Jewfem Blog

That time the rabbi nearly made the study hall collapse -- or Talmudic lessons in compassion

I gave my first session in Talmud this week at HUC, in my Introduction to Talmud class with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa. Even though I have learned this passage many times over the years, I read it with new eyes. Would love to hear your thoughts.   Rabbi Eliezer was a difficult guy. He lived albeit 1800 years ago, but the Talmud recalls his personality with such vividness that we can easily recognize the type –  you know, the one who does not let up no matter what, the one who is constantly screaming about the same issue and you all just want him to go away. We can feel in the text how much his colleagues and peers found him to be an annoying stickler. So much so that they excommunicated him. They ousted him, and they ruined his life, taking away everything that was dear to him – even as they knew that he was right about, well, everything. Can you imagine? He may have been right, but he was very much alone. His wife was so worried about his depressed state following all this that she would not let him recite the prayer of supplication (tachanun) that requires bending over. He was so down that she was afraid he would never get up. That is how affected he was by the fact that his colleagues refused to see things his way. The story goes like this. According to the text in tractate Baba Metzia (59a), there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and, well, everyone else, about the purity of a certain oven. According to the majority of the rabbis, this oven – called tanur shel achnai, or “The serpent’s oven” – lost its purity when it broke. Rabbi Eliezer says that even though it is broken, it was put back together with sand and should be treated as pure as every other oven. That entire debate takes exactly one line of the Talmud. But then something happens. Something strange, mysterious, wild and crazy-making. Rabbi Eliezer does not take no for an answer. He continues to argue. He brings up every proof he knows. The other rabbis refuse to concede. He looks around. “If I am right,” he says. “This carob tree will prove it!” The carob tree jumps 100 meters (amot, actually). Some say 400 meters. The rabbis didn’t flinch. “We don’t bring proofs from carob,” they said. “If I am right, let this aqueduct prove it,” he said. The aqueduct quickly complied, and began flowing backwards. The rabbis were like, meh. “We don’t bring proofs from aqueducts,” they sneered. Rabbi Eliezer was getting frustrated with his impenetrable peers. “If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it,” he said. The walls started coming down, and only the intervention of Rabbi Joshua stopped them from landing on the entire study population. Legend has it that the walls stayed half-up, like the leaning tower of Pisa, till this day. And yet, despite all these supernatural...

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Are Jews really chosen? Or are all religions really the same?


I watched a captivating little video clip today about a man who has tried out six different religions – a few varieties of Christianity, two types of Islam, Hinduism, and currently Judaism. His conclusion? It doesn’t matter. All religions are the same. You can imagine how people of each religion might respond to this. After all, the whole point about being in your religion – for many people, at least –  is that you consider it special. How many wars have been fought because people of a certain religion felt the need to prove to the world that theirs is the best, most correct, or only authentic religion? Too many to count. People around the world have, for centuries or millennia, dedicated their lives to the idea that their religion is the True Word of God. Judaism does this, too. I realize that many Jews will take deep offense at what I am writing here, the notion that Judaism promotes its own specialness no differently than every other religion. I can hear the shouting already. How can you say that? How can you put us in the same category as Islam? As Christianity? What kind of blasphemy is that? Jews really ARE different! Yes, we have been telling ourselves that for a long time. Some of our most important moments are swathed in language that says we are chosen and special. Friday night Kiddush: Ki vanu bacharta, Because You chose us and made us holyBlessing on reading the Torah: Asher bacharta banu mikol ha’amim, for choosing us from among all the nations.The Amidah of the High Holidays and festivals: Ata b’chartanu mikol ha’amim, You chose us from among all the nations We have ingrained this notion that our religion is special, unique, or better than everyone else’s inside our collective memory and consciousness. So has Christianity. So has Islam. I’m just saying. So along comes this curious and courageous guy and says something that, to be honest, I have been thinking for a long time. All the religions are the same. We all like to think we are unique, but we are all basically doing the same thing. And what is it that people in all the different religions are all doing?     He gives an analogy of fingers pointing to the moon that comes from Buddhism: It is as if we are all pointing our fingers, looking for the moon, and instead of finding the moon, we are all obsessed with our own fingers. He doesn’t say what “the moon” is in the analogy, but I have some thoughts about it. We are looking for spirituality, purpose, meaning, the God within, the reason why we are here, the way we are all connected, the larger spirit beyond our little lives, collective consciousness, our Divine sparks. We are all divine beings and we are trying to hear that divine voice within our minds. We are all looking for this, and religion often brings us closer to that. Of course, organized...

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The HUC Ordination Ceremony: A celebration of the Jewish human spirit

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  Rabbi Naamah Kelman had a really busy day yesterday. As Dean of the Hebrew Union College- Hebrew Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, she hosted last night’s smicha or ordination ceremony of the latest cohort of Reform rabbis in Israel. This was a particularly momentous event for the movement in that it marks 100 rabbis ordained in Israel and brought together top Reform leaders from Israel and around the world. But Rabbi Kelman had a few extra special connections to this event. An eleventh-generation rabbi herself as well as the first woman in her family line to reach that stature, and the first woman to be ordained in Israel, she also got to watch as her daughter, Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered was ordained – with honors – bringing the rabbinate to one more generation in the Kelman family. “It was a real dor-dor [generation to generation] moment”, Naama’s sister, Abby Kelman, kvelled. Their brother, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, was also in attendance, as he served Leora’s escort for the ceremony. Their 94-year-old mother was also there, bringing four generations of rabbinate together. “My mother has been daughter-of-, wife-of, mother-of, and now grandmother-of rabbis,” Naamah told the crowd, welcoming her mother along with all the other dignitaries in attendance. This stirring interplay between family, community, and Jewish tradition that Naamah embodied – as Leora received a special dedication from her father, Dr. Elan Ezrachi, Naamah held her sleeping grandson on her shoulder – is one of the most beautiful aspects of HUC. This is a place that values the whole person – our work, our family, our ideas, our individual journeys and even struggles. The very personal approach to the ceremony, in which family members were invited to present blessings to the graduates and even sing to them, was unlike anything I had ever seen. And it is an attitude that characterizes my experiences there as a student, in which the staff actually want to know how you are doing, not only academically but also personally and emotionally. This joyful, spiritual, sincere, authentic and emotional approach dominated the entire ordination ceremony. It was personal, communal, Israeli, historical, and very Jewish. (And it included  one very special Dag Nachash recitation by Rabbi Michael Marmur). This was a celebration of Jewish tradition, and especially the accomplishments of the Reform movement. “Some people didn’t believe that we would get to this point of having 100 Reform rabbis in Israel,” said HUC President Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken, speaking in immaculate Hebrew. “But I’m already ready for the next 100.” There is a special significance to “100 rabbis”, he noted, in that a petition by 100 rabbis has the power to change halakhic rulings. “It’s a hard fight for progressive Judaism in Israel,” Abby told me. “It’s like walking uphill on glass barefoot.” This is indeed a great accomplishment in a country that doesn’t officially recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism as legitimate forms of Judaism – not in politics, not in education, not in budgets and jobs, and not...

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Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum used her Friday night sermon to talk about #MeToo. Wow. #GamAni

“If we can’t talk about sexuality and sexual abuse in the synagogue community, then where can we talk about it?” That is how Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum explained her choice on Friday night to dedicate her sermon at her Kehilat Zion minyan in Jerusalem to the topic of #MeToo and sexual abuse. I was so captivated by her talk – as I think everyone in the packed sanctuary was – that I almost forgot where I was altogether. “With all due respect to the Toldot,” she opened, almost apologizing for the fact that she was about to discuss the topic she wanted to discuss rather than the topics traditionally mandated by the Torah portion of the week, in this case Toldot, “the entire Torah is ours, and we need to be able to live by all of it and talk about what we need to talk about.” She is courageous, I thought, perhaps a premonition for what was about to come.    “I want to talk about Eve,” she began, “and why she spoke to the snake, and why she touched the Tree of Knowledge.” Many commentators have remarked that while God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree, Eve actually touched it, and things went downhill from there. A popular midrash says that Eve had added an extra restriction for herself, imagining that God said, "Don't touch the tree" rather than "don't eat." The snake then tricked her pushing her into the tree – and then when nothing happened, he said, “You see? You can touch, you can eat.” But Rabbi Applebaum brought us another midrash that tells a different story. This particular midrash, which is found in Breishit Rabbi and attributed to Abba Bar Koria, says that Adam and Eve had just had sex for the first time, and Adam fell asleep. That’s when Eve went looking for someone to talk to, and found the snake. “Why was she looking for someone to talk to?” Rabbi Elad Applebaum asked us. “Because Adam wasn’t there. He was sleeping. He wasn’t there for her when she needed him.” She then went on to read more deeply into this scenario. “Imagine this. Her first sexual encounter. She was confused, she didn’t understand. Maybe something didn’t happen the way it was supposed to. maybe she was hurting. It wasn't good. We don’t know. Adam went to sleep. She is having a difficult time. What just happened?” The midrash, and Rabbi Applebaum, were connecting the story of eating from the forbidden fruit with the first sexual experience of humanity. That is hardly a stretch. The innuendo is all over the text. Still, the details of this explication were new for me.   “What I’m about to tell you, you won’t find in any midrash”, she said. “It comes straight out of the texts of my life.” I was already entranced. Because I know that those absent texts, the ones of women’s actual lived lives, are usually the ones that speak to me...

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Are women really desperate to get married? Rereading the Talmud, at my own risk.....

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It was as if I knew this was coming. It was almost fate speaking to me. After I disclosed my serious ambivalence about learning Talmud, because of memories of high school classes in Kiddushin (the tractate of betrothals) in which we would be inculcated with rabbinic declarations like tav l’metav tan du m’letav armelu, which is roughly translated that women would rather be married to anyone than to live alone, it was destiny that the next day I would be sitting in class discussing this exact text. You could not make this up. I am learning Kiddushin. The second chapter. Page 41 Side A. The spot which says, tav l’metav tan du m’letav armelu. I’m back here. Some kind of karma or self-fulfilling prophecy. This will either be a corrective experience or it will scar me for life. I went to my bookcase to find the volume that I used in high school. Of course I still have it. It still has the Yeshiva of Flatbush stamp on the inside front cover, “Elana Maryles 406”. I opened up the page and found all my markings and doodles and highlighting. I drew a lot of birds at the time, apparently. I have a vivid memory of my late Uncle Avi yelling at me for drawing on the pages of the Talmud. “It’s a holy book!” he screamed. I might as well have written on the Torah scroll itself. Ah well. At least the birds came out nice. Maybe the birds can be considered commentary. This is actually a pretty famous sugya, or section. It revolves around the issue of whether people can get engaged via messenger. The bottom line is that the man can use a messenger but a woman cannot, because while a man needs to check whether or not he likes the way the woman looks, a woman does not have the same need. That is, tav l’metav…. It doesn’t matter how the man looks because a woman, effectively, will take anyone. Literally, she would prefer to lay down with two bodies than lay down alone. Right. I’m still here. I haven’t run off yet in a screaming panic. I’m hardly the first person to comment on how awful this statement is. My brilliant friend Rivkah Lubitch –  who just came out with a really important book, From the End of the World till the End of the World, chronicling her work with women trying to get divorced in the Israeli rabbinical court (in Hebrew)– wrote a chilling midrash about this text.  The story of the tav l’metav text is actually worse. This statement does not only defend the idea that women do not have to see their groom before marriage. As Talmudic scholar Rabbi Professor Judith Hauptman writes in her book, Rereading the Rabbis: A woman’s voice, this tav l’metav statement is also used elsewhere in the Talmud as well to justify, effectively, rape.  “This statement also implies,” she writes, “that women prefer sex with any man to no...

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What does it mean to really listen in prayer?

Yael Vurgen, a classmate of mine at HUC rabbinical school and a fellow-Modi’in resident, led a morning prayer service (tefillat shacharit) this week that was unlike anything I have ever experienced. And it was all around the very basic concept of listening.   She transmitted this by doing the tefilla in sign language. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Ha'azina" -- "Listen" -- in sign language. This is the prayer that opens up the idea of listening in prayer, where we ask God to listen to our prayers.    Notice that in order to sing this in sign language, you need hands free. You can’t be holding your prayerbook or anything else. Also notice that you need to use your eyes. You have to be present and focused and awake. In fact, sign language requires using your entire body in a sense. This makes the prayer experience something visceral, fully felt. There is no skimming or absently going through the motions. Here is a clip of Yael teaching the morning passage Moda Ani, “I am grateful”, in sign language.   Here is how Yael explained the significance of this to us: Today we are praying in signs of hearing, or the absence of hearing, and a different type of hearing. Sign language enables us to “hear” by seeing, as in “Seeing the sounds” It’s  about recognizing a different quality in the words. Not their sounds, but rather to think about how they look. How would the word “spirit” or “soul” look? How would the words “light” and “darkness” look? How about “compassion”? Here is a clip of Yael teaching the prayer "Yotzer Or" in sign language:   To engage in prayer with this kind of consciousness is to transform the prayer experience from one that is about repetition and tradition to one that is about awakeness and presence. In this exercise of beginning to think about the diversity of the human experience, we are able to open ourselves up to the vastness of humanity as well as the potential of broader spiritual and human engagement. You are not just you. You are not just your immediate senses. There is more to the world, to the earth, to this thing called life. Open your eyes to see this vastness, to others, and only then to fully see yourself. The prayers at Hebrew Union College, led each time by different students who bring their own passions and life lessons to the event are so often like this. These are prayer services that are both rooted in tradition and creatively unique. There is no going through the motions at the HUC tefilla. Each moment is thought through, meant to be experienced fully. As one Orthodox staff member told me, “I go to my regular [Orthodox] morning minyan to get the job done. But I come to the HUC tefilla to talk to God.” Exactly that. I’ve had this debate with some of my classmates. One friend says that the Reform tefilla...

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And another gift today, a glorious poem from Elke Weiss

In addition to the gift I received last night in the form of an unambiguous reminder of how and why I am where I am, I also received this beautiful poem from Elke Weiss. Wow.   A Poem for Elana  by Elke Weiss She asked them.  How long will I wait for women rabbis? They told her to wait. Wait just a little longer, and while you do it, serve chicken soup and smile because everything is wonderful. How long will I wait to see Agunot free? They told her it would happen soon. Another five years. Ten years. Just wait a little longer. And make sure to look pretty while you wait.  How long will I wait to have women be equal? They told her to be grateful for the curtains and the rules and the diamond ceiling, and enjoy the golden cage and chains, because confinement was a gift.  How long will I wait to have the abuse against women be addressed? They told her to understand that things take time and look at all the tiny victories and shouldn’t be happy to have grape juice, why ask for wine? How long will I wait till you hear me?  They told her to be invisible and small and helpless, and to be a passive victim, and to bear the burden of honor, while having none of the honors herself.  How long till you realize you care more about image than substance? They told her to think of her great grandparents, and think of her family and think of the community and think of everyone but herself, like a good Jewish woman.  So she told them farewell and walked away.  They asked her how could she be so ungrateful and think of the Torah and think of her great grandparents and think of everyone but herself, because tradition mattered.  And she told them.  No.Elke Weiss, WOW. I have shivers from this. Thank you !!!

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So a funny thing happened to me when I posted about the editor of the Talmud; or, what to do when people think you’re crazy

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Once again, I’m recovering from The Internet. Specifically, from the Jewish blogosphere, especially the spaced dominated by Orthodox rabbis. And I’m not even talking about the issue of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, which is a topic gaining traction following the #MeToo movement. (See #GamAni) – after all, sexual abuse is hardly limited to one religion, one denomination, one social class or one community. It is everywhere. (I am recovering from that too, a subject of a different post....) I am talking about reactions to my post from last week about discovered the Stama Gemara, the editor of the Talmud. I know that my journey of leaving 40+ years of Orthodoxy behind and becoming a Reform rabbi is likely to make Orthodox rabbis unsettled. But sometimes I am still surprised at how this finds expression.    So, when I wrote about my experience of reading the Talmud as as a collection of stuff that was purposefully collected and manipulated to make us think that the conclusion of the text is one that is Correct and Received and Divine, it generated some hard reactions. And I discovered, once again, why it is such a dangerous thing to share honestly our experiences of healing, change, or awakening. The reaction so often just becomes another thing that you end up having to deal with. To be fair, I received a lot of very supportive and engaging responses. Many other Recovering Day School Graduates shared a similar process of unlearning messages that we received, ones that are harmful, dishonest, or purposefully manipulative. Others welcomed me to the world of Enlightened Folks, wondering what took me so long to get here. And actually, there were several really long and interesting threads on different pages, within Orthodoxy as well, which actually delved into the question of where the Talmud came from, how it is taught, and what it means to be educated with all this “God Language.” I think that these are genuinely useful, productive and engaging conversations. And then there was the other group. The Deniers. Or, more accurately, The Gaslighters. The ones who said I must be making this all up. It’s not true. This doesn’t happen. It is a surprising reaction. I was ready for the accusations of being a heretic. I am used to Orthodox rabbis talking about me as if I am not even Jewish, as if my ideas are so beyond the pale that I wouldn't even be rescued if I were at Sinai. That was mostly when I was an Orthodox feminist. But this line of attack -- as if to say, nobody is THAT strict -- was different. And was no less undermining. The first inkling of being cast this way was a comment on someone’s thread in which the guy, an Orthodox rabbi, wrote, “I literally laughed out loud when I read the part where she discovers that ‘there is an editor’.” Oh, haha, I guess that’s funny. Like, how could I be so stupid? And by...

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What happens when we mistake humans for God; or, an ode to editors

This week in Talmud class, we read a debate among rabbis about who has a bigger penis. Well, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the subtext. It was a debate in the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) about who had more power and authority, the rabbis of Babylon, or the rabbis of Israel. To be fair, the debate took place somewhere around the fourth century CE, during the period when Jews were still getting used to not having their own autonomous country in Israel. There were now two centers of Jewish life rather than one, and much of this segment is about adjusting to this reality, and deciding which center is the one that really counts. There is more at stake here than masculinity, although I posit that an exclusively male tug-of-war about absolute authority has a lot of Freudian dynamics beneath the surface. Still, there is actually a lot at stake in this debate over which group of Jewish leaders are really the ones in charge. You can argue that it was not so much about their own power as much as it was about the future of the Jewish people, or belief about when there would be a Third Temple – if ever. You can say that the argument is not about the rabbis themselves or the sway of their words but something deeper with more genuine integrity and concern for the People of Israel. I get that.  A less cynical view than mine is likely just as legitimate. Interestingly, this power struggle between Israeli and Diaspora leaders over who represents true Jewishness is not that different from the than the state of the Jewish people today. Today, too, the Jewish people are rife with internal debates about whether communal resources and funding around the world should go to Israel or to their own local communities, about which communities are more important and deserving, over who is living out the more authentic Judaism. And today, too, there is a lot at stake in this tug of war. The Reform movement has a very important role to play in this struggle. Representing around half of American Jews, people whose rights are trampled on with ease and a complete absence of consciousness by the State of Israel, this is a group that wears on its sleeve the power play between Jewish leaders here and Jewish leaders there. The average American Jew who likely belongs to a liberal community pays the price of this tug of war in real terms. Who is allowed to get married in Israel, who is considered Jewish, who is allowed to officially represent religion in Israel, who gets state funding, who is allowed to pray the way they want wherever they want – these are all places where liberal Jews suffer because of power games among leaders. It is about men asserting their power by trying to keep others powerless. We are all little pawns in the penis game. This week, we...

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The Rabin Assassination and the Binding of Isaac: A powerful sermon by HUC Rabbinical Student Osnat Elder

To commemorate the  22nd anniversary of the Rabin assassination which falls this week, I am posting here a sermon by HUC rabbinical student Osnat Elder, a powerful and poetic call to action for Jewish educators and thinkers, which she delivered this week to the rabbinical school. Translation into English is mine. Original Hebrew posted at the bottom.  And this dark matter was imprinted with stains of light And they did not make a sound, and not even a whisper passed through them And they are like the oil of myrrh, flowing and sprinkling from the rubbish.  -- Dahlia Ravikovitch And at midnight, a heavy silence fell on the square, like the heavens before a storm, like a partition without a partner. The square that lost its name on that long and awful night, that held thousands of candles flickering sparks of broken hope, and as they extinguished, the left behind a smooth and colorful platform of melted wax. Weeks later they were still being kindled with dedication, love, and the knowledge that only they would be able to prevent the next earthquake – even though they did not prevent the first one. This was the time of the still mourning, as if the cover of words that preceded it was already gone, and new words for processing the trauma had not yet been found. It was the knowledge that the still, small voice is the voice of compassion and the voice of sanity and the voice of culture and language. But noises, they have their own energy, and it wasn’t long before the voices of hate and violence and incitement were heard once again. And twenty years after the first earthquake (noise, ra’ash), Shira Banki was murdered.  The Torah portion Vayera is also quaking (ro’esh). The quake (noise) from the complicated relationship between Abraham and Sara, in its deafening silence, as if she is accustomed to being taken to the chambers of foreign kings who do what they please with her. And her striking absence while her son, her only son, the one she loved, becomes a victim of the blind belief of the king of belief, Abraham.  Another quake is the strange fatherhood of Lot towards his daughters. The way he sacrifices their innocence, their essence, their very beings, in order to welcome strangers, in order to soothe with the angry mob outside his house. There are those who say that his daughters returned him an eye for an eye, so to speak, that when he was lying drunk and naked in the cave outside of Sodom, they raped him night after night in order to generate his offspring.  There is nothing sicker and more perverted than their actions, since as soon as the boundaries were blurred, so too were lost the distinctions between right and wrong, between permitted and forbidden, between the personal and the political – and as soon as everything was permitted to everyone, their actions could be justified within the text, too. Only their mother, who...

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