Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Scape-Goat

Today at Yom Kippur services, I heard the story of the Scape-Goat through a new lens.

Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; 8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.
One goat is consecrated to G*d, while the other has the sins of the people "placed upon its head", and it is let go into the wilderness.  In modern times, the fate of that goat is used to describe the "fall guy" -- the scapegoat for someone else's misdeeds.  We think of the other goat as somehow "superior", since it was dedicated to G*d, while the scapegoat symbolizes sin.

Today, however, I was thinking about this story in the context of the observance of Yom Kippur.  "Hayom" -- TODAY -- the divine Judgment will be decreed.  "Who shall live and who shall die; who by water and who by fire..."  Is this not what was done with the goats?  One died, and the other lived.

But we -- all of us who are here TODAY -- are those who survived the Judgment from last year.  We were not "offered up to the Lord".  Instead, we are here, preparing to wander in the wilderness for another year.  Not only that, but we are carrying with us the guilt for a multitude of sins, most of which are not even ours.  The Scape Goat is each of us, trying to make our way back to safety, back to community, back to harmony with the divine.


This idea is reinforced with the Mincha reading for Yom Kippur, the story of Jonah and the whale.  Like the Scape Goat, Jonah runs away, both from G*d's Judgment and from the task of pronouncing judgment on the people of Nineveh. He neither wishes to judge or be judged.  And yet, in order to fulfill his own purpose in life, he must do both.


What does it mean, then, to escape?  When should we escape and when should we return?  Are we indeed, like the Scape Goat, destined to wander forever, or is true return -- Teshuvah -- possible in our lifetime?  Every year, at Yom Kippur, we fervently pray that our slate is indeed wiped clean, and yet we continue to wander with those pesky sins upon our heads.  We continue to judge and be judged.  We continue to struggle between escape and return.

So... What will we do TODAY?

Monday, March 28, 2016

Organized Religion

Organized religion gets a bad rap these days.

"I'm spiritual, not religious" is a common refrain.  Much evil is done in the name of various organized religions.  Organized religion gives community leaders a "divinely ordained" bully pulpit, and power corrupts.  And yet, organized religion persists.  Young people reject their parents' congregation, only to seek one out ten or twenty years later.  Sometimes in the same denomination, sometimes not, but seeking they (often) do.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was one of those seekers.   Having just given birth to my first child, I had a new vantage point.  I found myself wondering what heritage I wanted to give my baby.  I visited both churches and synagogues of various flavors, and read the sacred writings of several others.

They were all very similar.  Religious services involve:

1. Reading from an old, revered text
2. Commentary applying the text to current issues
3. Performing various rituals as a community
4. Singing as a community
5. Eating as a community

Some of these elements appear in other types of gathering in various combinations, but any gathering which includes all 5 elements will come across as religious in nature.  Certain political or social clubs can fit this description.  In addition, there is the implicit expectation for religious services to

6. Inspire "spiritual" sentiment in the participants.

It is a common experience, though, that this element is frequently missing, resulting in the aforementioned exodus from communal worship.

What IS a "spiritual" sentiment? It is
* a feeling that the Universe makes sense
* that the Universe has a purpose
* and that one is an integral part of this purposeful Universe

Many spiritual retreats rely on beautiful natural settings to inspire this feeling.  Many atheists experience this easily by contemplating nature, without relying on any deities.  Most religions utilize deities in order to assign the "purpose" of the Universe to an anthropomorphic sentient being, but of course this is not strictly necessary, and is more of a convention of convenience.

Looking back to the five elements of organized religion, we see that the first two connect us to others in time (tradition) while the other three connect us to others in space (community). If we can extend this connection further, we can, in fact achieve connection with the Universe itself.

Connection is a pretty fundamental human need.  Bullies often use fundamental needs as weapons against their victims.  Organized religion is often weaponized, both against members and outsiders.  However, people will return to it, over and over, as long as it fulfills this need.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


Thinking about things that are going on in my life made me change my Facebook profile picture to this:
An old friend responded by pointing me here.  Turns out that Mother Theresa did not compose the famous list of "do it anyway"s which is attributed to her.  It was composed by Kent Keith, a 19-year-old student activist at Harvard in 1968, as part of a pamphlet he wrote for aspiring student leaders.   His story is quite amazing.  Please set aside some time to read http://www.paradoxicalcommandments.com/ in its entirety.  You will not regret it.

The "Mother Teresa" version is actually somewhat modified from the original.  Here is the original version:

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.
The "Mother Teresa" version left out the last two, and substituted the following:

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;It was never between you and them anyway.

When Mr. Keith became aware of this version, he wrote:

The last two lines in this "final analysis" version trouble me, because they can be read in a way that is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, the life of Mother Teresa, and the message of the Paradoxical Commandments themselves. The statement that "it was never between you and them anyway" seems to justify giving up on, or ignoring, or discounting other people.
That is what Jesus told us we should not do. Jesus said that there are two great commandments-to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So in the final analysis, it is between you and God, but it is also between you and "them."

Of course, these 2 great commandments originated in Judaism and predated Jesus.  In fact, Keith's interpretation is very much rooted in the Jewish understanding of morality.  Morality in Judaism is always a balance between what we owe G*d and what we owe each other.  We serve G*d by acts of lovingkindness towards others, and we are commanded to love each other by seeing the image of the divine in every individual.

As we approach the High Holidays, we are reminded of this as we seek to atone for our sins.  If we have transgressed against a ritual law (desecrating the Sabbath, or eating non-kosher foods), then that is between ourselves and G*d.  We can beg forgiveness and move on, resolving to do better.  Sins against others (anything from gossip or envy to serious crimes) cannot be atoned for until the victim him/herself has forgiven the offense.  As Keith said, it is between you and G*d, but it is also between you and them.

Have a Happy New Year.... anyway!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Responsibility vs. Guilt

The previous post touched on the futility of blame, whether directed towards others or to oneself.  More thinking and talking about self-blame, or guilt/shame, made me realize that the concept of responsibility is muddled with the concept of guilt.

Now, certainly there is a connection between the two:  If someone is guilty, we hold them responsible for their actions.  This connection, however, is not an identity.  Guilt is in the past, while responsibility is in the present/future.  When a tragedy happens, it is natural to look for someone to blame.  However, blaming leaves all parties disempowered to move forward and find solutions.  Self-blame feels morally superior, but is ultimately just as disempowering.  Assuming guilt gives rise to feelings of shame, and then avoidance of the situation.  On rare occasions shame can be an impetus to action, but this is the exception, not the rule.

Moreover, the person taking responsibility is frequently NOT the "guilty" party.  If a small child makes a mess, s/he is unlikely to "take responsibility" for cleaning up.  The parent will take the initiative to say "Uh oh, made a mess, time to clean up!" as well as to involve the child in the cleanup in age-appropriate ways.  A good parent will use this as an opportunity not just to take responsibility for cleaning up, but for teaching the child.  As the child grows, s/he ideally learns to take on more of this responsibility independently.  But the child cleaning up alongside the parent is not an example of taking responsibility, but learning responsibility.  A guilt-based response might be a spanking or other punishment for making the mess, which is not as effective.

Jewish tradition gives us one full day a year to indulge in guilt.  Yom Kippur is one of the most widely observed holidays in Judaism.  The daily prayers, however, focus on positive actions in our everyday lives: gratitude, charity, productiveness, justice and so on.  Even the section focusing on "transgressors" emphasizes that we pray for their reformation, not punishment.

In what areas of your life are guilt and shame holding you back from taking positive action?

In what areas of your life are you ready and willing to take responsibility?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Hatred and Love

Yesterday was the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av.  Traditionally, this fast commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other tragedies in the history of the Jewish people.

This context is not very relevant in Jewish life today, where religion is centered on family and community, not the Temple sacrificial rituals of ages past.  Therefore, the observance has fallen out of fashion by most non-Orthodox Jews.  Some, however, have taken a bit of Midrash about Tisha B'Av to create a new context, one that is relevant not only to Jews, but to all humanity, and especially today.
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, and immorality, and bloodshed... But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of mitzvot, and the practice of charity]? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of equal gravity to three sins, idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, together. (Talmud Bavli Yoma 9b)
Is this not what we see today? Certainly, there are many people doing terrible things!  Wars, crime, and exploitation of the poor and the weak (from institutional discrimination to police brutality to pedophilia) abound.  In our personal lives, there is conflict and suffering.

However, the message of Tisha B'Av is that these phenomena are only one half of the equation.  Our world is not broken simply because bad things happen.  Our reactions to them are just as important.  Too often our natural reaction is to point fingers and look for someone to blame our (or the world's) woes on.  How much easier to hate than to seek constructive solutions and self-improvement!  Whether we place the blame on liberals or conservatives, on those more religious than ourselves or more secular, hateful blame is surely anathema to the goals we claim to espouse.

Baseless hatred of oneself (guilt/shame) is no better, as it disempowers the individual from taking positive actions.  These positive actions usually do not give the emotional high of self-righteous anger or anguish.  They are usually mundane actions of doing what needs to be done in spite of our feelings, of showing love and kindness to those who are not reciprocating it, because it is the right thing to do.

Many if not most Jews observe Yom Kippur in some fashion.  Saying sorry and "atoning for our sins" is a cleansing feeling.  Clearing the slate for the new year is energizing and motivating.  I would love to see Tisha B'Av take a similar place in modern Jewish life.  The Haftorah cycle recognizes the connection between these two fasts with the Seven Shabbatot of Consolation.  How much more powerful would our capacity to forgive and seek forgiveness be if we spent the next two months actively tuning in to how we can turn our hatred into love?

Monday, July 20, 2015

On denying service because of "religious beliefs"

By now this is really old news.  So many other scandals, of far greater significance, have made headlines since the bigoted bakers refused to cater a same-sex wedding.

Where exactly is the line between defending civil rights and allowing people to be jerks?  Some people tried to create a mirror image by asking if a gay baker would have to cater a homophobic rally.  But a same-sex marriage is not anti-Christian, it is just non-Christian (at least according to certain denominations).  So what would be a parallel?

It occurred to me that a Christian baptismal or confirmation ceremony may well choose a kosher caterer, especially if the extended family includes Jewish members, or even just if the kosher caterer has an excellent reputation for quality.  Would the kosher caterer refuse to serve an event which is, from his/her religious point of view, idolatrous?   Highly unlikely.  That is not at all the same as asking a Rabbi to perform a Christian baptism.

So, no, refusing to serve a same-sex wedding is not a legitimate expression of your religious belief, it is just bigotry.

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