Friday, May 15, 2015

Phrase of the Day: L'Kavod Shabbat v'Yom Tov

You've probably seen this phrase really often but may not even know it, especially if you don't yet read Hebrew.

Most notably, it has been written on (sewed onto) every challah cover I've ever seen. For example:

So what's it all about?

Meaning & Usage

It means "in honor of/for the honor of Shabbat and holiday." As a grammar nerd, it's interesting to me that yom tov isn't written yomim tovim, the plural. However, each time Shabbat and yom tov fall on the same day (happens pretty often), we make the bracha "has commanded us to light the candles of Shabbat and yom tov." That bracha phraseology may be used at other times during the chag, but none come to mind for me right now. So I think the theory is that the cover is useful for any specific day you might use it, rather than the general idea of Shabbat and holidays throughout the year.

You may often see it shortened to just "Shabbat v'yom tov," as you see on 2 of the 3 challah covers pictures. (Those are 3 of the 4 I own. Why do I need 4? I have no idea, but there was a wedding involved.)

Does it have to be both Shabbat and yom tov to use an item that says L'kvod Shabbat v'yom tov? Nope, it's just a catchall for all the uses you might have. Use it on Shabbat. Use it on yom tov. Use it when they fall together. But don't use it on Pesach. Unless you set one aside for Pesach (hey, that's a great idea for one of those 4...).

How Else Is It Used?

Nearly anything can be done lekavod Shabbat v'yom tov. In fact, the most common place you might hear it spoken is in the grocery store. There are many famous stories about rabbis or other pious people who saved the very best food for Shabbat, even in the poorest of conditions. That idea continues today, and you may overhear people debating whether to buy a nicer version of some food or a new food lakavod Shabbat. This can be done any day of the week, so long as it is set aside for the coming Shabbat.

I would guess that haircuts and buying flowers come in second and third, but it's a dead heat for which one should take which place. If you're going to buy flowers or get a haircut, it's best to do so late in the week (Thursday at the earliest but preferably Friday is what some people say) in order than it can also be in honor of Shabbat, even if you intended to do it anyway. This is particularly relevant to haircuts. 

You should also try to save newly-purchased clothes so you can wear them for the first time on Shabbat, in honor of it. It's hard to wait sometimes (so guilty here), but it's a very common custom and a beautiful idea.

It can really be anything. I know of a working mom who doesn't do much cooking during the week, but always cooks for Shabbat to honor it. Her homecooking is so unusual that she's been able to turn it into something that can bring extra honor to Shabbat and joy to her family.

Do you (or others you know) do anything else l'kavod Shabbat or yom tov?

But How Do You Say It??

The better question is how one pronounces it. I have found three pronunciations (so far): 

L'KaVOD: Luh or Le being the best approximations here for L'

LaKAvud (like "mud")


Do you know a pronunciation I missed? Which one do you use? Where have you seen it written besides on challah covers?

And what special thing will you do to honor Shabbat this week? 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Can a RCA Convert Become Lubavitch After Conversion?

Yes, yes, and yes. I saw this google search come up and wanted to reassure all of you that your RCA (or IRF or private beit din or whoever) conversion does not tie you to a particular hashkafah (philosophy, approach to Judaism). 

Well, it doesn't have to.

I wrote a while back about the special challenges that face conversion candidates who want to live as Lubavitch chossids. But even in those worst-case-scenario circumstances where you may have to leave your Chabad shul and rabbi until the conversion is over, nothing prevents you from going back once the conversion is over. And most people who leaned that way early in the process do go back after, though I can't say how many stay long-term. I think they needed to go back to see if it really was the place for them, and sometimes it's not. It's tying up loose ends, in a sense. Especially when a short-sighted blanket prohibition on Chabad was part of the conversion. That tactic works just as well with conversion candidates as it does with teenagers.

Why does this work? The RCA does not espouse any particular hashkafa. Remember that the RCA is essentially just a licensing agency that allows independent batei din to use their name and support. Your particular beit din may have a specific hashkafa, such as many of the yeshivish and chassidishe batei din, most (all?) of which are not RCA batei dins. In those cases, you may be expected to toe the line to that particular hashkafah, but that should be a consideration before you sign on with that particular group.

As you go through the RCA process, you can choose to affiliate Polish Ashkenazi, Hungarian Ashkenazi, Yekke, Yeminite, Iraqi Sephardi, Dutch, whatever. Most people don't convert that specifically, sticking to general Ashkenazi or Sephardi designations

What determines your customs? Among other things, the community you convert in, the rabbi(s) you work with, and your personal ethnic history, especially if you have some Jewish ancestry from a particular area. But even if you go general, you will still be a mix and mish-mash of many minhagim because American and Israeli communities (and many communities worldwide) are usually a mish-mash of people from everywhere. And so many intermarriages between different types of Jews have created many families with mixed minhagim. So, at best, you are probably "Ashkenazi by default" if you convert in the United States. You could easily end up "Sephardi by default" in Israel or some other communities. Nothing wrong with it, except from the people who refuse to see the reality that a "community standard" doesn't exist in most places today.

Rather than just focusing on the Lubavitch candidate, let's try some other scenarios. Let's say you convert in Atlanta with the RCA-approved beit din there and you convert through a middle-of-the-road orthodox shul. That doesn't mean that as you learn and grow and move through life that you can't move to the right and become yeshivish or move left. Likewise, if you convert yeshivish, you're not prevented from becoming chassidic later on. Marriage often influences these major shifts, as opposed to the subtler shifts we all have.

Where you are haskhafically when you convert is just one moment in time. Every Jew is (should be) growing, changing, learning all the time, for the rest of your life. We all go through periods of more or less stringent observance. Different things speak to us in different seasons of life or life circumstances. And there will probably be a period or two (or more) of anger and rebellion. Congrats, that means you're really Jewish.

Don't be afraid that your conversion seals in what kind of Jew you'll be for the rest of your life. It doesn't, and it can't. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Rabbis Who Might Be Involved in Your Conversion

Rabbis, rabbis, rabbis, everywhere you look it feels like there's another guy in a beard and a hat (well, maybe not in your community, but you get what I mean). 

Interacting with all of them and coordinating them doesn't just feel like herding cats, it actually is harder than herding cats because cats have less responsibilities and people to answer to. Not to mention, you're usually not allowed to participate financially in the community that pays their salaries. (You can't become a member and pay dues, for example.) You probably rank pretty low on the list of a rabbi's priorities, through no fault of your own. It's not personal; it's just how our community has become structured.

So let's talk about some of the rabbis who might be involved in your process and some of the roles they might play. One rabbi could serve many roles (and often do). Some may live down the street, some may only known on the internet. However you get the help, teaching, and services you need is a good way to get them. Be creative if you need to, but watch out for red flags that might indicate a huckster or someone abusive (emotionally, financially, sexually, or whatever). 

Rabbis are human. Remember that all the time, and you will be slightly less angry or frustrated with your situation. It's almost never personal. If you're in a difficult rabbi relationship, make "rabbis are human" your mantra, and repeat it frequently. As I say in that other post, neither of you has the like the other for you to both do your jobs. You can wish the situation were better, but you have to deal with what you've got.

The Bare Bones: 3 Rabbis

Let's talk about the absolute minimum number of rabbis you'll have to deal with: three. You really only need three rabbis to sit on a beit din, and one of those rabbis can be the rabbi whose community you've been living in, studying with, etc. So even at the bare bones level, you have three very busy people to coordinate. On the bright side, the beit din will do most of its own coordinating. Downside: you have little input in those dates, and you might have to change your schedule to accommodate theirs.

I think it's interesting that we really don't need 3 rabbis to sit on the beit din, as any knowledgeable Jew can as long as there's one rabbi to make sure everything is done correctly. That's just a shift that has occurred over time, but remains the structure of batei din in most non-orthodox Jewish communities.

The Normal 4th and Maybe 5th

Most people will have a fourth rabbi: the sponsoring rabbi, who is usually (but not always) your community rabbi. If your sponsoring rabbi isn't your community rabbi (for example, a tutor or mentor), then you'll also have your community rabbi involved, bringing you to five rabbis.

Beit Din Additions

Regardless of who is the sponsoring and community rabbi(s), you may have a fourth rabbi sitting on your beit din. It happens sometimes,  though I'm not entirely sure why, but people have walked into a beit din meeting and faced four or five rabbis instead of the expected (and stressful enough) three. This is unlikely, but it's something to be aware of, and don't let it worry you. From the people I've known, there doesn't seem to be a consistent factor on the side of the candidate, so I assume it's usually a practical scheduling decision when they're afraid one or more rabbis might not be available to also attend the mikvah. For example, in one case, a rabbi's wife was due to give birth around the expected mikvah date. Or maybe a rabbi had heard of you and was interested in meeting you, which was at least one of those cases.

The Takeaway

You'll most likely have to deal with 4-5 rabbis in the average conversion process. This is assuming you have only one beit din by the time you convert and no one retires or moves away (or gets arrested, of course).

But Wait! There's More Rabbis!

That doesn't mean there aren't other rabbis in your life. Some may not function as rabbis at all: some may just be friends, others might host you for meals a lot, or be the person who introduces you around in shul. There's no shortage of ways that people can help you, especially when those people happen to be rabbis.

You might have a rabbi tutor (or three). Your tutors never have to be a rabbi, unless your beit din requires at least one rabbi tutor. You may have multiple tutors because maybe you spend one semester learning in a group class with one rabbi, then get private tutoring from another, and a third teaches you to read Hebrew (or understand it, if you're more advanced). And maybe one or more of those tutors moves, retires, goes on sabbatical, becomes too expensive for your budget, realigns his priorities, whatever. Most people never get more than one or two tutors (formal or informal), but it's good to know you're not weird if you end up with 5. 

You might also have some specialized rabbis, if you face a particular halachic situation. Some examples: 
  • If you or a family member have a health problem (including mental health issues), you need a rabbi who understands those issues and the halacha that applies to them. Your average rabbi may be helpful at best, but harmful to your health at worst. Don't mess around here. It's a common problem for rabbis to either not know or not admit when they don't understand something well enough to rule on it. If you suspect a ruling is uninformed or ignores your particular circumstances (because your circumstances are always relevant to a halachic ruling, especially in health), move up the ladder to a rabbi who is more familiar with the issue.
  • If you have a pet. Most rabbis are clueless about both pets and how halacha applies to them, and thus, they give completely wrong halachic advice. They may even tell you it's prohibited to own a pet!
  • If you have Jewish roommates while you're not Jewish, you need someone very familiar with the halacha of people who are converting. Your beit din is the best place to start when you have a question like this.
  • If you have any other question that may be different for someone in the conversion process. See above.
  • If you have complicated family issues or like to visit your family often, you need a rabbi who is sensitive to those kinds of family issues and the halachic issues that can arise. You may need a different rabbi depending on whether your family is Jewish or not Jewish because the rulings can come out quite differently, and in my experience, these rabbis (usually kiruv or beit din rabbis) tend to specialize in one circumstance or the other. If you have a mixed family, you may need two rabbis to help with each group.
  • If you're in a romantic relationship with a Jew, you're eventually going to run into a lot of halachic questions. The beit din will usually address them as you go through the process. But speaking practically, a number of people have romantic relationships they never disclose to a beit din. If that's you, find a rabbi you trust, even if that means making a semi-anonymous relationship with a rabbi online.
  • If you work in a job that has halachic issues, you definitely need a rabbi who knows the field and knows Shabbat and yom tov halacha very well. This is especially true if you're a doctor, in medical school or residency, an EMT or other emergency personnel, or other people who tend to be "on call" any day, including Shabbat. If you're not in that lifesaving category, you will probably have to take some time to transition away from working on Shabbat and holidays, and a good rabbi can help you make better choices while in that transitory period. [That goes for students who feel compelled to study on Shabbat too. I survived law school without doing it, so I promise it can be done, and the break can actually make your other studying more effective.] As a sidenote, if you think you've been a victim of employment discrimination at your job or in a hiring decision because of becoming observant, you may want to consult with an employment lawyer. Usually those consultations are free, but you'll want to weigh the chilul Hashem factor and the emotional (and financial) cost of pursuing a claim.

In Conclusion

Rabbis are friends, not food. Wait, wrong cliche. [Finding Nemo, in case you don't know any children of the recent generation.]

I will openly admit I'm gunshy with rabbis, and I usually don't trust them farther than I can throw them. I've had too many bad experiences and seen too many others face similar situations because of my work here. However, the longer I'm around, the more good people I see trying to do the right thing. My heart is thawing towards rabbis, though it probably has a few more years to go. [Ha! We all know lawyers don't have hearts!]

Have situational awareness and pay attention to red flags and your gut instincts when you deal with rabbis in the conversion process, but don't let yourself get too cynical until you have a good reason to be. Look for people who just happen to be rabbis but could be your friends, especially if you're young and can find rabbis or rabbinical students your own age. 

Balancing naïveté, judging people favorably, and trusting the system when the system allows an inappropriate level of power over your life is a tightrope walk. Take it from me. But most people get through just fine, and hopefully that person is you. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Happy Lag B'Omer!

I hope you have a fun Lag B'Omer! Break out the BBQ, shave, get a haircut, and don't burn anything down!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sign #374 You've "Made It": The Annual Dinner Invitation

You get four invitations to "The Annual Dinner." In one day.

Seven in one week, and I doubt the mail onslaught is over yet. From shuls past and present, Hatzolah, yeshivas, and seminaries.

One is for a shul you've never even belonged to. In fact, you've never even been there. How does that happen?? 

All worthy causes that deserve our support, but I don't have $300-$1,000 for any of you, much less all of you in one week.

You'd think someone on the committee would get the memo and schedule the annual dinner at a different time than everyone else! Alas, we're dealing with Jewish bureaucrazy. That was originally a Freudian slip typo, but then I realized it was true.

Why we have annual dinners in the first place is an excellent question. Should we look to a different model? Probably. Chances that will happen? Very small, but it'll probably be spearheaded by an entrepreneurial new Chabad shaliach, since they have to provide all their own funding. He has little to lose and everything to gain. Disrupt the system, chassid! We need it!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

UPDATED: The 5 Types of Mentors You Need

I've written several times before about the need for every convert and BT to have a mentor. But really, you need at least five mentors because each will expose you to a different part of the community and to different facets of Jewish life. As a bonus, you see how multiple people handle similar situations and learn traditions and minhagim you'd never learn from a book. 

While I believe that every one of the five is necessary, that doesn't mean you need five separate people. Five would be best because it would give you the most exposure to different ways of doing Jewish, but less will do in a pinch.

Someone at the same life stage. 

I never thought life stages would be so important until I entered the orthodox world. Most people's social lives center around people of a similar life stage. I think this is the most important of the potential mentors you can have because this person provides a model for your life today. 

Here's a list of some of the possible life stages you might be experiencing:
  • Young singles ("young" depends on your community)
  • Older singles (again very community-dependent)
  • Young marrieds (who usually don't have children)
  • Married without children (once you reach the age yentas assume you're having "problems")
  • Married with children (and the different age levels, of course!)
  • Empty-nesters
  • Retirees
Getting matched up with someone (or a couple) at the same stage as you helps you see how you will fit into the community. Without someone at your life stage (and nearish to you in age), it's hard to imagine what someone like you "looks like" as an orthodox person. I think this is the main reason I took such a long time to become orthodox. I was a single college co-ed in a subtropical beach community, and I didn't know anyone who could model what that looks like for an orthodox woman. Nearly everyone I knew was at least 20 years older than me. Most college women are unlikely to take tznius fashion advice from the average mom, and most moms don't have the time or energy to spend on their appearance like a college student does. Nothing is wrong with either; it's just a different stage of life. I didn't believe that until I experienced it myself, even though I'm not a mom yet. 

Someone at a similar stage of life will "get" the challenges and struggles you're dealing with, whether it's dating, kids, or taking care of aging parents. They'll understand the halachic issues your life stage creates, as well as being able to support you emotionally. You'll also be able to be social together, whether that means bars, museums, hiking, or playdates. In short, they'll be someone who can be a real friend to you.

Someone your own age. 

Usually, this will be taken care of by finding someone at your life stage, but not always. For example, you might have a hard time finding someone in your life stage, especially older singles and "older" married couples without children. These groups in particular tend to feel some level of isolation or frustration in the orthodox community. Or maybe you find that the people at your life stage aren't your age. The advice I gave for life stage is the same here: it's about finding people you can model your behavior after. What does an orthodox person your age look like, act like, do? That's not something you'll learn in a halacha book.

A parental-like figure of the same gender. 

A mom-figure or dad-figure is invaluable, so long as you don't get creepy about it. They're not your mom or dad. You're not their responsibility, and they're not a financial resource for you. They're your friend who happens to be a generation or so older than you. There's a different kind of emotional support you get from someone older than you. I've been lucky enough to experience that in my Jewish journey. I already see that in myself and friends, even though we're not exactly parental figures.

In a way, this allows you to see your future in the Jewish community. You'll also get advice from someone who's been around longer than you, both in the Jewish community and alive in general. This person can be an invaluable resource for advice, both practical and social. They'll usually have a good understanding of the community politics and may even be someone who can go to bat for you with rabbis or other leadership. 

I make a caveat for conversion candidates and BTs who are very young. If you're in your college years, I think you should have two older-generation mentors: perhaps an older single or young married in addition to someone your parents' age. You may even want to know both an older single and a young married because you don't know what the next stage of life will be for you. (And having been an older single, it's not a death sentence.)

A family with kids still at home. 

If you have a family or plan to at some point in your life, you should befriend a family with kids still at home. You need to see what Jewish family life looks like day-to-day because the home is the real center of Jewish life. This is where the rubber meets the road of Jewish learning and where you will learn the most if you pay attention. 

If you're retirement age, I think connecting with a younger family is beneficial but not necessary. You'd get all the relevant home-learning you need by befriending a couple of similar age and life stage.

However, the young family is the group who has the least amount of time to deal with another person underfoot. At least, that's how you'll feel. Some family might make you feel that way too, but there's a family out there who will be glad to have you as a guest. Be respectful of their time, but don't be afraid to ask to come over for this or for that. It probably won't occur to them, or they'll think you must be busy. So ask. Worst they say is no, right?

An easy way "in" is to babysit for the family, if you have the time and inclination. However, be careful that you're not exploited or made uncomfortable by this arrangement. You should be paid like any other babysitter, unless you're offering it as a birthday present, other specific gift, or as bartering for tutoring or cooking lessons, whatever. You can offer a reduced rate if you like, but make sure the boundaries don't get too blurred. I have seen several family-candidate relationships sour when the family exploited free babysitting or tried to use the candidate as a convenient Shabbos goy to do things they can't halachically do. One of the stories that made me saddest was a friend who was looking hard for meals one week. Finally, a family she was close to called her up late on Friday, and she thought they were offering a meal. In reality, the eruv was down, and they wanted her to come over and push the stroller to shul. A conversion candidate is trying to live a shomer Shabbat life, so using them as a Shabbos goy is disrespectful of them and of the process itself. It's very difficult to stand up for yourself in these kinds of situations if you encounter them (they are relatively unusual, thankfully), but perhaps mentioning the problem to the local rabbi or another community leader can help address the situation. They could even offer a community class on the laws of "the Shabbos goy," which are actually very complex and interesting (and useful!). However, I dream of the day when a Shabbos goy is only used in an emergency situation, not for someone's personal comfort.

A rabbi or other trusted halachic resource. 

You might find it surprising that I list this last and that it doesn't just say "a rabbi." This mentor could be any of the people listed above. If not, then this person is least likely to be a close personal friend. They'll more likely be a resource rather than a mentor. Nothing wrong with that either. This isn't someone you get halachic rulings from. Most of the time, you don't need a ruling, you just need guidance and it's not complicated.

So how do you find these people?

Don't just walk around asking people to be your mentor. They'll probably get weirded out. You might be able to find one or more of these people online, and I don't discourage that, but ideally, these should all be people you can see face-to-face, even if they're in a community a half-hour or hour away. 

These relationships may be mentorships, but they're really just prioritized friendships. You find people you like, start becoming friends, then prioritize that friendship. Don't let the relationship go cold. Invite them to things. Ask to be invited to other things. Not just Jewish stuff! Keep in touch. Deep relationships are the forte of introverts, so this method works for both introverts and extroverts. So no excuses!

I didn't have ANY of these kinds of people in my life while I was converting excerpt through the internet. You can become orthodox without these people, but it will feel harder and take longer. The education of the everyday is the hardest to learn. That's what I try to do here, but nothing can replace the advice and guidance of people who know you.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Word of the Day: Ulpan

At some point in your orthodox journey, someone is going to suggest you go to ulpan. Another class and another thing to learn? Sounds great, but what's ulpan? 

In short, it means modern Hebrew classes. But it's more than that. It's a particular style of teaching a foreign language through intense immersion and often with a class that may not share any common language other than the one being taught. It almost always refers specifically to teaching Hebrew, but other languages can be taught ulpan-style. As a linguist, the ulpan method is as fascinating to learn about as it is frustrating to experience. Ulpan is being thrown from the frying pan into the fire.  It's as close as an adult can get to learning a language like a child does, in my opinion.

From Day 1, you will ideally be using only Hebrew (with lots of pantomime and hand gestures), though that depends somewhat on the dedication of the teacher and the persuasive skills of the students who want the teacher to speak in English. Depending on the teacher, you may not learn grammer very well, but that's not really the goal. The goal is to get you speaking ASAP: at the bank, at the grocery store, at your kid's parent-teacher conference. It's the most practical approach to language learning you can find.

When taken as part of immigrating to Israel, there are often cultural components to the education, including holidays, etiquette, and slang. It's not just language; it's acculturation. Some have called it brainwashing, to be fair.

Traditionally, ulpan is a common experience that ties together generations of people who made aliyah to Israel. It's a rite of passage that goes back before the country was founded. Many new immigrants, especially those from poorer countries and those rescued from hostile governments, often spend the first several months in an immigrant absorption center, where they spend several hours a day in ulpan. As I understand, attending ulpan is totally voluntary (as is staying in an absorption center), however most olim appear to take advantage of it, especially since the first 5 months (currently) are free. I can't find it on the new Nefesh B'Nefesh website, but I know you used to be able to take an extra 6 months of ulpan at a very reduced rate. 

But five hours a day, 5 days a week, of Hebrew for five months? Your brain might melt. Talk about a bonding experience.

Ulpan outside Israel is often closer to the traditional foreign language class you're used to. For example, in my experience, I attended class once a week for 2.5 hours at a time as a near-total beginner. Homework was assigned between classes, but much of the experience depends on your classmates and their dedication to the immersion method. Learning any foreign language requires a certain degree of willingness to look like an idiot, but ulpan will test your self-esteem's limits. One major advantage to learning in Israel with olim is that everyone already feels like an idiot in public and is therefore highly motivated to improve. Also, it's unlikely that your class can get too off-topic when there is no common language other than Hebrew. The problem is finding ulpanim programs outside Israel. Even in NYC and Los Angeles, that's no easy task. There is Rosetta Stone (which I enjoy and find tracks my ulpan curriculum really well), and there are online teachers available. However, I've heard mixed results from online tutors and tutoring companies. Do your due diligence before hiring a Hebrew teacher!

You can find more about the history and methodology of the ulpan experience available from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Looking at the larger picture, do you think learning modern Hebrew should be considered a necessary (or even important) part of the convert/BT experience, or should we be focusing our energy on earlier Hebrew and Aramaic for text work? I'm having a hard time answering that question for myself, so I'm curious what all of you think and what your experience has been!

Friday, May 1, 2015

UPDATED: When to Take a Shower Before Shabbat?

"I take a shower on Friday morning, and by the time Shabbat is over, I feel disgusting."

This conversation came up recently, and I realized there had to be a post on it ASAP. As I've mentioned before, I'm OCD (in the real way), and cleanliness is unusually important to me. It broke my heart to hear someone frustrated at feeling "gross" on Shabbat.

Feeling gross is no way to spend Shabbat, and it certainly isn't honoring or enjoying Shabbos! But it doesn't have to be that way!

I naturally fell into the rhythm most of the community practices when it comes to showering for Shabbat, but I realize now that it's not obvious to everyone, especially since America has such a cultural stereotype of the "morning shower." 

The secret is a Friday afternoon shower. Most people can go 36 hours without a shower (unless you're my 2-showers-a-day Dad - to be fair, he works in construction), as opposed to the 48 hours between showers on Friday morning and Sunday morning. So I, like many people, often skip the Friday morning shower and plan to shower Friday afternoon closer to Shabbat. However, you can do two showers in one day (one Friday morning and one Friday afternoon), and I promise that Captain Planet won't hunt you down. But try to be extra efficient with those showers to prevent too much wasted water. #HippiePSA

Personally, I do a grossness assessment Friday morning  to see if I can make it to the afternoon. ("How gross do I feel? Not gross? Awesome." Am I secretly a college frat boy? Perhaps.) However, I'm not tied to the "mornings only" shower routine in the first place. Most of my showers are in the evening anyway, which then puts Shabbat showering right on my schedule.

If your work schedule prevents getting home in time, especially on short winter days, you can still do a quick 5 minute rinse and soap and leave your hair wet. This works better for haircovering women who can hide it away in a tichel. (I have no idea what wet hair under a sheitel would be like, sorry. UPDATE: I'm told it works just fine for my sheitel ladies too.) If you're running particularly late one day, remember that candlelighting time comes 18 minutes before Shabbat starts. It's not good to make a habit of using those minutes for non-Shabbosdik things, but many a good Jew finishes up the cooking or dries their hair during that time if necessary. (#ProTip: remember to not bring in Shabbat yet. As a general rule, men bring it in at a certain point of davening in Kabbalat Shabbat (or when it's time for Shabbat), and women bring it in at candlelighting. For women, you will light candles on time, but have in mind that you aren't yet bringing in Shabbat. In that case, you'd bring it in at the same point in davening or when the clock strikes Shabbat.)

And don't forget: you can shower Saturday night if you want to! 

Yom tov showers are a totally different discussion, but the general principles apply to starting the chag, and they're the whole discussion if your community holds that there is no showering on yom tov at all. The other communities get more complicated...

UPDATE: I completely forgot to mention what happens when there's more than one of you who needs that shower. How do you coordinate multiple showers with roommates, spouses, and/or children? Just like you would with a morning rush on the shower. Stagger, and make sure there's enough time for everyone, which means starting earlier than you think you need to. In my case, that means a shower negotiation with my husband every week hopefully about 2 hours before Shabbat, but usually about 1 hour before:
"Are you showering before Shabbat?"
"Can you do that now because I take longer?"
Crisis managed. 
Most of the time, he's already had his shower, and there's nothing standing between me and the Shabbos Shower except procrastination.

Here's the takeaway: don't let a lack of the "little niceties" of life poison your Shabbat experience. These things aren't petty. If you are genuinely uncomfortable or feel bad in some way, then you're not capable of having a good religious experience unless you can address the issue or your mindset. That's a fact. If something is less than enjoyable for you on Shabbat, ask! Odds are good that there's a way to fix your problem! And if not, you'll at least get a good kvetching and bonding session.

Monday, April 27, 2015

How Old Are You Between Your Hebrew and English Birthdays?

Today, I bring a personal question to the blog. Despite over 11 years of being "Jewishly affiliated," I still feel most connected to the secular calendar. Only in the last few years have I made more of an effort to interact with the Hebrew calendar. 

This has created a strange problem, I'm not sure how old I am this week! Last week was my Hebrew birthday, and this week is my English birthday. In prior years, this was more of a theoretical question in my head, but this year...suddenly everyone needs to know how old I am! I have never sputtered more about my age as I have for the last week. Am I still 30 or have I crossed into 31? Am I actually living in The Twilight Zone?

How do you handle this? Does it (should it) matter who asks? For instance, it makes more sense to tell a doctor according to the secular calendar. Does the Hebrew date make more sense when talking to a Jewish friend? Does it matter how cognitively attuned the Jewish friend is to the Hebrew calendar? I'm plenty orthodox, yet I would never call myself cognitively attuned to the Hebrew calendar! It just isn't internalized yet, for whatever reason. So how can I judge how in-touch another person is with the Hebrew calendar? 

We won't even get into the fact that I have four other "birthdays," thanks to my conversions... But we shall never forget halfbirthdays. And that, folks, is how you justify 12 birthday cakes per year. You're welcome.

This should be the worst of my problems. 

So what do you do? 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: Rising Moon: Unraveling the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Moshe Miller

Shavuot will be here soon, and we all know the deep connections most converts feel for the book of Ruth. (Or Rut, as I like to call her.) There's a new book out that'll put a whole new spin on how you read it! 

I was given a PDF of the book in the hopes I would review it, and boy did I learn never to read a serious book in PDF format again. But I digress. I did decide to review it because I think it's a very good book, and certainly one that will make you think. 

Summary: I highly recommend the book. I argued with it to no end, but in the positive, Jewish way. It made me think, and it made me look at Rut with new eyes. I may not agree with all the interpretations the author presented, but now I know a lot more about how Ruth has been portrayed in the Talmudic and rabbinic literature. And I appreciate the book more now, though I still don't "like" it or think it's a beautiful story. (Unfortunately, I think that's the feeling the author wanted me to have in the end...)

I became very excited about reading the book when the first two recommendations on the inside cover were from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Berel Wein (a very famous Jewish historian). In retrospect, I'm surprised at Rabbi Wein's recommendation since I think this book could have used a healthy dose of actual historical context in addition to the "history" provided by midrashim. In general, I felt a very strange dichotomy between the right-wing and the modern. To me (with some exceptions), it felt like the text-based sections could have been written by Rabbi Avigdor Miller, while the essays sound like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Strange, but mostly in a good way.

But let me distract you with its gorgeous cover...

You can buy it from Ktav or Amazon. Both of those are affiliate links, which means I earn a percentage of the price for convincing you it was a good buy (no extra charge to you). Right now, I'm raising money to move this blog onto its own domain and create a "proper" website for this work. Buying anything after clicking these links (or any other affiliate link on this site, which so far have all been Amazon links) will help support my work, which I have done on a volunteer basis for the last 4.5 years. The domain is bought, and the web designer is hired! If you'd like to buy this book anyway, support this blog while you're at it! If you'd prefer to make a straight donation to the site relocation and redesign, you can click the little Donate button on the right sidebar. Every little bit helps!

Now let's go more in-depth...

You saw the "I got a free sorta-copy" disclaimer above, but here's the real disclaimer: I don't like the book of Rut. I don't remember ever meeting another convert who felt that way, though I've met born Jews with similar reservations. Except for the one scene where Ruth stays and Orpah goes, I cannot agree with apparently-everyone that Ruth is "a beautiful love story... until you get to the midrash that says Boaz died the next day" (so well put by my father-in-law).

To me (with my feminist wiles), Rut shows the powerlessness of women in ancient societies (the same powerlessness we are still vulnerable to today: including domestic abuse, rape, date rape, and the "smaller" discriminations we face in the workplace). Having that be the milieu guiding Ruth's actions makes this a book about accepting the reality you face and making the best of it. Not so romantic and beautiful, even though that may make it one of the most gut-wrenchingly true books of the Bible, especially as a female reader. But that's just how I see it.

I feel a little differently after reading this sefer (it is a sefer, not a "popular" book like I expected it to be). Most importantly, I can now see the universal elements in the story, those that tie it to every man and woman and family... even if I don't always agree with those interpretations. I may have said, "Oh come on, that's really stretching it" a couple of times, but to its credit, the book is consistent in its premise and style.

Speaking of style, I was confused by the book's style at first, but really came to appreciate it as the book continued. It's like a play! You may not know this, but I worked in theatre for almost a decade (set design, costuming, construction, painting, and behind-the-scenes work...not acting). It was going to be my life's work. And I was perplexed to pick up a Jewish sefer with a table of contents that looks like this:

What does that even mean?? I expect many a casual bookstore patron will put the book back based on the TOC alone, which is a shame. It's a really clever way to structure a book about a book, and the author used it well. Really well, in my opinion.

So let me explain. The book of Ruth is divided into Acts, sections of the story that make logical sense. And then he divides them further into "scenes," where he goes through the book line by line with commentary, mostly from Talmudic and later rabbinic sources. Some of Rabbi Miller's own commentary is there, but the majority of his content is the preludes and interludes, which are essays on what we've just read and how it fits into the overarching theme of malchut (kingship) and the other themes he develops throughout. He claims that malchut is "the theme" of the book, but I felt like it was merely one idea among many that he developed. This is a dense book, so the switch-up really helped keep me engaged.

Problem: Yes, this is a really dense book. Worse, you can't read it in one or two sittings, but it self-refers back a lot. And I could never remember what specific thing was said earlier, and I was far too lazy to go look for it since it was only referred by section, not page. For example, "See the prelude to this act." Ain't no one got time for that. 

Second major problem: he creates some very dense, academic ideas, like "emergent identity" and "the poisonous advice of the serpent," and I spent a majority of the book wondering what those terms of art mean. More defining needed to happen, rather that giving a new example in different contexts and hoping you could infer the idea from the examples. However, I appreciated the multiple and detailed examples and did find them helpful. Using only examples without a clear definitional reminder created an analysis problem: too many variables in an individual example to choose which one is the relevant one. You cannot learn these seriously abstract concepts from examples alone. I eventually did find a good definition of "emergent" as applied to identity and other a footnote 2/3 of the way through the book. But despite not having his definitions for his themes, I was able to create my own meaning out of the examples given. Maybe they weren't what he wanted me to get from them, but I certainly pulled a meaning from his words, and I found it interesting and meaningful.

Most of the things I learned included how crazy midrashim can be sometimes. I don't know enough about the availability of midrashim on Ruth to verify this, but I suspect that the author chose only certain midrashim. There is very little conflict between the midrashim presented, and there are conflicting midrashim on almost any event in Torah (in my experience). I know for sure that one very popular midrash was left out: that Boaz died the day after impregnating Ruth. This book prefers to end on a "And they lived happily ever after" feeling. 

Worse, he seems to take the midrashim very seriously as though this is actually a fact that happened. Maybe I'm an apikoros, but I take my midrashim with a grain of salt. Most were written hundreds of years later, many in the middle ages. We are still writing midrashim today! They should not be treated as history. (That's why I believe it is very important to learn what's Torah, what's halacha, what's midrash, what's chumrah, and what's minhag - they're very distinct things with discrete purposes and meanings.) This is where I often groaned, "Seriously? That's really historically/psychologically unlikely." (I told you, I argued with the book a lot. I think of this as the "good" kind of Jewish arguing.) I would have liked to see more influence from a historian like Rabbi Berel Wein. Does it matter whether midrashim happened in real life? No, because that's not the point of a midrash. Perhaps that's the author's perspective, but if so, I would have appreciated that being pointed out. Or perhaps he's of the camp that believes all midrashim are historically true, even though many of them physically cannot exist or have competing midrashim that are in direct conflict. It could be either way, based on the writing of this book.

Let's look at an example that struck me really wrong: The author spends a lot of time citing sources that demonize Orpah. According to various sources, Orpah may have kissed Naomi goodbye, but she immediately develops a strong hatred of Naomi and Yisrael and sets out to destroy all the Jews (though I admire the author's very creative suggestion that this hatred could be caused by what is essentially a de-programming from a self-imposed cult obsession with Naomi).

Ruth Rabbah (a collection of midrashim) has this to say about it: 
"The entire night after Orpah separated from her mother-in- law, she slept with a company of one hundred soldiers. . . . R. Tanhuma said, there was a dog as well."
Wow. Stop right there. Let that sink in for a minute. Orpah acts like any normal woman should have and went back to what was familiar... so we slander the hell out of her for not making the hard choice Ruth made. I was disgusted by this treatment of someone who is presented kindly in the text as a real human being with reasonable limitations. (If I only had a dollar for every time a born Jew told me, "I could never make the choice you made to convert!") We can discuss another time how Rising Moon apparently conflates anal and doggy-style sex as the same thing and prohibits both according to halacha, despite the several Talmudic sources that say any form of consensual sex that respects both partners and is intended to eventually lead to procreation is absolutely fine. And that is how we rule on the issue (unless you're Gerer chassidim). I just had to share that very frustrating section, but here's the real point I want to share about midrashim and why we needed more of Berel Wein's historical influence:

Apparently Orpah is the great-grandmother of Goliath, just as Rut is the great-grandmother of David. Coincidence?? I think not! But let's look at this seriously. Rut and Orpah are from Moab. Goliath is a Philistine. Those countries are in opposite directions from each other with Yehuda in the middle, so what is seriously the likelihood of this happening? The Philistines lived on a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean, approximately from Gaza to Lebanon. Moab is a mountainous region of Jordan. Yisrael live in between. So Orpah "turned back" (in fact, her name means back, which is why we apparently assume she has a lot of back-facing sex) to her home in Moav, and then she later crossed over Yehuda to birth Philistines? Right. 

Likewise, do I agree with the midrashim that "prove" that Boaz and Naomi and Ruth all knew the immense historical import of every single action they took? No. That argument gets me pretty annoyed. Here's the example that sent me over the edge:
"With the giving of this gift [measuring out 6 barleycorns in Ruth 3:15], Ruth and Boaz return to the intense historical awareness that permeated their relationship at their first meeting. Once again Boaz hints to Ruth that she is destined to be the mother of malkhut. The six hours spent together between midnight and dawn are embodied in the six grains of barley, which represent their future: six outstanding descendants who will be described as possessing six exceptional virtues."
Did they really feel or think that? I don't believe so. As a general rule, I don't think it serves us well to put our Biblical forefathers on pedestals (like the common effort to "prove" that none of our forefathers sinned... the honest grappling of fallible humans with Gd's commands is one of the things that attracted me to Judaism over Christianity in the first place!). So that midrash got a good, old-fashioned "puh-lease" from me before moving on.

So I've shown you several of my issues with the text. (Honestly, I could debate this book and its contents with you for days. It was hard to pick which ideas to highlight!) But didn't I say I liked it? Yes, I enjoyed the ideas that emerged from his reading of the text, even the challenging and problematic ones, but especially the ones related to conversion. Overall, I most enjoyed the author's own commentary. Hashkafically (philosophically), I agree with it (can't lie there), but it was also far more in-depth and developed than any line-by-line textual analysis ever could be. It was a complete argument rather than a collection of individual arguments, and that made it more enjoyable to read.

Most importantly, I am in love with his statements that Ruth's past matters and should not be ignored. As a convert, one of her many strengths is that her past experiences are a "unique contribution" to Yisrael and should not be assimilated away. That's been on my mind a lot lately (remember how I said this fit my hashkafa?), as I have been considering writing a post about whether the goal of a convert should be "full assimilation" so that no one would guess the person is a convert. I'm tired of seeing that bandied about in Facebook conversion groups as the goal we should be aiming for. Who says? If that's your goal, fine, but don't say that has to be every convert's (or candidate's) goal too. It sets a nearly-impossible standard, and I'm not sure it's a good standard in the first place, either for converts or for Yisrael, for exactly the reason the author gave: we have something special to contribute.

This was one of my favorite passages from the book (despite my hesitation to believe that Ruth actually knew her actions would have any effect on Yisrael achieving the purpose of Creation): 
[author had just cited Pesachim 87B: "God exiled Yisrael among the nations so that they would ingather converts..."]
"Ruth now understands that if Yisrael is to embody what Creation is meant to achieve, it must include the entirety of humanity. There must be room for the assimilation of converts. She realizes that she can actually offer something that Naomi cannot. The purpose of geirut is to bring the world to Yisrael; the convert is not to leave the world behind. Therefore, it is no longer 'And the two of them went.' Instead, it is Ruth of Moab who has returned from the fields of Moab. And it is as the Moabite who has returned that Ruth makes her enduring contribution. She remains Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She is still 'with her' (imah). But she is now independent of Naomi, having grown fully into her own identity and history." p109 [emphasis mine]

Speaking of preaching.... As a convert and advocate, I took great exception to the fact that all the citations in the endnotes are listed in Hebrew only. As the author says in the introduction, "The endnotes generally provide further sources, many of which are given in Hebrew on the assumption that a reader looking for primary sources would be familiar with that language." I don't think that's a good assumption to make anymore, as English translations are widely available on the internet to anyone willing to search. As someone personally weak in Hebrew texts (but getting a little better every day), this prejudice is a pet peeve of mine. It takes years of dedicated effort to become proficient in Hebrew texts (and women have far less opportunities to become proficient than men do, especially outside Israel). When so much is available in translation (understanding that no translation is perfect), this unfairly and unnecessarily cuts a large percentage of Jews off as too unsophisticated to understand or dig deeper, so they should just rely on this person's interpretation instead. You see this very commonly in halacha books, where the alternatives, leniencies, and other mitigating factors are often only mentioned in Hebrew footnotes or facing text because someone who can't read Hebrew obviously can't be trusted with anything less than the most machmir opinion. (Two books shown to me have said this explicitly in Hebrew, but most aren't that brazen.) This is a serious problem caused by our near-monopoly orthodox publishing industry, and they should feel shame for creating a problem when there doesn't need to be one today. It is disheartening for those of us who didn't benefit from a thorough Jewish education, it makes us feel less-than as Jews, and it's also a great deterrent to trying at all. Because of this kind of talk, many people even don't realize these sources are available in English and other translations. And even when you are developing your proficiency, the pervasiveness of Hebrew-only citations makes it overwhelming. There is a middle ground here, but I have not seen a single orthodox sefer stand on it. I look forward to being proven wrong. 

Rant over, back to the book...
Earlier in the story of Rut, the author focuses on the total lack of religious practice being part of the conversion of Rut (according to the text), and the very little religious practice education required by the Talmud, and comes to the conclusion that "There is no provision for accepting a convert who searches for religion. There is no law that states that it is even permitted to accept an applicant who claims a philosophical belief in Judaism. The only basis for accepting applicants is if they claim that their life will be complete only if they join Yisrael."

Pretty provocative, right?! Should it be? I don't know. The question is how you understand "joining Yisrael" and what that should entail.

There is no shortage of other interesting debates, from the conflict between chesed-dependence and mitzvah-coercion (super interesting!) to jealousy to the meaning of malchut (I found this less interesting, but maybe it's just me) to the role of humanity to yibum as a reconciliation for Cain and Abel (mind blowing, to me). 

I love a book that stretches my mind and my assumptions, and Rising Moon does that. (But could he please explain where the name Rising Moon comes from? I assume it's about the coming of David? Just say so. I hate loose ends; blame the OCD.)

Let me share one area that really challenged me... a question I never thought too much about:
What does Gd's curse to woman, "you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you" (Genesis/Bereishit 3:16) mean

I never really thought about it. As a modern woman cognizant of the struggles women face and have always faced, it made intuitive sense. The author creates/cites (and of course I can't find it now...stupid PDF) the idea that the curse means that woman will want to initiate sex with her husband and be unable to (timidity, fear, social expectations, I forget why), while her husband will rule over her as a baal (master). Very interesting, and something that remains very relevant today. I can buy that, and I've added it to my personal understanding of this pasuk.

But the discussion got me thinking about this idea and what it could mean in the larger sense, and how this curse has grown into the feminist struggles we still have today. I have to admit that I have a weird love of post-apocalyptic fiction. Mostly books, but I also enjoyed the show Revolution and now am catching up on The Walking Dead. It's one thing to think about the physical vulnerabilities of women in ancient (or even near-modern) times, but post-apocalyptic fiction reminds me that there's only a tenuous protection for women in our society. In any war zone, even today, women's constant threat remains rape, gang rape, and murder. Even during small scale riots like we sometimes see in the United States, rape is a real threat for women caught in the crossfire. Savagery smolders right below the surface of our modern lives, and that is why I find post-apocalyptic fiction so frightening: it feels realistic. That is why I can't ever believe Ruth is a "beautiful" story. It's a woman (actually 2 women) doing what she has to do to survive: attach herself to a strong male who can protect her from society and starvation. That is why we are halachically commanded to protect the widow; who else will protect her and care for her? Once I sat down and thought about it, this is what I always assumed the Torah meant when it curses Womankind. And what a curse it is; I think about it every time I walk alone at night.

Rut is smart, strong, loving, loyal, and has an admirable acceptance of grim reality. There's beauty in her... And there's even beauty in Boaz and his efforts to do the right thing with the limited reality they have. But in the circumstances Ruth faces and the decisions she must make? There is no beauty there. No amount of midrashim saying they were madly in love will ever convince me that that love existed, and even if it did, whether it was an important factor in deciding to do yibum. Boaz can do the "right thing" with kindness and compassion and respect, and is that any worse than doing it because he was so turned on by her (yay shocking midrash - really, you can't unsee it)? 

So you've heard my take on Rising Moon. But maybe you'll come to a different conclusion. Go read it and tell me what you think! You can buy it here from Ktav or Amazon