One of the perks of writing this column is the chance to visit with friends and talk to them about their faith. No matter how “different” religious beliefs appear, there’s almost always common ground. Last weekend, I had a nice visit with Giulia Fleishman, who I worked with at the West Tisbury library a few years ago. She was one of the kindest people I’d ever met, and I was wondering even back then what her spiritual life might be like. Turns out she’s actually studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew College in Newton. Giulia, 34, is beginning her fourth year of study, with another year to go after that.
Giulia moved to the Island with her parents when she was 10 years old, went to West Tisbury School and graduated from MVRHS. She explained that her father was concerned with keeping the Jewish tradition in her family, going to the Hebrew Center for holidays and having Shabbat dinner at home on Fridays. She had a traditional bat mitzvah celebration but then ended up moving away from her faith, Giulia said.
“I was very involved in animal rights and the environment and I didn’t see Judaism and the paternal idea of God in those things, so I basically did almost nothing Jewish from high school until I was maybe 23, then I came back here. My mom had dementia and I started bringing her on Friday nights to services.”
Now, Giulia says, she doesn’t think she’d be on the path she is traveling if it hadn’t been for the Hebrew Center and Rabbi Caryn Broitman.
“The community for me is a very special one, it makes me feel very connected to my Judaism,” Giulia said. “There are a lot of very caring people who show up for each other. We kind of work through things together.”
She brought her mom to the Hebrew Center on Friday nights and really began to enjoy the service herself.
“I really started to enjoy the pattern of every Friday night. I’d take a shower — I was farming at the time — get ready and take my mom to the Hebrew Center. All these people remembered her and she was so happy to see them all.”
When Giulia moved back to the Island full-time, she said she started to realize that she had a “deep thirst” for practicing her faith.
This was no ordinary conversation about faith that we had last weekend. It was a combination of Giulia telling me what her faith means to her and also describing what Judaism is, in all its complexities. She’s an admitted lover of learning, God bless her for that. She prefaced all of her explanations by saying everything she described would be coming from her own perspective. Smart woman.
“For me, I do feel like Judaism is a rich and complex and creative religion,” she said. “I think that there are different ways that people access it. Some people are cultural Jews, they will identify as someone who is Jewish, with Jewish parents. They may eat certain foods, feel connected to ancestry but may not step into a synagogue or have a relationship with Judaism as a religion. Then there are other people for whom it is a big part of their spiritual life … and that can look a million different ways too.”
Judaism has a rich history of sacred text, Giulia said, and a lot revolves around studying those texts. There is a blessing said before one engages with the Torah — the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament — Giulia said. “My teacher, Rabbi Art Green, says the blessing isn’t about that we need to believe everything we read, but that we engage with the text.” She said she identifies as someone who practices a more liberal Judaism. When she reads sacred texts, her view may be different from others who study those texts as laws to govern their life.
There is the written Torah, the word of God delivered at Mt. Sinai, and the oral Torah, the spoken word traditions. Giulia said that after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, a group of rabbis realized that their people were scattering and if they didn’t write down the oral law, it would be destroyed. “They wrote it down and it became the codified Mishnah, the second teaching.” Mishnah is oral law, a legal commentary on the Torah, Giulia explained.
Then she talked about the Talmud. “The wonderful thing about the Talmud, it’s a really amazing work of literature. It’s really rich and it can be very discursive.” The Talmud basically covers every aspect of the way Jews live their lives. She gave an example.
“I studied about how a woman traditionally could become betrothed,” she said. “One aspect is that if a man wants to marry her, he must give her something. But what if he gives her a ring and she throws it into the ocean? What was her intention in throwing it away? It gets into wild scenarios . . . these Talmudic rabbis kept different points of view and held them for the canon. It really supports the issue of questioning and holding different perspectives. This is a really interesting process, to aim towards a truth and at the same time, holding many truths.”
Giulia loves to study the Talmud, she told me. At Hebrew College, they study it in pairs, she explained.
“Sometimes I study it not because there’s an end result I want to get, but because the act of trying to understand a text written years ago, and this process of trying to learn it and understand what they were thinking then is a spiritual practice for me.”
Besides all the reading and discourse, her work at Hebrew College has given Giulia experiences with internships at an elderly housing organization, where she led a class of 23 students, ages 70 to 97, to have their first bat mitzvah. Twenty-two of the 23 were women who had never experienced that rite of passage, so the process was very powerful for them. Then there is her connection in Boston with the Jewish burial traditions, a very holy undertaking as Giulia describes it.
A group of the faithful go through a ritual cleansing of the deceased that she described as “the last act of loving kindness that you can give to someone.” The person in charge says a series of prayers before they proceed, asking God and the deceased person for forgiveness for any mistakes they might make with the person. They pour water over the deceased, saying more prayers and speaking about the person’s beauty.
“The body of someone who has passed away is very powerful,” she says. “In the Jewish tradition, the soul of the person hovers above them until they are buried, so we don’t pass anything over the person, really respecting and honoring them even after they’ve died.”
They clothe the deceased in a simple white garment and they sing more loving songs, Giulia explained.
“I read something recently that talked about spirituality versus religion. I have understood religion as a way to be spiritual in community but I also appreciate that my own personal spirituality can be inward-looking, but when I practice it in community it can be a form of service,” Giulia said. “There is a social justice component or work in the wider world that is motivated by spiritual life. That act of giving fuels my spiritual life and my place in the world. For me, I think my sense of obligation when it comes to communal religious life is not necessarily that it comes from a God who lives outside myself or in the sky, it comes from being communal . . . How do I respond to the suffering in the world around me?”
Not a light conversation to have on a Sunday afternoon, but definitely one that will stay with me long after Giulia heads back to Boston to finish up rabbinical school.