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Today’s rabbi spends time with people, books

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

Our world has changed so drastically in the last 100 years and the state of the rabbinate, an institution better known for its constancy than its elasticity, has followed suit. The community rav, that learned individual principally appointed to answer the community’s questions on issues of kashrus and business disputes, has been replaced by the modern jack-of-all-trades rabbi, whose list of expected duties extends to domains previously reserved for others.
The rabbi of the 21st century is both marriage counselor and child-rearing educator, personal adviser and Talmud teacher, and yes, he’ll need to answer the occasional halachic query as well!
I have learned that which others before me already knew — the rabbi of today’s day and age spends more time with people than with his holy books.
As such, engaging in the holy work that is the modern rabbinate has given me an intimate, firsthand look into the lives of those around me, acquainting me with their concerns and their hopes as well as their personal worldviews and outlooks. And it is with these many personal encounters in mind that I have come to believe that it is the hugely significant, yet often overlooked, art of perspective that most centrally gives rise to a life of happiness and satisfaction. This singular capacity to see the bigger picture, and the forest for the trees, informs our daily dealings with co-workers, children and spouses, and gives us the strength to persevere, even thrive, in the face of formidable life challenges. How sad it is that even the most blessed of lives are reduced, sometimes destroyed, by the inability of a family member to more richly interpret the life and events around them.
Caleb (name changed to protect identity) is such a tragic individual. A single man in his early 30s, he plays the perpetual victim to life’s circumstances. The words, “I don’t deserve for this to be happening to me,” are common refrains on his lips, the product of his general perception that the problems in his life are the result of others’ misdeeds, never his own. It’s no surprise, then, that his past is fraught with burnt bridges and severed relationships. He wants a better life for himself but cannot reckon with the reality that he is the biggest impediment to his own happiness and well-being.
Caleb recently asked to meet with me, this time to discuss a grievance he had with a longtime friend of his. I came to learn that this friend, having gifted Caleb a number of homegoods to help furnish his new apartment, had requested one of the items back. His friend had forgotten that he had already promised one particular item to someone else and asked Caleb to please return the item.
Caleb was incensed with his friend, calling him an “Indian giver” and wanted to know whether he was halachically bound to return the item he felt was rightfully his — ramifications to his friendship be damned.
I was shocked by the entire exchange. There was no attempt to judge his friend favorably, to view the entire incident as an honest mistake (something I anyway considered the most likely reality considering the fact that this was the same friend who had generously gifted him all the items in the first place). Caleb could not see past his friend’s “deplorable” request to return a gift — something he was told by his mother never to do.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the halacha has to say in this situation,” I told Caleb. “Whether or not you are obligated to return this item or not, giving it back is the right thing to do!”
Caleb couldn’t believe his ears. This was clearly not the response he was expecting from me.
“But what about the fact that he did something wrong by asking for it back!?” Caleb retorted.
“Whether it was right or wrong doesn’t matter at this point,” I said to him, looking him dead in the eyes. “Right now you have to do what’s right at this moment and that means returning the item!”
Nothing I said was getting through to him, so I decided to take a different approach.
“Caleb, what’s the most important thing to you?” I asked.
He thought about it for a few moments and answered, “Keeping the peace.”
Silence.
Even Caleb had to admit the irony in his words as well as the obvious ramifications it had on what he needed to do with the item in question and the friendship which was currently up in the air.
Like Caleb, we often find ourselves so blinded by the enormity of the moment, and the short-lived emotions that lie in that moment’s wake, that we lose something much more valuable in the process — our perspective (and with it, our ability to right our own ship).
It’s not only the Calebs of the world who suffer from lapses in proper perspective. Even the greatest of our sages are not, and were not immune to such miscalculations of the mind. It is during this period of the Three Weeks, leading up to Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning over the destroyed Temples, that we are reminded of such an episode.
We are told that Rabbi Akiva and his sagely friends walked up to Jerusalem, ultimately reaching the Temple Mount and the Temple ruins. Upon seeing a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies the others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Akiva’s friends, bewildered as to the source of his seemingly irreverent laughter, demanded an explanation. Rabbi Akiva didn’t let them down. “Now that I see that Uriah’s prophecy (predicting the destruction of the Second Temple) has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zachariah’s prophecy (predicting the building of a future Temple) will be fulfilled!”
From the response of Rabbi Akiva’s friends it is clear that this fresh perspective tempered their anguish and instilled hope where there was only hopelessness. As the Talmud records, “With these words they replied to him: ‘Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!’” (Talmud Makkot 24b)
In that spirit, I pray that we too be soon consoled. May the Almighty fill this world once again with His Holy presence, drawing the redemption near, and with it the elevation of all of our perspectives!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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That distressing but unavoidable conversation

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

I recently sat in a small circle of people in someone’s living room, learning how to have The Conversation. Capitalized, because it’s such an important conversation, one most of us don’t even want to think about it, let alone have. It’s the advance talk about what we, and our loved ones, want for the very last of our lives.
Yes, it’s open talk about dying. But the emphasis is on making life’s end — the inevitable for all of us — the way we choose. So first, we must be honest about accepting that inevitability, and then we can go about having The Conversation.
Some people are unlucky enough not to have any end-of-life choices. They’re killed in a random drive-by shooting. They’re hit on the head by something heavy falling from the top of a tall building when they just happen to be passing by. Or they’re marched away by a Hitler henchman, as so many of our people were in a past time we don’t dare forget. But for us who are living, and thinking about living but aging family members, having The Conversation should be at the top of the to-do list.
In the quiet room where I so recently sat, Laurie Miller led us through The Conversation’s steps. She knows how to do it, because for over a decade she’s been caring for the sick and the elderly in our community, and now she’s working with the Senior Source, the Dallas Area Gerontology Society, and other service groups to get the word — and the words needed! — out to many others.
Everybody is going to die, regardless of anything else. It’s interesting, I think, that it’s Jews who are leading this effort to make personal choices for end-of-life living: This project was the brainstorm of Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Goodman, the Boston columnist who first articulated the need for The Conversation as her own parents aged. And Laurie Miller proudly announces her local temple membership along with the work of her company, Apple Care and Companion.
We didn’t have The Conversation itself in our little group; we spent a couple of hours of learning when and how to broach the subject, and what should be talked about. Everybody got a Conversation Starter Kit outlining a Ready-Set-Go method of approaching those we should be talking with, a gentle path from thinking about matters that nobody really wants to talk about to acknowledging the reality that we must confront them. Because if we don’t, our final decisions are likely to be made by dispassionate strangers.
The Conversation itself will include such simple things as a preference for where to die: at home, or in a hospital or other care facility? Personal comfort: sheets tucked around the feet or not? Pain: ask for medication, or let others make that decision? Company: someone to hold your hand? (And who should that someone be? Or would you rather be left alone?)
Music? Words being read aloud? (It’s widely believed that the sense of hearing persists almost to the very end of life, so what — if anything —would you like to hear?) Would you or your loved ones choose to have a rabbi or other clergy person — remember, this is a non-religious project, open to all — pray with you? These decisions should all be made in advance of need, in addition to estate plans and wills for taking care of post-death financial matters.
The Conversation Project also puts emphasis on the people who will make our end-of-life medical decisions when we can’t do so for ourselves. In addition to the Starter Kit, it provides an invaluable second booklet on both choosing a health care proxy and on being one ourselves.
In our little group, some people cried. Many asked questions. Everyone said thank you at the end, and meant it. I’m hoping many more will soon prepare to have The Conversation. The Conversation Project, now a recognized nonprofit, is ready to help.

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As Americans, we will always have Israel’s back

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
What is your opinion of the decision by Netanyahu to scrap the plans to make the Wall a place that all Jews can pray as they like and the threats by many American Jewish leaders to cut their support to Israel if they don’t ratify the decision to make it a place for all branches of Judaism?
— Marcella K.
Dear Marcella,
As I am a rabbi and not a politician, I stay away from addressing political issues in this column. I will say, however, that the kinds of statements which I have seen over these past weeks from non-Orthodox rabbinical leadership as well as from the heads of many Jewish organizations and Federations has caused me profound sadness and disillusion with their leadership.
The Israeli cabinet’s decision not to upend the generations-old status quo of the Kotel was met with howls of outrage by many leaders of non-Orthodox institutions, including threats to break ties with Israel and its support. I could not be more horrified and outraged by such threats, which, to me, expose a very thin or superficial connection to Israel to begin with. During a time when Israel is surrounded by existential threats from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinians, when Israeli families are risking their lives to live in Israel and sadly losing them, such as last week’s brutal murder of a family in their home Friday night, Israel needs and demands unconditional support from it Diaspora brethren.
Furthermore, we sadly see so many young Jews on campuses supporting Palestinian causes far more than the cause of Israel and they are often at the forefront of the BDS movement, exposing a tremendous breach in the younger generation’s commitment to Israel and Klal Yisrael. This disconnect was already shown clearly by the most recent Pew report, exposing a broad apathy by younger American Jews toward Israel’s very existence.
It is clear to me that when statements of protest and outrage by Jewish leaders are peppered with threats of severing ties, these leaders are feeding the fires of disengagement by the younger generation, fires which are already burning brightly. It’s one thing to protest and express their opinion. It’s quite another thing to threaten that it’s their way or the highway. Without question their threats have crossed a dangerous red line, and the public way they have been expressing this lack of support is playing neatly into the hands of Israel’s enemies, we can be sure.
I say this without addressing the actual issue: what is or should be the status of the Kotel with regards to being considered an Orthodox synagogue or a public square. I will, perhaps, address this in next week’s column, God willing. For now, I am only addressing my personal sadness and outrage at the willingness of today’s Jewish leadership to throw Israel under the bus if they don’t get their way about the way this decision, or any decision, is made by the Israeli government.
We are presently observing the three-week mourning period over the destruction of the very Temple which was located beyond the Wall; its holiness is what imbues the remaining Western Wall of the Temple courtyard with its holiness. It is that holiness which has attracted, and continues to attract, millions of Jews throughout the generations to that spot, bringing them together as one.
The mission of Jewish leadership is to send a message to the generation that even when things are not exactly the way we want them to be in Israel, we will always have Israel’s back. Our support, moral and financial, is non-wavering. That is the true message of the Temple, the Wall and the Jewish people.

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Studying part of duty as People of the Book

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

Dear Parents and Children,
During the summer as a camp director, my time for reading is limited; however, we must learn every day even if it is just a “little” study. The Jewish people have been called “The People of the Book” because of our dedication and commitment to studying the Torah. We should really be called “The People of the Books!” Jews have studied many, many books and learning has always been an important part of every Jewish home. As a confirmed biblioholic (one addicted to buying and reading books), I will give many suggestions on books every Jewish home must have, especially if they have young children in the home. A very special book edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver is titled I Have Some Questions About God. The many questions are answered by a number of different rabbis including former Dallasite Rabbi Ed Feinstein. If you haven’t started your Jewish bookshelf, start today!
Now, children have lots of questions about God, and we adults often struggle to give the answers because we are still searching for them ourselves. The most important thing to remember about questions is that we do not always need to have an answer. In fact, Jews have always been accused of answering every question with another question. As a teacher and a parent, I know that works! So when your children ask the tough questions about God and life, turn to them and ask, “What do you think?” It helps to know what they are thinking. There is a stage when we wish our children would stop asking us questions — instead cheer the questions and find the answers together.
So when are you supposed to have these heavy-duty study sessions with your children? This answer is easy because we have read and recited the answer from memory: You shall teach these words to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. It is simple — do not wait for a serious study session but rather talk about God, Torah and all of life every day in every way.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.

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All Jewish kids deserve camp experience

Posted on 20 July 2017 by admin

Bradley Laye, the Dallas Federation’s CEO, recently wrote to our community praising the beneficial effects of Jewish summer camp on children’s future lives. I’m seconding his motion, because my love for Judaism, and all my involvements in it, are rooted in that experience.
My camp began at the turn of the 20th century as a needed getaway for overworked immigrant women and their small children living in a teeming, smoke-filled city. A wealthy family first endowed a settlement house to help with Americanization, naming it after a daughter, Irene Kaufmann. The camp came next, named for Emma. Because the site was a quiet place in the farming area 30 miles outside Pittsburgh, Emma Kaufmann Camp quickly became known as Emmafarm!
My childhood home was Jewish in name only. Mother, a social type, served as president of her Sisterhood but attended synagogue only on the High Holidays. Father didn’t even do that; remembering his unhappy childhood in cheder (and when I read Philip Roth’s amazing story, The Conversion of the Jews, I know what he went through), he would never again walk into a institution headed by a rabbi! But as a doctor who was a declared, although never devout, Jew, he volunteered annually to do all required pre-camp physicals for kids going to Emmafarm at no charge.
The summer I would turn 9, he asked if I’d like to go to camp, too. I said yes. And the time I spent there 74 years ago shaped my Jewish future!
It wasn’t the physical place that did it; Emmafarm was practical and undistinguished. Far away from any lake front, it had only a pool. The flat main campus, like a rectangular college quad, had four large buildings running down each of its two longer sides — on one, the boys’ units; opposite on the other, the girls’. All were named for birds: Girls began as wrens and eventually grew up into woodpeckers; boys progressed as they aged from robins to eagles.
But at the head of the quad was the dining hall, and that’s where Jewish magic took place every Friday evening. We would file quietly into that huge, echoing room, which was full of chaos three times a day every other day as kids reached and grabbed across tables for whatever bowls and platters they wanted, hardly deterred by their exhausted counselors. Yet with Shabbat approaching, without anyone having to say a word, the mood shifted into something totally different. Something quietly wonderful…
First of all, the tables were clothed in white. And so were we. Everyone, all white, from head to toe. And as we entered, we sang that old, old hymn: “Come, O Sabbath day and bring … Peace and healing on thy wing … Thou shalt rest. Thou shalt rest …”
I recently read a piece, written by a minister, suggesting that Christians should look again into their hymnals and bring back the singing of some very old songs. I think we Jews should do the same. I don’t know how many of my fellow campers (and many of us, including me, continued on as Emmafarm counselors) still remember that song. But I sing it to myself, in my head, every Friday evening as I walk into synagogue. That one hymn alone was enough to make me Jewish for a lifetime!
I don’t know, either, how many others those Shabbat evenings similarly affected, but I do know that Emmafarm “graduated” an astounding number of adult Jewish professionals — teachers, social workers, camp directors and — yes — rabbis! Among them: the distinguished Earl Grollman, who served a Massachusetts congregation for 36 years while establishing an international reputation for his counseling and writings on bereavement. (And, btw: He met his wife at Emmafarm!)
So: Thank you, Bradley, for reminding our entire community that every Jewish child deserves a Jewish summer camp experience. Truly, its positive effects will last forever!

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Do your part to improve world

Posted on 20 July 2017 by admin

Dear Families,
All of us who work with families hope that children will realize that each of us has the power to make the world a better place. Tikkun olam is one area of action where you don’t have to be perfect.
Sometimes just doing anything is a step in the right direction. The responsible actions to take are those that will help others when they are in need. When we don’t act when others need help, we close our eyes to the world. We must not say that someone else will do what is needed — we must do our part to make the world a better place.
Text of the Week: Hillel was accustomed to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when? — Pirke Avot 1:14

  • Why does Hillel focus first on taking care of yourself? Why is that the responsible thing to do? What happens if you do not take care of yourself?
  • Hillel goes to the next step and wonders what kind of a person we are if we only care about ourselves. What kind of person cares only for themselves?
  • The last phrase of this mishnah tells us to act now and not wait. Why is that important?
  • An important way to fix the world is by being responsible — in Hebrew the word is achrayut. Being responsible means that others can depend on you. It means you are willing to be accountable for what you do or not do — you accept credit when you do things right and you accept corrections when things go wrong. When you take responsibility, others can count on you. Making excuses is not something a responsible person does — you want to be trustworthy.

There are simple and easy ways to demonstrate that you are a responsible person. However, simple and easy is not always simple and easy. To be considered a responsible person is a quality that is earned by actions such as these:

  • When someone asks you to do something, do it to the best of your ability.
  • Focus on your own part, not someone else’s.
  • Be willing to accept credit or correction when you do something.
  • Admit mistakes without making excuses.

Shalom…from the Shabbat Lady.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Military’s expanded recognized religions list worthwhile challenge

Posted on 20 July 2017 by admin

I vaguely recall in filling out my Army enlistment papers in the 1950s, being asked to either check one of the six or so religions shown, check no preference, or to write one in on the blank line provided.
Fast-forward to the present, when I recently received a government news release announcing the Department of Defense increasing its list of recognized faiths and belief systems from a little over 100 to an expanded list of 221.
Some of the faiths I had never heard of included; Eckankar, Heathen, Church of the Spiral Tree, Troth, Wicca, Pagan, Deism and Asatru.
What a shocker! Obviously I have not been following developments in this area. It seems that there have been growing numbers of military enlistees whose faiths and belief systems were not among the mainstream and not officially recognized.
So, how does this recognition of religious belief systems outside the traditional mainstream faiths help the military and its members?
The Chaplains Corps believes that by being all-inclusive, service members of the non-mainstream faiths will now feel more accepted and will be more willing to approach Chaplains of any faith with the expectation that they will be heard and helped.
For incoming Jewish military, they can still choose “Jewish” or one of the three (Orthodox, Conservative or Reform), bringing the number of Jewish choices to four.
Before one criticizes our military leaders for possibly making things more complicated and confusing than they need to be, consider the following.
There is a rational justification for developing a more accurate, complete list of faith groups to which a military member may belong.
This change means that servicemen and -women who are members of small faith groups will now have the same rights and protections granted to service members of the larger, traditional faith groups.
Before the faith group list was expanded, there were some military who were refused time off for religious observances because their faith was not listed. Some service-members were even punished and given extra duty for requesting time off.
Our military now recognizes the 200-plus listed faiths, allowing all service-members to attend and/or observe legitimate holidays, if possible. Of course, the needs of the military always come first, no matter what the religion or holiday.
On one hand, this expanded list of recognized faiths by the U.S. Military sounds fair, democratic and inclusive, but at the same time it must present a challenge to the Chaplain Corps who are generally not members of those sects.
Let us wish them well. Hopefully this expansion of faith acceptance will serve to further strengthen the unity of the men and women of our military.
Bless them all, whatever their faith.

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Differences in big-T, little-T truths in Torah

Posted on 13 July 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’m curious if you can help clarify the concepts of personal (little “t”) truth and Torah (big “T”) Truth.
Within Judaism, we allow enough wiggle room to claim, for example, that both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions can be True. Similar examples touch all aspects of life and law, where multiple contradictory truths are considered True. Thus, the concept of Torah Truth seems to be more of a spectrum than a definitive (view-)point. It seems that as long as one’s approach to Torah study is genuine, then groups or even individuals can bring down different Truths.
How does this concept hold up outside of Judaism? If someone of another religion is also living a moral life, and is toiling genuinely in their religious texts, they will surely also report a genuine relationship with God, and access to Truth. From the Jewish perspective, can a non-Jew access (a piece of) the Truth?
All the best,
— Michael
Dear Michael,
It is true that there is a spectrum of observance within the scope of Judaism and Torah, such as Sephardic, Chasidic, German, Hungarian and Lithuanian customs. These are not different versions of Truth, as you suggest, rather different approaches of how to approach the same Truth.
Let us look at an example of this. Imagine three people standing next to a large lake, discussing its beauty. One says that the water is blue, reflecting the sky; another feels it looks green, like its lily pads, and the third sees it as gray, like the clouds. Which one is correct? The answer is, all of them! There’s probably a smattering of all three colors in that lake and each feels more connected, from his or her perspective, to one of those hues. As long as all three agree upon the key axiomatic makeup of the lake that it is H2O, then there is a “gray area” which is up for interpretation and individual connection and all those viewpoints are equally valid.
So too with Torah; we have certain axioms both in belief and in practice. All of the above-mentioned sects, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, etc., believe in the same Torah from Sinai, the same 13 Principles as outlined by Maimonides which form the framework for our belief system, our definition of Truth. Even with regard to observance, take for example the observance of Shabbos, they are all basically the same. They all accept the same 39 categories of creative activity from which to refrain on the Shabbos; they all recite the same Kiddush over a cup of wine, enjoy the same three Shabbos meals, etc.
Then there are certain gray areas, such as, does one spend more time on Torah study or song and dance? When studying, does one spend more time on the Talmud and Jewish law, or on the Kabbalah and more esoteric subjects? Even within the actual laws of Shabbos, there are subtle nuances, gray areas that may differ, at times, between these sects based upon custom. All are equally valid because they are based upon a true understanding of the sources with the integrity of keeping within the axiomatic truths accepted and agreed upon by all.
They all take into account the H2O of Torah and differ in the gray areas, the subtle hues and nuances. If you look carefully, this is true of all arguments and disagreements throughout the Talmud; it’s not about the general axiomatic principles but about the details, the nuances, the gray undefined areas that are subject to interpretation.
This is the true definition of one’s approach to Torah being “genuine,” not only in intention, but with inherent integrity: playing by the rules defined by the Torah itself.
With regard to other religions, you are correct that according to the Torah a sincere Gentile can also connect to God and develop a genuine, meaningful relationship to Him. We are not a religion that believes that either you’re Jewish or doomed!
There is, however, one caveat. This is as long as that Gentile has not only good intentions, but also fulfills his or her minimum requirement of the service of God according to the Torah with regard to Gentile observance. This means a scrupulous observance of the Seven Noahide Laws. If their religion jibes with these Noahide laws then it is considered, by the Torah, to be consistent with the Truth, and its adherents will merit a portion in the World to Come.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel.
Questions can be sent to him at yfried@sbcglobal.net.

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My birthday prayer at 83

Posted on 13 July 2017 by admin

This-coming Shabbat will mark my 83rd birthday. It might be an occasion to celebrate my second bat mitzvah — if I had had a first …
When I was a youngster, I went to Sunday School, of course, but I couldn’t attend weekday Hebrew school. And I couldn’t stand on the bimah of our shul, or hold a Torah.
I don’t say I was denied these experiences so much as brought up to recognize that they were meant only for males. I wasn’t resentful, just resigned. But I wasn’t happy with the restrictive roles that Judaism then assigned to women. I didn’t question the expectations: Certainly I would marry and have children. But I didn’t like the centerpieces of that life: I was totally un-fond of the kitchen, and hated dusting, sweeping, washing, ironing, and all the other routine chores that fell to my sex.
Years later, as my children still recall, I once told them that some mothers stay home and bake cookies, and other mothers do other things; like it or not, life had given them one of those “other mothers.” So I stepped outside my home, working even when that was frowned on by the traditionalists surrounding me. In this I was enabled by a neighbor woman who had sought help from her minister: Staying home and baking cookies caused severe depression. She was able to face down the local critics only because she’d received “permission” to take a paying job and hire some household help.
A journalist, she opened the local newspaper’s door for me. I compromised, working only when my children were at school; my understanding employer granted me the freedom to leave my office when those children were doing something at school that mothers should be attending. (How interesting: Nobody ever thought fathers had to attend those daytime functions …)
But look at all that’s happened since! Women not only learn Hebrew; in non-Orthodox congregations, they stand on their bimahs, holding Torahs, leading services — even as rabbis! And soon, after a struggle of years, I thought they would be able to worship openly and freely at the Western Wall, in an egalitarian venue created specifically for this purpose. Imagine a woman standing by her son for his bar mitzvah instead of having to peek at him over a barrier! Imagine her there, with a daughter or granddaughter becoming a bat mitzvah!
But the voices of dissent to all of this are loud ones. Not surprising, because Israel, with all its exciting freedoms, is still bound religiously by traditionalists who cling most closely to the old, women-restricting ways. The backlash has not been pretty, and even reasonable protest has been less effective than hoped for. However, although the Torah tells us that Eve was brought forth from Adam to be his helpmeet, it does not say that she or her female descendants should be relegated forever to kitchen duty and household chores. Yes, it says she will bear children for them both, in pain, while Adam sweats to earn a living for them. But nowhere does it specify that the Torah and its mandated reminders, those threads of blue, are altogether forbidden to her.
When all the women of my generation are gone, these dichotomies will have virtually disappeared in modern Diaspora Judaism. However, I continue now to straddle the issue, with one leg firmly planted in my traditional upbringing, the other steady in the camp of the more non-restrictive life my heart and soul long ago led me to pursue.
Today, I applaud each bat mitzvah of my congregation as her parents present her with her own tallit. I do not wear one myself. I do not carry a Torah. But maybe, just maybe, I will do both — if I am privileged, someday, to stand by the Wall in Jerusalem, in a place that our once-and-forever homeland will see fit to grant for women. This is my 83-year-old birthday prayer…

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Private, public actions should match

Posted on 13 July 2017 by admin

Throughout my years in Jewish outreach I have heard the phrase “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews” utilized numerous times in response to bad behavior exhibited by religious Jews.
I have even employed the expression myself once in a while.
The problem? The words have always rung somewhat hollow in my ears. For as much as there lies philosophical truth in this expression (after all, it is not necessarily the fault of a religious system when its adherents make sinful free-will choices), the dynamics of human cognition perceive it quite differently. Jews, and non-Jews for that matter, judge Judaism by the actions of Jews!
Maurice Glazer, a savvy, active 77-year-old man I met earlier this year, shared with me his story of adolescent Jewish disenchantment, a story that is unfortunately not uncommon, and a disillusionment that finds its roots, not surprisingly, in the actions of Jews, not Judaism.
Maurice, or Morey, as he is known to his friends, loved his Yiddishkeit as a young boy. He diligently studied his Jewish studies, even tutoring others as he got older, and imagined that rabbinic or cantorial school might be in his future. Like most other boys nearing bar mitzvah age, Morey began preparing his readings many months before his date with Jewish manhood, and had his Torah portion ready on the early side.
Unfortunately, the family’s synagogue informed the Glazers that there was a last-minute hiccup with their reserved bar mitzvah date. A wealthy family had recently moved to town and they wanted Morey’s bar mitzvah date for their twins, even offering the synagogue a hefty donation of many thousands of dollars for the privilege.
The family was asked if they would share the date and split the portion in three to accommodate all three youngsters. When it became evident that Morey wasn’t open to giving up on the leining (Torah recitation) that he had already prepared, it was made clear to the family that the synagogue wasn’t really asking. The shul needed the money and that was that. Morey ended up finding another synagogue for his bar mitzvah, but the message from his childhood synagogue rang clear to him — Judaism wasn’t about lofty ethical ideals, or rapturous prayer. It was, as Morey would emotionally share with me some 55 years after the fact, “all about the money.”
The rest of Morey’s life reads like many future Jewish American family assimilation narratives. He had three biological children, only one of whom received a bar/bat mitzvah, and none of whom married Jewish, and three stepchildren, only one of whom married Jewish.
Morey sees the bar mitzvah debacle as the beginning of the end of his Jewish love affair, and the distant source of his children’s lack of investment in their familial religion. As Morey puts it, “I tended not to be strong enough to force them back into the circle of Judaism.”
These days, Morey involves himself with all sorts of Jewish philanthropic causes, regarding these good deeds as a way of “making up for his past” (he also asked that I use his real name for this article to warn others of the dangers of not educating one’s children in their heritage at a younger age).
Morey, like most others, wouldn’t or couldn’t distinguish between Judaism and Jews. If Jewish representatives could put money over principle, then the system they represented wasn’t worth his time or his commitment.
I have also found that the opposite is true. Whereas I had quietly hoped that most ba’alei teshuva (newly observant Jews) found themselves primarily aroused by the search for truth and a recognition of the Torah’s Godly nature (call it the search for empirical truth), the reality, as I would quickly discover, is that the positive experiences that they encounter with observant Jews and their Jewish practice are of central influence (call it experiential truth).
Delicious cholent at a Shabbos table holds greater sway than lengthy late-night conversations on the historicity of the Sinai revelation. (It’s worth noting that this is all the more understandable in light of recent discoveries in neuroscience that find the hugely significant part played by emotion in decision-making.)
I believe that it is for this reason that the Torah is so concerned with our public behavior. The sanctification of God’s name, “And I shall be sanctified amongst the Jewish people” (Vayikra 22:32), is certainly in contention for foremost positive commandment in the Torah, and the desecration of God’s name, “And you shall not profane my holy name” (ibid.), is considered by Rabbi Akiva as a sin for which no repentance is available.
You see, even as we regard the Torah as the faithful transmission of the divine will from Sinai, and inasmuch as we consider ourselves on solid intellectual ground in this belief, it is not like an algebraic equation, mathematically impervious to all lines of questioning and skepticism. The Torah does require an element of faith, however small that may be.
And it is precisely because of this “faith gap” that the experiences we have with observant Jews make all the difference in the world. A positive experience with a religious individual or community closes the “faith gap” and ignites that long-dormant, yet ever-present spark of emuna (faith) found in every Jew, and a negative Jewish experience widens the gap and makes it all that much more difficult to find the way home.
The voice of the Almighty is described by the prophet Eliyahu not as a loud “boom,” but as a “still small voice” (Melachim 1 19:12). It’s a voice that gets easily drowned out by the the many noises of life, all vying for our attention. It’s a voice all that much more challenging to hear when you’re not aware of its existence.
It’s a voice that many of our fellow Jews need help detecting. It behooves us to be the kind of people that lead the kinds of lives, both privately and publicly, that amplify God’s voice, helping newcomers hear its sweet sound and make the “leap of faith.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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