Archive for the 'Judaism' Category


March 8, 2013

I was amused that a number of people replied to a comment I posted to David Brooks’s column about orthodox Jewish community.  I had questioned why, if the law is found to be so helpful and is so welcomed, as the column celebrates, work-arounds to particular provisions are developed, as the column also celebrates.

Most of the replies explaining to me the lack of contradiction assume I am concerned about whether the work-arounds are consistent with the law and the idea of adhering to one.  That assumption to me is evidence of the problem:  legalism.  That’s what I think is actually being celebrated (legalism), not the embracing of a particular set of rules.  There’s a difference between loving a set of rules and having a relationship with them that requires their adjustment.  That was my point.

And I think it’s a difference that makes a difference.  The attitude with which a person relates to a set of rules makes a difference to the internal development of the person, regardless of whether it makes a difference to their behavior.

I worry that the focus on adherence to Jewish law distances too many people from the main events of spiritual life.  In Judaism, those main events, I think, are to be found in Jewish mysticism, which I am also under the impression is off-limits until people have mastered the law business.

I’m all for making sure people don’t take on more spiritual challenge than they are ready for at the time, but keeping people at bay from mysticism through keeping them occupied with laws and codes reminds me of insisting on mediation through others to access one’s spiritual life — an obstacle and a barrier.

I think learning to think legalistically is interesting.  It allows for a certain lens through which to filter and translate inchoate ideas that I might understand through other forms of mental activity.  But I don’t think it’s the main event, and I think getting caught up in it as if it is keeps us from realizing our potential.

In this life I’ve certainly learned to think legalistically, so I can’t dismiss it as irrelevant to my own perspective, but if it was necessary for my spiritual development, it certainly wasn’t sufficient.

Another response (other than legalism) to coming up against a law that one wishes to gloss is to think about why one wishes the gloss and then to adjust the self, not the externalities of law or facts (milk-free “cheese” products, for example).  That would, I think result in a different development in thinking, a kind shift in perspective towards acceptance, perhaps.

But I am thrilled that in responding to my reply, which was in its own way dualistic, people used the kind of mental process that finds harmony in seemingly opposing concepts — that, I think, is good practice for spiritual growth.


And Passover, too

February 26, 2013

And as long as I’m on the subject of dressing children for Jewish holidays, these are two of my all-time favorites.  They’re from Passover.



And with my parents:


Purim, Pharaoh, and Moses

February 26, 2013

I was thinking about Purim costumes after reading about other people’s misadventures with one, so I thought I’d post photos of two of my favorites.  It’s Jonas as a pharaoh


and Jordan as Moses


Whence it comes

January 10, 2013

I wrote last night about Nick Kristof’s argument that Chuck Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” cannot imply antisemitism because Jewish groups or newspapers sometimes use the term.  I wrote that such a term sounds different depending on whether it is said by a member of the group or by a person outside of it.

I thought I’d mention here what I think is going on that distinguishes the two dynamics:  love.

Like my college roommate who would hear no criticism of her father and his second marriage but herself once questioned whether the relationship had begun before her parents’ marriage ended; she said, “Yes, I know I said it was all on the up and up, but do you really believe that?” with the air of somebody who obviously didn’t.  But she could say that because she still clearly loved her dad.

I think it’s similarly true of a group’s own use of a term that might have some pejorative overtones.  If a member of the group uses it, dubious as that may be, there is still usually a connection that includes love (along with a mix of other emotions) between the member and the group, and that connection attenuates the threat of complete betrayal.  It limits the bounds of the negative point and overtones of the episode, at least in most cases, I think.  About a member outside the group we have no such sense of how far the criticism may extend.

An analogous example somewhere between candor about relatives and group terms are ethnic jokes.

In the best of all possible worlds, we don’t gossip about relatives or tell ethnic jokes, or use pejorative terms, about people in our own groups or people in other groups.  Admittedly, all of us don’t live in that world or live in it all the time.  I think there is a pretty bright line, though, between using a term about somebody else’s group and using one about one’s own.  I think the speaker’s meaning comes out different in the respective instances and the listener’s understanding of what is meant is apt to be, at least subtly, different.

That, I think, is the basis for my criticism of Nick Kristof’s argument defending Chuck Hagel’s use of the term he used.  To me his use of it asks for explanation of what lies behind it.  I wouldn’t assume I can predict exactly what does lie behind it, but to me it needs at least an explanatory context that the other examples Kristof cites do not.  In other words, I’m left with a question of “What did he mean by that?” that has import in a way that is not relevant to the term’s use in the other examples.

The secret handshake

December 19, 2012

I apparently didn’t learn it.

I was at a talk last night, and beforehand, someone came up to me and said, “Do I know you?  You look familiar.”  I gave it a shot, trying to guess if she seemed familiar to me from other talks on similar topics, and asking if we had met at one of those, but no.

She turned out to be the rabbi giving the introductory prayer before the talk.  Made me wonder in retrospect whether she had really been asking me if I am Jewish.  (To be perfectly honest, my first –hopeful — thought had been to wonder if she had known somehow I loved prayer, but then a more prosaic and likely explanation occurred to me.)

I had to leave before the end of the program, so I didn’t have a chance to tell her how much I enjoyed the prayer she sang.

As a footnote, let me add that I decided at the last minute to wear a pair of red clogs, because otherwise I was dressed pretty much in black and gray.  I also grabbed a red paisley shawl for color and a light purple jacket (instead of the black one I had been using earlier in the day).  So I was amused when I noticed that the main speaker was dressed in gray and wearing red scuffs or mules (sort of soft-soled red clogs, I’m not sure about the heel height).  The rabbi, by the way, was wearing, in the style of a stole, a beautiful solid red scarf, maybe silk.


December 9, 2012

I ate a marzipan representation of a Torah scroll.  The marzipan (almond-paste candy) I bought is seasonal — symbols of Chanukah, and I suspect fits in with seasonal sweets of other religions this time of year.  (I grew up eating — very small amounts of — marzipan year-round; for that matter, latkes were not a seasonal food in my family tradition, either.)

Given the metaphor of divinity as sugar or candy in some Eastern religions (and the teaching of how we have to experience it ourselves to get it) and the place of the Torah in Judaism, I liked the idea of eating a candy Torah.  I don’t think I will probably ever experience the divine through adherence to orthodox Jewish teachings, but maybe this experience allows me to connect it to my own ways of understanding and accept that some people actually do.

It’s interesting, because I had a friend who was trying to do that, to recapture a Jewish upbringing she didn’t have as a child.  Through her brothers, I eventually was introduced to Tracy Grammer’s music, and it was before her concert last night that I bought the marzipan.  (There’s a gourmet food store I know carries it, around the corner from the club.)  To me, putting together these pieces of experience into a picture that helps me understand better is like finding bits of ribbon and scattered beads and including them in a collage.

One of the things I got from listening to Tracy Grammer sing David Carter songs last night was more acceptance of the variation of roles within similar patterns of life.  A strand within me has questioned why my version of a pattern can’t be more like someone else’s, and I’ve come to think that there are trade-offs — we can’t focus our energy on pursuit X if we’re using all our energy for pursuit Y, and there may be reasons why we’re better suited or positioned to focus on one pursuit or another.

I’ve lost a lot of the need of another strand within me, too, to try to explain my version of the pattern, or even to explain how I see patterns, period, how I see similarities in other people’s lives and can fit them into, if not an archetype, then a tradition or a lineage.  I used to think people would want me to explain, for instance, things like why Tracy Grammer is having trouble actually writing up a memoir of her time with Dave Carter, how it fits into what I know of an Ur-story, why she is instead telling the reminiscences between playing his songs in concert.  But I’ve come to see that that’s part of my stuff, the need to try to get other people to see what I see.  They don’t need to see it, just as I don’t need to (try to) learn to become a poised and accomplished musician, either.  And neither of us could do as well what the other one does.

I find myself stumbling into gratitude for differences and for other people having talents I don’t and having experiences I won’t have.  The world needs all of our variations.

Bread and wine

June 16, 2012

I bought a challah at Trader Joe’s last night and I even had some Manischewitz wine with a piece of it when I got home.

I did not recite the appropriate blessings or light candles, although I thought about doing both.  (I didn’t have a roasted chicken on hand, either.)

I thought about what challah and ceremonial wine mean to me on a Friday night.  My first thought is tradition.  I think about Friday nights with Willy and the children, I think about other Jewish households celebrating the sabbath (Shabbat).

Then I tried to go deeper.  And that made me think about being offered a meal and feeling contented (here I thought, “Add a piece of cheese and you’ve got a (light) meal”), fellowship, and sharing.

Then I started doing my thought-association thing, and I came up with communion wafers, matzoh, no drinking in Islam and Mormonism, alcoholism, and psychosis-inducing bread mold.  What I pulled out of this mix was an idea about taking something that can be used in dangerous ways and trying to put it in a context in which it is used in a positive way: a measured amount of wine, a bread stuff that stays fresh, community, and religious thoughts.

But I think that’s only half the battle, keeping people safe from depression, spiritual experiences they’re not ready for, pseudo-spiritual experiences, isolation, and even turning them to thoughts about religious beliefs.  There’s also a need for people to make their own spiritual journeys, which eventually include a stage of going beyond the mundane and the usual routine.  How do we encourage and facilitate that?

Communal silent prayer

December 1, 2011

Well, now at least I have an explanation for my encounter with Friday night services last week.

In a discussion about Blake and mysticism, someone pointed out that it has been observed that mystics of different religions have more in common with one another than with fellow members of their religion.  Someone else had already advised me that silent prayer was more usual in cloistered communities, not in Jewish services (actually, I think he said silent prayer worked better in cloistered communities than at Jewish services).

So, I’m feeling a little better about looking for communal silent prayer and having trouble locating it, but I’m also feeling not so encouraged that I’ll find something that I’m comfortable with.


November 25, 2011

I woke up this morning wanting to write about a parable in which somebody borrows a neighbor’s lawnmower and returns it broken and suggests a web link to a site that explains how to repair it.  Maybe I’ll get back to that — my first interpretation was to identify with a reaction of feeling riled at someone not cleaning up the damage that they cause, but maybe it’s more a lesson in accepting the challenge to learn to deal with damage in one’s life regardless of apparent source.

But then I got another thought, probably not original, about shame, and it seemed to make more sense to write about that first, directly after the post about shame.

What I thought is that the story of Adam and Eve is conventionally told as one in which they lose their innocence and experience shame.  If shame is a by-product of being cut off from that greater part of the self, from the inner office, from the vacuum motor (see previous post, please), if it occurs when the mahout falls off the elephant, so to speak, when the ego loses communication with the soul, to put it another way, then returning to the garden is the reconnection of our “I” identity with our more eternal part, with our souls.  It’s about that journey from a child’s connectedness with the universe through development of a sense of individual self, and then to a reunion with the universe but still maintaining the ability to see the self as distinct now.

If the key is to reconnect with the soul, I would say that we discover that connection through the love we finally hear when we call out from the heart, that cry that I think the Jewish Shema prayer embodies (it’s on my mind because I have this plan to attend this evening Friday night services at a shul for the first time in years — the invitation, which I am taking as a general and not personal one, from someone who has very good hosting skills, came through a guy — I have to ask myself why I am listening to him when I have never attended services where Gita attends, despite her having invited me years ago, and my answer is to laugh gently at my ego).  That calling of our soul to us can be difficult to hear amid all the noise of our lives, and sometimes I think we unfortunately hear it best in the relative quiet of loneliness and despair.  It’s one of those gifts of desperation people talk about.  But it really is one that keeps on giving, and in a good way.


September 5, 2011

My father and his cousin Lotte recently translated my father’s father diary that he wrote when they were trying to get out of Germany.  There was one line towards the end that sounded as if it might be even more interesting in the original, so I asked my dad what the sentence was in German.  It was, “Solches Schicksal verlangt Nachdenken, Nachdenken — aber die rauhe Wirklichkeit des Lebens verlangt immer wieder ihr Recht, nicht zu grubeln sonders das Leben zu meistern und Gott weiter zu vertrauen,” which he had translated as, “Such a fate requires much thought, much thought, but the grim reality of life requires once again its right, not to brood but to master life and to trust in God.”  When I had looked up the words in my German dictionaries, I was reminded of the notion of accepting life on life’s terms and trusting in God to see us through.

I’m not a native speaker of German, or even fluent in the language, and my childhood instincts told me not to try to get my dad to discuss whether there was a more contemplative connotation to the words he had translated, to my mind, kind of drily (just getting the one line of German from him had itself taken somewhat of a diplomatic effort).  But regardless, thinking about that issue, especially in light of my own sons’ emotional vulnerability at an age when their dad died that was similar to my own dad’s age when he and his family had fled Germany, made me see my dad in a new light.  Because it struck me that his dad (whom I never knew because he died ten years before I was born) had had the emotional maturity and cognitive development of an adult with which to try to deal with their experience, whereas my dad had been thirteen-going-on-fourteen and had had an early teen’s equipment to process the world — that sentence by my Opa gave me a sense that he saw things differently from the way my dad did.

(My Opa with one of his sisters and his mother (seated))

I started wondering whether that was part of why my dad had reacted to things as he had, in terms of becoming so alienated from religion (his family was orthodox and his bar mitzvah had taken place in Germany about ten months before they had fled, I think — the book of van Gogh art he received on that occasion still sits in my parents’ living room), namely that the input came at a time of developmental vulnerability.  I’m sure there were other factors, too, but now I had a way of understanding things that made it easier for me to accept my father’s attitude.  Which is kind of interesting, because I think he is more accepting of my attitude towards having a spiritual life because of my husband’s having died.