Sunday, March 31, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 6

Day 6: Yesod sheb'Chesed, Foundation within Loving-kindness
The week of chesed is almost over. Why do we start counting the Omer with a week dedicated to loving-kindness? Why not start with one of the other six? Think about the Exodus for a minute. Imagine you are an Israelite, having just been freed from slavery, with a long walk through the desert between you and the Promised Land. You can have all the strength, beauty, ambition, humility, connection, and leadership you want, but you're not going to get very far in a hot desert filled with hostile nations by yourself. You are going to need friends, people you trust, and people who aren't going to drive you crazy, to make it on this journey. Judaism starts with community and the foundation of any cohesive community is loving-kindness. In that light, it makes sense to start with chesed as the foundation of our spiritual growth, step one in a seven-week period of self-reflection and improvement.
The Judean Desert

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Count the Omer: Days 4 & 5

In light of Shabbat, today will be a double post to cover yesterday, day 4 of the Omer, and day 5.

Day 4: Netzach sheb'Chesed, Ambition within Loving-kindness
Have you ever been so focused on getting something done that you inadvertently blew off a friend or coworker? Day 4 of the Omer is all about balancing your ambition with kindness. Don't lose sight of your relationships on your way to the top.

Day 5: Hod sheb'Chesed, Gratitude/Majesty within Loving-kindness
Tonight, we say goodbye to Shabbat and re-enter the regular week. After a stressful week of work and other activities to be inevitably followed by another stressful week, I am grateful for the restfulness of Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "The Sabbath must all be spent 'in charm, peace, and great love...'"

My Shabbat Table
On a typical Friday night, I light the candles and recite the blessing while my husband, an excellent cook, finishes dinner. We sing Shalom Aleichem or Lecha Dodi depending on our moods, bless the wine, wash our hands with our wash cup from Jerusalem, and say ha-motzi to bless the challah (this week we blessed the matzah for Passover). We eat, we talk, we enjoy the freedom from obligation that comes with Shabbat.

I love Friday nights. My goal is to carry the majesty and love of Shabbat into the week with me. Shavua tov!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 3

Day 3: Tiferet sheb'Chesed, Harmony within Loving-kindness
First things first: check out the first and second days of the Omer.

Congress: known lately for not getting anything done. Why? They don't listen to each other and seem to have no desire to compromise on anything. Today, let's think about how harmonious our lives could be if our congressmen showed a little kindness to each other. How can you foster harmony and balance in your life (at work, at home, etc) by showing a little love?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 2

Day 2: Gevurah sheb'Chesed, Strength within Loving-kindness
It's hard to imagine two abstract concepts like "strength" and "kindness," let alone how they relate during the Omer. I think of it like this:

The person in the middle represents strength. The heart is loving-kindness. Put them together and you have gevurah sheb'chesed.

I know this photo is awesome, but let's think about today another way. I once had a friend who was mean-spirited to just about everyone. She tore others down in order to build herself up. It's a common tactic - make yourself feel strong by making those around you look weak - but it's a terrible way to maintain a friendship. The people who go through life this way seem to think that there is only a limited amount of happiness in the world and the only way to get it is to take it from others. This way of life will work for them only as long as they are able to keep people around who will put up with their negativity.

It seems to me that gevurah sheb'chesed offers a different, more sustainable, approach to life. If you build your self confidence independently of others, then you can be nice to them without feeling like you are giving up your strength or happiness. When your friends are able to let their guard down without fear of your stinging comments, they will probably be nicer to you in return. This will create a cycle of loving-kindness and strength for all.

More loving-kindness tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Count the Omer: Day 1

Today is the second night of Passover, but more importantly, today is the day we begin Counting the Omer! Over the next seven weeks, we will count up to Shavuot, my favorite holiday. According to Kabbalah, the time between the second night of Passover and Shavuot (the Counting of the Omer) is a time of spiritual growth and self improvement. These seven weeks represent the seven weeks between the Israelites leaving Egypt and arriving at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. In that time, they progressed from slavery to holiness. Accordingly, there are seven aspects of Godliness that we count and attempt to incorporate into our selves during the Counting of the Omer:

1. Chesed - loving-kindness
2. Gevurah - strength, power, justice, restraint
3. Tiferet - beauty, harmony, balance, compassion
4. Netzach - endurance, ambition
5. Hod - gratitude, humility, majesty
6. Yesod - foundation, connection
7. Malchut - kingdom, leadership

Each of the next seven weeks will be represented by one of these attributes, paired with another based on the day. Week one is chesed and day one of the week is chesed, so today is chesed sheb'chesed, loving-kindness within loving-kindness. Tomorrow will be gevurah sheb'chesed, strength within kindness, but that's for tomorrow. Let's take things one day at a time.

Day 1: Chesed sheb'Chesed, Loving-kindness within Loving-kindness. 

That's a lot of love.

Have you ever tried to really better yourself? Something more than a New Year's resolution? It's hard! I managed to create a plan for myself and actually stick to it for an entire summer once when I was in high school. I called it my "Summer of Self Improvement" - I took up running, cut out pop and other sugary drinks, and kept a self-reflective journal that I wrote in every night before bed. The plan fell apart when school started, but I learned some important things about myself. A few years later, after I had given up running and gone back to drinking way too much Coca Cola, I went back and read that journal. Parts of it were sarcastic, parts angsty teenager. The memorable parts of my journal and the real changes I made to myself in the long term were the parts I had written about openly and sincerely. When I was honest with myself, I managed to change for the better.

This is what day one of the Omer is all about. This week is all about incorporating more chesed into our lives, starting with yourself. Loving-kindness in loving-kindness - start with honesty and love in your own life and it will be easier to show it to others.

Stay tuned for more counting fun tomorrow! To keep track of the days yourself, check out

One! One day of the Omer! Ah ha ha! 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Response to Rabbi Cosgrove's Conservative Conversion Proposal

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York has caused quite a stir in the Jewish blogging community over a recent d'var Torah, entitled "An Immodest Proposal."

There is so much I want to say about Rabbi Cosgrove's "back-of-the-napkin," "trial balloon" proposal, but right off the bat, I would like to make a general observation about the conversion conversation. I would appreciate seeing the topic of conversion discussed more often in its own right, detached from the intermarriage issue. Yes, sometimes the two topics are related and warrant a joint discussion. However, just because some of us may have "found" Judaism through a relationship with a born-Jew, doesn't mean we converted "for" them or that the discussion has to include anything more on the interfaith aspect than that. I have ranted about my frustration with converting "for" someone on multiple occasions.

Moving on! Rabbi Cosgrove's sermon is worth reading in full, but I am going to pull out my "favorite" parts to discuss here. Please feel free to share your thoughts on my critique or on another part of his sermon in the comments!

"And while some of my Reform colleagues do not perform intermarriages, the unintended consequence of this patrilineal resolution, as you can imagine, is dis-incentivizing the act of conversion altogether. After all, if a rabbi will marry you and the kids are Jewish anyway - why go through the whole rigmarole at all?"
This is just one of many comments that Rabbi Cosgrove made throughout this sermon lamenting the "dis-incentivizing" of conversion, but why exactly are we "incentivizing" it? What happened to turning a potential convert away three times? And if the potential convert considers conversion an annoying "rigmarole" as a means to a handful of specific ends (a Jewish wedding and Jewish kids), then maybe they shouldn't be converting to Judaism in the first place. When you convert, you are supposed to count yourself among the Jewish people, take on a Jewish identity, and accept the mitzvot, so "why go through the whole rigmarole" if that's not your intention?
"Probably the most famous narrative about conversion in the Talmud is the story of the would-be-convert who approaches first Shammai and then Hillel, asking to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai hits him with a stick – effectively telling him to get lost. Hillel, famously, converts him right away, telling him 'That which is hateful to you, do not do your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.' The order of events is often missed, but it is instructive for us today. First Hillel converts, then Hillel teaches. First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it's all about."
I love this story - so much so that it inspired my blog name - but I think that it is being misused here. The life of a convert, just like that of a born-Jew, is (or should be) a life of continuous learning. Knowing "what it's all about" is not a prerequisite for conversion, but there are a few things you should know before committing to be Jewish for the rest of your life. In this story, Hillel teaches his convert "the entire Torah" before converting him. Traditionally, we read the entire Torah in a one year cycle (three years in some synagogues), so I could just as easily cite this story as precedence for the common practice of requiring one year of study before conversion.

I am also a bit confused as to how Rabbi Cosgrove's "convert them first" plan would actually be implemented. He suggests regularly scheduled conversion times at the beginning of every month with follow up classes about Judaism in which the convert would be automatically enrolled, with no guarantee that they would actually attend, of course. That aside, would they go through the beit din and mikveh right away? Would the beit din still ask them if they were ready to take on Judaism, the good and the bad? Who could possibly answer that question at such an early stage? Not only that, but at what point would you circumcise a male convert? I can't imagine that a man would agree to circumcision without fully understanding the significance of it and deciding to commit fully to a Jewish life. Coming to understand, appreciate, and love Judaism takes time and learning. He cites "na'aseh v'nishmah" ("we will do and we will hear") as another reason to convert first, teach second. I have commented on this phrase from Exodus 24:7 before in relation to conversion, so I will only say here that I think Rabbi Cosgrove is ignoring a key element of "na'aseh v'nishmah," namely that when the Jews originally said it in Exodus, they were already Jews. The "we will do" part that came first was about taking on the mitzvot, not an entirely new identity as a Jew.

"Quite frankly, given the option of being misled by would-be Jews lacking integrity, or running the risk of losing potential Jewish households, I would choose the former over the latter any day of the week. I am in the business, we are in the business, of creating Jewish homes."

I have to wonder how often, if ever, Rabbi Cosgrove deals with converts or potential converts who are doing it for themselves out of a personal love of Judaism and desire to be part of the Jewish people. His outlook strikes me as incredibly hurtful to that group of us, as we are the ones who would be (and currently are) lumped in with those "would-be Jews lacking integrity" and forced to overcompensate to prove our integrity. I, for one, appreciate the slow learning approach to conversion. I not only appreciated the time and effort my rabbi took with me during my seven month conversion process as an important preparation for Jewish life, but I appreciate it now as a way to safeguard against Rabbi Cosgrove's "would-be Jews" who cast suspicion on the rest of us.* I think the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative Movement's association of rabbis) put it best in their position paper on non-halakhic conversions: "These objective halakhic criteria, which alone protect the purity of Jewish identity, should not be compromised in the interests of an ultimately meaningless Jewish unity."

*I know I'm coming across as incredibly harsh here, so let me just state for the record that I am not at all suggesting that rabbis close their doors to potential converts. I am (and this should be obvious) pro-conversion. My negativity here stems from consistently for multiple years now being on the defensive about my conversion from people who question my motives and the motives of all converts. That said, it's not all bad. In fact, I think it's safe to say that most people I tell are genuinely supportive.

I will end on a note of agreement, because I like to stay positive.

" strikes me as problematic verging on hypocritical to ask or expect converts to live according to a lifestyle that I do not demand of the rest of synagogue membership."
I don't think that this double standard is something I have discussed on my blog and, to be honest, it's not something I think about much anymore, but it used to really bother me during my conversion process and right after my conversion. Converts are often held to a higher standard than born-Jews when it comes to keeping the mitzvot. My legitimacy can be called into question, unofficially or officially, if I am less observant. However, if I had been born Jewish, then I would be Jewish without question, even if I ate a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich every morning and never observed Shabbat. It used to really bother me that there are Jews who wouldn't consider me Jewish, because I didn't convert in their movement, while born-Jews get a free pass in a sense. I'm not really sure when that stopped bothering me; it just slowly phased out of my thoughts. My observance of the mitzvot is between me and God and it doesn't make a difference to my level of observance what the Jew down the street does or doesn't do. Nonetheless, I appreciate Rabbi Cosgrove's acknowledgement of this issue.

Shabbat Shalom! Don't forget to "spring forward" this Sunday for Daylight Savings Time!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Quote of the Week: Happy birthday to me!

"He would say: At five years old [begin] Scripture; at ten years old [begin] Mishnah; at thirteen years old [one is obliged to observe] the commandments; at fifteen years old [begin] Gemara; at eighteen years old [enter] the marriage canopy; at twenty years old pursue [a livelihood]; at thirty years old one attains full strength..." Pirkei Avot 6:25

Today, I am right in the middle of finding a career and attaining full strength. Awesome!