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March 2004

More Than Meets The Eye

On a recent trip to the Montague Book Mill, I picked up a paperback copy of Vanessa Ochs' Words on Fire: One Woman's Journey Into the Sacred. When the book begins, Ochs is living in an upstate New York college town, experiencing mysterious recurring ailments. She decides that her illnesses are due to her leading an "unsanctified" life, and when a sabbatical opportunity opens up for her husband, she engages in a year of intensive study in Jerusalem, trying to gain access to Judaism's central sacred texts.

To me, the mysterious-ailment part of the story felt tacked-on, as though Ochs needed to justify to her readers (and to herself) why she was tackling Talmud in midlife. Especially given how alienating she finds old chestnuts like "The words of the Torah should be burnt rather than be taught to women." (That's courtesy of Talmudic rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.)

I find lines like that one alienating, too. (How could I not?) And I'm always interested in a good chronicle of spiritual searching, especially one by a woman searching for her place in Judaism. So I expected to love this book.

I didn't, quite. Ochs' journey felt muddled to me. I understand that real life is messy, and suspect Ochs made the conscious decision to mirror the complications of lived experience in her book. As a result, though, it was hard for me to follow the meanderings of Ochs' path. I expected the three-step arc: 1) begin feeling distant from Judaism, 2) spend the year in Israel connecting with teachers and texts, and 3) come home changed. And although that's mostly what happens, the trajectory isn't as clear as I wanted it to be. Sometimes it seems her preexisting frustrations with Judaism keep her from connecting with it; often it seems she can't figure out how to reconcile her longstanding exasperations with her newfound interest. She wants to be in love with Judaism, but her modernity keeps getting in the way.

Remember the poem about the blind men and the elephant? (It's actually based on a Buddhist sutra.) Judaism can be like that: if you're reaching out to touch Orthodoxy, you'll get a completely different shape than if you're reaching out to touch Jewish Renewal. It frustrated me to watch Ochs grapple with the sexism of Orthodoxy without ever engaging with the other points on the denominational spectrum.

These frustrations aside, though, there was also a lot I enjoyed about Words on Fire. Ochs certainly doesn't flinch from portraying the ugly underbelly of Jewish anti-feminism, historically or in the present-day, and I appreciate that even as it makes me squirm. She also has an excellent eye for detail and a deft hand with characterization; I came away feeling that I knew many of the book's characters personally, from "Esther" (perennially producing new children, studying Torah in between diaperings) to teachers Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg and Chana Safrai.

One of the book's most poignant vignettes, to me, comes near the end. Ochs and her husband are celebrating Shabbat with two young men who are new to Judaism. Ochs describes the tableau of the three men studying. And then she enters the tableau, perching on the kitchen counter, and says to the men, "This text, new as it is to you, is totally yours. Imagine what it feels like for me knowing I have to edit or ignore chunks of sacred texts. Imagine if you read in Ethics of the Fathers: Don't chat with men, they're ninnies. Would either of you have chosen to ally yourself with a group that treated your sex with such disdain?" The men cannot answer; Ochs becomes uncomfortable, realizing that she's been confrontational, but can't seem to stop the words from leaving her mouth.

That passage epitomizes both what I liked about this book and what I didn't. I like Ochs' honesty, her willingness to wrangle with what's difficult in Judaism. But I get exasperated watching her run repeatedly into the wall of Judaism's sexism, because I don't think that sexism is necessarily one of Judaism's defining factors. I wish Ochs had examined the whole Jewish spectrum: if not for herself personally, then at least for her readers, to show that there's more to this elephant than meets one blind man's eye.

Preparing (or not) for Purim

Of all the holidays in the wheel of the Jewish year, I think the only one I've never written about is Purim. I have vague memories of cranking my grager in shul during readings from the Megillat Esther as a kid, and I'm sure I went in costume, but it wasn't a big holiday for me. In college, I was briefly interested in feminist attempts to redeem Vashti (whose actions, after all, made a fair amount of sense to me once I thought about them: I wouldn't want to be ordered to dance nude for my husband's guests, either), but the holiday failed to grab me in a meaningful way.

Like Chanukah, it's a "they-tried-to-kill-us, they-failed, let's-eat" holiday. At Purim, we're encouraged to overindulge, to become so drunk we can't tell Mordechai (the good guy) from Haman (the bad one). For my friends and family members who eschew secular festivals like Hallowe'en and Mardi Gras, Purim becomes the big dress-up holiday of the year. I've heard tell of Purimspiels so irreverently hilarious they approach the transcendent humor of early Saturday Night Live. Lilith ran an interesting article several years back, which suggested that hamentaschen (usually considered to represent Haman's tricornered hat) are actually a holdover from an earlier Goddess-festival which involved consumption of yonic foods.

Okay, fine, but I'm still not itching to dash out and celebrate this year. I don't like hangovers, I'm not big into costuming, I've never seen a decent Purimspiel, and recovering Goddess-worship festivals, while interesting, isn't really my bag. So what does Purim hold for me? I actually feel a little bit guilty about my lack of interest; it's the one holiday absent from my writing-your-own-Jewish-rituals book manuscript. I'm a self-proclaimed liturgy geek, and yet this holiday just doesn't turn me on.

Maybe if I had children, I'd be more inclined to make something of Purim. I like the idea of synagogues -- usually places of reverence -- becoming raucous and goofy for an evening, and I remember feeling as a kid that I'd take any excuse to play dress-up. And maybe if I felt more repressed in everyday life, the chance to bust out (costumes, noisemaking, revelry, drunkenness) would sound more appealing. But as things stand now, all attempts to make Purim timely and meaningful aside, I just can't sink my teeth into the holiday.

At least I can still sink my teeth into some tricornered cookies. When in doubt, celebrate via food.

Definitions of davvenen

On an email list to which I belong, someone recently posted a quote from To Be A Jew, by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin: "Although the halakha has ruled that prayer can be said in any language, and an individual is permitted to do so when saying his own prayers, it is most important that a community or a congregation does not deviate from the practice of conducting its public religious services in Hebrew, the sacred tongue....It is only through a relatively uniform Hebrew service...that the unity of the Jewish people throughout the world is strengthened.... It enables a Jew to feel at home in any synagogue anywhere in the world, even where one is unable otherwise to communicate with his coreligionists because they speak other languages."

On the one hand, I see Rabbi Donin's point that preserving Hebrew as the language of communal prayer connects Jews to each other, both across time and across space. There is something rich and resonant about Hebrew; some have argued that it's the mystical resonances of Hebrew which create and sustain the world. On a more prosaic level, I like singing Hebrew prayers because the words and melodies blend together into something that can (if I'm lucky) transport me somewhere ineffable. And I know that, if we replace Hebrew in our liturgies, the next generation of Jews is unlikely to grow up loving these melodies and words as much as I do.

On the proverbial other hand, though, I also support the inclusion of English translations in the siddurim I use, both because my Hebrew isn't fluent and because I want to be conscious of the needs of those (our non-Jewish partners or family members, or Jews who didn't get a strong Judaic education) who don't speak Hebrew at all. And clearly, when I speak directly to God, I do so in my mother tongue. God doesn't "care" what language we pray in; if Hebrew is keeping people out, why not also pray in English?

Another list-member posted a related idea, credited to Arthur Green: while each of us naturally speaks directly to God (in other words, prays) in her/his native tongue, davvenen happens only in Hebrew. I had always assumed that "davven" and "pray" were synonyms, but I wonder now whether they are different. Unlike prayer, davvening implies rhythm and melody, even movement. When we davven we sing or chant, rather than merely speaking. Even so, I’m reluctant to agree that davvenen can never be a vernacular activity; I feel certain that I have davvened in English from time to time. The distinction is a useful framework, but I want to hang exceptions all over it.

Maybe what I'm after is a balance between davvenen and praying, however we define them. If a service is all short English prayers and adaptations, I long for the sounds and melodies of the Hebrew prayers I grew up with. But if the emphasis seems more on following the congregation's custom of Hebrew prayer repetitions than on ensuring a meaningful worship experience for the people involved, I get cranky and lose my sense of joyful connection.

Traditional davvenen can feel inaccessible to outsiders. As Rabbi Goldie Milgram writes, "Many Jews complain of having difficulty finding deep meaning in the traditional prayer service. Many of us were conditioned to accept that for Jews 'praying' is accomplished by simply reciting or chanting all the words, preferably in Hebrew. It is helpful and interesting to note that in the Talmud our ancestors worried that writing down their prayers could lead to just such a deadening rote recitation by subsequent generations."

Of course, I also know wise, engaged people who would argue that rote recitation can be a deeply spiritual meditative process. That when we know the Hebrew words and melodies deep in our bones, we can recite them as we would recite mantras, moving through sound and beyond sense into a connection with God that transcends individual praying. Communal versus personal; Hebrew versus vernacular; the words of my mouth versus the meditations of my heart -- how to reconcile these varying priorities?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does an excellent job of exploring the personal and communal nature of Jewish davvening/prayer. (Scroll about halfway down, to the section marked "Prayer: Collective or Individual?") Sacks draws an excellent distinction between "tefillah as the collective act of the praying community and prayer as an individual dialogue between the soul and God." Historically, he argues, Judaism has always included these two ideals and the tension between them.

Sacks writes, "Today's young Jews want to learn for themselves and to davven for themselves. They do not wish to be exempted by a shaliach. They want to be active participants, and they are right.  They have rediscovered the depth-grammar of the sages' definition of prayer as avodah shebelev, inadequately translated as 'the service of the heart'. Avodah, however, really means 'hard work,' and genuine prayer is hard work. What Sir Joshua Reynolds said about genius applies equally to spirituality: it is ninety-nine per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration. A friend once gave me a marvelous insight into hassidic music. A niggun, he said, is like a bed on a cold night. First you warm it up, then it warms you up. The same is true about prayer." In addition to the smart things he has to say about music, I must also praise one more thing, to wit, his last line: "Tefillah is where we create the space in our soul for the presence of God."

Edited to add: This post was written in 2004. For a 2006 return to these themes, check out Davvenen, redux.

New Year of the Trees

Full moon falls this upcoming weekend, and with it comes the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.

My only experiences with Tu BiShvat growing up were of faithfully bringing a five-dollar bill to school to pay for the planting of a tree in Israel. Each tree could be bought in honor of someone. I was more interested in deciding whose name would go on the JNF certificate than in the actuality of the trees so many thousands of miles away. Once I left the Jewish Day School, I basically forgot about Tu BiShvat for twenty years. Deciding to play with the holiday as an adult meant beginning, as usual for me, with research.

It turns out that the Jewish year has four different New Years. Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud tells us, "On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of animals. ...On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for the years.... On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says on the 15th." Since modern-day Judaism follows Hillel in most things, the new year of the trees is celebrated on the 15th of Shvat, at the full moon in the middle of the month.

Originally, the day was used for calculating the age of trees for tithing. According to the Torah, trees grown in the land of Israel may not be eaten from during their first three years; the fruit of their fourth year must be tithed to God; after that, the trees can be harvested at will. To make accounting simpler, Tu BiShvat became the birthday of every Israeli tree; regardless of when a tree was planted, its birthdays were marked on the full moon at the middle of the month of Shvat.

In the sixteenth century, the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria developed an elaborate Tu BiShvat seder, in which thirty different fruits were consumed in an allegorical journey through four mystical worlds of creation, from the physical world of embodiment to the essential world of pure spirit.

Some Jews regard Tu BiShvat is a kind of hinge-point within the year, between the season of darkness (Chanukah) and the season of light (Passover). Some conceptualize the round of the Jewish year as a single long day, in which case Tu BiShvat comes around 3 a.m., an hour which is neither precisely night nor precisely morning.

Trees are a potent symbol within Judaism. In Genesis, Adam and Eve get themselves exiled from Eden by eating the fruit of the wrong tree. According to the Zohar, that tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was merely a branch of the Tree of Life until the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, at which point the branch split off and became a tree unto itself. In this teaching, tikkun olam (the healing of the world) means re-unifying the two trees into their initial, singular, state. In Deuteronomy, man is likened to a tree; in Proverbs, the Torah is likened to a tree of life. The Kabbalists of medieval years had a variety of ways of conceptualizing God, including the "sefirotic tree," an arboreal diagram of divine spheres through which holy emanations flowed into creation.

In the last thirty years, as the crisis of the global environment has become clear, many Tu BiShvat observences have come to have a strong environmentalist component. It's traditional to plant trees in the Land of Israel, which connects the holiday to the greening of that particular desert. Some conceptualize the holiday in a more local or global way, as a kind of "Jewish Earth Day," in the parlance of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Tu BiShvat has become one of my favorite minor festivals. I like the custom of leading a seder in which different fruits and wines are consumed to represent a journey through the four worlds. It's a wonderfully strange holiday, and I'm glad I gave it a second chance in adulthood; planting imaginary trees in a faraway land in second grade didn't begin to scratch the surface of how cool this holiday can be.

In an alternate interpretation, suggested by a modern scholar of comparative religion, this weekend is not Tu BiShvat but rather Tuba Shabbat, when Jews worldwide bring our large brass instruments to shul to have them blessed before we use them to accompany the melodies of the morning service. I don't know about you, but I think a brass quintet in shul would be a lot of fun...

Under the Sea

Beshalach, this week's Torah portion, is action-packed. It's a dramatic saga: the journey out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds. The special effects practically pop out of the scroll: pillars of smoke and fire, oceans parting, the whole megillah.

A few things caught my eye. First, we learn that although God could have led the Israelites through the nearby land of the Philistines, God chose to take them the roundabout way through the Sea instead, "Lest the people regret it, when they see war, and return to Egypt." (All Torah citations in this post are transl. Everett Fox.)

It's fascinating to try to divine God's intent. Some argue that God knew the Israelites, being "stiff-necked people," would need to witness many miracles in order to be transformed by freedom and faith, so God took the Israelites along a path which would necessarily require miracles, starting with the parting of the Sea of Reeds. This relates easily to the notion that the decades of wandering in the desert were necessary in order to shake off the spiritual bondage of slavery; that if the journey had been easy, the Israelites would still have been mentally enslaved when they reached freedom.

The Talmud (Midrash Rabbah) compares God's routing decision to a king who wants to give his son an inheritance, but thinks, "If I give it to him now that he is small, he will not know how to take care of it; I will therefore wait until my son studies the writings and comprehends the value [of the property], then I will bequeath it unto him." In other words, even the adult Israelites were spiritually children, unable to grasp the true import of connection with God, and needed to be schooled in the desert before they could be ready for the inheritance of Torah.

Other nifty things in this week's parashah: Moses fetches Joseph's bones and carries them out of Egypt. It's an image with profound resonance, maybe especially for those of us whose parents and grandparents left Europe for the New World. How do we carry our ancestors with us? How do we honor their memory? (I also can't help thinking of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises, and their penates, household gods, out of falling Troy.)

Later in the portion, we see the Israelites cowering in fear, bitching to Moses that he brought them out of Egypt merely to let them die; so Moses calls on God. God's response? "Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let-them-march-forward!" On this, Rashi writes, "God said to Moses: 'Moses! My children are in dire straits, the sea is closing in on them and the enemy pursues, and you stand and pray at length? Why do you cry to Me? There are times when that calls for lengthy prayers, and times when one must pray shortly...'" (I'm contemplating using that in my handout for the Torah discussion: proof that even God understands that sometimes shortened davvening is the way to go.)

But what I like best about this parashah is the moment when the Israelites walk into the Sea of Reeds, which has been divided in a joint effort by Moses and God (Moses holds out his arm, and God drives back the sea). The source text just says, "The Children of Israel came through the midst of the sea upon the dry-land, the waters a wall for them on their right and on their left." Of course, commentators through the ages have had a field day with this teeny little line.

Sotah 37a of the Talmud shows us a Rabbinic disagreement about who went in first. Rabbi Meir said that the Israelites vied with each other to be the first to enter the sea for each tribe wanted that honor. In contrast, Rabbi Judah taught that each tribe announced that it would not be first to enter the sea, but while they stood and debated, Nachshon ben Amminadab of the tribe of Judah sprang forward and jumped into the sea. The waters then parted for the Israelites to make their way through. (Some commentators take "The Children of Israel came through the midst of the sea upon the dry-land" to mean that the Israelites had to plunge into water, perhaps as high as their necks or noses, before the dry land materialized for them. Talk about your leap of faith!)

Modern commentator Rabbi Larry Kushner suggests that for some of the Israelites, the passage across the sandy ocean floor was gritty, muddy, and unpleasant. Their eyes were on their feet, trudging through the silt: they never noticed the walls of water surrounding them. They never noticed that they were walking through a miracle.

The messages I take from this passage are twofold: God helps those who help themselves, and it's best to approach the world with eyes open to the miraculous. God will be there to part the waters for us, but we need to take the first steps into the unknown with our own feet...and whether we find ourselves bogged down in unpleasant mud, or walking miraculously across the floor of the sea, is up to us.