Thursday, August 13, 1998

The Amen Kid

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

I really have no idea how the whole thing got started. Was it a Friday night reaction to a candle blessing? A random prayer when I least suspected he was listening?

Well, however it happened, the concept seems firmly entrenched now. For about the past five months, one of my 21-month old son Benjamin's first truly surprising and consistent displays of vocabulary has been the word "Amen." At first, he said it whenever he saw a candle. Then, he started saying in the synagogue, running into the Sanctuary, up to the bimah, and squealing "Amen" with delight. Now he says it on seeing a shofar, a yarmulke, or on even driving by the shul. When Julie tells him I am going to work, he now as often as not will say: "Daddy, bye-bye, amen." I'm sorry. I know I'm biased. But I still think it's pretty adorable.

What Benjamin probably doesn't get yet -- and many other people do not realize, either -- is that the word "amen" means, basically, "I agree." It comes from the same Hebrew root as the word "emunah," which means faith. It s exact meaning, in the context of prayer, is as follows: "someone has done or said something for you that you were also obligated to do; they have done so in public and on behalf of a group of people; they are allowed to do so because they were also bound by the same obligation; they have said the prayer or performed the act correctly, and you have faith both that the deed was done right, and that the doer of the deed is fit to represent you. You are therefore not obligated to recite the entire prayer or perform the act yourself; the other person has served as your surrogate."

All that... from one little word.

But, alas, whenever two or more people interact, there is power at work somehow. And where there is power involved, there is politics at play.

So what are the politics of the word "amen." It comes in two forms. First, the whole notion of women's equality in Judaism. And second, the issue of the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism.

In traditional Judaism, the question of leading certain acts on behalf of the community depends on a sense of mutual obligation. The reason that women cannot lead most prayers (or at least, cannot do so when men are present) is that for women, the recitation of the daily prayer service is allowed. It is even, perhaps, desirable. What it is not, however, is obligatory.

For women are exempt from (almost) all mitzvot (commandments) that have to be performed at a certain time -- and the prayer service is such a commandment. They had other (the rationalization was "higher") duties. They took care of children. And, of course, as I know all too well now, it is hard to stick to a schedule when dealing with young kids.

The logic, then, seems simple. Women are allowed to pray, but not required to do so. Men are obligated to do so, in specific ways. Since only one who is bound by the same level of obligation can exempt others, can lead others who, in saying "amen," will then be exempt from their obligations, that is why women cannot lead prayers in traditional Judaism.

So, you would argue, if there were a prayer that women were bound by, in the same way as men, then they could lead that prayer. In public. And men could say "amen." Right?

Wrong. As it happens, there is such a prayer. It is called the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine on Friday nights. Traditional Judaism has determined that men and women are equally bound by the obligation to recite this blessing. But. While acknowledging that, in theory, women could lead the kiddush, traditional commentators have said that it brings shame on a community if this happens. And so I at, least, come to the conclusion that the traditional argument fails its own test case.

In the end, I believe that all the fancy footwork and seemingly logical arguments about why men can't say "amen" to a prayer led by a women are just excuses. The secondary status of women came first. The "amen" explanation came later.

On to the second item. The issue of the ritual role of women is only one item in the creative (in the best sense) although agonizing (in that it leads to so much tension) dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism. There are other disagreements, the largest of which is about the very legitimacy and authenticity of the non-Orthodox movements. And in this issue, as well, our simple word plays a rather large role.

Slightly more than a decade ago, while a rabbinical student in New York, visiting the Lower East Side of Manhattan trying to find a particular Jewish bookstore that had not yet moved uptown, I stumbled across the largest group of traditional Jews I had ever encountered. As soon as I saw the crowds, I knew what I must be witnessing. I had come across the funeral of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Rabbi Feinstein was one of the greatest Torah sages of our time. His stature was almost unequaled among Orthodox Jews of either the centrist or traditionalist camps. He found brilliant and creative answers to many issues. His loss left a gaping hole in Jewish scholarship and life.

And yet, I cannot help but recall a single one of his rulings. It was this. That for those who followed his rulings... it was forbidden for a traditional Jew to say "amen" after a prayer recited by a Reform or Conservative rabbi.

This stunning statement, in one, single sentence, is an attack on the very foundation of non-Orthodox Judaism. While I respected Rabbi Feinstein for his knowledge and his depth, I find it hard to get passed his delegitimization of everything that I write, or think, or pray, or say.

Part of what "amen" means is that we share an equal level of obligation. But the other part... is that we have faith in the person we are with, who does something for us. And, apparently, Rabbi Feinstein took on faith that he could not have faith is anything done by a non-Orthodox colleague.

Struggles, to figure out what it is that God wants of us. That, to me, is the essence of the dispute between different branches of Judaism. We share the same goal. We stand in the same place. We are bound together by a common past and what is still likely to be a shared fate in this world. I have faith in the honesty, in the integrity, in the spirituality and essential authenticity of other branches of Judaism, even where I disagree with particular practices (such as the secondary status of women). I only wish it were easier... to say "amen" to one another.

Faith. Trust. And a sense that we share not only a moment, an obligation, a burden. But a history. A way of looking at the world. A deep and profound connection. All this is found in the utterance of a single word, when felt from the heart. All this, in the word "amen."

As I look at both of my sons, as I watch them grow and try to figure out the world and their place in it... all I can do is utter a prayer in my heart. For their growth. For their health. For their safety, and happiness. For fulfillment in their quest to find wonder, and delight, and meaning in life. For theirs, and for ours.

Amen. And amen.

Saturday, August 01, 1998

Mark McGwire and the Jews

Mark McGwire and the Jews

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am Williamsville, New York

So Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' record.  Couldn’t he have waited? I would much rather has had some suspense leading up to the High Holy Days. The question in my mind of late has been which would come first the breaking of the record or my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon about baseball? Oh, well you can't time everything perfectly.  Which, in fact, is the point I want to make anyway.

Mark McGwire broke the record. There is, of course, an inevitable additional question this unfolding story, this chase and race, this pursuit of the highest number of home runs in a single season- is it good for the Jews?

Now, I live in Buffalo.  For most of us here, we have had to follow the Home Run chase through the daily paper. Neither Sosa nor McGwire have been to our city for we are, in this sport, a minor league town. And minor league ball poses some challenges all its own. I am looking forward to finally getting to my first Buffalo Bison’s game, for I hear that the stadium is terrific, the team is good, the game is fun.   But I still remember the first minor league baseball game I ever attended I was happily watching the crowds and enjoying the sun and looking for hot dogs without pork, when I noticed the first dropped ball Then there was a second. And a third. And so on.

I left after five innings that summer day. Between the two teams, there had already been nine errors.
Now, I prefer football to baseball. I find baseball slow and I was, as a youngster, traumatized when the Washington Senators just picked up and left town

And yet, there is something profound about baseball that is not true of football, nor of any other sport that I can think of One of the former commissioners of baseball, Frances Vincent Jr, best expressed the lesson to be learned from this sport when he said

"Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norn1 in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often -- those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players     I also find it fascinating that baseball alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth."

Errors are part of the game.  Failure is common to us all.  And one in three is greatness.  This is profound truth indeed.  This is great Torah!

The baseball season is winding down the football season is just getting under way. But we have a season all our own. we Jews In between the diamond and the gridiron, in between the fire and the ice, comes the highest stake game of all The season of the soul The game of our lives And in this game, there are both the errors of one sport, and the penalties of the other.

So much of the liturgy of this Jewish season, these Days of Awe, is a litany of faults, a recollection of failure. It sometimes seems in the way we berate ourselves for our errors   that we are expected to be saints, that we are expected to strive for perfection and, always, come up short.

No wonder we Jews are so ridden with guilt, so filled with anxiety our expectations arc impossible l At times this season seems to merely mock our overblown sense of ourselves, to list our faults, and laugh
But we can look at this time in another way as well It is a challenge, yes, it prods us to do better But it is a time of acceptance, as well The World Series and Super Bowl and Marathon race of the High Holy Day season, Yom Kippur, is called the Day of Atonement, a day, in another way of looking at the word, of atonement A time that offers us a chance to be at peace with ourselves at last.

Our actions are judged   That is part of what this season is about But it is not just that  Our actions are judged but we are accepted  We are not expected to be who we are not. and Who we cannot ever be. Why were you not Zusya?" It is only in facing ourselves as we truly are, in looking at ourselves in the mirror, in painting an honest picture -­

Cromwellian warts and all in telling the truth about ourselves that we can step towards the other side of this season -- the side of embrace, of wholeness, of healing. One small step for each of us, is one giant leap towards   the spirituality of imperfection (The phrase, and some of these thoughts, come from a terrific book of the same title, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham The book is basically about Alcoholics Anonymous. It is very powerful.)

Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples. Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need  When feeling high and mighty, important and proud, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes.

What was in the other pocket?  We will discuss the other pocket. in my next column.