the world is on fire

I lost it this morning while chanting Torah.

I volunteered to read the weekday portion, Emor, at the beginning of the semester, not realizing that this reading would coincide with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, we read the first 10 to 20 verses of the weekly portion. Parshat Emor begins with special laws for priests and for the high priest in their temple service, specifically around ritual impurity. Midway through the reading, a verse states:

“When the daughter of priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles: she shall be burnt in the fire.”

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

sunset (the daily burning of the world); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

As repugnant as it is on any day to read a sacred text, with all the pomp and circumstance of a formal liturgical event, about burning a woman to death, it is unconscionable on a day when we remember the Holocaust. I started crying, and I had a hard time stopping.

I was a little embarrassed, especially since at least one person at the Torah with me didn’t understand what was going on. I think the majority of folks got it, though. (There’s also the complicated relationship that I have to the Holocaust as a convert, as well as my anxiety how others perceive my relationship to the Holocaust as a convert — but that’s another story.)

Mostly, though, I don’t know what to do with the fact that we’re told to do something to one of us that will later be a part of the mass extermination of us by others. It’s almost as if the Torah presages the Holocaust.

Complicating the day further is the fact that on Mondays I take a class on the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. The traditional understanding of these services is really hard to stomach in conjunction with the Holocaust. On Yom Kippur in particular we confess our sins and declare our hope for G-d’s forgiveness. On Yom HaShoah, it’s hard not to think that G-d owes us.

My professor acknowledged this difficulty when he began the class by citing Yitz Greenberg: No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

I would add, or a burning woman.

happy second birthday, NPITV!

No Power in the ‘Verse turns two today! I started the blog as I was applying to rabbinical school, and I am now a quarter of the way through school (or will be once the small matter of two finals and two papers is taken care of).

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a gratuitous photo of my nephew, who also recently turned two, eating his first sufganiyah; photo by salem pearce via instagram

The following are my three most popular posts from the past year (which are also the most popular posts to date):

1. “yesterday we learned that it’s okay to kill a black kid”: A painful reflection I wrote the morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

2. she who has a why: A tribute to my friend Elissa, who died this spring at the age of 29. May her memory be always for a blessing.

3. there are six matriarchs: (And you can own a shirt that says so!) A meditation on the ger (“stranger”) in Jewish tradition.

Thanks for reading — and for accompanying me on this journey!

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriarchs

there are six matriachs: buy your Jewish feminist t-shirt today at www.therearesix.com

The t-shirt I mention in this post is available for purchase! All proceeds go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, a local organization that my husband and I think is doing really important work. Wear your Jewish feminist commitment with pride. To own your very own matriarchs t-shirt, go to www.therearesix.com.

In an odd confluence of events, I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about ancestry.

First, my husband made me an awesome shirt. (It’s in the style of this “goddesses” shirt — at least this is the first instantiation that I knew about; one of my classmates said the meme was originally from a band.) My shirt lists the six Jewish matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. You can buy one here, thanks to my husband, and all proceeds will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

When my husband and I were talking about making the shirt, his idea included just the first four women, who are indeed traditionally considered “the matriarchs.” Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to Isaac, who married Rebecca, who had Jacob, who married Rachel and Leah. The latter two women gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin (Rachel) and Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun (Leah).

But Bilhah and Zilpah also gave birth to sons of Jacob whose lines would become four of the twelve tribes of Israel. The two were handmaidens of Rachel and Leah, respectively, given to the women by their father Laban on the occasion of their marriages to Jacob. Bilhah had Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah had Gad and Asher. The tribes that these men and their brothers (and their nephews) founded ended up in Egypt as slaves to Pharoah, leading to the Exodus story that is foundational in Jewish history. If, in the logic of the Bible, patrilineal descent is what matters, then Bilhah and Zilpah deserve as much recognition as the traditional four matriarchs for their role in the creation of the Israelite people.

Of course, that’s a low bar. If we know little about Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, we know even less about Bilhah and Zilpah. They are passed from Laban to his daughters, and then loaned out by them to Jacob. They are so considered property that it is Rachel and Leah who have the honor of naming Bilhah and Ziplah’s sons. So we’re told in Genesis 30:6, after Bilhah gives birth for the first time, “And Rachel said: ‘God has judged me, and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore called she his name Dan.” Bilhah and Zilpah speak not a word in the Torah.

This issue of inclusion comes up most often in the amidah, the “standing” prayer and the most central one in Judaism. Said at every prayer service, the amidah begins with a section usually called the Avot (“Fathers”). It begins, “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, G-d of our Fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Jacob, and G-d of Isaac.” In progressive circles, one usually adds the Imahot (“Mothers”): “G-d of Sarah, G-d of Rebecca, G-d of Rachel, and G-d of Leah” — as well as adding a few other words at various places to make the prayer more inclusive.

As my friend and teacher Eli Herb says,

When Jews use the word “imahot” they mean Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. This comes from old traditions that say there are seven ancestors, namely those four women plus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Many Jews appended the name of the “imahot” to ritual prayer as a feminist gesture. This gesture was remarkable in its time. However, as a convert, I have never been able to figure out how to include imahot authentically. This is for the very simple reason that there are NOT four matriarchs. There are six. The two that are left out are of questionable status as “part of the tribe” because they were slaves. I do not know how any self respecting feminist/progressive Jew can continue to omit two of the imahot. Yet the vast majority of the “progressive” Jewish world, including Hebrew College, can not seem to move past the discussion of how important it was to include “THE imahot” in the amidah. We are NOT including “THE imahot,” friends. Rather we are making a dramatic statement about how we still do not know how to truly include the imahot; we still actively silence women and strangers.

Most of the time at Hebrew College, at my synagogue, and at the Hebrew school where I teach, the prayer leader includes “the” imahot. (A few of my classmates don’t, and, frankly, it irks me.) If not all/none of the imahot are included, I make sure to say them to myself. (A husband of one of my classmates tells me that there is rabbinical precedent for recognizing the six matriarchs, in Bemidbar Rabbah and Esther Rabbah.)

This year I’m in a new tefila group, the so-called “Moshiach Minyan.” We explore the way prayer can be a forum for collective liberation and how it can sustain us in our work as activists. A recent exercise saw us rewriting the Avot section of the amidah. I found this task both daunting and exciting — and in an hour, I came up with a list of names of those who made it possible for me to be me.

Blessed are you, Lord, my G-d and G-d of my ancestors. (Ancestors? Antecedents. The ones who came before.) The G-d who created those who created the world I inhabit, who have accompanied me on my journey, and who allow me to exist as I am. The G-d of Southern Baptists; the G-d of Hardy; the G-d of Homer and Socrates; the G-d of Virgil and Ovid; the G-d of the Brontes and Eliot; the G-d of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov, Bulgakov, and Akhmatova; the G-d of Wells-Barnett, Lorde, Rich, Sanger, and Doe.

We shared our writing with each other, and almost everyone wrote about some aspect of their inheritance, whether from parents loving or harsh, from civil rights pioneers, or from past experiences. Mine reads like a timeline of my intellectual development, and I’m not totally sure that’s what I am seeking when I say the avot and imahot section of the amidah.

Like Eli, I feel conflicted when saying this portion of the amidah. As a convert, these nine ancestors absolutely are my ancestors. And they’re not. I still feel a tiny twinge when I’m called up to the Torah and I give my Hebrew name as “Rachel Tzippora bat Avraham v’Sarah.” (“Bat/ben Avraham v’Sarah” is the traditional formula for converts, whose parents generally don’t have Hebrew names.) I don’t love being publicly marked as a convert (the only place in Jewish ritual where that happens), and I feel it’s a little disrespectful to my actual parents.

And I can feel even worse when my ancestry is questioned. I volunteer once-a-month at a nearby senior living facility, leading a short Shabbat morning service. The first time I was there, I was talking to several of the residents after the service, and one of them asked me about school and what I was studying. She then exclaimed, “You don’t look Jewish at all! You could be a little Irish girl!” And then she kept repeating it. As I’ve written before, I usually pass pretty easily, so it’s always a bit jarring when I don’t. I didn’t take the bait (if bait it was — I’m never quite sure what people want to hear when they say things like that). I just shrugged and smiled.

The issue came up again recently in an “Exploring Jewish Diversity” workshop that I took through the Boston Workman’s Circle. The class was billed as a conversation about how cultural heritage, class, race, and privilege inform Jewish identity. In the States, Jews are largely assumed to be white and Ashkenazi; Jews of color and of other cultural heritages are often ignored. We were given a list of Ashkenazi privilege to examine. Many of them describe me — and some absolutely do not. My friend who attended the workshop with me asked me if I considered myself Ashkenaz. Similarly to my feelings about the avot and imahot, I absolutely do — and yet am not fully. I learned to be Jewish in and I now inhabit an Ashkenazi Jewish world. It is my cultural heritage, one that I chose (if not that thoughtfully). But, for instance, I am obviously not at risk for genetic disorders that are prevalent in this population. And I’m still occasionally questioned about whether I’m “really” Jewish.

prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive

I gave (a modified version of) this to my “Theology of Jewish Prayer” class. The assignment was to “present a prayer theology that differs from your own, making an effort to highlight its strong points; then present a prayer theology congenial with your personal views, highlighting a difficulty or challenge it poses.”

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This semester I am taking an online class called “Spirituality and Social Justice,” which focuses on the philosophies and theologies of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two theologies of prayer that I want to present today both come from Rabbi Heschel: One I find difficult, and the other, I find compelling.

In The Insecurity of Freedom Heschel writes about prayer as a discipline. Alluding to Buber, Heschel argues,

To worship G-d means to forget the self, an extremely difficult, though possible, act. What takes place in a moment of prayer may be described as a shift at the center of living – from self-consciousness to self-surrender. This implies, I believe, an important indication of the nature of man. Prayer begins as an “it-He” relationship. . . . In prayer, the “I” becomes an “it.” This is the discovery: what is an “I” to me, first of all and essentially, and “it” to G-d. If it is G-d’s mercy that lends eternity to a speck of being which is usually described as a self, then prayer begins as a moment of living as an “it” in the presence of G-d. The closer to the presence of Him, the more obvious becomes the absurdity of the “I.”

For Heschel, then, prayer requires extreme humility and self-abnegation. Our complete submission to the divine is what allows us to even draw close to G-d, let alone worship G-d. This involves a recognition of our own finiteness, undeservedness, and absurdity; we denigrate ourselves “to become worthy to be remembered by G-d,” as Heschel writes a few paragraphs later. He continues, “Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to G-d’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by Him. In other words, the task of man is not to know G-d but to be known to G-d.”

As I read this text, I had an immediate and strong reaction to this theology (not to mention the gendered language for G-d and for people). Over Shabbat lunch some weeks ago, I explained my objections to several classmates of mine, and one of them was quite surprised. After years of resistance and subsequent spiritual work, he explained, he had found connection to the divine in this surrender, in the recognition of his unworthiness. This philosophy has much to recommend it to someone who has been able to believe in the possibility of control over his life. I think it is significant that my interlocutor was a straight, cisgendered, able-bodied white man.

abraham joshua heschel

abraham joshua heschel

To me, Heschel’s writing here cries out for a feminist analysis. I agree with the assumption that Heschel seems to be making: that seeking communion with the divine should not feel quotidian. Being in the presence of G-d should absolutely feel different than other moments of our lives might. What “different” is, however, depends on who you are.

Heschel survived horrors as a Jew in Europe in the 1930s, and he lost much of his immediate family in the Holocaust. I don’t want to leave that unacknowledged. And, he also benefited from much privilege accorded him here in the United States, through his skin color, his gender, his sexual orientation, his education, his able-bodiedness. For those similar to him, daily experience might be able to be described as affirming. Safe. Comfortable. It is understandable why, then, it might be desirable for prayer, for immersion in the divine, to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. A denial of the self that is otherwise universally affirmed. A submission to a force with which one otherwise feels in harmony.

I pray, in part, because I feel empowered and affirmed and worthy and safe when I am in the presence of the divine. G-d has already remembered me, brought me to G-d’s attention, is desirous of listening to me and of understanding me. I don’t have to work to make that happen; G-d meets me where I am. So doing means, for me, that G-d acknowledges the brokenness of my experience. The G-d of my prayer is one whom I, in the words of Tamara Cohen, “hold . . . responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.”

Heschel actually acknowledges something similar to this in his work on prophetic consciousness. Elsewhere he says that the job of the prophet is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” And if the prophet is the messenger of G-d, it stands to reason that his actions might be a reflection of G-d’s role. I wonder whether Heschel himself held contradictory theologies of prayer. I think he might: It’s hard for me to understand how he could connect with a theology that objectifies human beings.

Indeed, I find deeply moving a seemingly quite different part of his theology: his thought about the obligations that we have to each other as prerequisites for prayer. A journalist once asked him why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” he replied. “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to an anti-war demonstration?” Said Heschel: “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.”

Heschel was an outspoken opponent both of the Vietnam War and of the racism he saw manifest in the segregationist laws of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. In his June 16, 1963, telegram to President Kennedy in advance of a meeting of religious leaders at the White House, Heschel said, “We forfeit the right to worship G-d as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes.” In Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, he wrote, “To speak about G-d and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” For Heschel then, we cannot be in any relationship with G-d when we are not in right relationship with our fellow human beings. This latter relationship also involves G-d: “The image of G-d is either in every man or in no man . . . “ he wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom. If we’re not able to see G-d in others, how can we see our way to G-d?

In the great Talmudic tradition, Heschel’s statements are extreme. Just as one might rightly be mystified (as I am) by R. Eleazar’s claim that “One who prays behind his rebbe, and one who greets his rebbe, and one who returns a greeting to his rebbe, and one who divides his rebbe’s yeshiva, and one who says something which he has not heard from his rebbe causes the shekhinah (divine presence) to depart from Israel” (Berakhot 27b), so too might Heschel’s claim be perplexing. We’re never completely right with our community: I only called Sen. Warren’s office once to urge her to vote in favor of a bill that could close Guantanamo – and the phone just rang and rang. I decided I had too much homework to attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony last Sunday. I provoked a fight with my husband. I used ableist language. As I said earlier, my prayer is comforting: I need connection to G-d precisely when I am feeling most un-human.

But Heschel’s commitment to the primacy of interpersonal relationships speaks to me and calls me to action. It puts moral obligations ahead of religious obligations, ha’olam ha’zeh before ha’olam ha’bah, the communal antecedent to the personal. I also love the global nature of Heschel’s community: besides the war in Vietnam – in which he was concerned primarily about native, civilian casualties – he also did much work on the issue of Soviet Jewry. Foreign, domestic, Jew, Gentile – Heschel tried to see the image of G-d in all. Again, The Insecurity of Freedom: “All of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; when one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.” This view also highlights the enormity of what is at stake: We human beings have always been in special relationship with G-d, as b’tzelem elohim. We cannot come before G-d with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.

This theology also expands for me the definition of prayer. In so prioritizing our community, we see the world as G-d does, and we become partners with G-d in alleviating the agony of human beings. Upon the occasion of his marching with Dr. King in Selma, Ala., Heschel famously said that he “felt like his legs were praying.” Our work on behalf of others is sacred. G-d-like. And if activism is prayer, it can go the other way, too. Prayer is activism – as Heschel well noted when he said (in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity) that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive . . . Prayer is our greatest privilege. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of G-d.” And, I think, in the lives of others, too.

i treated her harshly

I wrote this midrash (a story in the tradition of the rabbis, who used such tales to explain passages in the Tanakh) for an assignment in my class on Bereshit (Genesis). It’s based on some of the events in Genesis 12-16: Abraham’s passing Sarah off as his sister to Pharaoh, the covenant that G-d makes with Abraham, and Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham to bear her a son. It also assumes Rashi’s explanation that Hagar is Pharaoh’s daughter.

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I am barren. Fruitless. Unproductive.

It’s all that that anyone knows about me.

We went forth from Ur, but no one has come forth from me. When we were in Egypt, I managed to secure provisions for my husband, but I cannot provide him with the security of a son.

Egypt. Where I met her. Where the seed was planted and began to grow. Just as the extent of my identity is barren, hers is daughter. She came to me that first night; she’d heard about us, the sojourners from Canaan. You are beautiful, she said as she walked into the room, startling me. I hadn’t even seen her father yet. She wanted to know, so I told her about Ur, and Haran, and Schem, and Beth-el. I’ve never been anywhere, she sighed. I thought, did I ever know a time when I so misconceived of the known? I miss my family, the streets of Ur, the river. We’ve been wandering in the desert for a long time. The desert that reflects back my own aridness.

I wasn’t well guarded. She came to me one night: I know the plagues are because of you. I’ll tell my father if you’ll let me go with you and your husband. To her, the unknown was pregnant with possibility. We all left Egypt with more.

She wept with me as we watched Lot move eastward. I remember watching Haran die; I thought I might be watching his son die, too. We comforted each other when my husband went to his rescue. We made plans to return to her father’s household if they didn’t return to us. Sometimes I wonder if we would have been better off.

I definitely wondered that a few mornings after he returned. She startled me again, this time by shaking me awake. I followed her outside the camp, to a large clearing. I screamed. At the far end, he was lying on the ground, unconscious, pieces of animal carcass next to him, buzzards circling above. Smoke swirled up from a pile of wood and bricks nearby. I fell to my knees. She looked with fright at me, and then at him, and then back at me.

The truth is that my husband frequently feels that far away. I used to bring food to the idols in his father’s shop in Ur; now he builds altars at Beth-el and Hebron. He talks in his sleep. He prays to a god I don’t know. They’re both mysterious to me. A long time ago, I thought that a child would ground us; one day after she and I revived him in that field, he mumbled to himself, “Your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs.” Your seed, I repeated softly. That possibility had stopped for me.

It was her idea. She said she didn’t know why I hadn’t asked before. I didn’t want to tell her that while he didn’t have a son, I had her. Though we had tried to do otherwise, it turned out that I still saw her as daughter, and she still saw me as barren.

She saw it as another adventure. I probably should have known that ten years of the same would make her restless again.

She gave me the words to say, the language of his god. She was a quicker study than I. “Behold, now, the Lord has kept me from bearing.” In spite of myself, I began to hope. When I asked him, I allowed myself to imagine building a different future. And suddenly, the desert wasn’t so dry anymore.

Later, I soaked the bedclothes with tears. I blamed myself more than him, and him more than her. It was my wrong. I thought it would make them both happy. But separately. I underestimated her need for a new role and his need for a son. The future was now theirs.

I lashed out, and I hit him where it hurt. “The Lord judge between you and me.” His face became expressionless, like he was once again unconscious. He couldn’t see my pain in the midst of his own. “Do to her what seems appropriate in your eyes,” he replied stiffly. I know I had wounded him deeply, that he was able to let go of his son, his only son, the one whom he loved.

Her, too, I treated harshly. She was too brave not to run away, and so she did. I am childless.

columns of consonants

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Practice reading Torah. Read Torah. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat again.

This is how I’ve been spending a good deal of my time this summer, as I mentioned in a previous post. We’ve held a once-a-week summer minyan at Hebrew College on Thursday mornings, one of the weekdays on which Torah is read. And I’ve leyned (read Torah) every week there since the end of May. I’ve also read four times on Shabbat at Nehar Shalom, the community synagogue in our new neighborhood.

I’ve loved reading Torah ever since I first did so at my bat mitzvah a little more than a year ago. I was part of an adult b’nai mitzvah class, and we each read three or four verses. One of my classmates dropped out towards the end, so I read her part as well — a whopping seven verses! And I worked on those seven verses for about four months.

A few weeks ago I read for the fourth time this summer at Nehar, and I was the only reader — for a total of 30 verses. (Nehar follows a triennial cycle of Torah reading, meaning that, like many other congregations, only a third of the weekly parshah is read each week.) I learned those in under a week. Same thing yesterday: The weekday portion for parshah Eikev is unusually long — 25 verses — and I learned those in about a week, too.

I’m proud of this progress — most of which has been achieved in the past two months by just forcing myself to volunteer. Both the minyans I’ve been reading at this summer use a Google doc for sign-ups, and it’s amazing how indelible it feels to type your name in a shared, editable web document, in a field marked “aliyah 1.”

Indeed, it has been one of my goals this summer to improve my Torah reading skills. This past year I took an entire class on Cantillation, the art of the ritual chanting of Torah, and it’s a bit of a complicated process. The class focused mainly on learning the melodies associated with each trope mark, as well as the technical skills needed to be able to learn a section of Torah for ritual reading.

A printed book of the Torah in the original Hebrew — one used for studying — has vowels, as well as other symbols (called trope marks) above and below the letters that aid in pronunciation and indicate the proscribed melody. But a Torah scroll, what is used in services for the ritual reading, has none of those; it’s column after column of Hebrew consonants, sometimes without spaces between words. Oftentimes a single letter will be elongated in order to make the columns both left- and right-justified. And some of the letters also have adornments, tiny crowns that seem to sprout from their tops. It’s fair to say that all of this presents something of a challenge for the novice Torah reader.

When learning a part of Torah for ritual reading, I use Trope Trainer, which I can’t recommend enough. Depending on how the program is used, it can practically do the work for you, or be just a helpful tool. It gives the dates of each parshah, and you can open just the reading for a particular day, customized by whether you’re in Israel or the Diaspora and whether you follow the triennial or the yearly cycle. Then you can choose melody, voice, and accent. An electronic voice will sing the whole thing for you — or just a word, a phrase, or a verse. (I now only use this feature to double-check the melody of an unusual trope combination.) It identifies each trope mark, transliterates each word, and indicates the syllabic accent. It provides translation and sheet music. It indicates all k’rey, or words that are read differently than how they are spelled in the scroll. What I like most is the export feature, which creates a PDF of the reading, with or without vowels and trope marks.

statges of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

stages of learning torah reading; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

So: I start by printing the reading with vowels and trope marks; then I highlight the text with various colors that correspond to the different trope mark families (so that the same melodies are the same color). I read the text to fluency and make sure I understand what it means. Then I practice singing, using the highlighted text. I usually practice about 20-30 minutes at a time, until I start making a bunch of mistakes, and then I stop and take a break. A little while later, I practice again.

More than any other skill I’ve worked to master, chanting Torah is a marathon. You just can’t cram. The words and the melody have to have a chance to make “tracks” in your brain, as one teacher explained to me. So I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

Finally, at least a day before I am scheduled to leyn, I begin practicing from the plain, Torah-scroll-like text. I see what I remember, and I check the highlighted version if I’m not sure. I create mnemonic devices to help me remember the vowels of unusual words and the order of melodies. I practice, take a break, practice, take a break.

On the days I’ve read at school, I’ve been able to come in early and take out the Torah scroll and practice a time or two again from the scroll itself. After a few times stumbling through a reading that I thought I knew cold, I realized that the lettering of the scroll was tripping me up (a phenomenon that I hope will lessen over time, with more practice). Looking at the actual text — being able to see which letters and words in the scroll look different from the typeset — has helped enormously.

I’m particularly proud of my skill at finding my place in the scroll: I used to think that I’d never be able to find the beginning of the parshah in the sea of Hebrew letters, but I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. This rabbi thing just might work out.

born jewish . . . to baptist parents

Although most people who know me know that I’m a convert, it’s not an assumption that people I meet make. At least as far as I know. And based on the experience of other converts, those who aren’t able to pass, I probably would know.

A friend who is a rabbinical student of Irish descent has written about her frustration with the questioning of her identity because of her appearance (as well as other challenges of being a convert). Another friend — a black rabbinical student — can’t escape the questions; she posts on Facebook almost daily about the explanations she is constantly asked to give.

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

in the balcony of sixth & i, shortly after i converted; photo by mark gail

Though I am always honest about my background, I don’t always volunteer the information. Sometimes I just simply answer negatively when asked if I went to Jewish day school or grew up in an observant Jewish home (usually questions asked about my journey to rabbinical school). And sometimes, I am downright relieved when I pass. As a fellow convert classmate and I have talked about, it can be exhausting having to tell “the story of my conversion” to everyone I meet, as well-meaning as they almost always are. Especially at Shabbat meals, the conversation often becomes all about me — and then I don’t really get to learn about other people, or just to talk about what we have in common. I enjoy the privilege I have in being able to pass.

I make my own assumptions about converts as well; that is, I always assume I’m the only convert around. I am generally pretty surprised when I find out that someone else is, too. Besides my classmate, there are two other converts (who I know of) at my school, neither one of which I would have thought were converts. In fact, the first time I met one of them, I irrationally worried — based on his appearance (peyottzitzitkippah) — that he was an Orthodox Jew who might not consider me Jewish.

The denominations don’t agree on much, but respect for converts is near universal (as long as the conversion as recognized by that denomination — which is another conversation). Once a person converts, it is as if that person has always been Jewish. So technically, I am simply a Jew — not a convert. I love this response, which I modified from an article about how to deal with negative reactions to converts: “Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Baptist parents.”

I do struggle how much of my identity is that of a convert. I’m as Jewish as anyone else — but I am who I am because of my upbringing, and I don’t want to discount that. So I go back to the mikveh each year on the anniversary of my conversion; this year I also asked for an aliyah (the honor to say blessings before and after part of a Torah reading) to celebrate the third anniversary of my conversion, shortly before the high holidays in 2009.

In the past week, two people have made insensitive comments about converts in my presence. Both are good people, and I know neither meant any harm. The comments stung nevertheless. It was strange that both happened within a few days of each other — especially since it’s been a really long time since I have heard any such comments.

In fact, Hebrew College has been one of the safest places I’ve ever been in terms of feeling authentically Jewish. I imagine that most students and faculty know that I’m a convert, but not a single person has ever made so much as an insensitive comment about my status. I suspect my school may be a bubble in this respect though. I have wondered whether, for instance, my status might affect my job prospects.

conversion certificate; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

conversion certificate with my Hebrew name (רחל בת אברהם ושרה — Rachel daughter of Abraham and Sarah); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

One of my fellow converts didn’t even realize I was a convert until he saw me come up to the Torah for an aliyah; the gabbai (person conducting the Torah service) calls up people so honored with their Hebrew name — and those of their parents. Since converts’ parents don’t have Hebrew names, they are ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah (“son/daughter of Abraham and Sarah”). It’s really the only place in Jewish ritual life where converts are marked as such (though it is possible that a born-Jew could have parents whose Hebrew names are Avraham and Sarah). I’m not sure how I feel about this singularity.

He and I have talked about our experience developing our tefila skills in the school community. We both agreed that we feel very comfortable practicing and learning; we know that we can make mistakes without judgment. But this perception is not shared by everyone at school: There are some who do fear the judgment of those around them. I am not sure on what experiences that fear is based. But we’ve wondered whether our experiences as converts — not growing up in the organized Jewish community — has given us some immunity from that fear.

For another time: the story of my conversion process, which I don’t think I’ve told here in any detail. For now: I don’t have a strong opinion on the nomenclature “convert” versus “Jew-by-choice.” You?

the buffyverse talmud

For a creative writing assignment for my Talmud class last semester, I was asked to write a mishnah and accompanying sugya. A mishnah refers to the smallest unit of the Mishnah, redacted in 200 CE, a part of the Talmud, and therefore in this case to a few, generally unattributed, rabbinic statements on a particular topic.

The other part of the Talmud is the gemara, the debates of the generations of rabbis subsequent to the Mishnah; the Talmud was redacted between 350 and 500 CE (depending on the edition). A sugya is a building block of gemara, a proof-based elucidation of an aspect of the mishnah.

As readers of this blog well know, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. So for this assignment I chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer as my source text. I wrote a mishnah about the power of words in hevruta (the paired learning that takes place in the beit midrash), and then I used episodes of Buffy to write the gemara to explain that mishnah.

After I mentioned the project on Facebook, several people asked to read the finished product. So here it is. (It’s a PDF because of the formatting, which mimics a page of Talmud.)

I will note that the document will likely be nearly incomprehensible unless you know a great deal about both Buffy and Talmud. (And since I know more about Buffy than I do about Talmud, I’ll admit that Talmud studiers might find that aspect incomprehensible as well.)

For those only mildly curious, here’s the mishnah — with Hebrew “signal words” in parentheses — which contains a quote from Buffy. Who can name the episode and speaker (without Google)?

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

original mishnah about the power of words and hevruta study, to be elucidated by buffy the vampire slayer

summer!

Well, I’ve been gone so long that in my absence WordPress updated its blogger interface! The change is nice, by the way.

Since I last posted at the beginning of May, I have done the following:

finished my first year of rabbinical school (passing all of my courses!);

end-of-year "mekorot" class cake (First years got "R"; second years, "Ra", etc. Those graduating got "Rabbi".); photo by salem pearce via instagram

end-of-year “mekorot” class cake (first years got “R”; second years, “Ra”, etc. those graduating got “Rabbi”.); photo by salem pearce via instagram

moved from Brookline to Jamaica Plain (the balcony alone in our new place made the pain of moving worth it);

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

new home; photo by salem pearce via instagram

read two books (and half of two others);

went to D.C. for 24 hours for Elissa Froman‘s memorial service (you can see the video here);

popsicle stick craft project at froman's memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of Elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

popsicle stick craft project at froman’s memorial: write a word, phrase, or design that reminds you of elissa; photo by salem pearce via instagram

began studying Torah three days a week with one classmate and Psalms two days a week with another;

had visits from both my husband’s parents and my parents, as well as two friends from D.C.;

mike's canolli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

mike’s cannoli: the best reason for out-of-town visitors; photo by salem pearce via instagram

started a volunteer position with the National Havurah Institute as its fundraising coordinator;

practiced leyning Torah (I’ve read on Shabbat twice and on Thursday morning five times);

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

these color-coded torah portion sheets have been my constant companions; photo by salem pearce via instagram

and gotten lost running in Franklin Park, the green space near our new home, three times.

asking g-d

In my Talmud class we’re reading a section from Baba Metzia called the “gold chapter”; it deals first with honesty in business exchanges and then moves on to honesty in personal interactions, or ona’at devarim, “oppression with words.” As is typical of gemara, the rabbis discuss the nature of the issue at hand and use Biblical passages and stories to back up their arguments. In an extreme moment, one of the rabbis notes that if someone embarrasses a friend, it is as if that person has spilled blood. They are especially concerned with ona’at devarim because, they say, the gates of prayer are always open to tears; that is, G-d always hears the petitions of those who have been oppressed by words.

rabban gamliel's alleged grave in yavneh

rabban gamliel’s alleged grave in yavneh (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

They tell the story of Rabbi Eliezer, the head of the yeshiva, who was excommunicated for his unpopular opinions. When Rabbi Akiva tells Eliezer of the decision, his anguish causes everything he looks upon to be burned up. It happens that at that time Rabban Gamliel, who took over the yeshiva, is on a ship, and the sea begins storm. Gamliel knows immediately that his safety is threatened because of Eliezer. It also turns out that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife is Gamliel’s sister, and she is worried for Gamliel’s life. In perhaps not the most effective method, she begins to watch Eliezer constantly to keep him from praying tachanun, a supplicatory prayer. (Elsewhere in the Talmud, tachanun is called “a time of divine goodwill,” during which supplication is more likely to be received.) On Rosh Hodesh (the first day of a Jewish month, determined by a new moon), tachanun is not recited. One day Eliezer’s wife gets confused, erroneously thinks it’s Rosh Hodesh, and abandons her vigilant watch over Eliezer. In her absence, he prays tachanun, and Rabban Gamliel dies.

It’s a bizarre story, but certainly one that gives some insight into how powerful the rabbis consider both words to others and words to G-d.

More than a month ago in my tefila group, we were looking at the amidah, often just referred to as “the prayer.” It consists of 18 (well, really 19, but I don’t need to get into that here) blessings, several of which are called bakashot, or prayers of asking. The person who led davennen that morning first asked us to think about why we struggle with petitionary prayer. Not if — but why. The assumption was that we all did, and indeed, we all did. Among those in my group, someone cited a lack of a conception of a personal g-d; another, the association with the common Christian practice of ad hoc prayer; a third, a doubt that G-d does (or even should) intervene in our lives. Added someone else, “G-d wouldn’t bother with me. My needs are too small. I am too small.” Our prayer leader said, and I can still hear her saying it, so powerful was it,

“Where did the idea of G-d as a scant resource come from?”

Yes: Any divine being I want to believe in would be able to handle everything, the small stuff as well as the big stuff. Why not ask?

At the Rabbis Without Borders retreat that I attended a few weeks ago, one of the facilitators asked us to share a time when “prayer worked for us,” as a way of opening a conversation about how to make prayer services work for our congregants. Many shared stories of times of distress, of getting on their knees and begging for intervention or answers from G-d.

I haven’t had that experience. So I thought about the efficacy of prayer a little differently. My beloved cousin, who I grew up with and who is like a sister to me, is expecting a child in the fall, a child she has been wanting for a very long time. When she called to tell me her good news, I immediately thought, I want to pray for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy child. And I then almost immediately thought, That’s ridiculous. Pregnancy is a scientific process of cell growth, not subject to divine intervention: If I pray and something goes wrong, would that mean my prayer was somehow deficient? If I pray and everything goes well, would that mean that I had reached G-d? What would that mean for other folks whose pregnancies or children had not fared well?

hannah victors

hannah giving her son samuel to the priest, by jan victors (photograph used under wikipedia creative commons license)

I have a hard time with petitionary prayer for all the reasons above — and because I have a hard time asking for help, admitting that I need something, acknowledging that I want what is out of my control. And there’s certainly a perceived resistance to the prayer of asking in Judaism: On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we don’t petition G-d. The implication is then that asking is somehow not holy. But the rabbis also saw the value in petitionary prayer: On Rosh Hashanah, another holy day, we read the story of Hannah. Bitter and distraught at her childlessness, she goes up to the temple and prays — her lips moving but with no sounds — and weeps, and promises any child she will have to the service of G-d. Hannah is the first to call G-d “the Lord of Hosts” (יהוה צבאות), and the rabbis say that Hannah’s silent prayer should be a model for for our own. (It should be noted that Hannah’s request proves highly effective, as a short time later she has Samuel.)

One of the wisest things I ever read about prayer was in the book The Unlikely Disciple. Nonbeliever Kevin Roose enrolls at Liberty University, the erstwhile institution of Dr. Jerry Fallwell, and goes about doing all that is required of him, including prayer. He notes that in spite of his lack of belief, his daily prayer becomes meaningful. It changes him. As I noted in my post about the book, “[H]e begins by articulating his hopes for his family and friends, and he comes to find that — non-belief in G-d notwithstanding — he actually enjoys the opportunity for reflection.” A friend from Hebrew College writes something similar in this thoughtful piece about praying as an atheist.

So I decided to pray for my cousin’s child. And to me, that means prayer has “worked.”

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