The Feminist Torah

Hope you all enjoy this d’var I gave on the online Shabbat service with Sim Shalom.  Please make sure you are part of the Cool Shul email list to know when the next online service will be (email Rabbi Di at diane@coolshul.org to get on our mailing list).


There is so much going on this week in Parshat Nasso, it’s hard to even know where to begin.  So, I’m going to focus on 3 elements that I am going to attempt to tie together in the name of feminism.  Now, This is definitely not a favorite parshah for feminists, but I am actually going to do my best to turn it into one.

In this parsha, the ordeal of the sotah (going aside) is outlined by God.  It goes like this:  If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful – innocent or not, he takes her to the Priest with an offering.  The Priest sprinkles dust from the ground of the tabernacle into a vessel of holy water.  He lets down her hair and musses it up (in a degrading way, not a Pantene commercial kind of way).  Then the Priest tells the woman to swear to her innocence and he announces that if she is innocent, the curse of the waters (the dusty water he created)  will have no effect on her if she drinks it.  If she is guilty, the magic potion will make her thighs fall away and her body swell (believed to mean she will become infertile).  The Priest writes these curses on a scroll and then dissolves the text into the waters. The woman drinks these waters of “bitterness.”  If her body swells, she’s guilty.  If nothing happens, she is innocent.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  This section of the Torah sounds far from a feminist statement.  However, I wonder if the complete opposite is true.

Most commentators agree that this process was probably never carried out, or that if it was, the cursed waters had no chance of making the woman’s body swell or her thighs fall.  Whether you believe in human or divine authorship of Torah, one thing is clear to me, whoever came up with this system of determining innocence or guilt wanted the families to remain in tact and for the woman to be perceived as innocent, whether she was or not. 

Even Imagine that perhaps a WOMAN author wrote this, or at least, God’s feminine voice. 

See, here’s what’s really going on from a feminist point of view — Allow the men to feel they are in control.  Allow them to think they have humiliated this woman.  Allow them to think that the truth is about to be uncovered in a most demeaning way.  Allow them to believe in the magical properties of the water… but actually, the men are duped.  The woman has zero chance of being biologically affected (unless her guilt allows some psychosomatic symptoms to appear).  Maybe even the priest knows she will be safe!  I can hear the priest now, whispering to some poor feminine soul standing there scared out of her mind, “Don’t worry, I have to do this to appease them, but nothing is going to happen to you.  Just play along.” 

So, Is it possible this was a woman’s idea?  A feminist idea?

The next section of this Torah portion deals with the rules for when one takes the vow of a Nazarite, giving himself or HERSELF completely to God.  That’s right, I said HERSELF.

The Torah clearly states that either a man or woman can make this special vow.  Yet, the following 19 verses, which outline the rules and regulations of becoming and being a nazarite, use only male pronouns.  HE shall separate HIMSELF from wine.  Shall no razor come on HIS head.  HE shall be holy.  The Torah makes a choice here, long before the days of saying “he or she” to describe these acts in the masculine only.   The Torah adheres to the male pronoun even when women are specifically named and included.

So, this made me think… well, how often does the Torah remain in the masculine when the feminine is supposed to be implied?  Even God is mostly referred to in masculine pronouns and possessives, but is the entire Torah like this moment?  Is it ALL supposed to read “he or she”? 

Before this chapter is even over, we have the Priestly Blessing.  God tells Moses to tell Aaron that he should bless the children of Israel (assuming this includes the ladies too) using the following words… words used and beloved, since these ancient times, that are now essential pieces of Judeo-Christian practice…

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishmerecha — God will bless you (masculine) and protect you (m)

Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka – God will shine HIS face upon you (m) and be gracious to you(m).

Yisa adonai eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom – God will lift HIS face toward you (m) and place in you (m), peace.

All of this is in the masculine, both as it refers to God and in the masculine form of the word “you”.  But by what we learned just a few verses ago, this masculine form very well implies the feminine too.  

For modern men and women, no matter how much we try not to give God a gender, or to think of Jewish practice as being for men alone, all of this masculinity weighs on us.  Even if we know there is a feminine aspect of God, understand the feminine of these rules, are aware of the feminine existing beneath the surface of all of those male pronouns… we just can’t FEEL it in our bones.  We women feel excluded.  We can’t help but feel like visitors in this male Jewish world.  But let’s try this, with all of that femininity that is implied being brought front and center…

 Ladies AND gentlemen, imagine you are about to be blessed by the words of God.  This is a feminine God.  A God that knows these waters will cause no harm.  A God who welcomes women into complete service for Her.  A God who wants to protect you with Motherly love.  The priest raises his (yes HIS) hands before you and says:

SHE will bless you, brothers and sisters, and She will protect you.  SHE will shine her face upon all of you and be gracious to you.  SHE will lift her face to yours, Her sons and Her daughters, and will implant within you an inner-completeness known as “Shalom”.

How does that feel?  Any different???

Shabbat Shalom to all of you.  May we all embrace our masculine sides, our feminine sides, and never forget that the Torah is for all of us.

Feminist Torah

Are We Home Yet?

Close your eyes…

Oh, wait.  If you close your eyes you won’t be able to read this. Okay, read this, try to remember it, and then close your eyes.

Imagine you are standing before God.

Pause!  I heard that.  Those voices in your head that say no to the idea of God just spoke up.  Those knee-jerk reactions that tug at our hearts and minds and wrinkle our brows with dismissive contempt just woke up.  That intellectual side (you know, that side loves Bill Maher), just hollered that it’s silly to even entertain a notion such as God.  And that internal conflict recalling every zealot and extremist who has ever used the word “God” to his/her advantage just flared up.  Yes, they are all there.  Let’s acknowledge all of those voices and try to let them go.  Let’s put down that baggage and live lighter for a second.  I’m not going to tell you in this posting that God is “real” anyway, so relax and go back to the exercise…

Imagine you are standing before God.  Allow yourself to fully accept this Presence before you.  Don’t change the word God.  Stay with it for a moment.  Exist within belief.  Keep your eyes closed and don’t worry what God looks like.  Just sense this Energy as light and heat, warming your skin, illuminating your thoughts, activating every cell of your body.  This presence isn’t frightening or threatening, but comforting.  Free-fall into this promise of peace.

Now…

Are we “home”?

When we were in the womb, we were completely warm and supported without worry or care.  From the moments of our births, everything changed.  Now we are searching, fighting, wanting, needing, worried, stressed, busy, fearful, hungry (just to name a few!).  And as we grow up and become educated (or not), choose mates (or not), have children (or not), and live in one place (or another), we keep making choices following the human desire to make life better for ourselves. There is a constant seeking for more… maybe more money, maybe more love, maybe more peace, maybe more fight, but our commonality lives within “the more.”  But what are we really looking for?  Isn’t it, in some ways, to find home, wherever and whatever that it?  Aren’t we desperately hunting for a way to again be completely warm and supported without worry or care?  To return from where we came while still being alive?  To find an inner-understanding that feels like home.

In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, he says, “The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams…  And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases. And that famous shortstop Odysseus also played this game, propelled around the world by the same dream, of returning home in the end, transformed by the journey and healed by it as well. And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different, and so are we… We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance— pushing forward to get back home.”

When I studied music, we talked about song and sonata form in the same way.  We hear a section of music and are pulled away from it to something other, and then we are returned to the familiar but we don’t experience it the same way the second time.  I recall my music professor saying, “It’s like going to college.  You leave for school, then come home for the summer.  You are standing in the exact same same room you stood in for 18 years of your life, but now it is totally different because of your experiences.”  In this scenario, home is oddly unsatisfying.

Maybe all of the running around we do in our lives is simply to find “home.”  We all know it doesn’t matter how much money we have or whether or not we have a wonderful marriage or even amazing children or an interesting, lucrative career.  We can have all of that and still be searching, searching, searching.  There is no perfect place to be home or perfect situation to call home.  Home is internal.  Home is a practice.

And this is where God come in.

Those of you who know me know I do not care whether or not God exists.  But I do believe that life is more three-dimensional when I can imagine that God is real.  When I can pretend to be standing before that Presence.  When I can feel that inner-knowing, and in that frame of mind, ask myself, “What’s next?” 

If, for a little while, we could truly believe in God, and truly connect with that energy, what would we think about ourselves?  Would we still judge ourselves so harshly?  How much compassion would we have for our spouses, our children, our parents, our enemies? What apologies would we realize we owe?  What would we regret saying or posting or suggesting? 

Discuss this with God.  Debate and argue with God if you must, but at least give yourself permission to “believe” for a minute or two.  Give yourself permission to define yourself and your surroundings as you believe a loving God would.  Give yourself permission to “go home.”

It doesn’t matter if God is real.

I’ll be searching for my way “home” this Friday at our Cool Shul Shabbat (click here for info) and again this Saturday morning online through Sim Shalom (click here to join in).  Come on by on Friday or visit the stream on Saturday.  I’d be honored to be a part of your journey toward home.

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image from: http://www.happynews.com/living/home-energy/home-energy-efficiency.htm

Who Needs Ritual? Uh, me!

There is a blue and white NASA sip-top cup in my cupboard.  Every time I see this cup it reminds me of when my son was very little.  Every night after dinner, my husband or I would fill that cup with milk (okay, it was rice milk… but I didn’t want to be that LA mom who was watching his dairy… milk sounds much more “normal”) and take my son upstairs to start his bedtime ritual:  Bath, pajamas, sipping the milk while we read three stories, brushing teeth, one more story, then music on and lights off.

Parents of young children are always very concerned with night-time rituals because we want to get the kids off to sleep and have a minute to ourselves.  We are hoping the ritual aspect, the things we do outside of ourselves, will provide the impetus needed for an internal change… in this case, sleepiness.  However, we adults, often overlook the fact that we need rituals too. How many of us follow the recommendations ourselves for a good night’s sleep?  Things like… decluttering our bedrooms or turning off electronics a couple of hours before bedtime?  We need rituals too to cue our inner changes and be as healthy as we can be.

Religion is very much based in ritual.  Sometimes we realize that those rituals are there to inspire an inner change.  Sometimes we just do them because we are “supposed” to or because it “feels weird not to.”  But truly, our spiritual rituals are there to do exactly what the night-time ritual did for my son.  They are external actions intended to start an internal change… an inner journey, an inner acceptance, an inner realization.

Take the Passover seder, for example, which many of us will be taking part in during the coming week.  This tradition is chock full of ritual.  We eat and read and sing in a specific order to affect personal change. We eat matzah to remind us of the hardships that many used to feel, still feel, and will feel in the future, and to remind us that sometimes we have to act right away even when we don’t feel quite ready.  We eat fresh vegetables and eggs in honor of spring and rebirth and the fragility of all life.  We eat horseradish to snap ourselves out of our normal states and awaken ourselves to the pain of a life enslaved.  We pour wine onto our plates to remind us that we should never fully celebrate our good fortune when someone else was harmed for us to have it.  All of that is part of the seder to lead us to gratitude and acceptance of the here and now and inspire us to be the change the world needs.  And that’s just the beginning.  There is so much more.

Now… we can all sit through a seder and eat and read and listen and only allow the experience to live on the surface, but doing the ritual isn’t the point of the ritual.  Each action and story is there to point us in the direction of truly being the people we would like to think we are.  I mean, how often do we really stop and ask what life would be like if we weren’t free to make our own choices and then remember to immerse ourselves in thanks?  How often do we admit that sometimes we feel like we aren’t free to make our own choices?  Do we try to either have more autonomy or accept that those choices really were ours (see my last blog on that!)?  How many of us know what it feels like to be enslaved by something other than true slavery, such as our work or our worries or our egos, but are afraid to admit it or do anything about it?  How often do we complain and kvetch about the little things, but deep down we know that one tiny tragedy would turn all of that upside down and inside out?  Do we remember to be in gratitude for a tragedy-free day?  The seder is here to help us connect and re-connect to all of that.  But we have to invite the experience in.  We have to be active participants in taking in the words and songs and tastes and smells, and moving them beyond the surface into our souls.

Whether you are Jewish or not, plan to be at a seder this year or not, consider the importance of ritual in your life.  We don’t need them.  But sometimes the candles burning on a Shabbat table, the wafer on the tongue in a church,  the sound of the call to worship in a mosque is exactly what we need to remember to be the change.

Join us for our ritual Saturday, April 23.  Today is the last day to sign up for our Cool Shul seder.  Click here:

http://coolshul.brownpapertickets.com

seder plate image

“Suffering” in Rubber Gloves

I have pink rubber gloves on as I scrub a pan. The chugging of the dishwasher and the rumbling of the washing machine are a duet in the background. My son, sick with the flu for the 6th day, sleeps in the next room.

It is Monday after spring break, and we just returned home from a family trip to the east coast. My son got sick there, but we had to fly with him anyway in spite of our efforts to switch flights. Now he’s missing his first day back at school, and I’m home with him. I have a giant pile of career-related things that have to get done but aren’t getting done (including writing an over-due blog… what should I write about?), and because of a miscommunication, my housekeeper is not coming. So, in spite of sick child (luckily he is sleeping), in spite of work, I am scrubbing surfaces and sanitizing door handles and running laundry and changing sheets.

In my head there are sounds that remind me of what Yosemite Sam sounds like when he’s really, really frustrated with Bugs Bunny.

But wait! I think this may be a spiritual moment… a spiritual opportunity. I just know it is.  Let’s check in with two of my favorite Rabbinic authors and see what they have to say.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (I know, I quote him a lot) talks about tension in his book Jewish with Feeling. He wrote, “If there is a tension between what we know in our minds and what we feel in our hearts, then let’s stay with that tension.” He also wrote, “… allow the tension of contradiction without seeking to reduce it.”  Rabbi Alan Lew (who was a deep student of Zen Buddhism and later became a Conservative Rabbi) in his book Be Still and Get Going said, “The amelioration of suffering in not the central imperative of Judaism. The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world. …I think we can safely assume that if we realized the sacred in the moment, we would be rather less inclined to wish that we were in some other moment.”

Well now!  Some may think living with one’s tension or frustration or suffering is only a very Buddhist thing to do, but apparently it is actually a very Jewish thing to do too.

So, while I’m certainly not experiencing “suffering” today, I am having a woe-is-me moment after so many days of being the nurse, wanting to get back to work, and just wishing someone else was here to do the stupid laundry and disinfect the place (as my friend would say, “first world problems”). But maybe this is a moment for me not to think about where I wish I was or what I wish I was doing, but simply own this task at this time in this place as the right thing for right now.   In fact, this is what I am choosing to do.

How often do we choose something but grumble about it along the way? I had a teacher who used to say to me, “Diane, are you willing or unwilling? If you’re willing, do it, and do it well. If you’re not, don’t do it and stop talking about it.”  I use that line of thinking with my students all the time. 🙂  In this situation, I am actually very willing in spite of the pull to be somewhere else. So why am I grumbling? I need to stop that Yosemite Sam voice in my head and instead find peace in the pan I am scrubbing, peace in the sheets I am changing, peace in the sparkle of the wiped down faucet.

So, let’s try this again. I am going to listen to Rabbi Lew and bring the sacred into everything I encounter. There is something glorious about watching your child sleep, knowing you are there for him. There is something holy about taking it upon yourself to make sure your home is clean. There is comfort in hugging those toasty towels from the dryer. And I know everyone will feel gratitude tonight when settling down into fresh sheets at bedtime.

I sound like a Buddhist monk going about my daily chores, but truly, this is the being-in-the-moment of parenthood. And doing this, I am expressing my Jewishness as described by Rabbi Lew. Tomorrow I can express my Jewishness by being a Rabbi and Cantor. Today, being a mindful Jewish mother will do.

Want a seder but don’t want to cook?? Cool Shul will be having a catered Community Seder for the second night of Passover. Please join us and invite your family and friends.  All ages welcome.  Click here for information: http://coolshul.brownpapertickets.com

Rabbi on a Mountain Top?

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Judaism has been described as a “householder religion.”  What does that mean?  It means that although we have synagogues as centers, a great deal of Jewish expression takes place in the home.  Think about it.  What gives Judaism its flavor and makes it as much a cultural expression as a religious one?  It’s all of the traditions that live and breathe within the family walls.  From Shabbat candles on the dinner table to Chanukah candles in the chanukiah, from the ketubah hanging on the wall to the mezuzah hanging at a gentle angle on the door frame, from the braided challah on Friday night to the crunchy matzah on the seder plate, much of what we all do Jewishly has nothing to do with Temples or services or Rabbis.  They have to do with family.

In the book the Jew and the Lotus, it is suggested that this “householder” status is why Judaism has survived so many trials and tribulations.  No matter what was going on “out there,” whether families were being taken from their homes, or synagogues were destroyed, or wars were being fought… there was always Judaism taking place “in here.”  If there was a morsel of bread, there was a blessing.

Thinking of Judaism this way renews my desire to hold it close.  Even if we are not traditionally observant, every day holds opportunities to live more beautifully, more peacefully, more sumptuously, and Judaism in the home can be, if we allow it to be, the medium through which we reach these global goals.  As I told my students: It’s not that we are saying that only Jews are supposed to live this way, but for us, Judaism in how we remember to live this way.  So, if we choose a blessing to remind us to be thankful, then we we just used Judaism for the universal goal of gratitude.  If we choose candles to remind us to bring our personal sparks into the world, then we just used Judaism for the universal goal of contributing to the greater good.  If we eat matzah to remember to fight for those who are enslaved, then we used Judaism for the universal goal of working toward freeing those who are captive.  Now, I know we can be grateful, be global contributors, and be freedom fighters without Judaism, but keeping this householder religion near and dear makes it a little easier not to forget.

There is a challenge, though, that comes with this householder nature, especially for those of us who are teachers of this evolving tradition.  Rabbis don’t sit upon mountain tops contemplating the universe, nor do we live in seclusion, dedicating ourselves to the pursuits of knowledge and understanding.  We are men and women who are often married, often with children, paying bills, getting child care, doing the dishes, throwing in the laundry, and cursing when we realize the car won’t start.  We are “householder” Rabbis… not separate from our communities, but right in the middle of the storm beside them.

Part of me wishes we could go sit on a mountain top and contemplate God instead of running to the grocery store.  We’d get a step closer to spiritual mastery for sure.  But wouldn’t we lose our connection to the worries of our communities?  I’m glad that when one of our students got sick in class and threw up, I (as a parent) barely flinched at needing to clean it up (in fact, my co-teacher said Cool Shul’s slogan should be: Cool Shul… Where You’re Rabbi Will Clean Up Your Puke).  I’m glad that when I encounter families with issues with spouses or children, I understand both the pain and euphoria of those family relationships.  And you know what?  I may be a Rabbi, but I, too, find that days can pass, and in the flurry of busy-ness, I forget to plug into my householder religion.  So If you are struggling with finding time for spiritual expression, welcome to the club.  Me too.  I’m no different.  I’m the same trench as you are.

So, I’m starting to think this householder-religion-spiritual-leader thing may actually be more of an opportunity than an obstacle.  If Rabbis were to be above worldly struggles, dedicated completely to spiritual pursuits without the day-to-day complexities, then wouldn’t we be asking too much of all of you if we ask you to try to elevate to such a spiritual level while holding on to those day to day complexities?   Like home and job and traffic and finances and family?  But if Rabbis have to struggle right next to you, then maybe we can use our training and understanding to help discover with you the biggest spiritual secrets.  Such as how to live, love, and act more like the holiest versions of ourselves while… getting two cranky, tired kids washed, dressed, brushed, fed and out the door for school on a Monday morning after winter break.  When we have THAT answer, THEN we will have spiritual mastery!!!   🙂

I look forward to being in the trenches with you.

Please join Cool Shul for a Purim Shabbat celebration and pot-luck dinner this Friday, March 18 at One Roof in Venice, CA.

Click here for the evite: http://evite.me/y4v2D3qJb7

Click here for the sign-up for Friday for supplies needed for the homeless: http://www.signupgenius.com/go/30e0945afad2fa13-blessing

Am I a “Member of the Tribe”?

Bob Dylan is just like Judaism.

Yes, I know Bob Dylan is Jewish, but that’s not what I mean.  Appreciating Bob Dylan is kind of like appreciating Judaism.

Let me explain.

Looking for something different to listen to this morning, I stumbled upon a playlist of Bob Dylan covers.  Now, I’m not one who often listens to Bob Dylan, but I certainly love many of his songs. So, I clicked on the playlist figuring it would be a wonderful education in all of the music I probably know and love but have no idea were written by him.  I heard Adele, Rod Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Duran Duran, Natalie Cole, Sting, Maroon 5, U2, Billy Joel, Kesha, Dionne Warwick and Wyclef Jan.  Like any of of those artists?  No?  Well, how about Rage Against the Machine, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash or Patti LaBelle?  The list of artists who have sung a Bob Dylan song goes on and on and on.  We can appreciate him through the lens of hip-hop, grunge, R&B, pop, and country.  The result?  People with different tastes with different opinions can all have a favorite song by the one and only, Bob Dylan.

So Bob Dylan is just like Judaism. One can experience, appreciate, even adore Bob Dylan in a myriad of ways, and one can experience, appreciate, even adore Judaism in a myriad of ways too.   We can enter through doors framed in Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, Post-Denominational, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, contemplative, ecstatic, traditional, even now Jewish Universalist flavors, all heading toward the same Jewish sanctuary. In a way, each movement and tradition is “covering” one artist… Judaism.

Fortunately for Bob Dylan, not too many people get into fist-fights or call each other names over who likes Bob Dylan more or who’s cover of “Forever Young” is the best.  Unfortunately for the Jewish people, we can’t say the same.  We do get into constant battles over who is more Jewish or who’s version of Judaism is more legitimate.  Some Orthodox point at the modern, progressive movements and claim they are not even Jewish.  Some progressives point at the Orthodox and claim they are backward or crazy.

Instruments on Shabbat?  — Never!

Not egalitarian?  — Forget it!

Altered liturgy?  — Are you nuts?!

A Jewish Universalist?  — No such thing!

Jews of Ethiopia or Uganda or India?  — Are they really Jewish?”

This is where I think some Jews have lost their ways and why I have always struggled with the term, “Member of The Tribe.”  Once there is a fence that keeps members “in” or “out” we have a problem.  Who is the Head Rabbi of this Tribe?  Who is it that decides if what I am and what I do is Jewish enough? Who decides with whom I can pray and with whom I cannot?  Who decides if a conversion is legitimate or not?  Who gets to say that a child raised Jewish without a Jewish mother isn’t Jewish?  And what if I come from a community that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional Judaism of any of those movements?  Is my community “in the tribe” or “out”?

The website and non-profit Bechol Lashon (In Every Tongue) is an amazing resource for understanding diversity within Judaism.  According to their site, a 2002 study showed that there were approximately 435,000 Jews living in the U.S. who identified as non-white. That was 7.3% of the Jewish population.  And yes, some of those people are Jewish because of conversion or adoption or an interfaith/interracial marriage, but there are also many whose families have been Jewish for as long as anyone can remember.  Their communities may or may not look and feel like typical American congregations, but they live as Jewishly as anyone else, and boy do they have amazing stories to tell about what it is like to not only be a person of color, but a Jewish person of color in American society.

Please celebrate diversity in Judaism as well as Black History Month by joining Cool Shul for Shabbat this Friday, February 19, for an amazing evening with Rabbi and Professor Walter Isaac.  He will be joining us via Skype to enlighten us about the history of African American Jews and the Black Israelite community.  I guarantee we are going to learn a few things, consider some things we’ve never considered before, and hear some wonderful stories!

Click here for the evite.   http://evite.me/f6FMDjg2Xq

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