A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine gleefully forwarded a link to a study that asserted that atheists and agnostics are more motivated by empathy to help others than the religious are. Although this isn’t precisely news (similar reports were made nearly a year before based on three other studies), I wondered why my friend (and others who passed this around) were so pleased by the findings.
I suspect it is in part because our culture valorizes emotion, and in part because this cultural elevating of emotion leads people like my friend to think that less empathy is somehow not as good, that religion, if it is to do any good, must encourage people to be more empathetic.
But I disagree. I cannot speak for other faiths of course, but the sages of Judaism knew their business when they maintained that “a person who is commanded and does receives a greater reward than one who is not commanded and does” (B. Talmud, Bava Kama 87a).
We live in a society that considers personal choice to be the highest value. However, while choice can lead us to making good decisions, and is necessary for us to make moral choices in our interactions with others, more empathy isn’t necessarily better, and indeed it may well be that in terms of moral decision-making, especially moral decision making that involves long-term planning (such as environmental choices that involve personal discomfort over long periods) or large numbers of people – especially people we’ve never met, rule-bound and rational decision-making will lead us to far better decisions.
This week’s New Yorker has a wonderful article that reminds us that empathy works best when we are in one-to-one situations – humans tend to be motivated to feel for babies who fall down wells, children shot in schoolhouses or three women with compelling stories who survived years of torture by a sociopath. Yet our reactions, though well-meaning- to such tragedies may not be useful. We want to do something, and so we send food,clothing, toys – and the towns which don’t need these things are overwhelmed. We organize to send thousands of t-shirts to Africans – thus making a situation worse rather than better by undermining local textile economies with cheap junk, or pass laws that do the opposite of what we would wish to see. The New Yorker article offers these examples:
In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.
Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections
One of the reasons I find this tension compelling is that as a Conservative, female, rabbi, I spend a lot of my time negotiating the tension between halacha, Jewish law, and the need for Jewish societal change.
Halacha by its nature requires us to follow rules, but to be who I am, it’s also necessary to find empathy for people who traditionally have been excluded by tradition, to interpret laws in ways that makes the people more equal but also to interpret law without destroying it. Those laws are the framework by which we measure moral judgements, they should be the framework through which we, as Jews, see the world. Empathy, while important, is not, cannot, and should not be, the only driving force behind a moral decision. I am thankful that the rabbis also valued svara- logical reasoning- as a means of interpretation. But even reason alone is not pure – all of us are living like fish in the water, unable to see the rules and assumptions that go to making up our world, and making decisions based upon those assumptions without even recognizing them as social constructs. Reason thinks it is unaffected by these structures, but the reality is that reason itself is affected by emotion.
There is ultimately no escaping our frameworks – the best we can do is to try to balance them. And what that means is that being human, and being a good Jew, will always mean vastly divergent views on what God demands of us, and how we are to fulfill those demands. But while we are not require to finish the task, neither will we ever be free from struggling with it. And juggling all the parts of our human selves that make it difficult – and make it worthwhile.
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
Buzz Aldrin has just published a book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. About half a million people are expected to apply for a one-way trip to Mars through the Dutch company “Mars One.” And even though it was a robot doing the landing, over 3 million people watched Curiosity land on the red planet.
Over 50 years ago, the nation (and the world) were riveted by NASA’s attempts to land a person on the moon, and bring him back safely to the earth. And when NASA succeeded, the whole world felt a sense of pride and awe when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the Sea of Tranquility.
In its way, space travel is its own reward. Yes, the space program has provided us with concrete benefits: GPS navigation, meteorological forecasts, and even treatments for osteoporosis. But what it truly offers us is inspiration and a drive to expand our knowledge.
Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, reminds us that the real value of space travel is how it captures our imagination, and how it motivates us to continue learning:
My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it’s a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there.
We humans are naturally curious creatures — we are born to explore. A mission to Mars excites us because we simply don’t know what we’ll discover, or how exactly it will add to our knowledge, or what new technologies will arise as a result. Even if we don’t immediately sense its benefits, it still has value, because the journey of learning is its own reward.
That’s the same message we get on Shavuot, our celebration of Torah, because the study of Torah, too, doesn’t always provide an immediate return on its investment. Instead, we study Torah lishmah, for its own sake.
Why? Because Torah is not designed to train us how to build a boat. It is designed to make us long for the open seas.
Jewish learning is never supposed to give us a final and definitive answer. Instead, it is supposed to inspire us, and to push us to explore beyond what we already know. Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz even titled a book Swimming in the Sea of Talmud because Jewish study leads us into the vast, challenging, and compelling unknown, which we do for the pure joy of learning something new. As they teach us, when we learn one text,
…there are a dozen new questions arising from [it]: Can this lesson be applied to other, similar situations? Is this lesson still applicable today? What would the Rabbis of the Talmud say to our particular situation, which differs slightly from the case they presented? Is the conclusion reached and the lesson derived from the text the most relevant and meaningful message? (Katz and Schwartz, 6-7)
True learning never stops; it pushes us out ever-farther into uncharted territory. As both space exploration and Torah study show us, each new discovery spurs new lines of inquiry; each new challenge forces us to create innovative solutions; each new venture helps us push the boundaries of knowledge.
Now, it is true that as vast as the open sea may be, it is not infinite. And neither, most likely, is space.
But human curiosity — our drive to explore and learn and grow — just might be.
Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.
So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.
The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.
Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
There has been what feels like a rash – an epidemic even- certainly a disease, of recent news about women whose treatment has been so horrific it defies imagination. Not only just has it been this year, but really only over the past month, that these stories have come out.
In some ways, these cases seem to have little in common. The rescue of three women kidnapped a decade ago, held captive and repeatedly raped by three lunatics, who were, we like to think, not like “us.” Three teenage girls who were raped and publicly humiliated for the serious crime of going to parties where they thought wrongly that they could trust their friends, or who were simply acting like teenagers, or for no reason at all. Three girls who were violated, two of whom were so humiliated by the public support of their violators that they committed suicide. Those boys must have been psychopaths, the girls who tormented them mean girls, spoiled. Or maybe we should mourn for the future of these boys, ruined by a single act. Hard to know, opinion seems to be split.
But these are aberrations, are they not? Committed by bad people, people not like us. Continue reading
“There will be no poor among you…” – Deut. 15:4
Last night I was stranded in a Mercedes E Class in the parking lot of my favorite vegan restaurant. It was the most expensive car in the lot by tens of thousands of dollars. Other than the new, sleek black Benz with the dead battery that I was sitting in, the newest car in the lot looked to be a late 90’s Subaru splattered with lefty bumper-stickers and a license plate that read “MS YOGA”.
I called Mercedes’ Roadside Assistant. Katie answered.
“Mercedes Benz Roadside Assistance, this is Katie. Can I help you?”
“I’m in a loaner care from Mercedes Benz of Encino,” I told her, and then I explained that the cool car I had been driving for two days simply would not start.
“Oh, darn,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I believed her. She was upset on my behalf.
Sure there are fancier cars, but you have to understand that everyone inside the Follow Your Heart Cafe is perpetually working on being eco-everything, organic-everything, and decidedly against conspicuous consumption like luxury cars. Though there is a prominently hung quote by His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama extolling the wisdom of tolerance just inside the doors, nonetheless, I can confirm more than a handful of off-put faces through the restaurants’ windows. I felt I had two choices: A) Try and defend my predicament to every quizzical customer who entered or exited, or B) I could keep my head down and pretend to be on the phone.
I chose B. For the record, I waited just fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to reflect just how it is that I ended up stranded in front of the Follow Your Heart Cafe.
Here is the short version: My teenager crashed our Honda Civic – Nobody hurt. Thank God! The insurance company considered it totaled, wrote us a check, and I bought another Civic, a used one, from our local Mercedes dealer. They assured me that a nice, little old lady had traded it in for a new Mercedes. I drove it around, negotiated the deal, drank two free Diet Cokes from their lobby cooler and then I drove off with it. Two days later, my new-used Civic wouldn’t start. I called AAA to jump the car and while I waited I called the Benz place. “Will you fix it.” Long pause. Please, please, please. “Yes, drive it in.” Yes! I brought it in, they gave me a Diet Coke, but after twenty minutes they informed me that they couldn’t fix it for two days, so they offer me their loaner car in the meantime, a Mercedes E350.
The first place I drove to was my kids’ Jewish private school. My black Mercedes looked at home. As I step out of the car, I smile about the surprise my boys would get when they saw the car. I was still smiling as the driver in the Mercedes next to mine also stepped out. It was one of the school’s board members, and I’m pretty sure he sits on the financial aid committee that I’ve appealed to every year. He wasn’t smiling.
The next place I went was home. My in-laws were there visiting. Let me quote my favorite part of the conversation between my father-in-law and mother-in-law:
“Those Nazis make great cars.”
“What? I’d never buy one, but it’s a great car.”
As I sat in the Follow Your Heart parking lot I realized, that, “hey man” (if you’ve ever visited this retro hippie joint, you understand sounding like The Dude from the Big Lebowski and saying things to yourself like “hey man”). “Hey man, you’re lucky,” I said into my phone to no one but myself. “These are First World Problems.”
Of course it’s true. John Edwards turned out to be a well quaffed liar and cheater, but he was right, there are “two Americas”. In a recent Times’ opinion, Charles Blow cited two studies in this regard:
“From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” -Emmanuel Saez, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent. – The Pew Research Center, April 2013.
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land…” -Duet 15:11
Soon enough the tow truck Katie sent was behind me in the lot. I liked the driver, Henry, right away.
“Trouble with your car, Boss?” He said as we shook hands along side the beautiful dead tank.
We talked for the entire fifteen minutes it took him to jack it up, turn it backwards, and fill out the paperwork. I explain the whole crazy scenario to Henry. Tried to buy a used Civic but end up with a Mercedes. Henry said his wife drives a Civic, but that he drives a 68 VW Bug when not in his tow truck. “It got me back and forth from Compton twice this past weekend. No worries with that car,” he said.
I had a great time driving that car for a few days, even with the trouble it caused me. I was also happy to see the Benz hanging backwards off of Henry’s tow truck.
“Who is truly rich? The one who is happy with what he has.” – Pirkei Avot 4:1
There are at least two Americas. Some of us are duel citizens.
What makes a rabbi a rabbi?
The number of years of study?
The ability to lead a congregation in prayer?
The ability to counsel individuals at times of crisis? To bury a loved one? To perform weddings?
This is a serious question I face each year as the applications for the Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship program start to come in. (They are due this year on Friday, May 10th. Click here for more information.) Each year I get more and more inquiries from rabbis who have been ordained on line or from other non-traditional rabbinical seminaries. I am not even sure what counts as “non-traditional” any more. Most would say that the “traditional” rabbinical seminaries are those that train rabbis for a particular denomination in Judaism: Hebrew Union College (Reform), The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly (Reconstructionism) and Yeshiva University (Orthodox.) Yet, there are now a growing number of smaller seminaries. Hebrew College in Boston, The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and California (which are separate institutions) ordain rabbis. So too does Aleph, the rabbinical school of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and a new Conservative Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Maharat are training men and women respectively to lead the more liberal end of Orthodoxy. All of these schools have set curricula and require several years of study before conferring ordination. Does this make all of these schools kosher?
In typical rabbinic fashion, you will find some people who say yes, and some people who will say no. For the purpose of admitting rabbis into Rabbis Without Borders, they all count as “accepted” rabbinic programs.
Yet, each year I hear of new programs. Some require as little as a once a week on line study group for one year before ordaining people as rabbis. My gut twists at this. I spent SIX years studying to be ordained. I had to pass tests in Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Jewish History, Philosophy and Theology. It was not an easy road. In addition, I had to complete internships, learn how to officiate at life cycle events, and master pastoral counseling.
And yet, I have witnessed rabbis who have passed the same tests as I have fail in the real world of the rabbinate, doing harm to others in the process. Could some one less knowledgeable actually be a better rabbi? Do rabbis today in twenty first century America need all this knowledge when we have Rabbi Google? Is one year of study enough? What really makes a rabbi a rabbi?
I posed these very questions to the Rabbis Without Borders selection committee and to this year’s cohort of Rabbi Without Borders Fellows. We had lively conversations. Different ideas were offered as to what made a “legitimate” rabbi. But each time an argument was made for a “standard” to be upheld for a rabbi, a counter argument could be found.
A rabbi can be a scholar, a pastoral presence, a skilled worship leader, and a community organizer. Does one skill take precedence over the others? Is there a base line needed for all of them? And how are these skills acquired?
For centuries rabbi have spent years in study before being ordained. Over this period of time, standards for ordination have changed, and different Jewish communities have conferred the tile of rabbi on different types of people. What are our standards for today? Is there even standards we can agree on?
I don’t have an answer. For the time being this is an open question here at Rabbis Without Borders. We thrive on pluralism, representing a diversity of opinions and ordaining institutions. Maybe we don’t need to answer the question, since in a few years institutions and courses of study which seem fringe now will be normative.
But the question keeps coming up when I meet with groups of rabbis. It echos in my own head. I am curious. What makes a rabbi a rabbi?
Last week, in my role as a teacher of Judaism, I had four magnificent teaching experiences. The kind that leave you inspired by the beauty of the human race, and send you home proclaiming that people are deep, amazing, varied, and wise.
With a group of toddlers (age 2-3) at the synagogue, I sang and danced “shalom.” And read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and danced Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.
The bnei mitzvah class (age 13) and I celebrated how much they had learned this year, with a synagogue scavenger hunt quiz. Then we went to Starbucks, where we discussed the evils of manipulative advertising and the death penalty.
With middle-aged adults (age 40-70) at a church, I studied the Song of Songs. We read excerpts from the Biblical text, laughed at its bawdiness, and explored its implications for human and divine love.
With elders (age 80-100) at a nursing home, I explored the Biblical story of Ruth. People shared personal stories about the “Ruth” and “Naomi” archetypes within their minds and their families.
For me, it was a week filled with magic.
How does this magic happen?
Great content helps.
Good teaching strategies help, too. Toddlers learn through music, movement, rhymes and pictures. Young teens bond by doing active tasks together. Middle-aged adults have keen intellects and life experience that should be woven into a teacher’s presentation. Elders respond to sophisticated ideas presented simply and briefly.
But neither content nor strategy brings the special magic of being inspired by your students. That happens when you:
Focus on the people, not the content. When you:
Talk with them, listen with them, laugh with them, learn with them.
Retaining this focus is very important in teaching about Judaism.
Too often we, that is, teachers of Judaism, focus on the content alone. We may be determined to show the beauty of Judaism in a particular light – a particularly progressive light, or a particularly traditional one. We may be desperate for people to see this beauty. We may feel we need them to come to synagogue. Perhaps we have invested money and time in our synagogue and we need it to be sustainable. Perhaps we need the Jewish people to continue, and we want to play our part.
Guess what, fellow teachers! These are our needs. They may not be the students’ needs.
Do the toddlers need to know the word “shalom”? Do bnei mitzvah need to recognize a Ner Tamid? Do adults need to know sexy poetry from Song of Songs? Do elders need to know the plot of the Book of Ruth? No. No. No. And no. But it would be wonderful for them to know that they are welcome in a fun, friendly, intellectually open and personally affirming community.
And in that sort of community, Judaism happens.
Because Judaism is something people do. It is not a chunk of content that can be separated from practice. It is a set of evolving traditions that people share in community.
We don’t memorize lists of fundamental Jewish beliefs. We do study together a Bible made up of 24 books offering diverse viewpoints.
We don’t have essential doctrines. We do have rituals we like to do together.
We have no Pope who sets the standards of belief and practice. We do have a rather amorphous world community that votes with its feet.
The practices we do and the books we study are the ones people voted for. Traditions that remain over the years are the ones many people love. Like any kind of love, of course, it’s fraught with conflicts, dead-ends, winding paths, and spectacular compromises.
Jewish teachers should model this kind of love.
Sometimes teachers are afraid to put people over content, because they worry the result will compromise Judaism.
It won’t. It will create love for Jewish community.
And people will come back to what they love, seeking deeper and deeper understanding.