The rabbi

The woman at the ultra-orthodox synagogue, Rachel, pointed at a man who had emerged from behind the partition to check on something at the far end of the gymnasium. “My husband. He’s the head rabbi here.” He was dressed almost identically to how I remembered only he and his clothes were bigger now. Even from far away, I spied faint traces of the boy he had been through his enormous beard. “His mom still lives in that apartment building.”

After Rachel left me, I tried to relax. I closed my eyes and focused on the sound of the Hebrew words being spoken by the men. I imagined each one like a soap bubble, filled with love and gratitude, floating up and out beyond this room.

Mid-way through the service, two men pulled each side of the partition apart. A glare flooded the cozy dark of the women’s side and I squinted. I felt uncomfortably exposed.

A rabbi stood behind a podium. He was the one with the voice like Joe Pesci. He made several announcements in preparation for Passover, which was to begin the following Friday evening. Most importantly, he wanted to remind everyone to get rid of all chametz, which is food made of grain mixed with water that has fermented and risen, or “leaven.” This is given up on Passover in honor of the ancestors who fled Egypt and had neither the time nor accommodations to prepare such elaborate dishes. I always knew flat, cracker-like matzo was eaten instead of bread during this holiday, but I hadn’t realized all the other things that are forbidden; beer, hard alcohol, pastas, cookies, and cereals—the kind of items that are commonly kept in bulk in most pantries. To avoid throwing away these often costly goods, many observant Jews have developed a system whereby they temporarily “sell” them to a non-Jew and then buy them back after Passover. The leavened products may even stay in the house, though they would technically not belong to its inhabitants during that time. Rabbis generally manage this transaction.

The rabbi explained that this was the last chance to pick up the forms labeled DELEGATION OF POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR SALE OF CHAMETZ from a nearby pile. He invited anyone who wanted to help to sweep all chametz from every surface of the synagogue to come back on Thursday evening. When he finished, the men closed the partition again. The women’s side dimmed, the words returned to Hebrew, and I went back to pretending the source of the voice was the great and mighty Oz.

After the service, we did blessings over cups of wine and challah loaves. An older woman approached me. Here was the mother, who had been told about me. Her wig was a chestnut bob. She said her name in Hebrew, a sound like a growl with a hiccup. I tried to imitate the noise, but she looked disappointed in my rendition. “Why didn’t you ever come into our yard to play?” she asked after our brief introduction. I didn’t know what to say, I hadn’t realized that was an option. I don’t recall anyone in her family ever making eye contact with me. She said, “The neighbors are always so standoffish with us.” She seemed upset at me.

30 thoughts on “The rabbi

  1. Oh my gosh, isn’t that the story of so many missed relationships. Each person or group thinks “they are so different; they don’t want to know me” — when each would love to know the other, if someone could only make the first move. What a lesson this is for me today. That I could be the one to make that first move. Maybe I’ll get rejected but more likely it will be wonder-full.

    “Beer, hard alcohol, pastas, cookies, and cereals” – forbidden? Kinda takes the meaning out of life. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • I think there’s always a certain amount of reticence involved when you reach across cultures. At least for me, its not so much I think other people are strange, but that I don’t want to offend others by actions that are taken foe granted in the modern Western tradition, but may not be by others. In some cultures and traditions, just walking up to someone and starting a conversation may be an unwanted intrusion on someone’s personal space. In a polyglot society like ours, we need to be better educated on cultural sensitivities, on both sides. Westerners need to understand what’s consider acceptable by others, and those from other backgrounds should understand we’re not trying to offend. It’s a tricky balance sometimes, and the result can be what Corinna describes–both sides want to connect, but who rolls the dice and takes the first step?

      • Hi Tim, I like how you phrase that: “who takes the first step?” It does seem to boil down to that. It’s such a vulnerable position to take the first step. You risk rejection or feeling like a fool. With my Hassidic neighbors, I always assumed they should take the first step. Come to find out, the mom thought it was ME who should have taken the first step. We are all waiting for the other person to take the first step!

  2. Hello homewithin! And good morning. I agree with you – sometimes we miss many opportunities because we are afraid of being rejected. And I am with you on the pasta/cereal/etc. Once I gave up pasta for Lent, and as I was a vegetarian at the time, it was a REALLY long 47 days!!

    The only thing that bothers me about the entire observant Jewish ethic is this: When you hire a Gentile to turn on and turn off your lights on the Sabbath (which used to be done in wealthier families) or when you ‘sell’ your grain to a Gentile……you are making sure YOU are ‘clean’, but you are taking no thought for the ‘harm’ you are doing the person who ‘buys’ the grain, or who turns off the light. Actually, Christians are guilty of the same thing. I remember on Sunday at the luncheon we have after church every Sunday, this relatively fundamentalist member saying how good it was to have lunch here at church because it meant you didn’t participate in the ‘sin’ of activity on the Day of Rest. Or contribute to the sin of people working at restaurants.

    My first and immediate thought at the time she said this was “What about OUR church women who had to work in the kitchen today to get this ready and available for YOU!!” And for the Jews – you have no concern for those you are causing to sin???

    What it brings to my mind first and foremost is the truth of what Jesus said, (paraphrased), that it isn’t what a man puts in his mouth that causes sin, but what comes out of his heart. I realize this is antithetical to Orthodox Jewish belief, but to me, it is the most common sense approach to the entire ethic involved here. ‘Observance’, both Jewish and Christian, can too easily become the act only and not the emotion. I have been guilty of this breach myself, but my preference in religion is to avoid having to ‘not step on the cracks or you’ll break your mother’s back.’ It would seem to me that the hair splitting in Orthodox Judiasm could get REALLY hairy!

    One question Corinna……was there ANY point in the service where women did other than listen? Where the service was directed at them? I am curious if there are any activities in the Synagogue in which women participate, other than presentation of children, at least in the Orthodox branch.

    Yours in Christ

    • Perhaps it was still “just listening” but I noticed that the screens were opened so that the women could “hear” that surfaces were going to require cleaning soon.
      Also, I can’t quite define it, but something in me feels uncomfortable at all the work-arounds we do to avoid some of the unpleasant aspects of our lives. We focus on the legalities and avoid the intent. I suppose I realize that paying for the escape denotes sacrifice, but the financial vs. supposed moral aspects of that action shift my thinking away from the balance point toward commercialism. “See, I’ve obeyed the letter of the law whose intent I have no need to observe.”

      • Thank you Phil. You put what I was trying to say more precisely and it is what makes me uncomfortable, too. Avoiding the intent and working around the uncomfortableness by legality. It can be a ‘not good’ thing.

    • Hi Patti, At this particular synagogue, the women did not participate in the reading of the Torah publically or any of the other activities to lead the congregation in prayers. However, they did the prayers on their own, which requires that they recite certain words and bow, etc. Also, I noticed that it was the men who would be responsible for cleaning up after the lunch we ate post-service. The women just got up and went into another room for their own meeting. I tried to throw away my paper plate and was told to leave it because “the men would do it.” Out of all my explorations, that was the ONLY time I was told that.

      • Corinna, I wonder if in this particular case its implied the women take care of the physical home, the men take care of the Synagogue? In otherwords, the Synagogue belongs to the men, the women are there as participants only and those duties should not be done by anyone else?

        I have a husband who believes with me that duties are to be shared, unless it involves something where I or he can do better physically; i can change the oil on the truck, he knows how to sort laundry, i can wash the fragile glass flutes with my small hands, he can dig fencepost holes deeper with his strength – it was always a shock then to go to church and have that separatist thing going on… it really made for some awkward moments for both of us over the years LOL

      • “The women just got up and went into another room for their own meeting. I tried to throw away my paper plate and was told to leave it because “the men would do it.” Out of all my explorations, that was the ONLY time I was told that.”

        Shoot–happens at my house every day!

  3. Patti, you raise an issue we’ve discussed before–at what point does the activity become more important than the thought behind it? I understand from posts by Rabbi Aaron and others that a vital part of Judaism is the outward expression of faith–in how one lives one’s life. But there is always the danger that we forget the act should be grounded in faith. I’m reminded of a conversation between a pastor and a member of the congregation. The member asked why the pastor didn’t insist on sticking to Paul’s admonition to “greet each other with a holy kiss”. Instead, parishioner shook hands during the passing of the peace. The pastor said she was emphasizing the wrong word–its not “kiss”, its “holy”. If you truly wish someone peace in your heart, the custom takes a back seat. In ancient near-Eastern cultures, it may have been a kiss on both cheeks, but now it’s a handshake. Its all about what’s in our heart.

  4. Yes, indeedy, Frank. There is a great deal of personal responsibility in being a “none,” but that also comes with a great deal of freedom and independence. All this getting around the rules and regulations and traditions. It made me so uncomfortable that I just opted out of the whole business of religion. And I have never looked back. Merrill

  5. Yes Merrill, This recent article speaks to me of the appeal of our universal need for community, inspiration and justice:
    (Non)Mass movement: Atheist mega-churches take Western world by storm.

    And Corrina’s reports of her spiritual journey tells me she is looking for that deeper connection that most humans seek.

    • …….or discovering it within herself. Sometimes I think our family and culture of history has raised us with feelings of fear and doubt and a sense of not being good enough so that as we get older a deep internal feeling succeeds in telling us that we need more, or need something else to “redeem” us in order to feel fulfilled. And so we start our journey of trying a variety of ideas and beliefs. I tend to believe that over time we end up realizing that the journey has really been about self-discovery and we learn to trust our own ability to live a joyous and fulfilled life letting God express Itself through us. Instead of looking outside we look within to that which we have always been, part of the Universal Life that has been guiding and directing us all along.

    • Valerie,
      I read the same article in my local paper. I loved their Sunday Assembly motto: Live Better. Help Others. Wonder More. I think that your assessment that humans—-all humans—look for deeper connections in our lives is very much reflected in these assemblages of non-believers…my fellow atheists. We are not just about ourselves. There was an accompanying photo is my paper that showed several bumper stickers. My favorite was this one: “I believe in live before death.”

      • Ooops… That would be “I believe in Life before Death!” But I guess it carries the same message even with the typo.MET

        • Oh Merrill, I think i will keep the word “live”…I think it means so much more as “live” as in really live – dont just stand by. Being a none or atheist or a whatever 🙂 helps me live much more fully then I ever have as a catholic, baptist and all the religions inbetween i visited, because there are no responsibilities to an entity I cannot see which includes a group that dictates how you live.

          It does mean however that i am now responsible for my own actions, rather then having the so called “covering” of a god and a religion’s laws. That is a very important responsibility to have and i take it seriously. However, its also one of the reasons that I really dont like discussing religion with anyone who is, well, religious- how can i productively express my viewpoint and receive theirs truthfully when a person uses their religion as a “covering” and voices/quotes the opinion of their “god” whom no one has seen or met? They no longer have human attributes, but have become a spokespiece for a system – just another “government”… and most of those “governments” are male dominated…all i can do is back away slowly smiling, looking for the exit to the conversation… lol

          and in the meanwhile , “live” 🙂

          • With all respect, Janice, I don’t think being a “spokespiece” is the exclusive property of people of faith. With the exception of the folks on this site, I’ve run into a lot of those who call themselves atheists, nones, or “spiritual” who seem unable to affirmatively articulate a cohesive philosophy of life. They are very good at telling people what they don’t believe, but seem to have trouble coming up with what they do believe in. I think, no matter what level of belief you possess, you need some kind of framework with which to discern right and wrong, both in yourself and in others. As you say, being a none carries with it the responsibility to be accountable for your actions.

            I think there are many people who only view religion for what they can get out of it personally, as you say, as a “covering” for not having to put too much thought into their life choices. These are the kind of people who love to preface their statements with “Because I’m a Christian..” As in “Because I’m a Christian, I can forgive you.”, as if forgiveness has been copyrighted by Christianity. I also think the same is true of many “nones”, who feel unfettered by organized religion, which is great, but who can’t seem to embrace a consistent moral or behavioral standard. Maybe that’s why there has been so much “church shopping” in the last generation; people looking for what they can get out of it for themselves, personally. When the message gets a little too uncomfortable, they move on. Eventually, they take the easy way and declare themselves “spiritual but not religious”.

            But there those of us who embrace “traditional” faith systems, in part for what we get out of it, but also for what it demands of us. My faith works as a structure where I can channel the inner drive to do right in tangible ways, like my church’s Friday night soup kitchen. This morning, our Mass sermon was given by a Jewish rabbi who leads an interfaith effort to start food gardens at houses of worship throughout southern California, both as a way of feeding the hungry and as an outward statement of our obligation to be good stewards of the earth.

            Being a member of a certain denomination doesn’t have to mean trying to figure out ways to prove you’re right an everyone else is wrong. It can—it should—mean figuring out ways to live our faith in everyday actions and treating everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve as God’s crowning creation.
            There are people who use faith as a covering, as a convenient way of answering questions they otherwise don’t want to confront. But there are many more of us who have come to our faith as a result of thought, contemplation, and prayer. I don’t agree with everything my denomination represents, even one as broad and diverse as the Episcopal Church. And therein lies the difference between “faith” and “blind faith”. To accept, blindly, every statement made by a church’s authority is no faith at all—its merely sheep-like submission to someone else’s ideas. But there is also a tremendous sense of liberation of, after thought and self-examination, finding yourself a member of a group of lie-minded people, who, while we may differ on any number of specific issues, still strive to bring light into the world.

            • “They are very good at telling people what they don’t believe, but seem to have trouble coming up with what they do believe in”…

              ” I also think the same is true of many “nones”, who feel unfettered by organized religion, which is great, but who can’t seem to embrace a consistent moral or behavioral standard.”

              Actually, most will say they believe in a fact-finding science that proves relative objects/situations, and having a conscience. Becuase, this is important – no one needs a god to have a conscience; an awareness of others is whats needed and the decision of empathy … remember, pyschology and anthropology are two new sciences from the last hundred years or so and are proving this factually.

              All due respect, IMO Its just when nones say this, its not considered a good enough answer to those who have faith in an entity, so it becomes overlooked. time and time again.

              The ones who “believe” dont understand why people cannot see “gods” works, and the ones who dont “believe” dont understand why people cannot see a science-based life – one is based on fact, the other is based on faith – two different subjects all together… and when discussing on an intelligent level with someone of why we do not believe in gods and religion, and their retort is that “well, i have faith” as a counter argument – well, I walk away, because someones faith cannot be proved or disapproved – it cant be measured. How can i produce evidence against something only they can see? uhmm okay then… yikes…I guess we could continue the conversation and give more opinionated answers, but would it really be heard?

              This is what i found personally about traditional religions – it was great that I had first found something in church that gave me an inner peace- comfort of my own self being – but considering what it takes to run a non-profit organized religion, I started looking around my community at large. and thought ” wouldnt it be good to see what is needed around the community too?” So then i went out into the community, and what did i see – teenage pregnancies, molested children. Young single parents with no support. Young people with no jobs. Racial discrimination. substance abuse. Sexual discrimination. families falling apart due to finances. lonely senior citizens. dying people who had no family and the list goes on. Enough to want me to go back to church and get people motivated to help out. But guess what? the church has people who are suffering also. Dang, theres a lot of suffering going on. and no money to help. But we got God! but no extra money…except for the tithing i did each week to support the pastor and the church…and the money i donated to the coffers for a new sound system… and the money i donated to go to a missionary in another area… and money to buy the new sunday school workbook…money for the food shelf that was in the locked church basement and the list goes on, while people right next door were suffering…”well, invite them to church so they can have inner peace too!”

              They need jobs, food, shelter, someone to talk to, maslows theory as in right now – it was then I had the epiphany -The world is not about my faith, its not about my special church, its not all about my inner peace and comfort and fitting in and making god proud and my family godly — its about keeping all of us existing in a humane way and not killing ourselves and others, so we dont die out, humans leaving the earth forever. Its not about my faith at all. it never was.

              So here it is in a nutshell, and yes i know its not a nicey nice kumbaya comment, but – I dont waste my time and money anymore with supporting “god” – im directly doing what needs to be done, along with many other non-profit groups, and other like minded people, the upcoming generations of adults without the use of religion; the scales are tipping and that means change.. nones may be seeking, but they have new tools and new knowledge that previous generations didnt ; their walk for understanding is their own now. btw to really hit the point home lol I served in law enforcement – i am not a believer, but believe you me :), i was truly vetted out and I do have high moral standards – dang i dont even do bingo. And there are many like me. So nones do have a conscience – to say that if they dont have religion then they are lacking a moral compass is somewhat of an insult, you know – actually to whole lotta people there Tim… :S

              If my words upset you, i apoligize for making you feel discomfort. My intent is the same as yours – trying to figure out how we all can take care of each other so the species continues humanely, and so does the earth – i happen to like the direct hands on approach 🙂

              • No offense taken or meant, Janice. I think we both like the “hands-on” approach. I certainly didn’t mean to imply nones are somehow morally lacking. I also don’t happen to believe most people of faith are looking for pat answers. I don’t see a conflict between science and religion simply because the two operate on totally different planes. A couple of months ago, the Discovery Channel has a show on how some of the miraculous events in the Bible have a basis in science—even the parting of the Red Sea. One of the scientists is a renown physicist from Oxford who paraphrased the Psalms when he said God left no footprints in the water when He parted the Red Sea. Science explains how things happen. I think, sometimes, religion explains why. People who try to use the Bible as a history or science book miss its meaning.

                During his sermon this morning, the rabbi expressed the same thoughts you did. He said you can go to the Venetian in Las Vegas and order a cupcake sprinkled with 14k gold for $750. Then you can walk around the corner and eat it in front of people living in their cars, looking for work, Whether its a church-based soup kitchen, or the Unitarian Relief Fund, Doctors Without Borders, or just giving a buck to the guy on the corner, we’re all working toward the same goal.

                For way too long, Christianity has put too much emphasis on personal salvation–saving your soul from hell, instead of living Jesus’ command to bring the Kingdom of God into the present. Like Patti said, “whatever you do for the least among you, you do for me.” Somewhere along the line that took a back seat to “saving souls”.

                I’ve used the line many times on the blog, but it always seems to fit. No matter what your belief, or non-belief, may be, “the law is written on our hearts”. No matter what you call it or how you express it, we’re all striving for the same things.

  6. Janice, I have to say that, as a Christian, I, too, am utterly responsible for my actions!. Free will is not a thing to be taken lightly. Sometimes I wish that all I had to do was follow someone else’s regulations and rules and not ever think. The truth is, that what is in my heart is more important than any rule or regulation ever given, and that is what my faith demands of me. I think Tim’s comment was pretty spot on, and would say that neither Nones OR people of faith can live without a framework of some fashion. (And thank you, Tim, for the proper differentiation between faith and blind faith.) Whether those rules and that framework is one you follow because you find a rightness in what has been done for thousands of years or whether those rules and that framework is one you have processed out of your own being – it’s there.

    Yes. I am a spokesperson for Jesus. You are a spokesperson for the light in you. My prayer and hope for all men and women is that God views those as one and the same. Meantime, if we share a respect for each other’s framework and government, or whatever you want to call it, we have all gained.

    And we are all behooved to do exactly as Merril has said “believe in Life before Death.” My system’s teachings require that of me with great stringency. I am always reminded of “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

    In that, at least we are all – all the people on this blog – of exactly the same mind, I believe.

    Yours in Christ.

  7. Corinna:
    I felt so much hurt when the mother said, “why didn’t you ever come into our yard to play?” I don’t know if it was her intent to hurt or simply expressing her own hurt–or contempt. There is so much finality in a question posed like that. I’ve heard that question more than once in my life, and it sums the missed opportunities we need to take advantage of as human beings, but miss for any number of inconsequential reasons.

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