Friday, December 4, 2009

The forgotten sister

Parashat Vayishlach begins with another familiar episode, that in which Jacob wrestles with an angel.

Really? The Torah text does not say that his opponent is an angel. It says merely “a man.” Admittedly, God’s messengers (melachim) appear in Genesis as ordinary humans, so the version that used to be taught routinely is not automatically ruled out.

Jacob appears to think that the being is a demon, and only as the episode ends and his name is changed to Israel does he change his mind. The name that Jacob/Israel gives the place, Peniel, can be translated as “face of God,” somewhat suggesting that he actually believes that it was God rather than a messenger. It is thinkable that there may have been multiple versions of this story and that God appeared directly in some of them.

The story is troublesome in several ways, and not only because of the identity of the “man.” A different account of the changing of Jacob’s name appears in chapter 35, where God does appear directly. Because of Jacob’s obvious anxiety about the impending reunion with Esau, whom he tries to propitiate with lavish gifts, some commentators have suggested a reading in which the man is Jacob himself, a reflection of his internal struggle.

The episode immediately following the reunion with Esau is, however, even more troubling. In brief, Jacob parts from Esau and arrives at the city of Shechem. The son of the local chief—confusingly, the son is also called Shechem—rapes her, then announces that he wishes to marry her. (According to Deuteronomic law, he would be compelled to marry her and forbidden to divorce her, and would have to pay damages to her father.) The chief proposes that there be general free trade and intermarriage between the peoples of Israel and Shechem. Dinah’s brothers agree on the condition that the men of Shechem all be circumcised. While the men of Shechem are in pain, the brothers kill them all.

Dinah is never mentioned again, not even as an “ancestress.” It is all too easy to imagine that, since Shechem had been killed, that she never married.

Feminists have rightly objected to this story, not only because Dinah is the victim of rape, but also because she appears only as a victim. There are many instances in the Bible of women who make only one appearance, but the text gives more indication of the character and personality of every other woman than it does of Dinah.

Thus, feminist critics ask why this tale is included. As Rabbi Plaut observes, the mere fact that it happened (if it did) is not sufficient: the Torah surely omits many episodes in the lives of the Patriarchs.

One reason for its inclusion may be that it prefigures the massacres of various Canaanite peoples that are described in Joshua and Judges. The anachronistic statement that the brothers were angry because Shechem had committed an “outrage in Israel” (34:7) suggests that this might be a later addition. If this is the case, its purpose would be to justify aggression against the Canaanite tribes by showing not just that they were idolators in the time of the Israelite conquest, but that they had always done evil, even against our ancestors.

The story of Dinah is omitted from most Bible textbooks. Should we consider teaching it?
In most settings the answer will be no, and not only because the subject matter is unsuitable for young children. Even in high-school classes, where we might well choose to teach an episode such as the rape of Tamar, we would have to consider carefully what we hoped to accomplish. It’s never sufficient to teach just the facts of a section of Torah; we should always focus on the meaning that we believe students should draw from it.

In this case, we must reject the surface meaning, because the Torah seems to approve of the brothers’ actions, even the deception, and Jacob, who has some experience with both sides of deception, offers only a practical objection, not a moral one. The underlying meaning seems to have to do with the relationships between Israelites and Canaanites, so we should choose to place it in the Joshua–Judges context.

The child who does not know how to ask

Tractate Avot of the Mishnah specifies this curriculum for Jewish students (boys only):
  • At the age of 5, a boy studies mikra (Scripture).
  • At the age of 10, Mishnah.
  • At the age of 13 he becomes a bar mitzvah.
  • At the age of 15, he begins to study Gemara.
  • At 18 he marries.
  • At 20 (if not destined to become a scholar) he should get a job.
Although modern society disagrees with much of this—the lack of equivalent education for girls, the absence of secular learning, the assumption that studying the Talmud is the goal of all Jewish education—elements of it are still present in Jewish schools.

For example, we certainly teach stories from the Tanakh in kindergarten and first grade, and many Jewish day schools introduce the Mishnah in the fifth grade.

In general, however, religious-school curricula reflect modern beliefs about education. Many of these stem from the pragmatism of John Dewey in the early twentieth century, attempting to balance what students need to learn with what students want to learn.

Considering what students might want to learn is a relative novelty in education, secular as well as Jewish. For centuries, Jewish education followed an entirely prescriptive model in which the goals were mastery of halachah—Jewish law—in order to observe it fully, and, for those capable of more advanced learning, study of the Talmud. In other words, the yeshiva curriculum.

Secular education in the nineteenth century was equally prescriptive. While the goal for a child of the aristocracy might have been to become a learned gentleman or a refined lady, the goal for children of the masses was to acquire of useful skills—basic mathematics, grammar, and penmanship—that had immediate commercial utility. Think of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times.

With these models, considering what students wanted to learn was an innovation. Actually, recognizing that what students needed to learn and what they wanted to learn might not be identical was the innovation. It embodied the understanding that children are not miniature adults, and that their interests and capacities change as they grow.

About a decade ago, I taught a fifth-grade Hebrew class in which there seemed to be only one topic that students really wanted to study: Pokémon. Pokémon was almost a mania all over the country then, but it is not central to Jewish learning. While a few teachers attempted to use Pokémon to illustrate Jewish values, most felt that it glorified violence and materialism and was, at best, irrelevant to Judaism. (On the other hand, Saudi Arabia banned Pokémon in 2001 because of claims that it had Zionist content.)


Accordingly, students’ interests cannot be the sole criterion. In familiar Jewish terms, students are often like the fourth child in the Passover seder, the child who does not know how to ask. For example, until students have been exposed to Jewish ethics, they are likely to be content with the ethics of secular society. Students who have never attended Shabbat services probably won’t ask to learn the prayers of those services.

Thus, our consideration of students’ interests must be broad, not narrow. For example, we know that young students both need and want to learn how to understand the world around them, and that somewhat older students want to learn how to deal with questions of ethics and morality. By choosing topics that address these concerns, we attempt to draw students into Jewish learning, even if they did not yet know how to ask.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Role models

Abe Golos spoke about Michael Vick at Shomray Hadath on Shabbat Nachamu. I think he planned to continue by speaking about Jewish law on the treatment of animals, but other aspects of the topic engaged the congregation, and after he opened the floor to discussion he never got to that – everyone had an opinion.

The starting point was pro football's decision to allow Vick to play again, if a team wants to sign him up. Opinions were all over the place: some felt that since Vick had served his sentence, he should be allowed to resume his career; others felt that his sentence was too light, or that an example needed to be set.

The subtext of a lot of this discussion is that our society considers professional athletes to be role models for young people. To the extent that this encourages budding athletes to set high goals and to do what is needed to achieve them, it's a good thing. The problem is that it also encourages us to excuse bad behavior because of the athlete's success on the playing field.

Thus, some who wanted to let Michael Vick play again thought that it was necessary to validate his efforts to achieve football stardom. That is, if we don't let him play, it discourages younger athletes from striving for the success he had achieved.

A variation of this argument is that Vick – or any other bad-acting player – is so important to the game that we have to let him play. To my mind, this is not only untrue on the surface, but it wildly overstates the importance of the game itself. This is not Samson vs. the Philistines.

I may have a jaundiced view of this because, when I was in high school, the district was so short of funds that it considered discontinuing team sports. (I'm sure that they would have discontinued math and English instead, if the state law had allowed it.) I remember that my father was initially shocked, and then bemused, by the strength of feeling about it, especially the argument that team sports built character. For the next seven years (until he died) he regularly clipped articles from the local newspaper about former athletes from my high school who had been convicted of felonies, and sent the articles to me when I was at college and in graduate school. My graduating class's 10th reunion ought to have been held at the state penitentiary; more people would have been able to attend.

Role models... one of the strangest things I've experienced in job interviews is the suggestion that a synagogue or temple's education director must be a role model for the students. I'm not completely sure what we're supposed to be modeling – if it's devotion to Torah study or Jewish intellectual life, or to Jewish religious life overall, there was no sign of it in the interviews.

In fact, many of the parents' worst fear is probably that their son or daughter might take the education director seriously as a role model and decide to become a Jewish educator him/herself. What contemporary parent wants a child to become a Hebrew-school principal?

By choosing to become an educator, or even a rabbi or cantor, the professional all but takes himself or herself out of consideration as a role model for Jewish living. Of course I attend Shabbat services, wear a tallit, keep kosher, study Torah, and so forth: all those things are presumed to be part of my job. In essence, they're part and parcel of an identity that most people would never adopt for themselves.

I have usually answered that I think other people in the congregation are better role models. From a congregation of which I used to be a member, I might cite the Navy commander who, although he had minimal Jewish education as a child, has become very well-educated in Judaism. Since he was at sea for about six months out of every year, this came about almost entirely through his independent study. Or I might cite his wife, a Jew by choice, who took on most of the responsibility for the Jewish education of their child.

Or, moving from education to everyday ethics, I might think of the woman in the same congregation who said casually that she avoided spending time in a certain environment because "there's too much lashon hara there."

That kind of answer doesn't play well. In fact, I've come to feel that one sign that a job might be worth having is that no one asks any questions about the educator as Jewish role model.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fish story

What did you learn in Hebrew school that you still remember? Or, if you did not attend Hebrew school as a child, what do you remember from any grade of elementary school?

One of my classmates from public school claims to remember nothing except that women in Tierra del Fuego bite the heads off the fish that they catch—not the most useful information to have readily available. I suspect, although I am not certain, that he does remember some genuinely useful things, such as the multiplication table.

What this reveals is that, in general, we remember best those things that we use regularly, and those that made a striking impression on us at the time. Sometimes the impression came from the sheer strangeness of the information (women bite the heads off fish) and was not necessarily what our teacher hoped to impart.

Schools of education teach that any school has three curricula: the explicit curriculum, the implied curriculum, and the actual curriculum. The explicit curriculum is the one designed by the director, curriculum committee, and school board. It comprises the choice of subjects to be taught, the stated learning objectives, the textbooks that are adopted, and the teaching methods that are recommended. It’s what we mean by curriculum when we’re not more specific.

The implied curriculum is unstated, but equally real. It consists of everything that students learn from the environment—for example, whether Hebrew school is more like school, camp, a play group, or something else. Some elements of the implied curriculum, such as the condition of the building, may not be in the control of the principal and teachers at all.

The implied curriculum also includes the message conveyed by what is taught or not taught. For example, I once had the opportunity to revise the curriculum of a school in which every grade studied two things: the Jewish holidays, and Israel. The high emphasis on holidays and Israel— and the absence of some other topics, such as Torah—probably taught students (a) that Jewish observance mattered a lot, (b) that real Jewish life existed only in Israel, and (c) that there really wasn’t that much to learn. They studied holidays and Israel in the first grade; after that, they kept getting the same material (from their point of view) over and over again.

The actual curriculum is, of course, what the students actually learn. Some of the actual curriculum comes from the explicit curriculum, but not necessarily with the intended emphasis (the fish weren’t really the point of the Tierra del Fuego unit). Some of the actual curriculum comes from choices made by the teacher, and some is inadvertent.

In any case, what we hope students will retain from school are the principles and ideas that a curriculum attempts to embody. Information and skills that receive constant use will be retained anyway. Facts that are not used constantly can be looked up, and skills can be re-learned. It’s the major ideas that matter most.

Recently I attended a seminar at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland on Understanding by Design, a movement that builds curricula around “enduring understandings”: the ideas that have value in all settings and in all stages of life. Although a lesson built on Understanding by Design principles teaches the same facts and skills as any other lesson on the topic, it’s constructed to convey a central idea that transcends the information.

A third-grade class, for example, might take a short field trip to the sanctuary and learn the Hebrew names of the artifacts. The students might learn that the cover of a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is a me’il (robe) and that the ornaments are rimmonim (pomegranates) or a keter (crown). They may or may not remember any of the terms, since most of us don’t talk about those things, especially in Hebrew, every day.

The enduring understanding that we might want students to gain from a visit to the sanctuary is different. What we’d most want them to learn is that the sanctuary is a holy place where Jews meet (the Hebrew name is beit k’nesset, house of assembly) to communicate with God and with one another. That’s an idea that is valuable throughout life, even if we forget the names of the artifacts.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mah mishtaneh beit ha-sefer hazeh?

Having come to Jewish education from a career in secular education, I am often struck by how little of what we do would be recognized as education in any form by most secular educators. Some of it is socialization; some of it is indoctrination; some of it does attempt to teach something, but is not really education. A while ago I tried to envision a Jewish (supplementary) school that would have more to do with education. Here's what I wrote:

How is this school different?

All Jewish religious schools have similar goals, but our school strives to be different from most.

  • Our school is for learning. We have a carefully planned curriculum and we minimize the time relegated to activities that don’t contribute directly to learning. For example, we integrate arts and crafts with the main elements of the curriculum; they are never ends in themselves. We use videos selectively to further explicit learning goals, not to fill time.

  • Our school is for growth. In addition to imparting the knowledge and skills a student needs for Jewish living, we attempt to contribute to each student’s intellectual development. Rather than hold an entire class to a level that every student can achieve, we use differentiated education to ensure that, while all students in a class study the same material, each student receives appropriate intellectual challenge. We believe that education in any subject, at any level, should stretch intellectual horizons and develop the capacity for further learning.

  • Our school has a foundation of intellectual integrity. What we teach is compatible with the best scholarship in the field. While we do not burden children with scholarly detail beyond their understanding, we do not teach anything that a teacher at a more advanced level would want to “unteach.” Thus, we approach the Torah not primarily as a book of history or science, but as the story of our people and as a guide to living.

  • Our school respects Jewish pluralism. We teach the practices of Reform Judaism, but we respect those of every stream of Judaism and we accept the religious choices that parents make for themselves and their children. Furthermore, we consciously include customs from many different ethnic expressions of Judaism as well as the new customs that are developing in our own time.

  • Our school gives every student personal attention. No class will ever exceed an enrollment of ten students.

  • Our school recognizes the influence of family life. Children spend more time at home than in religious school, and parents have more influence than teachers. We ask parents to cooperate in three ways:
  1. The student’s attendance. While illness, emergencies, family celebrations, and other events may require a student to be absent occasionally, we ask parents not to schedule recurring events that conflict with our school hours.

  2. Support for our mission. We do not attempt to dictate a family’s religious belief or observance, but we ask that parents not ridicule or dismiss anything that we teach. We respect your choices, and we want you to respect ours.

  3. Jewish learning at all levels. We will expect parents to participate in family-education programs during the school year. We also ask that you participate in some other Jewish learning at an adult level each year that your child is enrolled.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Naso: Trial by Ordeal

Parashat Naso is a popular Torah portion for b'nai mitzvah, mostly because its reading falls at a time when good weather may be expected.

It comprises four topics: certain duties of the Levites, the procedure for trial of a woman accused of adultery, Nazirite vows, and certain functions of the priests, including the Priestly Benediction. A bar or bat mitzvah almost always chooses to speak about the Nazirite vows.

So in giving a drash in the synagogue, I wanted to speak about the trial of a woman accused of adultery. In short, it's a trial by ordeal--something that does not comport wiith our modern ideas of justice or rules of evidence.

Since this procedure is not currently in effect, and hasn't been for a long time, we feel little urgency to master the details of it. Instead, we struggle with our sense of the wrongness of it. It's one of the clearest cases of a commandment of Torah that we all agree is morally objectionable.

So what do we do? Unlike rituals that require a functioning Temple in Jerusalem or that only apply in the land of Israel, it appears that we could reinstitute this procedure. Admittedly, courts wouldn't accept it as evidence, but few divorce cases today cite adultery as the justification. (There was a time when adultery was the only recognized reason for divorce in the State of New York, which is how divorce became an important industry in Reno and Las Vegas.)

One answer, characteristic of Reform Judaism, is simply to conclude that this commandment is contrary to our principles, and therefore we do not follow it. But where do we learn those principles?

Another, characteristic of Conservative Judaism, is to attempt to view the commandment in a historical context. In this case, we might conclude that it is a vestige of pre-Torah rituals that really does not belong in the Torah at all. To take this position, we must hold that the Torah is a compilation of many oral traditions and not a cohesive document given in its entirety through Moses.

For this passage, we need to take neither approach, because it was set aside centuries ago by our early rabbis--not on idealistic grounds, but on practical ones: the rabbis concluded that the procedure didn't work! Their explanation was that it worked when most of the people of Israel were righteous, but in generally immoral times such as theirs, it couldn't be relied on.

Back to the idea that this commandment is contrary to our principles. It is common in Hebrew school for students to reject a statement in Torah because it seems so plainly wrong. Sometimes that merely means that it's inconvenient or uncongenial. For example, an eighth-grade class that I taught about a decade ago was seriously interest in the rules of kashrut--until it became apparent that the observance meant no shrimp or lobster.

At other times, the Torah is genuinely at odds with some of our secular principles: the Constitution, or various anti-discrimination laws. To most of our students, a religious precept that makes any serious distinction between Jews and Gentiles seems objectionable, and in fact our general practice is to minimize such differences in daily life, making it seem odd to do so in religious life.

But the early Reform rabbis did not draw their principles solely from secular ideology. They also drew them from Jewish sources, but they did not take any precept in isolation. Influenced as much by the Prophets as by the Torah, they tried to place each commandment in a framework that reflected the entirety of the Tanach.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Washing without the blessing

We wash our hands twice in the Passover seder—the first time without saying any blessing, and the second time with the conventional brachah. I wrote last year that the reason commonly giving for omitting a blessing at the first washing—so that someone will ask the reason—seems a bit silly.

I suggested then that the reason might be that the rabbis who compiled the haggadah might not have been sure that it was really a mitzvah to wash at that point. As a rule, if there is uncertainty about whether something really is a mitzvah or not, we perform the action but omit the blessing. In this case, just before the karpas, there could be doubt because we're not ready to eat bread (matzah) or the full meal; we're only eating a rather small amount of a vegetable.

Here's another thought. Perhaps we wash the first time, not to fulfill the mitzvah of netilat yadayim, but because of the requirement of our ancient priests to wash before performing certain sacred rituals. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis taught us that the family dining table would assume some of the functions of the altar, albeit without sacrifices. The Passover seder itself can be seen as a replacement for the Pesach sacrifice, which is specifically represented on the seder plate by the shankbone (zeroa).

If the seder is the replacement for the sacrifice, it follows that we ourselves are the stand-ins for the priests. Thus, it would make sense for us to wash at the beginning of the seder as a remembrance of the requirement for the priests to wash.

Simple food for Passover

I wrote this in 2004, while living in Los Angeles. Some of the prices I cited are no longer common, at least not where I live now, but the principle still applies.

In the course of my work I have a lot of opportunity to hear from people about how expensive Passover is. Some of them are just complaining for the fun of it; others are offering a justification for not observing it as fully as they think I think they should.

But the truth is that Passover doesn't have to be as expensive as that. True, there is some extra cost in a seder meal. That's because you're likely to spend more for any festive meal, and especially because of the wine. But you can exert some control over the seder menu, and the extras that you need specifically for a seder (karpas, maror, zeroa - greens, bitter herbs, and a shankbone - and the fruit, nuts, spice, and a bit of wine for charoset) aren't very expensive by themselves.

What is expensive is buying special Passover foods. Matzah itself is cheap, and, except for the requirements of the seder, matzah is the only special food that you really need for Passover. In some cities, chain groceries will give you 5 pounds of matzah free with a sufficient purchase.

Where I live, no store has a free matzah offer, but today it was possible to buy 5 pounds of matzah from Israel for 99 cents to $1.29, using store specials and a coupon from the newspaper. Manischewitz matzah would have been $3.99 for 5 pounds; if you buy Manischewitz products throughout the year, this could be a better value because of the coupons on the boxes.

If you want whole-wheat matzah or another special kind, it will cost more, but it's still not the price of matzah that ruins your budget.

The foods to avoid are the special Passover versions of regular food, such as kosher-for-Passover noodles, pizza mix, cake mixes, and so forth. Most of them aren't very good, and they're very expensive for what they are. Beware of Passsover breakfast cereal: it all tastes like matzah, so you might as well eat some of those 5 pounds of matzah. Skip the kosher-for-Passover mustard; it's basically library paste with mustard flavoring. Use horseradish instead.

But what else are you going to eat? Instead of using a lot of analogues of regular food, plan menus that are naturally kosher for Passover. While you're buying those 5 pounds of matzah, buy 5 pounds of potatoes, or 10, and serve potatoes instead of pasta or rice (if your observance doesn't allow rice).

Essentially, aim for simple cooking using fresh ingredients as much as possible. Simplicity is very much in the spirit of Passover, and nowadays cooking from scratch adds an element of festivity that expensive pseudo-foods can't match.

Now, desserts could require some effort, if your household expects anything other than fresh fruit. This week many stores have deals on macaroons at 99 cents/can, but how many macaroons do you want?

Nevertheless, the Passover cake mixes are barely satisfactory, and they make small cakes. For the price of one box of cake mix, you could buy both matzah cake meal and potato starch, enough to make any number of full-size cakes. Either way it will require a lot of eggs, but fortunately eggs are always on special right before Passover (because suppliers and stores manipulate the supply for Easter). So, if baked goods figure in your plans, it is worthwhile to buy the basic ingredients and invest some time in home baking.

For other special foods, all of which are optional, careful shopping can save some money. One chain store here has Manischewitz gefilte fish for $2.99/jar this week, and there was a $1.50 coupon in the newspaper. The coupon wasn't supposed to be doubled, but the store doubled $1 of it, so the net cost was 49 cents.

One thing you may find hard to obtain, depending where you live, is a kosher shankbone. Kosher butchers save them starting months in advance, but in smaller cities they may be unobtainable. Vegetarians have an advantage, because the traditional vegetarian substitute is a roasted beet. I am not vegetarian, but at my house we use a sweet potato, otherwise known as the Paschal yam.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

There is a well-known textbook—not one that we use—in which the chapter on Passover states that the father leads the seder and the mother cooks the dinner.

That statement no longer reflects an inevitable reality, if it ever did. In our congregations, gender does not determine religious role, nor does gender necessarily determine other roles in our society. Accordingly, we prefer to adopt textbooks that define religious roles in the ways that we understand them.

It can be difficult to maintain a completely egalitarian point of view, especially when a textbook has illustrations. Until recently it was unusual to see an illustration of a woman reading from the Torah, even though women have done so for decades in many congregations, and it you are still unlikely to see an illustration of a man lighting Shabbat candles.

It is possible for issues like this to cause misunderstandings in class. For example, it would be correct to teach that it is appropriate for every Jew to light Shabbat candles—but if a child has seen this done only by a mother or grandmother, the teacher’s statement may not ring true. The student may be puzzled, may reject the lesson outright, or may accept the lesson and conclude that there is something wrong with the way his or her family does it.

This phenomenon goes by the exalted name of cognitive dissonance. As learners, we always measure what is being taught against our own experiences, and yet one of the roles of school is to introduce ideas that are outside the experiences of the students.

There are many opportunities for cognitive dissonance in a Jewish school. The pronunciation of Hebrew provides frequent examples, because the school teaches “American Sefardi” pronunciation, while some parents and many grandparents use Ashkenazi pronunciation. If family members help a student to practice Hebrew reading, they and the teacher may be pulling in opposite directions.

Even more opportunities for cognitive dissonance arise when specific observances are taught. Although our school’s policy is to respect the religious choices of each family, we teach the practices that are normative for the two congregations. Some families will choose not to carry out every observance that we teach, and some may find value in practices that we do not teach. Sometimes teaching in a way that does not create unnecessary tensions either in class or at home feels like a tightwire act.

An approach that I like is the one adopted by Reform rabbis in a series of handbooks published in the 1970s. Rather than stating that “everyone should” follow a certain practice, these books typically state “It is a mitzvah to….” This formulation leaves the choice of whether to adopt a particular practice, and how to carry it out, open for each individual or family, while stating clearly that, in the view of the authors, it is a mitzvah.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Taking Purim Seriously

This was my bulletin column for March.

As a child I loved Purim. How could I not, in a congregation with a large Purim carnival that was lots of fun?

But it has taken me most of my adult life to learn to appreciate Purim again. In many congregations, Purim seems to be a holiday—like Tu Bishvat— that is mostly, perhaps exclusively, for children. If we attend a megillah reading, it’s a serious business: after all, it’s in the temple or synagogue. It must be serious!

This feeling is stronger if you grew up, as I did, in a congregation with both a German heritage and great formality in its ritual. The expectation of seriousness is apparent from our language, as in almost all congregations, we observe holidays. This seems to be specific to Judaism; I’ve noted that in other religions people celebrate holidays.

By “observe” holidays, we can mean either of two things. One derives from the Hebrew verb that is used in this sense, which has the root shin-mem-resh and most often means “to guard.” This describes our attending services and carrying out the prescribed rituals out of a sense of duty.

The second is the ordinary English meaning of “observe”: to watch as a bystander, without participating. Both meanings are at odds with celebrating Purim. Although there are specific mitzvot for Purim—reading the story of Esther and giving food to the poor—it’s most important to have a good time. This is why even a megillah reading is usually lighthearted, if not downright silly. And it is, frankly, burdensome to attend Purim celebrations without participating in them.

We do our children a disservice if we teach them that everything in the temple or synagogue is supposed to be sober and formal. (We would also be wrong not to teach them to be serious when it’s appropriate, but that’s not the issue at Purim.) And if we inadvertently teach them that some celebrations are only for children and others, presumably, are only for adults, it’s the wrong message.

So I encourage everyone to get into the spirit of Purim. Bring the whole family to Purim events: dinner and megillah reading at Congregation B’nai Israel on Friday, March 6, megillah reading at Congregation Shomray Hadath on Monday, March 9, and the Jewish Community School Purim carnival (downstairs at Shomray Hadath) on Sunday, March 8.

And wear costumes. It’s not just for children—dress up in something outrageous no matter what your age. It doesn’t have to be a “made” costume, just something inappropriate to wear at regular services, or something so far out of fashion that it’s funny. Let your children see that the way we take Purim seriously is by not taking ourselves too seriously.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Blessing Children (Vayehi)

The Torah portion Vayehi comprises the last months in the life of Jacob, his death in Egypt, and his burial in the Land of Israel.

During Jacob’s final illness, Joseph brings his sons Ephraim and Manasseh—Jacob’s grandsons—to him, and Jacob effectively adopts them as his own sons. This explains why the Twelve Tribes of Israel include separate tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, but no tribe of Joseph. Jacob also blesses his [grand]sons with the words, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

This blessing—God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh—is the traditional blessing for parents to bestow upon their sons on erev Shabbat. The blessing for daughters asks that they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

In family workshops, I like to encourage parents to bless their children on Shabbat, because it provides an opportunity to transmit values to children.

Once children have started Sunday school, they are likely to recognize the names Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, even if they cannot fully recount their stories. Young children today, however, may not recognize the names Ephraim and Manasseh, and the traditional blessing may therefore be less meaningful.

One of my friends, certain that her son, then four years old, would not recognize Ephraim and Manasseh, would substitute other names from the Torah that she thought he might remember. Occasionally this was incongruous: traditional Jewish parents did not wish their child to grow up to be like Esau (although Esau does represent some qualities that the modern world values). Be careful what you wish for!

Because young children think in concrete terms, it may be helpful to express a Shabbat blessing through references to real people whom they know, and to be explicit about the qualities you hope they will develop. For example, although a midrash considers Jacob (yes, the same Jacob) the archetype of the Jewish scholar, rather than citing Jacob as a model, you might say, “May God help you to become a good student like Grandpa Al was,” or “to have a sense of humor like Aunt Debbie.”

Another reason for blessing children on Shabbat is that parents who may have some difficulty with prayer in general usually find it easier to express prayerful wishes for their children. The traditional time for blessing children is immediately after lighting the Shabbat candles. Place your hands on the children’s heads as you state your hopes for them, citing either the persons you choose or Ephraim and Manasseh/Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Conclude with the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you, May the Lord show you favor and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you kindness and grant you peace.”