Sunday, April 24, 2011

More Pesach trivia: Sephardic tea boiled eggs

Aren't they pretty?

ready for your close-up?

Also, found while shopping for Pesach last week (there were a lot of pricks there, I have to say)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Everything Counts in Small Amounts

Those who are familiar with the oddities of the Jewish calendar may be aware that a largish holiday begins tomorrow night (called Passover). Fewer people may be aware that on the second night of Passover begins... well, it's not a holiday exactly, but it is a holy period, called the Omer.

Beginning the second night of Passover, every adult Jew is supposed to count off the 49 days (seven times seven weeks) that make up the period between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. I have to say, it's a bit of a pain. Not he counting, which is fine, but remembering to count properly, keeping track of which day it is, and so on. It's enough of a difficulty that the Jewish legal code has instructions about what to do if you forget to count at the right time, or for a full day. You've got to count every day, or you lose your obligation to say the full blessing as you count.
The counting itself is a lovely tradition: each of the weeks represents one of seven traits of God, as does each day, so one develops a spiral of thoughts throughout the counting period (for example the trait of strength during the week of mercy... consider what that might mean as we approach the giving of the Torah... etc.)
Well, I decided that the best way to do this would be a sort of advent calendar, with little treats each day as you opened up the proper box to say the blessing for that day (hey, why should Christians get all the calendar fun?). At one time, I thoght the best way to do this would be through carpentry, but it's been some time since I had any access to the proper tools,a dn I just didn't want to wait anymore this year, so for pretty cheap I made one out of things that one could glue together - namely cardboard, cardboard, and , uh, some glue and glitter paper.

Almost everything came from the container store, and it took me about three days to make (including some glue drying time. Not labor intensive, but pretty sturdy anyway).
I'm happy to share instructions with anyone who wants to build one. I used a hard cardboard ornament storage box and three by three folded gift boxes (seven of which fit perfectly across, although you need two ornament boxes cut to size and glued together to get the height as only five rows tall fit, if you pop open the top edge of the ornament box).
The numbers for the days (written out in blue in Hebrew letters) as well as the blessing on the inside (which has the blessing, the day and date - in other words, everything you need for each day... no looking anything up!) are printed on clear sticky labels cut to size.

For your delectation:

I don't think I"m quite done decorating it - obviously this is pretty simple, but the plus is that the boxes make it so that magic marker will write on them perfectly nicely, so if I go for color, that's probably the way I'll go. Stickers work fine too, but I'll probably eventually go for a large picture that covers the entire front face of the Omer Counter. Happy counting!

XP Jewschool

Friday, April 15, 2011

The New Third World

I've been thinking about this post for a while now.

The article reports on Ikea's treatment of workers at its American plant. Apparently, although in Sweden, workers are well treated, here in the USA, Ikea is treating workers the way, well,let's face it, the way American companies do not just overseas, but here as well. Wages are lower, vacation days are more limited, and in addition, many of those days are pre-determined by the company. That's not counting the temp workers, who have even lower wages and no benefits. Ikea's management says
"That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries,"
In other words the same sort of thing our companies say about our exported jobs when they pay obscenely low wages in awful conditions. The Salon piece focuses on the unexceptionality of the US in acting like evil overlords throughout the world, but there's a couple things we ought to be paying attention about:

First, we set ourselves up. In undermining unions in this country (in Sweden nearly everyone is unionized, so they can't treat their workers this way, thus, a better standard of living), we are turning ourselves into a third world country. Is it really acceptable to say that we we allow other countries to come here and set up factories to sell products to Americans, but not pay those same Americans adequately?
In allowing the Republican mindset to set the tone for labor in this country, in allowing our government to legislate against unions, against collective bargaining, in undercutting the NLRB so that corporations who violate collective bargaining laws get at most a slap on the wrist, and usually only after many years, expect to see a lot more of this. Which is to say, expect the US to become the next China, Mexico, Vietnam, where workers have no protections and work for few or no benefits, and low wages. And when that happens the standard of living for everyone except the very top will be affected, so don't think your bachelor's degree will protect you. Indeed, this is a matter of degree not kind, at this point - we already are seeing it all over the USA.

Second: Unlike Ikea, who exports its bad behavior, the USA is exceptional: we do it to our own people, within our own borders. This is because of the increasing imbalance of power in this country. The wealthy few own 80% of the wealth, and yet, we keep giving them tax breaks; huge corporations get away with murder- because there is no person held responsible for poor decisions, or even malicious decisions that harm humans, the environment, that interfere with the establishment of just laws, or decent working conditions. What kind of fools are we in this country to allow the wealthy few to convince us that it is in our country's interest to be turned into a sty for a few greedy pigs to wallow in, as they become richer and richer, and the rest of us lost our voice in government, lose our ability to earn decent wages, lose our country to greed?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Judaism without borders? Or Judaism without Boundaries?

Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn't exactly a novel occurrence - Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian "Passover seders" of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it's worth considering how Jews should react to the "democratization" of Jewish practices.

Whether it's the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.

To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. We live in a culture that views religion through a Christian outlook - quite different than Judaism's: Judaism views religion as a system of practices, and primarily through a lens of communal practice for communal relationship,and salvation, insofar as Jews think about it, is a communal salvation. Christianity, on the other hand, views religion as primarily a belief-focused system (which is not to say that it doesn't have behavioral expectation, merely that behavior is the result of belief; in Judaism belief is necessary, but what one must believe is fairly limited: one must believe in one, undivided, disembodied God, who has never been and never will be embodied, also one must believe in some kind of reward and punishment system after death, details unspecified. That's it. All the rest is what you do: go and learn) and salvation is individual. There's a lot we could talk about here, in terms of how Jewish behavior and practices have been affected by the culture, but let's save that for another time, shall we?

The main point is that in a fairly philo-semitic culture, one in which religious affiliation has become extremely transient, and the average person changes affiliation at least once or twice over a lifetime, AND which is full of seekers, AND which views religious discipline as fairly boring, and spiritual fulfillment as something which is not entirely dissimilar from any other kind of consumable, it would be very surprising indeed if we did not see people experimenting with bits and pieces of various religious practices and attempting to grant them on piecemeal to create their own personal spiritual practice.

I already know - before I get a rash of comments saying so- that whatever I say about it here will have no effect on what people do. Jews aren't the only ones who have to suffer through this - Native Americans, and (subcontinental) Indians do as well (want to buy a dreamcatcher, or maybe some nice bindi?)not to mention a whole host of other religions of various stripes.

To begin with, maybe it's worthwhile to look at this from the other end, Jewish syncretism.

Jewish tradition tells us, (Pirke Avot,Chapter 4, Mishna 1)

"Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding' (Psalms 119:99). Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: 'Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city' (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot, as it is said: 'When you eat the toil of your hands you are fortunate and it is good for you' (Psalms 128:2). 'You are fortunate' -- in this world; 'and it is good for you' -- in the World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said: 'For those who honor Me will I honor, and those who scorn Me will be degraded' (I Samuel 2:30)."

In terms of"borrowing" from other traditions, I take this mishna as telling us a couple of things: First that it is fine to be aware of what other people do in the search for God and spirituality, and when it isn't inimical to Jewish tradition, that it's fine to use techniques that others have developed before us. Even within the Jewish tradition there are many ways to approach God, and some of them have been developed from seeing cultures around us use their own methods, and then using that kernel to develop a technique that works for Judaism.

In using techniques from other traditions as part of Judaism, the techniques need to be adapted - something that only happens over a long time- before they work, in the context of Judaism. More importantly, notice what I haven't talked about: importing wholesale rituals. Using techniques - meditation, song, additional restrictions on diet, etc- from other traditions, can over time, be brought into a generous spiritual practice fruitfully. But bringing in a specific ritual is unlikely to be a good idea: spiritual practices develop as part of whole disciplines, and one can't just take out a piece and expect it to help connect you to the universe.

Which is why learning from others isn't the only thing the Mishna talks about: it also warns us that we need to respect what we already have - until one actually has some decent knowledge of one's own traditions, running after others isn't going to be spiritually enriching, at least not in the long term. For one thing, taking bits and pieces out of context from other traditions denudes them of their power. Rituals - in all traditions, as well as Judaism- grow up in a holistic context. They are part of a system, and without the system, the pieces are merely magic, or even worse, products. Any spiritual practice requires discipline - doing things over and over, including things that might be difficult, or boring, until the parts come together to make you whole.

American culture has the unfortunate tendency to view everything as a product. If you spend your money, you should get something for it - and everything is for sale.

Buy a dreamcatcher, presto, you're a Native American Shaman (never mind that there are hundreds of nations each with their own traditions), buy some incense and beads, voila, you're a Hindu guru. But The hundreds of Native American traditions, Hindu spiritual practices, Voudoun, or whatever other religion- aren't products, and it's not enough to think that they're cool to get results from them.

Many Jews have decided that their own tradition is boring and needs to be tarted up with a little magic paint, but what they're missing is two things: first, that they probably don't actually know that much about their own tradition, and their decision that it's boring is a little premature.
When I was in college, I spent a lot of time thinking that Judaism needed to be rewritten here and there. I had the good luck that my temperament led me to do a lot of reading while I was busy working on this project. As I came to learn more about the extraordinary variety, various threads of tradition and how they work together, the tensions and richness of the incredible numbers of texts and commentaries that there are in Judaism, I came to see more and more that there was so much already there, that borrowing and changing from the outside wasn't really a project that needed to happen -sure, no tradition is perfect, but the seeds of renewal are already inside Judaism.
Second, that simply dropping your own traditions to go haring off after someone else's doesn't solve your problem: that you bring you with you. Spirituality isn't magic, and anyone who tells you that you can just run your finger over a string of letters and you'll be protected from harm is a charlatan, who may understand the desire that people have for easy answer and not putting much effort into something, but does not understand God.

Finally, the last part of the mishna offers, "Who is honored? He who honors others." The final thing is that we should honor the traditions of others. But using them without understanding their place in the system they come from is not honor. To the contrary, it's essentially telling the followers of that practice that their spiritual system is just a grocery store for you- you can go in, pick out what you like, and buy it and leave.
"Honor" is to respect that different religions have spiritual meaning, and to learn from them and honor them means to let those who are deeply embedded in them tell us their experience, explain their systems and meanings, and when invited, to participate as a guest. Each tradition may have things to tell us about the way the world works, or should work.

When I think of what wisdom Judaism can bring to people who are not Jews, I think of teaching, for example, Jewish textual traditions on how workers and employers are obligated to one another: In Jewish terms, mitzvot, obligations to other people, delineated carefully and thoroughly are spiritual practices just as much as lighting candles on Friday night, or praying in a minyan (group of ten Jewish adults). There are many kinds of things that Judaism can offer as learning to others without having them say the Shema. Respect and honor -for those who are interested in Judaism, but are not interested in being Jews- would be to learn about Judaism - perhaps attend a seder, but attending a seder is different than a non-Jew having a seder and attaching their own meaning to the event. Seders and the Shema are Jewish practices, not Jewish techniques.

Now, I don't think that Justin Bieber is a bad kid - in fact, I think it's sweet that he respects his manager enough to pay attention to the fact that he has a different religion, and to try to take some of it on. In my opinion, what he's doing is slightly different than some of the other reported celebrity syncretism that we hear about: Bieber does not appear to be seeking anything - he just wants to find some religious common ground. Nevertheless, while his motivation is purely sweet, I'm not sure that the way he's found to carry it out is a respectful one (unintentionally, I'm sure). For millenia, Jews have said the Shema not only as part of our daily prayer, but also in bad times, while being tortured or killed by people who were trying to force us to accept other religions. For a non-Jew to take on saying this prayer that declares the unity of God (by a practitioner of a religion that holds that God is not a unity, but a trinity) is problematic, and I can't say that I'm comfortable with it.

If non-Jews want to learn from Judaism, the same thing applies to non-Jews as to Jews looking to enrich their own experience - first of all, learn your own tradition better - you may find that it has what you are looking for within it already. Judaism tells us that the righteous of all nations have place in the World to Come, QED.

Secondly, if you still want to honor Judaism, or use it in some way in your own practice, borrow the techniques, not the rituals: learn about the Jewish idea of obligation as spirituality, think about how Judaism uses mitzvot, obligations, to make every (allowable) mundane thing you can do holy - there's a blessing for not just eating, but for elimination of waste (do I have to elaborate here?) -think about that! (Almost) anything can be made holy. The idea of separation- I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. (Justin, if you want something to do to include your manager during your prayers, or something you could do together, perhaps you could make a short prayer that isn't the shema, but which declares that you wish for all people to respect one another in their love for God).

Ultimately, while, I'm sure that people will go on borrowing practices whether I think it's a good idea or not, I would encourage people to think harder about what they are doing. Spirituality isn't there to make you feel good. In fact, sometimes it's there to make you feel bad. Doing someone's religious practice because it looks cool, is probably not a good way to develop spiritually. Religion is not a consumable, and you can't buy it. It is work, and you have to be committed to it.