For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.

 

Advertisements

The Gay Child in My Daughter’s First Grade Class

February 18, 2016

by Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold

It was a parenting moment that came much sooner than I thought it would. My six year-old looked over at me at the dinner table and told me that her teacher had said that a boy “can’t marry a boy, and a girl can’t marry a girl.”

I paused, chewing.

“Well, what do you think?,” I asked her.

“Well, I know that isn’t true.”

She knows that isn’t true because we have had gay couples at our Shabbat table. She knows it isn’t true because she has a friend with two moms, and because her little sister has a boy in her class with two dads. She knows that sometimes boys marry boys. She knows that gay people exist. This is 2016.

I responded by reminding her (and my two- and four-year-old, who were also at the table) what I’ve told my kids many times: It’s true that MOST of the time, a boy marries and girl, and a girl marries a boy. But SOMEtimes, it does happen that a boy marries a boy and a girl marries a girl. (I think that “married” is the only word they have for attraction and romance, not to mention domestic partnership.)

I told her that it made me sad that her Morah said that it doesn’t happen. It made me sad for the people who are gay. This is how Hashem made them, and this Morah is pretending they do not exist. What I didn’t tell her, is that I was most sad for the gay child in her class. Because chances are that yes, even in her Orthodox day school, there is a child, or children, who will later discover (or might already know) that they are gay. Think what it does to these children to hear their Morah deny their existence.

My daughter knew her teacher wasn’t right, not only because of the gay people in her life. She also had read, many times, our books by Todd Parr, such as The Family Book, which states unequivocally, “Some families have two moms; some families have two dads,” along with “Some families look like each other; some families look like their pets.” Also true.

My daughter had also recently read a book called And Tango Makes Three, a true story about penguins in Central Park Zoo. Two boy penguins are not interested in the girl penguins, but are interested in each other and become companions. They are sad when they discover that they do not have an egg in their nest, like all the other penguins. The zookeeper finds an extra egg that had no penguin to take care of it, and Tango is born, making their happy union into a family. My daughter got the message, that if it’s biologically true for penguins, it could also be biologically true for humans.

These books were baby gifts from a dear long-time friend of my husband’s, who happens to be gay. I have to admit that, while I was content to read the Todd Parr books to my kids right away, I hid away And Tango Makes Three for many years – six years to be exact. I had only just pulled it off the top shelf and left it around for my first grader to read. It was not because my children weren’t ready for the book, but because I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for what my children’s questions might be. I wasn’t sure of my own feelings about homosexulaity in the Orthodox community. I wasn’t sure how I would respond, how I would engage with my children’s curiosity.

What I’ve learned, as a parent and as an educator, is that many of these conversations can be quite simple. Especially with young kids, and even with older ones, the most important message is simply that gay people are here. They are all around us, they are among us, they might even be us. They are Jewish and not, Orthodox and not, married and not, with children and not. A simple dinner conversation, spoken in soft tones, and in six-year-old language, can make it clear to children that gay people are here, and that Hashem made them that way.

Thankfully the Orthodox community is beginning to address the reality that LGBTQ individuals are among us. But beyond that, I write this piece in order to model what it might look like to have conversations with our children about complex and difficult situations. LGBTQ issues are only one of many tough subjects that may arise around the dinner table. Be ready for other important conversations, too. Be ready to explain that we don’t drive on Shabbat while other Jews do, without demonizing or disenfranchising those other Jews, and without diminishing our deeply-held value of halacha. My daughter recently said that all Jewish girls wear skirts that cover the knee. I needed to address the fact that even though it is what we do in our own family, there are Jews who dress differently. Complex conversations like these also happen outside the Jewish realm, of course. We need to discuss racism in a way that children can understand, explaining that there have been times in history when people with a different skin color were treated differently, terribly, were even enslaved, and this is wrong. Somehow, we are well prepared with robust information for our children about why they shouldn’t talk to strangers and why it’s important that they work hard in school. Let’s also be ready to converse with them about the complexities of life.

The conversation I had with my children about homosexuality was not complicated. I didn’t quote psukim from the Torah, or enter into halachic discourse. There will be time for that. Parents of adolescents will need to take a more nuanced approach. However, if parents speak openly and honestly about these complex topics when children are young, then the conversations when they are older become less fraught, more open and honest.

And then there’s my daughter’s teacher. I think about what that teacher might have responded. Had she been adequately prepared and trained for this kind of question, she could have spoken about the fact that each person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. She could have been honest about the fact that gay marriage is legal in Canada, and has been for over a decade. She might have even been able to voice her own discomfort (or the halachic difficulties) with gay marriage, while also acknowledging that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. But the teacher was clearly caught off guard, and was not prepared to offer any answer, hence she simply brushed the question aside.

I was inspired by this video from an Eshel retreat. I hope that someday, every LGBTQ Orthodox young person can say something like this: “I’m still a Bais Yaakov girl; I just happen to be queer.” I think about that gay child in my daughter’s class. Will that child find a safe space to be both Orthodox and gay? Will he need to bifurcate his identity, thinking that he cannot be both frum and homosexual? He will, no doubt, face many challenges. But let him at least be recognized, rather than invisible.

Let us urge our day schools to equip our children’s teachers with the skills and sensitivity needed to respond to their questions. Let us open the door for these conversations with our children while they are young, although it is never too late to start. Let us take responsibility for making our community open and honest about the fact that gay people are among us. Do it for the gay child in your child’s class… who could even be your own.


The Purpose of Mitzvot by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 15, 2016

mosesDo mitzvot have reasons or are they purely a Divine decree?  Should we live lives insulated from other cultures or integrated with them?   Is religious life an ascetic one or should we take advantage of life’s pleasures?  Lots of theological profundities which impact the way we live our lives are the subject of much difference of opinion in Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud.

 
Different eras have required different answers to these fundamental questions.  For instance, the German Pietists in the 12th century were insular ascetics while at the same time in Spain the Sephardic sages were engaged in Spanish life, its pleasures and its poetry.

 
How should we see such central theological questions in our own time?

 
We are in the midst of reading on Shabbat about the crafting and erection of and the services within the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The Ark served as the hidden power center of the Tabernacle.  It contained the tablets of the law and was flanked on top by two golden kiruvim, cherubs.

 
We understand the need for an ark to honor and hold the tablets, it is something we ourselves have in our synagogues, but why golden cherubs?  Indeed, their idol-like appearance seems like a dangerous risk.  In fact there are those who say the heads of the cherubim were, like in the vision of Ezekiel, the heads of a shor, a cow, forming a sort of golden calf.

 

Maimonides (who very much believed that all mitzvot have reasons) in the Moreh Nivuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, 3:49, writes:
Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.

 
According to encyclopedia of myths and legends:

The cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull (cow, calf), the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces.

 
The cherubim created the expectation of a deity in their center, but in the Mishkan, instead of an idol between the cherubs as in the ancient Near East, there was empty space.  It is from that space that the Divine voice emerged, teaching the Jewish people that their G-d is not concrete, not limited, without image.   That in the emptiness the Divine emerges.

 
We live in an era in which taamey hamitzvot, understanding the reasons for mitzvot as impactful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is important.   Today the majority of the Jewish people do not find much meaning in keeping the Torah just because they are commanded.  They are proud to be Jewish but it is the nature of our era that without a profound sense of why mitzvot are beneficial, there will be little interest.  If we do not choose the correct attitudes for our era, we will be bereft.