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.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

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.”

=============

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.

questions in a vault

For the past three years between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — often called “The Days of Awe,” or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew — I’ve participated in 10Q‘s question-a-day online activity. Once you sign up, the organization prompts you on each of the ten days to go to its website and answer that day’s question. (If you miss a day, you can go back to previous questions.) The questions are designed to get you to reflect on the past year and make commitments for the coming one. After Yom Kippur, your answers “are sent to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping. One year later, the vault will open and your answers will land back in your email inbox for private reflection.” I’m doing it again this year.

a lovely M.A. Hadley plate from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

a lovely m.a. hadley plate (a family tradition) from my mom; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The website is not explicitly Jewish (I’m not sure why), but I can’t see the timing as anything but. I’m guessing, though, it wouldn’t occur to non-Jewish participants and might just seem like an interesting exercise, if an oddly timed one.

Update: My friend Melanie tells me that the organization behind 10Q, Reboot, intends “to make Judaism relevant to those who are secular/completely assimilated.” I think this extremely interesting, because this exercise appeals to me, too, as a religious Jew. (Plus, I am sort of fascinated by secular or humanist Judaism.)

I was pleased — and not a little surprised — when I got my answers from 2012 at the end of last month. I actually did some of the things that I wrote that I wanted to, and where I didn’t, it’s because it’s still a live issue for me. I voiced my waning support for the president, I talked about my parents’ efforts to be more involved in my Judaism, and I wrote about my ongoing struggle with my weight.

On Day 8, I was asked and I answered:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2013?

Your Answer:

Tefillin!

Indeed, my experience wearing tefillin while praying has been one of the best things about rabbinical school for me so far.

While looking through my photos from two years ago to include in this post, I was struck by what I left out. I was definitely in the thrall of my first few weeks of rabbinical school; I wrote quite a bit about it, at the expense of other important events in my life, like my bat mitzvah! For this year’s questions, I definitely need to use my photos from last year to jog my memory, which I recently discovered is quite poor. While I was in England this summer, I saw two old friends (one from college and one from my first job in D.C.), and both of them remembered so many more things about our friendship that I did. On the plus side, it was totally amusing to hear stories that I seemed to have forgotten.

It’s not too late to join in the 10Q fun if you’re interested: we’re only on Day 5!

tikkun halev

On Monday I went to Mayyim Hayyim to use the mikveh, as I do every year before the holidays to prepare for the new year as well as to commemorate my conversion four years (!) ago.

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but . . . my first year of school was really hard, psychologically and spiritually. And despite my intentions, my summer matched the academic year. So when I returned from England on Friday, I was looking forward to leaving 5773 behind with the start of Rosh Hashanah this evening.

I love going to the mikveh. I love the feeling of calm and of possibility and of transition. I love cleaning and scrubbing every part of my body. I love combing my wet hair to rid it of tangles. I love wrapping myself in a sheet as I enter the immersion room. I love counting the steps down into the pool. I love the warmth of the water. I love breathing deeply and saying blessings and setting intentions. I love floating underwater, suspended in time and space, touching nothing. I love doing that three times. I love re-emerging. I love drying off and getting dressed again and feeling, for at least one moment, perfectly anew.

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

honey for a sweet new year; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Every time I go to the mikveh I think that I shouldn’t wait another year to go again. And then I wonder if it’s the infrequency of my visits that give them power. And I still can’t help but wish I could feel that way more often.

As last year, I used the mikveh’s immersion ceremony for Rosh Hashanah. This year I was especially struck by a few parts of the text. After the first immersion and Hebrew blessing, I read,

Though the future is uncertain, I release this past year and all its difficulties and joys. I open my heart to receive the blessings of the new year. (emphasis mine)

And then after the second blessing,

May I return to my true self and be strengthened as I continue my journey of tikkun halev — repairing the heart, tikkun hanefesh — repairing the soul, and tikkun olam — repairing the world. (emphasis mine)

I am definitely feeling a desire for the seemingly contradictory events (to me, at least) of heart opening and heart healing. I often wonder whether opening my heart makes it vulnerable to pain. But maybe the heart can only heal when it is able to open, even if that is a risk.

When I popped out of the water after my third immersion, I felt, for just a split second, dfferent. Somehow. It was hard to believe and yet oddly comforting.

May we all have shanah tovah umetukah (a good and sweet year)! I am hopeful for 5774.

shlepping to shul

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

Continuing the story of my visit to Birmingham, on Saturday morning we went to shul. We could go to Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, an orthodox synagogue, or Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, a Liberal congregation. Though I knew that I would probably appreciate the davenning more at the orthodox shul, I chose BPS because I was curious about egalitarian Judaism in the UK. To be a little snide, this service out-Reformed a Reform synagogue in the U.S.: To some extent, what happened was almost unrecognizable to me.

After a 20-minute walk, we arrived at the synagogue before services started at 11:00 a.m. — which seemed quite late. Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in synagogue before services started; because the ones I attend on Shabbat morning tend to be about three hours, I (like many people) drift in 30 or 45 minutes late. So we actually sat for a little while, and the very nice member of the congregation who welcomed us explained that because of the summer holidays, attendance would be sparse, and asked those of us who were Jewish to please sing out during the service. Indeed, there were perhaps 25 congregants, and almost no young people. The rabbi (who is a woman) was away, and in her place a congregant (also a woman) led the service.

The service was quite abbreviated, with none of the prayers — including the Amidah — said (or even printed) in full. Many were replaced by responsive readings in English. I knew almost none of the melodies, and I think (though I’m not an expert) that the ones used were difficult to sing, and not that spirited. Honestly, I felt like I was in church, which is not bad per se, but not what I would want in a synagogue.

The Torah service was in the same vein. The procession of the scroll happened only after the reading, and there was only one aliyah, meaning that only a very small part of the parshah was read. And the tallit of young girl who had the aliyah was longer than her overall shorts. (I realize that makes me sound crotchety.) The Torah reader gave a short d’var and then did just that: read the Torah. He didn’t chant it; he just read it from the scroll. He then offered his own translation. I’ve never seen this tradition before, though I was told it is standard practice in these congregations in England. The reader did gain my affection by talking about the points of grammar he considered when making his translation; he even used the words “infinitive absolute”!

After kiddush, we went back upstairs so that the non-Jews could look at the Torah scroll close up. The congregation has four scrolls, which is quite a lot for a 300-member shul. (Most synagogues do have more than one, to avoid constant scroll rolling, since a holiday might make it necessary to read from different parts of the scroll.) The building, too, was quite modern and expensive, which seemed out of sync with its anemic congregation. As it turns out, the synagogue moved just a few years ago: Its original building was bought by a developer planning to build a skyscraper on the property. So the congregation had to pay only about 10% of the cost of the building.

After lunch, we split up into groups to go to different parts of the city to try to get a sense of the multicultural and multifaith character of the city. I’ll just note that I found this exercise a little problematic, for reasons that I don’t want to go into here. But one of the things that I noticed were the near ubiquitous signs reading, “This area monitored by CCTV cameras.” My association with these cameras in the U.S. is the over-policing of low-income areas and neighborhoods of people of color, particularly under the pretext of the drug war — so I found the situation horrifying. But two native Brits confirmed that this level of surveillance is standard (or at least has become so in the post-9/11 and post-2005-Underground-bombings world). None of the natives I spoke to gave a thought to the cameras, and one even characterized Americans as “uptight” for opposing them.

Finally, we finished up the day at dinner with more guests, interfaith community organizers from Sparkbrook. We heard about The Feast, which brings together Christian and Muslim youth, and then from Rev. Richard Sudworth of Christ Church Centre (the first stop in Birmingham, where we heard from awesomely named Mohammed Ali), as well as from Javed Khan, who works in the community around Christ Church, which is majority Muslim. Rev. Sudworth talked about his church’s role in a community that is not reflective of its membership: A new experience, they’ve stepped back and concentrated on supporting the work that is already being done by groups in the area. It really resonated with me, as I think it’s a good model for the kind of work I want to do in a Jewish organization with other groups.

Next up . . . we attend church!

off to the mosque

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I spent the weekend in Birmingham, the second largest city in England. On Friday we went to a mosque; on Saturday, a synagogue; and on Sunday, a church. (Since we’re a large group, we split up, and there were choices for each.) The rest of the visit was punctuated by talks and presentations by various people doing interfaith or faith-based work in Birmingham. The city is a majority-minority area, with Muslims, mostly from Southeast Asia, the fastest growing demographic. In stark contrast, there are less than 2,000 Jews in a total population of over a million.

Our first stop was Christ Church Centre in the neighborhood of Sparkbrook, a working class area whose population is 75% non-white. We first met Rev. Ray Gaston, an Anglican priest involved in the area’s interfaith work (he would be with us the rest of the weekend) and then heard from Mohammed Ali (yes), a local muralist doing art in an interfaith context in Sparkbrook and around the world. Later that afternoon, we were able to see some of his work in the neighborhood.

mohammed ali's "a leap of faith" mural"; photo by salem pearce

mohammed ali’s “a leap of faith” mural”; photo by salem pearce

After the largest lunch you can imagine (the table couldn’t hold the platters of kebabs, pasta, pecoras, dal, salad, and bread that just kept coming) at a restaurant called La Favorita, next up was a mosque visit: I chose Mehfil e Abbas, a Shia mosque, just because it’s a smaller sect of Islam. The women and men split up immediately (hooray for gender binaries! /sarcasm) to go in via separate entrances to separate rooms. The women’s section included, of course, the kitchen and children’s rooms, but also, conveniently, the bathrooms. We took off our shoes at the door. The prayer space was just a simple carpeted room, divided by a curtain from the men’s room adjacent to it and with a TV screen that aired the sermon that was given after prayers.

To be frank, the experience was hard for me: There’s a reason I don’t pray in minyans with separate seating, and it didn’t feel any better when it wasn’t my religion and I wasn’t praying. Similar to what happens in the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue, there were old women chatting throughout the whole service, a few kids running around, and a couple of teenagers on cell phones. (Okay, maybe that last is different from shul.) My suspicion is that the separation is cultural/traditional and not scriptural, as it is in Judaism, and I find that these kinds of arrangements, which privilege men’s prayer over women’s, to be quite painful. And at first I became even angrier because I wasn’t getting to see a mosque, but instead a rec room — but when the service was over, and the curtain was opened, I saw that the main room was also pretty much a rec room with a few ritual objects. And I had to laugh at myself at how quickly my anger on that point dissipated in light of the modest setting of the men’s prayer room. I pretty much did see the mosque even in the ladies’ section.

That evening, my fellow Jews and I held a Kabbalat Shabbat service at our hotel for the rest of group, which people seemed to enjoy. Afterwards, another rabbinical student and I answered questions from the non-Jews while the others quickly davenned Ma’ariv, the evening prayer service.

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i'm not covering my head because i'm a jerk like that)

brekke and me in mehfil e abbas (yeah, i’m not covering my head because i’m a jerk like that)

The problem with even two Jews answering questions about Jewish prayer and about G-d (and really, about anything in Judaism) is that we’re not likely to agree. The old saying is: Two Jews, three opinions. At some point, one of the men from Oman asked whether there were prayers in our liturgy that called for the destruction of other people or religions. While I answered, “Absolutely not,” my co-religionist said, “Wait. What about Aleinu?” By this time the others had rejoined the conversation, and another rabbinical student jumped in with his understanding of the prayer, which is that it expresses the Jewish people’s unique relationship with G-d. I was sort of horrified that anyone would answer other than the way I did — especially since I perceived the question as coming from a place of fear and perhaps prejudice — but my classmate felt a real duty to nuance, which I am afraid gets lost in non-native language.

This is a bigger issue than can be covered here, but we Jews are indeed uncomfortable with parts of our liturgy: Modern prayer books do omit a sentence from the original Aleinu prayer, referring to non-Jews, “They worship vanity and emptiness, and they pray to a god that doesn’t save.” This moment again illustrates the issue that I talked about briefly in my last post about this program: namely, that we Jews don’t agree on what it means to be Jewish in a way that seems different from at least the Muslims on this trip.

Shabbat dinner was a bit of a letdown, as I sat largely with Omanis playing on their electronic devices. One could probably write a dissertation on cultural norms around cell phones, but in my Shabbat community, people don’t use their phones on Friday night (at least not during services and dinner). There is a real sense of being present with each other, of enjoying what Heschel has called a “sanctuary in time.” I understand that I can’t expect that outside of my community, but it did make the evening less Shabbat-like for me, which was hard. We are still trying to get to know each other, though, and so we did have some conversation. Unfortunately, part of that conversation involved one of the Omani men asking one of the Jewish men, who is married to another man and as such wears a wedding ring, where his wife was. He quickly mumbled, “In America,” before changing the subject.

I don’t know the views of many of the individuals in this program about homosexuality, but there are at least three gay men in the group, and each has chosen not to disclose his sexuality to the Muslims (and to disclose only to two of the Christians). Oman does criminalize same-sex behavior (as do 75 other countries in the world); all of the contingent work for the government. And after earlier in the week we were bombarded with stories from a speaker who does mediation work with Muslim parents who have threatened to kill their gay children, I think caution is not unwise in this situation. A part of me is hoping that this topic will come up, because it makes me sad for members of the group not to be able to bring their whole selves to our conversations about religion; at the same time, I want my friends to be safe.

To end on an up note, I made kiddush on Friday night for the first time. (Yes, I’d been avoiding it for most of my Jewish life.) But I’ve been practicing this summer with a recording that a classmate made for me (my issue is the singing), and I think I did alright. Either way, the vast majority of the people in the room didn’t know the difference!

Next up . . . we go to shul!

reading texts together

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England, and as such, it was briefly deleted from this site and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

I am spending the next three weeks in England as part of a university’s interfaith program, the basis of which is study of scripture — essentially, reading texts together with people of different religious traditions. (The program also includes lectures and group discussions.)

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram

pearly lake on franklin pierce university campus; photo by salem pearce (via instragram)

I am already exhausted. Besides jet lag, I am faced with a schedule of near constant activities, with people I don’t know and with whom I might have little in common. And of course part of the point of the program is to form relationships with classmates, so we eat and socialize together in addition to learning together.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the past week I spent at the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Though we were (almost) all Jews, as unaffiliated Jews we were from quite different backgrounds and in some cases had quite different ideas about what it means to be Jewish. In other words, being with other Jews in a pluralistic setting can sometimes feel like an interfaith endeavor. And that event also took place in a rural, retreat-like university setting.

And although I am not expected to “represent Judaism” while I am here, it is a bit intimidating to be asked to offer opinions and interpretations as a Jew when I might be one of the few Jews that some of my co-participants might meet. I want to be clear that I can offer a Jewish perspective on the texts at hand and also convey that that perspective might only be one of many.

sunset at Madingley Hall; photo by salem pearce (via instagram

sunset at the castle that serves as our conference center; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the program, there are four other Jewish participants (three rabbinical students and a Judaic Studies graduate student). There are five Christians (from the U.S., China, Nigeria, Singapore, and Egypt), and the rest of the students are Muslim, most of whom are from Oman. What has been striking so far is the experience of being in a primarily Muslim space. Though the setting is thoroughly British, the majority of people in the program — including the staff and interns — are Arabic-speaking Muslims, so the accommodations are geared towards them. There is someone who can serve as an Arabic translator in every group; during meals, all of the meat is halal; and the breaks coincide with times for prayer. It is a new experience for me: While I am used to being in a minority religious group, I only know how to do that within a Christian majority.

Tonight all of the Jews met after dinner to plan the Kabbalat Shabbat service that we’ll lead for the group on Friday night. We also planned morning davenning and benching after meals. It was nice to have some exclusively Jewish time: We all agreed it’s been hard to be constantly earnest and decorous in the group, so as to give a good impression of Judaism. But as one person wailed, “I’m dying to be sarcastic!”

Despite these challenges, much of the program is comfortable: Defying stereotypes, the food is quite good (I’ve been eating vegetarian and fish dishes as my kosher option, though I could have chosen specifically catered hechshered kosher food). I have a single room with my own bathroom (the castle doubles as a bed-and-breakfast, which means that my room is cleaned and the towels changed each day), and there are plenty of large, comfortable salons in which to relax.

And I get to drink all the tea I can manage. Cheers!

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,980 other followers