Tag Archives: religion

Real relationships with fictional people

Who is your favorite literary or pop-culture character?
Do you ever think about that person to get you through hard times?

This is another one of those bits of human nature that art and culture have long realized, and the psychological sciences are slowly catching up with. Of course thinking about inspiring people can give you the courage or patience to handle your own ordeals. That’s why people say “What Would Jesus Do?” When I was an undergrad, if I couldn’t muster up motivation for a study or library research session, I would pretend I was a student at Starfleet Academy. Starfleet cadets never lacked for motivation.

I reviewed a new study about this for the British Psychological Society’s research digest earlier this month:

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

The paper suggests that these parasocial relationships help us envision a bigger, better version of our selves, much as our real-life relationships can do. I credit Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln with giving me the political will to begin the process of getting my mother into assisted living. I just felt so decisive after seeing that movie!

I’ve written before about parasocial relationships (read the whole thing here):

So given how much even our relationships with real people can take place in the imagination, it’s no leap to have a strong relationship with a fictional character. Some people are more inclined to this than others–and, counter to the geeky fanboy/girl Comic Book Guy stereotypes, it’s the people who are overall highly social and relationship-oriented who are most likely to have strong parasocial relationships as well. I tend to be very prone to them, myself: I really was in tears, yesterday, of happiness that dogs I have never met are going to survive and be safe. Certain writers–Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton–have always felt like sisters to me. When I read Torah, I have extremely vivid images of the Four Matriarchs–if I could draw, I could draw you exactly what they look like to me.

Bringing up the Four Matriarchs, and Jesus, is no accident. Religion has always encouraged parasocial relationships with people you don’t know in the flesh, and uses stories and images to encourage adherents to identify and model themselves after various ancestors, saints, or demigods.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

Click to continue reading "Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”"

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Can you hear me now?

I’m going to visit the ConductMom and my old Kansas City gang this week and next, so posting may be slow. Which reminds me of the last blog break I took, over Passover. I wrote,

Anyway, I’m going to take a few days off to get my head straightened out. I am not connecting a whole lot with my religion these days. Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you go through the motions and wait for grace.

It turned out to be more the “going through the motions” kind of holiday:

The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses ? the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if there is anything to hope for, really — them, I get.

In response, commenter Molly wrote:

I’m wondering at the moment if those of us who are Jewish-by-choice* feel more of an obligation to feel connected with our faith than born Jews. It’s sort of like “Well, since I chose this, I SHOULD feel that it’s Deeply Meaningful ALL THE TIME, and if I don’t feel that way, did I make a mistake in the first place?”

*Or any other religion-by-choice, I suppose, but I don’t have experience with those.

This is a good point. We do feel a stronger sense of obligation when we’re engaging in something chosen, for at least two reasons. One is ethical — if I’m engaging in a task or relationship of my own free will, then I feel more strongly obligated to tend that task or relationship. The Jewish people didn’t have to accept me. They did, and because of that I believe that I have a particular responsibility to do right by God, Torah, and Israel. Being a Chosen Person is a certain level of responsibility — being a Choosing Person feels like even more!

The other reason for this sense of obligation is more internal, more about how we reason things out. Experiments have shown that if you make people do something really boring and pay them good money for it, they will tell you that they are doing something really boring for cash. Make them do something boring and pay them nothing or very little … and people will come to believe that they enjoyed the task, because there is no good external reason for them to have done it. So converts have to be really religious, because there’s no real external reason for us to be where we are.

These are two reasons why the circumstance of being a convert might lead to a feeling that every damn holiday has to be a big deal — the social psychology perspective. Going from a personality psychology POV, I wonder also if people who convert aren’t by nature the kind of folk who want every damn holiday to be a big deal. Who want religion to feel meaningful all the time. Maybe that’s why we’re converts. Changing religions isn’t a small thing, after all. Maybe if we were the kind of people who were better at taking things as they are, at going through the motions and waiting for grace, we’d have stayed in the worship communities we were born into.

Kestrel and I once did an interesting project that, while inconclusive, was intriguing. Much of her research is about how people react emotionally to words. Show people words in their native language, and they have an emotional response (to swear words, sexual words, emotional words). They don’t have a similar response to words in a second language, even if they are fluent. Hit your thumb with a hammer and “merde!” won’t relieve you as much as “shit!”

Kestrel has done this research mostly with immigrants and ESL speakers, but we once tried an experiment with religious converts, too. The idea was to see if learning a new religion was like learning a new language — do you have a greater response to the words and images associated with the religion of your upbringing, or of the religion you chose?

It turned out that people who had not changed religion had a galvanic skin response to words associated with their religion, but not to words from another religion, or to neutral words (ball, sky, orange). Converts, on the other hand, had an emotional response to words from their original religion, and the religion they converted to, and to neutral words. To put it another way, show us any stimulus at all and we flip out all over creation like we’d seen the world in grain of sand and eternity in an hour. It’s all wildly significant to us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Exile, fandom, acne, hair, dance

And I’m back, everyone! The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses — the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if they’re anything to hope for, really … them, I get.

Some good reading from last week: this article in the Globe about fandom. It focuses on sports fans, but many of the dynamics are true of fans of anything else (a celebrity, a television show, a band) as well. Are you a “fan” of anything, to the point of buying a t-shirt, following someone on Twitter, or joining a group (online or off) for the purposes of discussing that thing? I’ve become a fairly avid fan of several television shows, most notably “Deadwood,” to the point of writing fan fiction and buying a “Star & Bullock Hardware” shirt.

A piece in Slate on why humans are the only animals to have acne, and also the only ones that would be psychologically bothered by it. (Evolution is a cruel trickster.) New treatments have made acne rarer among teens, but that very fact might increase the suffering of those who can’t afford treatment, or for whom nothing has been successful.

I was fascinated to read that blogger S.E. Smith recently cut her long hair very short, and found that she was darned near considered antisocial for wanting to keep it her business what she did with the ponytail. Specifically, she faced a lot of pressure to donate her hair, a practice which has gone from being a nifty option for people suddenly in possession of a braid no longer attached to their head, to becoming near-mandatory, the default option. The thing you have to explain if you don’t do it.

This bothers me. A great deal. Two years ago, I wrote about a New Yorker article on people who donate kidneys to strangers. My reaction to it then was strong and visceral, and has since become more focused. This notion of one’s body as a resource that may be owed to strangers is deeply problematic. As I wrote two years ago:

I would not donate a kidney to a stranger, nor do I feel any sense of a moral call to do so merely on the grounds that I could. My body and its functions are not some form of wealth that I am hoarding like Scrooge McDuck: they are constitutive of my identity. They are ME. And no one has an a priori right to my blood, my organs, my womb. I may choose to share, but that is my choice. Having two kidneys when others have none is not the same has having two loaves of bread when others have none. The body is different. I do not owe anyone access to my body.

As an etiquette matter, let’s all take note that “Did you donate your hair?” is a question better left unasked.

Finally, on a less existential note, let this hilarious pantomime/interpretive dance by David Armand brighten your Monday. I love this guy’s work! Am I the only one who finds brilliantly talented physical comedians way sexy? (See also: Danny Pudi.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Church, people

Did anyone see last week’s episode of “The Office”? I’d been about ready to trash the show for good last season, especially after the unforgivably heinous “Scott’s Tots.” But dang, they had to go bring Timothy Olyphant in as a guest character. Now that, I’m afraid, is just not playing fair with Miss Conduct. I adored “Deadwood,” and am also a big fan of “Damages.” In both those shows, though, it’s never clear if Mr. Olyphant can act, or if he can just clench his jaw meaningfully.

So of course I had to watch that episode, and then I wound up watching the rest of the season, which has definitely been on an upswing. (And yes, Mr. Olyphant can act, as long as there are no guns around. As Anton Chekhov famously said, “If there is a gun in the first act, do not cast Timothy Olyphant, because all he will do is stare at it and clench his jaw meaningfully.”)


I thought last week’s episode, “The Christening,” was one of the best television episodes about church, and church people, and how non-church-people cope with church, ever. Television doesn’t do religion well, by and large; it’s either ignored completely or made the utter center of things in a way that doesn’t reflect most people’s lives. (“Six Feet Under” was a notable exception.)

“The Christening” was, perhaps obviously, about the christening of Jim and Pam “Halbert”‘s baby. (This is the one thing I found wrong. In my experience, no clergyperson at such an intimate, high-energy church would agree to christen a baby if she didn’t even know the couple’s last name. Clergy make mistakes, but they’re performers: they keep it fresh every time, remember names, and realize that babies aren’t reliable at ritualized events and have plenty of options on hand at naming ceremonies, christening, and brisses in case things go wrong. Regardless of how good your scriptural exegesis is, you don’t graduate preacher school without knowing how to handle a vomiting infant.)

But aside from that … it was about church. I grew up with church people, and that’s what they’re like. On the down side, they can honestly believe that going to a Mexican city for three months to build a school will make them “practically Mexicans.” On the plus side, they accept, and love, and have fun, and enjoy dorkiness. It was brilliant how even Michael Scott, a man who expects to be welcomed as a hero wherever he goes, is taken aback by genuine Christian hospitality. Deep down, he never really expected anyone to like or accept him — but Christians will. He is faced with people who are willing to believe in his goodness, in his capacity to transform himself, who believe in dreams and making them come true — and he is terrified, and runs from them.

William James described the two types of religious temperament as “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled.” Jim and Pam, the youth group — for people like this, religion is … calm. An ordinary part of life. Community, moral and emotional support, the beauty of the Scriptures, saying a prayer at night. No drama.

Michael, though, wants the drama. Religion can teach you the truth about yourself or it can bolster your self-delusions like no other power on earth, and for some of us sick-souled ones, it can do both with vertiginous speed and force. Michael yearns for an authentic life, at the same time as he clings desperately to the very delusions that keep him from having one.

And Toby? Toby, who wanders outside the church for almost the entire episode, unable to step over the threshold. Toby, who when he does, walks up to the altar and asks, simply, “Why you always gotta be so mean to me?”

A prayer for the ages.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 6 Comments

What I think when I see Muslims

When I decided to go to graduate school, I came out east to interview at B.U., Carnegie Mellon, and Temple University. It was delightful taking the train around, and reading books on political psychology as I traveled.

I got into Boston’s South Station late at night from Philadelphia. If you haven’t been to South Station, it is somewhat large, and there’s a good chunk of it that isn’t marked well, so you’re more or less taking it on faith that this is they way you’re supposed to be going. It was after midnight, and I was alone.

I saw a group of Muslims, men and women, ahead of me. And I relaxed. I stepped up my pace so that I was behind them, far enough not to be overhearing conversation, but close enough that if I yelled for help, they would hear me. I felt safer.

I won’t pretend that my reaction was caused entirely by some deeply spiritual sense of oneness. This was in 1995, and I didn’t think any petty criminals would mess with a group of people, particularly Muslims. And I knew that the eyes of security officers and police would be on them, and therefore near me.

But I also knew these were people who were taking the risk of showing their allegiance to their faith despite the personal difficulties and even dangers it could cause. They were brave. They were already conspicuous, so might not fear making themselves more so for a good cause. They had chosen to represent their religion in a public fashion. If I needed help, they would be likely to help me. And if they did not do so immediately, I know enough to lay an effective guilt trip on a member of any of the Abrahamic faiths. My chances, I felt, were pretty good.

This is how it makes me feel when I see Muslims while traveling.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Simchat Torah


I love Simchat Torah. I love it, I love it, I love it. It is my favorite Jewish holiday. Even last year, when I was too sick to make it to the High Holy Days, go to my in-laws for latkes on Hanukkah, or observe Passover, I still went to Simchat Torah. It took a lot of painkillers to get me through it, but I did it.

I’ve got a question up on Miss Conduct blog about what your personal Simchat Torah would look like. What would you go dancing in the street with?

Of course, just because I like Simchat Torah doesn’t mean I’m good at it. I love communal dancing. But the Jewish-mother cliche of “You could put an eye out doing that”? I’m pretty sure it came from people with my lack of coordination trying to dance with heavy scrolls.

To the tune of “Tradition”:

Who every time will trip over die kinder
Tread upon the rabbi,
Klopf you with a scroll?
And who ev’ry time
When chanting Amidah
Will go at least two times off key?
Miss Conduct! Miss Conduct!
Miss Conduct!

Pictures of me all swirly from last year’s celebration. And my manga shooz.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bible boo-boos

So, last night I went to see a play — I’m not going to link to what I saw, in case this would embarrass anyone, which it shouldn’t — in which there was a reference to Rahab, the virtuous prostitute in the Hebrew Bible who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho. They pronounced it “Rehab,” which I thought was a pretty cute joke.

Except drinks with the cast later revealed that it wasn’t — they just didn’t know.

Sigh. Do you have to be a fundamentalist to wish people knew the Bible better? Certainly not. It’s one of the cornerstone documents of Western civilization, there’s so much of art and literature and music that you simply can’t appreciate unless you have a good grounding in the Bible.

(My neighbors got a dog named “Vashti” a couple of years ago, and thought she was named after a Hindu goddess. They totally didn’t get my joke “Good luck teaching her to come when she’s called.”)

Anyway, I posted this on Facebook, and got this hilarious response from a friend of mine: “Had a Bible teacher who once heard a sermon in which the preacher meant to be talking about the Shema, but kept calling it ‘the Great Shamu.’ Like, over and over.” Let me tell you, a protein shake hurts when it comes out your nose.

There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere about the Orca of the Covenant.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

Does this ad work for you?

If you are a Christian, does this Vineyard Fellowship ad work for you?

The same design can also be seen on billboards. I get the appeal of trying to break stereotypes about what religious institutions and individuals are like — but this doesn’t strike me as appealing to the sacred at all.

It looks like an ad for a cell phone company.

If your opinions differ, though, I’d like to hear them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 9 Comments

PeaceBang bats it out, and a poll

Speaking of the powerless, the silenced, PeaceBang blew me out of the water with this insight:

“To be a religious person is to notice everyone, period.”

Read the whole post, it’s thought-provoking and also rather funny. And that line certainly smacked me out of my comfortable feeling that of course I’m a good person, and made me take a hard look at how I treat certain kinds of people.

PeaceBang’s doing some good stuff these days — I tweeted another blog post of hers a day or so ago. Which brings me to: how many of you who don’t follow me on Twitter read the tweets on the right column of this blog? Do you find them interesting, useful, value-added? I don’t often tweet about my personal activities (that seems entirely too “oooh I’m a celebrity”; I don’t assume that because a person enjoys my writing they necessarily want to know what I had for breakfast). I use it mostly to link to stuff I think would be of interest to people who like my writing. Is that what you all want?

How many of you who don’t follow me on Twitter read the Tweets on the side?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 9 Comments


Purim is this weekend — very early this year, and I am planning, God and gut willing, to enjoy a wonderful party at my synagogue tomorrow night. For those not in the know, Purim celebrates the book of Esther. This is one of my very favorite texts in the Bible. Ancient — and modern — stories are full of warnings about how women’s sexuality, boldness, curiosity turn the natural order of the world upside down. (Think of Eve, Pandora, Psyche and Eros …) In the book of Esther, it takes a woman’s sexuality, boldness, and curiosity to turn a disordered world right again. It reminds me of Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”

Esther is about coming out of the closet.

Esther is about being fabulous and unashamed.

Esther is about facing the music and dancing.

Esther is also my Hebrew name, and when I converted, I gave this talk at my naming ceremony:

I chose Esther as much for her weaknesses as for her strengths. She is the least heroic of heroines. Esther is not a judge or a warrior or a matriarch: Esther is a girly girl. She is pretty and charming and wants life to be easy. She wants other people to make the hard decisions, to wrestle the scary angels of history and destiny. The traditional role of women is not a burden or a constraint on Esther—rather, it is her greatest temptation. Women can get away with not taking ultimate responsibility for our lives. Women can get by on our charm and good looks. Women can sit in the boat admiring the scenery while the men do the heavy rowing. And this is what Esther wants to do.

And yet, when the dice are thrown, she does take responsibility, and when she does, she takes it all the way. Although Mordechai must convince her to take action, she is not simply his handmaiden or puppet. Independently, she assesses his arguments and is persuaded. Independently, she plans a course of action. Independently, she improvises brilliantly and bravely, with lipstick, dinner-party banter, and a bottle of wine.

I look at Esther and I see a warning about the temptations I face.

I look at Esther and I see an inspiration to take responsibility and improvise.

I look at Esther and I see a woman I would like to have as a friend.

Esther’s story is comic, it is improbable, it does not mention God.* The story of Esther teaches us to take control of our destiny, yet always be ready to accept the unpredictable turns of events. It teaches us to enjoy good times but never assume that they will last. It teaches us that we can do great things in diaspora, but that ultimately Jewish security rests on having our own land. It teaches us that sometimes we need another person to remind us to be a hero, and there is no shame in that. It teaches us that the one who is rescued can become the rescuer, that the student can educate the teacher. It teaches us that we must take responsibility without the luxury of signs and miracles, without a sense of being called. Finally, it teaches the most important ways for a Jew to serve God is not through ostentatious piety, but through fighting idolatry and working for the future of the Jewish people.

All of these things I believe.

For those of you who are interested in further thoughts on Esther, read my sermon here. Reverend Victoria Weinstein of Norwell First Parish Unitarian Church, whom I met through her wonderful and oft-referenced “Beauty Tips for Ministers” blog, graciously invited me to speak to her congregation three years ago. Her explanation of the role of image in the ministry is first, and my thoughts on style, beauty, and the book of Esther are second.

*If you are reading from a Catholic bible, this isn’t the case. Catholic bibles include verses about Mordechai praying that were deemed non-canonical by the compilers of the Hebrew and Protestant bibles. With due respect to the Catholic tradition, I find it very important that God and the concept of direct communication with the Divine are not mentioned in Esther. Sure, it may not have been easy to be Abraham (what with that self-circumcision and all) or Moses, but God was telling them what to do every step of the way. Mordechai and Esther must make very difficult decisions under conditions of uncertainty, believing they know God’s will but without the specific guidance of how to make that will come to pass. Like most of us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Happy solstice!

Any pagans, Wiccans, pantheists, followers of Native American spirituality in da house? Now’s the time to throw your hands up and delurk. Tell me a little about yourself, what your tradition means to you, maybe toss in a link to a book or blog you like? I am down with the Abrahamic faiths, and I know a little bit about Buddhism and Hinduism, but the nature-based religions are, for the most part, a mystery to me. (I have read Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, so I know a bit about Wicca.) As someone who was raised Christian and converted to Judaism, the idea of non-text-based religion is a little hard to get my mind around.

If you’re in the broom closet, of course, you can post anonymously. I’m certainly not going to out you. And I’d really like to know who’s out there. I know I’ve got a fair number of Christian, Jewish, and atheist/agnostic/ignostic readers, and a handful of Muslims as well. Who else is out there? I’ll light a candle for you on this longest night if you’ll light one for me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment


I’d mentioned that I had a difficult time finding meaning in Hanukkah. Here‘s an excellent article in Slate that looks at the awkward history behind the holiday, and might explain better to folks — Jewish or not — why a modern person might find some of its messages distasteful, and what meaning we can find in it. I love this paragraph:

Here we find the historical miracle that Hanukkah implicitly celebrates: the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging, to be enchanted by the exquisite beauty of another without losing sight of your own charms. This relational art is ritualized on Hanukkah by the lighting of separate wicks or candles that build daily toward a unison of illumination.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Latkes, here I come

I was planning to blog today about your awesome comments on my “holiday joys and woes” post, and how although Hanukkah doesn’t do it for me on any level, what you wrote helped. Because I realized that all of your joys had to do with stuff you did — not consumed, not believed — so maybe I should just stop trying to figure out Hanukkah and fry a pancake already. And how this relates to a particular scene in the Torah and the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, and what it means to have “experiential learning” in a religion as intellectual and text-based as Judaism, and all that …

And then I saw this. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon from Utah, has written a Hanukkah song.

Now, let me make two points:

1. His song actually doesn’t suck. (There’s a video linked, you can judge for yourself. It’s not great, but in the canon of Hanukkah music, there’s worse. Trust me.)
2. Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” (and also “Easter Parade”), so hey, it’s all good. This is America, buddy.

What is not all good is this:

At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

Well, dude, YOU AREN’T, so suck it the heck up. And I think “mock” Torah pretty well describes it. “Sort of a mock Torah”? How in the name of Ceiling Cat is this in any way showing honor to the Jewish people you claim to respect, Senator Hatch?

If you are not a member of a religious group, it does not honor the people who are to go using their sacred objects or religious symbols as freakin’ accessories. Got it? If you are given something as a gift, with the understanding that it is a cultural/artistic item representing a different faith, that is one thing. (I have a Ganesh statue that was given to everyone who attended a friend’s Big Fat Hindu Wedding a few years back, and some Ukranian Easter eggs from my Ukranian, Christian mother.) Otherwise, no. Religions are not sports teams. You don’t run around wearing the jersey because you like how we play the game. You can attend services, you can study the texts, you can join interfaith groups, you can eat the food, but you do not dress up like something you aren’t. (For more on that, see PeaceBang here.)

Senator Hatch of all people should know this. Interfaith pieties aside, we are not “all one.” Religions differ in fundamental ways. Senator Hatch is a Mormon, and Mormons apparently feel so strongly about protecting their own religious symbols and practices against the casual curiosity or faux-identification of “Mormons for a Day” that they don’t even allow non-Mormons into their temples or allow us to view certain ceremonies. And that’s their perfect right. What if I decided that I, a Jew, was nonetheless a big fan of the Mormonism, and wanted to express that by wearing temple garments under my clothes? Does that put it in perspective for you, Senator Hatch?

And yet, I must thank you. Because your offensive co-opting of my religion has, in fact, inspired me this Hanukkah. If you can celebrate my holiday, I sure as hell can. I am going to make those damn latkes, and I am going to get that wax off my menorah, probably by melting it off with the scorching gaze of my contemptuous laser-eyes and the hot breath of my profanity-laced rant at your discourtesy-masquerading-as-tolerance. (You folks think this is a profanity-laced rant? This is nothing. I can and do kick it “Deadwood“-style when necessary.)

So thank you, Senator Hatch, for teaching me the true meaning of Hanukkah. Which is, frankly, that we need to protect our religions. That we need to set boundaries. That courtesy is not only about acknowledging what binds us together, but about respecting what keeps us apart.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 23 Comments

Torah! Torah! Torah!

Since so many of you liked my writing on the first chapters of Genesis, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote on another Torah portion. I wrote this four years ago — we had just gotten Milo, and that year, this Torah portion came on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which as you can tell rather affected my reading of it. Enjoy:

I need to get rid of the leftovers. It’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the leftovers are weighing heavy on my mind, my belly, and my refrigerator shelves. It’s been a week of shopping and cooking and planning, but at least I have a wonderful cleaning lady and a nearby Trader Joe’s; my mother got along well with our new dog, and vice versa; and my husband and I are blessed to actually like our families, so that time spent with them is as much pleasure as it is duty.

And duty has its pleasures too. I felt competent and strong this Thanksgiving. I was proud of the dinner I made. I was proud of the warm, book-lined rooms my family ate in, that I worked so hard to arrange and decorate. I was proud to show the local museums off to my mother, and to take her to shops the likes of which they do not have in Nixa, Missouri. I was proud that I knew when she was too tired to walk home after a morning’s shopping, and too proud, herself, to say so immediately, so I took charge and sent my husband off to retrieve the car.

And I wonder about the danger of that pride.

In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Rebecca, the second matriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham is concerned about finding a wife for his son, Isaac: he doesn’t want one of these flashy Canaanite broads, he wants a nice homegirl from Aram-naharaim, his old neighborhood. So he sends his servant off to collect a bride for Isaac. Wanting a kind as well as beautiful woman, the servant devises a test. He will wait at the well outside of town with his camels, and when he sees a young woman, he will ask her for a drink. If she not only gives him a drink, but offers to water his camels too—all 10 of them—he will know that she is the one.

As soon as Eliezer has thought this up, Rebecca appears, and he asks her for water. “When she had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether the Lord had made his errand successful or not.” (Genesis 24:19-20.)

At this point in the story, we like Rebecca. We like her very much, even if we are intimidated by her scary biceps. (It takes a strong woman to draw enough water for 10 camels.) Isaac likes Rebecca too, when he meets her, and we are told that he “brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67.)

Does anyone else find that a little creepy? Does anyone else think that maybe Isaac is going to turn into one of those men who calls his wife “mommy”? Is anyone else remembering at this point that while the Greeks may have invented the Oedipus complex, it took the Jews to identify it?

We’re supposed to understand by this that Rebecca is the spiritual daughter of Sarah, and like her will be God-fearing and loyal. We’re supposed to understand that drawing water for the camels is a sign of chesed (lovingkindness). We’re supposed to believe that the things that Rebecca does later on — when she stage-manages a deception to make Isaac, on his deathbed, bless her favorite son, Jacob, rather his, Esau — are a sign of her intelligence and superior understanding of God’s will.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think maybe Rebecca is a control freak.

Her final deception of Isaac is hard to justify, no matter how you twist it around. Rebecca begins her story as a kind and well-intentioned person, but I wonder if the role of caretaker, hostess, Competent Woman Who Does It All, doesn’t eventually go to her head. She takes care of others until she starts believing that they cannot take care of themselves. She knows better than anyone else. And she loves to complain.

I think all women are at least a little bit familiar with this phenomenon. With the glow that comes from providing for everyone else. With the martyred pleasure of putting everyone elses’ needs before your own. With the belief that there’s no point asking for help, because it’s easier to just do it yourself.

Rebecca is a warning about what that kind of attitude can lead to. How easily caretaking can slide into a subtle form of contempt.

Eliezer just stood there watching her as she went to the well, again and again and again, watering all those camels. Rebecca had a choice. She could have asked him to help. Would she have become a different person if she had? A little less generous, perhaps, but also less manipulative?

I did a good job this Thanksgiving. I took care of my husband, and my mother, and my dog. I brought pleasure and delight to my family. And I had a pretty good time in the process, myself. But I need to be watchful of that glow of pride. I need to remember that the people in my life are responsible and competent and can take care of themselves — and even of me, sometimes. I need to relax my hold, my desire for control.

I need to get rid of those leftovers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments