Torah Art

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

About 3 1/2 years ago, the Sisterhood completed a project to create new Torah mantles.  At the same time, we cleaned out one of the back rooms in which we had stored a number of old Torah mantels.  Judy Joseph took some of them, along with an unused Parokhet (curtain) for the Ark, and made a set of wall hangings for the Sanctuary wall.  We offered the rest to donate to congregations in need.  Most of them, however, were unclaimed.  We were on the verge of discarding them by burying them in our cemetery, when I found an artist in Jerusalem, Jo Milgrom, who turns discarded objects (often of Judaica) into Midrash art.   Her pieces are sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, sometimes poignant, and always thoughtful.  You can see her catalog on her web site, jomilgrom.com.

Jo sent me pictures and brief comments about five pieces that she created from our Torah mantles.  As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, celebrated May 18-20, we might consider what these pieces say to us about Torah.

Found and Lost and Found Again

The first piece, entitled Found and Lost and Found Again, is made of Torah mantles and a Torah reading table cover on a luggage carrier.  The Jew in the Diaspora maintains his or her identity despite wandering and exile and the ultra-mobile society in which we currently live by carrying around small symbols of Torah.  A mezuzah; a seder plate; a hanukkiah; a tallit; tefillin; a siddur or humash.  What have you carried with you during your lifetime, from one home to the next, that roots you in Torah?

Your Mother's Torah

The second piece, Your Mother’s Torah, depicts the Torah mantle with a nest inside, but is also reminiscent of a sewing kit.  Jo describes it as a mother with a fruitful nest.  We might consider using the teachings, mitzvot, stories, and wisdom of Torah to stitch together a Jewish practice and a Jewish home that is comforting and nurturing.  That home – not the synagogue! – is the primary means by which we transmit the values of Torah to the next generation.

Your Mother's Torah - closeup

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The third piece is a Torah mounted on a baby stroller – Out of the Mouths of Babes.  Like the children in the hagaddah, we teach Torah through engaging with questions.  No question is out of bounds – and sometimes the most innocent questions are the most challenging and searching.

Counterparts

The fourth piece is a poster from the Metropolitan Museum with part of a Torah Mantle mounted on  it.  Entitled Counterparts, Jo writes that “the figural trees in the poster invited the association with Torah as Tree of Life.”

Safety in Torah

Finally, the last piece is entitled Safety in Torah — what could be safer than safety pins!  It reminds me of the joke — “What do you call a Torah with a seat belt?   A Safer Torah!”  The pun requires a little knowledge of Hebrew (the word sefer, meaning book or scroll).  The piece also alludes to the notion associated with the mezuzah, representing a mini Torah scroll, that the name of God written on the Mezuzah container (Shaddai, the Almighty) stands for the phrase shomer d’latot Yisrael, guardian of the doors of Israel.  While I do not believe that either the Torah or the Mezuzah function in any way as protective amulets, there is clear evidence that people who are active in religious communities live happier and healthier lives.

The experience of viewing art is very personal and subjective – the brief comments I have written above are my impressions.  Please feel free to share your own comments and impressions.

A Walker Among Those Who Stand

Leviticus 18:4 teaches:  “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them, I am YHVH [your God].”

Our job, according to Leviticus 18:4 is to walk in God’s rules and laws.  We are supposed to be walkers and movers, as in Zachariah 3:7:

Thus said YHVH of Hosts: If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you in turn will rule My House and guard My courts, and I will make you walkers among those standing there.

There are many people who are just “standing there;” who live their lives inside a narrow box, always doing the same things, eating the same foods, watching the same types of movies and television program, reading the same kinds of books.  You know the type – they are the kind of people who run away from change.  When they have the chance to do something different, they avoid it at all costs.  They like the way things are right now – change, by definition, is negative and to be avoided.  Is this such a bad thing?  Halakha doesn’t change, does it?  Keeping kosher, reciting the Shema, praying regularly, wearing tefillin and giving tzedakah every day (except Shabbat) – all of this is a routine mandated by God’s laws and rules.  Standing firm on God’s laws without compromise is a good thing, right?

Right, except it seems to be better to be a walker than a stander.  So who are the walkers?  What do they do?  The Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim, author of the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, taught:

All that we do – in Torah study, in prayer, in keeping the mitzvot and doing good deeds – is directed toward raising up the Shekhinah to unite her with Her Husband.

A person is called a “walker (holekh),” for people are constantly moving from one spiritual stage to another, either diminishing in capacity, or increasing in awareness each day upward and upward. This is the intent of our verse, “You shall observe my rules, and keep my laws, to walk in them” from stage to stage (level to level), all with the focus of “I am YHVH.”

Walkers are also people who devote themselves to Jewish practices, to mitzvot, just like standers.  The walkers, however, are open to learning to do things differently.  Not abandoning traditional practices necessarily, but finding new and meaningful ways to enhance those practices.

Kashrut, for example, is all about eating kosher food — but it could also be about eating healthy food, grown in sustainable, cruielty-free ways?   It could also be about the ethics of food production.

Walkers occasionally stumble.  Not every movement is going to be up the spiritual ladder towards increasing awareness.  Some movements are going to be downward, spiritually deflating.  But in order to reach the highest possible elevation, we need to risk the occasional falls.  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim concludes his lesson in good mystical fashion:

That is, we are to join and unite “I (ani)” – another name for the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) – with “YHVH.” This is the combination of HVY”H (that is, YHW”H) and ADN”Y, the unification of the blessed Holy One and His Shekhinah.

Rather than focus solely on the mechanics of a mitzvah, the mystical tradition encourages us to focus on the goal of the mitzvah — to unite God’s presence down here on earth with the Infinite and unknowable mysterious Holy One, of Blessing.  He encourages us to be open to new paths towards the recognition and enactment of God’s unity.  He asks us to use God’s rules and laws, to direct all of our Torah study, prayers, mitzvot, and good deeds towards the union of the Shekhinah and the Kadosh Barukh Hu.

R. Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov is the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.  He was born in 1742 or 1748 and died in 1800, on the eve of Lag Ba’omer (this year, his yahrtzeit will be the coming Shabbat).

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

Keeping kosher is expensive.  We pay a premium for kosher meat.  No doubt our parents’ or grandparents’ generation paid more for kosher than non-kosher meat, but it seems like the relative difference between kosher and non-kosher meat is much higher now than it used to be.

I have always thought that the reason for this difference can be attributed to two factors:

  • • the move to a standard of Glatt kosher, and
  • • the fact that the soaking and salting of the meat is done by the processing plant rather than by the purchaser

I suspect that consumers are not complaining about paying a little bit more to avoid having to soak and salt the meat themselves, a somewhat lengthy process intended to draw the blood out of of the flesh.

The glatt standard, however, was intended to be a premium standard of kashrut, for those few who could afford the higher prices.  Glatt is a Yiddish word meaning smooth – it refers to the lungs of large animals.  If the lungs have small removable adhesions, and the lungs themselves have no punctures, the animal is kosher, but not glatt.  I have read estimates of the number of animals kosher slaughtered who were found to be glatt ranging from a low of 20% to a high of 60%.  Realize what this means … 40 – 80% of animals who have gone through the kosher slaughter process need to be sent to a non-kosher meat distributor.  This alone significantly raises the price of kosher meat.

However, the glatt standard only affects the price of beef.  The lungs of chickens and turkeys are not inspected for adhesions.  Yet, the relative price of kosher poultry has risen just as much as the relative price of kosher beef.

After reading the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, I am wondering if there is another reason that kosher meat is so much more expensive than non-kosher meat.

Foer makes a devastating case against factory farming methods of raising chickens and turkeys (and pigs!), as well as the meat slaughtering industry.  There are virtually no “family farms” raising poultry for consumer consumption, although most cattle ranches still raise the animals naturally and humanely.  Factory farms breed animals for a narrow set of physical characteristics aimed at producing the greatest amount of meat, artificially manipulate the environment to grow the animals as quickly as possible, and feed the animals massive amounts of antibiotics to compensate for unnaturally crowded living conditions.  Factory farmed animals are have large numbers of physical defects, are generally unhealthy, and methods of handling and transport result in a large percentage of broken bones and sores.  Their is no way to effectively dispose of all the waste produced by so many animals in such a small space – it is a major source of environmental pollution and probably diseases such as asthma, influenza, and antibiotic resistent strains of infections.

He makes the case that the large poultry producers, such as Perdue and Tyson, have used factory farming techniques to keep the prices artificially low.  The price of poultry has increased at a much slower rate than the price of any other food item.  Meat is the only thing that has become less expensive in the past generation.  This has happened only because in the calculus of how meat is priced, we are ignoring the huge cost of producing factory meat to the environment and to the health care system.

I wonder if kosher meat has actually increased in price in a natural way, rather than having been kept artificially low.

If an animal is diseased; if an animal has broken limbs; if an animal is not killed carefully and properly; it will not be kosher.  While the problems with certain kosher meat slaughter plants are well known, the case that “Eating Animals” makes against the meat industry primarily, though not exclusively, apply to the non-kosher industry.  There is a significant financial disincentive for kosher processors to mistreat the animals.

There is a larger argument in the book, though, that affects both the kosher and non-kosher meat industries.  The argument, quite simply, is that the raising of meat for food is unsustainable.  The very act of killing animals on a large enough scale to satisfy our current desire and expectation for eating meat is dehumanizing.  It cannot be done better, because it is inherently cruel and desensitizes those who engage in slaughter to the horror of the mass killing of animals.  We have destroyed so much of the genetic diversity of chicken, poultry, and pork and we have concentrated so much production is so little space and we have destroyed virtually every small animal farm, that there may be no way to roll back time, change our societal expectation of how much meat should cost, and rebuild an infrastructure of small individually run farms raising animals for slaughter at small, local, processing plants.

Foer writes that the book is not a straightforward case for vegetarianism.  It is much deeper and more complicated.  It explores the relationship between food and memory, animal flesh and forgetting.  It explores the stories we tell about ourselves by the foods we eat and don’t eat.  It explores the words we use and don’t use when speaking about our animal diet.

For vegans, vegetarians, selective vegetarians, selective meat eaters, and proud meat eaters, it is worth reading “Eating Animals.”  I have not even touched on the problems he raises with the fish/seafood industry, the egg industry, or the dairy industry.  Foer does not touch on the problems that corporate farming has raised in the non-meat farms.  The overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, the reduction of genetic diversity, the patenting of plant species … we really don’t know what effect all of this is going to have on our planet, on our health and the health of the next generation.

Building Community: Legitimate Programs vs. Gimmicks

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

At  a recent meeting of rabbis of small and isolated congregations, we had a discussion about the difference between legitimate program ideas and gimmicks.

All of us struggle with building and maintaining our communities in a Jewish community which is shrinking.  There is a great temptation to grab ahold of any gimmick, trick, or slick program just to get people in the door.  Take these, for example:

Free iPad for the first person to arrive on Shabbat morning each of the next 5 weeks!

Next week – a 15 piece band accompanying the Shabbat morning service!

Tired at shul?  Starbuck’s coffee served before the rabbi’s sermon!

Sometimes we work hard to create a successful program which gets people through the door and into the seats on Shabbat morning, only to find out that all of the “non-regulars” who came and were excited by the program don’t return.  This kind of program is a gimmick – we might work hard and fill up the seats, but we haven’t made any long term impact on the community.

If, however, the program is built up over time so that it adds something to the community, it becomes a legitimate programming idea, not a gimmick.

The difference between gimmick and good programming idea can often be determined by whether it fits into the mission and vision statement of the congregation (see the end of this article for a statement of our mission and vision), and whether the organizing group is committed to maintaining the program for a long term period of time.

The three tongue in cheek examples I gave above do not support our mission as a congregation — it wouldn’t matter how many iPads we gave away, it wouldn’t affect the energy of our Shabbat community.

Scholar in Residence weekends can be an example of a very expensive one time program that might fit into the mission of the congregation, but doesn’t necessary have a long term impact – it brings people out once, but doesn’t build consistent community.

Our religious life committee in general has done well in choosing programming wisely and supporting it long term.  The Sanctuary Shabbat speaker series has been ongoing for 3 1/2 years, and I believe has contributed to our Shabbat community. This year, by the way, I feel especially good about integrating the Scholar in Residence into Sanctuary Shabbat and choosing a scholar who did not charge an outrageous fee.  We had an enjoyable learning-filled weekend and didn’t have to feel guilty about spending $6000 and not drawing DeVos Performance Hall size crowds.

We have consistent (and always fun) parties on holidays like Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Purim, Shavuot, and Lag Ba’omer.  Because they are an ongoing program, our community has come to expect and look forward to gathering together to celebrate holidays.

Help us continue to be successful! The Religious Life committee itself is relatively small, but the job is does is critical to the success and growth of our community.  The committee is therefore seeking to create a “Religious Life Auxiliary,” a group of people who would be on call via phone or email to come help set up or cook for a program, or clean up afterwards.  You will not be required to come to meetings – simply respond to an email request to show up a certain time on a certain date to help.  If you are willing to be a part of the Religious Life Auxiliary, please contact Rabbi Krishef (Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840).

Mission Statement of Congregation Ahavas Israel:

Congregation Ahavas Israel creates a vibrant egalitarian Conservative Jewish community helping each individual follow his/her spiritual path using traditional Jewish practice.

Vision Statement:

To achieve our mission, we strive to be to be a community which embodies Torah:  To make every decision and every act reflect our commitment to Torah.