Friday, December 30, 2016

I have some serious issues with the Binding of Isaac.

I have some serious issues with the story of the Binding of Isaac.

Throughout his life, God continually tested Abraham and I’ve always thought he failed this test. After all, he argued with God about the destruction of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d think he could have come up some argument to at least try to save his own son. Since my Orthodox teachers say Isaac was 37 when he walked up Mount Moriah, I think he was the one who passed the test. Abraham was over a 100 years old at this point. Isaac was younger and stronger than his father, he could have gotten away. But he chose to honor his father, to honor God by allowing himself to be bound on that altar. Some stories say he even demanded to be bound so that he would not flinch away when he saw the knife descending and thus ruin the perfection of the sacrifice.

Discussing this with a Rabbi I know he told me I was wrong, that I didn’t understand what the test was.

Me: “Kill your son?” No. “Do whatever God tells you to do without question?” No.

Rabbi: “Consider… what is the most important thing Abraham would have lost if he had sacrificed Isaac?”

Me: “Ummm…” Not my most impressive response.

Later I spend some time trying to figure that out, by imagining myself into Abraham.

The presence of God says: “Sacrifice your son, your only son, the one you love.”

Confused, Abraham finally stammers: “What?”

But God is already gone.

Abraham plops down in the desert, frowning, thinking: What just happened? Surely, the God I have loved and worshipped all these years wouldn’t command me to kill Isaac. Surely I must be mistaken! He promised me that Isaac would carry on my name, my work; that, through him, my offspring would be as numerous as the stars!

Kill him? Surely not. I must have misunderstood. He’s always told me He didn’t want human sacrifice and I’ve taught that to everyone.

Sarah, my beloved Sarah, will never forgive me!

And what of my followers? They will all think that I’m a hypocrite, a liar, a charlatan! That I’ve misled them - for some nefarious purposes of my own. My followers will all desert me. Sarah will leave me. I’ll be completely alone!

And will they be wrong?

I’ve told people for a hundred years that the one God of the Universe doesn’t require or want human sacrifices. I meant it, didn’t I? It’s true, isn’t it? Or have I been deluded all these years, not truly understanding Him.

Or maybe He was indeed communicating with me, but I misunderstood what He revealed. After all, I am not one who sees God face to face. Do I truly know what he wants of us – of me?

He wants me to kill my son.

He wants me to kill my son.

He wants me to kill my son.

No matter how he says it, or how many times he says it, Abraham has trouble bringing himself to believe it.

Killing anyone is morally wrong. How can it possibly be right to kill my beautiful boy, my wonderful boy. Flesh of my flesh. Whom I love beyond all things. My Isaac?

But… God did command me. I am certain He did. Why would He do that? Why would he do that to me? Haven’t I served him long and faithfully? Haven’t I done all I was asked to do? Left my home and my family.  Travelled through hostile lands. Risked my wife’s virtue, even her life. And my own, for that matter.

I already turned out one son at God’s word. How can He ask this of me? How can He? Isaac is innocent… a good man… He loves God!

An old man, crouching in the desert, weeping, alone.

Standing finally, staring up at the sky. Softly, so softly: All I can know is that You are. And I am certain You did command me. I’d like to think there must be a good reason, but I don’t know what it is.  Perhaps it is something I can’t know.

Abraham, wiping tears from his eyes, walks slowly back toward his tents. And after stopping for a look at his sleeping wife and son, he begins to prepare the items he will need for the trip he will begin in the morning. The task will not be easier if he puts it off.

It will be a long sleepless night. Perhaps for the first time since Isaac was a baby, Abraham sits and watches him sleeping.

I will lose my reputation. My life’s work.

But You are God and you commanded it.

I will lose my wife. My descendants.

But You are God and you commanded it.

I will lose my son. My only son. The one that I love.

But You are God and you commanded it.

Who am I to ask You to spare me this?

If the test was the question “Are you willing to lose everything you value because I commanded it?” And the knife at Isaac’s throat was the answer, then perhaps Abraham did pass.

But I have to say, I am still not entirely convinced. God took everything from Job, and he cried out at the injustice of it. Why didn’t Abraham? 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

I'm not going to let my passport expire

Everyone, well... at lot of people, and a lot of people in various religious communities, are writing about the election, so probably I shouldn't. But, never being one to allow rules or logic to stop me, I'm going to anyway.

Yesterday at work I was a mess. I came home last night and locked myself in, and couldn't make myself go out again for any reason. I had cereal for dinner because that is all I had in the house. I wasn't even willing to go to the grocery store, and it's downstairs. I turned off a show I usually like because they were doing an episode about computer hackers taking over an election. It made my stomach hurt.

Sometimes something happens that is not quite a miracle, but it is the exact right thing at the exact right time that lets you know God is peeking out from behind the curtain (like the Wizard in the Emerald City) and pushing something in front of you that you ought to pay attention to. I had one of those Divine Coincidences happen to me today.

I was looking for some comfort music to go along with my comfort food of choice, today chocolate. I listened to every version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" I could find, and there are a lot of them. Then I moved on to Mahalia Jackson, Joshua Nelson, and Debbie Friedman. Finally I randomly stumbled across a song from the Color Purple soundtrack, "Maybe God is Trying to Tell You Something (Speak Lord)".

I listened to it a couple of times. And in addition to helping me get through the day, it occurred to me that maybe God was trying to tell me something.

You probably already know this, but the popular vote in the election was split almost exactly 50/50 with Hillary Clinton actually getting a few hundred thousand more, 59,938,290 votes to Donald Trump's 59,704,886. Neither candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote: As of noon Wednesday, Clinton stood at 47.7 percent and Trump at 47.5 percent. ( Hillary Clinton will become the fifth U.S. presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

So far, my favorite thing written about all this is Michael Moore’s “Morning After To-Do List” Facebook Post For Democrats. He's a strange man, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. And seeing someone address the situation with humor let some of the tension in me loosen up a bit. And goodness knows, I needed that.

Here's the thing I realized: No matter who won, approximately 50% of the people were going to be pissed. And I'll be honest with you, I'd rather it was Hillary's half since I don't think they're as well armed. That's just my opinion and I have been wrong about such things... from time to time.

But just knowing that 50% of the people didn't vote to have me (and a lot of other folks) killed (or some other Really Bad Thing) gave me at least a glimmer of hope. I think that is the something that God was trying to tell me. So I'm going to blow on that little, tiny glimmer however I can and trust it will be a spark that will someday turn into a roaring fire of sanity.

I actually went out to services tonight to pray for that. I'm going to put my faith in the Divine: that God will let me know when it is no longer safe to stay in my home country. I will hope and pray that that realization never comes to me. 

But since God helps those who help themselves, I'm also going to keep my eye on the cheeseAnd stuff a few dollars under the mattress and not let my passport expire.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Some random articles:

Not at all religious:

But a good read in its own way and it includes this comment: For those who could use some support, text 741741. Free, confidential, anonymous. There may be some slower response times than the usual < 5 minutes, but crisis counselors are doing an amazing job responding to such a huge influx. LGBTQ, people of color, assault survivors, differently abled, other religions – ANYONE feeling overwhelmed about what this means for you? Feeling alone, anxious, maybe even in despair? There is help. Sending you love. Just in case anyone reading this needs help tonight or another night.”


Monday, October 17, 2016

At Least You are Not in Jail

"Well least you are not in jail."

That's the way my mother summed up my life many years ago.

The unspoken part was: You're a failure. These words have continued to rattle around in my head through the years.

I'm not rich or famous. My mother didn't really care about those things. She did care that I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer. I didn't marry one either. I didn't have children (at least not of my body and my mother didn’t understand any other kind.)  I knew those things were my mother's dreams. I don't think it ever crossed her mind that they might not be mine. 

But, even so, is that the best that she could have said about my life?

When I was a kid, I read almost all the books in the children's section of the library. It was across the street from the University of Southern California. It was a good sized library.

I'll be 70 at the end of this year. I've supported myself since I was 19 years old. At the time that I left home, leaving home was a life decision. And except for three months when I was saving up for a car, after my VW bug lost its transmission, I never went back.

At one point I created a random goal for myself to make $100,000 a year, and I did get a contract for that amount. Due to me breaking one of the cardinal rules of my life "never work for crazy people," I never actually got the money but I had the amount as my salary on paper.

Contract aside, I've never had a huge amount of money. But I've shared what I had by giving to charity, and where I couldn't give money, I've given my time.

I've organized others to take food, and have taken food myself, to a women's homeless shelter for the last ten years. I'm currently running a project to make quilts for all the beds in that same shelter.

A group I am in wanted to donate 150 blankets to the shelter and I was the one they contacted to get it done. That happens a lot when someone wants to donate something, they contact me.

And this will be the third year I'll be organizing and helping to serve brunch for 300 at a homeless shelter for men on December 25th.

I've driven across the US by myself three times. I've gone to England, Scotland and the Continent. I've lived in Texas, California, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. I owned two houses in Colorado, and one (the dream house that got away) in Virginia.

Despite my longstanding hatred of exercise, I've participated in three 5K races in the last few years. I staggered in hot, sweaty and dead last in one of them, but I finished. And I've volunteered my time to the club that runs the races enough that folks at races know who I am.

I've had two articles published online, and three in print. Most were not anything amazing, but one was. It was published on a huge Jewish website this past year and it was one of the high points of my life.

I was part of an international medieval reenactment group (the Society for Creative Anachronism - the SCA) for 17 years. I was an officer at the city, state and multi-state level and I received their highest award for organization and service. Another high point for me.

And my “kids” are folks I helped get their start in the SCA. Like lots of children, they outdid they parent by leaps and bounds. I couldn’t be more proud of them if they were the children of my body.

I taught myself about relational databases, HTML coding, CSS and WordPress. I am a power user of Excel, and I taught myself QuickBooks. I also taught myself to read business Spanish. I created a functioning 24/7 call center in an empty room. I built a couple of computers just to see if I could.

I had my fair share of lovers; and even better had, and have, some smart, talented, truly amazing people that I am proud to say were and are my friends. I had a decade long relationship with a man who is absolutely one of the nicest people I have ever met. I am happy to say he still likes me, in spite of the fact that the reason we are not together anymore is all on me. For that matter, I am proud to say I am friends with his current wife.

I lived through all the alcohol and noxious chemicals I put into my body in my 20s and 30s, and through a combination of not being genetically predisposed to addiction and the ability to "just say no" to some things, I walked away from all of it when I decided to do so. (Well... except for white wine and margaritas now and again.)

I put myself through college. I had some good years while there when I was as skinny as I ever was in my life. I looked pretty darned good. I was also a great stage manager, and got to work on several major college productions. I was accepted into graduate school, though I didn't end up going.

I also had a few terribly bad years right after college when I somehow lived through the serious effort I made to end my life. I still don't know how, but it felt as if I walked through a door and once I got to the other side, I’m glad to say that killing myself stopped looking easier than living.

I studied with three rabbis before I found one that I clicked with, and it was five years from the time it crossed my mind to look into Judaism to the time I went to the mikvah to convert. But I stuck with it. I'm proud I'm still learning Torah.

A rabbi I know said everyone is someone’s teacher. Strangely enough, there are a number of Jews of my acquaintance who use me as their authority on matters Jewish. I always think that’s weird, but I do my best for them. I created a Haggadah for some friends whose only Jewish activity is hosting a Passover Seder.

I've spent a good part of my life dealing with things my mother said to me. Somehow no matter how many times someone else has said something that contradicted something she said, what she said is still there and overrides everything else. My relationship with her was the most horrid, the most intense and the most important of my life.

After all these years, I realize that when my mother told me I was a failure, what she meant was that she was a failure. She hadn't been able to make me do what she thought was important: things she hadn't been able to do herself.

When she said those words to me all those years ago, I was stunned. I couldn't respond. But if my mother said that to me now, I could reply. I’d say:

You're wrong. I'm not a failure.

And neither are you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Flawed Thinking

I am reading this book called "As a Man Thinketh" by James Allen. (Free Book or YouTube) Its premise, as I understand it, is that your circumstances are a reflection of your thoughts. To some extent I can understand this. I understand self sabotage. I understand that if you don't think you deserve to succeed you probably won't. I understand that clearing out the demons of your past will allow you to focus on getting to your future goals.

But I am not sure I am convinced that "good thoughts equal good circumstances and bad thoughts equal bad circumstances" is an immutable law of the Universe.

Mr. Allen wrote:

It has been usual for men to think and to say, "Many men are slaves because one is an oppressor; let us hate the oppressor." Now, however, there is amongst an increasing few a tendency to reverse this judgment, and to say, "One man is an oppressor because many are slaves; let us despise the slaves."

The truth is that oppressor and slave are co-operators in ignorance, and while seeming to afflict each other, are in reality afflicting themselves. A perfect Knowledge perceives the action of law in the weakness of the oppressed and the misapplied power of the oppressor; a perfect Love, seeing the suffering, which both states entail, condemns neither; a perfect Compassion embraces both oppressor and oppressed.

OK. Obviously, I'm black, female, and Jewish; as are the scenarios that flashed through my mind:

  • a black person living in Africa during the 17th century, who ended up working in the hell of a sugar plantation in Jamaica, with a life expectancy of 9 years at best.

  • a young woman, almost anywhere in the world today unfortunately, abducted, drugged into addiction, tortured into submission and forced into prostitution.

  • a Rabbi in Germany during the 2nd World War, suffering in the camp and dying in the gas chambers at Sobibor.

Each of the above with thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of others.

Of course I have no way to know, but what if these people were moral in their thinking before their circumstances changed? What if they even managed moral thoughts afterward?

Or does what happened to them, to all the "thems" it happened to, mean that they were all weak, immoral thinkers?

This is what I am struggling with.

It seems to me that there must be circumstances beyond anyone's control. I am not saying there are not choices a person may have about how they deal with their circumstances, but I am having trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that an ordinary person, going about their lives on an ordinary day, who ends up the next week, enslaved, prostituted, or dead had this happen to them because of their disordered thinking.

The only people I can think of who deserve the fates of the people above, are the ones who did it to them. Despite what Mr. Allen says to the contrary, I have no sympathy for the perpetrators. Perhaps that is a flaw in my thinking.

The book was written in 1902. In England. And near the height of the British Empire. So maybe that is where this type of thinking comes from. As we might say today "first world" thinking. From the rulers. I wonder if those they ruled thought the same things.

I'm not even sure why this bothers me so much. Except that some of the book seems to make sense and some of it seems so fundamentally wrong.

I'm wondering, perhaps hoping, that I'm misunderstanding. 

But right now what I really most want is to stop thinking about this. Maybe my thinking really is flawed.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Blessings & Smoked Salmon

This past Sunday morning, just as I was about to eat a lovely Eggs Benedict made with smoked salmon, I thought to myself how grateful I was that I had gotten up early enough to get to the restaurant while there were still enough open tables that I didn't mind taking up one for a “just one?” as the server always says when I walk in.

But I was a little sad that I couldn't express my gratitude for the food by saying a bracha. For one thing I didn't know what the correct blessing would be. I only know two relative to food, the one over bread and the one over wine. And I'm not sure the one for bread would have been appropriate over an English muffin. What I do know is that which blessing is said when and over what is complicated.

And second, I know you're not supposed to say a bracha over treif food, even if it isn't one of the forbidden foods. As far as I've gotten on the road to keeping kosher is not eating pork, shellfish or meat and milk together (although I have some issues with chicken and milk, that whole cooking a chicken in its mother's milk thing, but that's a post for another time). Still whatever the food is, if it is not cooked in a kosher kitchen, it is still not kosher.

Not being able to say brachas over food has bothered me for awhile, since one of the things that attracted me to Judaism was its built in mnemonics to help me remember to be grateful for the everyday things that it is so easy to take for granted. And goodness knows, I love to eat (if not to cook since it seems to me cooking for one person isn't worth the effort of the clean up) so I have lots of opportunity to be grateful for my food. But since it is usually food from non-kosher restaurants, I can't express it. (I know. I know. Eat in kosher restaurants. I know of two close to where I live, neither of which is especially good, though I eat at one of them anyway because I like the folks who run it.)

I was thinking about all of this as I was enjoying the lemony hollandaise sauce and I decided that even if I couldn't fulfill a commandment there was nothing stopping me from saying some words to express my gratitude.

These are the blessings that I have come up with so far:

Thank you G-d for... “

...the food and the money to buy it with and tip the server (This wasn't and isn't always true for me.)

...being able to hear the screaming child at the next table (A couple of my friends are having hearing problems and would probably love to be able to hear that child, at least for the first minute or two.)

...getting home without hurting myself or anyone else or damaging any property; and without anyone else damaging me or my property (I've been in a couple of car accidents lately, one that was and one that wasn't my fault. Always happy every time I drive somewhere and nothing happens except I get where I am going.)

...keeping my home safe when I am here and when I am not here (It hasn't happened lately, but several places I've lived have been broken into. The worst part isn't that they take your stuff. The worst part is they take away your sense of security inside your own home.)

I have a long, looong way to go on the road to being more observant. And I know that the letter of the Law matters. I can honestly say I am sincerely working to learn more of the letter of the Law.

But, in the meanwhile, I also think G-d knows my intent – to express gratitude for this amazing world I live in and all the gifts I have been given... which is to say pretty much everything. I think G-d understands and accepts all expressions of gratitude however, and in whatever language, expressed.

And I think that the expression and the intent will help motivate me to learn more.

For this day, this hour, this minute... I think, I truly hope, that's enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I need to recharge my emotions

I was talking to my friend about my need to be alone to recharge my emotional batteries. He burst out with “You are such a chaim!” Me: “I'm sorry. What?”

It turns out there is a Jewish personality profile (developed by Rabbi Noah Weinberg z”tl and written about by Lori Palatnik here) that comes as close to describing my personality traits as anything else I've seen. It is based on the personality traits bracha/blessing, tov/good and chaim/life. According to this system, everyone is a mixture of all three, but two are our defaults: one for our souls and one for our bodies.

Reading Lori's article, I can easily see that my friend was right. My soul most takes after Jacob, whose personality inspired chaim. Jacob stayed in his tent, and studied all day. Some of my main drivers are learning and understanding. I am deeply introverted and not very good at relationships or at dealing with arbitrary rules and regulations. (And I think all rules and regulations are arbitrary. What can I say?) I stay home alone as much as I do because I like staying home alone. And you will definitely find me off in a corner in social gatherings, possibly talking with one person when I can stretch myself; or contentedly and quietly watching everyone else interact when I can't.

I'd say my second, soul driver is tov, based on Issac who followed the rules and did what was right. Well, I skipped the part about following the rules and I'm pretty sure I don't always do what is right. But as a tov personality, when I am given a specific project I am highly organized. One of my talents is figuring out the most efficient way to get something done, or to make a system function. And I can put 110% of my concentration and energy into seeing a project through.  On the down side, I have a tendency to say “yes” whenever someone offers me a project, whether I honestly care about it or not, just for the fun of the challenge. These words have gotten me into so much trouble: “I can do that. I can do that... better!” Often I can. Sometimes though, I take on so much the whole pile threatens to come tumbling down.

I think I have the least of the bracha type it is possible to have. A bracha soul (based on Abraham, the man of the heart) is all about being extroverted and loving to be surrounded by people. I hate being surrounded by people! (Though arguably I have a bit of an excuse having spent a week with half a million people once.) Still I am rarely bouncy and outgoing, although I can occasionally fake it with one or two people (certainly not more – horrors!) for short periods of time. And the weird thing is, I like people. Just not everyone and not all the time. But being around people, as I said above, sucks the energy, and eventually the sanity, right out of me. That's why I prefer to go visit my friends rather than have them visit me. When I run down, I can run home... to the comforting quiet.

My body, on the other hand, is about 50/50 chaim and bracha. The chaim part is intuitive and empathic. I am very aware of what other people are feeling and sometimes being surrounded by negative energy, or even too much of any kind of energy, can make me physically ill. On the other hand, much as I hate to admit it, I am, as Lori says in one of her videos, a “lazy, lazy person.”  In the same way I can push myself when I am interested and involved in something, I can put just as much energy, in a manner of speaking, into doing nothing. And I love to sleep. I have just enough tov not to turn into a complete lump on the couch, but sometimes it seems a near thing.

I was surprised at how accurately this system described me. I've taken a couple of personality tests recently, all producing profiles more complicated than this. I can't say they were any better.

I have to remember to thank my friend for calling me a name. (j/k) Because I really am grateful to him. If he hadn't said what he did, I never would have learned all this.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I was in Germany once. It didn't go well.

I was in Frankfurt, Germany once.

I hadn't thought about that trip in years. Until I heard Mrs. Chana Silver speak in synagogue on the Fast of Tisha b'Av. She leads tours of Poland for young women. They see the places where Jews lived and where they died – cities, ghettos, graveyards, and the work and death camps.

I was there forever ago, when I was in my 20s. Long before anything Jewish had touched my life, except I had, for some unknown reason, read Hitler's Mein Kamp. I had gone to London with a backpack, a round trip ticket and $100 in my pocket.

I went with a group of my friends and I knew they had arranged inexpensive or free places for us to stay. So I really only needed money for me to eat. Still $100 wasn't enough money and I knew it. The closest thing to being out of the US I had been at that point in my life was crowding 5 people into one of the original VW Beetles, and road tripping to the California border town - Tiajuna, Mexico. I didn't know when, or if, I would get another chance to go to Europe. I guess I hoped my friends, who were probably every bit as broke as me, wouldn't let me starve, so I shrugged my shoulders and I went. Dumb or ballsy. Nah, definitely dumb.

We were supposed to do a musical play called Viet Rock at the Edinburgh Scotland Theatre Festival Fringe (the part where anyone can show up and do a show). We were young, crazy and running on more hash than food. As well as, how shall I put this delicately, extremely sexually active with interchangeable partners in the group. What can I say? We were California kids, with delusions of being hippies. We were in a foreign country, living and working together 100% of the time. It went about as well as you would expect. In one of the inevitable seismic social shifts, the lead in show ended up being given to a person who was one, convinced she couldn't really sing and two, had crippling stage fright the size of the state of Texas. Yup, that would be me. I lasted about two rehearsals before I melted down and quit after the girl I had replaced complained to everyone that I was off-key. Which, to be fair, I probably was. So at least partly because of me, the group completely imploded at that point and we never did the shows.

We had some time on our hands, so half dozen of us took off for the Continent, with no specific destination in mind. We took a train as far as Frankfort. Then my friends decided to go on to the Black Forest. Because of the cake I think.

I had been getting more and more uncomfortable from the time we crossed the border and I was in a low level state of panic by the time we got off the train. I can't really describe how it felt. It was like I couldn't breathe and I knew I couldn't be there, even though I had no idea why. So I refused to continue to the Black Forest. And they left me. I can't really blame them. I wasn't their responsibility and I had just ruined the reason we had come in the first place. Plus we were at an age, and in a time, when we thought a woman could hitchhike by herself and be safe doing it.

So there I was. By myself. In a country where I didn't know anyone or speak the language. With almost no money. Again dumb on my part or ballsy. No again, definitely dumb. But I can still feel the way I felt then, uncomfortable and short of breath. I had to get out of there.

I took what little money I still had, and went back to the train station. I kept enough for the ferry back to the UK, counted the rest and figured out I could get as far as Luxembourg. Wherever - as long it was out of Germany and in the general direction of “back to the coast”. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crossed the border a couple of hours later. I felt as if something had fallen away.

In a continuation of “let's see how dumb I can be”, I took a ride with an Austrian trucker who bought me some really excellent sausage and bean soup (which I'm sure I couldn't eat now) and later tried to get me into the bed built into the cab of his truck. Who even knew there were beds there? When I politely declined, he dumped me by the side of the road, in the middle of the night, and I ended up sort of sleeping in a field. There were a lot of little animals resenting this human in their field and I could hear them moving around all night. None of them joined me in the sleeping bag, but worrying that they might accounts for the “sort of” slept. I also had a, thankfully, very short visit from four guys who stopped and stared at me from the road. I stared back and they moved on. Perhaps I should say I was dumb and lucky. The next morning I was able to get a ride to Calais.

Later everyone re-grouped in London and we went off to the place where I developed my terror of crowds. A rock festival on the Isle of Wight where I spent a week with half a million people (& heard Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, poor Kris Kristofferson who got booed off the stage by a rock and roll crowd who had no interest in country, Sly of Sly & the Family Stone, who could barely walk but could still sing, & a long list of other legendary musicians). I also dealt with continual noise and people moving, restrooms that were trenches in the ground, and having the only space I could call my own be the area on the ground my sleeping bag covered. The music was amazing. The rest of it, not so much.

But the really weird thing is, none of the above were the weirdest thing that happened on that trip.

My mother saw my friend's mother hugging her when we were saying good-bye at the airport and she awkwardly hugged me. That is the only time I can remember her hugging me. In my life.

Freaking out in two countries? Hitchhiking by myself? Living with 500,000 people? Nope. That was the weirdest thing that happened.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

None of Us Are Free

I was born in December 1946. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery was ratified in December 1865, only 81 years earlier. My great-grandmother, who died when I was a teenager, may not have been born in slavery, but her mother most likely was.  I don't know for certain because slavery wasn't something we talked about in my family when I was young. Our ancestors were victims, but we, the children of the victims, were ashamed, as if it was their fault they were slaves... as if it was our fault. In any case, there are possibly only two “greats” and four generations between me and slavery. 81 years. Not very much time at all.

And these verses are in our Torah, in my least favorite book:

Leviticus 44 to 46: “Such male and female slaves as you may have — it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves.”

Although there are restrictions on keeping other Jews as slaves, it is OK to enslave non-Jews “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time.”

With very little research it is possible to find verses in all five books of Moses that accept the institution of slavery. Obviously this is something that affects me personally. And it is a part of the Torah that has always bothered me a greatly.

When I was taking basic Judaism classes before I converted, and I was asked a question to which I did not know the answer, nine times out of ten “Because we were slaves in Egypt” would turn out to be correct. The liberation of Israel from Egypt is part of the central narrative of the whole history of the Jewish people.

So if Torah is about liberty and human dignity, why the acceptance of what I've always thought of as the Great Evil: slavery?  Why didn't the Torah just outright ban slavery?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, says it is because “On the one hand, the Torah speaks from a future that has yet to occur, inspiring us with its vision, pulling us toward that time. And on the other hand, the Torah must deal with the world as it is, not artificially imposing upon it a foreign mold, but bringing it on its own from the place it stands by nature and circumstance to the place it truly belongs.”

He gives this example:
“Take an agrarian society surrounded by hostile nations. Go in there and forcefully abolish slavery. The result? War, bloodshed, hatred, prejudice, poverty and eventually, a return to slavery until the underlying conditions change... Not a good idea.

Better idea: Place humane restrictions upon the institution... Yes, it's still ugly, but in the meantime, you'll teach people compassion and kindness...  Eventually, things change and slavery becomes an anachronism for such a society.”

Others I read also give the same general answer: G-d and the sages knew slavery was wrong, but in that time, in that culture, in that place, they could only mitigate it to some extent, they could not abolish it.

From my perspective: that of the great, great granddaughter of slaves, that seems more a rationalization than an argument. But let us assume it is true: Torah times were a long
time ago, it was a very different culture, it was a very different place.

There is still that scant four generations, that mere eighty one years between my birth and slavery in the United States. That is not a long time ago, it is not a very different culture, it is not a very different place. One has only to read the news these days, if you can stand to do it. The battle of the hashtags (#blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter #policelivesmatter) and the heated rhetoric of the Republicans and Democrats says clearly (at least to me) that there is a legacy of distrust and dislike that shows the U.S. is not so different 151 years after the abolition of slavery.

Of course, some things have changed.

I remember as a child, standing on my front porch, watching the trucks roll by filled with young National Guard troops, going into Watts (near Los Angeles, California) to put down the riots after Martin Luther King Jr's death.

And now, within my lifetime, there is an African-American man in the White House, whose greatest competition for the job, from within his own party at least, was a woman. (Who just shattered a major glass ceiling of another kind, winning the Democratic nomination for President a few nights ago.)

Whatever you may think about the current President, having him win the nomination, and the election, showed that some major changes have happened in this country recently.

So why do these verses about slavery bother me so much – here and now?

Because, according to the State Department, there are as many as 27 million modern day slaves worldwide, with as many as 50,000 slaves trafficked into the US from foreign countries, along with 244,000 kidnapped and exploited US citizens. That’s here and now.

In addition, the WARChild International Network reports that 250,000 children are actively deployed each year, fighting in almost 75% of armed conflicts worldwide. Here and now.

27 million slaves worldwide. I don't even know how to understand that number. 250,000 child soldiers each year.  I don't know how to understand that number either.

I'll be honest with you. These numbers stun me. In this time, in this modern culture, in this place. Here and now.

I wish I knew what to do to make slavery something that only happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way.

But it isn't. It just isn't.

Like Anne Frank I have to believe that “In spite of everything ...people are really good at heart... [And even though] I can feel the sufferings of millions ... if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end...”

Change is possible in human nature, but it can take so much time. G-d may have infinite patience. But I don't. I think G-d, and our sages, wanted slavery abolished, and that they want that still.  But it must be done by us, by free human beings who have come to see, of their own accord, the evil that slavery is and the evil it does.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said: “The G-d of history, who taught us to study history, had faith that eventually we would learn the lesson of history: that freedom is indivisible. We must grant freedom to others if we truly seek it for ourselves.

“Egypt was the Jewish people’s school of the soul; ...its ongoing seminar in the art and craft of freedom. It taught [us] what it felt like to be on the wrong side of power. Jews [are] the people commanded never to forget the bitter taste of slavery, so that [we] never take freedom for granted. [Because] those who do so, eventually lose it.” Or as the song by the great blues singer Solomon Burke puts it: “None of us are free, as long as one of us is chained, no one of us is free.”

I feel that this is on us. Slavery still exists. And we are the people charged to remember it, and learn from it, and hopefully, end it... soon, in our own time.

Over the past few years, the number of countries, which includes the US, that have taken steps to implement the UN Protocol against Trafficking in Persons  has doubled.

And this is a good thing at that level. But what can we, as individuals, do?

We can educate ourselves about what is going on. An internet search using the words “human trafficking” or “child soldiers” will bring up page after page of unbelievable statistics as well as information about the red flags that may indicate human trafficing, and things we can do to help stop it. As a first stop, go to CNN’s The Freedom Project

Lastly, Anne Frank, in her famous diary, also said: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

So let us not wait a single moment longer to begin working to truly abolish slavery so that at some point someone reading about slavery in Leviticus or any part of Torah, will simply be able to shake their heads in wonder at what would by then have truly become an institution of another time, another place, another culture.

Friday, July 22, 2016

I Don't Love My Mother

My mother’s Yahrzeit was this last week. I went to synagogue and said Kaddish (the  prayer for the dead) for her.

When I came to Judaism both my parents were dead. When I stand to say Kaddish for my Daddy, I do it with love in my heart and tears in my eyes. But when I stand and say the same words for my mother, there are no tears – and, unfortunately, no love.

I don’t have any children and I don’t have any regret about that. Even though it was a decision I made when I was still in my teens, I never changed my mind. I was terrified I’d be the same kind of mother my mother was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my grandmother – was; who was the same kind of mother her mother – my great-grandmother – was. I was lucky, or unlucky, enough to have known them all.

Several years ago, for an all-night Shavuot study session, I took the opportunity to learn more about, and to speak about, the challenging (at least for me) commandment to honor your parents. Well, specifically for me, to honor my mother.

The fifth commandment is just these few words from Deuteronomy 5:16 (though it is found in other verses as well)

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.

I started with researching the simple meaning of the words. Christians (on the internet anyway) seemed to have more of a tendency to equate honor with love – which does not seem to be the general Jewish perspective – and to interpret the phrase “that you may long endure” to refer to individuals – also not the general Jewish perspective.

So what was the “general Jewish perspective?”

Let's start with the easy part, at least for me. The end of the verse: “that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.”  The Jewish perspective is that the “you” in this verse refers to the Jewish people as a group, in the sense that if children respect their parents, and carry on the Covenant from generation to generation, then we will remain in, or return to, the land of Israel.

This makes perfect sense, as most Jewish texts tend to be phrased in the plural and the only way for Jews to survive as a religious group is if children continue the faith of their parents. As far as this influencing our return to the land, well, that is an entirely separate conversation.

Now the hard part, the beginning of the verse.

The 5th commandment to honor our parents is on the first of the two tablets given at Sinai along with other declarations concerning our relationship with G-d. G-d is considered to be the third “person” involved in the creation of a child and thus to “Disrespect to our biological creators is not merely an affront to them; it is also an insult to the Creator of the Universe.” Several of the sources I've read said that this commandment is considered the most difficult one to fulfill because no matter what you do, there is simply no way you can ever show enough gratitude to equal the great gift of being given life.

And in a general way, I’ll agree that that is true.

I've said I was grateful to my Daddy, not for giving me life since, of course, he didn’t, but for being such a good father to his step-child.

But if I am honest, I would have to admit, I wasn't at all grateful to my mother for the “great gift” of my life. I spent all of the years before I was 30 being ragingly suicidal because after all, if my mother didn't love me (since I thought at time: of course, all other mothers love their children) I must be beyond worthless.

I can remember laying curled up in bed, and thinking maybe I should just go ahead and kill myself now just so I wouldn't use up air a more deserving person could breathe.

So when I read the lists of actions that you should do to fulfill this obligation of showing regard, concern, and affection to your parents (I'm not going into the full list here as it is easy enough to find online) and it became obvious that this commandment was primarily about adult children and their relationship to their parents, especially to their aging parents, I was first surprised and then, way less than happy.

I did a very bad job (thank goodness) of cutting my wrists when I was in my late 20s. Then I moved thousands of miles away from California, mainly so my mother couldn't drop in to visit me. I finally stopped taking her calls, because it would take me weeks to regain my equilibrium after I talked with her. I couldn't change her, but I could get away from her. So I ran away to Colorado to save my life. I was still crazy, but I firmly closed the door marked “suicide is easier than living like this.”

So where does the commandment stand on parents who neglected their children or subjected them to either physical, mental or emotional abuse as they were growing up? Does that whole laundry list of duties still apply?

A Rabbi from the American Jewish University says that some Rabbinic authorities maintain that these duties apply even to the worst of parents, and they remove our duties to our parents only if they are bad in the extreme. One does not have to have terrific parents to be obligated by the duties to honor and respect them.

He continued by saying that it is possible for one to honor one's parent for being a parent, and not for how well or how poorly that parent has lived up to the demands of their role. Whether by refraining from a public response of anger or by observing mourning practices and reciting Kaddish after a parent has died (emphasis mine), an individual who incurred emotional or physical harm at the hand of a parent could still affirm the importance of parenthood itself, even while rejecting her particular parent as a model for how that role should be fulfilled.

Reject the specific role model, affirm the importance of parenthood. I felt I could do that. Whatever my feelings about my mother, I do, in fact, respect and admire folks who are good parents. It is not an easy job.

It occurred to me, though, that as a convert, perhaps the obligation to observe the Yahrzeits of my parents didn't even apply to me?

Although naturally not all Jews agree, The Jewish Virtual Library has an article on conversion which contains the following: “Nevertheless, proselytes are still obligated to fulfill the biblical commandment of 'Honor thy father and mother,' and therefore the Jewish laws of mourning must be observed by the proselyte when his non-Jewish parents die.”

So it would seem that even though my observance of the Yahrzeits of my parents is not equally heartfelt, it is still my obligation, and I am fulfilling it. A Rabbi I know once told me that the reason the commandment is worded to “honor” is because we can't be commanded to “love”. Not having to equate honor to love helped me a lot in accepting this commandment.

One of the interesting sources I found, when doing my original research, was a biker (as in rider of a Harley Davidson) Christian theologian. One of the reasons I may have found him so interesting is that it turns out that his mother was also an abuser. He did write a, mostly mainstream Jewish perspective, blog article about the 5th commandment, but it’s something he says while writing about Mother’s Day that really struck a chord with me.

He said
“It was not until just before my mother died… that I came to grips with my relationship with her. I finally recognized that she had her own demons to wrestle with and that she did the best she could given who she was. Her best was not good enough, but I could not change that and finally accepted that fact and forgave her in my heart.” An echo of what the Rabbi from the American Jewish University said above.

In my case, it was after my mother died that I slowly began to come to grips with my relationship with her. I know that she was the mother that her mother and her grandmother taught her to be. I think I might well have been the same kind of mother. Living with the memories of my childhood is an ongoing and still painful process. I am glad I didn't pass it along to another generation. I am still trying to forgive those three generations of mothers... in my heart.

I loved my Daddy, and I treated him as respectfully as I knew how while he was alive. And, had he still been alive when I became a Jew, I would have happily risen every time he walked into a room and all the rest of that list of actions to show how very much I willingly honored him.

I’m not one of those people who love their abusive parents anyway. The best I could ever do, late into middle age, was a hard-won emotional neutrality. Given I am pretty sure my mother never changed (my grandmother and my great-grandmother never did) I am also sure that distance continued to be my only protection.

I am very grateful now that my sister was there for her. And if I had been Jewish while she still lived, I hope that I would have been able to honor her by helping my sister with her care… but it would have to have been from afar.

Learning about this commandment allowed me to experience again what a good man my Daddy was and how lucky I was to have known him. 

And it helped me to work through some of the lingering pain of my relationship with my mother.

A major thing I learned was that “to honor” may also mean “to forgive”.
 - - - -


Must One Honor an Abusive Parent?
While fully aware of the corrosive effect of abuse by parents, rabbinic literature still encourages expressions of respect and honor for such parents.
By Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Parashat Aharei Mot—K'doshim
Leviticus 16:1–20:27
May 2, 2009 / 8 Iyyar 5769
This week's commentary was written by Dr. Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture, JTS.

Commandment Five
Rev. Dr. Monte Canfield, Retired Protestant Pastor and Theologian, jointly credentialed in the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church

Shabbat Parashat Yitro - 22 Shevat 5770 - Parents and Children -
February 6, 2010 / 22 Shevat 5770
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University

When a Child Should Disobey a Parent
Jewish law recognizes several categories of actions that should be avoided even if one is directed to do them by one's mother or father.
By Rabbi Nachum Amsel

Honoring Parents Who Are Abusive
By Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy.D.
Reprinted (with minor modifications) from:
The International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals - NEFESH News

Aseret ha-Dibrot: The "Ten Commandments"
Judaism 101

“Real” Books
Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin

Jewish Literacy Revised Ed: The Most Important Things to Know About the
Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Teluslikin

TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, JPS

Thursday, July 14, 2016

I Have a Crucifix

Actually I have two totally non-Jewish religious items hanging on my wall.

The strangest one, in my opinion anyway, is the crucifix.

I struggled with being a (Protestant) Christian since before I got thrown out of Sunday School when I was six and I gave up the struggle altogether when a minister that I was seeing for counseling tried to seduce me when I was sixteen-ish. I just didn't think someone who was “called by G-d to preach” should be doing that sort of thing.

But I was never any kind of a Catholic.

Their churches were always open when I was a teen. (I don't know about now.) And I used to like to go and sit in them. They were dark and quiet and I thought them very beautiful. Especially compared to some of the unadorned storefront churches I was used to. (A storefront was just what it sounds like – a church set up in a strip mall store.) But I knew nothing about what Catholics believed beyond the fact that they were Christians too.

So why do I have a crucifix hanging on my wall?

My Daddy gave it to me.

My Daddy was my stepfather – the only father I ever knew. And one of the nicest men – one of the nicest people - I ever knew. He married my mother when I was around six. He usually worked at least two jobs. When he first married my mother, one of those jobs was cleaning railroad passenger cars. He found the crucifix one night and he gave it to me. He died over 30 years ago now, and I still tear up when I say Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead) for him. And part of that is that crucifix he gave me. It wasn't for any special reason or occasion. That is what made it so special to me.

My mother was emotionally cold, and disapproving of me my whole life. The only time I can remember her hugging me was when she had just seen my friend's mother hug her as we were about to get on a plane for England. It felt weird and awkward. As you might be able to guess, there were no spontaneous gifts from my mother – ever.

I suspect Daddy never knew what that gift meant to me. But it was one of the few unadulterated expressions of love from my family that I can point to in, oh, the first 30 years of my life. And the others were all from Daddy as well.

So yeah, it's always been on my wall. It doesn't make me think about G-d, or Jesus, or religion at all. Just that dear, good man who was my Daddy. His memory is a blessing. He taught me most of what I know about love.

And then there is the religious item on my wall that seems less weird to me because at least I really was a part of that religion: a piece of red rope that was used when I was made a Wiccan High Priestess. Let me say immediately that  although (male & female) Wiccans call themselves witches, they are NOT Satanists. They do NOT worship the Christian devil. And all Wiccans are NOT the same. The ones I was a part of believed in G-d (however named) and were serious tree huggers (very concerned about the environment). They were also, as a group, extremely intelligent, studious and on a path that ran parallel to mine, and intersected with mine at many, though not all, points. I can remember how thrilled I was to find out that there were other folks in the Universe who were on a path so similar to mine.

That’s the reason I felt comfortable accepting initiation as a second degree Wiccan High Priestess. But I never took the highest (third degree) because I felt it would have been disrespectful to those who were wholly committed to the Wiccan path - the good folks I think of when I see my red rope. They were an important part of my life for almost twenty years. They opened my eyes, and my mind, to so much. They were my teachers, my friends, my lovers, my family. Seeing that red rope makes me smile thinking of them all. Which is why it too has been on my wall for so long.

I was, I think, I hope, always honest about the fact that I was mostly a fellow traveler with my friends whose path this was. But when I left Denver and moved east I effectively left Wicca. I never seriously looked for another coven to join.

Most of the religions I have studied believe that there is an inner component, and an outer component to their religion, though they may call it different things. During the years when I wasn’t a part of any organized group, I was still very much aware of G-d. I didn’t so much worship as celebrate G-d. G-d was everywhere – in places I visited, places I lived. I still more or less continually, thought about, fiddled with, poked at what I thought of as “my philosophy about life, death, and everything.” Working at my inner component.

And for half a dozen years that was enough. But the outer component is also important and eventually the need for it reasserted itself.

My mother had told me, rather sternly, when I stopped going to church: “When you’re old, you’ll come back to the church.” It turned out, she was right – sort of. I was in my 50s when I began to miss that outer component: ritual and a community to share it with.

And that was the start of me finding my true path – being a Jew.