Grieving the Attacks in France by Rabbi Karen Soria

Writing of the Jewish take on death and mourning in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant explains Pirkei Avot 4:23a from the Talmud: “Do not comfort the bereaved with their dead still before them” to mean [it is] ‘Inappropriate to offer words of condolence to mourners until after the funeral.’ I would clarify that indeed, even before the funeral, comfort and condolence are greatly needed – but of a different quality than after the funeral. When our dead lie literally ‘before our eyes,’ certain things necessarily come first; and our emotions are often in turmoil and we ourselves in shock.

I know that after last week’s events in France – the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo; the targeting, hostage-taking and murder of Jews in two groceries; the aftermath of mosques being fire-bombed; and Boko Harum’s slaughter of thousands in Nigeria – I am still in shock. And my emotions are in a tumult.

Just Thursday evening I was at Government House in Winnipeg, as Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose were honoured with the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding. The next night, just before Shabbat services, I was at Central Mosque for an evening of “sharing, caring and healing…standing in solidarity against violence and sharing traditions of mercy and compassion.” Other Jews were there, Christians from numerous denominations, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Moslems, humanists and atheists.

I think of all that has happened – and I turn to Jewish teaching for comfort and perspective.

In the Torah portion for last week, we meet a man who was born under a death sentence – all male babies were to be killed. He too was from a disenfranchised immigrant group, and he was sent out from his birth family and adopted at three months – he grew up essentially fatherless. As a young man, he went out and murdered a man – probably thought he could get away with it – until he was spotted and accused of murder. Then he did what many another has done – he ran; he went on the lam to Midian, where he seems to settle down after first getting in a tiff with the resident shepherds. He marries, goes into his father-in-law’s business of shepherding. And then, one day while he’s out, he sees a bush burning, and he watches it until he is sure that it is not burning up.

I have a firefighter friend who says, “I would have doused that sucker!” But Moses waits, watches, listens. That scene has always struck me, because I am much more impatient. But Moses isn’t: he waits, watches, and listens until he knows that the bush is not being consumed and until he hears a voice.

There are still people listening: for the past several months, an interfaith group has met every Tuesday for 15-20 minutes of silence. The leadership is shared, as one or another introduces the silence with 1-2 minutes of words. Then quiet: waiting, listening, becoming aware.

What do we need to be aware of in the aftermath of the events in France? My colleagues discussed their ideas on line; thoughts included parallels with Pharaoh as personifying hate or anti-Semitism or complacency. Others reminded us of the phrase “And there arose a new king who knew not Joseph” – perhaps Joseph could represent Western civilization or the Jewish people. Rabbi Emma Gottlieb made a parallel with Shifrah and Puah (the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the Jewish baby boys), asking ‘who will be France’s courageous midwives?

All earnest thoughts, worthy of exploring. But I return to the need for comfort, even with our dead before our eyes. What exactly though?

And then I read these words, from Hari Kunzru in The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/08/charlie-hedbo-collusion-terror-jihadi-twisted-logic :

Those of us who want to short-circuit the logic of confrontation have our work cut out….Mumblings about “respect” and “avoiding giving offence” seem cowardly and dishonourable. And compromise with the jihadi position is meaningless: the jihadi is absolute because otherwise he is nothing. Without the childish simplicity of binary logic, all his power and glamour leak away, and he becomes just another lost boy….

But refusing to compromise with the jihadi does not mean becoming his mirror. When I’m stupid enough to switch on cable news here in New York, the optics are different but I hear…the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team.

If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.

Our dead are still before our eyes, but this is comfort and condolence to me: that life is not simple but incredibly complex, that we are stronger when we integrate life’s complexity into our understanding, that we cannot divide the world neatly into ‘good guys and bad guys,’ and that no single solution answers everything.

This is my solace: we do not need utopia, but we do need each other.

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Happy New Year and vacation – by Rabbi Karen Soria

Happy New Year and vacation-week movies! Which ones have you seen? I managed to see the third installment in The Hobbit trilogy and have decided it is definitely time to read the entire Lord of the Rings books again.

But the movie I haven’t seen yet is the one on my mind: Into the Woods. I love the stage show, am a bit hesitant about Disney’s handling of the story, and will nevertheless see it. Just not yet.

There is a song in Into the Woods that is particularly poignant at this time of starting a new year; as one character sings about an unexpected experience she has just had, she expresses, very simply and eloquently, some ideas about memory. For the experience, she realizes, was just a ‘moment’ and the entirety of our lives are comprised of just that – moments. And yet, ‘if life were only moments, we’d never know we had one.’

This is the delicate balance that a new year (be it secular, Jewish, fiscal, etc.) calls to mind: that our lives are indeed only moments – that the present moment is a gift (“that’s why it’s called the present”) – but that somehow we make a whole, however broken or whole, out of those moments.

Remember 2014. Cherish the good moments. Relinquish the bad ones. Put them together into your memories so that they will help you find the 2015 you are looking for. We may indeed have to all go ‘into the woods’ of darkness and challenge at times, but we don’t have to go alone, or defenceless.

May we all have a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year!

Candles, Hanukkiyah, Dreidels, Gelt – blog post Dec. 2014 by Rabbi Karen Soria

  • Candles
  • Hanukkiyah
  • Dreidels
  • Gelt

 

Yup ~ I must be all ready for Hanukkah! Oh wait ~ I didn’t include reading the story again.

But what story shall I read or tell? The truth is, we know that the beginnings of Hanukkah lie in internecine conflict, as the reigning Seleucids (the governing powers in the East, following the division of Alexander the Great’s empire after his death) found ready supporters among the Jews of the land of Israel. Political intrigue, brother against brother, murder – the real Hanukkah story has it all. Over the past number of years, historians have put the whole torrid story together from the Books of the Maccabees, Josephus’s writings, and historical documents from the time from other nations.

Yet that is not the story we tell. We tell the story of the cruse of oil, found in the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, that wondrously burned for 8 days, until new oil could be prepared for the 7-branched menorah there – a story we first read about in the Talmud, some 400 years or so after the events in question.

What gives?

Certainly by a century after events, the powerful Roman Empire brooked no opening for rebellion – although the Jews (and some others) would try. By the time of the Talmud, we had transformed our national dreams and memories into prayers and hopes for the time of redemption. It simply made no sense to glorify a war with its limited success. And so, Hanukkah became about the miracle of the oil.

The truth is, both stories have important things to teach us. Perhaps in these times of fundamentalism, when we see in both religious and secular worlds the violence and brutality that are visited on those seen as different in any way, we should study the historical story again, as a cautionary tale of the destruction that happens when we forget we are all one human family ~ no matter our race, gender, religion, sex, politics, nationality, etc. One human family.

‘Hanukkah’ comes from the Hebrew root meaning ‘education’ and ‘dedication.’ Couldn’t those ideas combined bring some light into our world?

 

  • Remembering and telling the story

Shabbat Toldot by Rabbi Karen Soria

My colleague, Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, wrote this poem in the turmoil of this week:

 

We Pray Anyway

When I want to rail at God

prayer is the last place I want to be.

I know I’ll find my way back to God one way or another

but right now I don’t have words of my own

and the words of tradition feel empty

given that men died with those words on their lips this week.

But the Voice of Jewish tradition says I don’t have a choice;

it says there are shiva minyans to go to and Shabbat services to attend.

The Voice of Tradition says that prayer isn’t just about what I have to say or not say;

that prayer isn’t just about me.

The Voice of Tradition says that life goes on

that the community needs to gather;

that prayer is going to take place with or without me.

And I remember that even empty words can be a refuge;

that the rituals can shelter me through familiarity alone.

If I don’t believe in prayer this week, that’s okay,

but somebody else might need to pray

and they need the community around them to do it.

And if I’m a part of the community then I’d better be there.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

it doesn’t promise that Jews won’t be slaughtered –

not even if they’re righteous,

not even if they’re praying.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

What it says is:

Pray anyway.

 

Even before Tuesday it was an emotional week; as people talked to me about not being safe in their own homes from yelling, threats, and physical attacks; as I read reports of a mentor and model to many who worked with him or watched his shows – namely, Bill Cosby – having destroyed that trust; and upon arriving in Winnipeg, I read yet another story of broken trust, of a hospital worker having abused a patient, for when people are mentally or physically ill, they – we – are at our most vulnerable.

 

It would not have occurred to me on Monday that the sacred space of a synagogue would be so violated the next day. But it was. I felt thrown back in time, to the Middle Ages, or Rwanda.

 

You who listen to my divrei-Torah and in turn teach me – you know I think in broad overviews and metaphors. You know I always work to see more than one side, or even two sides, in any situation. And I have worked with people who have been traumatized, so I get that when one is acting out of that pain and existential fear, we can do terrible things. And I believe the Jewish people and the Palestinian people both carry a great deal of trauma.

 

But this week I have not been able to be very understanding; I have been remembering a Jewish teaching I heard after the massacre at Ma’a lot in 1974:

 

One who is merciful to the cruel will end by being cruel to the merciful. (Midrash Tanhuma)

 

It is a very profound and difficult teaching. Does it mean to be cruel to the cruel? No.

 

I think it means to recognize and to name an action for what it is.

 

I think it means that it is possible to strive for understanding without using explanations as an excuse.

 

I think it means that we are to respond with integrity and a consistent valuation of the many sides of even complex issues.

 

So when CNN publishes headlines in its rush to report that a mosque has been attacked, instead of a synagogue, a mild apology is not sufficient.

 

When the government of Jordan holds minutes of silence to remember the two killed terrorists, that is cruel.

 

When President Mahmood of Abbas condemns the attack while in the same statement condemned ‘attacks on the Al Aksa mosque and incitement by Israeli ministers,’ that is no condemnation; rather it is vile.

 

When candies and distributed, comics published, and parties held to celebrate the deaths of four rabbis butchered in a synagogue at prayer – that is evil.

 

Even the Wall Street Journal got it this week; an editorial stated that the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not the settlements but “the culture of hatred against Jews that is nurtured by Palestinian leaders.”

 

So what do we do?

 

We name these acts for what they are: murder, cowardice, hate, evil.

 

We remember that evil is a human choice, completely different from the ‘bad’ of natural disasters. This evil was done by choice.

And we must choose a different response, a different path.

 

My colleague and fellow military chaplain, Rabbi Ben Romer, writes,

 

Let us all send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones and pray for a speedy recovery of body and soul for those wounded. And then we begin the hard work of bringing a more global healing. That of Making Peace, Making Shalom…

Shalom, Salaam, Peace must be made, created, crafted. It doesn’t just happen. True Shalom means wholeness, wellness, completeness, physical and spiritual flourishing. Only our reaching out and continuing the building of peace will be able to accomplish this. It isn’t some fuzzy sweet group-hug idea. Making peace is directly connected to the demand that we pursue righteousness. We must be the malachim – the messengers, the angels of God here in this world to help Shalom bloom.

“Pray for [the] peace of Jerusalem!” (Ps. 122:6) And now, our prayers must become animated through the choices and actions in which we make peace.

 

And we will still sing and pray – because that’s what we do here anyway. That’s what we must do because no one can take that away from us. And we sing to bring comfort and solace to our soul. And we will not let anyone extinguish the Voice of Tradition, our voices, our prayers and hope.

 

“Safe within these walls” we sing. Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be God’s, and our, will.

Thank a Jewish Mother: Poppy Remembrance on Remembrance Day by Rabbi Karen Soria

Those poppies we wear for Remembrance Day? Without the incredible work of Lillian Freiman, we would only read about them in John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Field.”

Freiman helped found the Royal Canadian Legion and was its first female honourary lifemember. She held leadership roles in the Canadian Institue for the Blind, the Red Cross Society, Canadian Hadassah-WIZO, the Amputations Association of Great War Veterans of Canada, the Salvation Army, Girl Guides of Canada, the Big Sister’s Association, the YMCA, the Joan of Arc Society, and more. The Mayor of Ottawa selected her to organize a 1500-volunteer relief effort during the flu epidemic of 1918. Lillian Freiman was the first Jewish-Canadian honoured as an officer of the Order of the British Empire; King George V presented it to her on New Year’s Day, 1934, for her work with war veterans.

In 1921, the first Canadian poppies were made in her living room; she had helped to establish the Vetcraft Shops, where returning servicemen made furniture and toys in 1919, and in 1923 the Vetcraft Shops took over the poppy-making.

At her funeral in 1940, red poppies covered her coffin and a Royal Canadian Legion honour guard attended (as did Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, innumerable luminaries of the day, and many of the 151 Ukrainian war orphans she had rescued).

On December 29, 1941 Major-General L.F. LaFleche, Associate Deputy Minister of National War Services, unveiled a tablet at Trafalgar House inscribed: “In loving memory and to the honour of Mrs. A.J. (Lillian) Freiman, OBE, national officer and general convener in Ottawa of Canadian Legion Poppy Day. The friend of all soldiers and dependents who, in public and in private gave generous, warm-hearted and always effectual service and assistance in their cause from the days of 1914-18 to the day of her passing November 2nd, 1940.”

Any military officer or guest is welcome in her home to this day – it is now the Army Officers’ Mess in Ottawa.

As you wear your poppy, remember the dreams and sacrifices of those who did and do serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, as well as the vision, generosity, and accomplishments of one Jewish woman, Lillian Freiman, OBE. And thank a Jewish mother.

An old man sits with breathing tube by Rabbi Karen Soria

A picture: an old man sits with breathing tube, confined to a wheelchair, slowly dying of congestive heart failure, accused of child molestation over 50 years ago. Inimai M. Chettair, http://www.brennancenter.org/expert/inimai-m-chettiar at New York University School of Law, comments, “Incarceration is the most extreme punishment. And more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.”

Think about that: “…more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.” Isn’t that how we imagine justice ‘being served,’ namely, through punishment? If he is correct, then what constitutes justice? “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice you shall pursue” (Dt. 16:20) Scripture orders us. If not through punishment, then how do we achieve justice – or at least pursue it?

Another image:  a Nazi war criminal lives out his last days in Germany, deported from the United States, subsisting on his Social Security pension. This week The Associated Press broke the story that millions of dollars in Social Security benefits have been and are being paid to veterans of the SS Death’s Head battalions, enabling them to survive quite comfortably upon their return to Germany or Austria. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/eb4a5ff7c40e49bcb310b4ca77694795/expelled-nazis-paid-millions-social-security and http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/277279/how-the-ap-busted-nazi-suspects-receiving-social-security-payments/ This was not a bureaucratic mistake, but the Justice Department’s idea to save itself the cost and time of prosecutions. Perhaps more punishment doesn’t necessarily mean more justice, but where is the justice in ‘deportation with a lifetime paycheque?’

As the Canadian Museum of Human Rights prepares to open, as Winnipeg faces the future with a new mayor, and as the city and province continue to work on reconciliation and truth in the wake of generations traumatized by the residential schools, we could consider another translation for ‘tzedek’ – righteousness. What would that look like?

Of Water and Women by Rabbi Karen Soria

Does it pass the ‘would you want this as a headline on the first page of the newspaper?’ test? Does it pass the ‘would you want your mother to know this?’ test? Does it pass the ‘appearance’ test? If the answer to all three is ‘yes,’ then it (whatever it is) may be all right; but Rabbi Barry Freundel’s activities overseeing the mikveh and conversion process pass none of those tests. http://www.jta.org/2014/10/21/default/op-ed-what-the-freundel-scandal-says-about-orthodoxy-1

Anger, betrayal, humiliation, violation ~ to name just a few of the emotions that the revelations and allegations of his setting up recording equipment in the changing room of the mikveh have raised. Those who hold the most power over our lives – whether by love or authority – are those who have the power to betray us on the deepest level. If the mikveh is a “women’s commandment” as it has been promoted to be, then men should not be in control of it. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has argued eloquently for a new approach to the mikveh http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/take-back-the-waters/ .

But back to that ‘appearance’ test. Judaism has a concept called ‘ma’arit ayin’ – what something looks like. Really, perhaps there is a need for a digital clock in the changing room. Perhaps there is a need to security cameras. But need has to be weighed against the appearance. And the supervising rabbi setting up and removing digital equipment is ‘ma’arit ayin.’ It just looks bad, even before the investigation concludes, before his day in court.

I know ~ we all make mistakes ~ but if we kept those three questions in mind and made the ‘appearance’ test part of our daily lives, we could save ourselves a whole lot of tsures, or trouble. Pity Rabbi Freundel didn’t think about ‘ma’arit ayin.’