Balak and my body: unexpected blessing

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

When I was in first grade, we were lining up to go back inside after recess and a kid next to me asked me if I was pregnant.  I don’t think I even knew exactly how a person became pregnant at that point, but I knew that I wasn’t pregnant.  And I knew that he was referring to my belly.  For whatever reason, I have always been fairly thin but have had a little bit of a belly that, yes, I suppose could make me look like I’m a few months pregnant.  

I became very self-conscious about my belly after that first-grade comment but I don’t think I mentioned it to any friends or family for years.  I just let it stew in me.  I’m sure that my classmate didn’t mean anything malicious by it, but the question was seared into my memory.
Fast forward 25 years.  I’m now actually old enough that I could be pregnant.  I’m not, though.  I’m not even in a relationship.  Though those two things don’t necessarily have to go together, they are related in my mind.  Over the course of a year or two, three different co-workers of mine in a hospital stop me in the hallway, somewhat excitedly, to ask me if I’m pregnant.  NO.  I’m not.  I try to play it down as if it doesn’t affect me, but it does.  I think more consciously about the outfits that I wear.  Maybe the shirt was just too fitted.  Maybe I should work out more.  It’s not about working out – I try to remind myself – I’ve run several half marathons and am in good shape.
It’s just how I look.  Each and every one of us have parts of our body that we love and parts that we wish we could swap.  I love my shoulders and my arms.  My legs are toned; a friend saw me a few weeks ago and commented on how great I look.  And honestly, most of the time, my belly doesn’t bother me.
Until someone says something.  I don’t just feel like I’m in first grade again.  There’s another piece now.  They aren’t saying that I’m fat.  They are actually happy for me, trying to wish me positive thoughts on a pregnancy that isn’t there.  It reminds me that I want to have a family and I am not there yet.  It reminds me that I’m not getting any younger and that the biological clock is ticking somewhere out there.  They are trying to bring me joy and instead they end up bursting open my insecurities, both about my body and now about my relationship status and yearning for a pregnancy of my own one day.  The intended blessing feels like a curse.
Today, however, the same interaction became a blessing.  The words that I had come to feel as painful transformed themselves into something empowering.  Maybe even holy.  I just finished a run and was meeting some of the others in the running group.  A woman introduces herself to me and we start talking; friendly and casual enough. Then it happens, totally unexpectedly.  “Is there a child in there?,” she asks, as she motions toward me.  Then, for the first time, I really truly brushed it off.  I said, “Oh…no, that’s just the way I am.”  She paused, maybe apologized – I’m really not sure – and then asked if I wanted to get drinks with her and some of the other girls.
I realized tonight that I am finally confident in who I am and how I look.  Maybe when I finish training for this race,  I’ll have a slimmer torso.  Maybe not.  Who cares?  My ability to slough off this vulnerability that I have been carrying for so long is something powerful.  And that unexpected blessing is rooted deep within our Jewish narrative and within this week’s Torah reading.
By the time we reach parashat Balak, the Israelites have become quite numerous as they continue to journey through the wilderness.   Balak, the king of a neighboring nation, feels threatened by their size and asks Bilaam, a diviner, to curse the Israelite people on his behalf.
Bilaam hears God that night, who tells him that he cannot curse the Israelites, as they are already blessed by the blessings that they inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Balak doesn’t settle for no; after the second request, God allows Bilaam to go with Balak’s people to the Israelites under then condition that Bilaam must follow God’s commands when he gets there.
Twice, Balak asks him to curse the Israelites but his words are dictated by God to be words of blessing and praise.  As Balak takes Bilaam to the third vantage point to look upon the Israelites and curse them, he actually blesses them with words of his own.  In the first two instances, God tell Bilaam to “speak thus” and Bilaam parrots back God’s words . This third time, though, he isn’t prompted directly.  Instead, God’s spirit, ruach Elokim, is upon Bilaam and he articulates the words on his own.  In those words, he notes that his eyes are uncovered.  Now that they are uncovered, he can see God more clearly and he can see his role and own self more clearly.  He opens this speech and the subsequent one announcing himself:
“Word of Bilaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled” (Numbers 24: 3-4)
He is taking ownership of the words.  When the phrase “God uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” occurs a bit earlier (Numbers 22:31), the 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it may mean that Bilaam gains an extra ability to see.  Just as his eyes were opened, leading him to claim his role, I was able to see in a new way tonight. I could now see my exact same body with different eyes.
After years of people asking if I was pregnant and jabbing at my insecurities, I too was able to stop the curse and see the blessing that God had placed in front of me.  I am happy and healthy and have a body that does everything that it should.  For all the hours that I have looked at myself in the mirror, perhaps my eyes weren’t fully uncovered until today, when I was able to truly see myself, whole and wholly intact.  No one can take that away.

Celebrate Good Times, Come On!

Liberty & Justice for All
by Rabbi Wendy Spears
About two and a half years ago, I changed my Facebook profile photo to this image of Lady Liberty kissing Lady Justice. My promise was that it would remain as my profile photo until there was marriage equality throughout the United States. While I prayed and worked to make marriage equality a reality, I didn’t dare to dream that it would come so soon. That dream became a reality last Friday, June 26, 2015. I cried tears of joy, and reveled in the outpouring of celebration in the media and in my community.

The media has covered both sides of the marriage equality debate, playing up the opposition more than necessary and portraying religious voices primarily as part of this opposition. Within the Jewish community, both liberals and conservatives have celebrated the decision of the Supreme Court. I read an opinion piece in The Washington Post from an Orthodox rabbi which supported marriage equality. This is not to say that this Orthodox rabbi would officiate at a Jewish marriage ceremony for a same gender couple. Rather, the support is for marriage equality as a civil right in America.

My support for marriage equality comes from a religious as well as a political viewpoint. The interpretation of what marriage means in America has changed radically over the course of the 20th century and continues to do so into the 21st century. Historically, marriage was primarily a business transaction where a man purchased a woman from her father’s household. The groom gained a valuable worker for his own household as well as a vessel to bear his children. A woman was property, much like any other property a man could acquire. I don’t think that any American truly believes that this idea is what marriage is about today. Rather, it is an equal partnership between two adults who want to be a family and share a life together.

So, too, in Judaism, the philosophy of marriage is changing. My colleague Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler has written extensively on marriage as partnership in her book Engendering Judaism. She was instrumental in developing the many egalitarian and liberal Jewish marriage documents available to all couples from Ketubah Ketubah and MP Artworks. These ideas and documents intersect easily to include same gender couples.

Judaism is an interpretive tradition and culture that has adapted to time and place throughout the course of our history. We don’t take the words in the Bible and other literature just at face value or surface level. It isn’t enough to read the English text; it is crucial to examine the Hebrew as well. It is also important to read the questions and comments of scholars from Jewish history as well as contemporary opinions. We pick and choose what we hold close as our values and what we discard. For example, in Deuteronomy 21:18, parents are instructed to take a rebellious son to the town elders to have him stoned to death. I’m happy we don’t do this anymore. I am reluctant to rely on the Bible exclusively as a proof text for anything. So when I read in the newspaper or in online media that some conservative Christians say that the Bible reserves marriage for one man to one woman, I can’t agree. The Bible has many more passages that promote polygamous marriage than it does about anything regarding same gender relationships (about which it really says very little).

As a religious person who believes that all people are created in the Divine image, I prefer to focus on the big picture that marriage equality is a benefit to society as a whole. Judaism views the family home as a place of peace, safety, and hospitality. This type of home fosters community and the Jewish value of making the world a better place (tikkun olam). I also value the Jewish principle that developed from Genesis 2:18, that it isn’t good for a person to be alone. Everyone should have a suitable partner who helps them to achieve their best self and life path. Each person must choose for him/herself who that best person is.

While there is still much healing to be done in our world, the achievement of marriage equality is a big victory. I choose to celebrate this moment with exuberant joy.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Interfaith: A Misnomer

Micah & Wyatt

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Christianity and Islam have their roots in Judaism, but they are not variants of Judaism. Despite its name and claims to the contrary, Jews for Jesus is a Christian organization. Their population is composed of those who used to be Jewish before making a break with Judaism by accepting Jesus as their messiah. Their goals and techniques for proselytizing are the same ones that Christian missionaries have used for centuries. I met their official representatives in mid-April at the Christian Missionaries Training Association (which I happened upon by chance while I was attending another convention at the same venue), not at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial convention nor at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations.

When I decided to become a rabbi 33 years ago, I never imagined that it would be necessary for me to clarify that Jews don’t believe that Jesus is our messiah or the son of God. Neither are we bound in obedience to Allah through the teachings of Muhammed. It is dishonest and disrespectful to Muslims, Christians, and Jews to claim that the three Western religions are the same. This isn’t just my opinion; it is the consistent position of all three religious traditions.

I’ve spent the majority of my rabbinate working with interfaith couples and families to introduce them to the resources of the Jewish community. If someone is not already an involved communal member, it is difficult to find those resources. The term ‘interfaith’ is confusing because it means different things to different people. For the American generation of the 1950’s and 60’s, interfaith meant Protestants, Catholics, and Jews finding ways to co-exist alongside each other and cooperate where there were shared goals. Today, for Jews for Jesus and other organizations which don’t advocate for Judaism exclusively, it often means practicing two or more religions in a home. When I (and the Union for Reform Judaism as well as my fellow rabbis, cantors, educators, and other Jewish professionals) meet couples and families who identify themselves as ‘interfaith,’ we choose this term to mean that one of the adults is Jewish and the other isn’t. I don’t mean the syncretism of ‘being both,’ a combining together of various theologies, rituals, and holidays that don’t fit into any recognized system or practice. I am liberal and open-minded to a variety of points of view, but not so much so that my brain falls out. Being Jewish in America, where the majority of the population isn’t Jewish, is more of an effort than being Christian. It is a worthwhile effort for Jews in living a good life.

Most often, the adult who isn’t Jewish in a couple or family is open to living a Jewish life with his/her partner and isn’t committed to another religious practice. I provide Jewish experiences so folks get a taste of Judaism and can begin planning their life vision together. In my work reaching couples and families who aren’t official members of the Jewish community, I present some of the beauty and wisdom of Judaism to demonstrate how it can provide a foundation for a meaningful life. I guide them in finding a synagogue that will be their home community, where they can be supported in times of challenge and sorrow and celebrated in times of joy.

There have been a few couples over the years who have initially said they wanted to ‘be both.’ I recognize that people value their relationships and are willing to make compromises to protect those relationships. Choosing both or none seems less painful than making a choice for a lead religion in the family. They usually haven’t really discussed what they mean by ‘being both.’ Most are minimally educated in the religious tradition of their respective families. It is my responsibility to them, both as a rabbi and as a Jew committed to Judaism, to advocate for why it is good to live a Jewish life. I am able to help the Jewish person articulate why Judaism is important for their life together. Sometimes, after listening to a couple talk about themselves, I encourage them to visit with a minister, priest, or imam, as is appropriate, to help them find the path that will work best for them. It is also my responsibility to help couples and families wrestle with the hard questions, preferably before their children come along.

The reluctance to advocate for one family religion seems to come from a place of fear — fear that an honest discussion about values and beliefs might reveal irreconcilable differences. This is a possibility. But not having this discussion is like waiting for a time bomb to go off in the relationship, which can cause irreparable damage. Marriages need honesty and trust as well as shared values and rituals to sustain them over the long term. It is better to have discussions about religion and everything else that is important early on to minimize conflict, discord, and unhappiness. Judaism offers a particular worldview that is complete in and of itself, providing meaning and purpose in living a good life. It doesn’t need to be enhanced by rituals or holidays from other religious traditions.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

Target: Interfaith Couples and Families

Jews_For_Jesus_logo

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I had the opportunity a few days ago to be in conversation with Jews for Jesus without them knowing that I am a rabbi. I chanced upon a Christian ministries training workshop where Jews For Jesus had a vendor booth. They gave me literature which outlines the most effective ways to share the message of Jesus with Jews. The salient point they make is that Jews don’t need to give up their identity as Jews in order to embrace Jesus as Messiah.

To my way of thinking, as well as to every minister, priest, and Christian lay person I know, embracing Jesus as Messiah is the identifier that makes a person Christian. This seems straight forward and easy to understand. To take the position that a person can believe in Jesus as Messiah and not be Christian is disingenuous at best. I imagine that faithful Christians are proud to be so and might take the position that it is disrespectful to them and their faith to say that they aren’t Christian.

Many Jews say that they are not religious, but view their Jewish identity as cultural. They say, too, that they are spiritual but not religious. This doesn’t mean that their Jewishness is unimportant to them. Most Jews are proud of their identity as Jews. Jews For Jesus knows all of this very well. They also know that most Jews have a very limited knowledge of scripture and theology. Their strategy to bring Jews to faith in Jesus is to present Jewish scripture and theology through a Christian lens.

Christians have used Jewish scripture to prove Jesus’ messiah-ship throughout their history. This is the Christian worldview and is relevant to Christian practice, prayer, and belief. It is not, however, a Jewish world view. It is difficult for Jews who are uneducated in Judaism to refute a scriptural argument by a Christian missionary group like Jews For Jesus. I don’t recommend that most Jews try to do this, anyway.

My biggest concern regarding Jews For Jesus isn’t their general missionary activity. It is, rather, their increased efforts to reach out to interfaith couples and families. As the Union for Reform Judaism (I am a Reform rabbi) has severely curtailed its directed outreach efforts to interfaith couples and families, other organizations like Jews For Jesus have stepped into the breach to offer a warm and welcoming community. Individual rabbis and congregations have maintained their outreach but without further official resources, they are at a disadvantage. There are a number of interfaith couples and families that claim that they want to be ‘both.’ They want to honor the traditions of both families and raise their children to be familiar with and respectful of both traditions. Jews For Jesus offers just this solution to potentially painful discussions in interfaith families about the need to choose a family religion and practice.

It is not enough to encourage interfaith couples and families to make some Jewish choices. This has a desperate tone to it, as if doing some Jewish activities alongside Christian activities is a good way to live a Jewish life. Christianity isn’t an authentic Jewish path. It is a religious path distinct from and different than Judaism. As a rabbi, I need to present the beauty, wisdom, and spirituality of Judaism as the authentic way of life and faith that it is. Jews don’t need Christianity to ‘complete’ us. We do need to be familiar with our core stories and the values and actions that those core stories come to teach us. Our scriptures are the first place to find those core stories, as well as the place to explore our relationship with the Divine. For most of us, our life circumstances are radically different than those of the characters in our core Jewish stories. The relationships expressed in those stories, as well as the search for God’s presence in our lives, continue to be relevant today.

I believe it is dishonest and destructive to interfaith couples and families to pretend that ‘being both’ will lead them to live a Jewish life. It won’t. In my work with them, I will continue to be an advocate for authentic Judaism.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

A Glass Full or Empty?

By Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov

I try hard to be an optimist. Sometimes, I guess I fall short of that and hopefully, I’m just a realist and not a pessimist.  I want to see life as the glass “half full,” and not “half empty.”  Of course, though, there are days when I’m not sure whether it’s half full or half empty- it just is.

As we celebrate Passover, we will need to fill many glasses, not only our own but two other communal glasses. At almost any seder there is set aside a traditional cup for Elijah.  This cup symbolizes our hope that Elijah the prophet will come to our seder and herald in the messianic age- a time when there will be peace on all the earth.  I recently learned of a custom whereby everyone at the seder pours a little of their wine into Elijah’s cup, thus symbolizing that we must all do our part to bring about peace in the world.

 Another cup that has been added to many seders within the last 25 years is “Miriam’s Cup.”  This cup, to be filled with water, represents the role of both women and water in our lives.  So much of the Passover story deals with men, and by adding a cup that represents Miriam the prophetess, we are making sure to add the heroic efforts of women into our story as well.  The idea of filling this special cup with water is representative of a story from the Talmud which says that in honor of Miriam, God gave the Israelites a well for their journey in the desert. That well, and water in general, represents how critical water is to our existence. Personally, I believe that by having a cup of water on our seder table, we can be reminded that sometimes even the most mundane of things- like water- are actually critical to our survival and we must not take it for granted.

Having a “Kos Miriam” (Miriam’s Cup) can also serve to remind us that around the world 750 million people lack access to clean water and sadly, every minute a child dies of a water-related disease.  Passover is our opportunity to remember the past, but hopefully it can also serve as a wake up call to look to the future and make a difference, such as by going to www.water.org and learning more about the international water crisis. Thus by doing so, as we fill Miriam’s cup we can actually also fill the cups of so many in need.

Of course the seder isn’t complete without each person having four cups of wine (or grape juice). When we fill our second cup of wine, we will pause to take out 10 drops of liquid – one for each of the 10 plagues delivered to the ancient Egyptians.  Taking out these ten drops- even the smallest of drops, reminds us that we can not drink a full cup of wine (our symbol of joy) when we know others have suffered, even our enemies.  Still today as we go to our Pesach celebrations we must be reminded that although we are free, others are still enslaved. Today as we celebrate our faith, around the world there are others who must practice their religions in secret. Today as we are blessed to eat with friends and family, others go hungry.

 This Passover we are blessed to have so much to celebrate. Even as many of us face some sort of trials and tribulations, let us instead try to see our cup as almost full. Let us use this time of Passover to give thanks to God and let us lift up our cup and truly say “L’chaim- To Life!”

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov is the rabbi of Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY.

My Hero, Rabbi Denise Eger

Denise Eger

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Many years ago, when I was the rabbi educator at Temple Emet of Woodland Hills, California, I often asked my students to name their Jewish heroes and explain why they made their choices. Sometimes they chose characters from the stories they heard or read, but they mostly chose people that they knew who had affected them in some profound way. This is true for me, as well. I have had many mentors, but one of my heroes is my colleague and friend Rabbi Denise Eger.
Two weeks ago, Rabbi Eger was elected as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the union of Reform rabbis. She is only the third woman in the history of this organization to hold this position and the first openly LGBT person. Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a celebration and panel presentation in her honor at her synagogue Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California.

Rabbi Eger was not elected as president because she is a lesbian, but rather because of her wisdom, advocacy, and leadership in the Jewish community. In all of these areas, she inspires me. She has been my go-to person when I was crafting wedding ceremonies to celebrate my gay and lesbian clients, as well as for the heterosexual couples. She confirmed to me that love and family is what we make it to be, and that this personal commitment is very much a political statement. Every couple deserves to be celebrated and recognized in the spirituality and desire to be a family together along with the legal rights accorded to heterosexual couples. This is a civil rights issue. Rabbi Eger has been in the forefront in the fight for marriage equality, even at its most ugly and contentious. We prayed together often that marriage equality would be a reality in our lifetimes, and through her advocacy and leadership in this area our prayers are being answered.

Rabbi Eger has been a model for me on feminist issues. She was among the first rabbis I knew to struggle with God language that caused spiritual dissonance for women living Jewish lives. Her insight into prayer and theology helped me in my own spirituality as well as what I could offer to my clients and students. As a feminist, she has and continues to advocate on the issues of equal pay for equal work and family leave benefits. In my own career, she encouraged me to ask to be paid what I’m worth based on my education and experience and not to be intimidated when clients thought they should get a discount because I’m not a man. She inspires me in how she connects with other female colleagues; she taught me that we need to support each other in advocating for ourselves collectively – the “old girls’ club” is important for women in creating opportunities and mentoring of each other.

I am so grateful for Rabbi Eger’s friendship. When I’ve needed guidance in my rabbinate and about my family, she offered me her counsel and kindness. She demonstrates strength and courage in so many areas. Just as she has created a warm and welcoming community at her congregation, so has she nurtured me with warmth. Though we are not far apart in age, her wisdom is far beyond her years. She continues to be one of my blessings.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Architecture and Furniture

by Rabbi Wendy Spearsliving room

We, the Jewish people, are all about our stories. I like to imagine my ancestors sitting around their fires in the wilderness, or around their fireplaces in their homes in all the places Jews have lived around the world, sharing the narratives that inform us about who we are. I see them comparing themselves to the characters in the stories, thinking about the motivations and actions of those people way back when. Those stories can be so exciting.

And then we have portions like T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) that are a shopping list and a blueprint. When I was looking at the commentaries for this portion, Bible scholars seem to agree that this description of the Tabernacle architecture and its furnishings are a remembrance of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem rather than actual instructions for building the Mishkan in the wilderness during the wanderings there.

The salient point for the instructions is near the beginning of the portion, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9) Like the other peoples surrounding them, the Israelites also wanted a special place to worship their god that signified the grandeur and awe of that experience. This shopping list includes all the most beautiful materials they could imagine – fragrant wood, gold, silver, and blue, purple, and crimson fabrics.

Until I became a homeowner, I didn’t really appreciate architecture and interior design. When my husband and I began looking at homes where we would actually live, a lot of things came into focus that just weren’t on my radar. Not only the size of the rooms, but how the light came in through the windows at each time of day affected the colors in those rooms. There were rooms that helped me feel peaceful, and rooms that helped me feel energetic. How the kitchen was laid out affected how efficient we could be in preparing and cleaning up meals so that we had good time together as a family, talking about what’s important to us as well as sharing news of the day.

The various passages in Exodus that I used to find so boring I now see quite differently. Spirituality, now a personal, interior practice of the soul, is expressed in places as well as times. The space provides the environment where the soul can relax, feel connected to others, and be filled with a sense of awe. I have a new appreciation for the power of design of buildings and the furnishings that are inside them.

I think this shopping list and instructions are about bringing our best selves to foster our spirituality. As people rooted to the material world, it’s a challenge to create a place for spirituality every day. We talk a lot now about mindfulness practices, about getting into the place inside ourselves that brings us a sense of connection and appreciation for our outer places and inner spaces. Having a beautiful place to be and sit helps in this process. This is what the shopping list and instructions for the Mishkan represent for me today. I think about the feelings and thoughts I want to cultivate in my home.

My mindfulness practice each day begins at home, rather than at synagogue. My home is a reflection of my family’s values and personality, what’s important to us, how we make a comfortable space to relax, enjoy, and entertain. I made a shopping list when I furnished my home, as I do each time I want to change or add something. The most recent was about curtains – I needed brackets, rods, tiebacks, and the curtains themselves. I imagine the ancient Israelites doing the same when they wanted to create a holy place – the Mishkan. My home is my personal sanctuary; I want it to be beautiful and tranquil so that my mindfulness practice is easier. I strive to make space for where I want to be spiritually as well as for my family’s and my physical comfort. I imagine, then, meeting God in a holy place. And this text brings that into my consciousness.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com and on Facebook at Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears.