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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. Scroll down to see the most popular stories. What stories would you like me to tackle in the next year? Send me your ideas! I’d love to hear

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Who came up with the idea of bodily resurrection after death? Like many people – Christian and Jewish alike – for most of my life I made the assumption that this was a distinctly Christian idea.

It makes sense that people would have this assumption. Christianity is so singularly focused on the resurrection of Jesus – and Jews have developed such a knee-jerk reaction against anything remotely resembling this concept – equating human resurrection with Christianity is a pretty natural thing to do. It was only as I got deeper into my Jewish learning that I began catching hints that maybe, this idea wasn’t entirely born out of Christianity at all!

In Hebrew, the word for "resurrection" is "gilgul"

Background: Jewish Biblical and Rabbinic Views

The Jewish belief in resurrection finds its origins in the Bible, but the only explicit references to human resurrection after death – two of them – are fleeting and appear in the later-written portions of Tanakh. (The first is in Daniel 12:2-3, and second is in Isaiah 26:19.)

It’s obvious that later exegesis would find allusions to resurrection in other biblical texts: For example, Deuteronomy 32:39 says of God: “I slay and revive; I wounded and I will heal.” Passages from Psalms, Job and Isaiah speak of misery and dire peril as death-like states, where the victim descends to Sheol and God “restores to life.” 

Despite these later interpretations, however, such passages are not explicit statements of a bodily resurrection after death. To interpret them as such is actually a contradiction of other biblical statements that clearly argue against after-death resurrection.  One clear example is in Job 7:7-9 when Job says: “Remember that my life is a breath; My eye will not again see good … A cloud dissolves and it is gone; So is one who descends to sheol; He will not ascend.”

This then leaves an unanswerable question: Did Jews living in the biblical era really believe in resurrection? It could be argued either way. I would suggest that given the relative dearth of clear statements in its favor, the concept was a later idea that was retrojected into the biblical era by late-era writers, or even rabbinic-era editors.

By the rabbinic time period, the Pharisees clearly did have an evolving belief in physical resurrection – and this was one of the most significant points of dispute between them and the competing Sadducees. After the destruction and the ascension of the Pharisaic viewpoint, this belief made its way into many rabbinic-era texts. Two examples from the Talmud include: Ketubot 111b, which states the dead will resurrect wearing their clothes; and Sanhedrin 72a, which says the righteous, whom God will resurrect, will not return to dust. The rabbis also canonized this belief in liturgy, such as the second half of the 18 benedictions of the Amidah.

How exactly such resurrection was viewed in the rabbinic era is up for debate. Louis Finkelstein, in his book Mavo le-Massekhtot Avot ve-Avot de-Rabbi Natan, offers two schools of thought on the matter, which he believes go back to the schools of Hillel and Shammai. In Shammai, the soul descends to Sheol upon death and inactively awaits physical resurrection of the righteous. In Hillel, souls arise to be judged immediately after death. The rabbis’ later use of the term “the world to come” is meant to be deliberately vague, so as not to side with one school or another, he says.

While Finkelstein’s view is not the only theory regarding rabbinic views on resurrection, it is a very intriguing one to me from the perspective of Jewish vs. Christian origins of the resurrection belief. If Finkelstein is right – there really were two major competing schools of thought coming from two major Jewish groups in the early 1st century – then that indicates that “resurrection ideas” were very much swarming in the cultural milieu out of which Christianity emerged. [Hillel’s lifespan is dated to around 60 BCE – 20 CE; Jesus is dated to around 5 BCE – 30 CE]. And the Christian view was firmly rooted in the Pharisaic, rather than the Sadduceean, tradition.

Mormon scholar James Edward Talmage indirectly echoes this idea when he points out that, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Sadducees are often depicted as opposing the early Christian communities “doubtless due to the prominence given the resurrection of the dead among the themes of apostolic preaching,” he writes.  [Jesus the Christ: The Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures, p. 73]

Resurrection in the Middle Ages

What we have established so far is that the idea of bodily resurrection found its origins in Judaism, not Christianity. It was perhaps in a nascent state of formation in the biblical era, and by the rabbinic era, it had been embraced and was being expanded on by one of the leading powerful sects of the day; and it was this sect whose ideas ultimately won out after the Roman invasion.

Resurrection was an idea that quickly became a part of early Christian communities, but there can be little doubt that it was Judaism, and not Christianity, that invented the concept. (In fact, to be clear, the oldest foundation of an individualized resurrection theology would best be attributed to the Greeks, but here I am merely trying to address the Jewish vs. Christian origins.)

It was not, however, until the Middle Ages, that we see the notion of resurrection becoming a popular topic of conversation and a cornerstone of belief – for both Christians and Jews – although there were clear differences in how, exactly, resurrection would work. Even within the Christian and Jewish worlds, beliefs were extremely fractured, to the point that it is quite difficult to generalize what the “medieval view” really was.

“Among the medieval Jewish philosophers there were many differences of opinion with regard to the resurrection,” explains the Encyclopedia Judaica. “These controversies depend for the most part on the fact that it was not clear, or certainly not explicit, that there had been controversy in the talmudic period. Consequently some thinkers accepted one of the talmudic opinions, and others contested their views, without realizing that they were simply following different sides of an old argument.”

Here are some highlights of how key medieval Jewish theologians viewed resurrection:

• Saadiah Gaon said dead souls remain in a treasury until the resurrection, but does not endorse a physical resurrection. This is in line with the Beit Shammai point of view.

• Maimonides lists belief in resurrection as the 13th of his 13 principles of faith in his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin. However, the little writing he did on the topic left him open to complaint that perhaps his views were not genuine. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a defense of his view, in Essay on the Resurrection. His explanation of resurrection was, however, somewhat unorthodox. He believed God, and not a human messiah, would bring about resurrection. The resurrection would also be temporary; a second “death” would occur and at that point, the human soul would be what is everlasting.

• Nahmanides challenges the view that the resurrected dead will eventually die. He believes resurrected bodies will be somewhat ethereal compared to truly corporeal bodies, and he does not believe that they will eventually die. This can be seen as a synthesis between the two rabbinic opinions.

• Hasdai Crescas is the first medieval writer to note that there appears to be a contradiction in rabbinic resurrection views. He maintained that everyone but the greatest sinners will be resurrected, that there will be a court of judgment, and that the righteous will live forever in refined bodies.

What all of these views do have in common – apart, perhaps, from Maimonides – is that body and soul are seen as important. The body is not merely a vessel for housing the soul, but rather is used as a way of ensuring accountability for human actions. “Whether it is understood that all people are resurrected for judgment, body and soul together, or whether only the bodies of the righteous are resurrected to enjoy the redemption, the central stress is the same,” the EJ explains. The human being is one essence, a unit, not merely a soul housed in a body which itself is of no worth.”

Over on the Christian side of the aisle, we see, at the meta-level, the same fundamental belief: human bodies do resurrect, and this resurrection is based on some kind of divine judgment.

In what is deemed the preeminent scholarly investigation into Christian views of resurrection, Caroline Walker Bynum traces, in meticulous detail, the evolution of the idea – and the impassioned debates around it – in Christian communities between 200 and 1336.  In doing so, she demonstrates that “Christians clung to a very literal notion of resurrection despite repeated attempts by theologians and philosophers to spiritualize the idea.”

Her book then goes on to analyze in detail all of the major Christian works to address this theology during this time period; suffice it to say, the sheer number of works produced, and the focus they took on the tiniest of details, far exceed any hope for summary! (Peter Lombard is captivated by such issues as what age, gender and height a resurrected body might be; Albert, Thomas and Giles debated endlessly over risen fingernails and embryos, not to mention the fate of genitals and intestines in heaven. These are just to name a few.)

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Toward the end of my first year in rabbinical school, I happened to end up in two separate conversations with seminary students studying to become Christian ministers. They both asked me a variation of the same question: “How much Jesus do you study in rabbi school?”

It’s actually a great question, and I couldn’t help but to chuckle at my own answer: “To be honest, he hasn’t come up once this entire year!” I told them. It was funny because I could only imagine how strange that must sound to them. They probably don’t go one hour without the J-word coming up!

After three years in school, I can amend my answer, but only slightly. Jesus has come up in our history courses dealing with the Judaism of the 2nd Temple period and the various apocalyptic movements that were proliferating at that time.

Later on in my studies, I suspect he might come up more often, as we begin studying the impact of medieval Christianity on Jewish theology and society. And it certainly becomes a part of discussions about our contemporary Jewish world – although that tends to be more about the Big C as opposed to the Big J.

These seminary students’ question, though, still comes back to me after all these years, because it’s actually a quite interesting topic! While we don’t have the time nor the reason to do any in-depth study of Jesus the Prophet (or any other prophet) in rabbi school, our tradition has preserved some fascinating stories about Jesus, some of which date as far back as some of the earliest Christian texts.

Of course, what we identify as a “Jewish text” versus a “Christian text” becomes murky the further back we go, as some of the earliest Christians were Jews. What I am referring to are texts produced by the rabbinic communities that rejected the early Christian claims, and who were essentially responding to them in the typical modes of rabbinic literature. These are found in texts as old as the Tosefta, c 100CE.

A wonderful book was published in August 2009 by Princeton University Press on this topic, called Jesus in the Talmud. Written by scholar Peter Schafer, the book explores the fascinating references rabbinic texts make to Jesus and Mary, and offers an insightful analysis of what they were really saying. This latter point is crucial, for the cryptic, abbreviated nature of rabbinic literature can make them quite difficult to figure out!

One of the most fascinating pieces of the story is learning that the reason these rabbinic-era texts are not found in our modern day editions of the Talmud, Mishnah or Tosefta is because they were cut out during the Middle Ages – and not by Jews, but by Christians!

Schafer explains:

“The earliest available evidence for our Jesus texts is the Firenze manuscript from the late 12th century. The latest manuscript is a Yemenite manuscript from the second half of the 16th century. Altogether, the transmission history of the Bavli text is hampered by the fact that many of the earlier manuscripts are lost because of the aggressive policy of the Catholic Church against the Talmud, which culminated in the many burnings of the Talmud ordered by the Church (at first 1242 in Paris). Moreover, after the (in)famous Christian-Jewish disputation of Barcelona in 1263, the Church began (often relying on the ‘expertise’ of Jewish converts) to censor the Talmud text and to eliminate (erase, blacken, etc) all the passages that the experts found objectionable or offensive to Christian doctrine. It goes without saying that passages referring to Jesus became the prime victim of such activity. In later printed editions, many such supposedly incriminating passages were left out by the Jewish printers themselves in order not to jeopardize the publication of the Talmud (or of other Hebrew books).”

One of the great strengths of Schafer’s book is how it is organized. If you don’t have the time, interest or attention span to read a detailed analysis of each of the texts he presents, Schafer’s first and last chapters provide great thematic summaries. Just by reading those two chapters, you will walk away with a good sense of what these texts were about, and the historical contexts in which they were written.

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To write your own wedding vows, or not to write your own vows: That is the question. About half of the couples whose weddings I have officiated have wrestled with that question. Most of them, in the end, decide not to.

What are the pros and cons of writing your own vows? What are the different ways it can be done?  This blog post strives to answer those questions, by offering some examples of successful vow exchanges I have seen.


Pros to writing your own vows:

● You get to say exactly what you want to say.

● It’s a chance to show off your fine verbal skills – and your sense of humor.

● It is sure to make half the women in the audience cry.

● It is sure to make half the men in the audience struggle really hard NOT to cry.


Cons to writing your own vows:

● It’s hard. Really hard. How do you boil down such sweeping concepts as “love” and “eternity” into the English language? That’s why we have poets. Not everyone is cut out for this work.

● It takes time. And time is one of the few things couples have before weddings. Don’t you have some centerpieces that need stuffed? And where in the world is grandma’s old blue garter belt anyway? Has that been found?

● You don’t just have to write it. You have to read it. Out loud. In public. Without making a snot-filled fool of yourself. Hey, if you can get through it, you have my endless admiration. I can never get through a wedding without losing a tear or two myself, and I’m the officiant. I’m the one person who is supposed to have it pulled together! So if you can write and deliver your vows and keep your composure while doing it, my kippah is off to ya!


Here are three different ways of writing your vows:

1)      The groom reads his words. Then the bride reads her words (or vice versa). Below is a draft of one groom’s vows to his wife, which I found particularly lovely. With his permission, I am pasting them below. The vows were kept as a surprise to the other party; I looked over them to make sure they were similar in length and tone, and made slight editing suggestions to make them “match up.”

2)      The groom and bride alternate sentences. This came off really well; the crowd was touched, and everyone laughed a lot too.

3)      The groom reads; then the bride reads. The couple planned their vows together, to play off the same words and phrases. The guests loved these vows too.


OPTION No. 1: Surprise Vows

Groom reads. Then bride reads. (Or vice versa). Only the officiant has checked their vows before the big day. Here is just what the groom wrote.

 

Example from their Jewish wedding, replete with military honor guards, at World Cafe Live:

Alanah: Two-and-a-half years ago, I asked you out for coffee, out on our first date and thankfully, you said yes. After that date, we so effortlessly became entwined in each other’s lives, it was easy to picture this day ahead.

Eighteen months ago, while on a very long distance phone call, I asked you to move with me from California all the way here to the East Coast, and thankfully, you said yes. It was a leap of faith for both of us; a fantastic storyline still unfolding.

One year ago, while on vacation in paradise, I asked you to join me up here, witnessed by our family and friends, under this chuppah we’ve since created together, to take my hand and be my wife, and thankfully, you said yes.

So now, in front of our family and friends, I have another question to ask, one that you spend the rest of our lives answering:

Will you forever be my partner in this adventure of life and lend your endless patience to help me create a loving household where mutual respect, communication and unconditional love reign over all. Will you continue to be an everlasting source of deep personal strength, the rock by my side through trying times and stay the reassuring voice of better times ahead. Will you forever be the smiling face by my side every morning, to lighten my days with the sweetness of your personality and continue to be the most genuinely kind person I’ve ever met.

Though we walked up here separately, in a few minutes you and I will take hands and walk down off this stage, and down the aisle past our family and friends, and into our future as partners, as husband and wife. I can’t wait.

 

OPTION No. 2: The Planned Back-And-Forth

(The couples exchanges one-line vows, which they clearly wrote together. Groom in bold. Bride in plain script.)

 

Example from their secular wedding at a funky nightclub in Manyunk:

Groom: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

Bride: With this ring, I promise to be your best friend

I promise to cook for you

I promise to try your cooking and bake you treats

To have family dinners every night

To ask you about your day and tell you about mine

To listen and hear your point of view

To respect you

To always be honest

To tell you how I feel

To play with your hair

To fold your socks and do the dishes

To support you in achieving your goals

To be your biggest fan

To compromise

To share my bowl of ice cream, and other things in life

To control my temper

To always say ‘I’m Sorry’

To hold you in good times and bad

To make you laugh

To let you have the window seat on the plane rides home

To take lots of pictures so we can always remember the good times

To tell you that you’re beautiful

To love you even in the moments when I don’t like you

To take care of you

To try new things

To never stop traveling the world

To be open minded

To be the best father I can be

To be the best mother I can be

To always put family first

To kiss you every morning

And tuck you in every night

I love you

I love you too

 

OPTION No. 3: The Planned Paragraph Vow

(The couples takes turns reading their half of a script, which the pair clearly wrote together. The upside is it creates and plays off of the parallel structure and promises. The downside is, neither bride nor groom is surprised in the moment.)   

 

Example from their secular Jewish wedding at Morris Arboretum:

Lauren:

Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and my hand in yours.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your thoughts, your worries, your dreams and your concerns.

I promise to look after you. When you have a knot in your back, I will kneed it. When your head has a fever, I will cool it. And when you need ice cream, I will help you eat it.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From furry and mischievous kittens to your interests and hobbies, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are. When you wake up with only breakfast on your mind, I will steer you to Kashi. When we are out of Kashi, I will make you eggs.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will give support as you seek out your goals, when you are successful and when you fall short. When you achieve your goals, I will be there to celebrate. When you do not, I will be there to comfort.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.

Stephen:

Standing with you here today, among our family and friends, I cannot wait to begin this journey into the rest of our lives, with you by my side and your hand in mine.

I promise to listen. I will listen to your zany, impossible ideas, your worries, and your dreams.

I promise to look after you. When you can’t figure out how to use our kitchen appliances, I will help you.  When you have a bad dream, I will comfort you.  And when you crave the mushroomy thing I make that you love, I will make it for you.

I promise to treasure what you treasure. From kittens, to data analysis, to moments of peace and quiet, I will help you enjoy life and experience it fully.

I promise to accept and embrace your idiosyncrasies. I will remember that our quirks make us who we are.  When you get so hungry that you forget to eat, I will bring you a snack.  When you need to double check something one more time – just to be sure – I will smile and remember that your careful nature is a wonderful part of who you are.

I promise to support you emotionally. I will be there with you as you pursue your dreams.  I will celebrate with you when you are successful, and I will comfort you when you fall short.  I will never let you forget how exceptional you are.

I promise to not take our relationship for granted. I will actively nurture ‘us’. I will continue to communicate and check-in, to keep us stronger together than we are apart.

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Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love

- A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so

 A few weeks ago, I had the complicated privilege of helping a family plan a memorial/shiva service for their father, who had died after a long illness, and after an even longer period of pain of estrangement from his four adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren.

“Andy,” as I will call him, was a complicated persotombstonen, which is why I described my job, as the rabbi, to be “complicated.”

Andy was in his 80s and was hard to get along with, perhaps even abusive at times to his children. He played favorites in a way that the adult children had learned to cope with, but which had surely created much pain and heartache when they were younger and less mature. Andy had divorced his kids’ mother and she had no interest in attending any kind of memorial. None of the women he had dated since  the divorce cared to attend any kind of service either. It appears he had no friends.

Jewish burial practices were clearly made with a different kind of person in mind. Jews and non-Jews alike, including the world of psychiatric research, has a great deal of admiration for the way Jewish tradition handles end-of-life mourning practices. People have written many books about the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, and how they seem designed to gradually lead the survivors through the stages of mourning, and eventually back into the world of the living.

I agree. They are brilliant. And I encourage Jews who never do more Jewishly in their lives than appear at Kol Nidre services to take the time to familiarize themselves with the Jewish ways of mourning when a loved one dies. Together, they betray a keen awareness of how we humans process loss, and how marking intervals of time over this mourning process with specific rituals and prayers can help us move through our grief.

I won’t go into the various elements now – you can read them many places. Rather, what I would like to talk about here are those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right.

• The death of someone who is very old, and thus leaves few survivors, is one whole category of cases where classical Jewish mourning practices don’t entirely make sense.

• The death of someone who was, essentially, a hard person to love, is another important category. This is the situation “Andy’s” family found themselves in.

In a “typical” death of a beloved, Jewish tradition kicks in with a set of clearly prescribed actions:

1.         Call the funeral home.
2.         Plan for either a burial or cremation.
(40% of Jews today are being cremated; it’s the hush-hush secret no on talks about.)
3.         Schedule a date and plan on 100+ people coming to the funeral home for a service inside the funeral home.
4.         A portion of those mourners will then drive to the graveside, where thtexte rabbi will read a few more psalms or poems, and conclude with the mourner’s kaddish. The final act is the throwing of dirt on the casket or the urn that is being buried. You can assume steps 1-4 will take about 5 hours out of your day, much of it in travel time, since the funeral homes and the burial grounds are often located very far apart. In Philly, most of them are located in the far outskirts of the city.
5.         Then comes shiva. Traditionally, it is 7 nights, but most families outside Orthodoxy observe only 1 or 2 nights. The rabbi who led the funeral usually leads the shiva as well, unless you have an educated friend or family member who can lead the service. (This is one way of saving some money, if that is an issue.)
6.         Then, about 6 months after the death, immediate family members gather graveside for the unveiling of the tombstone. This is a brief ceremony, 15 minutes tops, but people often have lunch together afterward. Due to travel time, this often takes another 3-4 hours.

The average cost for all this (assuming a burial and not a cremation) is $35,000, according to national statistics. The rabbi makes a miniscule fraction of this sum, by the way. In Philadelphia, the fixed rate for a funeral is $545 for the rabbi; shiva minyans and tombstone unveilings are negotiated separately, and vary depending on travel time.

At the end of the day, this “whole big megilla” of a traditional Jewish burial is a whole lot of money. It’s especially a lot of money if you suspect few people will even attend the funeral, the graveside, or a shiva, either because the deceased had outlived his social circle, or because the deceased was that sort of person who was simply hard to love.

But put aside all financial considerations for a moment and just think about the emotional ones. Do you want to invest 10 or 15 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you deep grief or heartache? How much time do you want to spend formally mourning a person who caused you to spend years of your life on a therapist’s couch?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say: Probably not much.

But that also doesn’t mean you don’t want to do nothing at all, either.

A memorial service, however it is done, is for the living, not for the dead. So first and foremost, it needs to meet the needs of the immediate mourners. The many layered, time-consuming, expensive rituals usually done upon the death of a beloved was not what Andy’s family needed.

Although the death of a difficult family member, like Andy, is a different kind of loss than the death of someone close, but it is still very much a loss. Sometimes, quixotically, it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of feels of regret, thoughts of “if only…” and “what if…”

The death of a person with whom you had a broken relationship means this relationship can NEVER be repaired. It likely couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but the survivor is left with the shards of this broken vessel for the remainder of their days, and they need to make peace with it.

Having a brief, perhaps in-home memorial service with just immediate family members can be one way of helping them do that.

Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. They had already figured out, long before calling me, that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, to put it bluntly, overkill. But they did instintively know that they needed to come together as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and for worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.

They were so right. So, working together, here is what we did. I think of it as a Jewish funeral/shiva combo. It was inexpensive; it was respectful; and it served its purpose of helping the mourners mark the loss of their father, that they might now move forward to this new phase in their lives.

 A Combined Home Memorial  / Shiva Minyan Service

(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home/graveside service/
and then shiva minyans)

Timing: Andy had died and been cremated about one month earlier. An in-home memorial was planned for a few weeks after his death to give relativmosaices from out of town time to buy plane tickets at a reasonable price and prepare time off from work and school (in the case of the grandchildren).

Location: At the home of one of Andy’s daughters in the Mainline PA.

Time: Late morning or early afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday seemed to make the most sense. This minimized impact on their own work/school lives, while also making it possible to follow the home memorial with a meal together, which they had at a restaurant. (I led the service, but did not join them at the meal).

In Attendance:  Four surviving daughters, their four spouses, and all but one of the grandchildren (the missing grandchild was in college and had only met his grandfather once, so in his case, it didn’t seem to make sense that he would incur the cost and headache of missed collegiate work.)

 A Sample Service:

We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room, where we could all face each other.

Rabbi: I began with a favorite reading from Albert Einstein, where he reflects on the meaning of life. I concluded by saying:

“Thank you to all of you who have come here today, to stand in comfort and support of the Smith family, as they mourn the passage of their father, father-in-law and grandfather, Andy Smith. Please turn to page 4a.

 Rise for the Shema

Rabbi: Read a brief writing from Chaim Stern

Volunteer Reader: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim

Everyone: Recite the Shema together

Volunteer Reader: Read an English rendition of V’ahavta

Rabbi: “There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift and forsaken, unable to reach those next to us, or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose, and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. Fear and loneliness enter into the soul. None of us is immune from doubt and fear; none escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then, the ebb-tide of the spirit, the soul cries out and reaches for companionship.”

Please turn to 13a as we rise and recite together the first three blessings of the psalmnatureAmidah. For the 15 remaining blessings, I invite you to recite them silently, or simply take this time for quiet personal reflection.

 Group: Recites the Amidah (Also called “The Tefillah”)

 Conclude the Amidah by singing together “Oseh Shalom”

Rabbi: Shares a reading from Marge Piercy

Rabbi: Shares some highlights from Andy Smith’s life: where he was born, raised, what kind of work he did. Mention his strengths and those things he did well in life.

Then open the circle to anyone else who would like to share some memories
Three members of the family shared some brief positive memories they had of Andy.

Volunteer Reader: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Death is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at other funerals and liked it.)

Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a mournful prayer in which we ask that the soul of the departed carry on into the next world on the wings of angels.

Rabbi: Leads the concluding Mourner’s Kaddish.

 *   *   *

Shavuot: Let's keep it the harvest holiday it was originally meant to be!

This is just one of many ways a combined at-home memorial / shiva service can be conducted. The readings and content was selected after speaking with the family members. All in all, the service lasted about 40 minutes.

Every death is different. The needs of the mourners will be different for any family. To discuss what kind of service might meet the needs of your family, please give me a call. There is never any charge for a consultation, and if I feel I am not able to meet the needs of your family – for whatever reason – I am happy to help you find someone who will.

Every death, even the most difficult one, deserves to be honored and recognized in some way. Working together, we can make this happen for you. I have formal training across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Secular-Humanist. We can craft a ceremony that honors your theistic beliefs, and those of the deceased.

Please call both my numbers, and my email, if you are trying to schedule a memorial/shiva. I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so try all three. My name is Joysa and my numbers are 610-642-2420. Cell 267-902-7752. Email: joysa@aol.com

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As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.’

Still he delayed. So the angels seized his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – in God’s mercy – and brought him out and left him outside the city.

When they had brought them outside, one said to Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away!’

But Lot argued with the angel, ‘Evil may take hold of me if I flee to the hills,’ he said. ‘Look — there is a small town nearby. Let me go there and save my life!’ The angel relented. ‘Go quickly,’ the angel said, ‘for I can do nothing until you get there.’

As the brimstone and fire then rained out of the heavens onto Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looked behind him and became a pillar of salt.
(Genesis 19:15-26)

I confess, I have always had a certain affection for the woman in the Bible we know only as “Lot’s wife.” Any way you look at it, she got the raw end of a really raw deal.

For starters, she was married to a dolt — and even that descriptor is too generous when you look at just how incompetent Lot really was.

First, in Genesis 19:8, he offers his two virgin daughters to the men of the town to “do with as you please.” It is only thanks to the intervention of the angels that the young women are saved. Then, in verse 20, when the angels urge Lot to take his family and flee the city before it’s too late, he dilly dallies so long, the angels have to physically take his hand and lead them out of town.

Once outside, the angels urge him again to flee, and what does Lot do? He stands his ground and argues with them! “It’s too far!” he complains. “Can’t I just go to that town over there instead!?!” The angels acquiesce again, holding back the brimstone and fire until the family has reached safety.

Then, in a final act of irresponsibility, Lot fails to tell his wife and daughters the warning one of the angels had given him in verse 17 — that crucial piece of information about how, if they look back at the destruction, they too will be swept away. The text states clearly that the angels warned him — “al tavit achareycha” — in the masculine singular. These crucial words of warning were only spoken to Lot, not to the rest of his family. And Lot, being the kind of guy Lot was, never relayed them. We all know how this tragic series of events ends. Lot’s wife looks behind them and turns into a pillar of salt.

The question that has been occupying rabbinic commentators ever since is: Why did she look? Some have answered generously.

Writing in 12th century Egypt, Maimonides said Lot’s wife was looking behind her husband to see who might be following him, acting as a rear guard for all his household, who were hurrying to be saved.

The  late 14th century agaddic collection Midrash ha-Gadol says she felt concern for her married daughters, whom they had left behind, and she was turning to see if they were following.

Other commentators, overlooking the crucial fact that she had never heard the angels’ warning, concoct far more damning explanations. The 3rd century midrashic collection B’reishit Rabba said she had once refused to give salt to a poor person, so being turned into salt was a punishment ‘measure for measure.’

Jacob Chinitz, rabbi emeritus of Beth Ami Congregation in Philadelphia, now living in Israel, imagines that she looked back only to delight in the destruction of her townspeople. “She could not resist enjoying their failure and her success even though it was only her good fortune to be married to Abraham’s nephew,” the USCJ explains.

Good fortune!?!? Being married to this schlemiel was good fortune!?!

To my thinking, the question isn’t why did Lot’s wife look back — it’s why wouldn’t she!?

Here she is, the world literally raining down on her in flames, and her future, her fate is entirely dependent on this man who has proven himself paralyzed by indecision. And when he finally does make decisions, they are disastrously bad ones!

Lot’s wife may very well have been looking back out of concern for her other daughters, or out of sorrow at the destruction of the people she knew. We can never know because the text doesn’t give a clue about her inner life.

But what I do know is that I would have looked back — if for no other reason that to make sure we were on a safe path, that we weren’t being pursued, that flame and fire were not lapping at our heels. I would have not only looked back, I would have looked forwards and sideways too, to check, and recheck, that this course of action was the right one. To make sure my inept husband was not leading us into disaster.

When you are tethered, without recourse, to an unfortunate man, you can never be too careful.

I respect Lot’s wife for not following her husband blindly. I admire her for being cautious in a perilous situation in which she had no power. I love the woman depicted by 20th century American poet Shirley Kaufman, who offered this to say about a person so brave and so resolute, whom our history-writers never saw fit to even name:

But it was right that she
looked back. Not to be
curious, some lumpy
reaching of the mind
that turns all shapes to pillars.
But to be only who she was
apart from them, the place
exploding, and herself
defined. Seeing them melt
to slag heaps and the flames
slide into their mouths.
Testing her own lips then,
the coolness, till
she could taste the salt.

Original artwork by Charles Dickinson.

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What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.

But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.

It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.

Here is an article that just came out in the Jewish Daily Forward (October 2013). Think it’s worth sharing!

Published Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pew Survey About Jewish America Got It All Wrong

With Flawed Comparisons, Study Reached Faulty Conclusions

By J.J. Goldberg

If you’ve been following the news about that new survey of American Jews from the folks at the Pew Research Center, you’ve probably heard the basics. The New York Times summed it up nicely: “a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

There’s one more thing you need to know: It’s not true. None of it.

A “rise in those who are not religious”? Wrong. More Jews marrying “outside the faith”? Wrong. More Jews “not raising their children Jewish”? Wrong.

No, not wrong as in “I think there’s a better way to interpret those numbers.” Wrong as in “incorrect.” Erroneous. Whoops.

Mind you, most of what’s in the study seems solid, from what this reasonably informed layman can tell. It just so happens that Pew made an honest mistake in one highly visible spot, and that  is what grabbed the headlines. Then the reporters made a few mistakes reading the material. The result was what you saw: a dark portent of doom.

Take away the errors, and you get a very different narrative. It would go something like this: Despite decades of warnings that American Jewry is dissolving in the face of assimilation and intermarriage, a major new survey by one of America’s most respected social research organizations depicts a Jewish community that is growing more robustly than even the optimists expected.

Over the past quarter-century (it continues), the data show a community that has grown in number. Intermarriage leveled off in the late 1990s after rising steadily through much of the 20th century, and has remained stable for the past 15 years.

By some measures, Jews appear to be increasing overall levels of Jewish practice and engagement. Most surprising, significant numbers of children of intermarriage have grown up to become Jewish adults, far exceeding even their own parents’ intentions.

If things are so good, why do they look so bad? Simple. After calculating its data, Pew compared its findings with an earlier survey to see where things were headed.

Unfortunately, they picked the so-called National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, best remembered as a multimillion-dollar botch job. Its release had been delayed two years to allow two separate reviews by outside experts. The confidential reviews were devastating. This was not a useful data point.

A critical misstep in 2000 was a decision to set aside interviewees with “weak Jewish connections” and not bother asking them detailed questions about Jewish identity. One result was a falsely upbeat picture of Jewish commitment and practice. Another was the disappearance of most Jews who claimed “no religion.” You can guess the rest.

When Pew compared its findings with NJPS 2000-01, researchers were shocked to discover a huge increase in Jews answering “none” for religion. Pew’s total in 2013 was 22%. The records from 2000 turned up 7%. Conclusion: Jews were abandoning religion.

That should have rung an alarm. Fifteen percent of a highly visible and vocal religious community, three-quarters of a million people, quietly losing their religious faith inside a decade? How could that happen?

The answer is, it didn’t. For a reality check, go back to an earlier survey, NJPS 1990, which was highly regarded in most respects. Of 5.5 million Jews it found, 20% chose “none” for religion. Given a 3% margin of error, that’s the same as 22%. There’s been no rise. None.

What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.

But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.

It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.

Also increased, surprisingly, are rates of Passover Seder attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur, Sabbath candle-lighting and kosher food observance. Some of the increase can be explained by the growth of the Orthodox population, from 7% to 10%. But that covers less than half the rise.

One of the biggest surprises in the Pew survey is how many children of intermarriage actually grew up to be Jewish. In the 1990 survey, 28% of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jews.

In 2013, a generation later, at least 43% of those children grew up to be Jewish anyway. And why not? In a world where half-Jews like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ryan Braun, Scarlett Johannson and Drake proudly identify as Jews, Jewish is cool.

It would be a mistake to see the picture as entirely rosy. Adult children of intermarriage who identify as Jews are split roughly evenly between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. By contrast, adults with two Jewish parents identify with religion by a 7-to-1 margin.

This is significant for several reasons. Non-religious Jews tend to have a far more ambivalent tie to Jewish identity. They’re only half as likely to say that being Jewish is important in their lives, that they feel themselves to be part of a Jewish community or that they feel a special obligation to other Jews in need. Only one-third of those with children say they’re raising them as Jews.

On the other hand, if we know anything about the future, it’s that we can’t know the future. Back in 1990, only 28% of half-Jewish children were supposed to end up Jewish, yet nearly half did. Will the children of today’s non-religious Jews turn out the same way? Who knows?

Besides, we know a great deal about what non-religious Jews don’t do or believe, but very little about what they do. Nearly all the survey tools for measuring Jewish behavior describe religious rituals. Non-religious Jews obviously score low.

But we get hints, and they’re intriguing. For example: We know that as interfaith marriages grow in raw numbers, their children increase as a proportion of both religious and especially non-religious Jewry. That should increase the downward pull of non-religious Jews’ ties. And yet the proportion of non-religious Jews who fast on Yom Kippur has more than doubled since 1990, from 10% to 22%.

The lead technical advisor on the 1990 survey, the distinguished Brown University sociologist Sidney Goldstein, wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book that with low birthrate, aging, high intermarriage and few intermarried couples raising Jewish children, “there seems little prospect that the total core Jewish population of the United States will rise above 5.5 million.”

In fact, he wrote, it’s “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.”

Like I said: Whoops.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com

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For you unaffiliated students who do not have a synagogue home, there are numerous synagogues of many tastes and flavors that offer free or near-free services. Please don’t use “I’m not a member!” as an excuse to miss out on some of the most beautiful services and rituals of our tradition!

Putting on multi-day-long religious services is VERY expensive, especially when choirs are hired and they are paid respectable living wages. If you attend a free service, please consider writing a personal thank you note to the congregation that hosted you, and making a donation — however little or much you can afford — to help them offset their expenses.

 

 

Synagogues and High Holiday Ticket Availability for Students

Germantown Jewish Centre (Mt. Airy, PA) — www.germantownjewishcentre.org
GJC warmly welcomes students to share the High Holidays. For full-time students beyond college age, our suggested donation is $36 per person, but students can also make arrangements to pay what works for their household. Contact Nina Peskin (director@germantownjewishcentre.org). There will be four davenning options within GJC: Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan; the main sanctuary service (“Charry” service); Minyan Masorti; as well as a “Kol D’mama” contemplative service.


Kol Tzedek (West Philadelphia) — www.kol-tzedek.org
All students are welcome to come to Kol Tzedek for services. There is no cost for tickets but donations are suggested/requested. There will be an opportunity for online donations.


Mishkan Shalom (Philadelphia/Manyunk, PA) – www.mishkan.org
All students are welcome to come to High Holiday services at Mishkan Shalom. There is no fee and no tickets required; you can just show up. Of course, donations are welcome and accepted!


Pnai Or  (Mt. Airy, PA)– www.pnaior-phila.org/find-us-contact-us
Pnai Or is the Jewish Renewal community located in Mt. Airy. Students are welcome for High Holidays! No tickets required. As R. Marica Prager, Pnai Or’s spiritual leader told me, “just show up with open hearts and an inclination to celebration.” The schedule and details for services will be on their website.


Or Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue (Ft. Washington, PA) — www.orhadash.com
All students are welcome to attend High Holiday services free of charge. Call or e-mail Laurie at 215-283-0276 or Office@OrHadash.com.


Congregation Beth Israel (Media, PA) – http://bethisraelmedia.org
Congregation Beth Israel is happy to welcome students for its High Holiday services. There is no cost for students but donations are requested.


New – Tikkun Olam Havurah
All students are welcome to participate in these services. This is a new/emerging havurah that will be led by Rabbi Linda Holtzman (RRC ’79). There will be services on both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. For more details go to their facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Tikkun-Olam-Chavurah/175989759247342 or email Rabbi Linda at rabbilinda18@gmail.com


Congregation Shireinu (Gladwyn, PA) — www.shireinu.com
Students are welcome any time, including for High Holiday services. No tickets or money is required!

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Prince-William-Kate-Middleton-Preparing-Baby-BirthOh I so love this creative wedding processional, with all the bridal party dressed up to look like the different members of the royal wedding. Can you spot Pippa? Prince Harry?

What a fun way to get a marriage started! Do you have the guts to totally cut-up during your wedding processional?

Oh, lest we all get too hopeful, it turns out the whole thing was staged as a T-Mobile production. But hey, I’m still waiting for that cool, gutzy innovative couple to come to me and say “Ya! Let’s ROCK that processional line!”

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The following poem, called “Miriam’s Song,” was written by contemporary American poet named Eleanor Wilner. Born in Ohio in 1937, Eleanor was on the faculty of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lived part of her life in Philadelphia. It strikes me as a beautiful addendum to my previous post, on women’s role in the Exodus.

Miriam’s Song by Eleanor Wilner

Death to the first born sons, always —
The first fruits to the gods of men.
She had not meant it so, standing in the reeds,
back then, the current tugging at her skirt
like hands, she had only meant to save
her little brother, Moses, red-faced with rage
when he was given
to the river. The long curve of the Nile
would keep their line, the promised land
around the bend. Years later
when the gray angel, like the smoke trail
of a dying comet, passed by their houses
with blood smeared over doorways, Miriam,
her head hot in her hands, wept
as the city swelled
with the wail of Egypt’s women.
Then she straightened up, slowly plaited
her hair and wound it tight around her head,
drew her long white cloak with its deep blue
threads
around her, went out to watch the river
where Osiris, in his golden funeral barge, floated by forever …
as if in offering, she placed a basket on the river,
this time an empty one, without the precious
cargo
of tomorrow. She watched it drift a little from the shore.
She threw one small stone in it,
then another, and another, til its weight
was too much for the water and it slowly turned
and sank. She watched the Nile gape and
shudder,
then heal its own green skin. She went
to join the others, to leave one ruler
for another, one Egypt for the next.
Some nights you still can see her, by some river
where the willows hang, listening to the heavy
tread
of armies, whose sons once hidden dark
in baskets, and in their mind she sees her sister,
the black-eyed Pharaoh’s daughter, lift the baby
like a gift from the brown flood waters
and take him home to save him, such  pretty
boy and so disarming, as his dimpled hands
reach up, his mouth already open
for the breast.

To hear an NPR podcast about Exodus and Wilner’s poem “Miriam’s Song,” click here! This interview first aired On Being in 2005 and includes an interview with Aviva Zornberg. Zornberg is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

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