Tag: Theology

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.

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.

We Have Met the Deity–and He is Us.

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Da lifnei mi atah omed

Know before whom you stand


These words commonly adorn the bimahs and arks of countless synagogues around the world, and presumably serve to remind us that we are in the presence of God (and to stop texting during services).

Instead, could these ubiquitous words carry another meaning?

One Shabbat morning while I was leading services, I was staring at this Hebrew phrase, and the thought occurred to me that rather than that conventional interpretation, this message might be thought of in an existential context. (And here you thought I was daydreaming during the service.)

What if the one who we are standing before is…ourself? The creation story as told in Genesis hints at this answer. The text specifically says that we are created in God’s image.

This perspective is further emphasized throughout Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for prayer itself is להתפלל, l’hitpalel, a reflexive verb. By definition, we don’t pray for something, but rather to effect a change in ourselves. The act of praying, gathering together as a community, engaging in Jewish ritual…these are not actions meant to please some distant and invisible deity. We do these things to bring ourselves closer to each other and to connect with tradition. Our centuries-old charge is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We don’t pray to God to make that happen. We don’t recite a few words in the prayer book, throw up our hands, and say, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s in God’s hands.” Prayer is an inward act–it inspires us to see the world around us and seek to make a difference.

We are the agents of change, and our prayers help to provide the impetus for making that change.

Similarly, it’s much more powerful and compelling to think that it is we ourselves who must judge our own actions. When a person is accused of any type of destructive or dishonest action, don’t we often ask, “How can he face himself in the mirror?” We are perpetually in the position of looking over our own shoulders and evaluating our deeds.

In the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who rushed to the rabbi’s deathbed, eager to get a blessing from their teacher before he died. Rabbi Yochanan, with his last words, told the students, “May you fear God as much as you fear man.” The students were confused and upset–how could such a respected scholar mean such a thing? Rabbi Yochanan explained, “When you commit a sin, your first thought is, I hope no one saw me.”

Know before whom you stand. You’re standing in front of yourself.