Saturday, May 31, 2008

Service 5-31-2008

The big thing that I learned today was mostly about myself.  I learned that I can follow along with the Hebrew now!  I couldn't have kept up with everybody else if I hadn't been pretty familiar with the prayers and liturgy already, but I wasn't a slave to the transliteration, and I feel proud of that.

The moment that I'm most proud of had nothing to do with the actual service.  There was a woman who was wearing a tallit that had Hebrew text on it that didn't have any vowels on it, and I still managed to read that it said "Jerusalem".  I haven't been that excited to read a single word since I was about three years old.

I'm very glad that I've been studying.  Even though I'm a complete nerd and would have wanted to learn the Hebrew anyway, I had no idea how rewarding it would actually be for me.  Language is a big part of culture, and now that I'm starting to make the language part of the way that I think, I'm really starting to feel like I belong.  I've said it before, but it's very true.  I felt much less like an outsider and more like a participant today.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Informed Choices

Some people think that Reform Judaism disregards halacha and that its members pick and choose their mitzvot.

I think it's more about making informed choices about your practice.  For me, the relative non-emphasis on keeping all 613 commandments has given me the freedom to incorporate them thoughtfully into my life.  Every change that I've made in my life so far has been purposefully done.  Because I have embraced each as a choice, I do them joyfully and as an act of free will.

If they had all been thrust upon me, and if I were going to be judged by how well I performed them, it all would have been rote and mechanical.  I would not have had the luxury of time to understand why G-d wants what He wants, why it's done a certain way, or what lesson I should learn by doing it.

Since G-d went to the trouble of granting us free will, He wants us to make our own decisions.  Granted, He has also prescribed us a way of living which pleases Him the most.  It is our job to reconcile the two, both by learning and by doing.

It's not necessarily that you're making informed decisions about what mitzvot to ignore, rather, it's about ensuring that there is knowledge and intention behind the action.

In services on Saturday, the Haftarah was from the book of Joshua.  It wasn't a very happy passage.  My Rabbi talked about how, at the time Joshua was writing, Jerusalem was under siege.  Theology based on divine retribution was difficult to comprehend in a world where innocents - women and children - were starving and dying in the streets.  He also said that in the Talmud, the Rabbis wrote, in an imaginary dialogue, that G-d said if the Israelites had just done the covenant, even if they forsook Him, He would have saved the city.

He said there is a lot of controversy on this point.  According to him, Orthodox rabbis don't much like it when he brings it up.  I honestly don't understand this yet.  It would seem that the Orthodoxes, with their emphasis on halacha and mitzvot would support the idea of a 
G-d who says that doing is more important than faith, and that by doing your faith should grow.  Conversely, I would expect a Reform rabbi to say that believing should be put first, and trust that it would lead to doing.  I'll have to ask about it at our next meeting.

I'm still in the learning phase right now.  I know I'm not ideally observant, but I also know that my learning is going well and that so far I've been consistent in applying lessons into lifestyle.  I started with faith.  I'm trying not to intentionally or knowingly break halacha.  It may happen recklessly or unknowingly at this point, though, and for that I'm sorry.  All I can do is my best.

Monday, May 26, 2008

DIY: Tallit

I've been thinking about getting a tallit for a while now.

At first, I put it off because they were so very expensive to order online, and I decided that books and candlesticks and kiddush cups and the like were more pressing needs.

Eventually, I decided that I would order one to celebrate my conversion.  As I did more research, I found that they are a traditional gift for a b'nai mitzvah, because that is when the obligation to wear a tallit essentially takes effect.  It seemed appropriate.

I spent some time shopping online for a tallit, trying to find one that would be affordable and still somehow represent me.  There were some really amazing custom tallitot, some that were made to reflect a bat mitzvah girl's personality, others that represented the bar mitzvah boy's torah portion, some that were quilted, others that were woven, but none that were really what I imagined myself wearing.

So I decided to make my own.

At shabbat morning service this past week, I found myself really noticing the tallitot on the people around me.  A few had selected theirs from the rack available for public use.  A few had brought their own.  All of them I had seen before, but for some reason, they seemed extra spectacular this time.  I noticed that I really liked the fringe on one; it was a little more intricate than the others, but still very elegant.  I saw that another woman had techelet in her tzitzit.  The woman next to me had a tallit that appeared to have been handmade, maybe.

In the time when we were supposed to be meditating, I was designing my tallit.  I'm not sure if that's something I should admit or not.  I wanted it to be out of fleece, like the jacket I was wearing, probably because it occurred to me that if I had a nice, cozy tallit, I wouldn't have needed to wear my jacket.  But also because that seemed to be the perfect fabric.  Its presence is comforting and warm, and it is also a fabric that is almost always near me.  Like many things Judaic, it just seemed right.  I also knew that I wanted to use a soft green ribbon for stripes and the atarah, and that a line or two of backstitching with a similar green and a nice blue would set it off nicely.  I haven't yet figured out how I will decorate the atarah specifically, but I like the idea of outlined Hebrew letters.  Maybe they will say "etz hayim" or "HaShem ehad"...or both, separated by the Magen David.  I also want to do some needleworked pine trees, and maybe some black-capped chickadees, but I'd have to find a nice pattern for that, I think.  Or maybe I could sew on some patches with those designs, if I could find them.

When I got home, I was obsessed with the idea of making a tallit.  And then I did a bad thing: I went shopping on Shabbat.  I had to buy the materials.  I bought some ivory fleece, ivory crochet thread for the tzitzit and fringe, pale green ribbon with pinstripes, embroidery floss in pale green, slate blue, ivory, brown, and pine green, and some lame flower-shaped patches that I was going to put in the corners, but have now decided to return.  I tried really hard not to start working on it, but I was slightly unsuccessful.  I researched how to tie the tzitzit and how big most people make their tallitot and found patterns for the Hebrew lettering I had envisioned.

As of now, my tallit is 24" by 72", has one ribbon stripe sewed on one end, a blue backstitched stripe sewed below that, and is about halfway fringed on that same end.  I also have one tzitzit tied, ready to be attached.  I feel compelled to mention that it's very clearly a hand-done thing.  I'm not sure there's a perfectly straight line on the whole thing.  But it's mine.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The New Reading Hebrew

Reviving book reports back from the dead...

My Rabbi suggested that I start my Hebrew studies with this book.  He said that it might seem a little childish, but I should be able to learn my aleph-bet with no problems.  And he was right.
This book is very simple to follow, due mostly to clever formatting.  

Each page has 4 sections, each a different color.  Lesson 1 is green, lesson 2 is blue, and so on.  You read the section for the lesson you're on, which is only a couple sentences.  Invariably, the last sentence is a fill-in-the-blank question.  The answer will be on the next page, along with the next couple sentences.  When you're answering so many questions in rapid succession, with instant feedback, it's very easy to breeze through the lesson.  

At first, you feel a bit like you're on Sesame Street, but that feeling wears off pretty quickly.  Once you realize that you're actually retaining the information, it's all worth it.  Plus, you're learning the alphabet, and the last time you did that, you were probably a child.  It seems natural and logical.  
I made it through the book in about 2 weeks, and I definitely feel like it was time well spent. You don't learn much vocabulary in this book, but by the end, you can phonetically read Hebrew.  I probably sound like a first-grader when I do it, but I'm reading, and it feels good.

Now, on to learning what the words mean!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blog Link: Paying Attention to Detail

I'm at a point in my studies in which my Rabbi is allowing me to direct my own curriculum, for the most part.  At the moment, we're focusing on learning to read and understand Hebrew, and liturgy.
So I've been reading a lot of blogs lately, trying to find out what other Jews are talking about on the topic of prayer and ritual (its also much less dry than reading the siddur).  I liked this article, because it explains one of my biggest questions right now: why is Judaism so darned complicated?

And I love its basic answer: so one must continue learning.
This article is focused on the brachot related to eating various types of foods, but that simple premise applies to much of Judaism, I think.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Service 5-17-2008

I've made it about halfway though my Hebrew alphabet book so far.  There's still a lot that I have to learn about how to phonetically read Hebrew, but it was fun to practice at service this morning.  I tried really hard to follow along with the rest of the congregation, based on what I know so far.
I had a hard time keeping up, but it felt really good to try.  Knowing just the little bit that I've got so far makes it a little bit like being in kindergarten again, but I've certainly come a long way in only a week!

I'm really excited to finish learning the sounds, and even more excited to learn what all the words mean.  It's going to be really gratifying.  I'll feel less like a stranger in a strange land, and much more like a Jew.

My Rabbi also noticed the tattoo on my foot for the first time today.  He didn't say anything about it being against halacha.  He just said that he'd never seen one on a foot before and asked if it hurt.  I was kind of half worried about that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Blog Link: Sustainable Judaism

From Radical Torah: The Questions We Must Ask

I found this really interesting.  One of the areas that I'm studying is Judaism and ecology.  I came across this blog entry, and it definitely made me think.  We usually use the word "sustainable" in terms of green living.  Here, that philosophy is applied to spirituality.
It's actually a really strong metaphor.  There are people who go to pretty extreme lengths to make environmentally ethical decisions.  They buy specific products, avoid certain activities, and are conscious of their impact on the planet.
These are wonderful things to do, and I do them to the best of my ability (and budget).

I think religious devotion deserves those same standards.  The Torah asks that of us.  
It also asks us to be ethical stewards of the earth.
This just happens to dovetail nicely.  Torah certainly is a tree of life.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

News Link: New Einstein letter about religion found

This is one of those stories you just have to comment on. I found it at, but it will fall off their servers in a couple of weeks. I printed it to an image and attached it to this posting.

I've always been a bit fascinated by Einstein and his stance on religion. There was so much room for contradiction.

You have a man who was incredibly logical and yet very imaginative. He was raised a Jew, but lived during a time where even God himself seemed to forget about the covenant. It's sometimes hard for people now to figure out how to keep their faith in the face of scientific discoveries. It must have been even harder when that struggle was compounded by the Shoah.

I wouldn't blame Einstein a bit for thinking that belief in God is childish. It certainly must have seemed futile in his mind, given the events of his time.

Even though certain Einstein quotes about religion (especially "science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind") have
been cited as proof that a man of faith can also be a man of science, this new information says Einstein wasn't an example of that phenomenon. And that's a fine thing.

Einstein was, after all, only a man. He left us an amazing legacy: the theory of relativity, as well as a face to the very personal struggle between faith and reason.

I still find the quotes inspirational. They aren't an answer; they are more of a trailhead for your own journey toward truth and understanding. You can agree or disagree with his statements, use them to raise your own questions, and ultimately, come to your own conclusions, just as Einstein did.

Previously, people would bolster their arguments with something along the lines of, "Science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life." That might still be valid, but Einstein would probably end it with this: "I am by heritage a Jew, by citizenship a Swiss, and by makeup a human being, and only a human being, without any special attachment to any state or national entity whatsoever."

As I read through Einstein quotes to choose a few for this article, I realized that my favorites have nothing to do with religion or science. They are merely observations about life:
"Falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do — but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it."
"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."


Shopping Spree

I finally bought myself ritual items. Finally. I didn't feel ready before, I guess.
I ordered some shabbat candlesticks. They're travel-sized, so they're easy to put away.
I bought a kiddush cup that sort-of matches them.
I also bought a havdalah set. I think it's really clever. It was designed for travel, I guess, so it all fits together into one unit for simple storage when it's not in use. But the most clever thing, I think, is that it doubles as a shabbat set. The spice box, when flipped over, holds two candles.

It will be nice to celebrate properly, with hiddur mitzvah, rather than just making do. I know that my Judaica won't be the most beautiful in the world, but it's a start. The milestone is that they are mine now, that I'm finally taking ownership of shabbat.

A bunch of books are also headed my way. The first of them arrived today, my books on learning Hebrew. I also ordered a couple books on Judaism and environmental stewardship, as well as siddurim for both the Reform and Conservative movements. I'm really excited about studying and learning these things. I can't wait until I don't have to flip through the prayerbook to find the transliteration!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Treyf: Parents just don't understand

I spent the weekend with my family, celebrating both Mother's Day and my sister's birthday.
Mom planned our menu and brought the food.  For dinner on Saturday, she served barbequed pork sandwiches and shrimp stir-fry.  Talk about treyf!

I ate it, though, and it tasted pretty good.  I hope that the idea of shalom beit covers me for the day.  It's not like I keep kosher all the time, but I do try to celebrate Shabbat with kosher foods.  It's one of the ways that I try to give God his day.

Oh, well.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I call myself Jewish

I identified myself as a Jew for the first time. It was at work, because I needed to leave early in order to attend a meeting with the rabbi for my conversion.
I probably could have just said that I had an appointment, but I asked for a religious accommodation instead.

I've been studying for about six months now, and it feels like time to finally stop being between religions.

I recognize that I don't know enough yet. I've finally gotten though all the major holidays, so now I'm in charge of my curriculum. My rabbi and I have decided that it would be good for me to learn Hebrew, at least at a prayerbook level, and study the liturgy. I want to understand the prayers that we say during the services and have them mean something to me while I say them. After I get though that, we'll move on to the connection between Judaism and the natural world and tikkun olam.