I 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?
The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
I just got back from a weekend “family camp” retreat. One of the most remarkable aspects of the experience was that not one of my three children, over the course of 72 plus hours, asked to watch tv or play on my iphone. It wasn’t because the camp’s programming was so stellar; in fact, rain and frigid weather reduced the planned programming substantially. What occupied my children’s attention was far simpler: the sheer joy of being around a bunch of other children their age. It didn’t seem to matter whether the context was meals, playing sports, or just hanging out. They simply reveled in being together all the time.
Jewish children, like many American children today, lead lives that are highly programmed. From sports to academics to religious school, our children often have extra-curricular commitments every day of the week. The medical academy has made it clear by now that we are harming our children’s development by reducing free play in favor of all this extra-curricular programming. But I wonder, as I look out at dwindling religious school attendance and vastly reduced affiliation rates, if we are missing the boat in our outreach efforts as Jewish institutions by not providing enough contexts for some type of Jewish social free play. The Conservative synagogues (including my own) that I know about tend to prioritize teaching our students Hebrew and some basic Jewish literacy in the limited time we have with our students. But maybe, instead of having religious school become one of several week-long extra-curricular activities, what we need to do is figure out how to bring the Jewish camp ethos into our religious schools and other institutions of outreach. Or, to put it somewhat more controversially, what if USY, Bnai Brith, NIFTY, and other Jewish youth organizations are more important than our religious schools altogether? Maybe, instead of focusing on getting our children into synagogue, we should concentrate on getting them together with other local Jewish youths and just letting them hang out within the context of some general Jewish program or context?
I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am curious to hear your thoughts about how we might be able to develop a camp-like culture within our Jewish institutions the other 10 months of the year. Family camp and summer camp are great, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of what we might be able to accomplish when it comes to developing positive Jewish identity. The glee on my children’s faces this past weekend is something I hope and pray we can replicate on a community-wide level, transforming Jewish education from a (bi)weekly chore into a true opportunity for engagement and excitement.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
I am a self-confessed football fanatic. From September through January, my Sundays are centered around the performance of the San Diego Chargers (my star-crossed hometown team). The feeling of elation after a victory casts a positive glow throughout much of the following week, while a loss leaves me virtually inconsolable for the rest of the evening. My considerate spouse tends to discourage other non-fanatics from coming over to the house to watch games with me: I have been known to yell somewhat loudly, and I take literally the word “throw” in “throw pillows.”
To others who share this unhealthy obsession with football, the period between the Superbowl in February and the beginning of the season in late summer can feel like an eternity. But there is a spring oasis, a football three-day holiday, that emerges each spring called the NFL Draft. For seven rounds, football teams select college football players to add to their professional ranks for the coming year. Ostensibly, the purpose of the draft is to restock depleted rosters with relatively affordable players. But for football fans, the draft takes on a far more important role: it gives us hope: hope that these 20-22 year-old amateurs will take their physical gifts and become franchise players; hope that your team’s first-round pick this year will become an all-star rather than an expensive bust; hope, in short, of the power of potential to become reality.
Judaism, too, offers a spring-time multi-day exploration of the power of potential. From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count off a 49-day period called Sefirat ha-Omer (“Counting of the Omer”). According to Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (“sheaf”) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” Despite its agricultural-sacrificial original context, the Counting of the Omer has become a period for spiritual rejuvenation. At a national level, the Omer bridges the gap between Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavuot’s formation of Jewish communal identity with the receipt of the Torah. At a personal level, based in part on Kabbalistic (mystical) teachings, the Omer becomes an opportunity for individual spiritual purification from a slavish mentality (to money and materialism, work, preconceived notions, etc.) to one that is open and receptive to the instruction of the Almighty.
The Counting of the Omer has become more popular within Jewish circles, I believe, precisely because it taps into the Western cultural desire we all have—NFL fans and those indifferent to the gridiron—to celebrate potential. Despite the toxic nature of our political discourse, the relentless economic malaise we have experienced since 2008, and the tragic violence that continues to penetrate into our daily lives, we still yearn for hope. We still want to be inspired. So when our political and economic leaders fail us, we find other avenues for satisfying our innate need to find and experience potential. We are riveted by the latest hi-tech gadgets, from iPhones to Google Glass (often waiting in line for hours and paying ridiculous amounts of money) because of what they might enable us to do. We watch The Voice or The Bachelor because we want to be part of the process of “discovering” potential greatness. We live in a culture that venerates youth not only because we are shallow and vain but also because youth epitomizes limitless opportunity. For better or for worse, we are a “stem cell” culture: just as embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform into any other cells in the body as they mature, so too do we seek to recapture that fleeting time and sensation when we had not yet become what we are.
The Omer represents an authentically Jewish way to tap into this innate human need to celebrate potential without the cultural detritus of superficiality. Mindfully using the Sefirat ha-Omer enables us to take part in the excitement, the freshness, and the opportunity to re-claim the potential we still have to reinvent ourselves spiritually, both individually and communally. So I encourage you to take advantage of the time remaining in the Omer this year (we are at 34 days and counting). Visit The Huffington Post’s Omer Liveblog for some incredible visual and poet insights; begin reading or studying some text you have always wanted to but never found the time for; attend a yoga or meditation class for the first time; or just carve out a few minutes each evening to think about how you would like to improve your religious life for the upcoming year. Few of us are blessed with the physical tools to become professional football players, but each of us are blessed with the capacity for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth. May the Omer remind us that we don’t need to wait to be drafted by others to take hold of our own potential for greatness.
Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing? This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning. Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?
In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.
So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?
I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” With this quote, from Deuteronomy 26:5, we begin not only the Maggid (story-telling) portion of our Passover seders but also the very ontology of Judaism as an ethnicity. We originated as a wandering people and, for much of the past 2000 years, have remained a people dispossessed of a homeland, expelled from one location to the next. Migration is interwoven into our national fabric; it is part of Jewish DNA.
That is why I find the paucity of Jewish voices about domestic immigration reform so troubling. Congress is on the verge of addressing comprehensive immigration reform for the first time since the 1980s, but where are our Jewish organizations in this effort? To their credit, the Religious Action Center, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and other large organizations have passed resolutions and issued press releases supporting immigration reform. But where is the passion? Where is the zeal? The Jewish community certainly has it when it comes to issues impacting Israel; in recent years we have mobilized in highly effective ways for Darfur; and most recently have been at the forefront of gun control reform. But on an issue that speaks so deeply to our national consciousness—from the biblical mandate to care for the stranger to our historical experience of exile and persecution—we should be leading immigration reform efforts, not retroactively offering words of support.
Reports this past week suggest that a deal in the U.S. Senate is close at hand, but there are still political battles to be fought. Perhaps most significantly, some members of Congress are still reluctant to include language creating a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in America, preferring instead a secondary “residency” status. We know first-hand what second-class status means. If we truly care about human dignity, if we embrace the “tzelem Elohim,” the spark of divinity, within each individual, then we ought to speak out in favor of opportunities for full citizenship in the immigration bill.
As we enjoy the last days of Passover and begin the sacred work of purifying our bodies, hearts, and minds in anticipation of Shavuot, let’s commit ourselves to purifying this nation of its immigration blight. Let’s ensure that decent, hard-working people don’t have to live in the shadows, terrified that deportation and exile lurk just around the corner. The transition from exile to redemption is the foundation of our national story. Let’s celebrate this core aspect of Judaism by leading the charge in immigration reform, so that eleven million people likewise can experience a contemporary redemption here in America.
“Habemus Papam!” — “We have a pope!” After days of breathless anticipation by Catholics around the world, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and uttered the words that precede the announcement of every new pope: “Habemus Papum!” The media has been abuzz ever since about the new Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. His selection has been considered noteworthy for being the first Jesuit priest to become pope, the first pope to choose the name Francis, and, most of all, for being the first pope from the Americas. What stood out to to me, though, was not the novelty of all these “firsts” but the relationship between this sense of newness and the role of Catholic ritual that permeated Francis’ selection: from the cardinals sequestering themselves in their conclave to the black and then white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signify that a new pope had been elected. Ultimately, the appointment of the new pope was about this dynamic between tradition and change.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pope was chosen at the same time Jews segue in our cycle of Torah reading to the Book of Leviticus/Sefer Vayikra. Leviticus takes us from the narrative of the Israelite exodus and the foundational moment of revelation at Sinai into the arcane, elaborate, and often hard to penetrate world of ritual sacrifice and impurity. The first two Torah portions in Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, offer extensive sacrificial taxonomies, describing with painstaking detail the rituals of the burnt, meal, sin, guilt, and well-being offerings. And the gory details would make even Quentin Tarantino blush: blood being sprinkled about the altar, entrails removed, and on and on. Let’s face it: Leviticus is hard to read and even harder to connect with. How are we to relate to these materials? Is Vayikra obsolete? Unapproachable to modern Jews?
Our Sages of old faced these same questions, but with a good deal more existential angst. Leviticus had served as a priestly manual, instructing the High Priest and his assistants how to perform sacrifices at the Temple. But once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifice became impossible. How, then, were Jews supposed to remain Jews? The ancient rabbis, in a brilliant move, took sacrifice and transformed its function into two new modes that would come to define Judaism for the next 2000 years. First, they used the structure of the sacrificial system—its times for sacrifice (daily and holiday) and its liturgical accompaniments (such as the psalms that Levites recited)–to create a new system of daily and holiday fixed prayer. Instead of offering sacrifices as the medium for interacting with God, Jews could pray in synagogues and retain the same (or even better, according to the scholar Maimonides) ability to engage with the Divine.
Second, though there was no longer a need to know the ritual details of the sacrificial system for practical purposes, the rabbis insisted that Jews continue to study Leviticus because the act of studying itself became a proxy for the act of sacrifice. “One who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a) Indeed, nearly the entirety of the Fifth Order of the Mishnah, entitled Kodashim, pertains to Temple worship even though it was redacted several hundred years after the Temple was destroyed. Grappling with our textual tradition and seeking to derive wisdom from it became an end in itself as important as sacrifice was to our ancestors. What the rabbis did, in sum, was to innovate, to radically change Judaism, but to do so through a deep, organic connection to our tradition.
Tradition and change remains the dialectic through which we live our Judaism today. The challenge Judaism addresses, the challenge that faces each of us every day, is to live in the murky waters between tradition and change. If we change too much, giving up aspects of our religion that might not feel important anymore, we risk losing our connection to our heritage. But if we remain too rigid, holding on to rituals and practices just because that’s what our parents and grandparents did, then we risk creating future generations that will be disconnected from, and likely reject, our heritage. What we must do is to follow the lead of our Sages: to push ourselves to engage with our tradition’s rituals and sacred texts so that we can deduce new meanings and new contexts from them, meanings and contexts that will resonate for us in our contemporary lives. It is worth noting that the term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” In Hebrew, the common biblical word for sacrifice is, “korban,” which means “something brought near.” Through our modern-day “sacrifices” of prayer and engaging with our sacred texts, we have the opportunity to draw nearer to God and to embrace holiness.
In some ways, our Catholic friends have it easy. They can rely on a pope to lead them, to be the intermediary between God/tradition and their daily lives. We Jews, however, reject the idea of an intermediary. We are all, in a sense, High Priests. This gives us both the blessing of direct access to the Almighty but also the obligation to do what it takes to gain that direct access. It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this challenge, creating a vibrant, intelligent, and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century.
Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).
This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays. As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.
If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.
What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon. But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.
Affiliation rates are down in suburban Jewish communities across the country. Synagogue structures sit half-empty much of the year. Conservative and Orthodox synagogues struggle to find enough interested people to support their daily minyanim. We all know about these and other symptoms of the decline in Jewish communal life, but what are the causes?
As we cycle through several weeks of Torah readings about the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ center of worship, I wonder whether one of the causes of today’s Jewish communal decline is that we have over-built our own mishkans, our own loci of worship. As post-World War II suburban synagogues expanded in both size and scope from their pre-war predecessors, as North American Jewry experienced a degree of success and acceptance unprecedented in Jewish Diaspora experience, did we create more demand than supply warranted? Have we grown too big to succeed?
Though it is tempting to attribute today’s affiliation problems to the hubris of prior generations, I think that lets our current generation off the hook too easily. Instead, I think the real problem is not the size of our institutions but the misguided priorities that our “edifice complexes” have engendered. We have built magnificent, resplendent houses of worship, buildings that are evocative of the majestic mishkan of biblical times. When we need funds for aesthetic needs—the ark curtains, the nameplates behind the seats, the stained glass windows—the money often can be raised. But how much time, effort, or resources do we invest in the quality of the religious experience inside these beautiful walls? People today are craving spiritual engagement. As recent studies of religious life in America suggest, a growing number of Americans—including Jews—have opted out of affiliating but continue to believe in God and seek spiritual fulfillment.
The initial command to build the mikdash, in Exodus 25:8, is peculiar. As many commentators note, the commandment should read, “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it,” meaning that if the Israelites build the sanctuary, then God will have a place to live. Instead, the command actually says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” God is not coming to live in the mikdash, but among the Israelites themselves. The act of coming together, in which each Israelite contributed what he or she could, built the holy infrastructure that made it possible for God to dwell among them. God told the Israelites what our sociological data confirms today: religious space is a means to the end of spiritual nourishment and social fulfillment; religious space, no matter how magnificent, can never be an end in itself.
Those who are disaffiliating are not necessarily rejecting religion—they are rejecting what we have to offer. They are rejecting stale, spiritually-barren services, hierarchical and unwelcoming lay leadership structures, and a general approach that treats members as commodities or “units.” By contrast, robust religious communities such as Temple Sinai in LA, Bnai Jeshurun in New York, or independent minyanim such as Ikar or Hadar have focused on creating enthusiastic prayer experiences and cultivating grassroots lay participation.
Focusing on religious spaces themselves, whether it is the next building campaign of a local shul or the explosive religious politics of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, mistakes the peripheral for the core. If we want to go about making the type of religious structures in which God would want to dwell, if we want to construct a 21st century mishkan, let’s start focusing less on aesthetics and more on content.