Monthly Archives: January 2012

The State of the Jewish Union

The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.

Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.

Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.

The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?

(Click to view the Opening Scene)

It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.

Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.

Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”

Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.

Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.

Posted on January 31, 2012

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Jews, Hope, and the 99%

Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.

What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”

People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”

Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.

First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.

Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.

And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”

We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.

Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.

All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.

Posted on January 30, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating. According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace. Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)

Posted on January 26, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jewish and GLBT – the borders are shifting

Last Shabbat, the guest speaker at my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, was Rabbi Andrea Myers, author of a wonderful memoir entitled, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.” Through insightful, and often highly amusing, personal stories, Rabbi Myers chronicles her own journeying from a Long Island home with a Lutheran father and Sicilian Catholic mother, to Brandeis University, coming out as a lesbian, traveling to Israel and converting to Judaism, and then returning to the USA to become a Rabbi, a wife, and a mother.

There are many layers to the stories that Rabbi Myers tell – in each chapter of her book we learn something about Jewish practice, something about inter-family interfaith relations, and a lot about the spiritual journey that can unfold for each and every one of us as we find the courage to become more of who we truly are.

Prior to her after-dinner presentation, Rabbi Myers also spoke during our Shabbat service, sharing words based on a piece that she wrote for The Huffington Post some months back entitled, ‘It Gets Beautiful.’  Our suburban middle-of-the-road congregation loved getting to know Rabbi Myers.  We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming, and inclusive, but nevertheless I was struck by how everyone present responded to the bigger message – become more of who you truly are – told through the lens of this Rabbi who is a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian.  Even ten years ago in a Reform congregation, such a presentation which today reflects some centrally held values of inclusivity and the affirmation of sexual and gender expression found in the Reform movement, would have been seen as much more radical.

The evolving understanding that GLBT Jews can live full and visible lives as Jews loving the people that they love is something that is no longer found in just one or two of the most liberal Jewish denominations.  In 2006, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian Rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies.  Back in November of 2011, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding.

In the UK this past week, there has been widespread reaction to a controversial story reported in the Jewish Chronicle that a power-point lesson about sexuality at the Jewish Free School in London ended with a slide that some students interpreted as an endorsement of the organization, Jonah (Jews offering new alternatives to homosexuality).  While the school, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (the majority Modern Orthodox movement in the UK) has denied any such endorsement, the story has sparked thoughtful conversations that indicate that, in today’s world, there are many young Orthodox-affiliated Jews who no longer regard traditional Jewish observance as a barrier to living a life true to one’s sexual orientation.

The UK Jewish Chronicle also reported on January 19 that the Amsterdam Orthodox Ashkenazi community has suspended their Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, who is US-based but travels several times a year to serve the Dutch community.  This action was taken in response to Rabbi Ralbag signing a declaration, along with 180 other Orthodox Rabbis, psychotherapists and educators, that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle.  Ronnie Eisenmann, the lay head of the Dutch community was quoted in the JC, saying: “homosexuals are welcomed and all Jewish couples are accepted as full members so long as they are recognized as ‘couples’ under Dutch law.”

These recent events demonstrate that, as we continue to evolve in our understanding of human sexuality and move toward a place where civil rights are not given or withheld on the basis of sexual orientation, Jews of all denominations are engaging with these questions in new ways that challenge the boundaries for some within our communities.  As they do so, many draw on Jewish wisdom and values to reframe the conversation; no longer the language of toevah (abomination) found in Leviticus 18:22, but the language of b’tzelem elohim (made in the likeness of God) or lo tov heyot ha’adam levado (it is not good for a human being to be alone).  These conversations require us to consider whether religious truths must be defined by their unchanging nature, or whether, as Rabbi Andrea Myers suggests, truly becoming more of who you really are requires a kind of truth that can evolve with us as we, as individuals and as Jewish communities, continue on our journeys.

 

Posted on January 25, 2012

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“The Exodus Issue”

David Brooks’s recent NYT column, “The Wealth Issue,” comes at an opportune time if you’re one of those people who reads the weekly parasha. As we make our way through the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Brooks offers a sort of meditation on what it means to integrate the experience of one’s ancestors.

In the piece, Brooks takes us back to Romney’s ancestors, who were among the early Mormon families who made their way first west to Utah and Arizona, and then later south to Mexico. He attempts to make the case that Romney has none of the negative characteristics that people associate with the rich. He is not “spoiled” or “cosseted,” nor has he been “corrupted by ease and luxury.” To the contrary, he is a hard worker, “tenacious” and “relentless,” having more in common with hardscrabble immigrants than with inheritors of great wealth.

To what does Brooks attribute these traits? To Romney’s family history. As the descendant of a persecuted, driven family, Romney “seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise.” Though he “can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail…he must have been affected by it.”

At which point, the Jews enter the column. Brooks brings his own “family history” by way of conceding the point that Romney himself never lived a life of persecution or privation. Yet, he writes, “Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.” Brooks knows his readership, and it’s not for nothing that he analogizes Romney’s connection to his family history to that of a contemporary Jew connecting to the Exodus.

But the analogy doesn’t ring true in light of the ways that we Jews are supposed to be shaped by our memories of Exile and Exodus. Again and again, Torah reminds us that our experience of Egypt ought to make us compassionate toward others (including Egyptians!). “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; see also Exod 22:21, Deut 23:7). Which is to say, our experience of persecution and the ensuing freedom ought not be only about making sure that we never find ourselves enslaved again (though that is indeed part of it). At their best, “child-of-Exodus-ethics” are about expanding our hearts to make room for today’s persecuted strangers, and not only about continuing to best today’s Pharaohs.

The State of Israel’s current status as refuge of choice for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers makes for an interesting laboratory in which to consider this dynamic. Our ancient memories of persecution and deliverance, and our more recent memories from Europe, provide the backdrop for the current conversation in Israel about what to do with the Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed the very desert that looms so large in our mythic memory. On the one hand are calls to deport them, in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to keep Israelis employed. On the other hand, many Israelis recognize the irony of Israel, of all places, not opening its doors to asylum-seekers. Like most things in the Jewish State, it’s not simple.

Also complicated is America’s relationship to the large population of immigrants currently residing here. Some certainly came seeking relief from danger and persecution at the hands of their government or criminals in their home countries. Many came simply to seek better wages and a better life. They too, confront us with the question: how do we, a nation of immigrants, relate to the people who are perhaps a few generations behind our own ancestors. Recognizing that complex political and economic considerations don’t make for easy answers, does our basic orientation to the problem have us feeling persecuted ourselves, and responding accordingly…or do we dig into the past and emerge with heightened compassion?

As I read the parshiot that tell the story of my family’s persecution and deliverance, the lessons that speak to me have less to do with our own current-day successes, and more to do with cultivating compassion for those who are currently in need of redemption (and acting accordingly). More than great wealth, more than relentless drive, that sort of compassion is something I seek to develop in myself, and something I admire in others (including presidential candidates).

Posted on January 24, 2012

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“Do You Have a Weapon?”

I began making frequent trips to Israel during the second intifada, in August 2001. I became accustomed to the security guard at public places, having my bag checked at entrances to restaurants, markets, malls, etc., which made me feel secure.

Yet, it can still be a little bit jarring to transition in when I arrive in Israel and have my bag checked or go through metal detectors at shops and other public venues. I am now in Jerusalem for a two week stay, and my first stop was the supermarket. At the SuperSol, the now familiar guard, a young Ethiopian man who could be the age of my son, sits at the entrance and asks, in Hebrew, “Madame, do you have a weapon?” I can’t help it, I laugh, and answer, “No.” He looks in my bag in a cursory way and lets me enter.

I laugh for several reasons, I suppose, as I think about it later. One reason is that it is still so surprising, even after all these visits, to be asked this question. I wonder what would happen if I said “yes”. I wonder who carries a weapon in their bag. I also laugh at the thought that if I did carry a weapon, why would I want to tell him? But that’s a scary thought, not funny at all, and so totally absurd for me — I could never imagine even touching a weapon, no less carrying one around. I laugh because of the momentary nervousness generated by the horrible reason that the guard is asking me this question in the first place. And then I grab my shopping cart, consume myself with the delight of being in this place, feeling secure because of the presence of this guard at the entrance.

I was thinking about weapons that night of my return to Jerusalem. Coincidentally, just a block away from the SuperSol is Jerusalem’s Independence Park (Gan Ha’atzmaut). That night there was a huge demonstration of the Israeli Ethiopian community, protesting racism in Israeli society. The streets were all blocked, traffic was at a stand-still as I arrived at my short-term apartment just a few blocks away. Shortly after the demonstration, I could see some signs still left there as I walked past the park. I watched the news that night and heard one protester sum it up: “You brought us here. Now what?”

There are a lot of seam-lines in Israeli society. Racism is one of them. Tolerance, respect and inclusive democracy are all hot button issues. Yet, while Israel’s social problems are in sharp focus for the occasional visitor like me, it also strikes me that we are not so perfect in the USA either. I wish there were more protests addressing the social problems in our country, actually, when I see the Israeli activism.

It occurred to me that these are the weapons we have — words. That had been the first thought that had made me laugh at the guard’s question. What went through my mind was, “Of course I have a weapon! It is my voice. It is my words.”

A couple nights later I walked past the park and noticed an elaborately decorated car parked nearby. The car was covered with banners, signs, bumper stickers and painted words, all promoting the Bretslover Chasidic sect. The words proclaim G-d’s love. Echoes of the protest still linger, perhaps this is one of them. Here is one kind of weapon against hate, captured in words. I wonder how we get from slogans to actions — how we can do a better job of loving each other with acceptance, respect and compassion.

As I walk down the street I am consumed with thoughts of protests, activism, tolerance and mutuality. I notice a slightly familiar person walking past me, now in front of me. It’s the young Ethiopian guard from the SuperSol. His pace is quick — but I want to catch up and tell him that I DO have a weapon. It’s my words. It’s my actions. It’s OUR activism.

Of course, I don’t bother him. But I think about how we need to do a better job of revealing our best weapon against hatred, inequality and violence. And I am grateful to him for his unknowing inspiration.

Photo by Itta Werdiger Roth

Posted on January 23, 2012

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Silence and Slavery

My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school.  Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.

In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses.  The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.

In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.

Posted on January 19, 2012

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A Presidential Ritual

Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.

Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.

Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”

Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.

Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.

Was this the way it could have been when the people watched Moses descending from Mount Sinai? Awe and wonder? Respect and honor? What blessing do I say?

I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.

If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.

Posted on January 18, 2012

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No Compulsion in Religion

As an American-Israeli it is painful to watch Israel’s dirty laundry be aired out so publicly. I have been content defending Israel’s right to exist, touting her accomplishments and achievement as a leader in high tech innovation and in medicine. When I was a kid I loved the bravado of the T-shirt in the Shuk that depicted an F-16 with an Israeli flag on its wing tailing and similar jet with stars and stripes. The caption said, “Don’t worry America, Israel is right behind you.” It’s not that Israel could do no wrong, but that her mistakes were forgivable given the enormous pressure that the country’s citizen bare every day.

Being the American family, my parents were the only one of their siblings who left Israel for the states, it fell to us to be religious. None of my twenty Israeli cousins are religious. Given that, and given the reality of Israel, I am certain that had we stayed in Israel, I would not be religious either, and certainly not a rabbi. While there is a large swath of the Israeli populous which is religious in its own way, the polarity of either/or thinking, either black hat or no hat at all, still feels like the norm. I’ve recently been introduced to this great term for the unvoiced middle contingent of Israelis – they wear “transparent kippot.”

In the past, American Jewry’s wading into the affairs of Israel was frowned upon. “You have no idea,” we have been told. It was true – before. It was true during the first sixty years when Israel was fighting for the right to exist, but that fight is largely won. To be sure, threats still exist on a daily basis. However, that something like “peace” is nearing is evident in that the central issue facing Israel, since her birth, is finally being addressed. The elephant has grown larger than the room itself: What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” To what degree religious, and to what degree culturally defined? This is where American Jewry has to step in. The greatest asset we have to offer Israel in the midst of her crisis of Identity, religious or secular, is a working model of pluralism.

I suggest that Israel make a clear separation of Synagogue and State. I suggest this A) Because it works for us and B) Because there can be no compulsion in religion – it weakens any sense of moral compass for its adherence. I am suggesting that the Haredim, who don’t want women on their busses, who don’t want women on their streets to be dressed in any way other than their specific way, who don’t want female doctors to rise to the dais to accept awards, will actually be healthier without the over-stated voice in Israeli political life.   While I disagree with each and every embarrassing misogynistic position that has been voiced these past few months, I actually believe in the right of these Haredim to voice their opinions.  And where else to do it but in Israel?  Nonetheless, they are going about it all wrong.  We are taught that “everything is in the hands of heaven, with the exception of awe of heaven” – Our early sages guided us that we must be free to choose God and choose our path in Judaism, or the entire enterprise is meaningless.

Only without a government sponsored Rabbinate can freedom of religion really flourish in Israel. When that happens we can see Orthodox, Hassidim, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, and even right-wing Haredim, support each other in continual growth and closeness to our shared, One and Only God.

Posted on January 17, 2012

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We Shall Overcome Someday!

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

The words of this song reverberated in my head on Friday night as I attended a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both men are being remembered this weekend. Though from very different traditions, they became friends and fought for justice and civil rights together in the sixties.

The power of their work and the words they preached hold a special significance for me this year. Earlier in the day on Friday, I attended a meeting about female rabbis and their job placement issues. Last spring, all rabbis faced a very difficult job market, but women, older rabbis, and single rabbis had especially hard times finding jobs. Congregations gravitate towards male rabbis in their thirties who are married and have young children. The meeting I attended was to help brainstorm ways to cut through this narrow image of what a rabbinic leader looks like. Many ideas were shared; one was to have a “Diversity Shabbat” during which time congregations would learn about women rabbis. I interjected “and gay rabbis too” another woman said, “and single rabbis.” “Well, wait a minute” a voice said, “I don’t know that we want to lump together women and gay rabbis. A gay rabbi can hide that he or she is gay on a resume, but a woman can’t. We need to stand up for ourselves and protect our interests.”

I was shocked by this response. The Conservative Movement only recently decided to ordain openly gay rabbis, and it is still controversial in some circles just as women’s ordination was almost twenty years ago. (And some will argue still is.) However, I strongly believe that once the Movement decides to ordain a particular class of rabbis like, women and gays, then the Movement must support all of its rabbis and help them find jobs. For a woman rabbi, herself a minority to stand up and say that we should not be concerned with the plight of gay rabbis is abhorrent to me. We are all in a very small boat together. If we do not protect and stand up for each other, then we are all going to sink. Dr King’s famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to me loud and clear.

Add to this that the meeting took place in a congregation in Bergen County New Jersey. Over the past few weeks four synagogues in the county have been vandalized. In the last event, a rabbis home was firebombed while the rabbi and his children slept inside, just as black activists homes where firebombed in the south in the sixties. Luckily the rabbi and his family escaped with only minor injuries. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/new_jersey&id=8498756 As a result of this criminal activity police are actively patrolling the streets around every synagogue in Bergen County.

Seeing a police car sitting outside of both the synagogues I attended this shabbat was at once reassuring and anxiety provoking. The anxiety came from the fact that the police felt we needed protection, and then, the fact that they were there was reassuring. It was a strange mix of emotions. I would rather the need for them to be there did not exist at all.

But there is a need. There is still a need for Jews to be protected in this country. There is still a need for African Americans to treated equally. There is still a need for homosexuals to be seen as created in God’s image like every other human being. And there is still a need for women to fight for their rights. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”

On this day when we remember the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King we need to stand up and fight for justice, for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal pay. We cannot let minorities turn on each other as they fight over a very small slice of pie. And we cannot let hate and fear take over our communities. I hope you take some time today to both remember and to take action. What injustices affect your life? Start there and then work to help others.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

Posted on January 16, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy