Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I Didn't Post Anything Last Week

By Susan Esther Barnes

The surface reason I didn’t post anything on my blog last week is I was still recovering from a head cold that sapped my energy, and my brain wasn’t working too well. But the deeper reason I didn’t post anything is I didn’t have anything to say at the time that was worthy of a post.

That may sound obvious, but people sometimes remark about what “discipline” I must have to write on a regular basis. The people who say that seem to think I make myself write because I desire to post. They have got it all wrong.

I didn’t start writing in order to post on my new blog. I started blogging because there are times when things happen, and my brain, of its own volition, starts to write. Words and phrases start to put themselves together in my head, and the only way for me to be able to set them aside and to go back to thinking about other things is to write them down.

I don’t write because I want to blog. I was already writing, and the reason I post what I write on my blog is because I want to put my writing out in the universe where people can read it and respond to it.

Sometimes, when I am more than half way through the week and nothing has told me it wants to be written, I start to worry. Where has all the inspiration gone? Will nothing interesting present itself? Is it all over so soon?

Any time I try to “force” myself to write something, which I sort of did last week, it doesn’t come out right. Although I would like to post something every week, the fact is I only write well when something tells me it wants to be said. And the thing that wants to be said always comes in its own time and in its own manner. It is not something over which I exercise any meaningful control.

I don’t often remember my dreams, but sometimes I have a vivid dream that I remember in detail. These vivid dreams are almost always easy to interpret, and they are always telling me something I need to hear.

Sometimes, like last week, I try to write even though I’m not sure a subject I’m thinking about is ready. And sometimes, as happened last week, I have a particular recurring dream.

Whenever I have a version of this dream, in it I am pulling something out of my mouth. In this case, it is a piece of string, almost like a piece of dental floss, that I am pulling from between my teeth. No matter how much of it I pull out, there always seems to be more of it.

Before long, as I’m pulling out the string, my teeth start to fall apart. They are detaching from my jaw in twos and threes. The only thing I can think of to do is to clamp my jaw shut and hope they will reattach themselves. I have some vague memory in the dream that this technique worked the last time this happened. However, with my jaw clamped shut I cannot speak.

The message is obvious. If I try to pull something out of my mouth – if I try to write something before it is ready to be said – the results will not be good. Things – ideas – that are important to me will start to fall apart. The only thing I can do then is to try to stem the damage by shutting my mouth and waiting for a time when it is safe for me to open it – and to write – again.

That time is now.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Haveil Havalim #309 - the Purim Edition!

It is the month of Adar, and indeed it is Purim, a time when we are commanded to be happy and rejoice. Yet our joy is dulled by the tragedy in Itamar, war in Libya and the ongoing tragedy in Japan.

On a personal level, I am dismayed by the amount of hate and prejudice the events in Itamar have generated and/or uncovered. The actions of fanatics, who are a minority in any group, should never be used to demonize an entire group of people. May God comfort all those who are suffering.

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.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me. I have included in this edition all of the submitted blog posts except for those which promote religions other than Judaism, those which have nothing to do with anything related to Judaism or Israel (either on the blog linked or the post itself) or those that call for mass murder. I did receive all three this week in the trifecta of "Not appropriate for this forum."

It Was a Full Week:
A special thank you to Risa, who ties together the various emotions of Purim, Itamar, and Japan in a wonderful post at Wild flowers, spring and hopes for better times posted at Isramom.

Batya asks - and answers - an excellent question in The Purim Megilla, Why is it Named After Esther? posted at Shiloh Musings.

Joshua Waxman presents parshablog: YU Purim To-Go 5771 and Shadal's theory about the Urim veTumim posted at parshablog.

Kochava asks for your thoughts in Discussion: Your Favorite Mitzvah posted at You're Not Crazy.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver presents On removing sadness and promoting joy posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen.

In his continuing series, Joel Katz tells us about conversion, marriage of gay men to lesbian women, and more in Religion and State in Israel - March 14, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - March 14, 2011 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

For some good news about the water levels in the Kinneret, Harry brings us Finally some good news in a bad week: Kinneret above the red line posted at ISRAELITY.

If you're an Israeli computer geek, be sure to check out Jacob Richman's CJI - Computer Jobs in Israel - Annual Salary Survey Results posted at Good News from Israel.

Yoel Meltzer directs our attention to the situation at Gilad Farm in The lesson of Purim posted at Yoel Meltzer - YNET.

Ben-Yehudah writes about evangelicals in Israel, particularly after the Carmel fire, in Trojan Horses for Jesus Come Bearing Gifts - Jewish Israel posted at Jewish Israel's Posts - Jewish Israel.

Batya presents Another Purim Message: Begin to Sadat, like Achashverosh to Haman posted at Shiloh Musings.

Lady-Light is praying for a one state solution in YES Operation, NO Pali State (=YES to Annexation), and writes about oil in Israel: The Next Major Global Oil Exporter? posted at Tikkun Olam.

Mordechai Torczyner reminds us about drinking responsibly, including some well thought-out advice regarding children both before and after bar/bat mitzvah age in And again: Drinking on Purim posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Ben-Yehudah discusses whether it is ok to cross-dress and whether one must get drunk on Purim in Five Rabbis And A Drag Queen posted at Esser Agaroth.

Mrs. S. presents The Heblishization of the Megilah posted at Our Shiputzim: A Work In Progress.

I never thought I'd see the words "Mad Lib" and "Eulogies" in the same sentence, but there is a time for everything, as Mordechai Torczyner presents Purim Post: Mad Lib Eulogies posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

The Tragedy in Itamar:
Mystery Woman graces us with a heartfelt piece about the killings in Itamar in Show Me Your Hand posted at Mystery Woman.

Harry points us to a story about someone providing a little relief in a terrible situation in Rami Levy and the Fogels posted at ISRAELITY.

Westbankmama presents The Difference Between Lovers of Life and Lovers of Death posted at West Bank Mama.

Yip Bop believes Israel can't count on the world to protect it, in the following two posts. Warning: At the top of the first post is a photo that some may find distrurbing, especially in light of this particular tragedy: An Irrational World and LEST YOU FORGET THE MURDER OF CHILDREN - News Beyond News! posted at News Beyond News!.

Lady-Light reposts an article at It's OK to Hate the Jews, In Fact, it's In: Caroline Glick Says it All posted at Tikkun Olam.

And then we get to trying to assign blame:

Ben-Yehudah critizes the Israeli government in They Slaughter Our Children! posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya criticizes the US and the Israeli government in America Shares the Blame for the Fogel Family Murders posted at Shiloh Musings.

Tomer Devorah links missionary activity with a breakdown of security in Understanding the Tragedy in Itamar posted at TOMER DEVORAH.

Kochava writes about a close friend who died recently in Lessons from the Gentle Giant posted at You're Not Crazy.

Elle writes about another kind of loss in leaving and letting go posted at On Becoming Devoted.

Sleeplessness is the topic as Neil Fleischmann presents 10 Ways of Looking At Sleeplessness posted at NY's Funniest Rabbi.

I write about what I have learned so far from my iPhone in Lessons from an iPhone posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat treats us to some poetry in Family (a poem about being stuck, for Big Tent Poetry) posted at Velveteen Rabbi.

Batya presents Friends for Life posted at me-ander.

Batya writes a sweet article about hitching rides, then ruins the mood she's created by bashing the Arabs at the end in An Extra-Credit Mitzvah, In Memory of The Fogel Family, HaYa"D posted at Shiloh Musings.

Along those same lines, westbankmama presents It?s Not the Nature, It?s the Nurture posted at West Bank Mama.

What can you do if you live in an area without kosher restaurants? Kochava gives us some advice in Survival Kit: Living Without Kosher Restaurants posted at You're Not Crazy.

Batya provides some advice in Breaking The Fast on The Run posted at me-ander.

Daniela reviews yogurts in Tnuva's Shtuzim-Whipped Cheese-Yogurt and chicken strips in Mama-Of's Crunchy RitzuOf 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.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lessons from an iPhone

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last month I wrote about why I bought an iPhone. The moment I got it home, I started searching for Jewish Podcasts to download to it. As soon as I got into my car the following Monday morning, I started listening to what I had gathered, and I listened to them on my commute in both directions every day that week.

On a purely intellectual basis, my favorite regular Podcast is from Ikar. Rabbi Sharon Brous is fabulous – I love her voice and what she has to say. They also get some amazing guest speakers. While you’re there, be sure to buy a copy of one or more of their CDs for some uplifting Shabbat music.

When it comes to deep sermons from the heart, I have yet to find anything better than Rabbi David Wolpe’s offerings. They vary widely in length, which can make it a little hard when trying to plan whether one or more will fit into the length of a car ride, but that just means he isn’t filling any of them with fluff to try to eke out some artificially calculated amount of allotted time.

In the non-Jewish category, I love the often equally deep, short and gutsy monologues from The Moth. They aren’t all of the same caliber, but some of them pack a punch that keeps me thinking for days afterward.

So with all these wonderful presentations, and more, to listen to on my commute, full of knowledge, heart, and deep meaning, why was it that on my drive to work on Friday of that first week, I felt so off kilter? Why did I feel like something had gone wrong? What important thing was I suddenly missing?

It didn’t take long to figure it out. My commute is gorgeous, especially at this time of year. Think green, rolling hills like the ones pictured above. Picture cattle with their new calves, or lambs gamboling. Wetlands and cranes, with an occasional hawk or other birds. White, fluffy clouds with streams of sunlight filtering down.

Often, in the morning when I see these scenes, I thank God for the beauty surrounding me. Then I spend some time hanging out with God, not in formal prayer, but just sharing about whatever is going on in my life: a blog post I’m thinking about, Tuesday morning services, the “Sacred Living, Sacred Dying” booklet we’re working on, whatever.

On that particular week, however, I had spent all of my commute time listening to Podcasts. So instead of seeing the scenery or talking with God, I was concentrating on the spoken word and picturing classrooms and students. The very thing I had done in an attempt to learn more about God and to get closer to God was supplanting my real life time interacting with God. That is why I felt something was so wrong by the end of the week. I was distancing myself from God – the exact opposite of what I had intended to do.

I’m still listening to Podcasts, but not as often any more. Every morning, when I leave for work, I make a conscious decision: Am I going to spend time with God this morning, or am I going to listen to a Podcast? If I choose the Podcast, how am I going to make up the time with God?

Like much of life, it’s all about finding a way to strike a balance. I have more Podcasts available than I can possibly listen to, and more are being recorded every week. It’s a common mistake these days to try to cram more and more things into our daily lives to try to keep up with all the information coming at us, seemingly from all directions.

As my Podcast experience reminded me, filling up my life with activity and sound is not the answer. I need my quiet time, my alone time, my time to just be, and to just hang out with God, with no pre-planned agenda. There is nothing I can get from a Podcast that is going to be more important to me than that. That’s the main lesson I got from my iPhone.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Does Building the Mishkan Have To Do With Kashrut?

By Susan Esther Barnes

An imaginary conversation with God:

Interviewer: Baruch ata Adonai, blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who has agreed to speak with me today about the end of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus) in the Torah.

God: Thank you for asking me to be here today. Of course, I would have been here today anyway, since I am everywhere all the time. Still, I’m making a special effort to be heard right now because you have a question for me that really needs to be answered.

I: Thank you. It means a lot to me, as well as my readers. As you know, we have just finished reading the book of Sh’mot. A question that often comes up around this time is why, at the end of this book, are there these chapters with so many repetitive, detailed instructions about the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)?

G: Kashrut.

I: Bless you.

G: I didn’t sneeze. I said “Kashrut.”

I. I don’t understand. What does kashrut, the dietary laws, have to do with the building of the Mishkan?

G. I created the world and all that is in it, including human beings. Humans, some more than others, have a tendency at times to be a bit obsessive compulsive. So when I wrote the rules for building the Mishkan, I indulged those who want to engage in that behavior. I said what colors of yarn to use, and what kinds of metals, gems, hides, and wood. How many cubits long this should be and how many cubits wide that should be. Where each thing should be placed, how many of each thing there should be, etc. You get the picture.

I. Yes.

G. Does all that obsessive compulsive detail remind you of anything?

I. It reminds me a lot of the halacha (Jewish law) about kashrut. All those rules about separate dishes and ovens, and trying to figure out how much rennet is in the cheese, which heckshers it’s okay to rely on, etc.

G: Exactly. That’s the problem.

I. What’s the problem?

G. I know people can get obsessive in general, and that they often get obsessive about food in particular. That’s partly why I wrote Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:2 and 12:32.

I. “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of Adonai your God which I commanded you,” and “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.”

G. Right. So the point of all the detail about the Mishkan is to show everyone, “You want details? I can write details. Here they are. All the details you will ever need, and more.” And when I write, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” do you know what that means?

I. The rabbis tell us it means don’t serve any dairy products with any animal, including (probably) birds, and –

G. No. It means “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” I never wrote anything about separate dishes, or birds with cheese, or any of those other details people have added over the years. I don’t know how I could have been any more clear about it. I showed you that I didn’t want a bunch of extra details read into to the laws of kashrut by demonstrating that when I want you to follow a lot of specific details, I will say so, like I did in Sh’mot when I wrote about building the Mishkan. If that weren’t enough, I followed it up by explicitly telling you not to add to my laws.

I. So all those laws about kashrut…

G. The laws about kashrut are in the Torah. The way I wrote them. All the rest is just commentary, written by you loveable, fallible people. Now go study.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Being Vulnerable with God

By Susan Esther Barnes

When Rabbi Noa Kushner leads services, she bows differently than most people do. She holds her prayer book in her left hand, and she holds her right hand slightly away from her body, palm up. Her husband says she does this as a way to say, “Look, God, I’m open for whatever you send my way.”

Part of me likes that idea. I want God to send stuff my way. I want to be open for whatever God sends my way. But they say, “Be careful what you wish for.” They say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Saying to God, “Sure, bring it on!” without knowing what “it” is feels pretty scary to me.

So usually when I bow I “forget” to hold my right hand out like that. Or I kind of sort of do, but I don’t really mean it. Or, you know, my prayer book is kind of heavy; don’t I need to hold it in both hands?

Last Friday night Dan Nichols was at our synagogue as Artist in Residence. I was sitting in my seat, following along with the service, when Dan suggested we close our eyes. He told us to go deep into ourselves. He asked us to think about our first Jewish memory. What did it look like? What did it feel like?

I couldn’t pick just one. I thought about presents that said “Happy Chanukah” on them. I thought about visiting Grandma in San Francisco, with her Hebrew calendar in the kitchen, and a box of matzo always on hand, and the chanukiah in the living room year ‘round.

As I was sitting there, remembering myself as a small, vulnerable child in my Grandmother’s apartment, Dan started to sing a song about Torah, and about struggle. “Did you mean this struggle for me?” the song asked.

I thought about how just staying in the world of Reform Jews would be so easy for me. Why do I go to blogs written by Orthodox people and struggle with the thoughts and statements I find there? Why do I go where my beliefs are questioned? Do I really need to seek the struggle?

For me at least, the answer is yes. We are the people Israel – which is translated as “struggles with God.” It is through the struggle, through the questioning of my beliefs and the way I live my life, through the search for knowledge and understanding, that my beliefs are transformed from just ideas into something deeply and firmly held. A belief that does not hold up to close scrutiny is not worth believing in. The fire and the water tempers the steel.

Then, while I was in the midst of being this small, vulnerable child in my Grandmother’s living room, and thinking about the struggle, and feeling more alone and exposed than I have ever felt in a room so full of people, Dan began to chant the Sh’ma. And we all joined in with him. It was the deepest, most vulnerable, most connected Sh’ma I have ever chanted.

“Hear, oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” Or, perhaps, “Listen up, all you people who struggle with God. God is here with us in our struggle and vulnerability; in fact, God is at one with us in the middle of all of it.”

Later in that service, and through services on the next day, when I bowed I held out my right hand, palm up. Because I knew what it felt like to be vulnerable with God and to open myself up to what God is sending my way. And I know that whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 613 Commandments - Do We Follow Them?

By Susan Esther Barnes

I was reading the blog FinkorSwim when I came across a comment by MarkSoFla who said, “The fact is that the Reform exist. Not only do they exist, but they have numbers (for now, at least). So they have to be ‘dealt with’ somehow, certainly on some level. They've discarded most of Torah, so we can't relate on that level anymore.”

When I objected to his assertion that Reform Jews have discarded most of Torah, MarkSoFla agreed that had been an exaggeration, but then went on to quote from some of the “Declaration of Principles” from the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which he says rejected all but the moral laws. Let us set aside for the moment that he ignores all later Platforms, including the 1999 Platform which states, “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” (Emphasis added by me).

What intrigued me the most was his claim that, “The bigger discarding of Torah was in the first statement (#3) that I quoted from the principles - rejected all but moral laws. That almost discards all of Torah in itself since there exists a moral code outside of Torah that covers nearly everything that the Torah's moral code covers.”

This all got me thinking about the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. How many of them do Reform Jews keep these days? I pulled up the list from Judaism 101 to take a look.

First of all, on my To Kiss a Mezuzah Facebook page an excellent question arose: What do I mean by “keeping” the mitzvot? Does it mean we follow them all the time without fail? As a person named Michael pointed out, “When it comes to ethical mitzvot we’re a bit wobbly sometimes.” I responded, “By ‘keep’ I mean we try to follow them, or at least we acknowledge we ought to follow them, even though at times we don’t quite hit the mark we’re aiming for.”

The second thing that came up for me is the obvious fact that I don’t speak for all Reform Jews, and not all Reform Jews are alike in our observance. So instead of looking at how many of the 613 commandments “we” keep, I realized it makes much more sense to look at the ones that I keep. After all, I don’t think my observance is wildly different than that of other serious Reform Jews.

Even though there are 613 commandments in the Torah, nobody observes them all. This is one of the reasons why I find it a bit offputting when Orthodox Jews claim non-Orthodox conversions are invalid, because the people converting in the non-Orthodox realm are not agreeing to follow all the 613 commandments. Hello! If Orthodox converts are saying they will fill all 613 commandments they’re either ignorant or dishonest.

There are 102 commandments on the list that have to do with sacrifices and offerings. Since there is no Temple at which to make sacrifices and offerings, none of these commandments apply to us. We also can’t follow the 24 laws about t’rumah, tithes and taxes because there is no Temple. Nobody follows these commandments these days.

There is no King of Israel so we don’t follow the 7 laws about that, nor do I need to worry about the 10 laws about the Nazarites, since I’m not a Nazarite. I am not a Kohen (Cohen or of the Priestly line) or a Levite, so I don’t have to worry about the 30 laws pertaining to them. Of course, there are Reform Jews who are of the line of the Levites (my father, for example), or the line of the Kohen. However, most of these laws have to do with the Temple as well, so we’re all off the hook.

There are 16 laws about ritual purity and impurity. These are more like statements than laws. They say things like “Foods become defiled by contact with unclean things.” I can believe in the purity or impurity of things or not, but there isn’t much for me to actually do about it. Immersion in a mikvah would remove the impurity, but nothing in the list here says I have to go to the mikvah.

There are 4 laws about leprosy. I’m not a leper. I don’t know whether I would shave off all my hair if I had leprosy. I’ll cross that bridge if I ever come to it.

So if we add up all of the above, we come to 337 commandments we don’t follow, or almost 55% of the 613. Surprise! MarkSoFla was right – Reform Jews have discarded over half of the Torah laws! Of course, so have Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and every other denomination, since everything I said above applies to all of us. (Except for maybe the leprous hair shaving part).

But let’s go back to MarkSoFla’s assertion that if we only followed the moral laws (which is a false assertion, but let’s say if we did), does that mean we have discarded most of Torah? I agree that many people who are not Jewish follow many of the laws in the Torah. Most people don’t murder other people, for instance.

There are other moral things I do that are commanded in the Torah, which appear to be things I would do even though they were not commanded. For instance, last night while I was driving home from work, I had to swerve to avoid a ladder that was lying in my lane on the freeway. It was an inconvenience to pause the podcast I was listening to so I could call 911 and report the hazard to the authorities, but I did it anyway.

Did I do it because the Torah commands us not to put a stumbling block before the blind? Did I do it because the Torah commands us not to stand idly by while a human life is in danger? No, I did it because it was the right thing to do. I did it because if I didn’t call, and later heard someone had been hurt or killed as a result of the ladder, I never would have been able to forgive myself for my laziness.

On the other hand, when I called, the ladder was news to the dispatcher. Nobody else had called it in yet. How long had it been there? How many people had seen it and swerved to miss it before me? How many of them have cell phones, and why didn’t they call? Is it possible some of them didn’t bother because they didn’t feel an obligation to do so, because they don’t feel they have been commanded like we Jews have?

I can tell you, there are certainly other moral laws I did not follow before I became more observant and before I learned more about my obligations according to the Torah. Five years ago, I never visited the sick, but I do now, on a regular basis. I never used to think of it as my responsibility to rebuke a sinner. I never used to avoid the phrase, “Oh my God!” (or the ever-present “OMG”) as a form of blasphemy.

So MarkSoFla, I’d say you were half right. We’ve all thrown out over half the laws. But I’d say many of the others, including the moral ones, are very much alive and kicking, and having their effect on our lives on a continuing basis. We can relate on the level of the Torah, and I hope more of us will do so more often.