This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.
Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:
“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.
I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.
It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.
Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.
The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.
Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?
A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.
In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.
It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.
The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.
Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.
When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.
Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.
More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs. Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.
Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice. Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.
The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.
In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.
This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.
Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
Two moments of communal life have come to my attention recently that speak to the dangers of exclusion in the building of successful community that are worth discussing. Without disclosing the organizations themselves because these problems can occur nationwide and in any organization, it is important to examine the situations and what they teach us about working to build inclusive community representation because ultimately only when everyone is at the table can true civil discourse happen and true decisions on behalf of the community at large really take place.
The first incident involves an umbrella organization that is comprised of representation from diverse segments of the broader community. This umbrella organization meets periodically to discuss issues relevant to the community at large and to take stands on legislative and communal points of interest. This organization was presented with an application for membership from an entity whose ideology does not resonate with every member at the table. They are undoubtedly an organization that fits criteria for membership in this umbrella group according to the bylaws but because enough voting members find discomfort with some of the stances this organization takes, their application was rejected.
The second incident involves a new entity that also wishes to be an umbrella organization. This entity wishes to exert influence and leadership over important resources within the community and to be a critical player in shaping the religio-cultural discourse within the community at large. The first major act of this nascent organization was an act of exclusion by denying membership to entities that, by all reasonable measures, would and should be members of this new umbrella organization but deviate too far from the personal mold of religious character of the majority of the membership. In other words, the common uniting characteristics between those “in” and those “out” are enormous but they diverge on some specific sub-denominational identity markers that make the majority who is “in” feel uncomfortable to the extent that those on the “out” were rejected even before a formal application process transpired.
The intention for the actions of exclusion by both groups is the same. They believe that by casting to the margins those they do not personally agree with on every issue they will help build a community of more consensus and a community more in line with their vision of what it should look like. The reality is that this is far from what happens. In fact, the opposite is true. By creating a climate of “in” and “out” in communal umbrella organizations you are not at all shaping a single community or building consensus but rather contributing towards the very breakdown of community. The consensus is false and instead of one unified community, multiple oppositional communities take shape and begin to emerge. The fault lines begin to become developed to the point wherein people separate from other people, organizations from other organizations and finally the divisiveness becomes so destructive nothing positive can be done.
While, on the other hand, if each of these organizations had accepted as members those entities that fit the criteria for membership but who contain some specific stances that make members in the umbrella organization feel uncomfortable then a true moderating balance would have developed. It is in the absence of those who think differently or who can challenge basic assumptions that extremist positions develop. The power of an umbrella organization that contains disparate views is that moderation occurs in a bi-directional fashion. Furthermore, if part of the mission of an umbrella organization is to exert influence over policy and legislative decisions that impact community that very mission becomes severely compromised when a portion of the community, which by organizational bylaws should be at the table but is not.
The aim of communal exclusion is usually done in order to try and shape an ideal version of community according to whatever vision those enabling the exclusion seek. Yet, community is comprised of those who are in the community, including those with whom one does not agree on every iota, and writing them out of organizational boardrooms does not make them disappear.
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.
I recently read a lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, delivered at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in 1968 at the South Manchester Synagogue in Manchester, England. Rabbi Lamm was invited to speak about the contemporary rabbinate and in it he bemoans the diminishing and diminished role of the rabbi in American and English synagogues. He decries the relegating of the rabbi to a purely functionary position:
Unfortunately, in the eyes of our contemporaries and even, alas, our own eyes, we are no longer Rabbanim in the grand tradition, but professional generalists in charge of communal trivia, pious superficialities, and ritualistic irrelevancies. We have, under the impress of an all but inexorable sociological development, yielded one realm after another of special and significant rabbinic competence. We have surrendered our Halakhic positions to the Yeshivot and Rashei Yeshivah; mahshavah [Jewish thought] to the professors of religion and theology; and communal leadership to the professional fund-raisers and executives… What we are left with is enough to discourage any intelligent man — a required weekly sermon; ritualistic “prayers” dutifully pronounced at official occasions and listened to by no one, probably not even by the Deity; minor counseling; Hebrew school supervision; and the development of just enough dignity to stand on when our own spiritual “authority” is challenged… No committed and ambitious young man should ever aspire to become a functionary in an arid community; certainly not to become a parish butterfly.
The traditional American synagogue is sinking under the weight of apathy and disinterest. The very thing that used to bring American Jews in large numbers to synagogue life is now turning away the new generations: formality at the expense of spiritual feeling; procedure at the expense of passion and committee, sub-committee and task forces at the expense of mission. I firmly believe that declining membership numbers, fundraising woes and empty seats are symptoms of a much larger problem that once addressed will help alleviate those immediate issues.
A solution that would go a long way in addressing these systemic issues would be developing more mission driven synagogues and more rabbis articulating and living by their own personal mission. Neither mission driven synagogues nor mission driven rabbis are anything new. There are synagogues and rabbis throughout North America whose work and purpose is deeply inspiring and transformative. We just need to cultivate more of them.
What a mission driven synagogue is I will leave to another blog post in the future but for now I would like to focus in on a mission driven rabbi. A rabbi who lives and breathes his mission is a rabbi who does not see his or her job only to offer quality sermons or run a good staff meeting but sees his or her work as bringing forth a vision of Judaism in the place in which he/she works and in the lives of the people he/she leads. A mission driven rabbi can be inspiring at times, motivating at other times and sometimes frustrating to the people he/she leads because that rabbi will not compromise the mission even though adapting it to the particular place is desirable.
Mission driven rabbis are often accused of having an “agenda.” The word itself means nothing more than having a list of things to get done but has taken on a negative connotation. It has come to mean the rabbi wishes to hoist a particular platform unto their community. This is absolutely not what being mission driven is all about. To be mission driven is to articulate the vision and then be able to incorporate the feedback of the community to make it home grown and sustainable. It is to offer a compelling picture for the future and empower the entire community to actualize it.
A mission that answers the spiritual needs of the membership and that speaks loudly to the needs of the larger community is a mission that motivates people to support the institution, to join the institution and to want to simply be in the room.
Rabbi Lamm began his speech by declaring that: “I believe we have slipped into a rut, but we are not lost. We are in many ways stricken, but not irreversibly. I submit that we can still recapture our commanding role as spiritual leaders and effective guides if we bestir ourselves–before it is too late.” May this truly be so.
Political discourse finds expression everywhere it can. People discuss their convictions over dinner, at water coolers in the office, in the gym and nowadays through their Facebook profile picture. When the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on two cases related to same-sex marriage people began to change their profile picture to a symbol from the Human Rights Campaign to express their support for complete civil marriage equality. Facebook was painted red as the red logo with an equal sign in the middle became ubiquitous. Those who did not change their picture were almost making a political statement by doing nothing.
I chose not to modify my Facebook profile picture out of a sense of discomfort with politicizing the medium of a profile picture on Facebook. Yet, nonetheless, this is an issue that has great importance. How should a sensitive, politically aware and thinking Modern Orthodox individual approach the topic? There are a multitude of approaches, attitudes and perspectives and what is written here represents no one else other than myself but is one direction that I offer for contemplation.
Melissa on the blog Redefining Rebbetzin contributed her thoughts to the issue and I would highly recommend people to review what she has to say because it is a perspective sorely missing from the current discourse in the Modern Orthodox (or broad Orthodox) community. She essentially argues that there is a fundamental distinction between what we call “marriage” in civil language and what we call “marriage” in a religiously framed Jewish language and they are not the same thing. One can argue for equal rights and protections under civil law for all types of people without needing to compromise the internal theological language of a particular faith tradition.
I believe Melissa is correct in her assessment and that many religiously conservative Jews conflate the two types of marriage and imbue civil marriage with an aura of holiness and sacredness that it does not possess. Perhaps this is an area where many Jews have inadvertently adopted the dominant outlook of the religiously conservative Christian community endowing a mechanism of the state with religious significance.
In addition, I would offer another thought to further the discussion. The words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller are powerful in the sentiment they convey, which should be a guiding principle for all historically conscious Jews:
When the Nazis came for the Communists, I remained silent; I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I remained silent; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.
This famous poem by Pastor Niemoller represents the sentiments of all too many German citizens who did not protest the increasing restrictions of civil protections and liberties by the Nazi government. Each increasing restriction was targeted towards specific minority groups so that others could distance themselves from a sense of responsibility because they were not of that group. Additionally, many people in 1930s Germany (and other parts of Europe) did have significant political, philosophical or theological differences with many groups that were being targeted and of course many were just simply prejudiced towards some minority groups to begin with.
The lesson Niemoller conveys is that when the state begins restricting its protections and rights from one group, or in the case of Nazi Germany actively persecuting one group, it does not take long for other groups to become implicated. The path of civil restrictions with plenty of requisite rationalizations and justifications rarely ends at just one minority group.
Jews, of all minority faith communities, should be hyper-sensitive to the danger of restrictions of civil liberties, protections, rights and benefits against any one minority group. We know, perhaps more than any other faith community, what it means to be denied privileges, rights, benefits and protections because of a litany of justifications and rationalizations. Those justifications changed throughout the course of Jewish history dependent on time, place and culture (i.e. scientific, political, religious, cultural) but they all served the same goal: To deny the Jewish people the same place in the fabric of civil life that others had.
Therefore, it seems both possible and responsible, to both always be on the side of the increasing of civil liberties and protections while firmly holding true to the unique outlook and language of our religious worldview. To do both is to be simultaneously in tune with the imperatives drawn out from two millennia of victimhood and to be faithful to the halakha as understood through the ages.
A couple weeks ago news stations around the country featured the story of an 87-year old woman, a resident of a nursing home in Bakersfield, California, who was denied CPR by a nurse even while the 9-1-1 operator pleaded with her to administer the life saving intervention. The audio recording of that 9-1-1 conversation sends chills down our spine as we listen knowing that her refusal to offer treatment results in that elderly woman’s death. The nurse claimed to the 9-1-1 operator that it was against the policy of the nursing home to attempt life saving intervention by any of the employees and her sole job was to only call for help and wait with the patient. The facility later confirmed that this is indeed their policy.
The response to this incident was an overwhelming display of horror and disgust. How could anyone sit idly by while a person quite literally dies in front of them? This is even more pronounced when the person who refuses to help is a nurse, a member of the medical profession. This case and the wrong committed is so clear and unequivocal that it requires little commentary, if any.
The situations that are obvious are not where the struggle lies. We are defined not by doing the right thing when it was obvious but by the times we navigated uncertainty and chose to act properly and justly. Life is made up more of the gray than the black and white. How do we navigate the uncharted? How do we find direction when there is no immediate and visceral reaction of what we should or should not do?
This is what placing oneself into the fabric of a religious tradition is all about. It is embracing the limits of the “I” and finding strength in shared wisdom and collective insight. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the sooner one can accept the boundaries of what they, alone, can decide or figure out — that not all situations are as obvious in what one should do as the case of the nursing home in California — the sooner one discovers real strength and moral bravery.
Oftentimes, our society’s stark individualism is traced back to the experience of the rugged Western frontier of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, nothing could be farther from the truth. A man or woman who decided to venture out and settle the front range of the Colorado Rockies or attempt to make a go of it in Southwestern Utah by themselves was not only doomed to failure but risked their very lives. The Western frontier would not have been transformed and struggling farms and communities in their infancy would not have overcome all obstacles and survived if not for the total embrace of the power of the “we” and the inter-dependence of one person to the other.
There are times where the decision to make is obvious. Those times we can act alone, confident in our course. The majority of our lives are not composed of such moments. A community of ideas and a faith tradition connect us to wisdom that has been forged through the test of time and hammered in the fires of experience that transcends the lifetime of any one person. Let us not abandon the the power of community and the teachings it offers in the absolute pursuit of the “I”.
There is a real difference between counseling an individual who has experienced a traumatic moment and experiencing a traumatic moment personally. I dedicate a great deal of my professional time to shepherding people through some of life’s most difficult challenges. As a rabbi I often find myself in the role of comforter, active listener, prayer facilitator and mediator. After years of helping others it can almost become easy to forget that the very real world of fear, trauma and victimization can find me as well – that I too am a part of this grand drama we call life and life can be vicious sometimes.
This week my family and I became another statistic as an unknown person or persons damaged our house and attempted to burglarize us. I am thankful beyond words to God that no one was hurt and that the shrill sound of our alarm and the swift arrival of the uniformed heroes of the Denver Police Department sent them running. Yet, nonetheless, this act of intrusion has made me feel vulnerable in a palpable way.
We build for ourselves walls of protection that are in so many ways illusory. I buy a house in a nice neighborhood because theft will be less likely to occur. I try not to cross streets against the red light because I will be less likely to get hurt. I maintain a conservative retirement portfolio to minimize the risk of losing it all. I do all these things and more but all it takes is one chance occurrence, one unforeseen and unaccounted for incident to turn all of our self-assurance and planning on its head.
Vulnerability. The word itself does not even roll off the tongue easily. It is a state of being that we strive and yearn to avoid at all cost. It is a state of being that I have worked very hard my entire life to never enter. However, this week a random individual or individuals chose to target my house and by so doing exposed me to the bitter, harsh and naked truth of how utterly vulnerable we really truly are. It is not a good and pleasant feeling but it is real.
How to build from the perspective of vulnerability is the challenge. How to embrace the truth of our vulnerability while also embracing the equally powerful truth of the overall goodness of our fellow people is the work that lays ahead. May I and all of us truly meet the challenge.
Two weeks ago the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a statement formally distancing themselves from the organization known as JONAH: Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. It was in 2004 that the RCA first suggested in an earlier statement that rabbis might consider referring Jews struggling with homosexuality to that organization.
In the time since 2004 numerous issues have arisen with the therapeutic practices conducted by JONAH and other similar organizations. Serious allegations have arisen about the abusive nature of the treatment and subsequent mental health issues that arise for the patients, including higher risk of suicide. These change therapy clinics are indeed facing tests in court in both New Jersey and California, including JONAH.
The RCA after consultations with experts in psychology and law as well as rabbinic guides publicly decided to distance themselves from JONAH. In so doing the RCA has made a not so subtle move towards recognizing that homosexuality might not be something that can be “repaired” or changed in an individual. While the RCA has just begun this process, two and a half years ago hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, educators and communal leaders declared publicly that homosexual Jews are deserving of dignity and respect.
It follows logically that if homosexuals are deserving of dignity and respect that would translate into equal protection and equal rights under civil law. Thus, a colleague of mine in Portland, Maine, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, recently published an opinion piece in the local paper celebrating the passage of same-sex marriage equality in Maine. Rabbi Herzfeld has received countless calls and emails thanking him for his thoughts and he has also received numerous concerns that what he advocates is a slippery slope. If he supports civil marriage equality for homosexuals then why not for polygamists, practitioners of bestiality, etc.
The slippery slope argument can be very persuasive and it can also be paralyzing. The fear of what might be next can inhibit any action at all. Indeed, one does need to carefully consider future implications of their actions but after careful consideration and the weighing of ethical, moral, legal and social responsibilities one must make a decision.
One also needs to remember that there is another slippery slope out there, one that is equally powerful. The slippery slope of denying privileges and rights to one group very easily leads to the denial of those same privileges and rights to the next group and the next group and so on. After all, it was this same slippery slope argument that played heavily in the polemic of individuals opposed to emancipation, civil rights and desegregation. We may look back at those arguments now and find them foolish but many, many Americans did not during the time.
While we carefully consider the slippery slope of increased rights and privileges to an ever expanding circle of groups and constituencies, let us also consider the slippery slope of decreased rights and privileges to an equally expanding circle of groups and constituencies. Which slippery slope would we fear more? Which possible outcome is more damaging to our national character: a never-ending increasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups or a never-ending decreasing of rights to a never-ending list of minority groups? This is the question we must carefully and honestly consider.
I do not have an easy answer for you to ponder on this question. My aim is to provide another frame by which to view the question and allow you to come to your own conclusions. The Jewish way is not always in readily packaged quick soundbites of an answer but rather with offering the questions to grapple and to wrestle with.