24 October 2008

You are not a "problem" -- The Truth is not a problem!

Now that the cavalcade of fall Jewish holidays is over (no more chag 'til Pesach!), I hope to have more opportunities to get back to this blog. In the meantime, though, I'll offer you a few fruits of the holiday season!

One of the pleasures of celebrating here this year has been having our new rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, and his family as part of our community. I particularly appreciated his Rosh Hashanah sermon/d'var torah on Truth. You can read it all here (PDF format), but I've excerpted some of the parts that struck me most (please forgive the clumsiness that comes from the cut-and-paste; I'm not reformatting it all here) :

Judaism teaches us a radical understanding of the Truth that we so badly need
to reconnect with in our time. The Hebrew word for ‘Truth’ is Emet. The Talmud
teaches us, Chotmo shel haKadosh Baruch hu Emet, the Seal of God is Truth.[ii] In other
words, every time we look at the Truth square-on, without fear or denial, then we’re
looking as close as we can get to the face of God. The rabbis from all over our tradition
present us with magnificent teachings on how we must relate to the Truth as Jews.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches us that Truth is one of the three fundamental
pillars of the world, along with Din and Shalom--justice and peace.[iii]

One of the strongest champions of Emet, of Truth, was Menachem Mendl of
Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe of the early 19th century. He taught us that the second
paragraph of the Shema says ‘V’samtem et devarai elah al levavchem,’ ‘You shall place
my words ON your heart.’[iv] The Kotzker says, God’s words, the Truth itself, should
indeed be placed on your heart like a great stone. Only when a heart that is clenched
closed, and ossified—afraid of the Truth—will it be weighed down by that stone of Truth.
But if we have the courage to have a heart that is open, we can let the Truth enter into
our hearts. The stone that once weighed heavy on our hearts becomes the agent that
opens our hearts up in life! And then we are transformed, lighter than we ever were,
because we have allowed the Truth in!

If there’s one thing none of us can escape in this life, it’s the Truth. We can run
from it, deny it, but the Truth is always there, often weighing on us like a stone, forcing
us to face it. Many of us fear that the Truth holds terror for us. Most of us assume that
the Truth is a problem. The Truth contains the inevitability of failure, of illness, of
collapse and even death. And so we do anything and everything we can to avoid the
problem of the Truth. And this avoidance, say our rabbis, is our greatest mistake. The
Truth is not a problem—despite its apparent message of tragedy and loss. Quite the
opposite, the Truth has been trying to get us to face it all along because it is the
opposite of frightening. In fact, the Truth contains the solution to all problems! We say
‘Adonai Eloheichem Emet!’ The Truth is the essence of the Divine. No matter what we
think of God, we can believe in the Truth. We can believe in the all-powerful nature of
Reality. The Torah tells us that when God created the world, that world was Tov Me’od,
very good. This world is Good! The Truth of our lives, in all its fearsome reality, is
Good! More often than not, this simple Truth is hard to believe, and yet, this is the heart
of our faith in Judaism: the Truth is Good! And it’s not only Tov Me’od—very good—it is
also ‘Rav Chesed v’ Emet” abounding in the potential for Kindness in its Truth—even in
the midst of loss and hard times.[v] Truth and Chesed—kindness--are linked in Judaism.
They are two aspects of the same thing. *

I speak today about Jewish teachings on the Emet, on Truth, because the Truth
is what all the Jewish people need to face in our time. Particularly in our Conservative
Movement, the time has come to face the Truth, in all its challenging beauty. The
challenge of our Movement, the challenge of Adas Israel, the challenge of all humanity,
is to have the courage to see the Truth as beautiful, no matter what form that Truth

A recent national survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has
shown us a disturbing Truth. The study determined that the religious group in America
that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults
say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s
fourth-largest “religious group.” It would seem that the fastest growing group in this
country has given up on finding Truth in religion. It’s not just a Jewish issue, but it’s
certainly very much our problem anyway. What is going on here? Why is religion, our
religion, failing to reach a whole generation? The answer is that we, the religious
leaders and thinkers, have not grappled enough with the Truth. In the Jewish world,
every program and initiative for the last few generations have declared that there’s
something wrong, or missing or “not enough” about Jewish life in America. Our
religious leaders have confused the Truth with “a problem.” The unquestioned premise
of American Judaism has always been that so long as we can get Jews to become
more observant and knowledgeable, then Jewish life will improve: the “problem” will be

But this take on the Truth is not quite right. If you walked in to this building
today, there is something deep within you—a pintele Yid, a spark of Jewishness—that
already burns in your soul. It’s what brought you here today. It’s all there, now, within
you, already! You don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ You are not a ‘problem.’ Quite the opposite,
you—each and every one of you—are the solution. You are my teachers of the Torah
of your lives, as much as I am your teacher of Torah and mitzvot. This is the Truth.
The Truth is Good! The Truth is not a problem!
Most of you know that I am a passionately observant Jew. I keep kosher. I
daven three times a day. I study Torah every day. I love Israel. I love Jewish holidays.
I love Shabbat and long Shabbat meals where we sing zmirot, traditional Jewish songs.
Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to share that passion with each and every one
of you; to create the conditions where you can discover these joys for yourself. If you
want to learn these things from me and share them with me, then let’s celebrate that. If
you, however, have no interest in any of these things, then I don’t see that as the
slightest problem. It’s just the Truth, and I love the Truth! I want to learn your Torah. I
want our community to celebrate how you do Jewish. My approach is the approach we
all can have among one another—in all our multiple minyanim, in all our programs. We
have so many ways into Truth here: our services, our Gan, our religious school, our
youth programs, our adult education experiences, our social action, bereavement,
membership, our sisterhood and men’s club, service in lay leadership. Each aspect
here is another variant on how to feel welcome, on how to do Jewish, on how to be a
Jew in the fullest sense without anyone to judge you or to tell you that what you’re doing
is not enough.

A midrash is told of how, before God created Adam, the ministering angels were
arguing with God. The angels of love and righteousness urged God to create
humankind, but the angel of Emet, of Truth, urged God not to create humankind
because, Truth argued, human beings so easily delude themselves into confusion and
falsehood. What did God do? He took the angel of Truth and cast him on the ground.
And then, from the dust of the earth, God created humankind.[vi] To this, Rabbi Yehudah
Leib Alter of Ger taught us that Truth lives as a nekudat Elohut, the spark of Divinity—a
pintele Yid—within each of us that we so often cannot find because our hearts are
closed to the Truth all around us here on the ground. And so, says Rabbi Yehudah
Leib, our work is to uncover the Truth and see it for its goodness, and not to run from it.
We must develop a vision to see the Truth, the Torah that is all around us and even
within us. This is called ‘Torat Emet,’ the Torah of Truth.[vii]

In the years ahead, we will join together as a community and explore Torat Emet,
the Torah of the Truth. Together, we will learn to fall in love with what is in all its
beautiful, astonishing, terrible, wonderful reality. We will muster the courage to face
change, and build a faith in the Truth that reality is always kinder than we fear. While
the Truth is not always easy to look at, and while it sometimes will demand rigorous
honesty and fearlessness, it is the only way to meaningful change, and a life of true
holiness and purpose. We will forge new bonds of community and connection that we
have not made before. We will find new expressions of our Judaism, and reach those
who have been alienated. We will join together and find new ways to inspire one
another to work for justice here, in Israel, and all over the globe.

Over the years, we will begin to see how the change and vision that we crave in
our Jewish lives is lo bashamayim hi [viii], it is not in heaven, not in any notions of what
could be but is not. Rather, we will see how we are the vision that we have been
craving all along. When I look upon this congregation, I can see the Truth. And the
Truth is that Adas Israel right now has everything it takes to be the greatest, most
inspiring congregation in America, and maybe in the world. All the factors, the
resources, the talent, the passion, the possibility—it’s all here already, in this
community, in each of our hearts—if we can open our hearts to one another, to our
Truth. When I look out on this extraordinary congregation, I see a great flagship
synagogue in American Judaism. I see a beautiful Truth, that Adas Israel can be a light
to our people and to the world of what community means, of what chesed, kindness,
and compassion really mean. I see in us a congregation that can teach the world that it
need no longer fear the Truth. We can show the whole world that when we embrace
the Truth, then there is healing and purpose and vision—everything the whole world
needs to rediscover in itself. We can teach the whole world about the Power of Truth!

May we come to see with the eyes of Rabbi Akiva as we look upon our world.
May we come to see that the stone of Truth that once laid heavy on our hearts is the
“Even Ma’asu Habonim,” the stone that was rejected by the builders, “hayta leRosh
pinah,”[ix] but to us, it is the cornerstone, the cornerstone of Truth, of kindness and joy
itself that will show us the vision to evolve together with the generations of our people.
We have each been given Torat Emet, the Torah of Truth, v’chayei Olam nata
betocheinu, and the life of the world implanted within our hearts and souls. We already
have everything it takes to change the whole world. May we indeed open our hearts
and transform our Judaism, making it deeper and more meaningful for a new era, and in
doing so, may we transform the world for Truth, for justice, and for peace. Amen.

i B. Makkot 24a‐b; Sifrei Devarim 43
ii B. Shabbat 55a
iii Pirkei Avot 1:18
iv Deut. 11:18
v Exodus 34:6
vi Bereishit Rabbah 8:5
vii Sfat Emet, Bo
viii Deuteronomy 30:10‐14
ix From the service of Hallel

06 October 2008

Talkin' 'bout Tallitot

Over on Livejournal's WeirdJews community, folks have been talking about making your own tallit. I threw in my two cents, so I thought I'd include 'em here as well:

I have made my own tallit--twice. (I also have a storebought one, acquired several years ago to replace my very first tallit, which I bought in Israel in 1996: beautifully painted but made of unsuitably light silk, it inevitably frayed at the neck and got torn. But I don't wear the replacement tallit that much now: I prefer the one I made.) You can see #2 being completed here.

These are pretty low-key minimal-effort tallitot: I am not a particularly handy or crafts-oriented person, lack a sewing machine, and possess only rudimentary hand-sewing skills.

But with a little help from my friends, I've turned 1 white silk shawl & 1 piece of striped fabric into 2 friendly tallitot!

Working backwards:

I made tallit #2 while in England this spring because I somehow failed to pack a tallit for my 10-week stay over there. (In the meantime, I wore my husband's blue Gabrieli tallit* to services in Oxford, and he wore one of the shul tallitot, since he's a guy & it's easy for him to do that. Once I'd created my new Made In The UK tallit & given him back his own, our shul friends started asking "Why are you wearing your wife's tallit?", not knowing it was his in the first place! ;) ) A friend who lives in London is a big fan of the Shepherd's Bush market & the surrounding fabric stores, so solving my no-tallit problem by making one from scratch seemed a good solution.

*(He picked it out from the gift shop of our shul in Louisville when he converted in 1997)

I didn't have a definite idea of color or pattern when we went in, so I just let things suggest themselves as we looked. I ended up buying 2 types of fabric--one white/cream-colored with stripes that suggest traditional tallit design, the other a solid burgundy--and decided to use the former for the body of the tallit and the latter for reinforcing corners and an atarah at the neck. (I had thought I might make another one that was the reverse, but that didn't happen. I think my friend still has the burgundy fabric, though.) My friend hemmed the top and bottom edges with her sewing machine, and attached the reinforcing squares with it as well. We left the sides unhemmed, and she showed me how to pull out threads to fringe the sides. (I haven't gone as far as to tie them into those neat little knots you may see on commercial tallitot: at present it's more like tiny tallit dreadlocks...) I hand-sewed the atarah shape onto the neck area (I'd rescued some interesting metal jangly bits from the decorative edging to a giant table-shading umbrella on the theory that I could add them to the atarah, but so far that's just a theory) and added the tzizit, and voila: tallit!

Tallit #1 came about as something I'd been contemplating for a while: the Stealth Tallit... shawl-like enough not to attract attention when worn in Ladies-Don't-Wear-Tallit-Here Territory (not my native climate, but one that I find myself in when traveling--especially overseas--or visiting/celebrating simchas with the Orthodox contingent among my relatives), but able to satisfy my desire for my usual Jewish prayer garment (which I was increasingly tired of giving up in order not to rock the boat with frummy family's congregations).

So in the run-up to Passover a few years ago, when we'd be at Chabad for my cousin's bar mitzvah on the 2nd morning of Pesach, I kicked the plan into action. I knew I had several shawls that might be contenders, of a good size & shape for tallit transformation--I rarely wear them (but my mother loves scarves & shawls & keeps giving them to me), so whichever one I picked would surely see more use as a tallit than as a neglected shawl. An off-white silk shawl, light but with an interestingly varied texture and fringey bits on the ends, looked perfect for the task. I asked around at the Sisterhood Gift Shop in the synagogue where I was working, and got the name of a wonderful tallit-maker in the area; I asked her if she could give me advice about converting the shawl into a tallit, and we arranged a time for me to come over.

She couldn't have been more generous! She gave me squares of fabric for reinforcing the corners & told me to hand-sew them on before bringing the shawl back. When I did, she used her sewing machine to do a buttonhole stitch in the middle of each corner-square, then used a seam-ripper to create a nice reinforced hole for the tzitzit to go through. She gave me instructions on tying tzitzit and guided me through the first one, then watched as I did the next. The last two I did on my own--finishing the final one just minutes before Shabbat, 2 days before my cousin's bar mitzvah, in their neighbors' basement where my husband & I were staying. On the morning of the bar mitzvah, I folded over the corners to keep the tzitzit from flailing about, settled the shawl around my shoulders, and pinned it together as an ordinary-looking shawl. When I got up to the ladies' gallery at the Chabad shul, I unpinned it, unfurled the tzitzit, and donned it as my tallit. Chabad takes all kinds, so it's possible that no one would have given me grief even if I had been davening with something more conventionally recognizable as a tallit--but I certainly didn't want to make trouble for my cousins by standing out as some kind of freaky radical, and I felt much more comfortable this way.

Since then, I've generally used this tallit--I love the way it feels, and it's very light and portable.