Torah: Seize Your Share

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The expressions Matan Torah and Kabbalat Torah suggest both a giving and a receiving of Torah. However, a riveting midrash (Tanhuma, Ekev 11) depicts a very different picture. It describes the tablets measuring six handbreadths in height and imagines God holding the upper third, Moshe holding the lower third with the middle third remaining in between the divine giver and the human recipient. Moshe then reached out and grasped the middle third, overpowering God as it were, drawing the tablets entirely into the human domain.

Inspired by this midrash, Rabbi Yerucham Leibovitz (1873-1936) who served as spiritual head of the famous Mir Yeshivah in Poland, suggests that the assumption that God simply gifts Torah to us is mistaken. We are meant to be more than passive recipients. We are encouraged to actively reach, if not overreach, for the Torah so that we can possess it.

I think this message is particularly relevant to women who too often assume a passive stance when it comes to Torah. They wait patiently to receive what others deem acceptable for them to receive, even when it is blatantly inadequate. The midrash indicates otherwise. When it comes to Torah there is no shame in demanding and grasping for more. On the contrary, it is through this hunger for greater access to Torah that Torah is truly honored.

This iconic image of Belda Lindenbaum z’’l holding the Torah aloft for hagba’ah encapsulates this message. Belda boldly staked her claim and pushed all barriers to bring Torah into women’s domain. 

This Shavuot, let us all seize our share of Torah.

Where are you from?

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Where are you from?

I have to take a deep breath before I can answer this question.

I was born in Milan and lived there until I left home aged 15 to continue my high school studies in Jerusalem. Upon graduating, I moved to the United States to continue my religious studies. Until that point I was from Italy.

Over eight years in the ‘melting pot’ of New York I came of age with work, marriage and children. Just as I began to put down roots and see myself as Italian-American, our family relocated to London.

Where are you from?

All of a sudden, it became a little complicated.

I am from Italy.

But you sound American?

Yes I have been living in New York.

But if I was back in New York, I’d have to explain I was Italian but living in London.

Then came a point when I would visit Italy and my italian sounded a little foreign.

You speak italian really well. Where are you from?

I am from Milan.

But you sound American?

Where are you from?

I had envisaged our move to London to be temporary. But ten years on, I had been living in London longer than I had ever lived in New York.

I did not feel British.

My husband and children all acquired British citizenship, I remained Italian, but finally acquired a pair of wellies.

Sixteen years on, I realized I had been living in London as long as I had ever lived in my native country and twice as long as I had lived in the United States where i had developed my adult identity.

I resolutely remained Italian.

I am a Londoner!

Just as I marked two decades of life in London, producer Rachel Wang got in touch requesting to interview me for a film feature called 1000 Londoners.

Rachel’s questions about the buildings, views and features of London that I most liked (and disliked!) made me realize, that while I don’t identify as British, I do identify as a Londoner.

I am comfortably at home in Milan, Jerusalem and New York, but London is my city.

I love its energy and architecture, its eclectic fashion, art and design scene.

I am grateful to Rachel for finding the Londoner in me by including in me as Londoner #212, which is the area code for New York!

 

 

Two Offerings for Pesach Sheni

happy birthday cake

This year, the lunar and solar calendar are so aligned that my birthday falls on two consecutive days, the 9th May is followed by the 14th Iyar, turning it into a two-day ‘yom tov’.

To mark the occasion I am sharing two different insights on the contemporary relevance of Pesach Sheni.

Pesach Sheni: A Sense of Belonging looks at the significance of a second  opportunity to celebrate Pesach, while Exemption & Exclusion: Reflecting on Pesach Sheni  considers the cost of exemption from ritual, particularly in the context of women’s participation.

 

 

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Inside / Outside: Balancing our Priorities

Screen Shot 2016-12-25 at 09.22.24.pngThe Hanukkah lights are traditionally positioned at the window, so that they illuminate the darkness outside of our homes. This mitzvah speaks of  our obligation to brighten the lives of those outside the nucleus of our family and our own community.

The Talmud in tractate Shabbat explains that the mitzvah of Hanukkah can be fulfilled by one person lighting a candle on behalf of their household, but suggests that the optimal ‘mehadrin’ fulfilment is for each individual to kindle their own light. This obligation includes women, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states: ‘women are equally obligated, as they too were part of the miracle’. The formulation in the law of Hanukkah suggests that while we can get away with just one light per household, each individual is nonetheless encouraged to set aside some oil – a metaphor for the energy and passion that fuels our activity – required to kindle their personal Hanukkah light and illuminate the outside world.

This a lofty ideal, but in practice most of us, in particular women, experience an ongoing tension in trying to balance the energy we devote to the personal versus the public spheres.

TheTalmudic sage Rava addresses this tension saying: ‘’If one must choose between a house-light (for Shabbat) or a Hanukkah light, the house-light takes priority’. While Rava speaks of a case where one’s monetary budget doesn’t stretch to buying oil for both Shabbat and Hanukkah lights, we can apply his principle to situations where our time, energy and emotional resources are limited. In such cases our priority should be on the inner circle of our family.

But having clear priorities to our family may not be enough.

While work is permitted on Hanukkah, women have the custom to abstain from domestic chores while the lights burn. According to the mystics, abstaining from work enables us to absorb the holiness of the moment. This custom speaks of the importance of investing in spiritual self-care. Taking time to internalise the holiness of the Hanukkah lights is crucial if we are to illuminate external darkness.  

 

Beauty in Judaism

fullsizerender-2Today is the 7th Day of Sukkot, our last chance to eat in the Sukkah. I was glad to have the opportunity to start the day reflecting on the meaning of beauty in Judaism in the context of Sukkot and Simhat Torah.
You can hear my discussion with Fern Britton as the faith guest on BBC Radio2 for ‘Faith in the World Week’ (listen from 38 minutes) including a ‘Moment of Reflection entitled ‘The Allure of Asymmetry’.

Cry, Pray, Laugh…

Our matriarchs make fleeting appearances in the Rosh Hashanah Torah and Haftarah reading through laughter, tears and prayer. Sarah laughs in reaction to God’s promise of a son late in life, Chanah prays fervently demanding of God the blessing of a child, and in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision, God offers words of comfort, responding to Rachel’s tears for her exiled children.

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The Weepimg Woman (Picasso 1937)

Yet their stories are not reported to us in full. We are left wondering about Sarah’s unmentioned tears over her many years of infertility and Chana’s laughter when rejoicing at her son’s birth. The untold part of the story presents an opportunity for us to try to step into our matriarchs’ shoes, to imagine their experiences and to empathise with their feelings. Perhaps this exercise can sensitise us to the unheard laughters, unshed tears and silent prayers within our own community.

May this New Year be blessed with an abundance of jubilant laughter, tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving for all.

Mah Nishtanah- What Has Changed?

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At the Seder we ask Mah Nishtanah – ‘what is different?’ but the same words also mean ‘what has changed?’

Following the Hasidic masters, who teach that Pesach is about achieving personal freedom from imposed limitations that inhibit our spiritual growth, I would like to suggest the following symbolic reading of Mah Nishtanah:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

What has changed in our lives on this night as we look back over the past year?

1. On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.

Matzah represents humility, have we made space for others?

2.On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.

What pain have we experienced and how have we grown from it?

3.On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.

What have we been immersed in and how has it shaped who we are tonight?

4.On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

Have we taken time to recline, to be mindful of the special moments in our lives?

May we experience a reflective Seder that will inspire much spiritual growth and personal development in the coming year.

!לשנה הבאה בירושלים

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from my favorite Art Deco Haggadah, Vienna 1929

Playing on Purity

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Last Wednesday night, instead of tuning into one of my long-distance classes at Yeshivat Maharat, I joined BBC Radio DJ and host Lauren Laverne for Late Night Woman’s Hour.

In a relaxed round table format we discussed what ‘purity’ means for women in the context of food, sex, religion and thought.  Emma Woolf, who chronicled her experience of anorexia in her book ‘An Apple a Day’ spoke about the current obsession for purity in food, Shirley Yanez explained why she took a vow of chastity after a near death experience, and pundit Helen Lewis addressed the subject in the context of political ideas.

My contribution – the religious perspective on purity – was substantially shaped by a recent series of ‘Pastoral Torah’ classes at Yeshivat Maharat that focused on embodied spirituality. Click on the image below to listen to the program:

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Chanukah and Self-Transcendence

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The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household’. (TB Shabbat 21b)

The formulation of Chanukah lights as a household mitzvah is unique and intriguing.

What is it about Chanukah that demands a household effort?

20141223_183934I have been mulling over this for the last week while preparing various Chanukah shiurim.

Unlike other festivals that begin at sunset, we are required to wait until it is fully dark to light the Menorah and place it near the window, so it can be seen by people passing by. The oil with which we light the Menorah represents comfort and luxury, it symbolizes affluence and satisfaction.

The act of burning the Menorah oil to illuminate the outside is symbolic of a deeper spiritual act we must perform on Chanukah – taking a luxury, and sacrificing it in order to illuminate the darkness outside our home, to brighten the night for strangers passing by.

The Sefat Emet (Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger,1847-1905) suggests the reason this particular mitzvah is a household requirement is because spiritual illumination can be best accomplished by pooling together a family’s energy. This need for family security in order to fully realize the mitzvah can be understood best through the framework of Maslow’s Pyramid.

MaslowrThe American Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) posited a five level hierarchy of human needs. The bottom two levels of  the Pyramid consist of most basic human needs such as food, shelter, health and security. The upper two levels consist of such elevated needs as self-esteem and self actualisation. The middle level, which is the access point to the higher two, consists of love and belonging; needs that are best met in the context of family and close friendships. In other words, being secure in one’s own loving relationships is the foundation upon which the individual can come to the more elevated levels of altruism; extending love and compassion to strangers.

If kindling the Chanukah lights at night represents our responsibility to illuminate the darkness and alleviate the loneliness of those in need, then this can be achieved best when we feel secure within our own relationships. This may be why this particular mitzvah is singled out in its requirement that it be performed in the framework of a household.

This Chanukah, may we all find within the blessing of friendship and belonging the resources to self transcend by alleviating the loneliness, alienation and fragility experienced by those less fortunate than ourselves who occupy the darkening street.