Sunday, May 22, 2016

Idaho Statesman column for May 29

When Moses first encounters God at the burning bush, he asks, “What is your name?”  God responds, “I will be who I will be.”  The Hebrew—Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh—is tricky but God’s self-revealed name is clearly and unequivocally a verb rather than a noun.  The God of the Torah is dynamic, less a Being and more a Becoming.

And if, as Genesis teaches, we humans are all created in the Divine Image, then we, too, are called to be wonderfully mysterious, complex, and ever-growing.  Like our Creator, we are works in progress, often defying fixed categorization.  This is true of both our souls and our bodies.  Thus Jewish tradition recognizes gender categories beyond the binary of male and female.  Talmud and later codes of Jewish law have hundreds of references to those who don’t “fit” into conventional binary gender systems.  As Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla note: “People can’t always be easily defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy.  This approach allows for genders beyond male and female.  It protects those who live in the places in between, and it opens up space in society for every body.”

This brings me to North Carolina’s deeply misguided “bathroom law” which eliminates legal protections for LGBT people in the state and mandates that people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.  It’s a classic case of fearing the entirely wrong thing.  Bathrooms are, indeed, dangerous places—but this bill makes them even more dangerous, because the real danger is to the same transgendered population that is insidiously presented as the threat rather than the most likely victims.  As a local transgender activist and friend described the matter to me:

No one is more concerned about privacy in bathrooms than a transgender person. And no one is more concerned with safety in restrooms either. Transgender people are already common victims of violence in and around restrooms and this recent panic makes it worse. Most of us just try to fit in and be unobtrusive. Go in, do our business, wash hands, leave quickly. Many of us are terrified already because we know that the stakes are high. Every time I spoke up in BSU classes about my trans experiences, or got interviewed in the school paper, I worried that I would be confronted. It never happened and I consider that a blessing. Every time I go clothes shopping I worry that some other patron will create a scene. Every time I go to rural Idaho I worry that someone will decide to make an example of me. And these are with me every day. To spare my wife from worry, I keep this very quiet. Of course we are vulnerable enough traveling as two women by ourselves. And really, isn't this the true crux? Isn't this really about how vulnerable women are to male violence? But that is a very hard nut to crack, so instead let's get scared of transgender people and the Trojan horse threat that they might pose.”

Surely we can do better than this.  We can recognize that gender is complicated.  We can trust people to know best who they are and where they belong—and welcome them accordingly.  We can celebrate ourselves as being in the image of the One who is constantly becoming—a marvelous gift to all of us, lesbian and gay and straight and transgender and everything in between. 

And for God’s sake, we can let people pee in peace.

Friday, May 20, 2016

To the Mountains (portion Behar)

I raise my eyes to the mountains (Psalm 121)

It is said that late in life, the celebrated rabbi and father of Modern Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch, gathered his students and informed them that he was traveling to Switzerland.  Astonished that their deeply pious teacher would spend so much time on a seemingly frivolous journey, they asked, “Why?”  Rabbi Hirsch laughed, then responded: “Because when I stand before the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe will ask me, ‘So, Samson, did you see my Alps?’”

Like Rabbi Hirsch—and generations before him—many of us find inspiration in the mountains.  This week’s Torah portion, Behar, means “on the mountain”; it reminds us that we received the Torah in the wilderness, on a mountaintop.

Why do we so often associate holiness with high places?  I love Annie Dillard’s poetic explanation from near the end of her magnificent work of natural theology, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  She writes:

Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.”  The gaps are the thing.  The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound.  The gaps are the clefts in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery.  Go up into the gaps.  If you can find them; they shift and vanish too.  Stalk the gaps.  Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn and unlock—more than a maple—a universe.  This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.  Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you.

What an opportunity we have this coming week—to read our portion, Behar, “on the mountain” in the beautiful Idaho mountains outside McCall at our congregational retreat—accompanied by the music of Nefesh Mountain!

We raise our eyes to the mountains, indeed.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Failing and Learning (portion Emor)

In baseball, even the best hitters fail seven out of ten times.
                                    -Ichiro Suzuki

As perennial all-star and future hall of famer Ichiro Suzuki notes, baseball is a game of mostly failure, punctuated by the occasional success.  Even the very best players fail to hit the ball four times out of ten.  In this sense, the game very much echoes the Torah itself, which recounts failure after failure.  Human beings miss the mark more often than not, and even God makes a colossal error, despairing of the creation, destroying everything in the flood, and then regretting the destruction.  But like elite baseball players, our challenge is to accept our propensity to fail—and then learn from our mistakes.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, discusses the role and limitations of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.  It notes that he cannot come into contact with any dead bodies, even in the course of burying his own mother and father.  He must subsume his personal circumstances—even intense grief—for the sake of the Jewish community that he is appointed to serve.  The words engraved on the gold plate that adorns his priestly turban sum it up—he is to be Kodesh l’Adonai—Holy to God.

Given that enormous burden of responsibility, it is not so surprising to note that most who took on this sacred office failed.  Dr. Ari Zivotofsky of Bar Ilan University, referencing the Talmud, notes that “during the 420 years in which the Second Temple stood, there were four righteous High Priests [who served for many years], and more than 300 others who did not even serve a full year.” 

To follow a classic Talmudic line of argumentation: If the High Priest, who was the holiest of Jewish officials, failed far more often than not, then kal v’chomer—all the more so—we ordinary people will mostly fall short of our highest expectations and goals.  But that should not lead us to despair.  As Rabbi Yael Shy notes, “I like to imagine the Kohens who didn't make it in the "Gadol" position still found holiness in the small places of their lives. I imagine the smells of the sacrifices in the Temple and the sounds of the prayers and perhaps the very texture of the silence in the Holy of Holies animated their everyday, slightly more "regular" Kohen existence.”

This week, consider: How can you dream big and aspire to change the world while still recognizing that failure is unavoidable—and a learning opportunity?

Friday, May 6, 2016

Loving Our Neighbors, Loving Ourselves (Portion Kedoshim)

Love your neighbor as yourself.

In a recent interview, writer and social critic Malcolm Gladwell summed up the thesis of his 2009 bestseller Outliers as follows: “I wanted people to move away from the notion of success as something individual.  There is this notion of the ‘lone genius’ that is very popular in the United States.  This has very little basis in reality.  Since there is an incredibly long period required for the incubation of expertise, there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible.  Every time you watch someone on stage at Carnegie Hall playing the violin, understand how many other people sacrificed to make possible the beautiful music you are hearing.”

Gladwell’s point is critical.  It’s true—no person is an island.  Every success that we enjoy is, to an extraordinary extent, built upon the labors of others who grow our food, weave our clothing, build our schools, clean up after us, and drive us to countless lessons and rehearsals.  The notion of the autonomous self is a narcissistic lie.

Which brings us to the “golden rule” in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. God commands us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Traditional Jewish commentary recognizes that this teaching raises almost endless difficulties.  Who is defined as a “neighbor”?  How can a feeling—in this case, love—be conjured on command?  And what, per se, is the “self”?  Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn suggests that this passage is not teaching us how or how much to love our neighbor at all; he translates the phrase: “Love your neighbor, who is like you.”  In other words, we should act lovingly toward others because we are inextricably bound to them.  We are our neighbors.  Our neighbors are us.  We are all part of the intricate web of nature and nurture, genetics and culture that we might also call “God.”  We should love our neighbors as ourselves because who they are is an essential part of who we are becoming.

This week, consider: How can you better see your successes as the product of countless neighbors, known and unknown, over the course of your lifetime and theirs?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

In the Aftermath (Portion Acharei Mot)

What do you do in the aftermath of an unspeakable catastrophe? 

This is the question raised by this week’s Torah portion.  Its very name—and opening words—Acharei Mot—raise the quandary, as it means “after the death.”  In this case, the death is that of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu, cut down in the prime of their lives when they bring an unusual offering before God and are, in turn, consumed by a fire that leaps forth from the Ark of the Covenant.  It is one of the most tragic and inexplicable events in the Torah.  The commentators make many efforts to explain it, but none suffice; in the end, we are left with Aaron’s stunned silence and raw grief.

But what follows in the aftermath that our parsha describes this week?  Not—as one might expect—details of a funeral or sitting shivah, though one can imagine those things happening.  Instead, after briefly recalling Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, the portion goes on to offer a meticulous description of what Aaron and his remaining sons, the priests/cohanim, did to minister to the Israelites on Yom Kippur.

Why is this?  I suspect that Torah is reminding us that while we must grieve our losses (and our tradition gives us a very elaborate structure for doing just this), in the end, the ultimate response to catastrophe is to return to life, to reaffirm our commitment to the living by tending to the ordinary details that can provide a surprising measure of both comfort and meaning.  Judaism could have died with Nadav and Avihu: Aaron and his family might have easily refused to ever enter the Tent of Meeting again and thereby destroyed the ritual at the community’s core.  But they didn’t.  They wept and mourned—and then returned to the Divine Service, to the sacred task of tending to the Jewish people and their needs.

How fitting, then, that we read this portion this Shabbat, just two days after Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust memorial day.  We recall the immeasurable tragedy that destroyed so many of our people just seventy years ago.  We remember.  And then we get back to the business of healing our community through the timeless Jewish deeds of learning Torah, of spiritual service, and of performing acts of loving kindness.  Next week we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut—Israel Independence Day—and then read portion Kedoshim, which means, “holiness.”  After the death—remembrance, and then rebuilding our Jewish state, our Jewish souls, all the while striving for holiness.