Friday, January 24, 2014

Shabbat-O-Gram January 24

Join us for Kabbalat Shabbat at 7:30 this evening, where Cantor Mordecai will share reflections from the recent Jewish renewal conference that he attended.  Shabbat morning we have a full array of programming for kids of all ages, with Hebrew School and Day School students invited to partake in our Israeli-themed in-house Shabbaton (complete with edible maps of Israel and human Israeli Monopoly) plus our monthly Shabbirthday. For adults, I’ll be continuing my current series of Learner’s Shabbats where we combine a prayer and the portion, exploring shared, relevant themes.  This week:  Commandment and Choice: How should Post-Modern Jews Relate to Jewish Law? Portion: Mishpatim; Prayer: Ahava Rabbah.  If you would like a sneak preview of the Parsha Packet, see part one here and click here for part two.

All of that will be followed by a delicious HOT lunch!

Great news #1:
Birthright Israel has expanded eligibility for its free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26. Teenagers who went on an educational trip to Israel during high school (or 8th grade) were previously not eligible for Birthright trips, but can now participate. Click here for the full article.

Great news #2:
Kosh is reincarnating, with a new name, a new menu and, God willing, new prices.  Or new kosher restaurant in town will be called “Six Thirteen” and is opening on Feb.3.  Check out their website.

Judaism’s Mulligan Month

How often have we heard that familiar refrain this past year: "My, the holidays are early." Ever since Passover snuck in like a lamb last March, the crescendo has been building. With Rosh Hashanah linked to Labor Day and Chanukah to Thanksgiving, the cry continued for months on end.  But now, it’s about to change. The month of Adar, which begins next week January, will replicate itself a month later and we’ll get back to normal.  Except then, everything will be deemed "late." 

During Jewish leap years, Adar is our Mulligan Month, an entire month that we get to do over. Yahrzeits can get confusing (ask me if you have a question), and Purim is always in Adar 2, but otherwise, we’ll have two of all things Adar.  Since Adar is our most joyous month, we get a double dose of happiness, just what the doctor ordered in the midst of a brutal winter.  Adar will be doubly good, and Purim will be late.

With our brains and bodies stuck on the monotonous, relentless tick of secular time, it's natural to wonder if the Jewish holidays ever fall on schedule. But when life sways to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the question never arises. For most, the idea of Jewish time has more to do with tardy board meetings than an intricate e system of ritual, emotion and instruction affixed to the cycles of nature. The hour has come for Jews to begin living on Jewish time. That venerated goal of Jewish continuity can hardly be served when our peak religious experiences are always being measured in secular seconds. Until we begin thinking of Rosh Hashanah as neither early or late, but right on target -- two months after Tisha b'Av and half a year from Passover – we're grafting Judaism artificially into a corner of our beings. For Judaism to breathe, it must be lived on its own terms, on its own schedule.

That said, so nu, why were the holidays so early this year?

Since you asked, yes, it's true, Rosh Hashanah hadn't fallen this early on the secular calendar in quite some time; 19 years to be exact. It was 1994 when it last began on Sept. 5, and here's why. The rabbis calculated the lunar month to be 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.33 seconds (and they were less than a half a second off).

The year consists of 12 of those months, or approximately 354 days. With the secular, solar calendar lasting 365 days, the lunar calendar falls 11 days behind the solar -- one each year. The rabbis figured that an additional month should be added seven times in each 19-year cycle in order to keep agricultural festivals in their seasons. Passover must come in the spring and Sukkot in the fall (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, but let's not complicate things). The sages actually were a little off in these calculations, or Passover would be celebrated in June. Fortunately, that's one of those problems we can afford to leave to subsequent generations, like the national debt and the location of Jimmy Hoffa.

The extra month is added during the winter of the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. Notice that leap years are usually three years apart, but occasionally two. Since we're now in the 17th year of the cycle, we've gone nine years since the last two-year interval (years 6 and 8).  That means we've had fewer leap years recently, therefore we've been losing more days to the secular calendar.  The 17th year always has the earliest Rosh Hashanah, and the ninth year (because it's preceded by the greatest frequency of leap years) the latest. Get it? Sorry you asked?

Now isn't it so much easier just to live on Jewish time rather than trying to understand it? How often do we ask ourselves about the logic of the secular calendar, which has a new year that occurs when nothing at all is changing and new days begin at an arbitrary hour when few are awake to appreciate it? Give me a calendar that asks us to turn inward just as the weather outside is nudging us precisely in that direction, one that expels us from winter's hibernation to the pulsating poetry of "Song of Songs" and the drama of national release, and one that always promises the moon's return to ripeness, no matter how dark things seem.

For inhabitants of secular time, the only dilemmas occur when July 4 doesn't create a three-day weekend or Christmas falls on a Sunday. When do they collect garbage? When can they play football? When can we shop?

Speaking of football, the only thing that compares to the rhythm of the Jewish year, with all its rituals and pageantry, is the American sports calendar.  As a young boy growing up in the Boston area, fall meant three things: playing football, stuffing those delicious marble cake slices from the synagogue Sukkah into my jacket pocket and watching someone other than the Red Sox win the World Series. Spring meant sneaking out of school to attend opening day at Fenway, usually with a matzah sandwich crumbling in my book bag.

Seasonal rituals don't normally die easily – they still have May Day parades in Moscow – because we need them as a constant by which to measure our years. We need the Seder table as a gauge of how the family has evolved, to see who is sitting where this year. Our lives spin around these sacred moments.

It's really not so difficult to convert over to Jewish time. It's not like Celsius or kilometers or changing dollars to shekels. There's a very easy way to integrate the Jewish calendar into the rhythm of your life: Go out and buy one. Or go to and download it. 

When you do, something remarkable will begin to happen. Your moods will shift and undulate, responding to events that occurred centuries ago. Holidays will arrive neither early nor late, and each week will flow into Shabbat none too soon.

And what is Jewish continuity but the transmission of the cadences of Jewish life from one generation to the next? I am often asked, will the American Jewish community be around in the next century? To which I respond: Sure. The next century is only 26 years away: 5800.  And there is one other thing that is certain. As long as there are any Jews left on this planet, meetings will still begin 15 minutes late. 

Abortion, Israeli Style

You can set your watches to the fact that if it’s an election year, abortion will be in the news.  This week’s 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade brought out the usual suspects: marchers, litigators and pontificators, and pollsters indicating that the issue remains deeply divisive.

But recent days have also brought about a major liberalizing shift in Israeli policy on abortion.  The “health basket” of medical services offered by Israel’s health services now includes free abortions for all women ages 20-33, regardless of the circumstances.  Imagine how that decision would play out over here!  But over there, where universal healthcare has long been the norm (they don’t call it Bibi-Care but maybe B-G care, since it’s been around since Ben Gurion), this is no big deal.

Until now, government-funded abortions have been reserved for women younger than 19 or older than 40, and in cases where the fetus has a severe defect, the mother’s life is endangered, or the pregnancy is a result of sexual abuse. If a woman believed the pregnancy would cause her harm, physically or emotionally, she had had to pay for the procedure herself. 

So now we are talking not only about abortion being legal, which is not new, but a broad allowance for government funded ones.  In many ways, the health services are more progressive there on abortion than on contraception (which is a problem, because abortion then becomes a form of contraception).  The process of obtaining permission to utilize government funding is somewhat problematic, as women need to appear before a three person panel.  But the panel allows the abortion in 98% of the cases.

So, you ask, how can this be happening in a country known for having a powerful ultra-Orthodox lobby that hardly can be called progressive in its views on social issues and women’s rights?  A subject that drives Americans batty barely registers on Israel’s “politics basket” of hot button issues. The prime Israel anti-abortion organization, Efrat, in fact, derives much of its funding from Christian groups in America. (You can see one fo Efrat’s billboards and hear an excellent discussion about this on “The Promised Podcast.”)
There is no local traction.  The rabbinical establishment has been strangely silent on this decision, offering lukewarm resistance at best. 

The tepid response of Ultra-Orthodox Israelis demonstrates precisely why abortion is first and foremost a church-state issue here in America, and why the erosion of Roe- v. Wade a real threat to the religious freedoms of Jews. 

In the words of  Rabbi Benny Lau, a religious Zionist activist, resisting the idea that abortion is murder, “Taking our Torah in the direction of Christian Catholic canon law is a terrible mistake."  You will not see anything equating abortion to murder on the Efrat site or anywhere in the conversation.  That’s because for Judaism, abortion isn’t murder.

Judaism does not categorically approve or disapprove of abortion. Jewish law does not consider a fetus to be a human being; thus it actually requires abortions when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Jewish authorities disagree on whether to extend the permissibility of abortion to situations where the pregnancy or birth is psychologically but not physically dangerous. Those who allow for abortion in such cases disagree on how far to extend this permissibility. Most of these authorities allow abortion in cases of incest or rape and cases where the fetus is affected with a terminal genetic disease such as Tay-Sachs. Other authorities extend permissibility further and may include cases where the fetus has a non-terminal genetic defect or even situations where the mere fact of pregnancy and anticipated childbirth is a threat to the mother’s mental health.

The Jewish view happens to be derived from a passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, a case study where a fight breaks out between two men and a third party, a pregnant woman, is harmed and she miscarries.  This is not considered a case of manslaughter or murder, which led the Talmudic sages to conclude that the embryo/fetus is not yet a human life.  Because of that, the life of the mother always must take precedence. 

So that’s why, abortion is much more prevalent in the Jewish State.  And why we should be wary of those groups who want to impose their definition of when life begins - on us all.

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