Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Moving the Kotel

I recently led a special delegation of 16 Rabbis from across North and South America to be with Women of the Wall (WoW) on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, and to meet with Knesset members, lobbyists, and the WoW Board. Two days after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of (WoW) at the Kotel with over 600 women—and with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and cursing that they normally endure monthly—Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal at the Kotel. I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years these pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. But Lieberman can swagger right up to the front and be sure he will be welcome.

In previous months, busloads of yeshiva girls have been encouraged to jeer, intimidate, and by sheer numbers, push WoW out of the Wall itself into the plaza. We were determined not to let that happen so on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, we arrived an hour early to “stake out” a portion of the women’s section. At the last minute the Bnei Akiva Rabbis called off the buses. The few 15 year olds who came stood defiantly, yelling and finger-waving at women the age of their mothers with a rudeness I still cannot believe. We tried to be dignified as we sang to their taunts. Soon WoW participants swelled and filled most of the section, and 20 female police officers made a line of protection around us.

I cannot fully describe the sound of 600 women singing with fervour. From the men’s side—unusually sparse that day—a microphone drowned out our voices. But just as we began the Shema, the microphone suddenly went silent. We were stunned to find out that the police had cut the electricity, allowing us to proceed without having to engage in a prayer-shouting match.

Unafraid for the first time to don tefillin or tallitot at the Kotel, we held up 6 empty Torah mantles, symbolizing our desire and our inability to read from a Sefer Torah, since a new order from the Rabbi of the Wall gave him ultimate authority over who gets to bring in a Torah scroll. 

The most moving moment for me was holding our tallitot over our heads in a “group” aliyah. If you have ever witnessed the the priestly blessing done on holidays with hundreds of black-and-white tallitot covering the men, imagine instead tallitot of all colours, silk and lace and rainbow. Words cannot fully do justice to the sight. We were “priests” for the first time in our lives.

I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have the weight of tradition. In my dreams, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured, and valued. But that Kotel does not exist, and for me the Western stones have been sullied since their “liberation” in 1967. 

Women of the Wall now face a critical crossroad. Some believe that if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer with tallitot will one day be welcome there. Others know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right of tallit and tefillin hang on a thin thread. This group, represented by the Board of WoW, has agreed to move the monthly service to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you stand above fallen Herodian stones which share the same antiquity as the Western ones, minus the visual optics of being “The” Wall; without the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967. Until the government builds a beautiful, appropriate and equal southern site, WoW will continue to fight for space and dignity in the women’s section. But if WoW’s demands are met— including one entrance for all, visible and equal choice between 3 sections (men’s, women’s, mixed), equal funding for all 3 sections, equal State recognition for all 3 sections, and authority over the new section to co-ed advisors from all denominations— WoW can have a Rosh Chodesh service with mechitzah at the southern stones of the Western Wall and all of us will be able to pray without harassment.

Which do we want more: to get what we want, or for the Haredim to not get what they want?

Women of the Wall aren’t moving from the Kotel. They are moving the Kotel  itself. Women of the Wall may go down in history as having reinvented the Kotel. The same imagination that allowed us to envision a woman in a tallit when we had never seen one, a woman leading prayers when we had never heard one, and a woman Rabbi when we had never met one will get us there. While these Southern stones may not be the stones we remember, they will be the stones our grandchildren remember. This will finally be a truly pluralistic Kotel for a truly pluralistic people.

When all the WoW demands are met,  the new Kotel will be ready and those stones will gain a deep sacredness just like the others. We will, to be sure, miss the old Kotel, like immigrants miss the old country.  And while Avigdor Lieberman may still be welcome at the old Kotel, but I will finally be welcome at the new one.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Cult of BusyRabbi Elyse GoldsteinDay One Rosh Hashana

Earlier this year I received a document via email—maybe some of you did too— entitled How To Succeed at Work. Here is its advice:
  1. Always walk with a document in your hands: People with documents in their hands look like hardworking employees heading for important meetings. People with newspapers in their hands look like they are going to the washroom.
    2. Use the computer a lot. When you get caught by the boss just claim you're teaching yourself to use new software.
    3. If your voice mailbox has a limit on the number of messages it can hold, make sure you reach that limit often, even if you have to call yourself. "Sorry, this mailbox is full" is a sure sign that you are in high demand.
    4. Have a Messy Desk: Build large piles of documents around your workspace. If you know someone is coming to your cubicle, bury the document you'll need halfway down in an existing stack and rummage for it when they arrives.
    5. Appear To Be Working at crazy times: Send important emails at unearthly hours (like half past midnite, 6.30am, etc.) and especially on public holidays. (But NOT on Jewish holidays!)
    6. Creative Sighing For Effect: Sigh loudly when there are many people around, giving the impression that you are under serious pressure.
I don’t know about you, but I am guilty as charged. And I would add a number 7: whenever anyone asks you how you are, do not answer “fine.” Never answer “great!” Answer, “BUSY. Very busy. Extremely busy. Buried. Swamped. Yup, I’m really...busy.” 

Author Scott Berkun coined the phrase “The cult of busy.” He writes, “When I was younger I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and always I just thought they must have really important things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t...This is the cult of busy.”

We have all been duped into joining the cult of busy. We are its leaders, its preachers, even its messiahs. And like most cults, we have been initiated through lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and repetitions of meaningless mantras over and over again.

But like most cults, it is attractive and fulfilling in its own way. In Tom Krieder’s article in the New York Times, The Busy Trap, the article that generated a lot of surveys and news articles and reports on busyness, he writes: If you live... in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are... It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

It’s true, we’re proud of how little time we have for our families, our hobbies, our communities. Busy is a competitive sport- who has less time, me or you? Jews used to love competing for who has the most trouble- “you think you got tsuris??” But now busyness proves our worth, our productivity, our sense of our place in the world.

There really are two kinds of busy, though. Retired people will boast about how busy they are: doing ceramics, visiting grandkids, travelling. They seem so happy in their busyness, because they are busy doing what they want to. Because they are able to finally reprioritize and make time for what’s important. They are positively busy instead of positively busy.

But for many of us, our busyness is a drug, and we use it dangerously. We overprogramme on purpose. We stretch ourselves to prove something. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we will admit that often we use our excessively hectic schedules to escape ourselves. To escape the one thing we strive to cope with over these holy days: our inner life, our minds, and our spirits.

Gabor Mate writes in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease or the nagging mental stupor we call boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending “alone time” with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioural addictions are also
responses to this terror of the void… Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states.”

We are addicted to busy, I fear, to keep ourselves from the demands of our quiet inner selves. Thus, like any addict, we crave also the paraphernalia and technological tools which help us keep the busy high. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with technology, with using iphones and blackberries and facebook. I do, and I think they are all valuable tools, and I wish more peope of my generation would be less afraid to use them. But it’s weird—instead of using technology to save us time so we can do other things—talk to our kids, take a yoga class, come to services, visit a friend, walk in the park, you name it—we just use our newly freed up time to use more technology, to make another call, to send another email, to post another status update.  We use the time-saving power of technology to save us time to use more technology!

Do we have a wish to avoid inactivity at all costs lest we be left alone with our minds unoccupied for a moment? Left alone with time for self-doubt, regrets, realizations, perhaps resolutions, reconciliations?

In his book on ADHD Scattered Minds, Mate goes even deeper on this theme and writes, "...there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds. Terrified of my mind, I had always dreaded to spend a moment alone with it. There always had to be a book in my pocket as an emergency kit in case I was ever trapped waiting anywhere, even for one minute, be it a bank lineup or supermarket checkout counter..."

Twitchiness ensues when we are left outside the distraction loop. We scramble for something to read. We search another website. No one just sits. We become bored in nano seconds. We are, as a nation, the first world of disquiet.  We are constantly looking for that 'drug' in the form of anything that will take us away from us because we are perpetually scared and discomforted by the reality that we are indeed - alone.

Alone.  Frightening word.  Alone.  Do you ever suddenly become aware as you are going about your day alone in your house or driving your car that you are a person - alone. Watch yourself at that moment. It becomes creepy for us. We immediately try to forget ourselves. We fill the quiet of alone with white noise so we have no aloneness to lead ultimately to a discovery of the self. 

In the cult of busy, running around like chickens without a head leaves us without heads that can reflect, analyze, and face demons.

In the cult of busy, arriving late and leaving early to meetings is a sign that we must be significant and needed, instead of facing the frail and limited human beings we all are.

In the cult of busy, there is no time to face the uncomfortable pain that life sometimes and inevitably visits upon us. 

In the cult of busy, we never have time to face ourselves. There is no time for teshuva, for repentance, for the discipline that religion demands.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has coined the term “homo accelerandus.” He writes, “This is what we have become. This creature has a great many encounters, but does not really experience anything... He has a great many contacts but no relationships, since he is unable to linger because he is always ‘in a hurry’…Homo Accelerandus has everything but lacks the one essential to enjoy that everything: time.”

Interestingly, Homo Accelerandus usually lives a middle class life. Let me point out that this is definitely a “first world problem.” Again, Krieder writes, “Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

The middle class cult of busy has been called the “Yuppie kvetch” by Jordan Weissman, associate editor of The Atlantic. He writes, ...All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life's necessities in order to free up more time for life's pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid. Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference... You can't pay somebody to sleep for you. You can't pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame... If you're rich, it's time that's scarce. If you're poor, it's money that's scarce.” 

We who generally have enough to make our rent and buy some groceries say “time is money.” But if time is money, we are going broke.
When we value someone’s worth as a human being on how much they can squeeze into a day, what value do we place on someone who cannot physically or mentally do that? What value do we place on people who attempt to do enough to keep up with everyone else, but fail? What judgements do our cult leaders place on those who work less than 80 hour weeks because they physically or mentally cannot, or spiritually will not?
In the cult of busy we don’t have time to volunteer or do gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, or give tzedakah, or give the time and effort it takes to create the kind of humane society we once were. We don’t have the time to lift up the fallen, or heal the sick, or free the captive, or clothe the naked or do any of the other things our Yom Kippur haftarah will command we do because we are Jews.

Nearly 30 years a study was conducted at Princeton University, designed to figure out the conditions under which good people would do good. Two psychologists asked a group of theology students to walk to another building on campus to give a short speech. Meanwhile, the psychologists had arranged for an actor to be stationed on the path between the two buildings, slumped over, coughing and obviously in bad shape. The two experimenters had led half the students to believe they were late for their speaking appointment, and half that they had ample time.

Only 10 percent of those led to believe they were running late stopped to help. Of those told that they had plenty of time, 60 percent stopped to help.

It takes time to stop and help.

The cult of busy is keeping us from building the kind of community we all really crave. It’s keeping us from making the difference we all want so badly to make.

As a Rabbi, I know the cult of busy is winning in the Jewish community because so few of us allow ourselves the luxury of Shabbat, the one time we are commanded to take time.

To be frank, I’m just perplexed about that. Why don’t more of us take a day off a week to remind ourselves that we aren’t machines? To be “unbusy” without self-blame? To not produce anything without guilt? Just what is it we are striving to do in those few 24 hours? 

I’m just really perplexed because so many people over the last few weeks have told me they meant to check out City Shul all year long, but they were so busy this whole year. Now if you tell me you you don’t believe in G-d- I get it! You don’t like to pray- I get it! You don’t like services-well, I’m a little hurt but I get it! But if you’re too busy to create the community you joined because you wanted to create the kind of community you would join- I just don’t get it.

Now let me hasten to add that I am not advocating an Orthodox Shabbat. Drive in a car, turn on and off the lights. Go to a farmer’s market, bike to the beach. Yes I am a Rabbi and you heard me correctly. I’m simply advocating lowering the “shlep” factor of our lives one day a week. 

There’s a group of secular folks, not all of whom are Jewish, who have created something called The Sabbath Manifesto.The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is a day-spa for the mind. 

A day of unplugging without tweeting about our unplugged experience.
A day of no distractions from outside to distract us from our insides. 
One day a week we can stop answering the question “how are you” with the word “busy.”

One day a week to detach our sense of inner worth and self-esteem from the frequency and amount of our online activities. To be still without having to go to an ashram for a stillness retreat. 

There’s a scene in the film Beyond the Clouds where an archaeologist hires some tribesmen to lead him to an site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” 

That’s the kind of living the cult of busy promotes. The kind of living in which we move so fast our souls have no time to catch up, on purpose: so we don’t have to face them.

We need to be willing to teach ourselves this year to unlove our stress and unlove our busyness. 

We joined this cult and we can exit it ourselves today. In the midrash on tomorrow’s Torah portion Isaac goes willingly up the mountain to his own sacrifice and even fastens the cords himself. As Abraham is about to slay his son upon the altar, an angel of God calls out to him twice, but he doesn’t hear him the first time—so in a rush is he to get it done. So unwilling to hear the voice of his inner angel that he has to be called a second time, lest he automatically slaughter his son while he is “busy” fulfilling what he believes to be a Divine command. The midrash even uses the word “zarez” to describe Abarham- frenetically rushing.

Thats why we need to stop and hear the shofar, just like Abraham needed to stop to see the ram. The shofar shatters the altar of busy we have erected. I know when our member Peter blows the shofar today we will experience a moment like no other; a moment of absolute stillness and full attention during which the cult of busy will have no sway over us, will hold no attraction, and will exercise no power. The shofar is the sound of blowing away the need for pinging sounds to make us feel called. The shofar is the sound of our beating hearts when we slow down and ignore the distractions that are keeping us from hearing it. The shofar is the sound of being busy just being, because, as the great Bob Dylan sang, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.” 

This year, lets be busy being born.

Shana Tova

Monday, 15 July 2013

Why I’m Not Fasting this Tisha b'Av

Tonight at sundown the Jewish people will be marking a day of national tragedy- the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Those destructions also marked the end of the priesthood and the sacrificial system. The end of the “unity” of a people with one national shrine, one national ritual, one national way of worshipping.

All during my teenage years I fasted on Tisha b'Av because it fell during summer camp, and the UAHC Eisner camp always had us doing some meaningful role-play or activity as if we were there, right there as the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Later at Kutz Camp I helped create those melodramas and watched as the kids would cry and turn Tisha b'Av into a Holocaust Remembrance Day because the destruction of the Temple was ancient history to them, but their grandparents still could talk about the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

During Rabbinic school I fasted, frankly, to be holier-than-thou, more religious than my already right-leaning classmates.

As a young Rabbi I fasted to be a role model of a Reform Jew who took Jewish history seriously.

But I don’t fast anymore.

Why am I not fasting? Aren’t I sad about all that loss?

I’m not fasting because the oldest symbol of that so-called “unity”—the Western Wall—is a battleground for religious pluralism, and I imagine that if the Cohanim were still around they would be on the side of the Haredim, not on the side of those women who, like me, want to be full participating Jews with tallit and a Torah. I’m not fasting because I’m afraid of what it would look like for women if we rebuilt the Temple.

And I’m not fasting because ultimately the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism, wresting power and authority out of the hands of an elite and then corrupt priesthood and placing it in the hands of scholars and then Rabbis who represent the people. Eventually, in our day, all Jews have the authority to be their own priests, to hold holiness in their own hands, to read their own Psalms as they ascend the stairs of their synagogue, to lead their own prayers, and even to make their own halachic decisions. I celebrate that democratization. It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are Cohanim and would, in the time of the Messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me.) I don’t mourn the loss of a hierarchical, inherited caste of priests—I would, however, mourn the loss of democracy.

In a way, the very existence of the Rabbis and the Talmud undermined the Temple. To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, interpretation over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Saduccees.

And I’m not fasting because I believe we are already living in the third period, in the time of the sovereign nation of Israel, and though the Temple doesn’t exist anymore, Israel certainly does. I am a Zionist. I don’t mourn the loss of our sovereignty, because we finally got it back. I feel blessed to live in the era of the “flowering of the seeds of our redemption.” With all it’s faults, still, Israel is the living reality of a people who couldn’t have imagined it in 68 CE—but I don’t have to dream it or long for it, because it’s as real as my right hand.

To be sure, there are Jewish groups who “re-imagine” Tisha b'Av. It becomes about the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust or about personal loss, or a day of brokenness and sadness. That’s the way we modern Jews try and make sense of a fast day that doesn’t speak to those who do not feel they are “in exile.” Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But if Tisha b'Av can only be about mourning the loss of the Temple, it won’t speak at all to me. From the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of Rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.

Now I won’t be going out to a fancy restaurant. I’m not going to put down anyone who is fasting. I won’t make a luxurious meal. But I will be spending the day reflecting on how to build a Judaism based on pluralistic, democratic values; a Judaism strong enough to survive into the future without needing one “unified” way of being Jewish.

While we are mourning the destruction of a mythical “unity” we are blinded to the reality of destructive narratives in both Israel and the Diaspora today. A corrupt male priesthood still exists in the form of a Chief Rabbinate. Social castes still abound. The destruction of the Temple should be a metaphor for the destruction of all that really divides us. Now, without a Temple burning, those destructive forces are turning inward.

There is a midrash in Avot deRebbe Natan (4:5) about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai walking in Jerusalem with his student Rabbi Yehoshua. They see the ruins of the Temple and Rabbi Yehoshua says “Woe to us, that this place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai answers, “My son, do not fear. We have another atonement which replaces it: gemilut hasadim, deeds of lovingkindness.”

The Rabbis in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Yoma 1:1) say the Temple was destroyed because people loved money and hated each other. If we were really sad about the destruction of the Temple, we’d be living differently today. We’d be living with abundant gemilut hasadim. Otherwise the empty stomachs tomorrow will be, I fear, like when I was a teenager in summer camp: just for show.