Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A funny thing happened at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem last week. According to Our Quiet Prayer at the Kotel on the Women of the Wall (WoW) website, just shy of a dozen women prayed out loud at the Kotel, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls), and nothing bad happened.
Such a thing would be quite unremarkable in any other place where Jews live freely. But to anyone who has followed events surrounding the Women of the Wall and the Kotel, this was something extraordinary.
For decades, the Women of the Wall have gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each Hebrew month, and have been met with everything from flying chairs and diapers to detainment and arrest. Just recently, the women were told they couldn’t even bring their tallitot and other ritual objects into the Western Wall area, even though there is no law prohibiting it. Indeed, the law says a woman may wear a tallit at the Kotel, as long as she does not wear it like a man.
So how is it possible that, after decades of struggle, suddenly a group of women were able to pray as they wish at the Kotel with no fuss or bother?
First, it wasn’t Rosh Chodesh, so nobody was expecting them. Second, they made sure they didn’t all arrive as one group, making them less noticeable. But, once they gathered, put on their tallitot and began to pray, people must have noticed, right?
Indeed, they were noticed. But instead of attacking them or complaining to the authorities, some of the onlookers joined them in song. Nobody seemed to mind.
So, what does this mean?
Detractors of the Women of the Wall might say this proves that the Rosh Chodesh prayer ceremonies are deliberately provocative, while this one was not. They might say that WoW invites the media and others each month to create a big show, and they aren’t there for a meaningful prayer experience at all.
Supporters of WoW might say the only reason their monthly services become a disturbance is because the authorities make it into one by detaining and arresting the women, and by making up new rules as they go along. They may say that if only the police protected them against attack as they would protect praying men under attack, the fuss would have died down long ago.
But no matter which side you support, the fact remains: This is a turning point. Those eleven women proved last week that women can pray out loud, wearing tallitot, at the Kotel without creating a disturbance. They proved that there are others ready and willing to join them, if only they are allowed to do so in peace.
To arrest or detain even one more woman at the Kotel for “disturbing the peace” for doing no more than what these eleven women did so publicly and so peacefully last week would be the height of hypocrisy. The claim of disturbance no longer holds any water.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.
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January 16, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend we were privileged to have Rabbi Sharon Brous from Ikar speak at our congregation and at a couple of other events in the area. We all agreed she was fabulous, but it got me to wondering what, exactly, sets her apart from so many other rabbis?
I’ll start out by saying she is well versed in Torah. That should go without saying in regard to any decent rabbi, but if I didn’t say it, I can just see readers skimming through this post and then commenting at the bottom about how nothing she does matters if it isn’t based in Torah. So I thought I’d just nip that one in the bud.
The first thing Rabbi Brous brings to the table that some rabbis do not is a clarity of vision. She sees Judaism as it has been practiced in the recent past, and she sees where it could go. Her vision includes the desire to create a sense of surprise, to foster innovation, and to create a sense of connection to God and to others in the community.
Not only does she have this vision, but she is able to communicate it to others in a way that is convincing and easy to understand.
But she doesn’t just talk about this vision. Rabbi Brous has been able to bring these ideas to fruition by founding Ikar, which says on its website that it is “a religious approach that fuses piety and hutzpah, obligation and inspiration, tradition and soul.” In other words, she isn’t just writing and speaking about what needs to be done to reinvigorate Jewish life; she is taking it to the next level by putting her ideas into practice in the real world.
What Rabbi Brous brings to the table besides her vision and her action is her integrity. You can tell by the way she speaks that she is speaking from the heart. She isn’t interested in platitudes. She isn’t interested in catering to what she might think others want her to say. No. It is obvious that her energy and her focus come from a place of honesty and integrity that make her at once both vulnerable and powerful in a way that only the courageous can be.
One would think all of the above, taken together, would be more than enough to raise her above the level of an ordinary rabbi, and you would be right. But she adds one more important skill to all of this. She is able to spiritually inspire groups of people, even strangers.
For instance, during services on Saturday morning, she led us in a niggun, a wordless melody. But first she explained that prayer is both about connecting with God and about connecting with other people. She made it clear that in order to have a complete, deep prayer experience, both elements must be present.
As we began to sing and connect, she encouraged us to reach out to those around us who might be at a lower state of connection, and to pull them up with us. It is hard to describe what happened in that room, but in the space of a few short minutes it left several members of the congregation in tears.
I know I haven’t done justice to Rabbi Brous and what she has created at Ikar, especially since, as a Northern Californian, I haven’t had a chance to attend services there myself yet. If you live in Los Angeles and haven’t been there, I urge you to visit Ikar to check them out. See for yourself what makes Rabbi Sharon Brous so special.
January 9, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last week my husband and I reached our 10th wedding anniversary. One might expect me to say we “celebrated” it, but I avoided that word on purpose. We both worked a full day that day, after which I participated in a meeting at the synagogue. I then came home, chatted a bit with my husband, and then went up to bed. Not exactly a celebration.
You see, we don’t make a big deal about our anniversary. It would be a mistake, though, to try to read much of anything into that.
Ten years into our marriage, my husband still brings me flowers on random days. Not because he did anything wrong, or because we had a fight, or anything like that. He does it just because he knows I love flowers. That means a lot more to me than compulsory flowers delivered based on some date on the calendar.
After then years, we still have “slumber parties,” lying in bed at 2 or 3 am on a weeknight, sharing stories, laughing, and saying, “Ok, we have to go to sleep now,” before launching into another round of giggle-filled chatting.
For ten years, we have stuck meticulously to our “honesty policy,” meaning not just that we don’t lie to each other, but that we tell each other what we’re really thinking and feeling, even if we’re concerned the other person may not like it.
A corollary to this is the policy that we never make an offer we don’t want to fulfill. And we don’t say, “Would you like steak or chicken for dinner tonight” if we’d be upset about the other person choosing one over the other. All offers must be genuine, or they aren’t made.
Being married for ten years has given us both the opportunity to demonstrate that, any time the other one needs us, we will drop whatever we’re doing to give the other what s/he needs.
Being married to him means we tell each other, sincerely and often, how much we love each other. It means that when, a couple of years ago, the ER doctor called to tell me he thought my husband was having a heart attack and I thought, “If he dies before I get there, what was the last thing I said to him?” I was able to confidently assure myself it was, “I love you.”
These ten years have flown by so fast that, subjectively, I would have said we couldn’t possibly have been married for more than a year or two. It means I was surprised when someone said, “I guess you got past the seven year itch” and I realized we blew right by that one without a second thought. It feels like we’re just getting started, and, God willing, we are.
Happy anniversary John Barnes, and thanks for the best ten years of my life.
January 2, 2013 | 8:10 pm
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
After reading the recent post by Rabbi Avi Shafran in the Jewish Journal, I just had to respond. Here is my fisk of his post.
“It’s easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman.”
The name of the group is Women of the Wall. In a post that purports to be about showing sensitivity to others, the least you could do is not start out by insulting an entire group of people. And what the Women of the Wall are doing are not antics. They are saying traditional Jewish prayers. To see a rabbi characterize traditional Jewish prayer at the Kotel as “antics” is a sad thing.
“Her guerrilla gatherings of women…”
These are gatherings of women who are there to pray the traditional prayers. They are there to pray, not to fight. There is nothing “guerilla” about them. It is only others who attempt to turn their gatherings into a fight, against the will of the Women of the Wall.
“She can bank, too, on the support – although some of it is uneasy – from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.”
She can also bank on support from members of the Orthodox American Jewish community, as well as the Orthodox Israeli Jewish community, some of whom are loyal members of Women of the Wall, a non-denominational group supported by women from across the Jewish spectrum.
“Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman’s goal of “liberating” the Wall from Jewish religious tradition – halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting…”
If the only problem is that Jewish men are not allowed to hear the voices of women, then why is the only solution to prohibit women from praying out loud? There are many other possible solutions. For instance, there could be specific days and times (such as the morning of Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of each Hebrew month – when women traditionally pray) when women’s prayer is allowed, and men who don’t want to hear it can stay away. It is completely absurd to say the women have to accommodate the men 100% of the time and the men can’t accommodate the women some small part of the time.
Another option would be for the men to wear earplugs. Another option would be to build a sound proof room for the men who don’t want to hear the women. There are many options other than excluding women’s prayer 100% of the time. Just because you don’t like those other options doesn’t mean the the option you choose is the only possible one. However, note that the only option you choose is the one that excludes a large portion of the Jewish people, 100% of the time. Choosing this option is completely insensitive when there are other viable options available.
“… – would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist’s side are political agitators. Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.”
Most, if not all, are surely sincere in their desire to be allowed to pray at Judaism’s holiest site. It is insensitive of you to suggest this is not the case.
“Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah at her bat-mitzvah and for whom services led by women in the presence of men are the norm. When she visits Israel and is drawn to the Kosel she may well feel that something is somehow 'wrong,' that while many women are present and praying, only men are conducting group services and reading from the Torah. Can we not empathize with her? If we can’t, we are lacking. Even misguided feelings are feelings.”
These feelings are not misguided, and they are not held only by Reform and Conservative people. They are also held by Orthodox women, some of whom pray with the Women of the Wall on a monthly basis, and by men. We feel something is wrong because we are being completely excluded, 100% of the time, when other options are available, if only a decent amount of sensitivity were shown to us.
“There are powerful arguments for maintaining the status quo at the Kosel: Halacha is the historical heritage of all Jews. The Kosel is a remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple, where 'Orthodox' services were the only ones there were. And permitting non-traditional group services at the Kosel main plaza will invite proponents of atheistic 'Humanistic Judaism' to claim their fair share of the area, not to mention 'Hebrew Christian' groups seeking their own time-share.”
Nice slippery slope argument, but just because one thing happens, it doesn’t mean another thing will happen. More importantly, what you miss completely is that these women are conducting traditional prayer services. The only thing you say you don’t like about them is that the men can hear the women. As I said above, if the men just absent themselves for the short amount of time these traditional services take to conduct, there will be no non-traditional praying being conducted.
“Making the case for halachic standards at the Kosel with reason, though, is one thing. More important than arguments in the end is empathy – on all sides.”
If you had any empathy for these Jewish women at all, you would allow them at least some small portion of time in which to pray aloud at Judaism’s holiest site. You show them none by saying they must accommodate the men 100% of the time, and the men have no need to accommodate them at all, ever.
“For tradition-revering Jews, empathy means not confusing rabble-rousers with heartfelt Jews, not dismissing the feelings of differently-raised fellow Jews of good will.”
And yet, in your article, you are doing exactly that. You are calling heartfelt Jewish women rabble-rousers. You are calling their heartfelt prayers "antics."
“And for those latter Jews, empathy means trying to feel what traditional Jews at the Kosel will feel if they are compelled by their commitment to halacha to leave the plaza during vocal women’s services.”
If only they would actually leave the plaza for the short time these services take, rather than throwing chairs and dirty diapers at the women, yelling at them, and sending the police after them. You betray yourself by offering a perfectly reasonable option and then pretending there is something wrong with it. How is it worse for the men to absent themselves for a short period of time each month rather than the women absenting themselves forever?
“I once queried a young granddaughter of mine about what she brought to school for lunch. She listed an assortment of sandwiches but an iconic one was missing. ‘What about peanut butter?’ I asked. Her eyes widened and she said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t bring peanut butter into the school. Some kids are ‘lergic to it!’”
Cute story. People can die from food allergies. I know; I have one. Nobody has ever died from hearing the voice of a woman. And no matter what some may say, eating a peanut butter sandwich is not a religious experience.
“No doubt, Ms. Hoffman and others would proclaim that they are equally hurt by being unable to hold services ‘their way’ at the Kosel, that their own tradition is insulted by halachic restrictions. But I think that a sincere, agenda-less non-Orthodox Jew will find the claim unpersuasive.”
You are wrong. Many Orthodox, as well as non-Orthodox Jews find the fact of the hurt persuasive. Especially since the services they are holding are traditional Jewish services. We are insulted by your unwillingness to make accomodations that would be entirely within halachic restrictions, such as allowing the women to pray out loud and informing the men that if they don’t want to hear women during that short period of time once a month they should stay away.
“For more than forty years, the Kosel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews – Israelis and Westerners alike – who, although they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have considered the feelings of those who embrace the entirety of the Jewish religious tradition.”
No, it is because the Orthodox Jews who run the Kotel are completely insensitive to the desire of religious Jewish women to pray aloud at Judaism’s holiest site. And don’t pretend all the prayers on the men’s side are traditional. Non-Orthodox Jewish men have prayed the Reform version of the prayers (which the Women of the Wall do not do) at the Kotel, and they had nothing thrown at them, and they were not arrested. This isn’t about maintaining tradition. It is about excluding women.
“Recapturing that good will amid a manufactured and media-seductive ‘War of the Wall’…”
It is the Orthodox men who are trying to turn this into a war by shouting and throwing things at the women. All the women want to do is pray out loud at Judaism’s holiest site.
“…will not be easy. We Orthodox, though, might begin with empathy for fellow Jews who were raised very differently from us. And perhaps, in turn, that will merit us their empathy as well.”
You may want to have some empathy for those women who were raised the same as you as well, and stop pretending this is only about the non-Orthodox, or only about excluding non-traditional prayer.
December 12, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
It happens every year. Chanukah rolls around, and at some point the rabbi asks me about my latke consumption. Every year, I tell him I haven’t had any. Every year, he is horrified.
He’s a bit of a foodie, and for him, latkes are an integral part of the holiday experience. It’s not just him, either. It seems I’m surrounded by latke addicts who need to get their annual fix, and who can’t fathom how anyone could get through the season without one.
It doesn’t matter how many times I explain that I never had a latke as a child, so they bear no weight of nostalgia for me. It doesn’t help to suggest that latkes are an Ashkenazi custom and my family roots are Sephardic. It makes no difference when I assure people that I enjoy a full Chanukah experience by lighting candles with my husband, saying the prayers, etc.
I may even insist there is no commandment in the Torah or in halacha (Jewish law) related to latkes, yet those around me continue to treat me like I am some poor, lost orphan who needs to be shown the true path. They invite me to their home for latkes, they promise to bring latkes to the synagogue for me, they offer to send me their favorite recipe.
One person who couldn’t believe I would refuse these offers whispered, “You must be allergic to them, right?” Wrong. I’m allergic to fish, but, in my limited experience, fish and latkes almost never cross paths.
Looking at my calendar for the coming week, I realized, with great trepidation, that I will be at the synagogue or at other synagogue-related activities on seven of the eight days of Chanukah this year. “Here it comes again,” I thought.
Then it hit me: This year, I’ll cut them off at the pass.
So I went out and bought a box of Manischewitz latke mix, and on the first day of Chanukah I made my first-ever bunch of latkes. I would say that, unlike the experience of my fellow congregants, there was no emotional content involved for me, except I was appalled by the amount of oil the latkes soaked up.
My husband, who is not Jewish, came by, and asked me whether they were any good. “They’re kind of like bad hash browns,” I told him, and gave him a couple to try.
After I ate as many as I could stomach, I threw out the rest of the latkes and said to myself, “Seriously, if I wanted something like this, I’d rather buy some Ore Ida hash browns and eat those. They taste better, and don’t soak up so much oil.”
On the other hand, I thought, “Why eat something I’m not really interested in, just to fulfill the expectations of others? I’m being more true to myself when I stick to my guns and tell my incredulous friends that latkes simply aren’t part of my Chanukah tradition.”
Satisfied with my decision, I went downstairs, where my husband sat with his empty plate in front of him. “Those were good,” he said, “maybe next year you could make them with real potatoes, so they’ll be even better!” Sigh.
December 5, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As part of services last Saturday, we had what was billed as a creative eating meditation. “In our all too-busy world,” the congregation weekly email explained, “the practice of mindful eating helps us bring our full attention to the process of eating – to all the tastes, smells, thoughts, and feelings that arise during a meal. And what better time to slow down and focus than Shabbat?”
Toward the end of the service, we moved from the sanctuary into the social hall, where tables and chairs were waiting for us. We were instructed not to talk, and were provided with note cards and pens with which to write down our thoughts as the meditation progressed.
We started with hot chocolate, and spent a couple of minutes looking at it, smelling it, and then slowly tasting it, holding it in our mouth without swallowing for a while, moving it from one part of our tongue to another.
We then proceeded through several types of bar chocolate, culminating with a completely different hot chocolate, one at a time, with plenty of time to spend with each one. Throughout the meditation, Rabbi Michael Lezak prompted us with several things to observe and to consider. “Look at the texture of the chocolate,” he would say, “Look at where it is broken, and how the break looks different than on the last piece. How fast does it melt? What ingredients can you taste?”
The first big surprise for me was the strong, emotional reaction I had to the smell of the first cup of hot chocolate. It immediately transported me back to the summer camp I attended as a child, as I pictured crisp, clear mornings at the dining hall, full of anticipation about what great fun the new day would bring.
The next big surprise was the taste of the Hershey’s Kiss. When I took only a small bite and let it melt slowly on my tongue without chewing, it tasted nothing like the thousands of Hershey’s Kisses I had eaten before it.
Several times Rabbi Lezak said, “Compare this chocolate to the others before it. Which do you like the best?”
Part of me wished he hadn’t asked that question. I would have preferred to appreciate each individual chocolate piece on its own merits alone, without judging it against the others. Why turn this experience of appreciation of the variety of God’s bounty into a competition?
It also felt like a bit of a setup, since we were comparing things like Nesquick hot chocolate and a Hershey’s Kiss, against Swiss chocolate and a chocolate bar which costs, we were later told, $8.00 for two ounces.
On the other hand, it is only natural for people to compare, contrast, and rate in a situation like this, when trying several different varieties of a certain type of food. And I must say, the last item was the very best hot chocolate I have ever tasted in my life. The Denver Post published the recipe online here, from "Cooking My Way Back Home" by Mitchell Rosenthal.
I was glad the meditation was done in silence, leaving me to explore my own thoughts and experiences, uninterrupted. My apologies to the rabbi and the other participants if my act of taking a couple photos for this blog during the event interrupted anyone else’s train of thought.
After the meditation, we returned to the sanctuary for Aleinu and the Mourner’s Kaddish. I was disappointed that we didn’t take any time to discuss our experiences as a group.
For me, it was an excellent reminder of how I normally eat my food without really stopping to think about it, and without slowing down enough to savor the taste of it, even when I’m eating something I consider to be one of my favorite things. And the smell of the hot chocolate was a powerful example of how a scent can summon vivid sights, memories, and feelings with just one whiff.
Was it a spiritual experience? No. But I have never been to a service in which every single moment felt spiritual. It was certainly a worthwhile one. You may want to try it at your synagogue.
November 14, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was recently watching an episode of “Breaking Amish,” an unscripted show about four young Amish and one Mennonite person who go to New York to decide whether to give up the ways of their families and to become “English,” or, in the language most of us would use, to adopt the American culture instead.
I discovered this series late in its run, and became fascinated by the stereotypes and misconceptions the Amish in the show have about the rest of us. In particular, when two of them decide to get married, their Amish and Mennonite (respectively) Best Man and Maid of Honor throw a bachelor/bachelorette party, to which they invite a stripper. The Amish couple are upset, while those throwing the party seem confused.
“We thought you wanted an English wedding,” they say, “and this is what the English do. Why are you so mad?”
In contrast to my experience with bachelor and bachelorette parties, they seem to assume that all such celebrations must involve strippers. They seem to think that all non-Amish or non-Mennonite people are sexually loose. They seem to have absorbed a lot of stereotypes about American culture that may be true for some of us, but which most assuredly are not true for others.
I found myself wishing there were someone there who could point out these stereotypes to them, and say something like, “Sure, some people have strippers at these parties, but many don’t. Here are some other things people do at these parties instead.”
One of the opportunities I saw in writing this blog is to dispel some of the common myths people seem to have about Reform Judaism. For the most part, my plan – and my practice – has been to simply write about Reform Jewish life as I experience it, and to hope that by doing so, some readers may learn some things they didn’t know, and thereby learn the error some of those incorrect beliefs.
I know there are false beliefs out there, but sometimes I am still stunned when I see them. The vitriol that some people fling at the Reform movement is something I have difficulty taking in stride. A recent example of these kinds of false accusations are contained in the comments section of a recent online article I read titled, “Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?”
One comment, for example, asks rhetorically, “Will the sect calling itself Reform Judaism survive after having jettisoned the Torah…What a silly question, why of course not!”
This isn’t the first time I have seen the claim that we have “jettisoned the Torah.” What a surprise it would apparently be to this writer to discover the many Torah Study groups in Reform congregations, the Saturday morning services in which Reform congregants read from the Torah scroll, the Simchat Torah celebrations in which we dance with the Torah scrolls, etc. And people have continuously been predicting the demise of the Reform movement in the next generation or two for a couple hundred years, yet it is still the largest Jewish movement in the US.
I actually copied a whole list of comments I could dissect here for their various incorrect assumptions about the Reform movement, and that might make me feel a little better, but I’m not convinced it would be productive.
What I take out of all this is how readily we seem to accept stereotypes and inaccuracies about the “other.” Whether we are the Amish exploring the world of the English, or one political party looking at the other, or one Jewish stream criticizing another, it seems easier to argue based on our incorrect but closely held beliefs of the other than on facts. We seem so mired in what we think we know about others that we don’t take the time to investigate what is fact and what is fiction.
How much better the world would be, if we would just step back for a moment, and make an honest effort to see each other as we truly are.
November 7, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
As a rule, I don’t write about work. But rules are meant to be broken, and some things cannot, or at least should not, be ignored.
On Monday morning I learned that a bright, well-liked 26-year-old employee had died. She is survived by three small children. She seemed fine at work on Friday. On Saturday, she didn’t feel well, and went to the doctor. The doctor sent her home. Then she died.
It’s really hard to know what to make of this. I’ve heard it said that one must be aggressive in seeking medical attention – that if you know something is wrong and the doctor doesn’t seem to recognize it, you need to insist on getting further tests or seeing someone else.
But let’s face it. When you’re 26 years old, even if you feel bad, you don’t think you’re going to die. It’s not like she was in a car accident or something. I have no idea what felt wrong to her when she went to the doctor, or how bad it was, but I don’t think it would be right to blame her for following the doctor’s advice and going home to rest.
Nor is it necessarily the doctor’s fault. I don’t know what she said to the doctor, or how serious she thought the problem might be. I don’t know whether she died of something that is hard to detect and diagnose. I don’t know what the doctor did in order to check her out.
Although I have lead shiva services, attended funeral and memorial services, and washed & dressed dead people, this is only the second time I had to tell anyone that someone had died. The first time was after my father’s death, may his memory be a blessing, and, aside from telling my husband, I did it all long distance: over the phone or by email.
This time I had to stand up in front of a group of employees and say it in person, in public. It’s hard to know what to say at a time like that. The employee who died worked in another building, so some people at the building where I work knew her fairly well, while most had never met her. Plus, each person reacts to these kinds of things differently, anyway.
After the announcement, and after everyone had returned to their desks, I went to the area where the people who had known her the best were sitting. They weren’t working; they were talking about what had happened. The first thing I said to them was, “I’m glad you’re talking about this,” and then I joined them for a while.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder that life is short. We don’t know when death will come, or when our lives will be threatened. We don’t know when it might be dangerous to follow the advice our doctor gives us, or when the advice really is the best thing for us.
It is a reminder to show those around us how much we love them, right here, right now, while we still have the chance. Because one day, they, or we, will be gone. And it could happen at any time, without warning, and without regard to age or youth or seeming vigor.