Friday, September 18, 2015

The guilt trap: surving Yom Kippur without (too much) guilt

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has to be the quintessential Jewish holiday: it’s all about guilt. If we attend services and everything works just right, we may leave with less guilt and more hope. If it doesn’t, we may leave with more guilt than before.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Feeling guilty is part of the process, but not the purpose of Yom Kippur! Here are seven steps toward making Yom Kippur what it’s really supposed to be:

1. Don’t take on guilt that isn’t rightfully yours.
Use the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to review the past year, so that you know what to focus on. 

Traditional prayer texts for Yom Kippur list sins that you probably didn’t commit and some attempt to induce free-floating guilt over sins that most of us not only didn’t commit, but couldn’t have committed.
So you need to approach Yom Kippur with clarity about what you’re repenting for.

2. Sort out which sins are which.
Many prayer books quote Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who taught almost two thousand years ago: “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against another person, the Day of Atonement does not atone.” 

He meant that repentance and prayer are effective for sins between a person and God, but where any other person has been harmed, repentance begins with righting the wrong. For example, if you had stolen something, you’d need to return it, or pay for it.

3. Begin righting the wrongs.
Theft is an easy example. It’s harder to undo actions that do harm in other ways.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s customary for Jews to apologize for intangible harm to others, such as words spoken in anger. Although we may not have stolen, murdered, or committed adultery, we have almost certainly hurt others through our words. 

Jewish tradition holds that if a person sincerely requests forgiveness three times—that is, on three separate occasions—we’re obligated to give it. And in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, because we may want forgiveness for ourselves, we’re especially likely to give it to others.

4. When you ask forgiveness, do it the right way.
That means in person, if at all possible, not by email. Some people send out broadcast emails that say, “If I have wronged you in any way in the past year, I apologize and ask forgiveness.” That doesn’t count. You need to apologize to a specific person, for a specific act.

If apologizing in person is impossible, a phone call or letter may be appropriate. Don’t use a text message or, heaven forfend, Twitter (with one possible exception).

Make it a genuine apology. A genuine apology is, “It was wrong of me to… and I’m sorry. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me? A fake apology is the celebrity kind that puts the burden on the supposed recipient: “I’m sorry if you took offense at what I said/did.”

5. Apologize in the right setting.
If the last two steps seemed hard, this one may be even harder. When an offense took place in public, the apology may need to be given in public as well. 

This is where the Twitter exception comes in: if you slammed someone on Twitter, apologize directly and privately first, and then post it on Twitter.

6. Resolve to do better.
Instead of ending Yom Kippur with guilt about what you did (or didn’t do), plan to do better in the new year. If you were thoughtless or uncharitable, resolve to be more thoughtful and charitable. If you were dishonest, resolve to be more honest. Tradition says that full repentance takes place when you have the opportunity commit the sin again, but don’t.

7. Know that you’re not alone.
The Yom Kippur ritual described in the Torah was an almost totally collective atonement. Although we no longer sacrifice animals to atone, the confessions in the Yom Kippur liturgy are all framed in the first-person plural: “We have sinned. We have transgressed.” As you resolve to do better, feel that you’re part of a community of people who are all trying to do better.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Enforced ignorance

I’ve written before about the shanda—scandal—of Jewish day schools that deliberately fail to teach secular studies adequately. This happens both in the United States and in Israel, in some ultra-Orthodox schools.

In those schools, secular studies (what you and I would call “school”) are typically referred to as “english” (not capitalized) and rarely exceed 90 minutes per day.  There may be less than that, possibly none at all, in the higher grades.

This comes about because the communities that support those schools believe that only Jewish learning is important. Secular education is unnecessary and possibly harmful, because it takes time away from studying Torah and, especially, Talmud.

These schools graduate students who read and write English poorly—the schools and their communities operate chiefly in Yiddish—and know little of science and modern  history. The young men who leave these schools have little in the way of job qualifications or academic skills for university-level education; they’re only qualified to continue studying in a yeshiva or kollel.

The situation is different for ultra-Orthodox women. It’s not considered important, or even desirable, for them to study Talmud at an advanced level, and since they will likely marry men incapable of doing most secular jobs, they need to be able to support a family—a large family.

Schools, both here and in Israel, are supposed to teach a state-mandated curriculum if attending them is to satisfy compulsory-attendance laws. Modern Orthodox day schools, as well as Conservative, Reform, and other community day schools, do so. Students in these day schools study the same subjects as students in public schools, in the same amounts, plus Hebrew, Tanakh, and Jewish history.

Enforcement of the requirements is up to local school districts. The ultra-Orthodox schools have been able to evade state requirements because of political influence. This is especially true in New York City, where certain rabbis have disproportionate influence in politics, and in Rockland County, where ultra-Orthodox Jews are the largest constituency in some school districts.

This may be about to change. The New York City Department of Education plans to investigate whether about three dozen yeshivot are providing adequate education in secular subjects. (This affects only schools in New York City, not in Rockland County or elsewhere.) It comes about in response to a request from parents, former students, and former teachers.

It should concern us if any Jewish students are not receiving adequate secular education. Partly because of lack of education, and partly because of having large families, ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to subsist on public assistance. Although no U.S. politicians dare to criticize Jews for this, it cannot be “good for the Jews” if large numbers of us are ill-educated and dependent on welfare.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ordaining Orthodox women

In 2013 I wrote about the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City as an Orthodox women’s rabbinical school, and its ordination of three women. What was most striking at the time was the acceptance of two of the women ordinees by very prominent Orthodox congregations. (The third, married to the senior rabbi of one of those congregations, did not seek a position.)
Four fresh rabbis ordained by Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Rahel Berkovits, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Lev Eliezer Israel, and Ariel Evan Mayse. (Sigal Krimolovski/Times of Israel)
Yeshivat Maharat took its name from the title that it conferred: maharat is a Hebrew acronym for “[female] leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.” Although its founder had previously ordained Sara Hurwitz as a rabbi, they chose to create a new title for subsequent ordinees, probably to sidestep one possible controversy.

This year, the Har ’El Beit Midrash in Israel ordained two women and two men, all as Orthodox rabbis. Although what to call a woman rabbi seems still to be problematic (rabba, which some ordained women use, is the exact feminine equivalent of rav, the ordinary Hebrew word for rabbi), it was  not an issue at Har ’El. In one sense, it was even more remarkable that the women and men studied together, which is all but unknown in Orthodox institutions.

In the early 1990s, both women had studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institution for advanced study by women. When they wanted to study in the classes that an eminent rabbi, considered liberal in the Orthodox community, gave for men, they could only do so by sitting in total silence behind a curtain.

Neither Rabba Hurwitz nor the first three maharot can be counted as the first women to receive Orthodox ordination. Rabbi Mimi Feigelson received private—then secret—ordination in 1994; she is open about it now, but teaches at a Conservative institution, the American Jewish University. A few  women have also received private, but not secret, Orthodox ordination since 2000.

While some Orthodox communities are expanding the roles of women, others are resisting. In June, the Belz Hasidim in London, on the advice of their leader in Israel, prohibited driving by women. “Modesty” was the basis for the prohibition, but usually this (tzniut in Hebrew) means covering parts of a woman’s body that might be too appealing to men, including the elbow.

The Belz movement operates two primary schools in London, and they announced that children driven to school by their mothers would not be allowed to attend. This brought swift reactions from the mothers themselves, the children’s teachers, the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Orthodox but not Hasidic), and the British government. 

The Belz leaders in England have since announced that children driven to school from their mothers will not be expelled, although it still opposes driving by women. To most of us, this probably sounds like Saudi Arabia, which prohibits women from driving.

The contrast between the Har ’El beit midrash and the Belz Hasidim illustrates the range of opinions in Jewish society today. Some feel that certain changes are long overdue; others resist; and a few attempt to move in the opposite direction.