Wear this, or wear that.

Let’s try a little exercise:

If I mention the Jewish concept of modesty, tzni-ut in Hebrew, often referred to by its Yiddish pronunciation, tznius, what comes to mind? Stop reading for a minute and picture what modesty means within the Jewish religion. Then come up with some images in your mind.

Scroll down when you’re done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready? Do you have some images in mind which reflect how we are supposed to exemplify tzni-ut in the context of Jewish practice and congregational life?

I bet I can guess right now what you thought of.

I predict that any or all of the images that came to your mind included things like women wearing wigs. Shoulders covered. Wearing skirts. Long sleeves.

How’d I do? If I succeeded in reading your mind, you have to like and share this blog post. That’s only fair.

So are you seeing a common thread? Modesty, tznius, is often just another excuse for the marginalization of women in the Jewish religion. You can be there, but don’t be seen. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t be a distraction to the men who are busy doing the real business of Judaism.

The Orthodox world has codified this concept–they proscribe even the sound of a woman’s voice, the so-called Kol Isha. According to this rule, a singing woman is so seductive and sensuous, the males will be unable to concentrate on their prayers and focus on the service.

But this is not just a screed against Orthodox Judaism–this message is alive and well in all of our seemingly modern, enlightened, and inclusive congregations. Why does every set of directions to future B’nei Mitzvah families include so many directions on proper dress for the service? And within those directions, why do we focus primarily on what the girls will be wearing?

Now of course we have standards for how we would like people to appear when they’re in temple, and especially on the bimah. And certainly we all have stories of wardrobe fails–sneakers, prom-like dresses, jeans, cocktail attire at 9:00 am–it goes on and on.

Yet like all the dress code rules in effect in schools, the burden falls mostly on our girls. Cover up as much of yourself as possible. Make sure your dress comes down at least this far. No shoulders! (We are obsessed with the scandal of bare shoulders even though the entire female professional world successfully wears sleeveless dresses to work everyday.)

We are communicating an insidious message: The congregation and the Jewish religion thinks that you–each one of you girls–should be ashamed of your bodies. Cover yourselves up. Completely. If the boys or other men are tempted to look at you and think a certain way, that’s your fault. You did that. YOU ARE A DISTRACTION.

When I have to explain the standards of proper dress for services to families, I like to keep it simple: Dress appropriately–period. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. But the vast majority of people know perfectly well what that means. I find it objectionable to use the “what to wear to services” conversation as a set of prohibitions about all the ways that girls’ outfits can be inappropriate.

The real definition of modesty has nothing to do with covering up your body. It’s about self-respect. It’s about how you act and how you speak around others. It’s about wearing a kipah in shul because you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world. It’s about giving tzedakah anonymously. It’s about doing for others rather than wondering what’s in it for you.

Let’s allow our girls to spend more time practicing their Torah readings rather than worrying that their dresses might offend the congregation.

Don’t Heed the Call

New technologies provide us with fantastic opportunities to connect, communicate, and have instant access to the world around us.

As a synagogue professional, however, I’m sometimes troubled by how a certain generation has embraced their devices. We all share a responsibility to train people in the proper and appropriate use of phones when in temple. It’s one thing to express blanket criticism–but if we repeatedly see the same blatant disregard for basic manners, then it’s clear that we’re simply not doing our jobs.

Kids and teens–I’m talking to you.

Would you please, please teach your grandparents how to use a cell phone?

It’s not terribly unusual for a cell phone to go off during services. We’ve all been there. You experience the one second period of horror as you realize that the familiar ringtone is in fact coming from your own phone. (The call is coming from inside your pocket!With astonishing speed, your hands then bolt for the phone and blindly start pushing any button you can find just so it’ll stop ringing. You then suffer the requisite moment of shame, which is blessedly short lived. In fact, there’s usually a mutual understanding with others, as you share furtive glances with your neighbors: This time it was me, but next time it’ll be you. In any case, the whole incident probably lasted a total of 2 or 3 seconds from start to finish. Furthermore, you’ll be way more careful next time, so everyone gets a pass.

But when that ringing phone belongs to a senior…

The initial “Is that my phone ringing?” period lasts about 5-10 long, endless seconds. Then, the ringing, which at first began muffled inside of a bottomless pocketbook, becomes loud and shrill as the phone is brought out to the full light of day.

Then–and I would never have believed this had I not seen it more than once–the person answers the phone as those around them look on incredulously.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I’m convinced that it’s generational. Those of you who are my age and older grew up in a time when a ringing phone was a matter of some urgency. You didn’t know who was calling and there were no answering machines. Does anyone remember the sheer panic of trying to unlock your front door, fumbling with your keys while the phone was ringing inside the house? And then when you finally dove for the phone, the person had just hung up. That was enough to ruin your entire day.

So it’s deeply ingrained not to ignore a phone call–the polite thing to do is answer and tell the caller that you’re in the middle of something and you can’t talk now. But grandparents need to know not to do that in the middle of services.

Teens, can you please help us out here? Here is some basic knowledge that all kids should pass on up to the Greatest Generation:

  1. How to put the phone on vibrate.
  2. How to take the phone off vibrate.
  3. What button to push to immediately silence the ringing.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to silence the ringing and ignore the call.
  5. DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE!

Grandparents learn best by watching others model proper behavior, so it’s up to you to set a good example.

 

 

What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy?

Names are serious business in Judaism.

I think it all started in the Torah–all of the main characters’ names are loaded with significance. When Sarah was pregnant with Isaac, she thought the idea of a 90-something year old woman giving birth was hilarious. Sure enough, Abraham named their son Yitzchak, meaning “laugh.”

Years later, as Jacob was being born, he grabbed onto the heel–in Hebrew, ha’akev–of his twin brother Esau–so his name in Hebrew became Yaakov. Yes, Jacob is named after a heel. He actually could have ended up with a worse name if his hand had slipped.

Then all twelve of his sons were given names as the result of a feeling or action as they were born. It’s probably a good thing we don’t generally name kids like that anymore, or the most popular name each year would be OHMYGODGETTHISTHINGOUTOFME.

Sometimes one name isn’t enough. God decided that Avram and Sarai needed a bit of a name-lift, so He stuck a hei in each name, representing the presence of God, and from then on they were known as Avraham and Sarah. It’s fortunate that this predated modern bureaucracies–

“Yes, Mr. Abraham, reason for name change?”  “I have no idea. God just said so.”

Jacob also underwent a similar process, when God told him that from then on, he would be known as Yisrael. Inexplicably, he was still referred to as Jacob in most of the text until he died. I guess people just couldn’t get used to the change and kept calling him by his old name.

At the beginning of the Exodus story, we read of the iconic scene when Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a baby floating in a basket. She declares–in Hebrew–that since she drew him out of the water (mi’shi’tihu), she would name him Moshe. Nice of her to give him a good Hebrew name.

I think it’s this considerable emphasis on names that inspired Judaism’s perspective: a name is more than a label. Of course, most people know that it’s a tradition to name a child after a relative. Sephardic Jews might use the name of someone still alive, whereas most of us who are Ashkenazic look to those who have passed away. That’s one reason why you’re unlikely to ever come across a guy named Abner Goldfarb the Third.

[Incidentally, this inspires one of our very best Yiddish curses: A kleyn kind zol nokh im heysn. “May they name a small child after him.” Has there ever been a more brilliantly passive aggressive language?]

But more than that, we hope that our newly named child will serve as a living reminder of someone from the past. One of my favorite customs at a baby naming ceremony is when the new parents not only announce to everyone who the child is named for, but when they continue by telling about that person and describing his or her qualities and unique characteristics in detail. It’s truly a meaningful way to continue a chain that can literally reach back generations.

However, before you get all creative, just keep in mind one important tip: Try to imagine how frustrating it is to never find a souvenir key chain with your name on it.

 

The Kids are All Right

Just when we go to all that trouble to get kids to come to services, we hurriedly rush them out and tell them they’re not welcome.

Four times a year, we recite Yizkor–on Yom Kippur, as well as on the last day of each of the Three Festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The service itself does not consist of much–we include short passages marking the deaths of family members and recite the El Malei on behalf of all who have passed away over the years. More than merely text, it really provides a structured opportunity to remember family members in the context of the synagogue and is part of the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar.

Even thought there’s no rule about it, in many synagogues it’s customary or even strongly encouraged for the children (presumably with both parents living) to leave the sanctuary during the brief time that Yizkor is being said. Why?

1. Superstition:

It’s amazing how many of our Jewish traditions are based on superstitions, but are nevertheless perpetuated from one generation to the next. In this case, we worry that a child with both parents living who is present for Yizkor will catch the attention of the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. It’s basically a Jewish way of telling a person that they’re tempting fate by doing something. So it’s easier to just send the kid out of the room instead of spending the whole time Poo Pooing and saying keynahara.

My response: The more we can separate our observance of tradition and ritual from silly superstitions, the better. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about imaginary angels and devils.

2. Protecting the Feelings of Others:

According to this opinion, people who are in mourning wish to be surrounded only by others in the same situation. Seeing children or others who have not experienced a death might make that person envious of their supposed better fortune, thereby magnifying their own grief–as if one person’s sadness could be increased by its absence in someone else’s life.

My response: In some misguided attempt to protect the feelings of those who are in mourning, you’re taking away a perfect opportunity to teach children empathy, and to expose them to appropriate displays of grief and sadness. It also gives kids a more complete picture of Jewish tradition–it’s not always Purim in the sanctuary. Sometimes people cry in shul, and that’s OK.

3. Behavior:

This might be the most practical of all the reasons. The Yizkor service is a somber period of recollection, and is not the time for crying or noisy kids of any age.

My response: Agreed. So very young kids who cannot control their behavior should definitely be given a break outside the sanctuary. But this is also a perfect, teachable opportunity for other children to learn how to demonstrate respect for those around them. We lose that chance when we make everything in temple fun and entertaining.

Yizkor is a time for everyone. It provides an opportunity to bring the congregation–the entire congregation–together in a display of communal mourning. That includes congregants of all ages. Children can and should learn that Judaism teaches us how to mourn as well as how to celebrate.

Got Any Dip for These Chips?

The Four Questions.

Do any other three words strike as much fear into the hearts of little Jewish kids around the world as those? Generations of Jews remember having to stand up in front of everyone present (and especially nasty old Aunt Ida who never had a good thing to say) and sing these questions while trying not to make a mistake.

The Four Questions serve as a starting off point for the Seder. You’ll notice that the Four Questions are not in fact followed by the Four Answers. If that were the case, the Seder would be over by about 7:30. No, you have to learn and discuss the story of Passover, as told in the Haggadah, to figure out the right answers.

Still, I wonder whether everyone can actually answer each of the Four Questions. To review, here they are:

  1. On all other nights, we eat bread or matza. (Question 1A: why would anyone eat matza if you didn’t have to?) Tonight, why do we only eat matza?
  2. On all other nights, we eat any kind of herbs. Tonight, why do we eat bitter herbs?
  3. On all other nights, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?
  4. On all other nights, we eat while sitting or reclining. Tonight, why do we eat while reclining?

(I wonder whether this is where Jerry Seinfeld got his comedic inspiration: Hey guys, what’s the deal with bitter herbs….?)

So go back and read that third question again. It’s a particularly strange one–I suspect everyone sings it but doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s it’s really asking.

On all other night, we don’t dip our foods. Tonight, why do we dip our foods twice?

That’s actually two questions built into one: Why do we dip our foods, and what are the two times we do it?

The first time is easy of course. We dip our celery or other green vegetable into the salt water, to combine the images of the Festival of Spring with the tears of the Israelite slaves. But what’s the second dipping?

When I ask this question to kids and adults, they often answer that we dip our fingers into the wine during the recitation of the Ten Plagues. Good guess, except that our fingers aren’t food, unless you’re attending the Donner Family Seder.

In fact, when it’s time to make the blessing over maror and eat it, you’re supposed to dip it into a little charoset–to mitigate the bitterness with a little bit of sweetness.

OK, so now we have our two dippings–but it doesn’t answer the larger question: Why? What does dipping foods have to do with Passover? The other questions are pretty obvious and straightforward: matza, bitter herbs, reclining at the table. Is dipping foods some weird Passover custom that we never learned?

In fact, like reclining at the table, dipping your foods (which On All Other Nights might reflect poor table manners) is a sign of luxury. Slaves have to grab whatever is there, eat it fast, and get back to work. But now we’re a free people–we can sit, take our time with our food, dip one kind into another, and really savor the meal.

And now we can see that the Four Questions make a lot more sense. They’re structured in such a way to progress from slavery to freedom.

The first two questions–matza and maror–deal with what the Israelites experienced as slaves, while the last two questions–dipping and reclining–are a demonstration of how free people act.

Now go practice some more so Aunt Ida doesn’t give you the stink eye.

Creating a Safe Space-Time

The recent death of Stephen Hawking made me think of his famous work, A Brief History of Time. This book has been described as the most bestselling book that no one has ever finished. I was no exception. There was simply no way I could comprehend much of what was written (the illustrations were kind of cool–all I remember was showing a bowling ball on a sagging mattress to demonstrate the bending of space-time…or something.)

Pretend for a minute that Professor Hawking had been in the room with me while I was trying to decipher his book. At some point, he might have asked me, “Do you have any questions about what I wrote?”

Could I have even come up with one question? The material was so far over my head, so incomprehensible, so removed from any context or anything I had ever experienced–I would likely have sat in a slack-jawed stupor–unable to even formulate the first question.

In that moment, I would have become the seder’s infamous Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask.

In many Haggadot, this last of the four types of learners at the Seder is often pictured as a baby or very young child. Someone who has not yet learned how to even speak, and therefore is literally unable to pose a question. But this overlooks so many educated and intelligent individuals who for whatever reason have simply not had the benefit of a Jewish education, who have never been a part of any Jewish ritual–but who want to be. It just so happens that what many of us consider the most basic Jewish knowledge is simply not part of their background.

Soon enough, the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask becomes the Child Who is Afraid to Ask. We may say, “There are no stupid questions!” but do we succeed in actually creating such an atmosphere? Is there a secret comfort that we take in being “in the know”? Is it satisfying to use our Hebrew and Yiddish expressions with each other, laughing at our inside jokes, while realizing that not everyone around us is in on it?

This is one instance where I think the ancient rabbis got it right. It’s our job, whether at our own Seder tables or as a Jewish community, to make sure that we’re not being exclusive or cliquish, that we don’t somehow think we’re more Jewish than others because we already know this stuff. Let’s make our congregations and our communities judgement-free zones where any person, irrespective of Jewish background, can feel welcomed and comfortable seeking knowledge.

As long as they don’t ask me to explain space-time.

It’s Snark Week

One of the most important ways of understanding the Bible is to remember the saying of the Rabbis:

דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
The Torah speaks in the language of mankind.

That is, the text is purposely presented in a way that we can relate to. So it should come as no surprise that as we read of various Biblical characters communicating with each other, we occasionally find priceless examples of dry wit, irony, and downright sarcasm. Who can’t relate to that?

Therefore, I present to you my:

Top Five Sarcastic Biblical One-Liners:

5. God rolls His eyes at Jonah
Jonah 4:4

Anyone who raised a teenager can relate to Jonah. Filled with melodrama and narcissism, Jonah always makes everything about him. Towards the end of the story, Jonah complains to God that the entire errand of warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction was just one big waste of his time. So later, while Jonah was sitting in the unbearable heat, God provided a big plant to provide shelter and relief. The next day, God took the plant away. Jonah, attempting to win Best Actor in a Short Film, raised the back of his hand to his forehead, and cried to the heavens, “Oh! I would rather die than live like this!”

To which God, in an uncharacteristic instance of perfect understatement and not just a little sarcasm, replied,

“Are you really upset?”

 

4. On behalf on an ungrateful nation
Exodus 14:11

Just what do you have to do to get any respect? The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are finally free. They personally witnessed the power of God, and watched the Egyptians suffer 10 devastating plagues, including the death of every first born son. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (early GPS–God Positioning System). So it was pretty clear by this time that Moses and God had their backs.

As they were approaching the shore of the Red Sea, with the pursuing Egyptian army in the distance, one guy, obviously the ancestor of a modern day temple president, went up to Moses and asked,

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, so you had to bring us out here to die?”

 

3. Animals? What animals?
I Samuel 15:14

The story of King Saul and King Agag is a deeply poignant and troubling episode. Saul was instructed by God to wage war against the tribe of Amalek and utterly wipe out everyone and everything. In a time when putting the males to death might be common, this command was way over the top–it specifically included not only the men, but every woman, child, baby. And every animal. Complete genocide.

King Saul, probably in way over his head, obviously had major reservations about carrying out such an order. He ended up sparing his counterpart King Agag (letting the vanquished king live was common in war–sort of like professional courtesy), and allowing his soldiers take some of the cattle.

God sent his prophet Samuel to confront Saul and call him out on his disobedience. Samuel asks Saul, “Did you completely follow God’s command?” Saul replies confidently, “Yes, I did everything God asked me.”

Samuel uses his dry wit to make his point, as he looks around and sees a bunch of cattle that used to belong to the Amalekites. With pinpoint timing, he asks Saul,

“So what’s this bleating of sheep I hear all around?”

Busted.

 

2. For this we sent you to Brandeis?
Judges 14:3

Before there was Fatal Attraction, there was the story of Samson. What most people know of this gem of a story is a guy who likes to wear his hair long and the femme fatale who tricks him into getting a haircut with dire consequences. In fact, the entire narrative of Samson is a story of romance, desire, betrayal, anger, and violence. It was also written with a great deal of irony and comedy.

First we read of Samson’s beginnings. Because his parents, Manoach and Mrs. Manoach (that’s correct–the Tanach can’t even bother giving her a name), had great trouble conceiving a child (a common motif in Biblical stories), they pledge their soon-to-be-born son to the service of God as a Nazarite. Among other restrictions, that meant no wine and no haircuts. Samson is born, gets older, and goes on Spring Break to a city called Timnah, where he meets and falls for a Philistine woman. He returns home and excitedly tells his father that he’s getting married to this woman.

Samson’s father asks his son the question that is destined to reverberate throughout the next couple thousand years of Jewish life:

“What, there were no Jewish girls for you to marry?”

 

1. Dude, that’s my wife
Esther 7:8

The story of Esther that we read on Purim is one of the most familiar and well-known narratives of the entire Bible. It also happens to be a perfectly constructed short story, filled with effective literary techniques–foreshadowing, conflict, irony, and yes, a good deal of comedy.

There are a few points in the story that don’t get as much attention. One such passage provides what I think is the best laugh-out-loud moment of the entire Tanach. Towards the end of the story, Haman’s plot has completely unraveled, and he finally knows the jig is up and he’s in big trouble. Esther has identified him to King Achashverosh as the person who is seeking to wipe out her people, the Jews. The King is furious and in his anger, storms out of the room. Haman, overcome with the fact that he’s pretty much dead man walking now, feels faint and collapses right on top of Esther, who’s lying on her couch.

At this precise moment, King Achashverosh walks back into the room, takes in the scene in front of him, and with a timing and delivery bordering on sheer perfection, asks:

“So you thought you’d shtup my wife, too?”

 

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