Archive for the 'Personal Reflection' Category

The Desert Speaks

I haven’t had many “only in Israel” moments to share on this blog recently.  But now I have a great one. After stepping out of my comfort zone and into the desert, I participated in an all-night hike in the desert, by the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in a program run by Shaul David Judelman of the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash.

Desert Moon at Sunrise

Shaul, along with fellow Bat Ayin resident Yisrael Hevroni, brought us back to nature Jewishly with poems and topics for discussion along the way. The entire trail winded through wadis that carved their way through desert sandstone, creating “flour caves”. I never walked upon anything quite like it. What looked in the dark like boulders and hard protrusions along the cliff was rock that would crumble apart when pressure was applied. The ground beneath my feet often felt like it consisted of hard-packed coconut.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah through the revelation at Mount Sinai.  A large focus of our guided discussion centered on the desert, and why it was fitting that the Israelites received the Torah in the desert of all places. Some thoughts:

  • While slaves in Egypt, we were steeped in a full-fledged culture, but a corrupt, carnal one of idol worship which was not ours. We needed to go to the barreness of the desert and wander there for 40 years before we could receive the Torah and build our own culture upon it.
  • The sands of the desert form piles, tels, that seems to have a strict form that gives it order, distinguishes one area from the next, but the seemingly permanent features are clearly shaped by the laws of nature that God put into place. Water and wind change its shape and form, just as God’s laws for us change and shape us.
  • The desert is a place of humility, a place where one feels fragile, needy. Even the life forms are clingy, preserving precious drips of water and places to take root.
  • The Talmud says that we are to become like the desert, in order to merit receiving the Torah. Some thoughts about why that might be:
    • The nature of the universe is more clearly revealed – just as there must be evil in order for us to recognize good, there must be barrennness in order for us to recognize the plenty which God has supplied us with

      A cliff inside the wadi that crumbles with each touch

    • After so many years of being slaves, and not thinking about how our sustenance was provided for by our masters, we had to be brought to the desert where it was clear that our physical sustenance was only provided for by the grace of God. Only then were we ready to have the spiritual sustenance of the Torah.
    • The Torah is compared to water. In the desert one truly thirsts for and savors water.

Other highlights included being accompanied by several former participants of Livnot U’Lehibanot programs, including Pesach Stadlin, and running into a platoon of paratroopers who were mountain biking through the wadi for fun at 5 a.m.

It was beautiful to pray the morning Shacharit service outside in the desert. I think it’s a shame that so much Jewish life and learning takes place indoors. The Torah even says that mankind is like a tree: כי האדם עץ השדה (Deuteronomy / Devarim 20:19), and it seems right and proper to be out in nature on a very regular basis, and not just during explicit times like Kedushat HaLevanah (blessing of the new moon) and Sukkot. In Israel at least, the temperature range is such that the outdoors can be enjoyed almost all year round.

The silence of the desert at midnight and early morning was spiritually soothing. And now, I’m ready for some Shabbat menucha. May we merit to receive and absorb the Torah whatever our external or internal climate. Shabbat Shalom!

The Mitzvah of Studying Torah: Should Jews be Paid to Learn?

I wrote a post for the Beyond BT blog about programs that pay young Jews targeted as ripe for being brought into the mitzvah-observant fold and the study partners who help them.

The issue of paying men to study in kollel for years is another issue I’d like to address at some point, but one I feel a bit closer to and find is less often discussed is the issue of paying less-affiliated Jews in order to get them to do something Jewish.  Is this really the best way to get Jews authentically excited about Torah?

Read more at the Beyond BT Blog, “Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

An Easy Fast?

I think it’s a bit silly to wish someone a “safe fast”, or a “tzom kal”, as is commonly the practice.  If it’s really easy, then what’s the point?  I hope that the fast is just the right kind of heartbreaking reminder of what we are mourning and remembering.

I think that the intention of “easy” comes from a place of not wanting a fellow to suffer and furthermore that they stay safe.  So, these days, I wish fellow fasters a “safe and meaningful fast”.  That’s really what I want for myself, anyways.

A friend of mine in California sent me a text today, “From Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash- The Supplications of the Mothers for the Rebuilding of the Temple” by Dr. Yael Levine.  I’d never seen anything like it.

Levine, who holds a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, explains in the introduction that she “composed the literary work in the style of aggadic midrashim, in which biblical and post-biblical female figures,  through the end of the Second Temple period, beseech God to rebuild the Temple.” The work is based on themes which appear in a variety of Jewish textual sources.

I enjoyed reading the excerpts but was not entirely sure what to make of them.  Despite the tremendous scholarship and creativity involved in composing this work, it still leaves women in the same place they’ve been through the ages – a place that is accessible only by reading between the lines of sacred text.

Throughout the ages, it’s been women who have kept the Jewish people together. From the birth of the Jewish people as slaves in Egypt, when the women kept their faith as the men were prepared to throw it away along with their male newborns according to Pharoah’s decree, to Queen Esther in Purim and Yael in Chanukah. At several critical moments in Jewish history, women maintained the Jewish integrity.  In our times, too, it its women who generally hold the religious character together for a family (see statistics cited in an earlier blog post), and perhaps as we recognize this, our leaders, male and female, will eventually steer us back on to the course of receiving the Third Temple.

*Note: I incorrectly initially posted that the article excerpts were from an upcoming book.  The piece was printed in Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash, Eked: 1996.


Making the Choice

Living as a Jew in Israel and living as an observant Jew are two very special things that to me give life meaning, and certainly living as an observant Jew in Israel is pretty awesome.

What makes it even better is that for me it was a choice.

I chose to become observance and I chose to live in Israel.  To what extent though do we really make our own choices?  Even if I grew up in an observant family in Israel, as an adult I would still be choosing to live wherever and however I wanted.  Certainly there are plenty of young adults who make decisions that move them in the opposite direction that I went in.  This is of course not to mention altogether the extent to which God plays a role in our lives  (or maybe we never really decide because it’s been decided for us?)

Though the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was really more “You’d better accept this, or else.”  To be honest, I sometimes feel the same way.  I’d better be observant or else – or else God will be angry, I’ll be a bad Jew, or some other thought of guilt crosses my mind.  I’d better live in Israel or else – well, quite frankly living as a Jew outside of Israel at this point to me just seems quite sad.

While I think that it would be tremendously difficult for me if my future children would live outside of Israel or live non-observant lives, I would also like for them to be able to have the experience of making the choice.  While it’s difficult to say that I would want them to be unobservant, even for a short period of time, having other experiences seems to valuable to me.

For more thoughts on making the choice to become ba’alat teshuva (BT), check out my latest post on Beyond BT.

Yid With a Lid: Reflections on Hair Covering One Month Later

My initial blog post on hair covering got a lot of traffic and comments, at least by this blog’s modest standards (no pun intended).  Halacha and Jewish tradition indicates that it takes 30 days for a habit to sink in (for instance, if it’s within the first 30 days of saying V’ten tal umatar in the Amidah and you’re not sure if you forgot, you should assume that you did).  So, now that it’s 30 days since the wedding, I can more thoughtfully reflect, from a bit of experience, about hair covering.

First of all, it hasn’t been that big of a deal.  I went through a phase as a child where I wore baseball hats all the time.  And if it were socially acceptable for little girls to do so, I probably would have continued.  I even slept with the darn thing on.  Now that I live in Jerusalem, I have worn hats to protect my head from the sun and from the cold and all the while felt self-conscious about it (someone might think I’m married!)  Well, I can now wear my headgear freely.  I’m even having fun with it.

hair covering ileneWhile it is generally accepted by most Achronim (post-medieval halachic authorities) that the Torah prohibits married women from showing their hair and that therefore it is binding in all times and places, this paper (pdf) points out that earlier authorities, the Rishonim, found the prohibition to be Rabbanic and also subjective to change based on community norms.

Halachically, it seems to me that in Jerusalem, it’s clearly dat Yehudit for a married woman to cover her hair.  When I walk through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Geula I find the dress of some of the men in particular to be quite comical, some with white socks or stockings and long frocks.  But what are they doing?  They’re mirroring the dress of some great rebbe.  In a sense, my choosing to cover my hair because the women whose Jewish practice I most admire and wish to emulate do so, is doing the same thing.

Will You Introduce Me to Your Husband?

My husband told me that he doesn’t mind being mentioned in this blog.  That’s good, because it could be difficult to talk about the wedding without him in the picture.

I remember that shortly after Birkat HaMazon, grace after meals, my aunt pulled me over and said “Nu, so do I get to meet your husband?”  It didn’t hit me that she hadn’t.  Even my brother first met him the day of the wedding.  Weird.

Hello. I love you. Won't you tell me your name?

Physical distance from family is the big downside of aliyah, for sure.  I’m lucky that my parents were able to come meet Noach before the big day.

The thing is, it doesn’t seem so weird to say “husband”.  I hesitate only slightly when saying it because it makes me feel old.  But in terms of the guy?  Although we’ve known each other for less than a year, it just seems natural.

As hokey as it sounds, at my wedding I felt like I had known Noach forever, and since she knew me from birth, it seemed logical that she would have known him all along too.

Bringing Souls Together

My wedding was not just the union, or reunion, of souls, but also the gathering of all Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, in celebration.  Surely the marriage ceremony, which when it comes down to it, is mostly a legal contract, could be performed with two witnesses in the span of about five minutes.

So, why the big event?  Social one-upmanship aside, the major reason for having a big party is so that the event becomes communal.

A friend shared with me some Torah in the name of a rabbi known for bringing Jews of all denominations and outlooks together, Rav Shlomo Carlebach, teaching that when I stood under the chuppah, it was not only with my husband and our parents under the canopy, but also our grandparents (deceased) and our future children too.

The wedding is a public ceremony because really it is about joining the growing family to the larger community.  In addition to the ceremony and party immediately following, many new couples are hosted for meals by additional family and friends for the subsequent week of Sheva Brachot, named for the additional wedding blessings said during grace after meals.

There’s another aspect to it too.  A teacher of mine shared with me that when I immersed in the mikvah, it joined  a chain of Jewish women who have kept the mitzvah for thousands of years – generations and generations in exile, living in conditions that generally were not favorable towards Jewish communal life to say the least.  What is the first thing that is supposed to be built when a new Jewish community is established?  Not a synagogue, not a Bet Midrash (house of study), but a mikvah.  Clearly, Jewish communal life is dependant on this too.

Entering the mikvah and the chuppah was a physical expression of achieving a new status as a married woman.  I remember clearly being at many Shabbat tables throughout the country during my year studying in seminary.  Sometimes there would be other young women at the table who were studying for a year in Israel immediately after high school, which is very common and even expected for most graduates of Jewish high schools in the United States.  I would infer by the tone of conversation that my host had put myself in the same category as these eighteen-year-olds.

If there was a young couple joining us at the table, they were placed in a totally different category, even if they were actually younger than me.  Nevermind that I was twenty-five and had, just months ago, worked full-time for a world-class newspaper and lived in a studio apartment.  I was still a girl.  An insulted one.

While it’s true that boatloads of “worldly” experience is not the same adventure as a marriage, something about  personal merit being judged by marital status still bugs me.  Like it or not, it’s built into Judaism though.  For instance, there are some services that can’t be performed unless a man is married, and the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, has to be married.

In most Ashkenazi communities, men won’t wear a tallit when praying unless he’s married.  As for women, we get back to the topic of hair covering.  It feels like a status thing.  At the end of the day though, it seems to me the difference is that a married woman’s house becomes a home, and halachically, a woman is exempt from a lot of mitzvot because of her role in maintaining a home and raising children.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to be joining the ranks of the Married Ladies’ Club.  I just wouldn’t dream of putting my peers in the same category as a doe-eyed student tasting her first bit of independence.

While choosing to marry a Jewish man didn’t feel like much of a choice, it’s quite easy to see in retrospect how it might not have turned out that way.  Much like during the times of the story of Purim, which is soon upon us, we have access to return to Israel, yet so many of us remain in exile, physically and emotionally, because the pull of assimilation is great.  There is no doubt that it’s an incredible privilege to be able to get married in Israel, all the more so in Jerusalem, just outside of the Old City walls.  The weight of history, of status, within a people, and as a people, is there in the moonlit backdrop.

Walking the streets of Jerusalem, just hours before my wedding, it was an unseasonably warm day, and in fact the temperature was that of late spring, or early fall.  The day was my own mini Yom Kippur, of petition and reflection, but unlike other Yom Kippurs, when almost all Jews are praying together and the city comes to a standstill, it was a day apart.  Most kallot, brides, choose to have a shomeret to escort them around in the 24-hours leading up to their wedding.  But for me it was a day apart, to reflect on my thread of the patchwork of the Jewish people.

This was originally posted on February 23, 2011, but somehow it got deleted.  It was inserted again on March 19.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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