Friday, October 25, 2013

Shabbat-O-Gram for October 25

Are Rainbow Looms Kosher? Newtown and Normalcy, Halloween and Reincarnation, Pew Torah

Mazal tov to David Lang, who will become Bar Mitzvah on Shabbat afternoon and thank you to Elicia and Jay for sponsoring our Shabbat announcements in David’s honor  David also celebrated with a ceremony at the Kotel in Jerusalem last summer – a nice reminder to check out our Interactive itinerary and registration materials for next summer’s TBE Israel Adventure.

In case you missed it, see my column on why, one year later, we need to take ownership of Hurricane Sandy.  Or my blog on why the Red Sox are the chosen team.  Despite last night’s hiccup (my heart grieves for you, Craig Breslow), I still believe!

And with Halloween this coming week, check out what rabbis from different denominations have to say about trick or treating, as well as this interesting perspective on whether it is appropriate for Jews to observe a holiday that worships death rather than celebrating life.  Good point, but it’s time to lighten up, folks.  I don’t think the little kid dressing as Superman (created by Jews) is really glorifying death.  Since it falls on a Hebrew School day, our kids here will be learning about Jewish superstitions and attitudes toward the occult – and having lots of fun while doing it!  And on Shabbat morning, this timely topic will be discussed along with the portion Hayye Sarah (where Sarah dies) focusing on the Jewish view on reincarnation.  

Join us this evening at 7:30 for Kabbalat Shabbat and tomorrow morning, when we’ll have a variety of children’s programs going on and at the end, we’ll all celebrate together our October birthdays – it’s a new thing we’re doing called Shabbirthday.  Yes, there will be cake, but we also have a special treat for the birthday kids who show: Jewish Rainbow Loom Bracelets. Speaking of which…

Are Rainbow Looms Kosher?

Rainbow Looms are the latest mega-fad among American kids, in particular middle schoolers.  A direct line can be drawn from prior wrist-borne fads, like Silly Bandz (and their Jewish equivalent, Meshugabands) and, going way back, the Slap Bracelets of the ’90s.  On a broader level, they continue a tradition of fad-dom tracing back to the hula-hoop and the pet rock.  But unlike the prior fads, in this case the kids not only wear them, they make them, and they give them away to friends and sell them for charity.  A more wholesome fad can not be found.

Strangely, these wholesome projects have spurred controversy, despite the fact that they miraculously divert kids from video games and their incessant texting.   The bracelets have been banned from some NYC schools, apparently because they have generated playground antics and have distracted some kids from their studies. 

I believe that Rainbow Looms are 100 percent Kosher, even though some rabbinical authorities have cautioned against them.  The craze has hit Orthodox yeshivot in the Five Towns, where rabbis are cautioning parents not to allow their children to weave them on Shabbat.  There do appear some clear violations of Sabbath laws involved in this process (weaving itself is an explicit one), but the authorities there go too far in stating that decorative bracelets should be banned for boys because they are “simlat isha,” women’s clothing, tantamount to wearing a dress.  I’m sorry, but I wear a rainbow loom bracelet and no one has ever confused it with a dress.  A colorful pantsuit perhaps, but a dress?

This kind of kill-joy attitude among educators has happened before, with both Slap Bracelets and Silly Bandz.  Educators seem to have an unlimited capacity to shoot themselves in the foot.  The question rabbis ask should not be whether they are kosher, but how can these accessories make Judaism look cool?  Any fad will do, in that regard, as long as it doesn’t involve permanent bodily mutilation.

Where some see a threat, I see an opportunity. Here’s yet another chance to reach middle schoolers where they’re at — and anyone who deals nonstop with bar mitzvah students craves a chance to hitch our wagon to the latest fad. Under my tutelage, students have written memorable bar mitzvah speeches about teeny bopper vampires, Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Greeting, Krusty the Clown’s bar mitzvah and all things Pokémon. 

As fads go Rainbow Looms are a natural for Jewish educators.  For one thing, they inspire acts of tzedakkah.  We have several b’nai mitzvah students who are making and selling these bracelets, then donating the proceeds to various charities.  

Hey, we practically invented the rainbow, or at least the Torah did a good job of co opting its symbolism (kudos to its Author, who clearly had an instinct for Jewish education).  The rainbow appears throughout our ancient sources, beginning with the Noah story, where it is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and concern for the future of the earth and humankind.  There is a blessing for when we see a rainbow: (Berachot 59a) “Blessed art You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to it and keeps Her word.” In Kabbalah, the rainbow’s colors represent the various shades of God’s emanations (the Sefirot). 

As for the loom, Rabbi Akiva compared God to a weaver of a garment, and midrash has it that God wove clothing for Adam and Eve.    The  interwoven strands of these bracelets make them look like a havdalah candle for the wrist, which reminds us of the multi-cultural threads of Jewish identity.

I see no harm and considerable good in this new fad.  As with the prior ones, we should ride it until it runs its course – which should happen about a week after Hanukkah.

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Newtown and Normalcy

Sandy Hook Elementary School’s demolition begins today.  It’s the right thing to do, and it’s right that they are dismantling it without use of a wrecking ball.  It’s just one more step in a town’s desire to respectfully move on.

Last week I wrote about my visit to Newtown High School at the invitation of a congregant in her late 20s who was speaking to freshmen of her struggles with alcoholism and addiction.  I focused on Rachael’s moving presentation and on the importance of bringing these issues out into the open.

In part two, I want to share some reflections on my first visit to Newtown since the catastrophe.

Until now I had avoided going there, wishing to respect the privacy of the grieving Newtowners.  But Rachael’s invitation gave me the chance, to begin to understand whether the people of Newtown, like Rachael herself, have begun to move on from their own hellish nightmare.

I took the back roads of Fairfield County, avoiding the rush hour traffic on the Merritt Parkway.  With the foliage near peak, each twist and turn was lovelier than the last, a portrait of New England picket fence perfection. The trees were blazing in oranges and reds; the pumpkins, the Indian corn, the crispy leaves lining the driveways and surrounding mailboxes: all as deceptively peaceful as last December’s snow.    My GPS led me through Redding and Bethel and on to Newtown, and then to the High School, located in Sandy Hook.

I so wanted it all to feel normal.  And there was normalcy to be found: football games, pizza places, banners for October festivals, Halloween decorations everywhere.  The High School looks like any other high school - even the enhanced security is now typical of all schools (though here I made a bee-line for the security desk to let them know that this strange person with the beanie is actually the rabbi of one of the presenters).

Even this program was strangely normal.  Every high school has (or should have) an evening where the police, lawyers, social workers, doctors, MADD parents and survivors of addiction assemble before the freshman class to collectively scare the bejeebers out of them before they ruin their lives and the lives of everyone they know.  It’s a rite of passage.  Teen drinking is an enormous problem, don’t get me wrong.  But it seemed in a strange way comforting to be at a program about kids and drinking, with the obligatory power point slides of crushed cars and bloody faces, with the scary statistics, with the talk about parents serving time for allowing their kids to host underage drinking parties, of date rape and endless vomiting - of teenage lives tragically cut short.  All of that appeared normal, sitting in a room in Sandy Hook.

These kids need to be shocked into awareness - for sure.  But the program is part of the expected pattern of ninth grade first semester.  It comes with the acne.

And in Newtown, anything normal is by definition comforting.  It reestablishes the patterns of life so life can go on.  It’s like gorging on platters of food during shiva or the imbibing that takes place at a wake.  

So here we were, watching slides of horrific drunk driving accidents and in comparison to what they have seen with their own eyes, even these horrors seemed so prosaic, so commonplace.  The banality of teen tragedy.   This was a program about the needless suffering and death that every community suffers.  Not the horrors that only one community has ever seen. 

At one point, a policeman suggested that the teens should be especially careful to act responsibly “because the whole world knows where Newtown is.” At first it seemed to me an unnecessary burden to place on teens striving for a return to normalcy.  But it occurred to me that even the teens recognize that they will always be the subject of extra scrutiny and curiosity, wherever they go.  For most, I would guess, it is an emblem of pride.

I sensed a great deal of love in the room.  The speakers who gave testimony, including Rachael and a young woman who had attended the high school, all received prolonged standing ovations.  Many of the kids sat with parents rather than peers -no mean trick with teens - and I could only imagine the swirling emotions of parents being reminded, as if they needed a reminder, that children are vulnerable beings and that the fragility persists well beyond first grade.

This was an emotional night for me.  There is so much suffering in this world and a disproportionate amount of it has been allocated to this little corner of it.  For the entire evening, I never lost awareness that I was dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.  This wasn’t an ordinary high school auditorium.  This is the room, after all, where the President wept.  I wanted to hug everyone there, but felt throughout like an intruder, a gawker, and that my hugs would only resurrect the memories they are hoping to relegate to a lock box in the attic.

I’ve been to Columbine and I’ve been to Wounded Knee.  I’ve been to Boylston Street and to the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv and Sbarro in Jerusalem.  I’ve been to Ground Zero.  I’ve been to Auschwitz.  I’ve frequented so many Vales of Tears.   People keep living in these places, they heroically try to move on; but on some level, the tears never stop flowing.  We never stop hearing the faint echoes of the victims and the rat tat tator kaboom of the instruments of death.

And now I’ve been to Newtown. 

I drove back home to Stamford through the misty, rainy night.  I took the highway - too dark to see the foliage anymore.  No bucolic picket fences.  No sparkling October sky.  Just keeping my thoughts inside the car, losing myself among the Red Sox’ double plays and Mike Napoli’s mammoth clouts.

From Pew Will Come Forth Torah

For those interested in a Jewish theological response to the recent Pew survey of American Jewry, take a look at Arthur Green’s essay, “From Pew Will Come Forth Torah.”  Green understands the theological underpinnings behind the numbers, explains the seismic change that has been happening in the context of living in a post-Holocaust world.  He states:

 Jewish belief in God, already deeply challenged by modernity and our embrace of Western education, was shattered by the Holocaust, a memory still at the top of Pew’s list of Jewish identity markers. If being a Jew means remembering the terrible events of the Holocaust years, it at the same moment challenges our faith in a God who rules history with a special concern for His beloved people….

The Holocaust challenge is joined by the results of two other great battles that traditional religion fought and lost across the twentieth century. One was the struggle against “Darwin,” or the entire scientific narrative of earth’s origins and the evolution of humanity. The other was the ongoing debate over Biblical authorship and the triumph of a critical perspective showing that religion itself, including its most sacred texts, was a product of an evolving history. Is it any wonder that a third of young Jews see themselves as “without religion?” Perhaps our eyes of wonder should be turned in the other direction. “What a marvel that two-thirds of Jewry still see themselves as religious, as maintaining their faith in the face of all that! How rich and profound that faith must be!” Would that this were true. But I fear that for many of those still on the “Jewish by religion” side of the divide in Pew’s questionaire, the definer is loyalty or nostalgia rather than deep faith. Their children as well, I fear, will soon fall into the other camp.

Green, an advocate of neo-hasidism, sees a revival of Jewish piety coming not from a God of reason, a “commanding Other who rules over history,” but rather the “still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight.”

It’s a provocative and well-written summation of Green’s influential views, a challenge to many Conservative and Orthodox Jews and a succinct preamble of much of TBE’s vision (and my own).  Definitely worth a read.

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