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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Owning Time

The ideas in this post are from my understanding of a talk by Shmuel Lewis (the head of the Conservative Yeshiva, who is both Dr. and Rabbi but prefers to be called neither.)

When Euripides described the women of Troy being taken into slavery, his words evoked pity for their suffering. But his words did not suggest condemnation or responsibility.  In the mind of the ancient Greek, slavery, like plague or famine, was a tragic natural occurrence.

One of the great innovations of the Bible was to see humanity as responsible for human oppression.

In ancient Greece history was believed to be cyclic.  The world existed eternally, and the patterns of history forever repeated themselves.  Nothing fundamental could ever change, and so humanity had no responsibility to change the patterns of oppression they created. 

The Bible presents a very different view of history.  The world did not exist eternally, but came to be by an act of creation.  As a result, creation and change are always possible.  And history is not cyclic, but linear.  Each generation can be different from anything that came before, if we make it so.  Though slavery was socially acceptable 200 years ago, now we know it to be abhorrent.

This Shabbat, we will be reading in synagogue God's famous words as the Israelites were about to flee Egypt.  החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, This month is for you the first of months (Exodus 12:2), identifying Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs, as the first month of the Jewish calendar.  Our tradition asks what does "for you" mean in this verse, and the traditional answer is that with this statement, God handed over control of the calendar to human authorities.  We humans set the calendar, and in so doing we set the days of the holidays.

Shmuel Lewis offers an additional, novel interpretation. Not only the calendar, but time itself God handed over to us at that moment of liberation.  You are no longer slaves.  You can control your own time, and so time is now linear for you.  The past was brutal.  But you can make the future a better one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Most days on my way to the Yeshiva, I pass a woman walking in the opposite direction.  She is about my age, she wears long skirts, gym shoes, glasses and a scarf that covers all of her hair.  I don't know her name, but we usually smile and say "Boker tov" (good morning) as we pass. 

This woman and I share at least one thing in common: neither of us invests much effort in looking pretty.  My own hair I wear long and usually overdue for a haircut, and the kippah perched on top of my head is not considered becoming around here (see my previous post on kippot.)  But a couple of weeks ago, I walked into an upscale beauty parlor, and on a whim I told the stylist, "maybe make it short."  Fifteen minutes later, foot long strands of my hair covered the floor, and my hairdo was as short as a boy's, as chic as a supermodel's.

The next few times I passed that woman, she did not meet my eye.  On the third day, as I passed her she said "תתחדשי", "renew yourself" -- the blessing offered someone who was received something new, such as a haircut.  With a start, I realized she had probably not recognized me until now; perhaps not surprising, as my own daughter did not recognize me the day I got my hair cut.  I happened to pass the woman again on my way home that day, and this time she stopped me and said (in Hebrew): "I was in a rush this morning so I couldn't stop, but I wanted to tell you that your hair looks terrific.  It is very fitting for you."

How delicious, this compliment from a stranger who covers every last strand of her own hair!  Israelis like to mind everyone else's business, and both criticism and compliments from strangers are common.  How especially sweet are the gestures of friendship from strangers in ideological camps different from my own!

A few days later, about 7 in the evening I got a call from a friend down the block.  "Come outside, there's a הכנסת ספר תורה -- a dedication of a new Torah scroll -- passing by."  My five-year-old daughter heard and was out the door before I could stop her, running down the block.  As I chased after her, I worried about my blue jeans, my short hair and the kippah on my head.  But when we reached the partying throngs, we were easily accepted into the crowd.  We followed the Sefer Torah nearly a quarter mile through the streets, singing and dancing all the way.  From the looks of the people at the front of the procession, I gathered we were heading to a fairly traditional Sephardi shul, and I marveled at how comfortable I felt.

About an hour later, I was standing on the steps of the shul trying to push through the crowd to return  home.  An older woman wanted to pass me to get into the building.  She did not realize I was also trying to get past; she thought I was just standing there, blocking the steps, and she said to me: "למה אתה לא נותן לנו לעבור?" "Why don't you let us pass?"  Translated to English, it seems an innocuous question.  But in Hebrew, all nouns and pronouns are gendered, and she addressed me as אתה,  the masculine form of "you".  I detected no malice in her voice.  She genuinely thought I was a man.

That moment did not exactly ruin the evening.  I still felt some wonder at the openness of the celebration.  My daughter was munching candies provided by the women of the shul, and we had both enjoyed the music and the march and no one was troubled that we were not members of their community.  Still, the sparkle was gone.

A couple of days later, on a rainy morning, I was wearing baggy jacket and rain pants, and an older woman innocently addressed me as "אתה", that masculine you.

I am a bold, kippah-wearing, feminist woman rabbi.  These days, I am avoiding wearing jeans in favor of skirts.  As soon as I have a free afternoon I plan to get my ears pierced.  Most of all, I am trying to figure out where in Jerusalem I could possibly purchase a more feminine looking kippah; something lacy perhaps, or something studded with rhinestones.

A Biblical injunction has been bubbling into my thoughts almost daily, emerging from my childhood:  לֹא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה, "A man's outfit must not be on an a woman" (Deuteronomy 22:5).   That particular verse hasn't been in my head for ten years at least, through countless interactions and friendships with people with unorthodox gender identities.  Just as a transgender person feels compelled to present as other than the gender he or she or ze was born into, I now discover that I feel compelled to present as the gender I was born into.

How complex the human soul!   I cannot explain why I suddenly decided to cut my hair short -- though after the fact I noticed that the last time I had hair this short I was also a yeshiva student, twenty years ago in the post-high-school program of Midreshet Lindenbaum.  I cannot explain why with long hair I could endure the scorn of strangers who could not tolerate a woman wearing a kippah, but with short hair I cannot endure being mistaken for a man.  Oh, I could write words that sound almost like explanations, but nothing I could say would really explain.  The streams of the subconscious are too complex, and sometimes all we can do is shrug our shoulders and laugh.

To quote my teacher, the head of the Conservative Yeshiva, Reb Shmuel Lewis: "Humans may be little less than the angels, but the G-d like task of imposing order on the chaos of our hearts – gadol aleinu!  It is outsized for us, it cannot help but put us face to face with our human foibles and the ultimate ridiculousness of the whole noble (and ennobling) enterprise."

Thursday, March 3, 2011


ממקומך מלכנו תופיע, כי מחכים אנחנו לך
. מתי תמלוך בציון, בקרוב בימינו לעולם ועד תשכון
"From Your place in Heaven, come appear to us,
for we are waiting for You. 
When will You rule over Zion? 
Soon, in our own day, come dwell with us forever!" 
Shabbat and Holiday morning service, kedushah.

I love this holiday prayer.  But I'm not sure how I feel about its glorification of waiting.

Dr. Seuss's last book, Oh the Places You'll Go, describes my more usual feeling about waiting:
"a most useless place, The Waiting Place -- for people just waiting."

Millenia before Dr. Seuss, Devorah the Prophet wrote in her victory song:
בעד החלון נשקפה ותיבב אם סיסרא בעד האשנב מדוע בשש רכבו לבא מדוע אחרו פעמי מרכבותיו
"She peered through the window and groaned, the mother of Sisera at the lattice work.  Why is his chariot late in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariot late?"  Judges 5:28
Devorah is taunting the mother of her enemy, Sisera, waiting for a son who will never arrive.  Because Sisera is lying outside the tent of Yael, a tent pin driven through his skull. 

Even if the waiting ends in happy reunion, those minutes spent watching the clock ticking are no less excruciating.  Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev climaxes when the hero, a talented young artist from an Orthodox Jewish home, can find only one symbol to depict the torment of his mother throughout his childhood, as she would sit by the window waiting for his father to return home.  That symbol is a crucifix.

But in a dvar torah delivered to the Shira Hadasha community this past Shabbat, Avigayil Anter drew my attention to another type of waiting -- that of Penelope in Homer's Odyssey.  While Penelope waits for her husband Odysseus during his long years of travel, she weaves a shroud, and then undoes it and weaves it again, over and over.   Avigayil imagines the movement of Penelope's hands, the back-and-forth of the loom, bringing a meditative calm to Penelope.  Unlike the mother of Sisera or the mother of Asher Lev, the wife of Odysseus is heroic for having waited.

The waiting we claim in our prayers is more like Avigayil's interpretation of Penelope: a waiting filled with preparation of ourselves and of the world around us.  Not staring out the window, measuring the minutes -- but humming a song as we set the table.  And if She tarries, there will be time to arrange the flowers or take a shower.

What greater glory can there be than this:  to gently open this world to the Presence that comes?