Reflection and Self-Assessment: A Necessary Step in Personal and Jewish Growth

To learn about oneself, it is often helpful to turn outward and pay attention to the way you are perceived by others.   Being open to this kind of assessment, while sometimes challenging, is potentially a source of real insight into how we behave and even what we believe.  I’ve had this type of experience over the past year while studying with a Catholic Brother and Sister from the Community of Saint John, a religious order based in France that sends missionaries to Catholic churches throughout the world.  Brother Charles Joseph and Sister Frances Mary belong to this order (they are both from France, but members of the Community of Saint John come from countries around the world), and they contacted me a year ago with a request that I help them to learn about Judaism.  Since then, we have met about once a week in my office where I teach them about Judaism.  Our discussions range from theology to Jewish law to Talmud to Jewish holidays to the weekly Torah portion, and are always interesting.  We have developed a friendship based on the work we do as clergy.  Brother Charles and Sister Frances attended Yom Kippur services here at Oheb Shalom last fall, and attended the Bar Mitzvah service of my son Aaron a month later.

1460059_10202109212906788_726584880_nRecently, Charles and Frances expressed interest in visiting the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, an outstanding museum whose core exhibit is a “living memorial to the Holocaust.”  I arranged a visit to the museum this past Sunday for Charles and Frances, along with nine other brothers and sisters from the two local parishes they serve.  Accompanying me on the visit in the role of guides were Cantor Lippitz, Mark Gordon, Alan Winkler and Jeremy Garber.  Visiting the museum is, in and of itself, an important experience from both an intellectual perspective and an emotional one as well.  Visiting with 11 Catholic clergy members transforms the visit substantially, as reactions to the Holocaust in all of the ways that it is important to the Jewish people are shared openly.  Imagine walking through the museum describing not only the historical facts, but also how you, as a Jew, feel about the Holocaust.  Imagine how you might answer the question of “How do Jews live with the notion of victimhood?” or “Does it trouble you that the United States government didn’t do more to help your people?”  Such questions call for an answer, and spark personal reflection as well.

Upon our return from the museum, our group shared a meal in the synagogue and had an opportunity for dialogue about matters of religion.  Our conversation was wide ranging, but the most intriguing aspect to me was the comment made by a nun from the Philippines, who spoke of her envy of the Jewish people.  “You are God’s people,” she said.  “You have the Torah, and a special purpose given to you by God.  The world is looking to you to lead the way.”  Her comments were sincere and enthusiastic; she genuinely believes that Jewish people are on a special mission inspired by God to change the world for the better.  She assumed that most Jews have visited Israel and come back to their homes imbued with a great fervor and spiritual excitement about being Jewish (I hardly wanted to tell her that the majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, for I’m sure she would not understand why that is so).

The study sessions I’ve shared with Brother Charles and Sister Frances have also necessitated that I rearticulate what I personally believe.  Often, we live the cycle of the Jewish year paying attention to ritual practice and holiday observance.  We do not spend enough time reflecting on what we believe and contemplating what Judaism means to us.  I’ve encountered the way some Catholic clergy members view Jewish people and I’ve wondered if I truly see myself in the same way.  The dialogue has been an important one for my colleagues, I hope.  And it has been important for me as well, for it has urged me to pause and reflect on why we do what we do as Jews.

Such reflection is a good thing for all of us.  Don’t be reluctant to enter into dialogue about your religious beliefs with others, especially those who don’t know a lot about Judaism and who may make assumptions about what you believe and how and why you practice Judaism.  I know that such conversations aren’t casual and may not happen spontaneously- perhaps Oheb Shalom could launch a series some Shabbat morning entitled “And This I Believe” which would serve as a forum for articulating our beliefs.

I hope you will comment on this post by sharing what you believe about Judaism, about God, Israel, Torah, and the purpose of the Jewish people in this world.

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What Can You Learn From a Label?

We rely on labels to give us important information about products we’re buying.  When it comes to food, labels tell us not only if the item meets the government’s standards for nutrition but also if it answers to a higher authority.  Buying kosher food usually involves the experience of reading labels, which can be, for some, maddening (“is that small dot a kosher symbol or the trademark sign?”).  If the label bears a “hechsher,” a symbol that a rabbi has supervised its production, then it is deemed to be kosher, edible according to Jewish law.  The term kosher, meaning “proper,” has made its way into America’s vocabulary and signals a standard for food consumption that, for many, represents piety and religious devotion.  The Torah, in this week’s parasha, promises the attainment of holiness to those who restrict their diet according to God’s laws.  But is there more to keeping kosher than pious devotion to God?

Scholars and sages have offered other reasons for keeping kosher.  These include demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the sacredness of other living creatures, a means for reinforcing Jewish identity in a mostly non-Jewish society by adopting unique ritual practices, and the practice of self-restraint as a way to prepare to make tough moral choices and resist temptation.  These are all valid and worthy explanations for following Jewish dietary laws.

But perhaps the dietary laws find their greatest relevance not as a ritual practice (or an exercise in reading labels in small print), but as one part of a larger approach to food consumption that might be called the “Jewish ethic of eating.”  Placed in the broader context of a commitment to social and environmental justice, kashrut becomes a compelling way of life.  Here, then, are some aspects of a Jewish approach to the broader experience of food consumption.

  • Environmental Awareness – We ought to develop an awareness of the impact of our food consumption on the environment.  Such awareness would include a commitment to recycling, and even composting.  The “kashrut” of a meal should be judged not only by the ingredients in the food but also by the environmental impact of the meal.  Did you use disposable materials that have a negative and harmful impact on the environment?   Were there ways that food preparation and consumption could have minimized that impact?
  • Charity – The kashrut of a meal should also be judged by the extent to which we share our bread with the hungry.  Can we really walk away from the table satisfied without some awareness of the fact that millions of people, including children, go to bed hungry?  A Jewish ethic of eating should compel us to find ways to alleviate the problem of hunger.
  • Social Justice – The Conservative Movement has developed “Magen Tzedek” (Shield of Righteousness), a type of rabbinic certification meant to be placed on food packages that addresses not the ingredients of the food but workers’ conditions and the treatment of animals.  Can we really be satisfied with our food consumption if another human being, desperate for employment, is forced to work in substandard conditions for insufficient wages? 
  • Humility and Gratitude – At our best, human beings- in distinction to animals- pause before eating to express gratitude for the food we are about to consume and do not end the experience of eating before we have thanked God for the bounty of the world made available to us.  Reciting blessings before and after we eat may seem like unnecessary ritual to some, and many do not have adequate knowledge of what blessings are meant to be recited when eating particular foods.  But expressing humility and gratitude for what we have is not ritual, it’s a matter of ethics.  Consider washing before a major meal (one that includes bread)—this is a moving and worthwhile way to mark the transition to a more spiritual state of being before taking a bite out of your sandwich.  Think about pausing before you eat and expressing thanks for what you are about to enjoy.  Savor the words of the blessing as much as you hope to savor the food you will eat.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, an early modern movement of ethical revival, taught that discarding an egg with a blood spot (something commonly done by those who keep kosher) is an insignificant act if the same person who observes that law is willing to take money that is tainted with blood.  In other words, if keeping kosher is seen only as ritual practice and has no impact on ethical behavior, it is pointless.  Keeping kosher must be part of a broader Jewish ethic of food consumption and a catalyst to living a life marked by a commitment to ethics and justice.  In short, it’s not just about reading labels.

Forgive but Don’t Forget

Those who have been the victim of a crime or some other type of offensive or invasive act often face a dilemma of whether or not to forgive and forget the terrible thing that was done to them.  This is true for individuals who have suffered hurt by the intentional or negligent act of another person.  And it is especially true for the Jewish people, who have, for centuries, been the victims of violence and persecution triggered by gratuitous hatred and anti-Semitism.  One thing we should remember is that it’s possible, even essential, that we forgive but not forget.

This idea is to be found in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), the Biblical story that we read on the holiday of Purim that will be celebrated in Jewish communities around the world this Saturday night and Sunday morning, as well as in the brief Maftir selection (concluding portion) of the Torah reading this Shabbat morning.  Known as “Shabbat Zachor,” this Shabbat calls for the reading of extra verses from the Book of Deuteronomy that relate God’s command to remember in perpetuity that Amalek, a ruthless and brutal tribe of barbarians, attacked the weak and helpless Israelites as they wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  These verses are deemed appropriate to be read on the Shabbat before Purim because, according to the Scroll of Esther, Haman, the villain of the Purim tale, was himself a descendant of the Amalekites.  It is striking that we are specifically commanded to remember what Amalek did.  Indeed, the commandment is emphasized by the inclusion of the words “…and don’t forget.”  Why are we commanded to remember something painful and traumatic?  Not to be vengeful or carry a grudge, but to be vigilant, cautious and careful around those we don’t know well and perhaps cannot trust.

In her outstanding commentary on Esther (published by JPS), Adele Berlin writes that Esther is a “diaspora tale,” a genre of Biblical story that was likely written as a way of assuring Diaspora Jews that they could maintain Jewish identity and be safe even while living away from the Land of Israel.  Yet, Jewish history has shown us that the assurances of stories like Esther often do not materialize.  Diaspora Jews have often been subject to brutal, violent oppression and death.  It could be argued that only the State of Israel offers a true haven for Jews from anti-Semitic violence and hatred.  Thus, we are told to be cautious and remember what has happened in the past in order to protect ourselves in the present.

At the same time, Purim reminds us that we cannot be vengeful.  Berlin also points out in her Esther commentary that some version of the Purim holiday likely existed prior to the writing of the scroll.  That would explain the nature of the holiday as one of revelry and raucous celebration, rather than a day given over to glorifying our violent victory over the Persians.  It could be argued that Jewish tradition would never give birth to a holiday based on the defeat of our enemies.  Can we really bring ourselves to celebrate the killing of Haman, his sons and countless Persians that resulted from our liberation (in fact, on Passover we symbolically mute such celebrations by reducing the amount of wine in our cups during the recitation of the Ten Plagues).  Rather, whatever holiday existed in antiquity before the Rabbinic Sages formalized the observance of Purim was likely a Mardi Gras, carnival like occasion that was, centuries later, layered over with the story of the victory of the Jews over the Persians.  In short, Purim is a fun holiday, not one to remember or glorify violence.  It’s a day to forgive, even quietly, the evil and violent acts committed against us in the past.  It may not be easy to do that, but it’s essential in order to live life free from grudges and resentments.  The only targets of those feelings are the ones who bear them.

Release anger, resentment and ill feeling toward others, but be cautious and vigilant in an effort to remain safe.  Forgive but don’t forget.  Sounds like sound, and very Jewish, advice.

Purim is not only for kids, it’s for adults as well.  So please join us for our celebration of Purim this Saturday night and Sunday morning.  Check the Oheb Shalom website for details!

B’shalom,

RABBI COOPER