Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Oh, SNAP! This Sukkot: A Call To Action.

These days we often tend to fondly regard Sukkot as one of our quainter holidays: waving the lulav and etrog, building a sukkah and eating meals in it, saying Hallel and processing in the Hoshanot. It’s a little nature-y, a little strange, and mostly just a welcome joyful occasion after the solemnity of the High Holidays.

There’s an older name for Sukkot in the Torah: chag ha-asif. “The gathering-in holiday.” Back in the day, this was our major autumn harvest festival. Around this time, our ancestors would’ve either just finished, or been in the midst of, the second wheat harvest, the millet harvest, the date picking, (not coincidentally) the etrog picking, the fig picking, the pomegranate picking, the olive picking, and the grape harvest-- and those are just the major produce crops of those times. Some of us may vaguely recall something about this, perhaps because a rabbi or a Hebrew school teacher will have noted that we lived in sukkot as we harvested and picked fruit.

But we don’t often think about what harvest meant in our ancestors’ society. It was a time to rejoice because it was a time of plenty, when you had the most food available to you that you would have until the spring harvest (around Shavuot). They would give extra thanks to God because of the bounty that they were gratefully bringing in, and make extra prayers for rain (hence tefillat Geshem on Shmini Atzeret), and sundry other supplications to beg God to rain favor down on the next crop, that they would have been just about to begin planting, or just starting to plant. And with the sudden and more or less temporary surfeit of food, it would have been the season of maximal tzedakah giving.

The nineteenth and twenty-third chapters of Vayikra/Leviticus, and the twenty-fourth chapter of Devarim/Deuteronomy instruct us that if we have fields we are harvesting, or vineyards, or orchards, we leave the corners of the field unharvested, so that the poor can come to get food. Likewise, stalks of grain or fruits dropped by the harvesters must be left for gleaners (poor people who followed the harvesting reapers to pick up stalks they let drop), sheaves forgotten in the fields likewise belong to the poor, and fruit dropped or left unpicked by accident must be left for them. All of these things are in addition to ma’aser ‘oni (tithes that one had to make to national efforts to feed the poor) in different years, and in addition to the contributions residents of a certain area were expected to make to the tamchui, or the food bank/soup kitchen from which poor people were fed (at least on Shabbat and chagim, if not also at other times), and miscellaneous tzedakah they were to give if asked for aid by poor individuals.

It would have been inevitable for our ancestors that this holiday, much like Shavuot, and much like Pesach (when they, in reciting ha lachma ‘anya, the part of the Seder where we say “all who are hungry, come and eat,” would literally have been inviting the poor of their community to come in and share the Seder with them) would have been linked with tzedakah, with feeding the poor.

So you can begin to understand how it seems like a particularly vicious irony that Sukkot is when the US House of Representatives has chosen to cut SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, AKA “food stamps”) by $40 billion, while at the same time approving vast subsidies and tax breaks for agribusiness megacorporations.

I will leave it to my estimable Christian minister, pastor, and priest counterparts to deal with the additional irony of Tea Party/Republicans cutting aid to desperately poor and hungry people and enriching and empowering already wealthy and powerful people (to say nothing of now attempting to force defunding of the ACA via threat of government shutdown), apparently while claiming to take such action in the name of a deceased Jewish man who seems to have made a career of agitating for giving more tzedakah, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.

But for us, the irony is bitter enough in that this is a time we should be focusing on aiding those in need, on feeding those who have no other food, on providing opportunities to those who have no opportunities. And our government, theoretically elected by us, to execute the will of the American People, is-- with appalling relish-- doing precisely the opposite of those things.

Sukkot is supposed to be z’man simchatenu (the season of our happiness), for all the Jewish People-- from the heads of households and landowners to the basest of those held in bond, and even including the non-Jews among us. Now, for some people among us, and all too many among our neighbors in the American culture, this z’man is anything but happy, and, however indirectly it may be, we are partially at fault.

This cannot go on. More and more, as the right wing of our political representation grows ever more radical and fanatical, as the “left wing” grows ever more tepid, centrist, and content to be purchased by corporate “campaign contributions,” this situation is becoming less a political setback to the nation and more a humanitarian crisis.

We are, with little exception, not farmers anymore. Baruch Hashem (thank God), the Jewish People have prospered, done well for ourselves, even come to wield some influence. But we no longer find ourselves in a position to fulfill the mitzvot of pe’ah (leaving corners unharvested), leket (leaving gleanings), shichechah (forgotten sheaves), olelot and peret (unmatured or fallen grapes one had to leave for the poor), and the ma’aser ‘oni (tithes).

I think we have to restore the balance to our duties to the poor and hungry by not merely giving more regular tzedakah as we are able, but to committing ourselves, one and all, to political action, to social justice, to agitation for change. Regardless of your party affiliation, this treatment of the poorest, most vulnerable and needy among us cannot be tolerated. This is no longer merely a matter of budget lines and economic theories: this has become a matter of pikuach nefesh (saving lives). And regardless of other political beliefs, we must act maximally, aggressively, quickly, to help those who need it.

Julie and I have signed petitions, sent letters, and donated to causes. We will make phone calls. We will add our voices to the outcry in whatever other ways we can. That is our foremost tzedakah this Sukkot, and we urge you to do the same.

The holidays are said to be signs for us. For remembering the covenant, the Exodus, the Creation. Let’s also make this Sukkot a sign for us to remember our duties to our fellow human beings in dire need, our duties to aid in creating a more just society, to making future years, future chagei ha-asif truly z’manei simchatenu (seasons of our happiness). 


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Baruch Hashem: Let's Get It On

As Julie and I were talking this evening, it occurred to us that there is no brachah (blessing) for sex. Neither before nor afterward. Or in any case, if there is such a brachah, neither of us ever encountered it (I know they sure didn't teach us that one for the brachah bee we held at the frum day school I attended, though in retrospect I would've loved to see those rabbis try to teach that).

Which is strange. Because everything has brachot. Eating. Drinking. Seeing different people. Seeing natural phenomena of every variety. Scents. Rituals. Lifecycle events. Learning Torah. Even going to the bathroom has a brachah (a great one, too). Why not sex? Sex is awesome. It's crazy that something that awesome has no brachah attached to it-- the whole point of brachot is to remind ourselves every experience we have is something we should thank God for, since He made this amazing universe. Why should sex be different?

And on further reflection, sex really needs a brachah-- much more so, than, say, thunder and lightning. Nobody takes thunder and lightning lightly (if you'll forgive the expression): it's a stark reminder of the power of nature, and we know Who's responsible for it. I'm not saying we shouldn't bentsch (say the blessing) sheko'cho u'gevurato malei olam ("...Whose power and might fill the world") the next rainstorm, but that if something so seemingly superfluous gets a brachah (and, again, a good one), why not sex, which people are constantly taking lightly?! A brachah over sex could really help people refocus their kavanah (intention), and remember that sex is more than just fun with moving parts.

Plus, even for those old married folks like us, who may not necessarily be taking sex as lightly as some swingin' singles out there, a sex brachah would still be nice: it would help us be reminded of what a miracle and joy it is that we found a partner we can enjoy not just ritual and lifecycle occasions with, but the same delights that caused the creation of the Song of Songs (although usually with a little less sheep and goat imagery).

And, let's not forget, sex and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. Sex is intimacy, no matter how you look at it. And any intimacy is a chance for people to glimpse in one another the spark of the divine. That's just got to deserve a brachah.

I suppose one could say asher yatzar, since sex is a physical act of release. But that just seems so...clinical. And I guess one could say shehecheyanu, but that's really supposed to be for infrequent occasions, first times, or things one has not experienced in a long time. I don't think I'd want to hold out long enough for shehecheyanu to be applicable. Besides, it's over-used: shehecheyanu is kind of the shehakol (the brachah recited over food or drink for which one does not know the proper brachah, or which do not fit other brachot) of experiential brachot. Some of the sheva brachot (the brachot recited for marriage) seem likely candidates, content-wise, but I rebel at the idea of appropriating them, since they are so locked into their context. Besides, there could be halachic issues for single people reciting one or more of them before sex, since it could appear then that the sex is bi'ah l'shem kiddushin (sex for the purposes of effecting marriage), and that could cause problems. I think new brachot, just for sex, are needed.

So I'm throwing this project out there to the Jewish world. Brachot for sex.

Just to be fair, I have drafted my own suggestions. These are just a first draft, nothing more. And, yes, before anyone points it out to me, I am aware that the second part is hetero-oriented. I could try to come up with another one for gay sex, but I feel like maybe some nice GLBT rabbi might want to take a crack at it, and might well be better at it than I, since they'll have a better idea of what it's like to thank God for gay sex than I would. I know some might suggest uniform, orientation-free formulations so all say the same brachot, but I just don't think it's necessary: I don't think there's anything wrong with people saying different brachot for very different experiences. After all, we say a different brachah for smelling a fragrant spice, a fragrant herb, or a fragrant tree. And I think different kinds of sex are way more different than variations in fragrant scents.

So here goes:

לפני שמתחילים:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר ברא את האדם ונטע בו יצר לחפס רעים אהובים.

Before sex (this one should be short, or no one will take the time to say it):
You are blessed, Hashem, sovereign of the universe, who created humanity, and implanted within them a desire to seek out loving companions.

אחרי שגומרים:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר ברא את האדם בחכמה ובחמלה במינים שונים, ונתן בהם אהבה ותאבה, לחפס ולמצוא כל אחד בשני את צלם יוצרם וטעם גן עדן ופרדס. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם לשמחה.

After sex (yes, sex should have a brachah acharonah. But let's not even get into a brachah me'ein shalosh for sex...):

You are blessed, Hashem, sovereign of the universe, who, with wisdom and mercy, created humanity in different genders, and put into them love and desirous appetites, that they seek and find within one another the image of God and a taste of Eden and Paradise. You are blessed, Hashem, who makes people for joyfulness.

Nu? It's a start.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Be aware.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict the day before yesterday, and the Melissa Alexander verdict (who received 20 years for firing a warning shot, in her own home, to try and warn off her abusive estranged husband who was violating his restraining order), my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox exploded with expressions of shock and outrage from many of my (mostly white and Jewish) acquaintances.

And I confess, I am shocked. Not at the verdicts. At my acquaintances.

I understand anger at the verdicts: both were manifestly miscarriages of justice, products of a broken system. But shock? Outcries of surprise that these things could happen? Really?

I want to ask these people where they’ve been living, because if they’re surprised that these things happened in America, they clearly haven’t been living here. Ever.

Injustices like these verdicts don’t happen in a vacuum. They don’t spring forth, sudden incursions from some obscure hell of malicious occurrences. They are inevitabilities in a society where the powerful and wealthy upper classes of one skin color and gender persistently curb, restrain, oppress, harass, and subjugate the lower classes, the other skin colors, and the opposite gender.

I question the shock and outrage on anyone’s Facebook status or email or tweet or anything else if they aren’t consistently-- if not daily-- posting or tweeting their shock and outrage over things like:

  • Egregious disparities in the funding of education for minority and low-income areas and students.

  • An unconscionably high prison population disproportionately made up of people of color.

  • The under-funding and under-maintaining of hospitals and public health care in low-income areas.

  • The media bias on reporting crimes against white people vigorously, and ignoring crimes against people of color unless they can be sensationalized for some other reason.

  • The double-edged sword of affirmative action, wherein students of color who so seek to improve their chances of bettering themselves through education are then questioned by all and sundry as to their intellectual or professional qualifications.

  • The consistent defunding and underfunding of social services geared toward providing aid to low-income citizens, who are disproportionately people of color-- from food assistance to housing assistance to employment assistance.

  • Extreme toleration of corporations abusing low-income labor-- which is disproportionately made up of people of color, immigrants, and women.

  • Toleration of suppression of organized labor, which disproportionately affects the poor and the lower middle classes, who are disproportionately of color.

  • Draconian mandatory minimums for crimes which unfairly target low-income and minority demographics, often selectively enforced either as a result of cronyism or simply the result of inadequate public defender or free legal aid services. This is especially true of drug-related offenses, for which white, upper middle-class or wealthy defendants more often get reduced sentences and opportunities for addiction counseling and rehabilitation, and poor defendants of color more often get harsh prison sentences.

  • Disproportionate lack of people of color and women in high levels of government and of corporate administration.

  • Tolerance of financial crises created by wealthy institutions dominated by white men, which disproportionately affect poor people, especially people of color.
If these things and a giant panoply of others like them aren’t on your daily radar, and discussion of them doesn’t constitute part of your regular set of publicly vocalized sociopolitical opinions, then your posted outrage over the occasional more dramatic injustice that the media is willing to cover rings a little hollow.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t comment on what’s going on, or condemn it, unless we fit an incredibly vigorous profile of activism-- that just isn’t a reasonable expectation for most people’s lives. But don’t be shocked. Don’t be surprised. Be aware.

Maybe there’s not much many of us can do about it-- sign some petitions, give to some causes, try to be unprejudiced in our daily lives-- but let’s not fool ourselves about the society we live in. Even if we can’t do much on a daily basis, we can at least walk around with open eyes, and teach our children to do the same. We can at least not pretend that our society is just, and that intolerance in America is something we read about in history books, or that only happens in far-flung rural areas.

Most of us aren’t full-time activists or even part-time movers and shakers for social change-- myself absolutely included. And I’m not necessarily suggesting we should be. But true change requires more than activism and fundraising and political lobbying. True change requires a shift in the worldview of the majority of Americans. And like any problem, the solution begins by accepting the truth of the problem. American society is unjust. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more unjust societies out there-- there are. But their existence doesn’t obviate the injustice in America. And if we do nothing else, let’s at least admit that that’s the truth, and not be surprised when we see it in action.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Havdalah and Distinctions

I know Julie and I haven't posted in forever. It turns out that having a baby is time consuming: who knew?

One of our congregants asked me to clarify havdalah for her. Specifically, she was concerned about blessing God for separating the Jewish People from other nations. She often has guests in her home who are not halachically Jewish, and is concerned that in making this brachah, she is invoking a ritualized contempt or discrimination that her guests may understandably find offensive.

While leaving aside for the moment the very real issues and concerns with the situation of individuals not halachically Jewish, I tried as best I could to address her concerns by reframing and clarifying the meaning of havdalot not as “separation,” (though technically that is a fair translation) since I think that has more negative resonance in English than the word havdalah has in Hebrew (especially in America, where “separate” in social reference often connotes Jim Crow, a very negative form of separating people from one another), but as “making a distinction.”

Distinction is not a hierarchy: it is a vertical differentiation, not a horizontal differentiation. It need not (and, I think, does not) imply a valuative judgment, merely an acknowledgement of difference.

ויאמר אלקים יהי רקיע בתוך המים ויהי מבדיל בין מים למים
Gen. 1:6. And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters: let there be a distinction (mavdil) between water and water.”

This is the language of havdalah: taking something and noting differences. There is water above the vault of the heavens (i.e., clouds and rain) and there is water below the vault of the heavens (i.e., lakes, rivers, and seas). It’s all water. None of it is any better or worse. But some happens to be over here, and some happens to be over there. Without either, the world would be the less. But we note their differences and rejoice in them in different ways: we make different brachot for seeing lakes and rivers than for the sea, and both different from that we make over seeing rain. But all get a brachah said over them, because we rejoice in water. In just the same way, a distinction is made between the People Israel and the other Peoples of the world. We’re all Peoples. Without any of us, the world would be the less. But we rejoice in our differences, since we all have our different places and different functions. Our purpose is to be Jews, and we rejoice in it. If we were Irish, or Hawaiian, or Maori, or whatever, our purpose would be to be Irish or Hawaiian or Maori, or whatever, and we would quite rightly rejoice in that. And it would be just as true that our people would be special, unique, and different from all others.

We find this idea far, far back in our tradition.

הלוא כבני כשיים אתם לי בני ישראל נאם ה' הלוא את ישראל העליתי מארץ מצרים ופלשתיים מכפתור וארם מקיר
Amos 9:7. “Are you not like the Kushites to me, O Israel?” Says Hashem. “Did I not bring up Israel from the Land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Kaftor, and the Arameans from Kir?”

We are God’s People...in our own, unique way. Other Peoples are also God’s Peoples...in their own, unique ways. And the examples God gives in Amos are Peoples we weren’t even friendly with: reminding us forcefully that even the Peoples we don’t always like are still God’s Peoples. “Special” and “unique” are not the same as “better.”

To value one’s own self and heritage does not, by definition, require the denigration of others and their heritage. The idea that it does is both unfounded and antiquated. That some in our tradition may have chosen to turn the idea of havdalot (distinctions) in such a fashion absolutely does not mean it must mean that, or even that that is the most accurate meaning. So, yes, we do speak of our distinction from the other nations of the world; and they could speak of their distinction from us, or from one another. Not because we’re Jews and we rock but they’re non-Jews and they bite. Nobody has to bite. We can all rock, in our own ways. We’re just different from one another: a rich glory of variety, which is what we should expect, given that we are all creations of the Infinite.

In the same vein, at this congregant's request, I also translated Havdalah for her afresh. Maybe it will be useful for others, also, so I include it here in this link.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Mizdrash

Julie and I recently went to see the film of Les Miserables, the musical/opera based on Victor Hugo’s magnificent novel. Though the film was flawed in some key ways, we both enjoyed it very much-- I’ve seen the musical five times, and introducing it to Julie was one of my great successes.

I love the musical, and I love the book on which it was based. Hugo’s novel is deeply religious and deeply populist, both of which speak to my heart quite a bit. He wrote it in no small part as a paean to Paris and the French People, but for my part, what is most compelling are the interwoven three themes of faith and salvation, love and sacrifice, law and justice.

As most know, the story follows Jean Valjean, a peasant who steals some bread to feed his starving nieces and nephews, is sentenced to five years in prison for it, and, after trying to escape from the hell that was French prison in the nineteenth century, ends up serving nineteen years for his “crime.” After his release, he is bitter and filled with hate, but upon being shown mercy and kindness by the Bishop of Digne, he breaks parole, assumes a new identity, and establishes a good life as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mayor of a small city, Montreuil-sur-mer. He is tracked through his life by the relentless Inspector Javert, whose fanatical devotion to the law brooks no mercy for escaped convicts and parole-breakers. Valjean is forced to flee his life in Montreuil in order to bring up the orphaned daughter of a woman named Fantine, for whose death Valjean feels responsible. Javert tracks him and the girl to Paris, where they disappear for many years, as Valjean assumes the identity of a gardener at a nunnery. Eventually, during the failed uprising of 1848, Valjean encounters Javert again at the barricades, frees Javert from the revolutionary students, and ultimately offers to surrender himself, demanding only to save the life of a student called Marius, beloved of Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette. Javert, unable to reconcile these good actions with Valjean being a parole-breaking ex-convict and therefore “evil,” commits suicide. Marius and Cosette marry, but Valjean disassociates himself from their lives and ultimately dies of a broken heart, in no small part driven by his shame at his own past.

It’s a beautiful story, and though profoundly Christian in many ways-- especially in its fervent embrace of martyrdom as symbolic of righteousness-- it also has some deeply Jewish aspects.

Perhaps first and foremost, Jean Valjean is importantly Jewishly because he exemplifies the value of teshuvah (repentance). Our tradition values teshuvah greatly, and holds that one who has sinned and truly repented is even greater than one who has been innocent of wrongdoing his whole life. I have always thought that this attitude is rooted in our origins as former slaves. Who better to understand the value of casting off shame to do what is right than a bunch of escaped slaves who turned to the worship of the One God? In this way, Valjean is a deeply Jewish character: he also is an escaped slave who turns to the worship of the One God. He has been mistreated by the greater society around him, yet shows he has the potential to excel in that society and be respectable, and does not yearn for success and power: his greatest joy comes from raising his daughter with love, in a convent, where she knows only the comfort and safety of family and the worship of God. The framing may be Christian, but the values are very typical of the Jewish tradition: Valjean is the baal teshuvah (repenter) who truly commits himself to kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name).

But to my mind, even more important is the theme of law and justice. Javert, who was born in a prison and redeems himself by becoming first a prison guard and then a police officer, absolutizes good and evil, and does not make any distinctions between the law, moral good, and God (or, vice versa: lawbreaking, moral evil, and sin). He hunts Valjean through decades and over hundreds of miles, unable to truly conceive of the notion of teshuvah. For Javert, the law is by definition not only good, but Good. Criminals are, by definition, evil. Lawbreaking is to be addressed summarily and swiftly with the harsh punishments of prison: near-starvation, forced labor, filthy conditions, followed by eternal parole that formally stigmatizes the felon, and condemns them to lives of persecution and poverty.

This is an excellent example of how we do not deal with law and justice in Judaism-- perhaps ironic, considering that Christians, historically, have often rebuked Judaism for being a religion of laws, constraining and harsh. But though we may be a religion of laws, those laws are neither constraining nor harsh, and, at least according to our Rabbinic tradition, they have never been so.

We often quote the Rabbinic maxim, dina d'malchuta dina he (“the law of the land is binding law,” attributed to the great third-century sage Shmuel) to justify following secular law in those areas where we have allowed the secular courts and government jurisdiction originally covered in halachah. The full context of the maxim, however, is that the law of the land is binding law, to the degree that it seeks for the same kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) as Torah law.

In other words, this isn't just a statement regarding the jurisdictional supremacy of Torah law over secular law or vice versa: it is a recognition that Torah law exists to foster moral and compassionately just society, and when it fails to do so, the halachic system demands reinterpretation of the law l'shem tikkun ha'olam (for the purposes of correcting the way the world works). And while secular law should ideally be the same, we recognize that it is not always designed in this fashion, or used in that way.

We basically trust that secular governments are trying to do the right thing, and we respect them as vital social instruments for that purpose (as it says in Pirkei Avot 3:2 "Rabbi Chanina, the Assistant High Priest, said, 'Pray for the well-being of the government, because without the fear of its authority, people would eat each other alive.'"). But we retain the overriding moral authority of Torah law because we have faith that it is designed to create a moral environment balancing justice and compassion-- and that when it fails to do this, it is designed to be self-correcting via rabbinic interpretive jurisdiction.

Also, from a Kabbalistic standpoint, din (judgment) must balance with rachamim (mercy) because din is an aspect of the Sefirah of Gevurah, and rachamim is an aspect of the Sefirah of Chesed, and those two Sefirot are paired along the Etz Chayim, and together represent a specific kind of harmony in the flow of shefa (divine energy) into the universe. We foster justice in our society, sure, but we have to temper it with mercy and lovingkindness because untempered, justice very soon becomes unjust-- in fact, unrestrained din is understood to be a major component of the yetzer ha-ra (the urge to do evil, or the chaotic impulse). Evil very seldom, if ever, arises from a desire to do bad: rather, it most frequently arises from a misguided or excessive desire for good.

We in our own lives have to use this understanding of the flows of shefa and their balances to harmonize our existences here: leavening Gevurah with Chesed by opening ourselves to those kinds of shefa, and passing on in behavior, emotion, and kavanah (intention) what we take in to ourselves.

From our spiritual standpoint, Jean Valjean-- who ordinarily we would say is too self-sacrificing, as we embrace martyrdom far less enthusiastically than do Christians-- becomes necessary not just as an exemplar of the value of teshuvah (though he certainly is that), but because his existence creates a balance for the existence of Javert. Javert is unrestrained din. Valjean after his "teshuvah" inculcated by the Bishop of Digne is nearly unrestrained rachamim, and in this way Gevurah and Chesed balance one another out. And both serve as a cautionary tale to us all, since if we are not careful to have a society of laws where din is well-balanced with rachamim, what we end up producing are Javerts and Valjeans, neither of which, ideally, we want. We see aspects of this play out throughout the story: Fantine counterbalances out the Thenardiers; Cosette counterbalances out Eponine; Monsieur Gillenormand, Marius' socially conservative grandfather, is counterbalanced out by Enjolras and the Societe des ABC; and so on. They all exemplify how French society was grossly dysfunctional because, in its inability to both establish justice and enact justice with mercy, it created people who lived at extremes: either criminals, uncaring rich, and the vast mass of les miserables, or (far fewer and less often) selfless martyrs and idealistic revolutionaries. None of that is balance, though it makes for excellent reading and opera.

A truly successful society, both in the pragmatic terms of cultural functionality and basic average happiness, and in the metaphysical terms of spiritual health and harmony, is one that seeks balance, and values people. Valjeans and Javerts are not created in societies that do not stigmatize, that teach balance and harmony, where people take care of one another, where human beings are recognized as tzalmei elohim (images of God). Revolutions do not happen in such societies, because they grow progressively in healthy (and essentially bloodless) ways, by giving people a voice in the way they run their lives, by giving the poor ways out of poverty, and by having systems of laws that are flexible, compassionate, applied with care, and subject to self-correction.

Victor Hugo loved the French People, and it grieved him very much to see French society plagued by poverty, uncaring, violence, and war. He never dreamed, when he wrote Les Miserables, that he was also writing a midrash about what a society looks like that ignores the lessons of Torah and halachah. But we can recognize it. And sing along.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Happy Rosh Chodesh Elul!

“Hashem is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? Hashem is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” So begins Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited every day of the month of Elul, through Simchat Torah (or Yom Kippur, depending on the custom of one's community).

It’s a beautiful psalm, well worth going back to on a regular basis. There’s a lot of yearning in Psalm 27: the psalmist expressing his love for God, and his yearning to be close to God. Which, on the face of things, might seem a little strange: after all, the month of Elul is the long build-up to the High Holidays, which are the time of year we tend to associate with aspects of God like judge, arbiter of life and death, reckoner of our merits and misdeeds-- not really the warm, fuzzy aspects of the divine. And yet here we have this tradition of reciting Psalm 27, and references to it in traditional texts often cite medieval midrashim that the name of the month of Elul is actually an acronym for a famous quote from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is for me.”).

What brings these disparate things together is the midrash which tells us that Moshe Rabeinu (our teacher Moses) ascended Mount Sinai to get the Torah on 1 Elul. He remained up there for forty days and forty nights, coming down with the commandments on Yom Kippur. So, amid all of the judgment and the reckoning of the High Holidays, there’s actually this undercurrent of the love of God and Israel-- after all, we routinely compare the giving of the Torah to the wedding of God and Israel. And we traditionally wear white on Yom Kippur, just like bride and groom traditionally wear white under the chuppah.

The love and the judgment might still seem like a strange mix, but think about it: your spouse is the person you trust to see you best, and to call you on your behavior when you’re off base. And your spouse is also the person you trust to always forgive you, so long as you are willing to talk it out, make amends, and take responsibility. Your spouse is the person whose judgment you trust, and whom you can permit to judge you without fearing that their judgment means a loss of love and respect for you (judging without being judge-y, if you will): that’s part of the intimacy of a mature, thoughtful relationship.

Psalm 27 is kind of a reminder to us to contextualize the High Holidays: on the High Holiday, God will take an accounting of how you have held up your part of the obligations of the relationship. But that relationship isn’t limited to the High Holidays: and the rest of the year, we can also call to account God, for how He’s held up His part of the obligations of the relationship. Maybe the reason that the relationship has held up for so very long is that we’re both endlessly willing to forgive one another.

The last line of Psalm 27 says, “Put your hope in Hashem: be strong, make your heart strong, and put your hope in Hashem.” Maybe as a well-placed and well-timed reminder that both we and God have a lot to forgive each other for, and working at such a relationship is difficult, and requires both patience and considerable time and inner strength.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Taking Account of our Souls (and Email Inboxes)

As we look ahead to the month of August (it's the month before the High Holidays!), we acknowledge the intensity and special importance of this time leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Like any important event, the weeks preceding are to be filled with ideas and activities to prepare us, to make us ready for that which the Holidays demand: self reflection, repentance, and opportunities to change any patterns or behaviors that may not have served us in the past year.

There's a tradition of 'cheshbon hanefesh', literally "taking account of your soul" during the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah.  Rabbi Sarah Graff suggests going through the sent messages mailbox in your email account as a way of assessing the year past.

Which are the names, the subjects, and the content of your emails in the year since last Rosh Hashanah?  Which are the names missing from your inbox?  To whom were most of your most important messages sent?  How many of your messages were written in shorthand, without editing?  How many messages do you now wish you could 'unsend'?

In a way, our email accounts are a window into our lives: how much of this past year was work?  How much was play?  Who are the people that played leading roles in your life this year?  What changes would you like to see reflected in your 'cheshbon hanefesh' next year at this time?

Know that this work of self reflection is among the most sacred and important tasks you'll do all year.  Taking time to truly see the year gone by will help assure that the year upcoming will be richer, fuller, and even more meaningful.

- Julie 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

It's Still Temple Judaism: Why Tisha b'Av is So Central

Today is Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. It is the nadir of our year: the rock bottom of our spiritual cycle.

Many of the worst moments in our long history have happened on or around this date. But the worst by far are the destructions of the First and Second Temples, both of which took place on Tisha b’Av, around five hundred years apart (the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE).

It’s only in the last few years, as I’ve been working in the general Jewish community, that I have found out that a lot of Liberal Jews don’t observe Tisha b’Av, which we traditionally mark by reading the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), and by fasting from sundown to sundown. At first I was astonished by this, unable to understand why this observance should be rejected. As I asked people why they did not observe it, their answers began to make things clear:

“Why should I mourn the destruction of the Temple? I don’t want there to be a Temple: animal sacrifice is barbaric, and having an all-controlling dynastic priesthood is archaic and oppressive. Frankly, I’m just as glad it got destroyed.”

A lot of these people, having clearly discerned my own observance of Tisha b’Av, and the clear value I place on it, are surprised to hear that I also don’t care for the idea of animal sacrifice, nor do I desire the ultimate religious authority in Judaism to be hereditary, either in the hands of kohanim or in anyone else’s hands.

But the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple) was more than animal sacrifices, and I don’t believe the priesthood always held ultimate religious authority.

The Beit ha-Mikdash was the place where Heaven and Earth touched. It was the spot at which all concerns and distinctions between individuals fell away, and there was only Israel and God, whose only business was love for one another, and the praise of one another’s wondrous uniqueness. It was a space dedicated solely to service of God, but it was more than that: it was an embodiment of hope. The highest levels of ritual purity were maintained there, because to go there was to demand a focus on spiritual harmony and clarity. The times of day, of season, of year were marked there with great scrupulousness, so that it might serve as our national reminder that every moment holds within it the potential for sacredness. The Ark of the Covenant, which was kept within the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies) at the heart of the Beit ha-Mikdash was a physical reminder to us that Torah is the beating heart of the Jewish People. The menorah (which, contrary to our depictions, actually resembled an almond tree bearing flowers of fire), always lit and unchanging, was a reminder that revelation never ceased with us: it is ongoing, so long as we let it into our lives, so long as we look for it. The Beit ha-Mikdash was, in that sense, an echo of the Sinai experience, continuously repeated: a place we could only go when ritually pure and holding proper intention, with Torah at its center, and the panoply of revelation surrounding that center.

In that place, yes, our ancestors did offer sacrifices. That was the universal method of prayer in those days, and they could hardly be expected not to do so. But other things were offered besides animals: wine, grain, oil, water, incense-- all of these were offered on a regular basis, and the offerings of the first fruits of the season were also brought and offered at due times. And prayer also was offered, both spontaneous prayer and the liturgy of psalms.

It is said that no person was ever turned away hungry from the Beit ha-Mikdash. No one who came there seeking justice was turned away-- it was a place of refuge for those who needed refuge, and at times also the place where the Great Sanhedrin (our ancestors’ equivalent of the Supreme Court-- the real ultimate religious authority) met. Tzedakah (charity money) was collected there, and distributed there also. Any who came seeking God’s presence were given help, and any who sought to learn Torah were taught. There was always room for everyone. It was the place wherein we tried to best exemplify the ideals that God taught us through His prophets and messages.

It was also the place where we frequently failed at doing just those things. We failed so comprehensively, so utterly, that our punishment was to have the Beit ha-Mikdash destroyed from our midst: our inability to create-- even in one small, contained space-- a place that was truly holy, truly just, truly peaceful, truly a meeting of Heaven and Earth, was so complete that we actually took that place and made it into a mockery of what it was supposed to be. So even the chance was taken away, until we could earn it again.

The First Temple was destroyed because of our ancestors’ inability to abjure their penchant for idolatry. Failure to understand that only God is God, and only God is worthy of worship is bad enough: worshipping in God’s stead both people and the things they make is worse. Doing so fosters societies that are indifferent to the suffering of the innocent and which value goods and wealth over justice and truth. This is because such societies raise some people up over others, to be venerated as gods, thus denying the basic truth that we are all equally made in God’s image: reflections in fragmented miniature of the One who created Everything; and because when objects are worshipped, objects take on divine value, and so greed is served, and opulence, and honor and preference is given to those who have wealth and can give that wealth for the making and maintenance of objects to be worshipped.

The Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam (reasonless hatred): we understood that only God is God, and worshipped only Him, but we could not recognize the spark of the divine in all of us, and the potential within every Jew to find devekut (cleaving close to God) along the path of Torah. We denigrated one another, and fought with one another, instead of reasoning with and respecting one another; and instead of solving our problems with tolerance and shared service of Heaven, we deceived and betrayed one another, and sold one another out to the enemies of our people.

We mourn the destruction of the Temples not because we wish that Temple Judaism had never evolved into the Rabbinic Judaism we now know, or because we necessarily want a Third Temple to be exactly like the first two Temples. We mourn the destruction of the Temples as reminders of what we should have learned better, but did not. We mourn their loss as the confirmation of our greatest failures as the Jewish People. And in mourning those losses, and remembering what should have been, what could have been, and what was not, as well as those few shining moments when we got it right-- we commit ourselves again to doing better. We re-commit ourselves to mastering those lessons in truth.

And when we hope for a Third Temple, to be built when the moshiach (messiah) comes, we don’t necessarily hope for sacrificed animals. The animal sacrifice was called avodah (service), the same word we use to denote prayer. Between prayer and the other, non-living things that are brought as offerings, there is no reason to think that a Third Temple could not embody the ideals and greatest potentials of the Jewish People as we understand them in the future-- without any animals being killed. The hope for a Third Temple is the hope for the chance to create a place where the hungry are always fed, the helpless are always helped, the threatened are always sheltered, those in need of justice always given it, and where every moment of every day is lived in deep awareness of God’s presence, of Torah in our lives, and of our shared nature as tzalmei elohim (images of God). And not only amid the Jewish people, but as Isaiah prophesies: ki beiti beit tefillah yikarei l’chol ha-‘amim (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Is. 56:7).

To observe Tisha b’Av is to mourn for our failure to do our best to shape even a small corner of the world into the kind of place that truly embodies Torah: completely valuing justice, chesed (lovingkindness), respect of other people, and awareness of God as Creator and as our partner in the Covenant-- valuing those things and putting them into constant action.

To observe Tisha b’Av is to not only respect the bitter losses our ancestors suffered as they failed to learn those lessons, but it is to commit ourselves to never forgetting that we failed to learn them.

To mourn the passing of the two Temples, and open our hearts to the hope of the Third yet to come, is to commit ourselves to making the ideals of Torah as real as human beings can make them, in at least one spot in the world, and to creating a Jewish society, and a world society, where those ideals are lived out more often than they are failed or ignored or unknown.

These ideals have yet to be met, in any great degree, in any segment of Jewish society. It is not only Liberal Jews who ought to mark Tisha b’Av with observance and rededication to learning these lessons, but Orthodox Jews also, who must contemplate anew what it means to rededicate themselves to such learning. Because it is not enough to know that Hashem is God and none other. We have to learn to respect and value one another also: human beings at large, as tzalmei elohim, and other Jews in specific, because we are all equally partners in the Covenant with God, and avodat shamayim (service of Heaven) doesn’t always look the same in every person and place.

Tisha b’Av has come and gone for thousands of years without us adequately learning these lessons. Will this be the Tisha b’Av where we decide that has to change?

Julie and I wish you all an easy fast.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Brit Ahuvim 2.0: The New Standard Halachic Alternative to Kiddushin Marriage

Note: links to the Brit Ahuvim documents themselves are at the bottom of this post

There has been considerable discussion of marriage recently in the Conservative movement, in the wake of the addendum by Rabbis Dorff, Reisner, and Nevins to their teshuvah concerning homosexual relationships (and the concurrence by Rabbi Aaron Alexander).

I continue to be of the opinion that we should be discussing the way all Jews, gay and straight, are getting married. Like many rabbis today, I find a great deal in the structure of hilchot kiddushin, hilchot ketubot, and hilchot gittin (the laws of betrothal, marriage, divorce, and attendant documentation) to be extraordinarily problematic. While we may spin the facts as we please, and dress them up as fancifully as we may be able to do so, ultimately, the halachah as it stands has Jewish men purchasing Jewish women to be their wives. And while we may invent all sorts of halachic devices to attempt to ameliorate the problems and distasteful nature of this situation, ultimately, we modern rabbis simply lack the halachic authority to rewrite the code of hilchetei kiddushin, ketubot, v’gittin from Line 10, as it were.

If I believe that this situation is untenable, it is an opinion I come by honestly: I had a good upbringing. In 1999, my mother, Rabbi Rachel Adler, won the National Jewish Book Award for Theology, for her book Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. The book had been her Ph.D. thesis, completed in 1997, and she had worked on it for the better part of the ten years previous. The final section of the book presents a groundbreaking critical analysis of traditional Jewish marriage, and offers a halachic solution. Rather than attempt to radically reconstruct the involved areas of halachah, rebuilding them from scratch; or turn them inside out in an attempt to transform them into something they can never be, she simply sidestepped the issue: drawing on hilchot shutafut (partnership law), she constructed an alternative form of marriage, the Brit Ahuvim.

She wrote a shtar brit (contract for the covenant, analogous to a shtar ketubah in a kiddushin marriage) which was utterly egalitarian and equitable, creating partnership without uneven distribution of power or authority, and which was readily usable by straight or gay couples. It was in accessible Hebrew, cited covenants between God and Israel as "precedents," and created a relationship completely separate from and outside of kiddushin, or erusin (betrothal), or pilagshut (concubinage). It was something new, but something which did not seek to outright replace kiddushin: those Jews who wished to continue using kiddushin marriage were able to continue to use the original Rabbinic formulae, and those who were dissatisfied with kiddushin had a completely non-kiddushin alternative which was nonetheless grounded in classical halachah.

I should probably pause, just to note that, while I love and respect my mother greatly, we disagree on many philosophical issues-- as might be expected, given that she is a Reform rabbi, and I am a Conservative rabbi who has been known to flirt with Modern Orthodoxy. So when I say that I personally support and embrace the Brit Ahuvim as a solution, that is not mere nepotism speaking, but a considered evaluation.

When the time came in my life that I was fortunate enough to be engaged to be married, I spoke to my then-fiancee Julie about using the Brit Ahuvim. Julie, a Reform rabbi also, had been a favorite student of my mother’s, so it was hardly surprising that she was quite agreeable. What I was interested in finding out, though, was whether she objected to revising the original Brit Ahuvim, in part for purposes of style, but in larger and more important part, in order to deal with halachic issues that my mother had not dealt with in creating the ritual-- loopholes or decisions in composition that posed no problem for her as a Reform halachist, but did for me as a Conservative halachist...and which I believe may have contributed to the failure as yet of the Brit Ahuvim to make significant inroads in the Conservative movement as an alternative marriage. Fortunately, Julie had no objections to such revisions, and was willing to jointly take on the project with me.

The most significant incomplete element of the original Brit Ahuvim was that no coherent methodology for dissolving the relationship existed. This was compounded by the fact that, while I felt and still feel that the Brit Ahuvim in its original form was wonderfully, even audaciously, innovative and creative-- making an entirely new ritual that, nonetheless, felt traditional-- it seemed to me that any Modern Orthodox bet din, and possibly even some Conservative batei din, if faced with a separated couple who had been married with a Brit Ahuvim, would surely rule the ceremony a safek kiddushin (presumptive or de facto kiddushin), and demand that the woman receive a get (traditional divorce, which can only be initiated by the man, among other problems)-- precisely one of the situations my mother was attempting to avoid. Nothing like the Brit Ahuvim had ever been done before, and it seemed to me that more was needed than the intent of the ritual’s creator to give halachic grounds to a traditional, yet open-minded, bet din that this ought not to be summarily judged a safek kiddushin. The absence of methodology for dissolution seemed, in addition to creating potential pitfalls for future divorces, a perfect opening for traditional dayanim (judges) to say, "Well, it must require gittin-- how else is one to dissolve the relationship? Even the author cites no alternative dissolution method. And if it needs a get, it must be a safek kiddushin."

Now, I am a realist: I understand that many, if not most, Orthodox batei din (courts)-- Modern or not-- faced with a separated couple married by Brit Ahuvim, are most likely going to declare a safek kiddushin and require a get, no matter what halachic safeguards or methods are built into the shtar and ritual, simply to preserve the principle that only kiddushin is a valid Jewish marriage, if not deliberately to quash similar novellae from Liberal Judaism from taking hold. But in addition to my confidence in the halachah of the Conservative movement, my hope is that, now or at a time soon, there might be just one or two Modern Orthodox batei din progressive enough to recognize that Brit Ahuvim really could exist side-by-side with kiddushin as a halachic way to facilitate shalom bayit (“household peace”) in Beit Yisrael (the House of Israel). I don’t even hope that an Orthodox rabbi will actually espouse Brit Ahuvim as a valid choice of equal stature with kiddushin, much less actually perform a Brit Ahuvim marriage. I only hope that there might be three or six Orthodox rabbis willing to say that Orthodox Jews ought not, lechatchilah (“in the first place,” or “before the fact,” the go-to or halachically preferred observance), use Brit Ahuvim marriage, but any Jew who did use Brit Ahuvim marriage, b’di eved (“afterward” or “after the fact,” an observance not usually done, but defensible as effective if already done) does not require a get.

My long-term hope is that Brit Ahuvim marriages, in addition to addressing the egalitarian and feminist concerns of relationship power and commodification of persons, could also help alleviate the agunah (“anchored” or “chained” women, who wish to divorce their husbands, but whose husbands refuse to give them a get, leaving them unable to remarry or have children with anyone else, lest the children be mamzerim-- products of adultery, roughly analogous to bastards) problem, if a day should come when it is popular enough in Conservative circles that it begins to cross the gap into Modern Orthodoxy-- not necessarily in rabbis adopting it, but in Modern Orthodox baalei teshuvah (formerly secular Jews “returned” to traditional practice) asking their rabbis for it, or perhaps even going to "Conservadox" rabbis for Brit Ahuvim marriages, forcing Modern Orthodox rabbis to address it as a de facto issue on the ground.

And in the meantime, my short-term hope is that more and more Conservative rabbis, presented with a carefully-constructed halachic alternative to kiddushin marriage, will be willing to adopt its use, and present it alongside kiddushin as an option for people who come to them asking to be married. My mother has presented a far better argument than I could ever construct for why Brit Ahuvim is more empowering and respectful for Jewish women than kiddushin. But as a Jewish man, I can vouch for the fact that I feel that my marriage began 100% better for neither having purchased my wife, nor having had to enter into a legal arrangement with which I did not agree, or have any intention of honoring on its face, or which I had to deliberately invalidate, or which I had to dress up in the guise of something less disagreeable. And I feel better for knowing that, in the (hopefully unlikely) event that I turn into a naval bi’reshut ha-torah (see previous blog post), and my wife desires a divorce, she can take action on her own behalf, and need never worry about being at the mercy of someone set on using her desire for independence and freedom as a means of tormenting her.

In any case, in redesigning the Brit Ahuvim (the original of which can be found in the last section of my mother’s book, which I would be remiss if I did not advocate everyone purchasing), we took some very specific steps. We expanded slightly on the obligations of the couple to one another as part of the relationship, most notably strengthening the requirement for mutual sexual and romantic fidelity. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of kiddushin is that, while it requires punctilious fidelity from the woman, it still technically permits the man to have sex with other women, so long as those other women are not married, and so long as he continues to regularly fulfill his marital obligations to his wife. By custom, of course, and in the dictates of several rabbinic responsa, we today presume that a Jewish man ought to be faithful to his wife. But nonetheless, there is more than adequate room in the halachah as it stands to argue that he need not be, or that if he is not, it is unfortunate, but not transgressive. Part of the existential nature of Brit Ahuvim is to equalize the relationship between the couple, and while the original Brit Ahuvim indicated mutual fidelity as part of this, we felt that it would be beneficial to make the notion a little more pointed.

We also described the conditions for dissolution of the relationship, and developed a methodology of divorcement. Just as the relationship is entered into by shtar and declaration, it is also ended by shtar and declaration. Either party or the couple together may initiate divorce, for any reason of their choosing, by composing a document indicating termination of the shutafut, signed by one or both of the parties, and two witnesses. We considered having some kind of divorce ritual, to mirror the ritual of the Brit Ahuvim (which centrally features the bride and bridegroom each placing an item of value into a sack, which is together lifted up by the couple-- a method of initiating a shutafut drawn directly from the Gemara), but in the end, it seemed better to leave divorce as something easy, purely legal, and not invested with too much ceremony, so as not to place an emotional burden on people. Many individuals create their own personal rituals for dealing with divorce, and that seems a healthier response than over-ritualizing the process formally. We also indicated that the dissolution of the Brit Ahuvim must be accompanied by secular divorce in a court of the land, in order to be completely valid. We felt that this would reinforce the idea that Brit Ahuvim is not to be taken lightly, and we also felt it would act as a safeguard, to ensure that a shtar of divorcement drawn up in haste or in passion by one of the parties, even if witnessed properly, would not take hold legally without the completion of an extensive process, something unable to be completed in the heat of the moment.

And we did our best to create halachic safeguards against later determinations of safek kiddushin. We put a declaration directly into the text of the shtar brit that it was not a kiddushin; and we put a t’nai (conditional clause) into the shtar that predicates the existence of the shutafut on the condition that, in the event of the couple separating, no bet din amongst Israel calls what occurred a safek kiddushin (doing so, then, should void the shutafut ab initio). We also, in designing the ritual ceremony for the Brit Ahuvim, had the officiant directly ask both bride and bridegroom under the chuppah if they were willing to abide by the terms set forth in the shtar brit, and if they understood that what they were entering into was not kiddushin, and that their marital relations were not to be considered bi’ah l’shem kiddushin (“intercourse for the sake of establishing kiddushin:kiddushin marriage can be effected by having sex, and traditionally, rabbis mostly have presumed that sex between unmarried people is for that purpose).

Again, we fully understood that a bet din could still find simple arguments to invalidate the shutafut and call the Brit Ahuvim a safek kiddushin, but we simply wished to provide both halachic safeguards for Conservative batei din, and any kind of halachic recourse for a progressive Modern Orthodox bet din looking for anything on which to rely so as to avoid having to require a get from a divorced woman married by Brit Ahuvim.

We deliberately included several additional references to covenants made between people, not just between Israel and God. We did this because we were concerned that by only invoking the covenant between God and Israel, what is being invoked is an eternal and unbreakable covenant, which, while wholly appropriate for God and an entire people, is not actually a good model for human marriage, as it leaves no recourse for divorce. So we invoked the covenant between Avraham and Avimelech (Gen. 21), and the covenant between David and Yonatan (1 Sam. 18): covenants of equal partners, with the best of intentions, but very human, and subject to the vagaries of human life.

We also had both bride and groom sign the shtar brit, along with four witnesses: two provided by the bride, two by the bridegroom. We did this for several reasons: first, this makes one less participatory honor that the bride and bridegroom must figure out how to divide amongst their friends and family; but second, they may choose to have two male and two female witnesses (we divided by gender: I had two men sign, Julie had two women; but it could be done one-and-one by both parties), and this means that there should be no question of witness validity in any movement (so long as all the witnesses are Jewish: we recommend asking non-Jewish friends to sign the civil marriage license as witnesses).

The other innovations to the shtar shutafut were largely aesthetic and stylistic, to make the language a little more ornate, and resonate a little more strongly with traditional Rabbinic idiom, and perhaps to reinforce a little more strongly the nature of the obligation of the couple to establish a bayit ne’eman b’Yisra’el (“faithful household within Israel,” a common Rabbinic descriptor of the good Jewish household).

My mother’s original Brit Ahuvim as written had no real set liturgy or rite of ceremony, save for including the Sheva Brachot; though she made some excellent suggestions as to what might be done. I think that she felt that this would provide freedom to Jews using the Brit Ahuvim to create their own rituals and ceremonies. But Julie and I felt that the average person getting married actually does not want to create their own marriage ceremony: they want the rabbi (or other officiant) to show up and know what to do and say. They may want to add or subtract certain things, but they want a finished template to work off of. We also felt that, as the average Jew is not a trained liturgist or halachist, it’s not necessarily fair to make their marriage ceremony a do-it-yourself job-- especially if one hopes for anything approaching halachic consistency. So in creating a tekes Brit Ahuvim (rite or ceremony of Brit Ahuvim), we set forth a marriage ceremony which follows the basic pattern of a kiddushin ceremony (clearly something intended by my mother, as she set forth in her book), because successful rituals should appear and feel relatively seamless. They should not feel like novellae. Or, in other words, when the marriage ceremony is over, everyone should feel like they’ve been to a Jewish marriage, and should instinctively shout "mazel tov" and want to dance. But we made changes, of course, to reflect the nature of the Brit Ahuvim.

Some are minor changes: instead of the bride circling the bridegroom (a custom originally rooted in creating safeguards against demons and the evil eye, but which nonetheless smacks of subservience), the bridegroom and bride together circle the chuppah (bridal canopy).

But some are major: the first part of a kiddushin ceremony is birkat erusin (the blessing for formal betrothal). With the Brit Ahuvim, not only is a betrothal not required, but we wish to avoid erusin, since once betrothed, a get is necessary. But birkat erusin also forms a liturgical introduction or prologue, setting tone and context, giving us a ritual and halachic foundation for why we are all gathered together, and what is to come next. We couldn’t just excise it and leave nothing. So we created a replacement brachah. The original birkat erusin runs as follows:

 בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל הָעֲרָיוֹת, וְאָֽסַר לָֽנוּ אֶת הָאֲרוּסוֹת, וְהִתִּיר לָֽנוּ אֶת הַנְּשׂוּאוֹת לָֽנוּ עַל יְדֵי חֻפָּה וְקִדּוּשִׁין. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', מְקַדֵּשׁ עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל יְדֵי חֻפָּה וְקִדּוּשִׁין
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us concerning sexual prohibitions: who forbade us from relations with betrothed women, but permitted us relations with those to whom we are married, by chuppah and kiddushin. Blessed are you, Adonai, who sanctifies your people Israel by means of chuppah and kiddushin.

Now, this brachah is clearly a justification for kiddushin marriage, and for the sexual ethic that kiddushin represents. It speaks of commandments to Israel, but presumes that they are addressed to men, and the passive subjects are women. Nothing like this would do for a Brit Ahuvim brachah. Instead, we composed a brachah that justified halachic innovation and creative ritual:

 בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אַשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת גְבוּלִין גְבוּלִין אִסוּרִין וְהֶתֱרִין, וְנַתָן לָנוּ חֻקִים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים לְהַבְחִין בֵּין הֶקְדֶשׁ וְחוּלִין, וּלְהַבְדִיל בֵּין טְמֵאִים וּטְהוֹרִים: גַלוּי וְידוּעַ לְךָ שֶׁאִם לֹא נְתַתָּם לָנוּ וְלֹא לִימַדְתָּנוּ אִי אֶפְשַׁר לָנוּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם וּלְהִיוֹת עָמְךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' הַנוֹתֵן תוֹרָה לְעָמוֹ וּרְשׁוּת לִפְסוֹק הָלֳכָה לְדַייַנֵי בְּנֵי בְרִיתוֹ, לַעֲשׂוֹת קְשָׁרִים טְהוֹרִים וְחַיִים קְדוֹשִׁים
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with mitzvot, and commanded us to set boundaries of varying kinds, and proscriptions and permissions; and has given us laws and legislations that we may discern between the sanctified and the mundane, and separate between the pure and the impure. Behold it is manifest and known before You that had You not given us these things, and had not taught us those things, it would be impossible for us to continue, or to be Your people. Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives Torah to His people, and jurisdiction to interpret the halachah to the judges among your covenant-partners, that they may make pure bonds between people, and create holy lives.

Rather than use birkat erusin as a stylistic template, we used birkat asher yatzar, which is said in the mornings and upon performing natural functions. While it may seem a little odd to base a wedding brachah on something said after going to the bathroom, it actually makes sense: asher yatzar praises God for creating us with complex physical systems that sustain our lives, and acknowledges that those systems require care and attention, for if they fail, we are lost. By the same token, this birkat gevulin u’f’sikat halachah we made praises God for giving us a complex system of Torah that sustains our spiritual life and holiness, which requires care and attention, for if it fails, we are lost. And considering that the central focus of a Brit Ahuvim wedding is not merely a halachic innovation, but is a halachic contract, functioning in a halachic system, and subject to arbitration by a halachic court, a blessing praising God for giving us jurisdiction to make halachah seemed entirely appropriate to set the tone and act as liturgical prologue to the wedding to follow.

The basic outline of our tekes Brit Ahuvim follows my mother’s suggestions, it merely fleshes them out and formalizes them with what we hope are artful phrases and ritual processes pleasing to the aesthetic of the Jewish tradition. The introduction of the birkat gevulin u’f’sikat halachah is the major innovation we added.

I do not believe that there can be understatement of how much Conservative Judaism (and perhaps, one day, other halachic communities as well) needs to embrace this model of alternative marriage-- not just for GLBT couples, but for heterosexual couples as well. To be a halachic community requires not only commitment to halachah and the halachic process, but a willingness to use the array of tools in the halachist’s toolbox creatively and skillfully.

The inherent disequity of kiddushin marriage is absolute. It is irreparable. Yet as halachic Jews, we are bound to accept it as part of the system of Jewish Law-- we are bound to accept that we do not have sufficient authority to make the kind of fundamental changes to the system that might make kiddushin marriage equitable, fair, and a relationship model that we should be proud to embrace. We can either try to ignore those realities, make cosmetic changes to kiddushin to pretty it up (so long as no close examination of it is done); or break kiddushin, and ignore the halachic ramifications of invalidating every marriage without regard to the continuation of aginut (“anchored” women) or mamzerut (halachic bastardy); or we can make insufficient additions to ketubot to try and ameliorate as best we can the disequity into which ketubot, kiddushin, and gittin force us. None of these choices are completely effective or halachically creative. The cosmetic changes to kiddushin and ketubot largely rely on the ignorance of the average Jew, who will not be aware of what they are really doing, how kiddushin marriage really works, and why their changes are meaningless. The breaking of kiddushin is not only halachically ineffective, it only serves to create further enmity amongst the halachic communities, because it makes a half-hearted attempt to destroy without creating anything to balance: it is not good practice. And the insufficient additions to ketubot, while indeed serving as moderately effective ameliorations of the social and ethical damage ketubot and kiddushin cause, are ultimately ineffective at addressing the moral need for halachah to be observable, and for us to be able to be truly proud of what we do, since we are supposed to be doing it as sanctification of our lives, to draw us closer to Hashem.

Brit Ahuvim ultimately respects the halachic system more than any other solution: it leaves hilchot kiddushin et al. alone, and simply refuses to engage with them. If some Jews actually understand what is transpiring in kiddushin and can be proud of it, then fine: let them use kiddushin. And for those of us who recognize the fundamental problems in kiddushin, let’s not even go there. While we have no authority to restructure the kiddushin system from the ground up, we do have the authority to create something entirely halachic yet new: a marriage which is equal and fair, whose construction and terms we can ensure are based in respect for one another as tzalmei elohim (images of God) and as fellow-partners in the covenant of Sinai-- a marriage which, if innovative, is nonetheless grounded in halachah and tradition, able to be bound by rules.

Solutions like this are halachically creative, and powerful. They recognize that while we may not have the ability to reshape anything and everything set down by the Tannaim and Amoraim, we are nonetheless their successors and inheritors, and we have the jurisdiction and the right to continue their work within the limits of our powers. Torah she-b’al-peh (the Oral Torah) evolves, and our thought evolves with it, our theology evolves as we understand God better by virtue of understanding His creations better: our world and each other. If halachic Judaism is to survive and thrive as a living system, and not merely an ossified shell of its former self, we need to embrace Brit Ahuvim and similar kinds of halachic approaches to the problems of Jewish law and life.

My mother gave us this incredible, foresighted, amazingly workable solution. Julie and I have only given it makeh b’patish (the final, finishing work, completing an otherwise finished whole product), but that finishing should, we hope, make it a truly usable tool for halachic communities to embrace. As such, we encourage everyone to use, to pass around, to repost, and to discuss the attached documents of the shtar brit ahuvim and the tekes brit ahuvim. This is the future of Jewish marriage: let’s start it now.

Attached here are the documents of the Brit Ahuvim 2.0 for examination by all, for engaged couples to present to their officiants for use, and for use by rabbis and other officiants. The text can be altered to suit, for example, in shifting gender and or pronouns as needed or desired.

The original materials of the Brit Ahuvim 1.0 can be found in Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. 

-Ami and Julie