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.

A Halloween With Jewish Values?

Chocolate_Candies_in_Pumpkin_Pail_(5076897960)Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.

Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.

I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)

For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.

If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.

So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.

Posted on October 29, 2013

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

It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Pew Study and Talented Tenth Judaism

accusingBy now, if you are reading this, you undoubtedly have been inundated with punditry about the meaning of the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews. Many scholars and institutional players immediately bemoaned the results as confirmation of the decline or degradation of American Jewry. Others have dismissed the data as either flawed (based on its use of comparison with the widely discredited 2000 NJPS survey) as drawing causal conclusions where mere correlations are suggested, or as too macro to represent the specifics of an individual Jewish community. Still others have seen positives in the data, whether due to the opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, the surprisingly large percentage of Jews who express faith in God, or because of the incredible 94% of Jews who express pride in being Jewish.

This latter point truly is revolutionary. Growing up as a Gen-Xer in a largely non-Jewish environment in San Diego, being Jewish was something that my friends and I largely kept to ourselves. My Day School background made me feel knowledgeable in my Jewishness, but I don’t think “pride” would be the way I, or most of my friends, described how we felt about being Jewish.  I think this is why the Adam Sandler Chanukah Song, when it came out, was such a big deal–it gave us permission to be proud of our Jewishness and the accomplishments of our fellow Jews. So we should celebrate how much has changed for the better in the relatively few years since then. Continue reading

Posted on October 15, 2013

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So Now What?

As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.

So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?

nasa-shutdownWell, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”

Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.

There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.

Posted on October 1, 2013

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

Taking It To The Streets

Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?

Synagogue_insideRecently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.

Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!

A_Pleasant_Sukka

I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).

Posted on September 17, 2013

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Do We Go to High Holiday Services for the Comfort of the Boredom?

At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”

Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”

The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.

But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.

The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays.  The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.

Shanah Tovah.

Posted on September 3, 2013

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Patrilineal Pandemonium: What’s Behind All The Emotion?

shutterstock_130477025Wow. It has been quite a busy week here at the Rabbis Without Borders blog discussing patrilineal descent and its implications. Rabbi Alana Suskin got the conversation rolling with a personal reflection on some of the struggles she faces as a Conservative rabbi when addressing status issues (marriage, divorce, and especially conversion) because of Reform Judaism’s decision to accept as Jews those whose father is Jewish but mother is not.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg responded that the Reform Movement’s decision to adopt patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of establishing Jewish identity was a strategic mistake because Reform Judaism failed to take into account the toll this decision would take on relations with non-Reform Jewry since Reform Jews do not exist in a vacuum.

Most recently, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posted a response in which she affirmed patrilineal descent as the right thing to do based on an egalitarian ethos, as well as the practical argument that individuals who consider themselves to be Jews, regardless of their conversion status, generally don’t care what rabbis think about their status.

All 3 rabbis have written eloquently and passionately in defense of their positions. And all three have generated a plethora of strident responses, many of which were constructive, in the comments to their posts. It is precisely this passion that I wish to address here. While I am not normally a “meta” person, it does seem worth exploring why the question of who is a Jew generates such vociferous reactions? At a time when all Jewish denominations are striving to increase Jewish engagement and affiliation, why are we so fixated on, and argumentative about, whom we ought to exclude from Judaism?

This debate sometimes has reminded me of the nastiness of the Birther Movement. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the “Movement” sought to disprove President Obama’s citizenship during the 2008 national election by spreading rumors and innuendo about whether he was actually born in Hawaii, and was later revived by Donald Trump during his fleeting candidacy in 2012. And I have a feeling that should Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling of the moment, decide to run for President in 2016, liberals might mount their own birther challenge to the Canadian-born Cruz. What’s the link? Both patrilineality and birther-ism implicate questions of eligibility of inclusion within what is deemed to be a privileged group identity. And both generate not just passionate but vitriolic responses by those who seek to defend their positions on either side of the inclusion divide. But why?

My humble suggestion is that the reason for such sensitivity to the issue of patrilineality, as it was for the birthers, is that we see ourselves as gate-keepers to a tradition where, for the first time since Sinai, anyone can get a key. As Rabbi Gurevitz points out at the end of her piece, all rabbis who work at synagogues are gate-keepers. From Reform to Orthodox, we all have our particular limits for who is in and who is out. Indeed, no denomination is so egalitarian that a person without a Jewish mother or father, who has not converted, is welcomed as a Jew (though, God-willing, such individuals will be welcomed and treated with the dignity we should accord all people). But our role as gate-keepers has been eviscerated in an era where Judaism, along with the world, is now flat.

The floodgates have opened and we are adrift, searching for a lifeboat of control that just isn’t there. We are powerless to prevent non-Jews from adopting Jewish rituals, as the “bar mitzvah” of Madonna’s son recently proved. What’s more, Rabbis and learned laity no longer hold a monopoly on Torah (however we define Torah) because anyone with wifi and an electronic device can gain access to virtually the entire corpus of biblical and Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the scariest realization, for those of us who are rabbis, is that It is becoming less and less clear why the world needs rabbis for the propagation of Judaism.

I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but for me, this paradigm shift is dizzying and disorienting  As someone who enjoys the idea of broadening my borders, I often feel as though each time I “boldly” confront (and maybe even transcend) an halakhic, theological, or other border, some of the borders that remain quickly feel ossified and obsolete. It is like buying a Smartphone–the newest model, within a few months, simply becomes outdated.

So how do we handle this shift? Is there a way to address the meta issues without becoming embroiled in the contentious legal debate over who is a Jew? I certainly don’t have the answers (and I welcome your thoughts). But before we respond viscerally in our comments to the next post on patrilineality, I suggest that we start pointing the finger at ourselves, asking why it is that our feelings are so intense when it comes to questions of Jewish status.

Posted on August 20, 2013

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Give Peace A Chance?

Peace_Sign_drawn_on_the_pavementWhen news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?

I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair.  As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting.  The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.

ShofarSo it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year.  We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.

It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo.  It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.

Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.

Posted on August 5, 2013

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Why I hope a Right-Winger Becomes the Next Chief Rabbi of Israel

Photo of current Israeli Chief Rabbis by Olivier Fitoussi

Photo of current Israeli Chief Rabbis by Olivier Fitoussi

There is a big election coming up on Wednesday, one many American Jews might not be aware of. In response to January’s parliamentary elections, Israel will elect new Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis.  While the election for Sephardi Chief Rabbi has important implications for the future power of Rav Ovadya Yosef, the highly influential and controversial former Chief Rabbi who has several sons running for the position, I am far more interested in the outcome of the election for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: I find myself in the unusual position of hoping that the “liberal” candidate, Rabbi David Stav, loses to his more right-wing rivals.  Rabbi Stav hails from the National-Religious movement and is therefore “Modern Orthodox” by Israeli standards (he does, after all, wear a knitted kippah).  He has been denounced as “wicked” by the Sephardic religious party Shas for trying to help people establish their Jewish identity and therefore get married.  And he promises “real revolution” if elected.  All this should sound good to a liberal Jew like myself, right?

The problem with a Stav election, however, is that it likely will mean the continued vitality of the Chief Rabbinate (or Rabbanut in Hebrew).  The Rabbanut itself is a $5.6 million institution, created by the British in 1921, that has become a calcified, corrupt, politicized, and reactionary body.  It prevents women from getting divorces from abusive husbands, prevents consenting adults from getting married, and vehemently opposes Jewish pluralism within Israel. As this op-ed in the Jerusalem Post recently put it:

What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk, is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be organized in the State of Israel?

Nor is Rabbi Stav himself committed to radically reforming the Rabbanut from within.  His “revolution” consists primarily of making the Chief Rabbinate a more user-friendly service organization.  Were Stav to lose, however, many insiders feel that a real revolution would occur, with non-religious and National Religious alike coming up with alternate, “privatized” rabbinic and religious functions in areas ranging from conversion and marriage to kashrut certification.  Such changes are already underway through efforts such as the Beit Hillel Movement, which includes both men and women in its rabbinic organization.  As this article in Ha’aretz suggests, a Stav loss makes it likely that “such trends will intensify and accelerate – and a de facto alternative to the Chief Rabbinate will arise. Not only the nonreligious, but also the national religious will reach the conclusion they have no place within the Rabbinate.”

For secular Israelis, and for religious Israelis who support pluralism and a sense of klal Yisrael, this would be a wonderful turn of events.

 

Posted on July 22, 2013

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Am I Still A Rabbi When I Am On Vacation?

Lawrence_Tibbett_cropI am off for several weeks of rest and relaxation. Which brings to mind a puzzling existential question: is a rabbi still a rabbi when on vacation?

On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.

On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.

But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner.  Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.

One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys.  As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity.  Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious.  And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth.  I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give.  So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.

Posted on July 8, 2013

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What Matters More: Our Day Schools Or Our Commitment To Religious Neutrality?

Picture of classroomI am an unabashed advocate of Jewish day school education. I attended day school from kindergarten through eighth grade, and I firmly believe that I would not have the same Jewish identity, comfort level, or knowledge were it not for my day school education. One of the first decisions my wife and I made as parents was to send our children to day school.

As a result, I now am also well aware of the exorbitant cost of day school, ranging from $20,000-30,000 per year (at least for non-Orthodox day schools).These overwhelming costs, unfortunately, are often prohibitive for parents who might otherwise want to send their children to day school. So you might think I would be excited about recent efforts within the Jewish communal world to expand access to day schools. Jewish federations, community relations councils (CRCs), and organizations are becoming actively involved in a new, heretofore heretical, project: lobbying state governments to pass new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools. The UJA-Federation of New York has hired a lobbyist to push for enhanced government entitlements and tax exemptions for Jewish schools. Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, has called on the Jewish community to embrace greater state support of parochial schools. In Louisiana, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the OU, and a local Jewish day school met with legislators to support vouchers and tax credits. As this article notes, last year the JCPA featured panel discussions about tax credits, vouchers, and state reimbursement for non-religious school expenses at its annual policy conference.

But there is an important question that we need to be asking: is the short-term boost these efforts might give to our day schools worth the Jewish community’s entanglement in the thicket of religion and education? These stances would have been anathema for most major Jewish organizations throughout the 20th century. From the ADL to the AJC, the leading institutions of Jewish-American engagement were steadfast in protecting against any encroachment of religion into the educational sphere. Jewish organizations were some of the most outspoken guardians of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” And for good reason: the history of Jewish communal life for much of the past 2000 years has been the history of how well or poorly we were tolerated in countries where religious and political governance usually went hand-in-hand.

So are we making a Faustian deal by having Jewish communal organizations advocate for new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools? And if so, is it worth it? The parent in me says yes to both. The lawyer in me says no. The rabbi/communal leader in me is unsure. What do you think?

Posted on June 24, 2013

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