Monday, July 26, 2010

935. Flustered

So Tisha be-Av went well, in additon to the aforementioned study. My chanting was a bit... flustered. Chapter 4 of Eikha began on the usual awkwardly high note, which I must pull accurately out of the air to insure that I don't end up somewhere deep down below where I can't reach (taking into account my tendency to go flat when chanting while sitting cross-legged on the floor). I *just* made it. My long morning Torah reading was uneventful, except for a moment during the second aliyah when I lost the trope (that I knew like the back of my hand--it happens). The rabbi, generally the best gabbai in the history of all gabbais, sang the correction clearly. But he uses a different trope than I do. Usually I can translate, but had never heard that melody before; I chose to stumble on a fairly uncommon section of the tune. He sang it again, quietly and calmly. At that point I decided to just leap off the cliff and move on to the next phrase, hoping my memory would return--which it did.

At the end of the aliyah the rabbi turned to me and whispered, "Sorry--I forgot that your trope was different!" Hello, now you know how I've felt for the past eight years. (It's not all that different, but there are two major schools of trope at my synagogue, stemming from the two people who've taught it over the years. He is one; I learned from the other.)

My third flustered incident was at Minha later that evening. I knew there were three aliyot; as the haftarah reader, the last one would be given to me. The gabbai, none other than F., came over to confirm: "Shishi [sixth aliyah]?" he whispered. Hmm, I thought, that doesn't sound right, but he had already darted away. Well, nothing is ever set in stone at my congregation; we often flout tradition, and things tend to change all the time. So at the third aliyah I just continued to sit and enjoy the scenery. Suddenly I was aware of a big silence, and everyone looking at me. Everyone. Stares really can have the force of steel beams. I noticed that both F. and the rabbi were gesturing not quite imperceptibly for me to come to the bimah. Oh, I realized... he said "shLishi" [third aliyah]. Duh. I ran up as fast as I could and apologized, because this is something one just does not do; services tend to run like clockwork. No one said a word, but I was sure they must have thought I was biggest space cadet ever. I didn't even have fasting-induced lightheadedness to use as an excuse.

(Afterwards I realized that I must not be the first person in the history of Torah chanting to mis-hear those two words. But I'm probably the first to blog about it, so there's no recorded history to assuage my feelings of guilt. Which I no longer have, thanks to a good night's sleep.)

Just a few more weeks until Elul and the start of the next marathon. Meanwhile, sitting here figuring out how to type on my brand-new and truly guilt-inducing iPad, which I sort of need for work but not really, just couldn't fight temptation any longer, listening to Pharoah's Daughter and getting in the mood for all the music to come.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

934. Does God pray?

Tisha be-Av Minha ended, and we were all on our way out the door--and then the rabbi said, "Anyone want to stick around for awhile and study?" Still two hours before the fast ended--better to spend it in the synagogue than at home, hungry and tempted. I wasn't among the fasters this year, but decided to stay just the same.

Turns out I was very familiar with the text he chose, a line in the haftarah I had just chanted. (For the eighth Tisha be-Av minha in a row! It's the first one I ever learned. Time flies.) It's from the end of the usual fast day afternoon haftarah (Isaiah 55:6-56:8):

56:7: Then will I bring them to My holy mountain and I will make them joyful in the house where men pray to me, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be favorably accepted upon My altar for My house shall be acclaimed as a house of prayer for all people.

Vahavi'otim el-har kodeshi vesimachtim beveyt tfilati oloteyhem vezivcheyhem leratson al-mizbechi ki veyti beyt-tfilah yikare lechol-ha'amim.

The words he focused on were "beveit tfilati," here translated as "the house where men pray to me"--but "tfilati," "my prayer," could also be read as "the praying that is mine"--the praying I do. Could this be, wondered commentators--does God pray? What would God pray about? Why? The rabbi read a passage from the Talmud about God apparently learning how to pray from a simple shopkeeper. Did we think it was possible, he asked?

Big silence in the room at first. On the one hand, we strive to envision God as less literal and more spiritual than the bearded old guy in the sky. But we also want to be able to pray to a God who's like a parent or friend, to whom we can cry and expect a response. How to reconcile the two?

For me (I said when I finally got the nerve to raise my hand) the answer is self-evident. If we can pray, then God must be able to, as well--for how could we do something that God can't? If God chooses to pray (that, I have no idea), then I think God prays that we humans will choose to pray. I believe God yearns for the partnership just as we do. I don't really know what that means--I don't know what "God" means--but I believe it just the same, and feel it in my heart and bones.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

933. iDaven

I liked this sensible answer:

"Can I Pray With an iPhone?"

I agree that an actual, physical siddur "has a certain sanctity to it that a virtual siddur cannot attain," but perhaps this is because we're a lot more accustomed to the technology of the book, with 500+ years of history and associations behind it. I wonder if praying from Gutenberg's invention didn't shock a few parchment scroll fans back in the day, as well.

Also agreed that the point of prayer is to escape form the tyranny of e-life. But prayer in a synagogue is communal and, paper siddur or not, will not exclude that loud, off-key guy who thinks his "Amen" must be heard in the shul down the block. "Ask the Rabbi" offers this solution to the electronic version of barriers to concentration:

"The ring tone issue is easily solved by switching to vibrate. Notifications can be turned off in Settings. But you're still going to have those incoming calls and text messages popping up over your siddur. To avoid these, the only trick I know is to switch to Airplane Mode. It seems to me that this is a must for proper praying. Look, if you can do it on the runways of Planet Earth, you can do it on the runway to heaven as well."

Monday, July 19, 2010

932. Sinat hinam

As a lifelong New Yorker, I take for granted that no one cares that I'm a liberal Jewish woman who chants Torah and leads services. Any kind of religious practice is tolerated in this city, as long as it doesn't involve murder or riding the subway completely naked (partially naked would be OK).

So events like these, below, make me not just angry, but incredulous. I love Israel, and respect her right to have a Church-managed State, but that's no excuse to turn religious principles into a parody of themselves. What halakha justifies pushing a woman down a flight of stairs at our holiest site? Or forcibly wrestling a sefer Torah out of the arms of a peaceful, praying Jew because you don't approve of her style of prayer?

Anat Hoffman Arrested for Carrying Torah

Or giving a small and provably corrupt group of Israeli rabbis the power to legislate who can be called a Jew, instantly alienating most of those throughout the world who have, both spiritually and financially, supported Israel for decades? (My mother would have called it "cutting off your nose to spite your face.")

The Diaspora Need Not Apply

Hillel said "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Shabbat 31a). I guess the rabbis at the Kotel would disagree. On second thought, Hillel was clearly misguided. Writes Alana Newhouse:

"It will do little good, too, to point out that it is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and whom, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked."

What was he thinking?

As we approach Tisha be-Av this evening, I pray that all the genuine goodness in the world, and there is an awful lot of it, may be a stronger force than the sinat hinam, the baseless hatred.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

931. Is nisht

For some reason today I thought about a phrase that permeated my youth--I can't recall exactly who said, it, or when, but probably everyone, all the time: "So, is nisht." I never learned to speak Yiddish, but when I was a child most of the people taller than me did, so I'm left with a sort of sense memory of many words. Perhaps it was a shortened version of "nisht gerferlach", "not so bad". I remember it meaning something like today's "Whatever...", a sigh of resignation acknowledging that life isn't perfect, but it's time to close the last chapter with a resilient thwack of the pages and move on. Or, in the words of my cousin Bunny z"l, "You do what you do."

It's very hot. It's been very hot for weeks, turning most New Yorkers, including myself, into boiling, inert, annoyed people. So, is nisht. Yesterday at services the rabbi reflected on his longstanding curiosity about why far more people come to services on Tisha be-Av*, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, than Yom Ha'atzma'ut, one of the most joyous. Why does mourning come easier than celebrating our greatest modern miracle? He quoted from Aviva Zornberg's latest book, The Murmuring Deep, and (I am simplifying radically) her observations on the psychological aftermath of being "the chosen people." Why us? Are we worthy? Did we really deserve to survive all the unspeakable tragedies that befell us? And what of the ones not chosen--where do our responsibilities to those others begin and end? Biblical characters grappled with these questions (i.e., were neurotic) long before Freud put names to the problems, and we continue to do so. One way is by seeking out opportunities, such as Tisha be-Av, to relive our pain, which is more familiar to us than our triumphs. In doing so, we remind our still-incredulous selves that we really did survive.

As he spoke, I thought of my more immediate struggle with a similar concept, my postponed stem cell donation. Why was I chosen? No reason at all, most likely. It just happened, one of many great random acts of the universe. But if that's how God works,maybe the same is true of the Jewish people--there is no great plan, and we were chosen just because. We are bound to do our job as good Jews nevertheless. It is a baffling and unsatisfying answer, usually the case when trying to apply logic to theology. What really counts is how we react to this knowledge. This unknown woman has already taught me about patience, and living in the moment (and enhanced the coffers of JDate, eHarmony, and a couple of local coffee shops and bars in the process). I hope I may one day return the favor, and can only pray that knowing I remain in the wings will help her find hope and strength.

(Bracha bat Sarah has also helped me gain the smallest bit of insight into the suffering of families of those at war. How to ever relax, or stay sane, when you don't know if your loved one will return? I've never even met this woman, but whether she will live or die is always in my consciousness.)

So, is nisht, it remains above 90 degrees everywhere in the U.S. (except, I hope and pray, Alaska), and I continue to work too hard and take a few breaks during the day to practice my upcoming trope triple play (chapter 4 of Eikha tomorrow night; the Torah reading on Tuesday morning; haftarah at Tuesday Minha). I didn't set out to be such an active participant in Tisha be-Av, but it just sort of happened after a few years of saying yes whenever the cantor needed someone to chant. Maybe there's a greater reason behind it, who knows, and I am learning something that I will one day understand.

* Which I grew up pronouncing "Tish Above"--maybe that's the Yiddish way--only to learn in the last few years that it's properly called "Teesh-ah-bay-Av." Which feels a little too modern on my tongue, and elicits stares from Jewish friends who don't go to my synagogue, so I usually compromise somewhere in between the two.

Monday, July 05, 2010

930. On belief and deception

The nebulous place known as the JBlogosphere (i.e., Jews with blogs) has been abuzz about The Orthoprax Rabbi, who just started writing a few weeks ago. He's the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox synagogue somewhere in the world who admits to being an atheist who doesn't follow much of Jewish law. That said, his congregation is very happy (they just renewed his contract). They think he's a regular halakhic, God-fearing rabbi just like any other. He's proud to be a good speaker and pastor, expert at the mechanics of leading. But clearly there is some stress in living a lie, hence this anonymous blog of admission.

Not surprisingly, vast torrents of comments on the blog span the gamut from accusations of heresy to praise for his honesty in revealing a frequently hidden truth about rabbinic souls. It's a fascinating and intelligent conversation, with just a few crazies. It is, in short, Judaism—a messy debate that hopefully results in some kind of new insight when all is said and done.

And this definition of Judaism is why I greatly respect The Orthoprax Rabbi, even though I don't agree with him. In physics, every action has an equal reaction; in Bereshit, God created in opposites (heaven and earth, etc.). Whether one believes in religion or science, it seems fair to assume that the seeds of all things contain their antithesis. So perfect faith, as some of the blog's commenters profess to have, must also embrace the shadow of doubt in order to be as God engineered. (See this link posted to one of the hundreds of blog comments.)

From this angle, R. Orthoprax is very good Jew. His life, like the debate about him and the nature of Judaism itself, is a struggle between opposites just as we all encounter on a daily basis. I can imagine how this would make him a very good rabbi. Unlike many religious leaders who pretend to be evolved beyond the need for doubt, R. Orthoprax leads from the ground, in solidarity with his flock. I'm sure they sense it, and appreciate him for this reason.

But on the other hand: I don't think he's a very good rabbi. He's lying to his congregation, a kind of fraud. Yes, the job description never said he had to believe in God. But I am pretty certain the vast majority of Jews who look to their rabbis as role models do think their rabbis believe and (according to the standards of whatever the stream of Judaism) observe halakha. It's implied in our shared understanding of the role. It is a violation of the trust of his congregants to pretend that he believes when he doesn't—to deceive them and be something other than the kind of rabbi they thought they hired.

And I can't imagine his congregants don't somehow sense this dishonesty, just as they silently empathize with his struggles. I have no idea if my own rabbis believe in God; I've never asked, and they've never told. But I assume they do, because when talking about the subject every single word they share, every bit of advice, joke, condolence, is deeply felt and from their hearts, and rings true. (They talk about God often. We rarely did at my stuffy childhood synagogue, which I think is more the norm. The concept of belief is still a little too touchy-feely for many Americans.) I trust my rabbis not because they believe in God, but because I can tell that they are being honest.

A rabbi's role is to teach about spiritual life, of which struggling with faith is an important part. What if R. Orthoprax admitted the truth to his congregants? He might get fired—or he might feel like a weight was lifted from his chest. And his congregants might respect him more than ever before before, because he is even more like them.

I have no sense of what it's like to grow up in a totalitarian state, as Orthodox streams of many religions seem to be, only one opinion allowed and all others a quick ticket to Hell. (Or would be, if Jews had Hell.) I can't imagine how this kind of childhood colors one's reactions as an adult. It's like commenting on someone's bad marriage; what looks loveless to one is safe and comfortable to another. I understand that particular kinds of lies might work just fine for all parties involved, as might be the case with this rabbi and his congregants. I am nevertheless sad that he can't breathe easy or be true to his own beliefs. (Another rabbi expressed this same thought much better than I.) Having hidden big parts of my true self, as well, when caught in a troubled relationship, I feel this rabbi's pain, and hope he can one day find a place of comfort and freedom.

929. Time travel

Haven't written very much lately, but I've been busy--with life, and chanting as well. This morning at the minyan I read a short section from the beginning of Mas'ei, all that going forward from place to place. On Shabbat Pinhas I chanted about sacrifices from Pesah through Yom Kippur, mostly all the same except for an extra "and" and inexplicably changed trope now and then. I guess the Masoretes wanted to make sure we didn't fall asleep when reading it for the 5,000th year in a row. I was worried I'd screw up my old friend the Pesah maftir, which became much trickier when paired with similar but slightly different other sections, but everything went well until the end of Rosh Hashahah and I made up a bunch of trope. I ended in the right place, however, so all was well. I'm very glad these hiccups no longer give me heart attacks.

The summer is officially here--98 degrees as I sit in Starbucks typing into Evernote on my iPhone with the ancient, collapsable Bluetooth keyboard that never quite worked years ago with my Treo (it does now, perfectly) and Yo-Yo Ma in my earphones drowning out generic 40s jazz--and it will be short one. The holidays start right after Labor Day, so rehearsals will need to be sometime in August. This logistically annoying earliness is probably why the cantor asked myself and the other hazzanim just last week if we wanted to sing again this year. (Duh.) The subject line of his email was "High Holy Days 5761," leading me to wonder if time travel was among his many talents (since we're about to enter the year 5771). Details, details. The early notice was welcome, even though I've finally stopped angsting (much) about whether I'll be asked back each year.

The email also reminded me that I need to finish writing about last year's High Holy Days, which were lovely but not without drama. I will do that before something else eventful happens that's worth chronicling (donating bone marrow, for example; still on hold.)