Friday, December 4, 2009

Wrestling with Identity

Parshat Vayishlah,
17 Kislev, 5770; December 4th, 2009

     There are questions you expect out of life, and then there are those you never see coming. The issues that Transgendered and Transsexual Jews have brought to Judaism surprised, shall we say, the hell out of me.
     In fact the intersection between Torah and questions of gender identity is growing and developing. One rabbi in particular, Rabbi Elliot Kukla is speaking to the Jewish world as one who both fully inhabits her genderqueer and religious identities (check out
And there is a home for this issue in the Parsha.:

Genesis 32:25   
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.

     The paradox here, that he was both alone but wrestling with someone else, is an elegant metaphor for issues of identity, especially sexual and gender identities: they are issues that live in an individual life, or an individual relationship, but they are argued out there in the public forum. We are both deeply alone and completely in the presence of the public in our sexual identity and gender roles; and no group more so than those who change what most think of as fundamental nature, whether we are a man, or a woman.
     This questioning through action of our sexual identity provokes often brutal backlash, including violence and murder.  The gender theorist David Halperin explains by saying “It is this alienated queer perspective on socially validated values that reveals those values to be not essences but performance.”* What he means is that trans people question whether deeply held values are immutable truth, and some would rather kill the question, even if that includes killing a person, than answer it.
    But not only can’t we kill the question - technology, psychology, and the worldwide flow of information have taken care of that - we shouldn’t want to.
    We live in an age of such questions. What will define this generation, possibly even this century and the last, is the upheaval in questions of identity: this is what it used to mean to be a Jew, but no more; this is what it used to mean to be an American (or any citizenship), but no more; this is what the roles of men and women used to be, but no more. There are a lot of ways in which things aren’t the way they used to be. And we should recognize, at the very least, an immense bravery that those asking the most difficult of these questions possess.
     Torah’s blessing on these matters is also the genesis of our people’s name. “And the angel said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but rather Yisrael. For you struggled (ki sarita) with God and human beings and were able.” (Genesis 23:29)
May we up to the struggle.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wonders, Great and Small


Parshat Toldot
3 Kislev 5770
November 20th, 2009

After the Other* went over to the wicked culture, he asked Rabbi Meir, “what is the meaning of the verse, gam zeh leumat zeh asah elohim, ‘Also, God made one thing as well as the other?’ (Kohelet, 7:14)” Rabbi Meir said to him, “Everything that the Blessed Holy One made, God also created something in relative to it: God created mountains, and created hills; created seas, and created riviers...”
Talmud, Masekhet Hagigah 15a

      Every time I come to Washington D.C., I end up taking the tour of the city’s finest conference rooms. So this time, when I came back for our Moishe House East Coast retreat, I promised myself I’d see some of the sights of an extraordinary city.
    So that’s how I found myself at the Lincoln Memorial, looking up at the Gettysburg Address written in gold upon the walls; feeling deep emotion in words whose cost in blood is staggering; remembering the history that brought them to be, and also the history they made come to pass.
    As I read those words, “last, full measure of devotion,” “of the people, by the people, for the people,” I said a blessing for the fact that my sense of wonder at our world hadn’t yet dimmed from my eyes, even at a monument that now functions as a TV news backdrops.
    So what does this have to do with Moishe House? It wouldn’t make sense to compare Moishe House to the Lincoln Monument, nor vice versa. But know that both my days in D.C. were days with wonder, each on a different scale. I do feel wonder in the possibilities that Moishe House brings. I especially feel wonder at all of you; that you come together of your own will to live in Moishe houses, to plan programs, to bring others into your communities, to engage in Judaism, Jewish identity, God, Torah, Israel - the works.
    These two very different wonders remind me of a verse from Tanakh (the Bible), from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which I quoted above: gam zeh leumat zeh asah elohim, “Also, God made one thing as well as the other.” (Kohelet 7:14). Rabbi Meir’s (one of the biggies) explanation, that God made both mountains and hills, is not plebian, as it might seem, it is subtle and brilliant: God created both Mt. Everest and the hill on the Mall on which I now sit out of the same cosmic stuff: and though Everest is infinitely more grand, the fact of the hill is no less wonderful.
    To explain further, there is often a sense in the great forum of our world that certain realities dwarf everyday life: how can one be happy when hundreds of thousands of people are dying in Darfur? How can one be proud of a world that allowed the Holocaust? But the Torah of zeh leumat zeh teaches us that wonder exists in microcosm just as it does in the macrocosm, in the small as the large. And though small wonders are eclipsed in size and momentousness by events that shake our world, they in no way lose their significance.
    This concept includes the modest wonder of being able to be with all of you, for one day, to think about this revolution of ours. It is a small revolution, to be sure, affecting a small part of the world, but great in its importance and its promise to whomever it touches.
    I bless us all with the Torah of zeh leumat zeh, that we should never be taken from wonder, big or small, wherever it is to be found.

Shabbat Shalom.

*How Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah got the name Aher, or "The Other" is a very interesting story, one to which many of us will relate, that will surely make its way into a Moishe's Torah someday soon. But if you're impatient, read the amazing historical novel about him - As A Driven Leaf, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טו עמוד א
שאל אחר את רבי מאיר לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה, אמר ליה: מאי דכתיב +קהלת ז'+ גם את זה לעמת זה עשה האלהים? - אמר לו: כל מה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא - ברא כנגדו, ברא הרים - ברא גבעות, ברא ימים - ברא נהרות.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Age - Parshat Hayyei Sarah

Parshat Hayyei Sarah
26 Heshvan, 5770
13 November, 2009

And this is the life of Sarah: 100 years, 20 years, and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.
Bereishit 23:1

    I turned thirty over the summer. It’s been, frankly, a little crazy to watch as I climb out of my twenties. I once promised myself I would never be thirty. Whoops.
    But the transition into actual adulthood, something I once strenuously avoided, has been a surprising pleasure. Jobs and relationships have gifts of stability and satisfaction that hit you sideways, and you finally realize what the hell your parents were thinking.
    And one of the really fascinating pieces of growing up is that you realize that you never really leave behind the age that you have passed by; rather, we carry with us the flotsam of years past, qualities, attitude, opinions, habits that are a mark of earlier time. I had figured that we were all complicated enough already, but it seems that there’s always more to add.
    This parsha is Hayyei Sarah, “The Life of Sara” - and I suppose its true, in a way. But it begins with the death of Sarah, the age at which she died, to be specific, letting us know that she reached 127. The Torah’s way of expressing her age is unusual, however, broken into parts - 100 years, 20 years, 7 years - and the verse has always been a place where commentators spend time.
    “When she was 100 years old, she was like a  20 year-old in beauty, and when she was 20, she was like a 7 year old in innocence.” (Yalkut Tehillim 37)
    Sarah’s blessing is that age was never her prison, it was the sea in which she swam. Though she laughed, she bore a son past her 90th birthday. And, as we learn here, she carried beauty and innocence with her far past the age where such things would be fashionable.
    Sarah’s message to us is that the pieces of ourselves we carry from when we were younger are treasures, not detritus. But also that growing older simply increases our store of those precious objects. To see age as more than an emptying hourglass, that is Sarah’s teaching.

Friday, October 30, 2009

For Your Benefit

Parshat Lekh Lekha
Erev Shabbat, 12 Heshvan, 5770 - Friday, October 30th, 2009

     I’m becoming a little obsessed with Robert Crumb.

     Crumb has been, for the last fifty years, America’s great fringe comic artist, producing graphic art far out on the edge of our sensibilities; often on the edge of the law as well. However, for the last four years Crumb has been working his magnum opus and the most unusual piece of art he has ever created: the book of Genesis. Without presuming to know what Crumb’s intentions were for this project, it is clear that, despite his many years as a subversive, satiric expatriate artist, it is his Genesis for which he’ll be remembered.

     The denouement of Crumb’s artistic life reminded me of this week’s parsha, in which we meet Abraham for the first time.* The Holy One’s first words to him are, “לך לך, lekh lekhah, go for yourself” (Debbie Friedman wrote a whole song about this - you may have unconsciously imbibed it a Hebrew school or camp, if you went). In full:

     “And HaShem said to Avram, go for yourself from your land and your birthplace and the house of your father to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Bereishit 12:1-2)

     The most influential commentator of the Torah, Rashi,** picks up on the unusual language of “for yourself,” and reads it as meaning, “for your benefit and for your good.”

     So herein lies the lesson: those things which have the greatest benefit in store for us, require the greatest change. And it is not simply that the external factors of our new situations that change, but that we change. I am not the same person in Los Angeles and in New York. Abraham was not the same in Ur Casdim (his original home) and Israel. Robert Crumb is not the same artist when creating Weirdo and when inking Genesis. Radical changes of context don’t just change what’s around us, they change us.

    A famous phrase comes out of the Talmud on this verse:
שינוי מקום, שינוי מזל - Change your place, change your fate

May the changes in your life be for your benefit.
Rabbi Scott Perlo

* At this point his name is Avram - it will later be changed into Avraham, “the father of many.” And to be precise, we learn Abraham’s genealogy in the previous parsha, Noah.
** The first Hebrew book ever printed, literally ever, was his commentary on the Torah. They even left the Torah part out of the printing - it was just Rashi. In case it’s not yet clear how unreal I think this is, let’s just say it makes a statement when you print this guy before you even print the bible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Endings - Parshat Bereishit, 5770

Parashat Bereishit 5770
28 Tishrei,
October, 16, 2009

“In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and of the earth, and the earth was complete chaos.”*
These are the first words of the Torah, beginning creation and the story of the universe’s first week of existence. Each new day brings its own new creations, sometimes with explicit blessings (fish get specifically blessed on Tuesday), always concluding with the phrase,
ויהי ערב, ויהי בקר, יום...
“vayehi erev, vayehi boker, yom….“ And there was evening, and there was morning, the X day.

Except for one.

What makes Shabbat so compelling, to me at least, is not only that the last act of creation is to cease from creating, but that it seems that this ceasing is actually creation’s pinnacle, the apex of the whole story. Lekha Dodi**, which gets sung on Friday night and is a kind of Shabbat anthem, describes it as
סוף מעשה, במחשבה תחילה
“sof maaseh, bemahshava tehila.” Last in creation, first in intention.

The profound truth of this, that an idea’s central revelation is rarely its first expression, is hard for those of us of an often impatient generation to remember. Important things take time to reach fruition.

The great American, progressive philosopher of education, John Dewey (whose ideas still provoke educational revolution, sixty years after he died) wrote,
“The effect of an experience is not borne on its face...Just as no man lives and dies to himself, so no experience lives and dies to itself. Wholly independent of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences.”

So a lesson from the story of Creation, is that every new thing has a future, that experiences do not stand alone, but inevitably develop in their own arc, at their own time. And I bless all of us with patience, and not a little measure of wonder, for where the arc of our own experiences leads.

A Peaceful and Blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

* This translation of the first line of Bereishit - Genesis - is different from what most people know but more accurate - the Hebrew word is an adjective, not a noun. This makes sense - God creates for seven days - this is only the beginning of it.
** Lekha Dodi is a mystical poem written in the 15th century by a Shlomo Alkabetz, a gifted if somewhat exhibitionisitic religious poet (the first letter of every stanza spells out his name). Lekha Dodi is extremely mystical, relying on references from Torah and especially Kabbalah in almost every line - very rich stuff. “Last in creation, first in intention” is a quote from an anonymous 14th century mystical book Marekhot haElohut, “Systems of God-ness.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Renewal of Vows – Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelekh
I surf. I’m not particularly good at it, but that doesn’t stop me. A rabbi of mine once told me to always have a hobby you’re bad at – it keeps a person humble. So mostly I go for the rush and the exercise, and for the unique beauty of sitting on the water, staring at nothing but the sea.
            I was out again a few days ago. Towards the end of my session the swell calmed, and I was alone with my thoughts. I had the realization that the sea doesn’t change. Sure, the conditions are different from day to day, but the jetty at Venice beach is in the same place every time; the waves break and curl in from the right; the feeling of being rushed forward as my board takes off and I drop in is the same feeling. To quote Kohelet (,
“All the rivers enter the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they return.”  (Kohelet 1:7)
            I realized that the sea never changes, but that I come back a different person. I remembered that last year, at almost exactly the same time, I was in the same place, doing the same thing. But last year, I was at the cusp of my career, looking towards my first High Holidays as a rabbi, full of tense excitement as the thought of the first year of my profession. This year, I come back changed.
            This week is a double parsha, Nitzavim and Vayelekh: they’ll be separated during Jewish leap years. The beginning of Nitzavim is powerful, but very odd:
Today you stand before Hashem your God – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, your children, your women, and the strangers in your camp – even your woodcutters and water drawers.
You are thus being brought into the covenant of Hashem your God, and accepting the oath that God is making with you today.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)
            This Torah is odd because we’ve been here before. This isn’t the first time that God has brought us into the covenant. There was Sinai, with all that thunder, lightning, God speaking, and some tablets.
            The message, it seems, is that the moment of covenant – a holy contract – is an eternal moment. It is a moment that God and the Jewish people can return to again and again. Perhaps like a relationship, covenant requires renewal to survive.
            The moment of covenant is eternal; it does not change. It is the parties to the covenant that change. We change, for better and for worse; and I have been taught that God changes as well. And our encounter with the unchangeable throws into relief the people that we have become.
            Such an eternal moment is a week away. Rosh HaShanah is, for us, Yom Harat HaOlam, the day that the world was created. I hope for the blessing of sight, to see clearly who we have become, how our world has changed, to be blessed to accept, once again, an old relationship that has become new.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ki Tavo - The Dignity of Gifts

Parshat Ki Tavo
The Dignity of Gifts

Please share your thoughts, comments, arguments, and questions!

           This week, Torat Moshe is figuring to cover gifts, human dignity, Pesach, God, and the High Holidays all in one short email. Feel free to let us know how we do.
            The beginning of the parshah is unusual - it’s one of the few places in the Torah where a formula for what we’re supposed to say is commanded - Torah has much about what it asks us to do, but rarely a ritualized speech. To summarize briefly, when you get into the land of Israel, in the springtime, take the first of your fruits, put them in a basket, take them to the Temple as an offering, and then recite the story of our people (see the text below).
            This speech, starting in Hebrew as arami oved avi - my ancestor was a homeless Aramaean - is a famous piece of Torah. It is the backbone of the Passover Haggadah, though you may not recognize it because the Haggadah version is broken into pieces and interspersed with Rabbinic commentary. But because of the text’s straightforward, powerful telling of our story in a way that builds into gratitude, the Rabbis made it the heart of the telling of the Passover story.
            What’s intriguing is the question of what this basket of first fruit is: what, exactly is the message of this ritual? A verse from the Prophet Hoshea sheds some light. Hoshea, in the midst of a society whose very fabric is coming apart, describes this as one of the consequences of not being able to recover a moral social structure:

They will not make wine offerings to the God, nor will those offerings be pleasing. Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners  - all that eat of them will become unclean, for all their food will be for themselves; none of it will come into the House of God. (Hoshea 9:4)

           The point is this: the ability to bring gifts, to God in this case, is a sign of sufficiency.  It is the perfect ritual for Passover because gift giving is an expression of personal and economic dignity – the statement that I have enough to give to others, that I am grateful for my surfeit. This is precisely what was denied to us in Egypt, where nothing was our own. The inability to give gifts is a sign of degradation and hardship.
             The end of a year that has rocked our sense of stability is right around the corner, together with the beginning of the year to come. But the gift of having our lives shaken up is that much of the nonsense that is a piece of all of us falls away as well. As a blessing and a challenge, let us find the ways in which are sufficient, in which we have more than enough, even in the midst of economic hardship, and give of them as much as we are able.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you as a heritage, occupying and settling it, you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that God your Lord is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose as the place associated with His name. There you shall go to the priest officiating at the time, and say to him, 'Today I am affirming to God your Lord that I have come to the land that God swore to our fathers to give us.' The priest shall then take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar of God your Lord. You shall then make the following declaration before God your Lord:
'My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful, and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us.
We cried out to God, Lord of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor, and our distress. God then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm with great visions and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that God has given me.'
Deuteronomy 26

Monday, August 31, 2009

From this week’s parshah (portion), Ki Tetze: 
[This is the law] when a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he dislikes, and both the loved and unloved wives have sons, but the first-born is that of the unloved one. Deuteronomy 21:15

On the day that [this man] wills his property to his sons, he must not give the son of the beloved wife birthright preference over the first-born, who is the son of the unloved wife. Deuteronomy 21:16

           There are so many in our generation who feel that they are the children of the unloved. The daily reality is that large numbers of Jews feel rejected from or somehow unacceptable to Judaism, to Torah, to God. They’ll often describe themselves to me as “bad Jews” – a concept I have a hard time wrapping my head around. What, precisely does it mean to be a bad Jew? Can one be bad at her own identity?

            This reality expresses itself on the one hand as great distance: feeling judged unworthy, they too should reject Jewish life; and on the other as great anger at being kept from what by right belongs to them.

            But to set the record straight, there are no unloved children in Judaism. When the Holy One sends Moses to Pharoah, the first words out of Moses’ mouth are to be: says God, Israel is my first born child. (Exodus 4:22)
and from the prophet Jeremiah:
Is not Israel my sweet child, the baby with whom I played? (Jeremiah, 31:19)

            The point of this Torah, as well as the prophet’s message, is clear: we are, each of us, precious from the beginning. This intrinsic worth and value are possessions that would be extremely difficult to devalue. The mussar (lesson) here, however, is that it resides upon the individual to be conscious of his own value to Judaism and to claim it for his own self. This is to say that, when it comes to Judaism, our birthright is waiting for us to step forward and claim it. No one else can take hold of Torah for us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo