Tag Archives: judaism

Pray with Your Legs (Solar Beam)

Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and the Internet has begun celebrating the life and memory of Frederick Douglass, the black author and orator who escaped slavery and became one of the biggest faces of the abolitionist movement. I was scrolling through my news feed when I came across a post by the American Humanist Association quoting Douglass:

“I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Douglass actually wasn’t an atheist, but rather most likely a Transcendentalist/liberal Unitarian, but that’s beside the point. Most of the comments on this post were what you’d see on any popular religious (or lack thereof)-driven Facebook page: self-congratulation and fervent bashing of anyone who dares have an opinion different from theirs (though in all fairness, I doubt this is the overall attitude of AHA). These comments were most likely from people who, like me, were driven from religion due to an abundance of judgmental douchebags and lack of any spiritual substance. To them, this quote is an affirmation that the real power is within us and therefore God does not exist.

I think they’re only halfway right.

The reason I can’t completely get behind their analysis of this quote is because they seem to have a completely different definition of “prayer” than I do. I covered this to a degree in my “Doing God” post, but my idea of prayer does not constitute asking an invisible sky daddy for everything I want. I pray not to search outward for strength, but inward. I pray to unleash my own potential and to realize my own strength, the strength that I believe God has imprinted upon me. Some would argue that internal prayer is inherently atheistic since you’re essentially searching for your own strength, but it’s my personal view that inner strength was given to us by HaShem to discover and channel.

Having said this, prayer without action is futile and empty. This is why I dislike the phrase, “I’ll pray for [insert tragic event].” This is usually a cop-out meaning, “as long as I ask God to make things, better that relieves me of any and all personal responsibility.” This is the complete and total antithesis to Judaism. Tikkun olam means, “repairing the world,” not “hoping the world will repair itself.” Prayer only works if you take the strength you summon and apply it to achieve your goal.

Case in point: Does anyone remember the grass-type move Solar Beam in the Pokemon games? It’s a move that requires the player’s Pokemon to skip a turn to “take in sunlight,” then unleash a powerful attack against its opponent. Most people pray by simply taking in sunlight, only to wonder why their “opponent” defeated them. You have to hold up your end of the bargain. You have to follow through by taking your channeled sunlight and solar-beaming the %@#! out of your adversary.

Does a loved one have cancer? Pray to unearth your inner strength and wisdom, then use it to comfort that person and assist them however you can. Did a natural distaster or terrorist attack occur? Meditate on it, then give your time and money toward helping those affected. Struggling with a financial or relationship crisis? Dig deep down and find the God-given strength to make a plan to get yourself out of it, then ACTUALLY WORK TO DO IT.

I don’t have much in the way of ending thoughts, except to say that I never thought I could combine 19th century abolitionists and Pokemon into a single blog post centering on personal action from a Jewish lens, but there you go. No matter what you believe, pray with your legs, use Solar Beam, whatever you want to call it. Just make sure it involves getting off your tuchus and getting things done.

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Hevenu Shalom Aleichem

asefchavar.org

For most of my childhood and adolescence, I had considered myself to be a Christian, but it wasn’t till I was 15 that I received what I thought was “The Holy Ghost” at my Pentecostal high school’s church and started taking my faith more seriously. One of the events that spurred this was attending a “passion play” the church was holding just in time for Easter. My science teacher of all people was going to play Jesus, my principal Pontius Pilate, my English teacher Nicodemus, etc.

I almost didn’t go. I could’ve done so much other stuff on a Friday night besides watching a play about a story I already knew, but for some reason, I felt spiritually compelled to attend. Once I arrived, I took my seat and the lights dimmed. Then, out of the darkness, a light appeared onstage and the first thing that caught my eye was near the ceiling. This church’s sanctuary normally has a small cream-colored cross just underneath the ceiling.

In place of this cross was a star of David.

And then the music started.

A bunch of actors in Biblical era clothing gathered on stage, some I recognized from my school faculty and student body, some I had never met from the church. A lively Yiddish musical soundtrack began playing, and everyone on stage danced around and singing in Hebrew. I could make out what they were saying: “Hevenu shalom aleichem.” I knew the last two words, but later found out the whole sentence means, “We brought peace upon you.”

This was my first live experience with Jewish music, and sitting there in that dimmed sanctuary hearing a language that was mysterious, yet somehow very familiar deep down in my soul, was totally mystifying. It was joyful and echoed centuries of love and life and learning with each beautiful chant. It even brought me closer to God, just not in the way I was used to as a Christian. I loved it. It fulfilled a part of me that conventional Christianity didn’t, and I wanted more.

This was most likely the event that spurred an “applied” interest in Judaism. While I never began studying Hebrew, I started referring to Jesus as Y’shua. It made me feel more authentic as a Christian and as an ethnic Jew. I researched Messianic Judaism, and the idea that I could marry my Christian upbringing with Jewish belief and practice made me absolutely joyous. Of course, my following research into why non-Messianic Jews rejected Jesus made me realize why the two religions aren’t compatible, but you get my point. It reawakened an interest in this part of myself and led me to where I am today.

Case in point: I was at Friday night Shabbat service this past week, and during the oneg, the Rabbi led us in some light singing to accompany our noshing. One of the songs was “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” A wave of nostalgia ran over me, and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Here I am, 26 years old, sitting in a Reform synagogue with a Sephardic kippah on my head, equipped with a different (yet equally fulfilling) relationship with God, singing a Hebrew song that I heard for the first time in a Pentecostal church.

It’s kind of funny: Those actors really did help bring peace upon me.

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Let Them Carry

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jewishrecon.org

As somewhat of a critic of organized religion (despite converting to an organized religion), one of my biggest complaints has always lied within some religions’ problem of misogyny. Religious texts placing questionable constructs on women have shaped civilization throughout the centuries, with the 19th and 20th centuries seeing a sharp and necessary advent in women’s rights, paving the ground work of creating equality with men. This has been seen in both secular and religious settings, the former providing women with access to education, jobs, and civil rights, and the latter encouraging egalitarianism in liberal synagogues and even rabbinic certification.

Regardless, more work needs to be done, and this is clearly evidenced by the recent actions of the Orthodox Jewish Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland. According to a Haaretz.com article, two female students, Lea Herzfeld and Yakira Zimand, wanted to carry their school’s Torah scroll around the sanctuary like their male classmates.

“We just felt like we were sitting in davening and didn’t have a meaningful experience. We don’t participate with anything with the Torah,” said Herzfeld. “We go to the back of the room whenever the Torah is being passed around and kiss it from a tiny spot behind the mehitzah.”

“It feels really uncomfortable to have a ton of girls try and squish into that really small spot to have any contact with the Torah,” said Zimand.

The students’ request was denied by the school’s headmaster, Joshua Levisohn. He stated that if the students acquired enough signatures on a petition, the issue would be reexamined. However, since their Change.org petition is “public” and not within the “school community”, the signatures are invalid. This controversy comes a decade after the school finally allowed boys to carry the Torah to the girls’ side of the sanctuary, permitting them to touch or kiss it.

Some may argue, “Well, it’s Orthodoxy. They’re obligated to follow all 613 mitzvot.” True, except there is no rule that says women cannot carry the Torah. Anywhere. It’s a social construct with ZERO halachic value. Still, the headmaster asserts that allowing girls to carry the Torah “narrows the separation between men and women in davening” and creates a “slippery slope, of using unorthodox methods for change in Orthodox practices.” I wholly disagree.

Women carrying the Torah around their sections do absolutely nothing to break the congregational divide of women and men in shul. It gives them the right to actively live and breathe their Judaism, to celebrate the physical evidence of their bond with God and Israel.

Additionally, women are carrying the Torah in more Orthodox congregations than ever now. Levisohn stated that “only” 20% of Orthodox congregations in the D.C. area allow women to carry, as if that’s supposed to justify his ruling. 20% is not a majority, but it’s also not scant. That’s a solid 1/5th of D.C. Orthodox Jewry openly saying that women have just as much a right to carry the most sacred of Jewish objects as men do. That number needs to grow, but it’s a damn good start.

But let’s put aside that this rule is clearly based on misogyny and has nothing to do with halacha. It’s giving Jewish girls and women a clear message that they aren’t good enough to embrace the Torah; and that, of course, drives them away from Judaism.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, weighed in by saying, “I’m not sure why it should be problematic to give women a moment with the sefer Torah, our holiest object,” adding that because of this baseless rule, “women aren’t showing up” to daven due to alienation. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like a pretty big responsibility of congregations is to NOT lose members.

Judaism, no matter the branch, is supposed to encourage all Jews to “do God” without judgment or shame, particularly by performing a ritual that honors their sacred yoke without breaking it. Forbidding an act solely for being “unusual” halts progress and contradicts the very values that make Judaism such a rich and beautiful religious civilization.

I encourage all Orthodox clergy to reexamine this rule, and more importantly, to ask their girls and women what they think. They may very well be surprised at how many people want to see a change take place; a change that can and will bring even more female congregants closer to their Judaism, and in turn, could very well change the world.

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From “Finding God” To “Doing God”

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“I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. And if I was good, I’d go to heaven. And if I’d ask Jesus, he’d forgive me and that was that. And here y’all are saying there ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like … you do God.”

– Tova bat Avraham v’Sarah (“Black” Cindy Hayes), Orange is the New Black

Most practitioners of the art of “binge watching” recognize that monologue, given by an inmate of the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility. In a rather humorous attempt to fake Jewishness to score better-tasting kosher prison food, Cindy ironically discovers that she wants to convert to Judaism, taking on the Hebrew name Tova (טוֹבָה).

Her speech inspires the rabbi, whom she solicited to be in her beit din (conversion court), and he instantly approves her to become Jewish. This is not how conversion works, since the rabbi would have her spend months reading, debating, and practicing Judaism and THEN approve her, but for all intents and purposes, after she took a dip in the nearby (also halachically-questionable) lake, she’s Jewish.

I really like this speech for two reasons. First, her experience mirrored my own (aside from the whole prison thing). I was raised in the A.M.E.C. (African Methodist Episcopal Church) and attended Christian school for most of my childhood. I’m grateful for this, considering I believe church and private school kept me out of trouble and instilled certain values which I still hold to this day. Additionally, as I matured, so did my faith, since Jesus became more of an authentic positive force in my life as a teenager, as opposed to just a living embodiment of God that I revered as a child.

However, I was also raised to believe in heaven and hell, the former for saved and baptized Christians and the latter for sinners and Christians who haven’t confessed their sins to Jesus. As a child with a fear of the unknown, the concept of hell terrified me. Eternity in a lake of fire? For committing even a minor sin like lying or swearing? It was what kept me praying all the time. Before every meal, before bedtime, even at random points during the day. I wanted so badly to be on God’s good side that I prayed to the heavens for forgiveness of my sins, always ending with, “In Jesus’ name, amen.”

The phrase “to the heavens” is important, because this is one of many instances where certain sects of Christianity and Judaism differ. This is not only because Jews are unsure of the existence of heaven, but also because God is not something “above” me, God is both beyond me and within me; God simply “is”. As humans, we partner with God, not simply bow to her.

This is why we say blessings over wine and bread as opposed to grapes and wheat. What’s not as crucial is the fact that God created grapes and wheat, but rather our partnership with God to create wine and bread as nourishment. The application of taking what is and transforming it into something else entirely for the good of mankind is “doing God.”

By observing Shabbat, I’m doing God. By communing with my friends and family, I’m doing God. By exercising and eating right, by writing and reading, by creating a life that brings happiness to myself and others and repairing the world, I’m doing God.

As a Christian, I worshiped God by flattering him. I prayed to the heavens in exaltation, I shouted and cried to God, getting lost in her, as if I were on some drug no man could ever duplicate. Jews exalt God during prayer too, but as a more focused (and emotionally collected) means to an end. Prayer and study bring us closer to God not because it flatters her, but because it empowers us. It gives us the strength and confidence to fulfill our goals and destinies, to change the world, to “do God.”

I have no need to find God. God has already been there even when I didn’t fully believe in him and even when I hated him. What matters to me now is seeing God not just as a proper noun, but as a proper verb.

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