Author Archives: Joshua Ratner

About Joshua Ratner

Rabbi Joshua Ratner is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Cheshire, CT. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2012, Rabbi Ratner was a Joseph Neubauer Fellow and also earned a Master's Degree in Midrash and a Certificate in Pastoral Care. He also worked as an attorney for five years prior to entering rabbinical school. Rabbi Ratner is passionate about the interplay between Judaism, public policy, and American culture. He has received training in congregation-based community organizing and was part of the original rabbinical student cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows. He and his wife, Dr. Elena Ratner, are the proud parents of Dimitri, Eli, and Gabriella.

Putting God On The Geirut List

Crepuscular_rays_09-11-2010_1I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.

But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present.  While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with.  Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.

The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.

But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice).  oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.

So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.

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Posted on October 7, 2014

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The Sunrise Of A New Year

Sunshine_through_trees_(7699437830)I am emotionally fatigued by all the heartbreak of this past summer. I am drained by the tragedy of the bloodshed spilled in Israel and in Gaza. I am exhausted by the constant reports of slaughter and barbarism from ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and the separatist fighting in Ukraine. I am overwhelmed by the suffering of those stricken with Ebola in West Africa or with grief and anger in Ferguson. It seemed impossible to turn on the news this summer without some moral travesty dominating the headlines.

But with Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, I don’t want to stay focused on tragedy and heartbreak. I want to usher in the New Year with hope and optimism. And that is why I am joining thousands of other Jews in heading to the People’s Climate March in NYC on September 21st.

My wife recently asked me, “why do you care so much about climate change, when there are so many pressing issues that need to be addressed?” My initial reaction was to explain to her that I agreed with her that there were many issues demanding our national attention: from immigration reform to the minimum wage; from armed engagement with ISIS to fixing our failing schools. But of all these issues, none poses the existential threat of climate change. Rising sea levels, ferocious storms, and devastating droughts threaten billions of lives. The sheer enormity of the consequences requires us to prioritize climate change.

While true, I don’t think this answer does justice to the cause. There is something deeper, more amorphous, and less scientific that I believe animates me to care so much about climate change: its universalism. The climate doesn’t care if you are a believer in climate change or a skeptic; if you are religious or secular; wealthy or poor. It impacts all of us. And, conversely, climate change is not something any of us individuallynot even the Presidentcan remedy. It will take a movement, not unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Women’s Rights Movement of the 70s, or the Gay Rights/Marriage Equality Movement of the 00s to galvanize a resistant and inert populace to change. The solutions to our warming climate are fairly simplewe need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, notably coal, and increase our usage of renewable sources of energy. But we have run out of time to do so one Prius at a time, one solar panel at a time, one LED lightbulb at a time. Climate change cannot be just a political or technocratic issue. We need to sound the proverbial shofar to alert us to the moral repugnancy of our present energy policies. We need to create a groundswell of righteous indignation!

Finally, as a rabbi, I find environmental advocacy to be theologically profound. My basic running theology is that God wants us to act as partners in bringing about the world God envisions. Perhaps nowhere is this relationship made more explicit than in Genesis 2:15, when God took Adam “and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work with the land and to protect it.” God entrusts us to be the stewards of the created world, so climate change advocacy, to me, is a sacred duty we dare not abdicate.

This brings us back to the People’s Climate March. Religious leaders from multiple faiths, along with secular environmentalists, labor leaders, and others, have convened what may well be the environmental march in history. The March will precede a critical UN summit on the climate crisis, and the hope is that if enough world leaders are overwhelmed by the power and passion of those at the March that they will be willing to take courageous action to sign a new climate treaty. But even if this doesn’t happen, even if no treaty emerges from the UN, we still can succeed. Through moral suasion, through “praying with our feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, we can make climate change into the next great transformative movement. May God grant us the wisdom and courage to make 5775 the year the world finally turns from stagnation to action. I hope to see you on the 21st!

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on September 9, 2014

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The Audacity Of Celebrating Happiness

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We Jews are great at gathering together in times of crisis, but how often do we get together to celebrate joy? This was the illuminating challenge a mohel offered at a bris I recently attended. And it rings true. We are doing a tremendous job of rallying support for Israel solidarity gatherings during Operation Protective Edge. Jews of many religious stripes make a point to show up to services on the High Holy Days, where we sit for hours in solemn reflection, penitence, and apprehension. Perhaps largely due to the recurrence of tragedy and persecution in Jewish history, we have learned to do sad well.

But where are Jewish audiences on Simhat Torah, a day dedicated to rejoicing at arguably the most important feature of Judaism—the ongoing engagement with the Bible?  How often do we get together with friends or relatives to celebrate milestones and accomplishments?  As I plan a birthday party for my daughter, I wonder when it became fashionable to stop having birthday celebrations as an adult. As I begin a new position this summer, I wonder why we only commemorate the end of past jobs and not—Linked In notifications aside—rejoice communally at new ones.

I write this post with Robin Williams’ death weighing heavily on my mind. Though I never met him, I feel like Mr. Williams was a big part of my life. As a Gen Xer, I grew up with Mork and Mindy, Comic Relief, HBO specials, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam (at the risk of dating myself, if you happened to miss the 80s, I highly recommend you download the above). His talent was so breathtaking, his wit so lightning-fast, and yet so heartfelt and genuine, that I often found myself laughing so hard I didn’t realize I was crying as well. His comedic virtuosity was “manic, uninhibited, seemingly barreling along on an arbitrary stream of consciousness but actually arranged carefully around subject categories: drugs, politics, sex, marriage, fatherhood, among the many.” Later, he managed to play off of this exuberant, hurricane-in-a-bottle ability by taking on subdued roles. As the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott put it in this obituary, “Watching him acting in earnest, you could not help but be aware of the exuberance, the mischief, that was being held in check, and you couldn’t help but wonder when, how or if it would burst out. That you knew what he was capable of made his feats of self-control all the more exciting.”

WIlliams’ ability to mine comedy from tragedy, to inspire and encourage, was not only his signature talent but also his biography. He was plagued by addiction to cocaine and alcohol, watching his close friend—and fellow comedic giant—John Belushi die of an overdose.  He also was thought to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, which might well explain his apparent suicide.  But Williams somehow refused to let his mental health, marital, and other problems obfuscate his prodigious talent.  He used his personal demons as fuel for his stand-up routines, showing the courage to discuss mental illness and addiction when few comedians did. He helped raise millions of dollars in his charity work.  And he showed that a comic doesn’t have to demean or insult others to bring a smile or a laugh.

So today, despite the tenuous cease-fire in Israel/Gaza, despite the general mayhem that continues to unfold in the Middle East, despite the ebola outbreak in Africa, despite the immigration crisis in America, despite the global crisis that is global warming, and on and on, I am going to take time out to listen to Robin Williams, zichrono livracha (may his memory be for a blessing). I am going to gather my family together tonight and we are going to laugh, heartily and with gusto.  And in his honor, I am going to dedicate myself to seeking opportunities to celebrate happiness and gratitude in the coming year.  I hope you will join me.

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Posted on August 12, 2014

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How Should We React To Our Oasis Of Acceptance?

shutterstock_94904461I used to think that there were two different mindsets when it came to living Jewishly: the experience of those living in Israel and the experience of those, like myself, living in the Diaspora. But the virulence of anti-Semitism that has erupted over the past few few weeks in response to the Israel-Gaza conflict, as I will describe below, has shaken this paradigm in my mind.  And it has caused me to think about a brand new question: What does it mean to be a Jewish-American at a time when Israel is strong and secure but when fellow Jews in other parts of the world are being persecuted for being Jewish?

The response in many parts of the world to the latest outbreak of Israel-Gaza violence has been nothing short of stunning. In Turkey, a columnist from a leading pro-government paper wrote a letter to the Chief Rabbi of Turkey in which he said it was not a bad thing for Jews to be killed just for being Jews and that those who “come out with your Jewish identity” and support Israel deserve “an eye for an eye approach.” Paris has broken out in spates of anti-Jewish violence that are eerily reminiscent of Kristallnacht, with pro-Palestinian mobs targeting Jewish shops, lighting smoke bombs, and throwing stones and bottles at riot police. Nine synagogues have been attacked in France since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, prompting a resurgence in the vigilance of Jewish Defense Leagues there. A leader of Germany’s Jewish community said some of the German demonstrators have shown an “explosion of evil and violence-prone hatred of Jews.

In fact, things have gotten so bad in Europe that the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy on Tuesday condemned the rise in anti-Semitic protests and violence in their countries over the conflict in Gaza, saying they will do everything possible to combat it. By castigating native Jewish populations in the press merely for being Jewish; by rioting, pillaging synagogues, and shouting anti-Semitic screeds, those who, before, claimed that being anti-Israel was distinguishable from being anti-Semitic now have removed their facades. The degree of anti-Semitic hate in the world recently reported by the Anti Defamation League (they found that more than 25% of those surveyed harbor deeply anti-Semitic attitudes) is, tragically, being confirmed in real time through actual—not to mention social—media.

Yet here I sit, in the U.S., and I don’t feel any of this animus. To be sure, there are episodic bouts of anti-Semitism here, such as the tragic shooting at the Kansas City JCC a few months ago, but I never have felt an existential threat to myself, my family, or my community merely for being Jewish.   To the contrary, as has been assessed ad naseum, 94% of U.S. Jews feel proud to be Jewish. And, a more recent Pew study found that Judaism is more accepted than Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, or any other faith in America. Not only are Jews thriving in America, but we also live in a country whose political elite strongly endorse Israel. Unlike the criticism and acrimony in Europe and the Middle East, the House and the Senate both passed unanimous resolutions supporting Israel in its response to Operation Protective Edge.

How, then, should I reconcile the psychological dissonance of my own security in my Jewish identity at a time when fellow Jews are being threatened for holding to that same identity? Obviously, empathy and support for our beleaguered brothers and sisters, through the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, and other major organizations, are important. So, too, is vigilance in showing the world when anti-Israel attitudes really are anti-Semitic. But there is more soul-searching I feel I need to do, more theological and philosophical struggle to try to come to grips with what it actually means to be a Jew today in light of this reality. I encourage you to send me your thoughts on how you have dealt with this struggle, and I pray that peace will soon return to our Holy Land.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 22, 2014

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Let It Go

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512px-Pinemere_Camp_groundsI don’t normally see myself as a curmudgeon. Ever since I can remember, I have erred on the side of being iconoclastic and even a little bit irreverent. Rules, norms, and social mores, to borrow from a Jewish context, generated a vote but not a veto on my conduct.

So I was surprised to find myself, this past week, bemoaning the lack of decorum during the recitation of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) at a summer camp I was visiting.  For those who have never experienced Jewish summer camp, singing is usually a boisterous affair. Songs and prayers are sung loudly, with catchy tunes to make them easier for campers to learn and remember. Hand gestures and more ornate choreography are created to accompany the singing. The Birkat Hamazon, whose length creates challenging opportunities for young campers to learn, is particularly susceptible to these embellishments. I generally applaud these efforts, and remember fondly the frenzied cacophony that was the singing of the Birkat at the Camp Ramah I attended in California.

But there was something that agitated me here: in the midst of the prayer, on several occasions, the students would toss their kippot or hats into the air in celebration, as if they were graduating from college. I thought this was going too far. I spoke with a few other guest rabbis in attendance and they all murmured their agreement. It’s one thing to sing loudly, we thought, and another to take an object of ritual significance and throw it in the air in the middle of a prayer (during which they should have their heads covered at all times). I was tempted to speak to the camp director and tell him about our concerns for this display of irreverence and disrespect.

And then it (or, more accurately, the 10 year-old version of myself) hit me: how can I, or any rabbi, complain about young Jews demonstrating too much ruach, too much spirit, while praying? So what if they threw their kippot in the air a few times—they were praying, feeling connected to one another and to our tradition, and enjoying it! With Jewish institutions all over America struggling to engage the next generation of Jews, here, at this camp, were hundreds of children and teenagers singing and dancing together, in Hebrew, without any signs of complaint. College-age counselors were teaching elementary school students fun and creative ways to get into the prayer and actually understand what the Birkat is saying!

I reminded myself of the story of Eldad and Medad. They were two individuals who were overcome with prophecy in the Israelite camp. Joshua, appalled at their lack of decorum, urged Moses to restrain them. Moses responded, “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29)  To which I’d like to add: If only all our Jewish youth had the exuberance of these campers!

May the Jewish community—from funders to communal institutions—continue to find ways to enable more of our children and teenagers to taste the passion and delight of engaged Jewish experience that summer camp provides. And may old fogies like me pause from our propensity to judge critically what the kids today are doing so that we can appreciate the beauty and rarity of this passion and delight. To quote from Elsa, the latest sage from Disney, “let it go!”

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 8, 2014

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#BringBackOurYouthEngagement

kiidnapped IsraelisOn Sunday I helped organize a rally at our JCC in support of the three teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er, who were kidnapped last week in Gush Etzion. As part of our advertising, we used the Twitter hashtag “#bringbackourboys” that was developed to bring world attention to this horrific kidnapping. During the rally, one of our speakers made reference to this hashtag and its famous predecessor, “#bringbackourgirls,” created in reference to the nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in April 2014 by the Islamist group Boko Haram.

And then I looked around the room. Perhaps I had been too nervous before then—nervous about what I was going to say; nervous about whether enough people would show up to fill the chairs—to notice that there was no one in the audience under the age of 50. No one. Not a soul.

The #bringbackourgirls campaign captured the attention and enthusiasm of Americans young and old, religious and secular, politically active and indifferent. It captivated world attention with its moral resonance and clear message. But where were the young Jews in the crowd yesterday? Why did the kidnapping of students their own age not resonate enough to take 30 minutes out of their Sunday evening?

I’m sure there are communities that have held vigils where teenagers and young adults have shown up. Particularly in more frum communities, where studying in yeshivot in Israel as teenagers is more common, the connection to the kidnapped boys (especially to the American, Naftali) might prompt a better young turnout. But I imagine that the experience in my community was more, rather than less, common.  And it is not just at this event. Look around you at Yom Hazikaron or Yom Hashoah gatherings and see who is with you: the elderly, those who went to Zionist summer camps generations ago, and a handful of Israeli expats. In another generation or two, will we even commemorate these days in America?

The diagnosis for this inattention is far easier, I fear, than the treatment. Younger generations lack the experiential connection to the Holocaust and to Israel’s wars for existential survival. They/we don’t have relatives who survived the Shoah and probably never have heard a survivor speak. They didn’t stay up at night, on pins and needles, afraid that Israel might be wiped out in 1948, 1967, or 1973. Without these experiences, we lack a visceral connection to Israelis as a people.  What happens in Israel is a news item, something to note, perhaps, and then go on with our days here.

So how do we build a deeper, emotional connection to Israel and its people? I’d love to hear your ideas.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 24, 2014

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Requiem for a Suburban Shul

How do you close a synagogue? This is the question I have been confronting for the past few months as the shul I have served these past two years edged closer and closer to our final Shabbat this past weekend. I offer the following reflections of what I fear will be an increasingly frequent phenomenon in American Jewish life.req2

Once we concluded that it was no longer financially feasible to remain an ongoing synagogue, we—our board of directors, led by our President, our staff, and myself—made sure that we would move forward with transparency and dignity.  We sent a letter to all our congregants informing them of our situation and that we wanted to hear from them.  We gave them three options: 1) merge with another existing synagogue; 2) downsize to a small space and eliminate our overhead, including our religious school staff, and try to keep on going as a Havurah; or 3) close down and help members transition to new synagogues. After numerous conversations, it became clear that the vast majority of our congregants preferred option 3.

We spoke with a local Reform synagogue and a nearby Conservative one to apprise them of our situation and coordinated open houses so that our members could see what Shabbat services were like at each. We did not push affiliation at either venue but encouraged our members to make their own decisions, based on their individual needs, and to let us know once they did so we could keep the community in the loop. Once people began to make some decisions, we held a synagogue-wide meeting so that we could acknowledge the emotional trauma of closing down; let people know what others were thinking; and answer additional questions people had about the process going forward.

I also felt that it was important that we finish off our synagogue year with integrity. Though morale was low, our indefatigable religious school director and I made sure that we carried forward with our curriculum, including various innovative end-of-year events, and didn’t let talk about who was going where seep into our students’ in-class conversations. When the media got wind of rumors about our troubles—before any final decisions had been made about our future—we reiterated again and again that we were open and active through June and would get back to them if and when any final decisions were made. We also spent a good deal of attention planning for a Bat Mitzvah that was set to take place a week before we closed; focusing on the joy of this life-cycle event was a bulwark against the pessimism of our impending closure. We arranged for our three Torah scrolls to go to happy new homes, arranged for our Yahrzeit plaques to go to another synagogue where Kaddish could be said annually, and invited our congregants to come reclaim items they had donated or items that held personal resonance for them.

As we drew closer to our closing, we thought it best to have a farewell Shabbat service. We invited current and past members to attend, catered a Kiddush, and held a lovely tribute service.  We honored various groups with aliyot, from our founders to our teachers to those who cooked and cleaned for our events. We had our Bnai Mitzvah alumni help lead the Torah service and had our current religious school students end our service with a rousing Adon Olam. I also gave time during my sermon for people to share their memories and say their farewells. In my final address, I did not shy away from the sadness I, and many others felt, at our inability to live up to our potential. But I also thought it was important to acknowledge all those who had sacrificed so much time and treasure to make this a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, these past fifteen years.  And I ended with a kernel of hope, suggesting the metaphor of a supernova:

“Kol Ami [the name of our synagogue] is like a supernova. A supernova is what happens when a star dies; it is an explosion so bright that it blocks out everything else around it. Similarly, sadness from Kol Ami’s closing is all we can think about right now, overwhelming us from finding anything positive to express. But the remnants of a supernova explosion, the elements that emerge after the explosion cools, form the very particles needed for the creation of new stars and planets.  Just as our world could not have been formed without a previous star exploding, it is my hope and prayer that we will take precious remnants from our history at Kol Ami and use them to form new planets of Jewish existence and engagement in the coming years. Every end is also a new beginning.”

The closure of any synagogue is tragic for its congregants and a loss for the broader community. While we have found new homes for most of our families, I worry about the empty-nesters in our midst who don’t want to start over with a new shul but yearn for the fellowship of the community they have come to enjoy. I also fear that our shul closure is the proverbial canary in a coal mine alert about the prospects for observant Jewish communities in suburban and exurban America.  But by attempting to close our shul with mindfulness and derekh eretz, I hope that we at least were able to mitigate some of the pain and anguish our congregants experienced.

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Posted on June 10, 2014

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An Israel Parade for All Who Love Israel

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parade2On June 1, tens of thousands of Jews will flock on 5th Avenue to participate in the 50th annual Celebrate Israel Parade. This year, perhaps more than ever, this is a parade not to be missed.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York is the organizer of the parade. In recent years, the parade has been marked by controversy because of the participation of left-wing groups such as B’tselem and the New Israel Fund that some on the right viewed as insufficiently pro-Israel.

In an effort to thwart conflict this year and affirm that everyone who participates in the parade is, in fact, celebrating Israel, the JCRC had all groups who are marching sign a pledge that they “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and will not include “political, divisive or inflammatory” statements on their banners or other marching props. One might think that this pledge would be enough to make everyone feel comfortable that all those participating in the parade are supporters of a Jewish and democratic Israel. From my perspective, this is a valiant effort by the JCRC to adopt a big-tent approach to pro-Israel engagement.

Sadly, though, in this era of internecine squabbling, the pledge is insufficient to some right-wing Israel supporters. Critics of the New Israel Fund and other progressive Zionist organizations are pulling out of the parade and planning to protest these groups’ participation.  For example, Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Upper East Side’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue penned an open letter in which he wrote that his congregation will abstain from marching unless these progressive groups are disqualified from participating. JCC Watch already organized a protest outside the NY Federation.  Another rabbi recently equated the JCRC’s big tent approach with Nazi appeasement.

The problem for these folks is that the progressive Zionist organizations have, in the past, had ties to organizations that support the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) Movement which seeks to inflict diplomatic and economic punishment on Israel. So even though organizations like the New Israel Fund themselves are opposed to BDS, the claim is that they nevertheless should be ostracized from pro-Israel gatherings because of their past associations.

Israel has enough actual enemies without having to imagine new ones. From the threat of a nuclear Iran to the consequences of another failed peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel needs as much positive support as possible. When organizations are willing to sign a pledge saying that they support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I say, dayeinu. Israel is big enough to include those on the left and the right among its supporters. So let’s put aside the sinat hinam (internal discord) and march together this June 1st, signifying through our words and our actions that both the left and the right can and should embrace Israel.

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Posted on May 27, 2014

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To Snip Or Not To Snip? Why I Say “Yes” To Circumcision!

Through Jan. 23, 2011 044To snip or not to snip? That, apparently, is becoming a major question for some 21st-century American Jews.

I have to confess that of all the issues confronting Jews today, I never thought circumcision would be controversial. But it has become so, as a growing number of “intactivists” have raised the profile of being vocally anti-circumcision. I write today not to challenge the Jewish bona fides of those who are not circumcised, nor to condemn those who, after careful reflection, ultimately choose not to circumcise their boys. I write merely to respond to some of the primary claims made by the “intactivists” and to urge parents to make individual, informed decisions about circumcision that take into account circumcision’s deep, resonant connection with Jewish identity and peoplehood.

The biblical origins of the Jewish ritual of circumcision come from Genesis 17:

Then God said to Abraham, “You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14)

While Jews today vary in our levels of observance of the myriad mitzvot found in the Torah, the obligation to circumcise our male children has retained near-universal observance for thousands of years. Circumcision has become one of the most—if not the most—physical and cultural markers of Jewish identity. The ceremony that has been created around the process of brit milah “covenant via circumcision” ushers the young boy, and welcomes his family, into a powerful sense of community and tradition. I can attest to this personally as the father of two young boys (as well as a fantastic girl). When our sons were born, the question my wife and I had was not whether to circumcise them but how to find the “best” mohel and what kind of ceremony we wanted to construct around the act of circumcision. For us, the question of whether or not to circumcise them was a no-brainer.

So why are Alicia Silverstone and other young Jewish parents opposed to circumcision? Based on my review of many testimonials on the website beyondthebris.com, there seem to be a few recurring objections:

Informed Consent: Some anti-circumcision folks are opposed to the practice because of the lack of informed consent. According to this position, since a baby cannot consent to circumcision, we should refrain from doing so until the child comes of age and can make his own decision. My response to this is simple: part of being a parent is making decisions for one’s children based on what you think are the best interests of the child, whether or not the child consents. For example, we give babies vaccinations, which clearly hurt them, because we believe that the benefits of the vaccinations outweigh the harm. Based on the health benefits of circumcision (below), I see the consent issue of circumcision as pretty comparable.

Pain and Suffering: Many anti-circumcision advocates argue that we should stop circumcising because of the physical and psychological pain circumcision produces. Though they admit that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV from infected female partners, they claim that this should only matter in areas of the world where HIV outbreaks remain severe. In America, they argue, the pain and suffering caused by circumcision mandates that we not circumcise. Putting aside my anecdotal experience (neither I nor my sons can recall, let alone feel traumatized by, our circumcisions), in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy to state that circumcision’s positive health benefits outweigh the risks.

Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.

When it comes to making medical decisions about my children, I trust the AAP.

Many bloggers also claim that circumcision should be rejected because it reduces sexual pleasure for men. This, too, recently was debunked in a landmark study.

Endorsing Imperfection. Finally, Alicia Silverstone, the Jewish actress and vegan activist, just came out with a book on parenting in which she expresses why she chose not to circumcise her son:

“[M]y thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

My response is an unequivocal: “yes!” To assume that God made us physically and mentally perfect at birth not only belies reality, it also belies theology. If we already were perfect, what would be the point of our existence? The task of living, as I see it, it to try to improve our selves and the world around us, to partner with God rather than to expect God to take care of everything for us. Circumcision thus serves as an early reminder of our need to inject ourselves as parents into the crucial, if arduous, work of raising our children, of combining nurture with nature to guide our 8 day old boys into becoming the best men they can be.

As with all aspects of Jewish law, there are no absolutes when it comes to circumcision. In certain instances, such as where the health of the baby is at issue, circumcision should not be performed. Moreover, it is critical for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to explain the distinction between brit milah and Jewish status: a Jew is a Jew based on whether one’s mother (or, in Reform Judaism, mother or father) is a Jew, not based on whether or not one has been circumcised.  The absence of circumcision should never be used to impede one’s access to Judaism.

Brit milah has been a sacred act—both of Jewish peoplehood and of the intimate connection between God and parents in raising a child—for millennia, and, God willing, will continue to be for many millennia to come.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 13, 2014

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

Why Jews Should Care About The Donald Sterling Controversy

Los_Angeles_Clippers_2013-14_seasonI have had many reactions so far to the recently leaked audio of comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. For those who have missed the media coverage, Sterling had a lengthy conversation with his girlfriend about why she should remove all photos of herself with African-Americans on the social media platform Instagram and why she should not bring African-Americans to Clippers basketball games.

First and foremost, I am disgusted by his comments. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing hate inherent in his words. I am disgusted that Donald Sterling is a Jew, the son of immigrants who knew what it meant to be hated for what you were rather than judged for who you were as a person. I am disgusted that Sterling can date his girlfriend/mistress (he is not divorced from his wife), who is both African-American and Mexican, while finding her public associations with other African-Americans to be abhorrent. I am disgusted that Sterling can find it fitting to profit from the physical exploits of his predominantly African-American basketball players yet prefer for African-Americans not to attend his games. I am disgusted that a Jew would be associated with these racist comments at the time of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we affirm our commitment never to forget what hate and discrimination can lead to. So I join the basketball players, sports columnists, and pundits who have condemned these comments. I hope, once due process runs its course, that if it is confirmed that Sterling spoke these words (thus far he has not denied that it is his voice speaking), that he is forced to sell his team and banned from basketball.

(Update: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling admitted to being the speaker on the audio recording and Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and was fined $2.5 million)

I further hope that the Jewish community of Los Angeles will exercise tochecha (rebuke) and reject his presence and involvement unless and until he shows true contrition and a willingness to engage in teshuva (restorative repentance).

Yet some might view Sterling’s comments as less abhorrent than the overtly racist screeds we heard earlier this week from Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal lands and refused to pay for it. Bundy, of course, became infamous last week for telling New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves:

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Seen in this light, Sterling’s comments seem far less jarring. Disregarding the fact that Sterling has a history of explicitly racist comments, in the audio recording, Sterling argues that he is not racist but a realist. At about the one minute mark, he claims that his girlfriend should not publicly associate with African-Americans not because they are inherently bad but because of public perception of minorities as bad. “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”

Yet there is an insidious underpinning to Sterling’s comments that bothers me, as a Jew, far more than Bundy’s noxious harangue. Sterling argues that we stuck with the detritus of our culture, that there is nothing we can do individually to change racism in America. But this idea of acquiescence is anathema to Judaism! It is the opposite of the redemption we have experienced throughout our national history and which we pray for daily in our liturgy. The story of Abraham is the story of a man being willing to leave his homeland, his status quo, for an uncertain future. And, in Genesis 18 (when Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), it is the story of a man who was willing to stand up to no less than God for what he thought was right. The story of Passover, which we just celebrated, is the story of God, through Moses, freeing the Israelite slaves in Egypt from the mightiest empire then on earth. The story of the founding of Israel in 1948 is the story of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for nearly 2000 years yet never giving up hope of an ultimate restoration to that land. As Rabbi Tarfon insists in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 2:16, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from trying.”  Standing up to the status quo, fighting for what is just, effecting change in a world of intransigence and stasis—this is what makes Jews Jews.

During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we Jews count the Omer to symbolize and to embody the ongoing pursuit of personal and collective redemption.  As we do so this year, let us continue to fight for what is right and reject those who claim “that’s just the way it is.” Let us reject the Sterlings who accept the world with all its flaws and re-commit ourselves to creating the world as we aspire it to become.

Posted on April 29, 2014

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

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