Half way back to chametz, we should be able to hear our seder table conversations, ideally, still echoing in our heads.
In its original form, the seder was an expression of Jewish modernity. The rabbis who created the ritual were clearly influenced by the social, cultural and political conditions of their time. The resulting seder spoke to modern Jews in their language, literally (note the use of Aramaic in key places) and figuratively (the Greco-Roman practices of leaning, dipping and symposium-dining). While my grandmother and I may hope to perpetuate my family custom of “egg soup,” I highly doubt that was on the menu 1800 years ago!
Your OJC rabbis’ point of emphasis for the holiday this year was to make room for creativity, so as to allow the dynamic and flexible structure of the ritual to make room for greater meaning. “Tradition” doesn’t necessarily mean doing things “the way they have always been done” when the ritual itself calls for relevancy and contemporaneity. How do we see ourselves as having come out of Mitzrayim if we cant incorporate the symbols and language of our day that define enslavement?
To that end, I share with you the questions that I raised at my own family seder this year. I hope you will consider them over the coming weeks as we head to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of our Torah. Or perhaps you can slip them into that place where you store your Passover items for next year, so they will be readily available for your next seder! The questions are connected thematically to each section of the seder in the order of the ritual. I hope they will bring meaning to your annual (and daily?) Jewish conversations:
Kadesh: How do you define the word “holy” and what do you consider holy to you in the world?
Urchatz: If there were a severe water shortage and you could only bathe 3 times in a week, when would you do so?
Karpas: What represents spring to you, and what would you add to the Seder plate as a symbol for it?
Yachatz: Is there something about you that you consider “broken” that you carry as a part of what makes you who you are?
Magid: When people ask where you are from, what do you tell them?
Wise: What is the best thing Judaism offers to the world?
Wicked: Name something oppressive from which you or your family have been liberated.
Simple: What oppression exists in the world today, and how does it affect you?
Doesn’t know how to ask: Is there a story you tell about yourself over and over?
Rochtza: Have you ever used a mikvah, or can you imagine a time you might?
Motzi: What role does food play in your life?
Matzah: What food would be a real sacrifice for you to give up entirely?
Maror: Can you think of a time when your actions unintentionally may have made someone feel like an “other”?
Korech: Is there a family tradition you wish were being passed on to others?
Shulchan Orech: Do you have a relationship with a community? Is it social, religious, historical, or something else?
Tzafun: What aspect of your self do you tend to hide?
Barech: Do I ever say “thank God!” and if so what do I mean when I say it?
Hallel: Is there someone you failed to thank or acknowledge and wish you had the chance to do so?
Nirtzah: What would you add to this experience next year?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
During the week before leaving for the AIPAC Policy Conference, I received several e-mails from progressive rabbinical organizations, asking me to protest AIPAC in one way or another. During the first day of the conference, my worried son texted me: “Have you seen a large group of INN activists protesting outside? There’s stuff all over Facebook about it.” (If Not Now is a social- media-fueled group of Jewish millennials who stage protests against the occupation of the West Bank.) I did not sign any petitions against AIPAC. I did not see the protesters outside. I was busy inside, participating in a conference that welcomed disagreement and civil discourse in true Jewish fashion.
AIPAC this year reminded me of Talmud. The rabbis on the pages disagreed with each other across generations and locations, but they argued together, on the pages of our common text, the Talmud.
The Israel advocates who gathered at the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center represented the plethora of opinion that is Judaism and American politics today. Among the 18,000 participants who support a strong alliance between America and Israel, there were Jews and non-Jews. Progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews gathered. 3,000 college students participated. Five hundred rabbis representing the spectrum from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform ate lunch together. Jews who support the current government in Israel and Jews who do not were present. Jews who support the current administration in America and Jews who do not were also present.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti Defamation League invited the leaders of If Not Now to a conversation when they protested in the lobby of the ADL building last year. The protesters rejected his offer, and Greenblatt responded: “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen.”
I agree. I spoke this past Shabbat about today’s world fueled by high levels of knowledge but low levels of understanding. Information is easily accessed with the touch of a smart phone, but grabbing the buzz words off headlines does not mean that people with very strong opinions actually understand what they are protesting. As Dr. Zohar Raviv of Birthright Israel says, “We have become surfers without diving licenses.” Young Jews standing outside the AIPAC Conference to protest the settlements in the West Bank meant well, but they could have had a bigger impact if they had participated in the conference itself. They would have learned new ideas and ways of understanding the crazy Zionist idea of the nineteenth century that became the modern State of Israel. They would have gleaned ways to conceptualize the cauldron that is the Middle East from voices of the left and of the right. And they would have been heard. We follow rules of courtesy and civility at AIPAC, but every voice is heard.
I yearn for the day to come soon when we will find a two-State solution. I disagree with a policy that includes building more settlements. I would certainly love for my son in the IDF to serve Israel in a time of quiet. I did not go to AIPAC to support either the Prime Minister’s government in Israel or the current administration in the U.S. I went to AIPAC to ensure that the strong alliance between Israel and America, necessary to both countries I love, will be preserved via strong non-partisan support on Capitol Hill.
This past week, the courageous ones came under the roof. If Not Now protested outside. I wonder how many of those idealistic young Jews know the complete quotation from Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers from which they coined their name: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Deep diving would require the protesters to consider the entire thought, not just the convenient last phrase. Next year, perhaps we’ll all be able to talk together, unafraid and willing to learn.
With blessings and prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
One year ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement adopted the position that the eating of legumes, rice and corn (kitniyot) on Passover is a valid legal option for Ashkenazic Jews. Instead of deciding at that time whether to adopt or reject the practice for our community (which is my role as mara d’atra, the religious decisor of our community), I decided to invite our Ritual and Jewish Living Committee–along with anyone else in the community who so desired–to study the topic with me. While the decision was ultimately mine to make, I had no preconceived opinion on the matter and thus invited the input of our community members to help me reach a conclusion.
People tend to be emotionally bound to custom, sometimes even to the exclusion of rational analysis. I appreciate that. We hold tightly onto family customs and tend to reject those things that challenge our sense of tradition, regardless of how or why such practices came about. I was therefore somewhat surprised that only a group of about 10 people made the commitment to study the topic with me. I anticipated far more interest! Nevertheless, our minyan of learners tackled the responsum written by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Israel Reiner. Our monthly studies delved into the details of the legal opinion, which reached the following conclusions:
1. Only that which can be made into matzah can become hametz. Wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye are the only flours that can be used for matzah. Therefore, it is established that rice, beans and legumes cannot fall into the category of hametz. Moreover, the authorities agree that the presence of kitniyot on a plate does not render the plate, the meal or the home unkosher, even for those who observe the custom not to eat kitniyot.
2. The legal authorities of medieval Ashkenaz recognized that forbidding kitniyot was an added restriction to the Passover laws, possibly based in the fear that certain varieties of wheat might possibly get mixed with varieties of kitniyot. Some authorities considered the measure excessive, but the more restrictive custom ultimately prevailed.
3. In the 18th century the debate was revived. The opponents of the restrictive position argued that the high cost of matzah prevented some from experiencing the requisite joy of the holiday, whereas kitniyot were readily available, affordable and not prohibited by law. For the benefit of the masses, they argued, the stumbling block to holiday joy should be removed.
4. The original reason for the restrictive custom is lost. If the reason was concern about the possible admixture with wheat, such confusion does not exist in production and packaging today. But a compelling justification is needed to overturn a long-standing custom. That justification, according to the authors, is the enhancement of our joy. Beans are a significant source of protein for those who don’t eat meat and for those who can’t afford meat, especially considering how prices are inflated as they are on Passover. The enjoyment of food and adequate sources of protein is part of the joy we are meant to experience. Additionally, protecting people’s pocketbooks from those who would seek to gouge is in fact a Jewish value worthy of legal consideration.
Given these legal conclusions and the input provided by those who participated in our studies, I offer my own opinion, which will represent a change in the official position of our community going forward. (Please note: This does not mean you are doing something “wrong” in the eyes of our community should your personal practice differ!)
While I recognize that many people will continue personal practice according to their inherited family custom, I believe there is great value in adopting this change in custom. I don’t believe in change just for the sake of change; but I also will not reject change simply because it is hard or because it is something to which we are unaccustomed. Nor will I reject what is considered a more lenient position out of fear that greater leniency will follow. All too often, necessary change is stifled by the sometimes irrational hold of our emotional attachment to the ways of the past. I choose not to oppose change simply for the sake of opposing change. That is not the way of authentic Jewish thought.
On a practical level, I am in favor of Jewish law that encourages adherence to the law; the more our Passover laws allow people to keep Passover, the better that is for everyone. Contrary to the ways in which some observe Passover, we are not meant to be reliving slavery for seven days or for the days leading up to the holiday. There is no joy or satisfaction to be derived from being more restricted or burdened by the holiday’s laws. Are we supposed to feel different from others and from the way we live for the other 51 weeks of the year? Yes. But Passover is meant to be a time of joy, despite the remembrance of our affliction.
Most importantly, changing dietary habits and sensitivities in our society dictate that alternate sources of protein should be made available if they are not hametz. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of keeping kosher in general, and of kosher meat in particular–not to mention the premiums imposed for Passover–is a compelling justification for offering consumers a more affordable way to stock their pantries.
Finally, I am mindful that this ruling will not necessarily impact individuals in their homes. They can continue to keep Passover as they always have. And even in our synagogue, as studied in the law, serving kitniyot among our foods does not affect the other foods served. So even in the synagogue, those who do not eat kitniyot will still be able to observe Passover in their own way at all times.
Please note that there are controls and restrictions on the purchasing of kitniyot for the holiday. Specifically, fresh corn and beans may be purchased before and during Passover, like other fresh vegetables; dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased in bags or boxes and sifted before Passover; canned kitniyot may only be purchased with Passover certification due to the canning process; frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame) may be purchased in bags before the holiday without a heksher, though one should still inspect contents before use; and all processed foods (like tofu) require Passover certification.
I am grateful to those who shared this process with me. I believe that the process of seriously engaging with our tradition is as important as any result of such deliberation. May we all have a happy and kosher Passover, whether we are among the bean counters or not!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Beth is our Scholar in Residence this Shabbat, February 24 and 25, as we honor Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Join us for Friday evening services at 6:00 pm, Shabbat morning at 9:00 am and stay after Kiddush for more learning with Beth.
My son’s challenges are significant but I’m not afraid.
I am unsure about the future. His happy adulthood, my happy years as an older adult. What are his rights, what do I deserve, what will be the responsibilities his older brothers will shoulder? Will he be happy?
I worry he might not be happy. But he’s almost always happy. That makes me less afraid.
When I write about Akiva – his needs, his challenges, my challenges – I choose my words carefully but I am not afraid. Except for when I hit ‘publish.’
When I talk about our journey as a family – the tough moments, the tearful moments, the moments that I just wish it were different – I try to be honest. I know honesty is important. I know many people pity us, pity him, don’t truly understand what it means to be his parent, his full-time advocate, his person, his people, his caring community. We’re the people who help him shower and dress, who care for him when he is sick, who sing songs with him. We’re the people who love him. Sometimes, I wish it were different but I am not afraid.
When I post a picture of Akiva, I choose the happy ones, the ones where his cute, uneven teeth, his often crossed-eyes, his sometimes grubby face, are softened by the happy smile on his face. He’s kinda funny-looking but aren’t we all?
I am not afraid to show the face of disability – his disabilities that is – via my son. I am not taking advantage of his well-being. I am letting the world know that disability is happy, disability is every emotion and more. Just like not having a disability is so many things and so many emotions and so many experiences.
I am not afraid of exposing us, of sharing him. While I know he’s unaware of this exposure, I know that showing him to the world, my extended world, will help ease fears and misconceptions about disability. I hope.
But I am afraid of a world that treasures beauty. Where skinny bodies and 6-pack abs, along with being blonde and gorgeous, is regurgitated on television and in movies. There are few positive images shown of real people who look different, as opposed to actors playing a part.
I’m afraid for other parents of children, teens and adults with disabilities. Those who feel unsure that the world will appreciate their loved ones. That the world will look kindly on their stories. Their tales of difference and challenge, of unusual beauty lost and found.
I’m afraid of a world that divides people up according to who can and who can’t. A world that divides those with disabilities according to who’s got this and who’s got that. A world that decides who’s high-functioning – whatever that really means – and who’s not. A world that sentences you and judges you for your difference without knowing what that really means.
So, I work past the fears. I tell his story. I tell our story. I invite you in, to read, listen and comment, so that you can understand and appreciate. So you can smile at the different-looking-behaving-whatever person the next time you see them on the street and be glad that they’re a member of your community. Because their people, those who love them, need you to try to be less afraid.
“And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” Paul Simon
In this mission to remain positive, I want to acknowledge that there are certain situations when grief is deep and time is a key component in the healing. And I also want to acknowledge that there are instances when a positive disposition is not enough.
I’d like to share with you the power of positive thinking and the importance of seeing the good. I’d like to share with you the story of my father-in-law, Kenny Hersh. As a child growing up in New Jersey and, later in life, in Providence, Kenny was someone who took full advantage of every day. He trained and ran 5Ks, was the first one on the dance floor at a simhah, played clarinet in a klezmer band, could manually mix paints at work to match any color, and volunteered at his shul. He was an incredible father, a loving husband to his wife Leah, and for better or worse, a Yankees fan. After working as a high school guidance counselor for a few years, Kenny eventually joined Leah’s family business, American Wallpaper in Fall River, MA. After a series of inexplicable falls and some problems with his coordination, Kenny visited medical experts in Providence and Boston. Through a series of tests, Kenny was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, PLS. A degenerative neurological condition that weakens voluntary muscles. Although relieved to finally have a diagnosis, the condition would mean increasing difficulty with basic tasks like walking, eating, and speaking.
That was more than 10 years ago. And yet, despite the challenges, despite the muscle stiffness, despite the difficulty speaking, despite the mobility issues, despite the fact that he often communicates through his ipad, despite the slips and falls on to icy sidewalks, despite that nearly everything takes longer and can be more frustrating, Kenny continues to be an unstoppable and unignorable presence in our family.
Whether you just met Kenny or you’ve known him all your life, it takes only a few minutes and a few keystrokes to appreciate Kenny’s charm, his humor, his kindness, his compassion, and his intelligence. Kenny continues to go to the gym, using the stair climber to reach the top of a 110-story building every week. Kenny continues to, despite all logic, drive and put in a day’s work at the family business. Kenny continues to be a comedic force at family meals, Kenny continues to be an ezer knegdo, a perfect partner to his wife Leah, a wise and loving parent to his six children and children-in-law, and perhaps most importantly, the most playful and treat-giving saba to his eight grandchildren. Rather than wallow in his sadness, Kenny makes the most out of every day, with a spirit and a love of life that is enviable.
I recently asked Kenny, if he ever got frustrated. “Of course! There are things I miss, but the thing that I find most frustrating is the inability to speak. I love to talk and that is frustrating. I would trade off being in a wheelchair to be able to speak freely again. It is especially hard dealing with my wonderful grandchildren. I would love to be able to read to Nadav and Eliana in English, Spanish, or Hebrew. What joy I miss in not being able to sing with them and talk with them. What a pleasure it would be to walk with them on the beach and swim with them; to run with them, to fly a kite with them and crawl on the floor with them. As I have seen with Micah, [his 7-year-old grandchild], once he was able to read, our relationship really grew as we were able to laugh together and have a “conversation.” I look forward to the day when I can do that with all my grandchildren. I think that there are choices when put in a situation like this: crawl under the covers and hibernate or try to work around the challenges and move forward and enjoy an exciting life. I choose the latter. I don’t want a pity party, but just the realization that I am still the same person I always was, but with a disability. I have so much to be thankful for and get inner strength from my wife, children, and grandchildren. They make me want to push the envelope to be an important part of their lives. Our friends and community in Providence and around the country give me support and make me feel included as an intelligent and mindful part of their lives. And of course, having fun and being able to laugh makes this ride much easier.”
My friends, I do not deny that there are problems in the world. I do not deny that there are times when we feel that we have insurmountable challenges. And I do not deny that at times we have to embrace that sadness. But in 5777, I implore you to also look for the positive in the world. Just by the virtue of where and when we live we are blessed with so much. It is okay to not be burdened by sorrow all the time. It is okay to focus on the positive. Not because we need to ignore the negative. Adarabah, to the contrary, because it is only by recognizing the good that we can tackle the bad. It is only by crying that we can feel the joy more deeply. It is only by rejoicing, that we can be there to understand someone’s sorrow more deeply. Let us cry together. Let us rejoice together. Let us feel the full spectrum of human emotion in the new year.
Rabbi Michael Fel
There are those times though… I’m human, I fail, I fall short. In my family, we have a Christmas Eve tradition of meeting all the Hartmans (my in-laws) for dinner at a kosher restaurant in NYC. This year, the night was unseasonably warm and dry. Some rain earlier in the day had cleared out. The parking near midtown was typically tricky so we had several blocks to traverse to get from our parking garage to the restaurant. Our start into the city from home was typically late so we were in a bit of a rush. It’s those times when I’m a bit stressed that the young boy with sharp teeth comes back. I was going to set the pace and it would be brisk. I was going to push the wheelchair myself. Well, I should have thought that one through. The second curb that we came to was hidden under dark puddle of rain water… at least I hope it was rain water. I approached at “lift off” speed. Unfortunately, my wheelchair didn’t “lift off” … the wheelchair stopped cold. You know what else was cold? The water was cold! I know because I bounced out of my wheelchair and was sitting in that puddle and soaked to the skin. My wife and a kind stranger helped me back into the wheelchair. I hadn’t learned my lesson yet though. I was still intent on pushing myself. That wasn’t the last time I fell out of my wheelchair that night…twice more. I was very stubborn; I was very wet; I was very cold. Ever sit through a 2-and-a-half-hour dinner with wet pants? After you were three years old? That was a 4-scotch dinner. The story I tell now has Hara pushing me into the puddle and trying to drown me for the insurance….
As Bruce Wayne’s father said to him, “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to pick ourselves up” Forgive me for having the audacity to think I could improve on Thomas Wayne’s quote… “Why do we fall…? So we can learn to accept the blessing of help from others.” But you should still watch out for the sharp teeth.
I’ve enjoyed telling you this story. I hope you’ve found it fun and amusing. It’s true in all its absurdity but I would be remiss if I didn’t add a serious aside. The blessing in allowing someone to help me is only fully realized by me when I am confident that I could achieve the same physical result without help. In other words, if physical barriers exist to my access to a place that I reasonably want to go on my own (i.e., reasonable means not necessarily access to the peak of Mt. Everest) and the place is accessible to the average Joe, my joy and fulfillment are diminished. It’s complicated, I know….
To grapple with my limited visual world, I make greater use of hearing and touch, and occasionally, even a bit of sight. While many people presume that blind people have enhanced levels of these senses, that is often not the case for me. My tricks using these other senses are successful because of my increased focus, not greater capability. Some of these skills develop through instinct, more through notable attentiveness. Listening for sounds is important. Individuals have different footsteps. Among those with leather soles, men are always heavier- sounding than women, and children are in a class by themselves. If I hear you walk on a hard floor first thing in the morning, I’ll probably recognize you at lunch time. Rubber soles? Forget about it. Voices and speech patterns are also clearly distinctive. If you introduce yourself to me often enough, eventually, I recognize your voice; a pleasant thing for both of us. One of my new mottos, pertaining to the fact that I cannot, with confidence, discern the words or symbols “Men” or “Women” on a restroom door, is “thank God for urinals!” 😉 In fact, finding the restroom is at times a bit of a challenge, especially in a place where I have never been before. Even though there are many amusing stories about my escapades finding the right restroom, the question “Where is the restroom?” is easily answered by plenty of friendly waiters who are happy to direct me. Good luck asking the ensuing question on the return trip- “Where is my table?”! The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is always look around and count the number of tables along the route to the restroom. Counting is always a very important tool. Most notably, counting the number of steps on my way up a staircase and remembering that number on my way back down, is a great way to help keep me on my feet. If my companion leads, counts, and announces the number of steps, that is truly, as long as it is precise, very helpful. Another strategy that often leads to amusing outcomes is using my sense of touch. For example, it is not unusual to see me tapping my fingers around on the dining table until I find the salt shaker. Touch, in circumstances like this works quite well. I’ve learned however, that an important area in which I can get in trouble using this technique is when “looking” at a woman! 😉 I can go on and on with anecdotes; hopefully, you have gotten at least a bit of the picture.
So, how can you be most sensitive to my needs? I think that the following observation applies to most all physically challenged people: remember we all want to work on our feelings of independence. Saying “Can I help you?” is always a thoughtful thing to do. When you hear “no” in response, don’t push. On some occasions, I don’t just say “no,” but rather “I don’t know,” followed by “if I can do it myself, I’d much prefer that. If I find I need help, I’ll ask you.” You can always help me most by using words, not by grabbing or otherwise touching me to guide me, and remembering that your words should not include gestures. “Over there” is rarely helpful. “Watch out” or “look out,” are for obvious reasons, not useful phrases when communicating with me. I feel least “exceptional” when I can be most like everyone else.