Monday, July 30, 2012
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Why should a Muslim care?
The Qur’an mentions the two destructions of the temple in Jerusalem in a beautiful verse: [And said], "If you do good, you do good for yourselves; and if you do evil, [you do it] to yourselves." Then when the final promise came, [We sent your enemies] to sadden your faces and to enter the temple in Jerusalem, as they entered it the first time, and to destroy what they had taken over with [total] destruction. ~Al Qur’an 17:7
Ibn Kathir draws from the beginning of the verse a very fundamental principle: It may be that your Lord may show mercy unto you, but if you return (to sins), We shall return (to Our punishment). And We have made Hell a prison for the disbelievers.)
This message is precisely the Jewish message of the Three Weeks. The brokenness of the world is OUR responsibility. If we continue to experience punishment and exile its because we continue to sin in the very same way as those who went before us. We have a choice. We can do good and we can do bad and we will face the consequences of our deeds. God may indeed be merciful to us but our job is to fix our deeds. The message is simple. The message is shared. The message is vital for all humanity.
This message is echoed in the Qur'an in a powerful call to action which makes explicit the transformative collective power of change: For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah . Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. ~Al Qur’an 13:11
The Three Weeks are an invitation to reflect on the past, not as an exercise in historical commemoration or nostalgia but for the sole purpose of identifying what we need to change in our condition. We are called to discover what we need to do to create the opening for God to change us both individually and collectively.
The point of fasting is never to cause suffering but to awaken us to repentance, to help us experience enough of our own fragility to turn us back to God. The connection to the events of the past is not just "commemorative" but a reminder that the mistakes of the past are still with us today, and we have to repair them TODAY. Though the events are long over, the spiritual wrongs that created them are still with us. The tree may have died but the roots are alive and still creating shoots. The goal of today and of the Three Weeks to come is to identify those trends and wrestle with them, repair them in the hopes that the ultimate destruction of the 9th of Av will not come and instead of fasting, we will this year have a day of rejoicing.
Today on 17th of Tammuz we commemorate 5 events and address their spiritual roots. Here is a review. (based partially on Rabbi Moshe Weinberger)
1) The first tablets of the law were destroyed when Moses descended the mountain to see Bnai Yisrael worshipping the golden calf. – We address all of our missed opportunities, our continued failure to create and maintain a committed solid love-based relationship with our Creator
2) The daily offerings at the temple were disrupted- Connection to God requires constant effort, daily, consistent disciplined acts that reinforce our relationship with God and establish our humility in relation to Him. We are inconsistent in our efforts.
3) The walls of Jerusalem were breached - Destruction always begins with a weakening of our spiritual defenses. Little cracks in our ability to stand up to pressures of the world put our entire mission in jeopardy.
4) The Torah was burned. - We are told that when R. Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned in a Torah he saw the parchment burn but the letters fly up to heaven. The spiritual part of the Torah was separated from the physical. Every time we fail to study, engage in idle conversation when the Torah is read in synagogue, or regard the Torah as “just another book” we “burn the Torah” by letting the spirituality of the Torah fly away.
5) An idol was placed in the temple- Our hearts and minds were created to be a sanctuary to Hashem (Allah swt) What have we placed there instead? Love of money, love of celebrity, obsession with worldly position and knowledge? In the midst of our “enlightened” world, the spirit of idolatry is alive and well and as strong as ever.
The message is clear enough. "If you do good, you do good for yourselves; and if you do evil, you do it to yourselves." The destruction of the temple stands for us as reminder of the ultimate power of human responsibility, of God’s great mercy and our capacity to truly return to him.
The Jewish tradition adds that the 17th of Tammuz was the day that Noah (the Prophet Nuh, pbuh) sent out the dove which would eventually return to him with the olive branch, the symbol of salvation from the flood. Though the world appears to be in chaos, submerged in confusion, we must never despair. God's mercy is beyond our comprehension. Even though we sometimes feel like we are drowning, our rescue is already being prepared.
It is my privilege to share with my Muslim brothers and sisters a shared message. May this little bit of information bring us a bit closer to inspiring one another and encouraging one another in the service of God. It is also my privilege to share this with my Jewish brothers and sisters, that as we struggle through the Three Weeks, we should know that Muslims can understand and appreciate our efforts.
Master of the World! Please help the discomforts of these Three Weeks be transformed into an awakening to return to You. Help us to repair the mistakes of the past that linger in our present and to put You and only You always at the center of our world.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Sunday, February 12, 2012
A friend of mine is in a graduate program in school administration. I say friend and I mean “friend.” There are people who are colleagues and there are people who you feel a connection of soul. He is one of the latter. He is not Jewish. He asks me bizarre questions on Jewish law, knows more Jewish concepts than most Jews and is a serious Christian. He is one of those rare thinkers whose left side of brain matches right side. He came to observe my classroom. These are his notes describing my Talmud class. I decided to use his excellent description as a moment of self-reflection on my teaching. In the italics is my commentary on his notes. I want to thank him for allowing me to do so.
Classroom Observation, Honors Talmud, Jewish Community Day School, February 8, 2012.
7.50 a.m. Arrived at the start of class. The students were not present yet—they were in another classroom watching the video announcements since there is no television in the Beit Midrash. The Beit Midrash is a converted music room—the walls are covered with soundproofing material and the windows have been covered over with imitation stained glass window stickers to make the place fee like a holy place. There is a portable white board along one wall of the room and a laptop and computer projector are set up a short distance from it so as to project a PowerPoint slide onto the board. It reads:
1) How do you decide which bracha to make first, then second, etc?
2) What valuable lessons does this teach you for your future?
I have really tried to make my classroom into a Beit Midrash (A “home of study” I want my students to understand that studying Torah is different from studying math or history. The windows and the back well covered with a photo-mural of the Western Wall in Jerusalem give it the feel of sanctity. There is a television in the classroom but I have left it broken. I often point out to my students that I don’t have a TV. (For some, that is like saying that I am a Breatharian that lives with out eating.) So no TV in class. I decided that that same instrument they use to watch “Gossip Girl” could not be elevated to Torah study.
A total of six long rectangular tables are set in a U-shape focused around the white board. On one of these tables, along the right part of the U-shape, toward a corner of the classroom the teacher, LW, has set out plate a three plates. One plate has almonds, dried figs, fresh grapes, and dates; another plate has slices of coffee cake; the third plate has carob chips. There is also a bottle of pomegranate juice on the table. Near this table are bookshelves filled with religious texts. Next to the bookshelves is an Aron Kodesh. [a decorated cabinet containing a Torah scroll]
The set up of the room is based on the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, that says that the teacher must be able to see every student and every student must be able to see one another. Learning Torah is about interaction, the teacher, the students are as much the lesson as the text under discussion.
In my Talmud class I provide a lot of food. There is a proverb. “Open mouths = open heart.” I am not sure who said that. Maybe it was me! Whoever said it is true. I also love to be hospitable. Its my "thing" both at home and at school. It was also our father Abraham's thing, so I am in good company.
7.54 a.m. The students arrive to class. There are a total of six students—four boys and two girls. As they come in, LW says, “Okay holy brothers and sisters, question on the board. Don’t touch the food yet. Sit down and answer the question. If you want tea, the water should be hot.” On a separate table is an electric hot water heater; two students head over and make themselves cups of tea, the rest sit around the table with the plates of food on it as if they were sitting down to a family meal except that they take out their notebooks and begin writing. LW sits among them and engages in light banter with the students as they’re sitting down.
I spend the first few minutes of class re-establishing our relationship. The Beit Midrash is a “bayit” a HOME. Students should feel at home. The presence of religious books, a teacher and a Torah scroll should inspire a sense of caution but beyond that they should feel comfortable in this space and comfortable with their teacher.
I am partial to tea with Torah. Some people drink alcohol when they study. I want my kids to prefer tea. Alcohol makes you stupid. Tea does not.
LW: What day is today?
Male student: The eighth
LW (in an Indian accent): Today is one day closer to death
A teacher of mine in India used to say this. I like my students to know who I am and to know who I was. I wasn’t BORN this way. I am the product of lots of different kinds of experiences. Besides, it cracks them up every time and relaxes them. The great sage Rava taught that all classes should begin with a joke, to set the students (and the teacher) at ease.
8.00 a.m. After all students have had a chance to sit down and write for a few minutes, LW begins class formally by asking for dedications and the names of sick people. Students call out names and after each one, LW says a brief bracha in Hebrew. After a minute or two of this, LW asks what else is happening in their lives. Students describe upcoming tests and projects and one student mentions a college basketball game that is happening tonight to which LW replies, “There’s a certain point in sports when my prayer becomes impossible. This section of the class ends with the students and LW praying together in unison in Hebrew.
This is all routine. When my former boss first described this dedication process to me, I thought it was terribly hokey. I now depend on it as a reliable way to focus class attention and to get students to be aware of each other’s needs. We offer the merit of our Torah study as a source of healing for sick family members, and for success in all their endeavors. It’s a way of linking Torh to other important areas of life.
We made the blessing on learning Torah, and as usual, I launch into at least a short discussion of pure Torah, usually Jewish law so the prayer is not said in vain.
After the prayer, LW points to a quotation that’s projected onto the white board. It reads, “Everything you need to know about love you can learn from prayer.” [I made that up] He then goes on to ask the students to answer the opening question.
LW: Here we have a plate of food for Tu B’Shavat things. How do we decide which bracha to make first? All items on the plate share a same bracha. Some have different brachas.
A bracha is a short prayer said before eating. There are specific wordings for particular kinds of foods. Fruits share a common wording. Cake and non-bread grain products another, and so forth.
After some discussion, LW sums up, “For blessings we want to go from the most specific to the most general.” Then he pivots the discussion, “What does this say about love?”
8.07 a.m. The students are ninth and tenth graders and do not jump in to answer. LW shifts his question to advice and offers up the following advice, “With apologies to the young women present this will be helpful to the gentlemen. When you say thank you say thank you as specifically as possible. Don’t thank your wife in general. Don’t say thank you for the dinner. Say this was the best broccoli I’ve ever tasted.” Then, as an aside, he offers more advice to the young men. “Gentlemen, whatever you do, don’t buy your wife a potted plant. I did that for my wife once. She told me, it’s enough that I have to take care of you, I don’t have time to take care of this too.”
I love teaching Jewish law. I want them to say the prayers before eating. I also want them to be able to connect that practice to other areas of their life. Prayer life is simple, “please”, “thank you” and “I love you.” I want to them to feel deeply that prayer is about relationship and that ALL relationships involve spiritual connection.
I teach boys and girls together. If I were someone else that might go without saying and without further comment. Teaching a Talmud class to boys and girls together (Traditionally girls do not learn Talmud.) is the time when I feel most like the sole observant teacher in the school. I am not uncomfortable with teaching boys and girls together or teaching Talmud to girls but I am very aware that it puts me outside the bounds of the other more traditional world that I live in. My traditional self is sometimes at quiet odds with the pluralistic and not-so-tradition bound tone of the school.
LW tells the students to take the next four to five minutes to get something to eat. Students get up and walk around the room. Some of them fix cups of tea. Others make small plates of food. LW makes a plate of food for me and gives it to me. Next door a rock music class is under way and the students comment on the song being played.
8.12 a.m. The students have all gotten food, juice and tea and are sitting back down at their seats around the table. One student sips some juice and says, “Mr. W— this is the best pomegranate juice I’ve ever had.” LW and students chuckle. Chit-chat continues and at one point LW discusses ways to make faux cheese from almonds.
So by now you have figured it out. This is not really just a class in Gemara (Talmud). Its also a class in life. Its about presenting a model of respectful interaction and mutual concern. Its about the nuts and bolts of Jewish life, saying prayers before you eat and having healthy marriages. That is the context for the text, a healthy well-balanced spiritual life.
8.14 a.m. LW begins the formal lesson on a sugya [stand-alone discussion] from the Gemara. The situation is about borrowing and collateral. Each student has his or her own copy of the Gemara in which they make notes. They take turns reading in Hebrew and LW works with them each individually as they interpret what they’ve just read.
8.19 a.m. They continue working through the sugya and LW weaves in a narrative of how the Gemara came to be in the discussion. Rabbis would receive people and answer their questions. The generations of Rabbis can be traced in each sugya and so what emerges is an intergenerational conversation. The specific sugya being discussed deals with who one should trust when a item of collateral offered up by a borrower is stolen from the lender. If turns out that the lender to be trusted regarding the theft—the lender knows who comes and goes from his house—but the borrower is to be trusted when it comes to value of the collateral since the collateral belongs to the borrower.
8.23 a.m. LW starts to sum up, “The borrower has a better idea of the value of the object so we trust him. But he’s also the guy that has the most to gain by not telling the truth.”
Students continue reading in Aramaic and LW continues to work with them, translating into English and discussing what’s going on in the text.
8.27 a.m. LW draws a distinction between Jewish law and US law. In Jewish law believability is established before testimony is heard whereas in US law the jury decides whether or not testimony is believable. LW uses a student as an example, he turns to a male student and says, “I think you more than anyone else will grow up to be a professional gambler. Now would we believe you in a court of law? No, because you’re on the fringes of society, you’re a gambler, so we wouldn’t consider your testimony.”
The kid is has a good head for math. He would be a great card counter. He also likes to win. Its important for kids to know that you KNOW them. You know their strengths (and maybe even a few of their weaknesses)
8.30 a.m. LW begins a series of rhetorical questions, each one deeper than the previous. “What’s the difference on believability? Why is one person believable and the other guy is not? Why do we not believe them both?” After a pause, he offers up, “Now we’ll get philosophical and have a Calvinist moment.” He sends a student to one of the bookshelves to get a copy of the Tanach. The student brings it back to LW who flips through it and has trouble finding the passage he wants. At one point he offers up, “Thank God for the principle of plausible deniability. It’s not in the Talmud but it should be.”
Wow, the dude with the beard knows about “Calvinism.” I flaunt my fancy education in class. I use a lot of big words and refer to concepts from other disciplines a lot. Torah does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a real world. I am proud of being able to put Torah into a wider context for my students.
I am also ok with fumbling. I had trouble finding the passage. So what? It gives my students permission not to be perfect.
I am pretty sure that “plausible deniability” IS in the Talmud somewhere.
8.34 a.m. LW finds the passage he’s looking for. “A man will not become established through wickedness but the righteous will not falter.”
8.36 a.m. LW asks, “Why is it that the borrower needs to borrow?” Discussion ensues and eventually the idea that people who are rich are rich because they deserve it and those who are poor deserve it. LW and students alike express dismay at such a conclusion and reject it.
8.38 a.m. LW remarks, “I personally am very troubled by it. Even more troubled that the discussion ends here.”
Teaching Torah means being real and sharing the struggle. Sometimes I don’t get it. Sometimes I am troubled. I have to say that. I take this stuff seriously. I don’t jump to agreement. I also don’t jump to blind opposition. I don’t deny all my other experiences. I try to engage and help my students engage in honest dialogue with the Rabbis of the text and, in general, to feel comfortable with testing ideas out for themselves.
8.40 a.m. A student asks, “Why did they stop adding to the Gemara?” LW answers. “That’s a good question. No one really knows.” He then goes on to describe the last person who edited the Gemara and also mentions that discussions and exchange of opinions continue to this day so, in a sense, the Gemara continues.
8.43 a.m. LW, “What time is class over?” A student answers, “Two minutes.” LW responds, “Okay, we’re not going to start the next sugya.” At this point one student asks, “Mr. W— weren’t the Jews money lenders?” LW answers, “Yes?” The student responds, “So it just seems like the lender who is to be believed is most likely the Jewish guy and the Gemara is pretty nice to lender.” LW, enthusiastically, “That’s a really good point.”
I missed an opportunity here. What I should have said is “Look, the Talmud is still happening, RIGHT HERE!” Our discussion is not on that tiny page of closde text. Our discussion is on the page of LIFE. But, we are part of the same discussion and those Rabbis are here with us, right now. Linked to them in common discussion, we all pushed into a timeless present.
8.45 a.m. As the bell rings, LW closes class with a bracha.
The bell rings. So much for being beyond time. That last hurried after- bracha, the prayer in thanks for the food is like the stale rolls wrapped in napkins my grandmother used to stuff in my pocket. It is nourishment for the road, a little taste of the eternity of the Torah encounter. As long as the blessing of Torah is in our pockets, we are just a little free of the tyranny of time.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
[The following is an article my daughter has written for the newspaper of her Jewish community day school of which she is co-editor. She asked me to thank the many people who helped her with interviews. She would have liked to use all the words of everybody if only time and space would permit. She looks forward to your comments.]
Hijabi for a Day
by Sara Weissman
From the businessman’s suit to a goth’s band T-shirt, we all know that clothes are more than cloth. What we choose to wear is a sign of who we are, what we aspire to be, and how we choose to represent ourselves. So imagine wearing your heart on your sleeve, or rather your religious devotion over your head. The concept of hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women, is less simple than it seems.
For this month’s Challenge to the Editor, I wore hijab for one day. Hijab, which literally means “to veil,” is the code of modesty for Muslim women past puberty. The requirements for hijab consist of covering most of the body including hair and avoiding perfume and tight, transparent, or flashy clothing.
The choice to try wearing hijab for a day was as much as an internal experiment, as an external one. Considering the scary and relatively new phenomenon of Islamophobia, part of it was to see if people treated me differently. But more than that, it was a way to take a tiny glimpse into something larger, a practice meaningful to millions of people and the idea that, though the clothes don’t make the woman, they can say a lot about what she believes in.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND:
Before taking scarf in hand, I wanted a better understanding of where the idea of hijab comes from. Though there are multiple references to hijab in the Qur'an, in al-Ahzaab 33:59 it says, “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” Another, al-Noor 24:31, says, “And say to the believing women…that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers…” and it goes on to list others.
After reading the above paragraph, your inner American, feminist may be a little miffed. Mine was too. In fact she grumbled quite a bit about the seeming patriarchal tone, the same I struggle with when discussing women’s modesty in my own religion. But many Muslim women feel very differently. In fact, they feel quite the opposite, embracing hijab as a freeing as opposed to forced expression of their faith.
“For me, the hijab is more than modesty; it is a liberating fact,” said Sara Khalil, 25. Born in Saudi Arabia, Khalil lives in Canada and has been wearing hijab since 2005. “It has allowed me to perceive myself as an individual outside the bounds of physical beauty and attraction, and further project a confidence that is independent of others' judgment,” she said. Samara Gabriel, who converted to Islam in 2010 and runs a blog called ImInItForTheScarves.com, holds a similar view. “My body is a private thing. Mine,” she said. “Not to be shared with the world. It also means that I dress to please God, not men on the street.” Gabriel’s beliefs were reaffirmed by an incident with her editor, when she worked for a local newspaper. “The editor angrily made the comment ‘What if I WANTED to look at you?’ As if it was his right. That is a good example as to why I love wearing it. I don't feel anymore as if I need to flip my hair around or show off my boobs or my butt to get attention. I love Pink's ‘Stupid Girls’ as an example to what I mean,” she said.
Zara Asad, 19, explained that hijab for her is also an expression of her spiritual struggle. “It’s the covering, the cloth that protects my heart from any filth coming in,” said Asad. “It’s my shield. Everyday is a battle against improving myself and fighting distractions around me. It’s a very vital part of me.” Asad began wearing hijab when she was 17. Though both her mother, originally from Pakistan, and her sister wore it, she was afraid of what her friends and predominantly white, New Jersey community would think. But after she wore hijab, Asad said she could never go back. “When I first wore the hijab I felt like myself, a Muslim, for the very first time in public,” she said. “I felt like I could breathe for the first time.”
Others also relate to this sense of identity that comes with hijab “Our hijab is both our modest covering and a badge of our identity, “ said Rania Abuisnaineh, a 20 year old from Minnesota with family from Hebron. “People immediately recognize us as Muslim when they see our hijab, just as they recognize a Jewish man from his yarmulke or a Sikh from his turban.” However for her and others, hijab’s meaning lies in more than identity and modesty, but in the belief that it is a law from God. “When people ask me why I wear hijab, my first response is always this: ‘Because it is a command from Allah; and He knows what is best for His creation more than the creation know what is best for themselves,’” Abuisnaineh said.
Still, reactions to hijab in the modern world can be mixed and some Muslim women see a disconnect between who they are and how they are perceived. .” Shameela, however, who was born in India and now lives in Qatar, has seen these perceptions overcome. One of few Muslims in her city, she wore hijab since she was 12 and said that when she went to college, her friends saw a new side to Muslims through her activism at the university. “They came to know that wearing hijab is not a sign of oppression, and that wearing it does not make any women inferior.” Hind Yousef Khalifa, who is a resident of Abu Dhabi, also elaborated on this point. “It (hijab) doesn't stop a woman from practicing any aspect of her everyday life,” she said. “We study, we drive, we work, we go out with friends, we volunteer and do community work and are very active in society.”
A DAY WITH HIJAB:
With all of these women’s words in mind, on a Wednesday morning over winter break I decided to put on hijab. I stood in front of the mirror, staring at the red cloth clutched in one hand and three safety pins in the other. Following the careful steps of a youtube tutorial, I slowly wrapped and pinned until the fabric finally resembled a headscarf. I looked up at the mirror, proud and a little unused to the lack of auburn frizz in the reflection that staring back at me.
With some self-conscious jitters, I went about my day as usual. I drove my family to the doctor’s, looked at old pictures with my mom, and spent the rest of the day at Fashion Island, looking for belated Chanukah gifts and hanging out with my grandma. But, I felt different. Even if it wasn’t my own religion, I suddenly felt like I had to reflect what the scarf represented. I tried walking straighter, grinned at strangers, and tacked extra pleases and thank yous on every sentence to the sales clerks at Macy’s. Despite feeling like I looked different, wearing hijab made me feel more comfortable in some ways. It reminded me of those mornings when you put on a favorite a baggy sweater, too relaxed to dress to impress. There was a certain calm in feeling like I didn’t have to look cute for anyone.
At the same time, wearing hijab attracted some unwanted attention. Walking through Fashion Island produced long stares, mostly curious but a few hostile. One man continued glaring even after I looked him in the eye while a saleswoman, chatting up other customers, spoke curtly and would not look me in the eye at all. Still, the amazing thing is the number of odd looks was nothing compared to the number of smiles. Throughout the day, I got wide grins from absolute strangers.
I would like to say I reached some mind-blowing conclusion after thinking on the experience and unpinning my scarf that night. What I came away with was more modest, but I still think entirely worth it. After a day, I can’t claim to know what it’s like for women to wear hijab: how it feels, what they believe, or how they are treated. Still, I ended the day impressed by women willing to hide parts of themselves but at the same time stand out, for the sake of their God and their religion. In the end, the biggest lesson I learned was that clothing can be fabric or it can reflect who a person wants to be. For Muslim women, hijab is a constant reminder that they are always aspiring toward better observance of their religion. The take-home message I got from a day in hijab was we can change our clothes but more importantly our clothes can change us. The question is what do we want them to reflect?