Thursday, July 22, 2010

Annie Lewis on becoming a rabbi

My friend Annie Lewis recently put words to paper on her growth into the position. My writing teacher in college said that with good writing, you can feel the texture between your finger tips. "You feel it?" he'd ask.

You be the judge here.

This was published on the Lilith Magazine Blog and seems to be part of a series.

Letter from Jerusalem:  Listening on the next generation of Conservative women rabbis

“Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6
Blessed are You, God, who clothes the naked. My mother’s closet is full of clothing from various eras of her life. Suits hang in every jewel-tone from decades of shul-going. She has even saved her Bat Mitzvah dress, yellowed lace with patches of pastel. When I was younger, I used to love playing dress-up in her closet, awaiting the day I would grow into her clothes.

Among the diverse discussion topics when a group of women rabbinical students gathered in Jerusalem living rooms this past year was the contents of our own closets: how we see ourselves and how we are seen; the ways we choose to cover and uncover; the garments we have inherited and those we have taken upon ourselves. My hevruta (study partner), Kerrith Solomon, and I convened this group of women from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler school so we could talk with our peers about things we have not yet had safe space to explore within our schooling, reclaiming and exploring our identities as women on our paths toward the rabbinate in the Conservative Movement.

For my first two years in rabbinical school, I felt pressure to be both a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. I accepted the full gamut of ritual obligation, but never had any conversation around integrating my gender identity into the role of rabbi. I fastened kippot to my hair and didn’t quite feel at home. When a male colleague argued that all female students should be obligated to wear kippot, my reflex was to guard my hair from the demands of others, to preserve it as a domain for self-expression. I found myself choosing to wear my most feminine garb to class and spending time in front of the mirror with a mascara wand. Encountering older layers of text from the tradition I thought I was in love with, I experienced a sense of loss and lack that I didn’t know how to name. A committed feminist, I felt alienated and disconnected from so-called holy sources that related to women as objects and second-class citizens. Many days, I felt like a spinning head, detached from my body. Often, I would end up with the mascara as a smudged trail down my cheeks.

Some of the women in our group wear kippot, others choose not to cover their hair. Still others have dipped into Jerusalem’s colorful market of headscarves and hats of all shapes and sizes. Some of us worry about how Conservative congregations might react to a rabbi in a fancy hat on the bimah. Two female classmates who wear kippot cover the covering with a scarf or beret when venturing into public spaces in Jerusalem.

Walking through Jerusalem, I often feel as though everyone is in costume or uniform. We all feel hyperaware of how what we wear here conveys messages about who we are. When I arrived in Israel, newly engaged, I bought a book with instructions for tying intricate designs with headscarves. Some days, I have wrapped my hair in flowery cloths, perhaps for practice or perhaps to entertain my curiosity, noticing if people treat me differently when I code into my outfit a message of being off-limits. Though my mother might have palpitations if she saw me, there is something sacred to me in making space for ritual role experimentation.

As I brace myself to enter marriage this summer, I am particularly grateful for one open conversation we had in the group around roles and responsibilities at home, telling the stories of the models we knew growing up. One classmate shared how her mother pours her father’s cereal every morning. Another spoke of her parents’ emphasis on performing chores of choice, having themselves been raised with servants in South Africa. Where will we carry on family traditions and where will we create practices of our own?

This year, meeting as a group with our teacher Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, we have looked at halakhic and traditional texts and examined our own emotions around niddah, mikveh and kissui rosh (head covering). We have spoken about boundary issues, rereading the laws of “yihud,” in the Shulkhan Arukh (a 16th century authoritative Jewish legal anthology), which regulate men and women spending time alone together).

Some women were comforted to find a place in the traditional sources that supports our right to say, “These are my boundaries.” I saw it as an opening for discussion of sexual tension and transference that may arise in pastoral work and steps we can take to establish healthy contours for relationships in our professional lives. We encounter these conventional codes for gender relations with awareness that in our group and communities, people have a range of identities in regards to sexual orientation and differing comfort levels with intimacy of various sorts.

What does it mean to pick up and dust off things the Conservative Movement has stored away in corners, such as hair-covering, or niddah (the laws mandating, in their most stringent interpretation, no physical contact at all between husband and wife during her period and for seven days after) that I have generally associated with Orthodoxy and with the perpetuation of gender hierarchy? Why are we reaching for these rituals? Can we call our search for meaning feminist, or is it something else?
One participant spoke of her commitment to observing the laws set out by Jewish tradition as well as the need to attribute new meanings to Halakhah to make it relevant to our lives. “When the tradition says go to mikveh, I go. I find joy in fulfilling the mitzvah. I find it meaningful to have time apart from my partner to reinvest in my self. I find immersion in the water relaxing. Once, a mikveh attendant told me that if you pray in the mikveh, God will hear your prayers more. I have made it a time for spontaneous prayer, to acknowledge what is happening in my life, to ask God for strength and healing. I feel like it is the closest thing I have to a “Holy of Holies,” an intimate and quiet space, alone with God.”

* * * * * * * * *

“God, open my lips and my mouth will sing your praise”
I have a recurring dream in which my teeth fall out into my hand. I have spent the past few years in rabbinical school spiritually sore, as if my soul has been teething; as if I have been waiting for something to break through, to catch the cries and to form them into words. In this group, I feel finally able to speak, to articulate, to give language to an intensive search effort for who I might be, as a rabbi and as a person.

One Wednesday evening, over lentil stew, we spent time on questions of feeling authentic, about perceptions of what a rabbi “looks like,” about dreams of becoming pregnant or raising families and concerns about how that might impact our careers.

“How big do you want to be?” Aderet Okon Drucker was asked by a mentoring rabbi when she sought advice about which internships and jobs to pursue as she begins her rabbinic career.
“How big do you want to be?” What does it mean to want to be big? What sacrifices will we have to make in order to make room for our influence to grow? Are we allowed to not want to be big? We discovered we were annoyed with the go-to definition of “big” and the culture of comparing congregation size–A, B, C, D–that we have heard permeates rabbis’ gatherings. I joked that mine would be a Double D, if only there were a correlation between shul size and bra size.

One woman redefined big as an integrated identity that allows you to be your many selves as a rabbi, partner, parent, friend, daughter and person. Being big would mean having a sense of self that could hold and weave together many facets of life beyond the professional realm.

We spoke of hopes that our generation can redefine rabbinic identity in this way, taking some of the pressure off of the expectations of unyielding self-sacrifice placed on the rabbi. Our vision of the rabbinate would involve a makeover of communal expectations, in which it would be acceptable and encouraged for clergy to have time and life outside of the pulpit/office etc. We see benefit in this for rabbis-to-be and rabbis-that-are of all genders.

If this is what it means to be big, I would like to super-size my rabbinate.

-Annie Lewis

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Rotem Bill explained

People have spilled large amounts of ink, virtual and tangible, about the recent conversion bill which hit the Israeli Knesset (Congress) floor, a law which would give designated Israeli Orthodox courts the sole rights over conversion to Judaism, and hence hold a monopoly over the age-old question of "who is a Jew" (certainly in reference to immigration to Israel).

The news left the banter of the Jewish world with Alana Newhouse's NYT Op/Ed; it continues to flow through the pages of the Jerusalem Post, HaAretz and every Jewish blog I've encountered thus far.
But my friend Jonah Lowenfeld has provided the best analysis I've seen thus-far. He outlines the politics of how the bill once really was out to help Russian immigrants gain status as Jews in Israel but turned to a political barnstorm of attempting to buy Charedi votes, giving political muscle to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and beyond.

If you read one article on the topic, this is the one to read.

It appears that the bill has been tabled until the next session of the Knesset, in no small part due to the outpouring of letters from Diaspora communities to PM Bibi Netanyahu (upwards of 50,000 — 25,000 through the Masorti website, alone).

Haven't written yet? Make it happen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Israel and the Diaspora — Embracing Tension

A Dvar Torah for last week's parasha, "Matot-Masei." Delivered at Congregation Beth Judah, Ventnor, NJ.

V’horashtem et haaretz vishavtem ba. Ki lachem natati et haaretz lareshet otah.

“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” Numbers 33:53.

It’s a pretty specific order.

Nachmanides, Ramban, the medieval Biblical exegete, legalist and one of the first Kabbalists, lists this pasuk as the basis for one of Biblical imperatives — to dwell in the land and inherit it. Both Maimonides and Nachmanides cull the Torah and create a list of the 613 Biblically prescribed commandments — but Maimonides does not list a commandment to live in the land of Israel. Nachmanides does in his gloss to Maimonides’ list in Sefer HaMitzvot.

It’s another part of the chain in a centuries-long rabbinic argument about the place of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.

We find the aforementioned pasuk in Chapter 33, verse 53 of B’Midbar. But take a look at the previous 52 verses, beginning with the very name of the second of the two parshiot we read today, Mas’ei, from the Hebrew root to travel. It is a chapter of motion, of marching from place to place. Each detail matters. There is a story at each location in the journey.

From Ra’amses to Sukkot. To Etam. To  Pi-hahirot. To Marah. To Aleph. To Bet. To Tav.

And finally, enough of this wandering. You’ve gone far enough. Stop here. Go settle.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the current chief rabbi of England, describes this journey in these terms:

“The paradox of Jewish history is that though a specific territory, the holy land, is at its heart, Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel; more time longing for it than dwelling in it; more time traveling than arriving. Much of the Jewish story could be written in the language of today’s sedra: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”. 

Hence the tension. On the one hand, monotheism must understand G-d as non-territorial. The G-d of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this people, that place – as pagans believed. He exercises His power even in Egypt. He sends a prophet, Jonah, to Nineveh in Assyria. He is with another prophet, Ezekiel, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not. On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially, or to return subsequently. Why is the G-d beyond place to be found specifically in this place?”

All of this, of course, I am saying during the week following July Fourth, the anniversary of American Independence. This is a land that has given room for the Jewish people to grow unlike any other country in history. Without any doubt amidst tribulations, it is simultaneously a haven which has welcomed the tired, the poor and at this point in history, provides the opportunity for social mobility, for expression of autonomy.

This year was only the second time in the past 17 years that I have seen the fireworks on July Fourth. I’ve either been at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in Israel or in a different country. After a year of studying in Israel, celebrating American Independence Day earlier this week reinforced the absolutely unique place in history in which all of us sits today. I am an American Jew, dedicated to my home community, my multiple communities here. And simultaneously I feel indelibly tugged toward a land and people across an ocean.

I spent this past year thrusting myself toward an Israeli experience of life. Speaking Hebrew was my entrance to Judaism; I raced through the work books during my fourth grade Hebrew school class and asked my parents to go to Solomon Schechter the following year. And they agreed. I continue to find Israeli music to be one of the most authentic engagements with contemporary Jewish life, living lyrical expression of centuries’ old themes. Modern rock and roll painted with the brush strokes of ancient stones.

On May 31, I jumped and sang along with three generations to the 25th anniversary concert of the rock band Mashina. During sukkot, lights and sounds bounced off a wadi by the dead sea as both “secular” and religious Jews bounced up and down to Gidi Gov’s version of Yaaleh v’Yavo. This can only happen in Israel. As the refrain of another rock song goes, “Rak B’Yisrael.” Only in Israel.

We have autonomy in America. It is a home.

Israel represents the building of Jewish civil society, the religious and cultural dream of a nation. 

And because we have these multiple opportunities, these two nations of growth, of depth, along comes tension. And its one we should relish.

It’s fundamentally a tension which has been a part of our condition from the outset.

Complexity is the authentic position of our tradition. Certainly about this particular case of our relationship with Israel.

We find two polar statements in the writings of our Rabbis about our case at hand. From the Tannaitic Midrash Mekhilte d’Rabbi Ishmael: “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine presence was exiled with them.” Clearly, God’s presence is not tied to a particular place. After all, God is God.

In turn, virtually the opposite from Massechet Ketubot of the Talmud (110b): “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no God.”

Entrenched throughout the Rabbinic cannon there is conflict. Between the rationalism of the school of Ishmael and the irrationalism of the school of Akiva. Between describing an immanent and a transcendent God in peoples’ lives. And here, between God who is with the people Israel in all places and at all times and who has a special seat in Jerusalem.

“Can one find God, serve God, experience God, outside the holy land? asks Rabbi Sacks. Yes and No. If the answer were only Yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only No, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.”

As Jews sitting along the coast of America, the mandate in turn must be how we acknowledge and endorse the fundamental tensions in our lives and don’t reduce them to platitudes.

Complexity is not a vice. The tradition authentically articulates that this very struggle of identities is part of who we are as individuals, as a nation.

Chapter 53 portrays the wandering from place A to place B to place Z. And finally a chance to rest. It’s here we’re supposed to settle.

Yet it’s clearly more complicated than that, as well.

Let us not reduce our ideologies to black or white. We must live the paradox. Again, complexity is not a vice.

During this week of celebrating the country where we live, let us continue the conversation of defining the meaning of Judaism in a melting pot, one where we wear multiple hats of identity, where we pledge allegiance to more than one flag.

Indeed this is both the American dream and the Jewish vision for life, one of complexity, of depth. Of constant struggle not because of insecurity or angst.

But because living a tension is the authentic expression of our people.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on today's haftarah

An introduction that I gave to the haftarah reading today at Congregation Beth Judah  in Ventnor, NJ.

Today in this second of three haftarot of admonition, recited during the three weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the destruction of the 9th of Av, we read the excoriations of the prophet Jeremiah. 

We read of a people that has no concept of Wonder. Who has so quickly forgotten of being led through the wilderness. Who has turned to other Gods and prophesied by the them. Who has turned to idolatry in every form possible.

Shimu dvar Adonai, Jeremiah implores the people. Hear the word of God.

The people have not only forsaken God, but also created new cisterns which cannot hold water.

As the Hebrew idiom goes, ein mayim eleh Torah. Water is known exclusively as Torah. The people have restructured their entire world of following the Torah with a new, seemingly improved worldview. But they have done so with leaky plumbing!

During these three weeks of rebuke, we approach a day where we commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples, but also calamities in each generation. We read in Massechet Yoma of the Babylonian that the Temples were destroyed because of a breakdown in civil society, there was unchecked Sinat Chinam, acts of Senseless Hatred. Moral guidance stood in anarchy.

We read in today’s haftarah about ancient idolatry. So to are we conscious of modern day idolatry. Not in the form of bowing to idols, to offering incense to an iron, bronze or stone statue.

But the idolatry of paying more attention to a bright screen in our pockets than the people across the table from us. The idolatry of  knowing the details of the contracts of three basketball players rather than honoring the vows in the marriage contract on our walls. The idolatry of when our hearts are stirred with more wonder by the pyrotechnics of Pentium chips than the crest of the sun making its way above the horizon line of the Atlantic Ocean each morning.

Where are those Gods you made for yourself? asks Jeremiah at the end of chapter 2.
Let them arise and save you, if they can, in your hour of calamity. For your Gods have become, Oh Judah, as many as your towns!
 But don’t despair, we skip to chapter four of Jeremiah to conclude our haftarah on an optimistic note. If the people Israel returns to God. If it does not waver, then nations will bless themselves by the nation and praise themselves.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, we listen today to the scolding of Jeremiah, rebuke toward his generation and a message for us, as well. It’s a warning bell. Undergo Teshuva. Be aware of your actions.

Israelites stop along the way for Ice Cream

Reading today's parasha, I noticed that one of the stops that the Israelites make on their journey is Yotvata. YOTVATA!

They stop there, then they camp there.

במדבר לג
לג. ויסעו מחר הגדגד; ויחנו ביטבתה
לד ויסעו מיטבתה, ויחנו בעברנה    

Numbers 33
33 And they journeyed from Hor-haggidgad, and camped in Yotvata
34 And they journeyed from Yotvata, and camped in Abronah.

Shoko b'sakit clearly makes their life complete, too.

(I'm aware that this isn't the actual Yotvata. Please laugh anyway. Thanks)