Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A new study called “Victims of Our Own Narratives?” was just published which claims “Dehumanizing characterizations of the other are rare in both Israeli and Palestinian school books.” If true, that’s great news. Dehumanizing characterizations of other people should have no place in school books, and I hope that, however rare they may be, any remaining ones will be removed post haste.
One of the odd things I find about this study is they chose to examine certain kinds of books, and not others. For instance, they didn’t look at books about biology, math, physics, etc. That would make sense if one assumed that math and science books are objective, and therefore there would be no special narrative information in them.
However, such an assumption could easily be false. Who hasn’t heard about Palestinian math books asking questions like, “If you have 10 bullets and you shoot 3 Jews once each, how many bullets do you have left?” This study could have told us whether such math books still exist, if they ever did. Instead, math and science books were excluded from the study with no explanation as to why.
Another of the study’s conclusions is, “Both Israeli and Palestinian school books…chronicle negative actions by the other directed at their own communities…” The study backs up this finding by counting up and listing examples of negative things that each side has to say about the other.
The problem I see, however, is that the study adds up these claims of “negative actions” without, it appears, applying any weight to whether or not these claims are false, skewed, or inflamed in some way.
In other words, if the researchers were studying Japanese school books, and came across a statement that said, “During World War II the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing many people,” the researchers would count this as a “negative” or “very negative” action the Japanese are claiming the United States directed at their community, without regard to the fact that the statement is 100% factual.
Additionally, there would be no difference in how it were counted if the statement instead read, “During its imperialist war in 1945 against our homeland, the American killing machine remorselessly incinerated, crushed and maimed many innocent and peace-loving unarmed men, defenseless women, and terrified children by dropping the most evil weapon yet invented on our beloved Hiroshima.”
At this rate, I don’t see how counting these kinds of statements proves anything. History books are about reporting the facts, whether or not those facts may make a particular group look bad. If we don’t examine the emotional content, if any, we’re losing an important part of the picture.
Nor would it necessarily make sense to remove all these “negative” statements about the other from each side’s textbooks. If the statements are true and stated factually rather than emotionally, censoring them isn’t the answer.
Rather, the question is whether the books give a fair and even-handed account of the events being discussed. The study concludes that the Palestinian school books fall short of this goal significantly more often than the Israeli secular school books. It also says, “Books from Israeli State schools included more positive portrayals of the other, more self-criticism, and more information about the other.”
This, I believe is the core of the issue, and it’s a shame that it gets lost among the other study conclusions, as well as its misleading title.
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January 30, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Rabbi Daniel Gordis recently published in article called, “The Letter that Natanyahu Should, but Won’t, Send,” in response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
He throws out the common trope that intermarriage will spell the demise of Reform Judaism, despite the fact that Reform Judaism continues to thrive in the United States. One would think that the old claim that Reform Judaism will necessarily die out after three generations would, itself, have died out by now, since Reform Judaism is still going strong after many more than three generations, but there it is again.
At any rate, he also claims that “virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts,” and goes on to lament that most non-Orthodox homes don’t have a Mikra’ot Gedolot or the Talmud. The claim about the Mikra’ot Gedolot strikes me as a technicality. I would venture to guess that most Reform Jewish homes have a Tanach, the Hebrew bible, and many have a Chumash, or Torah commentary. So even if we don’t have the commentary Rabbi Gordis wishes we had, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any basic Jewish texts at home. There are, of course, basic Jewish texts that one may find in a non-Orthodox Jewish home that one may not find in an Orthodox Jewish home.
I do agree that it would be great if more non-Orthodox Jews had more familiarity with ancient Jewish texts. For those who already have a Chumash, however, I still wouldn’t recommend that the next thing to do would be to run out and buy a copy of the Talmud. I’m not sure whether this is what Rabbi Gordis was recommending, but I know at least one person who took it that way, so I’d like to address the idea here.
Why not run out and buy a copy of the Talmud? First, it’s a big, expensive series of books, especially for those who aren’t fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic and therefore need to buy a copy that includes an English translation. Second, the Talmud isn’t something that one just picks up and reads. It is obtuse and confusing. Nobody is likely to get through it the first time on his or her own. It is meant to be studied with others; having one sit on a bookshelf untouched is useless.
Third, a lot of the Talmud is about the minutiae of halacha, or Jewish law. If you’re an Orthodox Jew and you need to know whether the oven that you took apart, moved, and put back together is still ritually pure, the Talmud can be very useful. If you’re interested in how the ancient rabbis argued about such matters, the Talmud can be quite interesting. If you’re not Orthodox and you’re looking for ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, most likely these halachic discussions are not going to provide that for you.
There are, of course, many parts of the Talmud that can help any Jewish person to find ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, and many discussions that are not halachic in nature. Does God get angry, and if so, for how long? Does God pray? What are the ethics we should follow? How should we treat our workers and each other? These are the passages many non-Orthodox Jews would find the most engaging. Unfortunately, purchasing a Talmud will not go very far in helping them to find the information they seek.
So, what is a Jew to do?
If you’re interested, I would suggest that you look in your area for a class on the Talmud or other ancient Jewish texts. Many synagogues and other organizations offer them on a regular basis. Usually, you don’t need to be a member of a synagogue to take classes at one. Be sure to check out the content of the class. Is it just on halacha? Is it on ethics? Is it on theology? Look for something that appeals to your interests.
If you don’t have a Chumash, buy one. Buy a copy of “The Bedside Torah” by Rabbi Bradley Artson for an accessible interpretation of the Torah. On a weekly basis, read the Torah portion and commentary for that week. Better yet, join a Torah study group, or form one of your own. Approach a local rabbi to ask for recommendations about other Jewish texts to read.
There are a lot of different ways into the Jewish texts. The best ones involve studying with others. The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your money buying a huge, obtuse text and have it do nothing more than weigh down your bookshelf. Instead, get out and engage. Then, once you’re familiar and comfortable with the Talmud, go ahead and consider buying a copy of your own.
January 23, 2013 | 8:00 am
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.
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.
January 2, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I made no New Year’s resolutions this year. Which is nothing new. I don’t believe I have ever made a New Year’s resolution. If you had asked me ten years ago why I don’t, I probably would have said it’s because if I see something I want to change, I work on changing it right away, instead of waiting for the start of a new year. And I suppose that’s true to some extent.
However, I suspect the more compelling reason is my dislike of making commitments. I take my commitments very seriously – maybe a little too seriously.
After I got married the first time, I realized during my honeymoon that I had made a terrible mistake. But I had just stood before God and made a serious commitment to this man. I said to myself, “I can either give up on this commitment now, or I can try to make it work anyway.” And I tried my hardest, for five years, until even the marriage counselor could see it was no use.
My lack of comfort with making a commitment is exemplified in my relationship with kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. In August of 2008 I was standing in line at a Mexican restaurant, and I thought, “If I don’t have cheese on this, it will be kosher.” (Ok, I know it still wouldn’t be strictly kosher by Orthodox standards, but it would be according to a plain reading of the Torah scroll).
So I didn’t have cheese with my lunch, and then when it came time for dinner, I had a similar decision to make: kosher or not? I chose kosher. Since that day, I have studiously avoided pork, shellfish, and meat with dairy. But I am quick to point out that I have not, to date, made any commitment to either God, or to myself, that I will continue to eat like this for any period of time in the future.
This despite the fact that I have even gone so far as to attend two holiday turkey meals at a friend’s house this past month, at which I didn’t eat any of the delicious-smelling turkey. This because all the side dishes and desserts contained dairy, so I saw my choice as either turkey and nothing else, or everything else with no turkey. Not that I’m committed in any way.
This tendency of mine to avoid commitments like the plague just goes to show the patience and persistence of my fabulous husband of ten years. Not only did he have to get me to agree to date him, he had to get me to make the commitment to move from Nevada back to California to be with him, and then to – gasp! – marry him despite my previous painful experience. God bless him.
So if you made some New Year’s resolutions this year, that’s great. I hope you take your commitments seriously, and that you keep them. As for me, I’m going to try to keep my options open this year.
December 26, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
There was no bar or bat mitzvah ceremony at my synagogue this weekend, so the chairs in the front row, normally occupied by the bar/bat mitzvah families, were empty. At the rabbi’s request, some of us moved up to the front row.
In the moments before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, I usually follow the tradition of taking three steps back, and then three steps forward. The reason for the three steps back is to acknowledge that we are about to approach God through prayer, and to show our awe by stepping back. We then prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually, and take three steps forward to show we are ready to speak with God.
Often, I’m standing between rows of chairs, so, by necessity, I can only take three very small steps back and forward. Because I was on the front row on Saturday, I could still only take three small steps back before I hit my chair, but then I was able to take three normal-sized steps forward.
Sounds great, right? Except, apparently, I was the only one standing in the front row who follows that tradition. Suddenly, I was standing three full steps out in front of everyone else, with no other people near me.
I quickly found myself feeling completely exposed. I didn’t want to mess up my participation in the tradition by taking three steps back to my seat again. More importantly, I didn’t want to retreat from God. That is when I realized that how I was feeling that moment – unprotected, completely visible, and vulnerable – is exactly how I want to feel when I am standing before God.
I don’t, I realized, want to feel like I’m hiding anything from God. I want to feel like I’m standing alone and completely open for God to see and hear the real me. I don’t want to feel hidden or protected by other people, by rows of chairs, or by anything else.
On one level, my desire to feel that way seemed ridiculous. God can see and hear me perfectly well no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whether or not I try to avoid it. From one perspective, whether or not I feel exposed to God makes no difference.
On the other hand, I liked the visceral experience of feeling that openness and vulnerability, rather than just knowing of its existence intellectually.
There is an old story of a rabbi asking a thief why he is more afraid of what people think of him than what God thinks of him. When the thief asked why the rabbi would think we felt that way, the rabbi said, “Because you only steal when you think people can’t see you. But God can always see you.”
Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all remembered more often before whom we stand.