform Jewish world, people who are less observant are not looked down upon by those who are more observant. Rather, we recognize that we are all on our own Jewish path, and that every person must decide for themselves what that path looks like. In the end, all Jewish paths lead to the same place.

What is the point of being a Jew if you are not Orthodox?
The point of being a Jew if you are not Orthodox is the same as the point of being a Jew if you are Orthodox.

The point is to bring oneself closer to God. The point is to continue beautiful traditions that have been practiced for hundreds, even thousands, of years. The point is to follow God’s commandments to the best of one’s ability. The point is to live a spiritual and moral life. The point is to be part of a sacred community and to pass on valuable traditions and values to future generations. The point is to learn from the Torah and to try to incorporate its teachings into one’s life. The point is to do God’s will and to be a light unto the nations.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via interesting search terms.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

10Q 2011 Day 5

By Susan Esther Barnes

See an explanation of what 10Q is here.

Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? "Spiritual" can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.

I'd say my most spiritual experiences come during "Shabbat Unplugged," when a bunch of us gather in someone's home on Saturday night and we sing with Dan Nichols.

We mostly sing Jewish songs, but sometimes we sing other meaningful songs as well. The sound of the music is so sweet, and the sense of community is strong.

It is always easy for me to feel God, but I feel God even more strongly during Shabbat Unplugged.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

10Q 2011 Day 2

By Susan Esther Barnes

10Q is a website that sends you a question once a day for 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You answer the questions online, and can choose whether or not to share your answers.

The site stores your answers each year, so you can look back at your responses from each year, to see how you have grown and changed over time.

Below is the question for the second day this year, and my response.

Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?

I wish I had seen my Dad once more before he died. I wish I'd had one last conversation with him in the hospital, when he knew he was dying. I wish I'd had one last chance to look him in the eye, to hold his hand, and to tell him I love him.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

10Q 2011 Day 1

By Susan Esther Barnes

10Q is a website that sends you a question once a day for 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You answer the questions online, and can choose whether or not to share your answers.

The site stores your answers each year, so you can look back at your responses from each year, to see how you have grown and changed over time.

Below is the question for the first day this year, and my response.

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

In the past year, I performed taharah for the first time. This is the ritual in which we wash and dress a dead person, and place her in her coffin.

The biggest affect it has had on me is that it has made it easier for me to see life all around me. When I look at a tree now, I don't just see a trunk and branches and leaves. I see life. Life is everywhere, all around us, all the time. The earth is teeming with it.

I am both grateful for, and inspired by this experience, and plan to continue to do this mitzvah in the future.