Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Srugim סרוגים- Ana Efneh - Where do I turn?

As some of you may or may not know, I often struggle to define myself religiously, and sometimes find myself searching for my place as a young, modern Jew who believes in the centrality of halacha as a divinely-guided plan in a confusing world, one in which I wish to be a full participant. One one hand, I look for a community which has a similar outlook to both Jewish law and modernity - will it be found among the Conservative movement, in which I was raised, or in liberal Orthodoxy, which attempts to find avenues for openness and womens' participation within a traditional halakhic framework. For now, I sit on the fence, torn between these two communities and visions which each offer different opportunities and ways to confront challenges.
As a student at Columbia and JTS, I am part of a community of others my age who are confronting the same challenges, and a diverse one in which a variety of views are represented. After watching the first season of the Israeli Drama Srugim, (referring to a kippah srugah, the knit head covering worn by religious zionist Israelis) I now have immersed myself in an Israeli community caught trying to maintain a similar middle ground between age-old values and modern pulls.
The series takes place in an area of south Jerusalem known as הביצה של קטמון, the swamp of Katamon, a neighborhood filled with religious Zionist Israelis in their mid to late twenties, many of whom are single and caught in the overwhelming dating scene. Along with the romantic adventures of the show's 5 main characters, Yif'at, Reut, Hodayah, Amir and Nati, they confront other philosophical and religious challenges as well.
Reut on a number of occasions attempts to challenge the preexisting boundaries of womens' ritual participation. In the first episode, she makes kiddush for the group of her friends at Shabbat dinner, a practice becoming more accepted and mainstream in the Modern orthodox community. In the show it is questioned, but nobody prevents Reut from fulfilling this mitzvah, showing an understanding of a woman's inherent equal obligation for Kiddush. Later on in the season, continuing to challenge these boundaries, Reut approaches a student at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav who gives Bar Mitzvah lessons (Yochai, whom she dates for a while) asking to learn how to read haftarah, which she wishes to do for her father's yahrzeit. Yochai at first refuses, agreeing to make a tape for her, but gradually agrees to teach her. One of the pinnacles of the show comes at the conclusion of episode 9, as Reut reads the Haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh in front of a womens' prayer group, including her closest friends.
Hodaya attempts to figure out the essence of who she is as she equivocates with her identity as a religious woman. When we first meet her, the struggle is already evident as she has been studying bible academically at Hebrew University, an act of rebellion against her Rosh Yeshiva father. It is there where she meets Avri, a professor of archeology, and they begin a relationship, in which she fails to tell him that she is religious. Eventually, issues arise as Avri attempts to serve Hodaya pasta with meat and cheese, and she decides to violate Shabbat on another occasion rather than reveal her background. Without ruining the rest of the plot, it is enough to say that Hodaya's struggle with her own religious identity and her relationship with secularism and the secular world is extremely honest, and provides an important window into how real Israelis deal with the confluence of this two different worlds, and where they fit in.

Although there is so much more that can be said about the deeper meaning of Srugim, the overall message is best illustrated by the show's stirring theme song, - אנה אפנה Where shall I turn. Written with so many double meanings and hidden messages, it is more than just a song, but a spiritual modern piyyut (Jewish liturgical poem). The words of the song truly reflect not only the struggles of those in the Bitza of Katamon, but my own as well.Below you will find the music video, and Hebrew/translated lyrics (thanks to the blog 'The Muqata'):

I pursue Your laws, on the one hand
On the other, my passion pursues me.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I will enter Your gates.
And the long nights and the loneliness and the years,
And this heart that has not known peace.
Until the sea becomes quiet, until the shadows disappear.

אני רודף אחר חוקיך, מחד
מאידך תשוקתי אותי רודפת
בוש ונכלם אבוא בשעריך
והלילות הארוכים והבדידות ושנים
והלב הזה שלא ידע מרגוע
עד שישקוט הים, עד שינוסו הצללים
Where shall I go, to where will I turn, when Your eyes gaze upon me?
Where shall I flee, how will I not turn away?
Between truth and truth,
Between law and practice.
Between the days of yore and modern times.
Between the hidden and the revealed,
Between the world to come and this world.

לאן אלך, אנה אפנה, כשעיניך מביטות בי
איכה אברח, איך לא אפנה
בין אמת לאמת
בין הלכה למעשה
בין הימים ההם לזמן הזה
בין הנסתר לנגלה
בין העולם הבא לעולם הזה
I pursue Your laws, on the other hand my passion burns me
Fierce as death, terrible as troops with banners
The long nights and the loneliness and the years,
And this heart that has not known peace.
Until the sea becomes quiet, until the shadows disappear
Bring me back!

רודף אחר חוקיך, מאידך תשוקתי אותי שורפת
עזה כמוות, איומה כנדגלות
הלילות הארוכים והבדידות והשנים
והלב הזה שלא ידע מרגוע
עד שישקוט הים, עד שינוסו הצללים
Where shall I go, to where will I turn

לאן אלך, אנה אפנה
Wishes for a happy and peaceful 2009 - ברכות ל2009 של ששון ושלום!

Monday, December 22, 2008

חג האורים בבית הכנסת- Hannukkah in the Synagogue, its deeper meaning

Now that I have successfully completed my semester (an appropriate additional כונה {Kavvanah- intention} when saying Hallel and being joyous on Hannukkah), I would like to offer some words of Torah on an interesting aspect of lighting Hannukkah candles. As you may be aware, there is an established practice to not only light candles each of the eight nights (preferably to the left of the doorway, or at least towards the public domain (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 671)) in the home, but also in Shul, either between the Mincha and Maariv services or at the conclusion of Maariv.
The other day, I was reading a responsum by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose politics are quite deplorable, but whose teshuvot are a joy to read, both for their thorough presentation of relevant sources and clear, gramatically correct writing style. In Yechave Da'atשו"ת יחווה דעת חלק ד סימן לח), Rav Ovadiah's second collection of responsa, he addresses the question of the permissability of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Hannukah candles through an electric Hannukiyah. The answer, three pages later, is in that one cannot legitimately make a b'rakha over an electric hannukiyah, based partially on the reasoning that electric power is not analogous to oil, and that one cannot recite 'להדליק נר של חנוכה', to kindle the Hannukkah lights, while flipping a switch or pushing a button. During his analysis Rav Ovadiah also discusses the reasons behind our practice of lighting candles in the beit knesset, with the appropriate b'rakhot. He presents two reasons [Original text, followed by English summary]:
והנה עיקר הטעם שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת, מבואר בשו"ת הריב"ש (סימן קי"א), שהואיל ועיקר תקנת חז"ל שהדלקת נר חנוכה תהיה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ לפרסומי ניסא, ומכיון שאין אנו יכולים לקיים המצוה כתקנתה, ומדליקים נר חנוכה בפתח הבית מבפנים, ואין פרסומי ניסא אלא לבני הבית, לפיכך תיקנו להדליק בבית הכנסת במעמד כל קהל המתפללים לפרסומי ניסא. ע"ש. אולם גם ההדלקה שבבית הכנסת צריכה להיות באופן שיוצאים בה ידי חובה, ולא בחנוכיה חשמלית. ואף על פי שמבואר בתשובת הריב"ש שם שאין שום אדם יוצא ידי חובתו בהדלקת נרות חנוכה של בית הכנסת, וכן פסק הרמ"א /או"ח/ (סימן תרע"א סעיף ז'), מכל מקום צריכה להיות באופן שראוי לצאת בה ידי חובה. ומכל שכן לדעת הארחות חיים (בהלכות חנוכה אות י"ז), שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת להוציא ידי חובה את מי שאינו בקי ואינו זריז במצוה זו.
1) The main reason, according to the Ribash (Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet, 1326-1408, Spain), explains that the most appropriate way to fulfill the mitzvah is to place the candles outside to entrance to our homes, in order to spread the miracle. Since we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah in this ideal manner, by lighting outside the door, and thus the miracle is only spread to the members of the household, {my note: probably a reflection on the circumstances of his time and place}, it was established to light candles in the synagogue in order that the miracle should be proclaimed before all of the worshippers. According to the Ribash, and also the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserless, 16th century Poland), while nobody fulfills their onligation through this lighting, it nevertheless must be done in a manner through which one would be able to complete the mitzvah.
2) However, according to the Orchot Chaim (by Yehuda Aryeh Halevi Lowinger, Vienna, 1868), we light candles in the synagogue in order to ensure that those who are not knowledgable about how to light the candles will be able to be included in the Mitzvah.
Both of these reasons for lighting in the synagogue, simplified as persecution or ignorance, can be seen as halakhic contingencies for less than ideal situations. However, as in most cases we can put a postive spin on these sad circumstances of the 15th and 19th centuries, thanks to our living in a more free world in 21st century. Unfortunately, there are still places today, even in North America, where Jews do not feel comfortable displaying a Hannukkiyah, or do not know how to light one. One a personal level, in this holiday set aside for thanks and praise (see Mishnah Berurah to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 670:2), it is appropriate to express gratitude for being part of a family and community where I am able to display my Judaism proudly, and was given the tools to become knowledgable about its laws and traditions. At the same time, this idea presents a great challenge for all of us, to work to increase the level of Jewish education in our communities so that all Jews will be able to take ownership of our beautiful heritage, and bring it into their homes. Furthermore there are places around the world where it is still unsafe to place a Hanukkiyah in a window looking onto the street, and we who libe relatively comfortably in Western democracies should again appreciate that.
When lighting candles in our synagogues, it is important to always keep these original reasons for the practice in mind, as explained so clearly by Rav Ovadiah. Although we may no longer be living in fear of publicly duisplaying our Hannukiyyah, or if everyone in the community lights in their homes, we must appreciate how far we have come, and that there is still more work to do - It is not upon us to complete the work of spreading knowledge and pride in Jewish living and tradition, but neither are we free to desist from it.
חג אורים שמח- A joyous festival of lights!