This Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at their tables and embark on recreating the narrative of the Exodus through the rituals of the seder. We will immerse ourselves in the story from some 3,000 years ago that forged the Jewish people. We will eat matzah and bitter herbs to taste as our ancestors tasted. We will drink four cups of wine to symbolize the four stages of redemption that transpired during the Egyptian experience. However, this night does not belong to the Exodus alone.
If we do not allow the seder to inspire and move us to greater action we will have missed a key component on what the whole evening is all about. The Exodus becomes a central relational context for our connection to God: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It is used four separate times to introduce major components of Biblical legislation (Exodus 23:20, 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). It is the framing by which future generations come to know their history and their people: “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 6:21).” Simply, the Exodus is the hinge by which the entire covenantal experience rests.
The Exodus is not just a story to be told. It is an imperative to be acted upon.
What is that imperative? At it’s most basic level the Exodus compels us to liberate, to free and to make better the lives of those most impacted by persecution and oppression. To “know the spirit of the stranger” as the Bible reminds us multiple times is to empathize directly with the marginalized, the outliers and the ones on the margins. In that spirit the organization I work for, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, has recently published an insert for your Haggadah that makes relevant the work of Passover into a concrete issue people living in Illinois face today. This is precisely the type of work Passover and the Exodus story calls us to. I encourage you to download the insert and even if the issue is not applicable for you, make it an impetus for the type of investigative work necessary that transforms the Exodus from simply a story into an imperative.
In only a few short weeks we will encounter our annual adventure down memory lane as we gather around and relive the Passover experience through the seder. It is through the evocative power of ritual, the art of story telling and the act of asking questions that we will immerse ourselves in the formative narrative of the creation of the Jewish people: the slavery in Egypt and eventual liberation.
Why is this story so important that every Jew is obligated to tell it and retell it again? Indeed, we are asked to not just share the story on the nights of Passover but every day as it forms a critical part of the recitation of the central prayer, the Shema. On one level, we are commanded to tell the story so as it keep it alive throughout the generations. Our children will not forget where they came from and the roots of their people’s existence because we; their parents, family members, friends and mentors, refuse to let the story enter the dustbin of history.
Yet, perhaps there is also even more to why we immerse ourselves so extensively into this story of servitude, oppression and freedom. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “from the straits.” The experience of our ancient ancestors was not only the breakdown of their physical selves, the utter control of their bodies by their oppressors, but it was also the complete degradation and humiliation of their hearts and minds. They were so tightly constricted from the oppression they had no room to live as full human beings.
The story of Passover is not only retold on the seder nights and not even just retold every day through the Shema, it becomes a primary organizing principle behind much of the later commandments in the Torah. “You know the spirit of the stranger” becomes the rationale behind many commandments. The call to establish a sovereign Jewish homeland based on the principles of fairness, compassion and justice are rooted in the experience of Egypt.
We immerse ourselves so deeply into the Passover story not just to make sure our children don’t forget it, but so our children don’t forget themselves. The kind of people God desires us to be— humble, caring, justice-driven—is forged in the servitude and oppression of Egypt. We need to know intimately the movement from Mitzrayim, “from the straits,” to redemption, so we can model that in our daily lives and impart that way of life to future generations.
“Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.” In that one quote can be summed up so much of what was misguided about the annual rabbi rankings list Newsweek published for the past 7 years. Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin in an article in The Forward explained why they were discontinuing the annual Passover tradition and that one quote is the one that struck me the most.
Every year I felt uncomfortable with the list of “top rabbis in America” and it was always difficult to pinpoint exactly the source of that discomfort. However, reading that the founders of the list initially wanted to highlight the “broad diversity” of the American rabbinate but the only way to do so in the magazine world was to make it a scorecard illustrates for me so much of what is at fault in the way we view our clergy. Do we rank them on how entertaining their sermon was? Do we score them on their clothing style? How many times they appear in a Google search?
When we transform our rabbis into only entertainers and quasi-celebrities we come to forget much of the heart of the rabbinate: the one to one interactions; the Torah shared and the relationships developed and sustained. It is about diligently and patiently bringing about positive change, goodness and Torah into the small part of the world that the rabbi lives and works in. This rarely would receive the accolades of a national ranking but this is the essential work.
Rabbis don’t belong on scorecards, whether from Newsweek or from anyone else. When we close the score books and open our hearts that is when the real work of our clergy can earnestly begin.
As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.
There are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.
Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.
In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.
Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.
It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.'”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
In a recent post my fellow Rabbis Without Borders colleague, Alana Suskin, argues on behalf of those advocating an “Open Hillel” policy that would allow all speakers and events to be sponsored by Hillel, including anti-Israel and anti-Zionist perspectives. Alana’s central point can be summed up by the following quote from her article:
“Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good.”
The thesis she offers is that we should not be afraid to subject ourselves and our student communities to all sides of the discussion on Israel and to hear all the perspectives, even those we might vehemently disagree with. To do so opens us up to the nuance and complexity of the situation and makes us better informed and thus able to make better choices.
Her point is well taken and has a lot of truth to it. However, there is another dimension to this conversation that is worth mentioning.
First of all, as the former Orthodox rabbi at Harvard Hillel, the campus where the Open Hillel movement began, I want to acknowledge that this movement is not coming from a negative or bad place. The students who began it I had the privilege to know and share Shabbat meals with both in the Hillel dining hall and in our own home are tremendously bright, intelligent, sensitive and caring people. They are committed Jews and the broader Jewish community is fortunate to count them as part of the emerging leadership of our community.
Yet, the question about what sort of conversations should or should not be allowed at Hillel is not just about fostering multi-layered and complex dialogue. It is not just about reflecting the true range of discourse in the wider public square within the walls of Hillel. The policies an organization crafts should and must reflect the values it wishes to project. It is not about the intellectual richness and political diversity these open conversations bring because those same conversations could happen in any other space on any campus. It is about the values Hillel wishes to project both into the campus and within its own environment.
Hillel defines its relationship to Israel in the following way: “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work. Our goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis. Whether they want to engage in deep dialogue or are politically active in mobilizing others to support Israel, we enable students to share a rich connection to Israel and to each other as a people. Engaged and educated students can become committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.”
The mission of Hillel in regards to Israel is to cultivate future “committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.” The policies Hillel drafts after that ought to reflect that mission.
So the question is not: Does inviting anti-Israel speakers, advocates of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) or others similarly inclined enrich student’s intellectual journey but rather by inviting those speakers and events are we living up to the mission of the organization?
Hillel is about catalyzing a values-based community girded by its mission and vision. In order to do so sometimes you need to draw boundaries.
The objective of Open Hillel as stated on their website is to change the “standards for partnership” guidelines created by Hillel that excludes anti-Israel speakers. That is an attempt to change a policy but neglects the mission that drives that policy. Open Hillel rather needs to engage a conversation about whether Hillel’s mission in regards to Israel is reflective of the organization nowadays and then the policy conversation happens from there.
I, for one, believe strongly that Hillel’s policy is the right one and its commitment to creating “passionate supporters of Israel” within a context of “deep dialogue” among the wide and diverse tent that exists today of pro-Israel organizations is deeply needed and valuable. I welcome the community conversation spurred by Open Hillel but believe the current mission and policies that reflect that mission is the path Hillel ought to maintain as it continues to build a values-based community.
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On the eighth night of Hanukkah our synagogue’s young adult group hosted an event in collaboration with the Denver Jewish Chamber of Commerce. It was our 2nd annual Spin The Dreidel Networking evening that brought people from an array of sectors and professions out for a night of relationship building, networking and good Jewish food. What does business networking have in common with the work of building Jewish community? How does an event of that nature fit into the vision of a Jewish organization, particularly a synagogue?
The answer lies in exploring the nature of Jewish peoplehood for the young adult community. The young adult community, those within the millennial and Gen X demographics, are poised to become the majority of American society, including the American Jewish community, in the not so distant future. Jewish identity today in the 21st century is not our grandparents identity. It is layered in complexity and with competing interests, passions and commitments.
Is Jewish identity strictly religious? Is it ethnic? Is it nationalistic? Is it cultural? How do notions of Jewish peoplehood fit with other values like universalism and equality? How does one navigate the tensions between a particularistic identity and a universalistic worldview? What about the role of social justice? Environmentalism? Civil rights? In a digital world, is there a Jewish ethic and Jewish framing questions about the role of technology?
The understandings of Jewish peoplehood amongst young adults today is continuously evolving and shifting. It, for the most part, reflects these real conversations about the balancing of competing identities and interests. Young adult engagement today must be one that does not suppose to know all the answers and all the paths to take for the participants but rather transforms participants into stakeholders and owners of their own Jewish destiny. It is about providing the resources, knowledge and tools to each individual so that person can find their own voice in the Jewish community and become an active partner in the further development of Jewish life.
The next chapter in the Jewish journey of each individual can be written on one’s own terms and in one’s own unique way. It is fully embracing the complexities that people bring to the table and the multi-faceted dimensions of modern life.
So how did we end up with an annual Hanukkah networking event partnered with a business professional organization? We listened, partnered, collaborated and helped catalyze the Jewish journey of our young adult demographic. By embracing the varied and diverse ways Jews enter the conversation around peoplehood, identity, Jewish authenticity and meaning, we create the room for Jewish communal flourishing and it is precisely this flourishing of Jewish life that will enable a stronger Jewish communal future.
Hanukkah is just around the corner. The smell of the freshly cooked latkes. The dreidels spinning on a table next to brightly wrapped gelt. The light of the candles on the menorah brightening up the darkness. Hanukkah brings us in touch with our senses and with beautiful memories.
At the heart of the holiday beyond the latkes and the dreidels is the notion that when we truly believe and we truly strive nothing is out of our reach. Hanukkah is the yearly reminder that the story of the Jewish people is one of miracles abounding; of not accepting what seems like the inevitable and of believing in the impossible because, just maybe, we can make it possible. Judaism is a four thousand year protest against fate and against chance and Hanukkah is a magnificent part of our protest movement.
The singer and song writer, Julie Geller, has released a beautiful new music video that makes us ask ourselves: What is our miracle? Whether it is finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with in a world of more than 7 billion people or being saved from certain death by a passerby who knew CPR, what is the miracle that you lay claim to? Perhaps, the miracle is simply the gift of renewed life every day.
Watch the video and ask yourself, what is your miracle?
There has been a tremendous amount of ink spilled and keys pressed discussing the finer details of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Why has Conservative Judaism experienced such a sharp decline in the past 20 years? Why did so many Jews raised Orthodox 65 and older leave Orthodoxy (22%) while so many 30 and under remain Orthodox (83%)? Perhaps the most perplexing question: Who are the 1% of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that had a Christmas tree in their home last year?
These questions and so many more have been debated and argued about extensively in the weeks that have followed since the publication of the survey. The survey shows a Jewish community that is increasingly becoming more divided between those who affiliate and those who do not and between those who are on the liberal spectrum and those on the Orthodox spectrum. However, sometimes when examining the macro situation it is worthwhile to zoom in on the micro as the micro can be helpful in understanding the larger picture. After all, a large picture is only but a collection of many smaller pictures sitting together on the same canvas.
This week we welcomed our second son into the covenant of the Jewish people at his brit milah ceremony. It was a beautiful and joyous event that we were blessed to share with members of our synagogue community. It was also an incredible display of broad Jewish community and Jewish affiliation. In the room there were Jews who affiliated with synagogues of every denomination and Jews who affiliated with no synagogue. In contrast to the picture that is painted by surveys of the American Jewish landscape, the ceremony for our son was an example of what is happening on the ground in so many places, including our city of Denver.
Above is a picture of many of the rabbis of Denver who I have been blessed to call my friends and colleagues who joined us at the brit milah of our son, Moshe Aharon.
I present this as just one small illustration of all the cross-denominational community building and friendships that are formed throughout the contemporary American Jewish story. It is time we focused less on the results of surveys and more on the work of community collaboration and building bridges, which is at the heart of what can be an even more vibrant American Jewish story.
In the spring of 1921, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook became the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in modern times. This was almost 30 years prior to the formation of the State of Israel. Rabbi Kook was a visionary and inspirational leader who understood like very few others in his generation the currents of his time. He understood the revolutionary period of Jewish life that he was a part of and courageously and boldly responded to it. Rabbi Kook envisioned a Chief Rabbinate of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland that would be, like him, courageous and visionary in charting a course for the Jewish people in the brave new world of Jewish sovereignty and self-expression. He imagined that it would become an entity that would positively and profoundly impact the entire “national rebuilding process” of the Jewish homeland.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kook and for us this dream was not fulfilled. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has become an impediment to the re-invigoration of Jewish vibrancy. Instead of bravely charting a course for modern Jewish life, with its unprecedented entrance into national sovereignty and the restoration of Jewish political freedom, it has resisted that course and insisted on old paradigms from the period of Jewish exile and diaspora. There are exceptions, of course, like Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l’s work on behalf of the wives of missing Israeli soldiers after the Yom Kippur War or his halakhic (Jewish legal) stance on the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, but they are few and far in between. Rather the organization of the Chief Rabbinate seeks to coerce through legal and political force the State of Israel to adopt its decidedly non-Zionist views of Jewish theology and practice.
This coercive influence has begun to extend across the Atlantic into the United States as well. Several years ago the Chief Rabbinate sought to impose its heavily bureaucratic and highly centralized system of conversion unto the North American Orthodox rabbinate. Many in the American Orthodox rabbinate acquiesced to the demand and created a strictly centralized system of conversion courts in major American cities and imposed uniform non-halakhic standards on all rabbis part of their system. For example, a couple living far away from the Jewish centers of the United States would find it very hard to convert themselves and their family because one of the requirements is enrollment in Orthodox Jewish day school for all the children, which is impossible for anyone living in a city that does not have an Orthodox Jewish day school. This newly created requirement for enrollment for all 12 years of schooling in an Orthodox Jewish day school as a prerequisite for conversion is not be to be found in any code of Jewish law simply because it was invented as part of this capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate.
Recently, the aggressive posture of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has taken another sharp step. One of the most common activities any rabbi does is to write letters for congregants attesting to their Jewishness for the purpose of making aliyah to Israel or getting married in Israel. This is highly common. The community rabbi knows the congregation better than anyone else and thus can write a simple letter stating that they know the people in question to be Jewish. This was never questioned until now. Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote a powerful essay at the Times of Israel describing the rejection of a letter he wrote for a couple. He is not alone. The continued move towards centralization of power and the imposition of an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic system has and will continue to lead to abuses of that power.
Two years ago while I was working as a campus rabbi at Harvard, I had the great privilege to welcome Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was at the time the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to campus for a visit. He spoke on a panel with Professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman. On that panel, Rabbi Sacks was asked about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the damage it has brought unto Israeli society. I will never forget his reply to that question. Rabbi Sacks argued that a Chief Rabbinate ought to forge its influence through persuasion and not through coercion. The Chief Rabbi must be able to articulate his vision and desires through the power of words not through the power of law. The Chief Rabbinate of the United Kingdom, and Rabbi Sacks in particular, is a prime example of that persuasive influence and the good it can bring. People may disagree with some of the approaches of the British Chief Rabbi and they are free to do so while the Chief Rabbi does not have the power of the state to impose his will on them, only the power of his words.
The time has come for those who care about the future of the Jewish people to stand up and be counted as those not willing to give in to the demands of a power hungry and corrupt Chief Rabbinate. I generally do not advocate for diaspora Jews to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the State of Israel but this is a powerful exception. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel impacts all of us and is continuing its attempt to further its reach into our communities. Ending the power of the Chief Rabbinate is good for Israel and good for the Jewish people worldwide and together we can make that happen.