Having traveled frequently to Israel for the last decade, I have many amusing stories of security interviews before boarding flights to or from Israel. I know all of the questions by heart: “What was the purpose of your visit?” “Where did you learn Hebrew? “Do you belong to a congregation?” I recall being flustered during one interview before a New York El Al check-in, when I was really preoccupied wondering whether I had finished all my urgent work, packed everything I needed and if my suitcase was overweight. Following my reply that I do attend synagogue regularly, the agent asked me to tell him the name of this week’s Torah portion, and I was momentarily tongue-tied. Oh, how embarrassing when his next question was, “What kind of work do you do?” “Um, I’m a rabbi.”
At Ben Gurion Airport I have come to anticipate the exchange that invariably causes a reaction – when they ask me about my profession. Several years ago, coming home from a summer trip in intense August heat, I was wearing shorts. Not only was the agent surprised to hear that I am a rabbi, but she was suspicious. How could a rabbi wear shorts? (I admit that after that I no longer wear shorts on these flights.) For most Israelis, the word “rabbi” evokes an image of a bearded man in a black coat and hat, whose wife wears a long skirt, long sleeves and covered hair. The appearance of a woman in shorts claiming to be a rabbi defied credulity in that moment.
Without fail, the reaction is, “Really? Women can be rabbis? I never heard of this!” One time a female agent teared-up with emotion to learn that women can be rabbis. I wanted to hug her.
Such is the case in Israel – where the official Rabbinate has a monopoly on Jewish religious authority, ruling that only male Orthodox rabbis can be hired and paid by the state as community rabbis. That is, until this spring when Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi won a nearly decade-long fight to be paid as the rabbi of her community. The court decision was in some ways inconclusive – the official Rabbinate won’t be endorsing or paying Rabbi Gold. Rather, her salary will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the ruling applies only to rabbis who are employed by regional councils. Rabbi Gold shared joy and relief at this victory, but added, “I can’t say that I feel unmitigated joy. Israel is still not the bastion of religious freedom nor the stalwart promoter of religious pluralism. We still have many hurdles ahead, but I believe that we’ll all have renewed energy and determination to push forward…”
This summer I had the privilege to meet and spend time with Rabbi Gold at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. I add her to my growing list of friends in Israel — female colleagues who are rabbis of communities. They are courageous, tenacious and crucial leaders for the future of Jewish communities in Israel. I stand in awe of the work they do in spite of the hardships they face: lack of funding and negative perceptions about Jewish religious life among non-Orthodox Israelis. They are breaking down the barriers and building vibrant, exciting communities for a new Israeli Jewish future. Check out the website of Rabbi Tamar Kolberg of Ra’anana, for example.
So this time when I was at Ben Gurion Airport on my way home, the interviewer reacted as expected when I told what I do. He said, “We don’t have women rabbis here.” I smiled and told him about Rabbi Gold’s victory. He was clearly affected, exclaiming, “Wow! I didn’t know I live in such a progressive country!”
Welcome to a new Israeli Jewish reality!
Rosh Chodesh Av 5772 – the first day of the new month of Av on July 20, 2012, and here I was, once again at the monthly worship of N’shot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. The group meets every Rosh Hodesh (new month) to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, uplifting a beautiful chorus of women in this holy place. But more than that, their voices — out loud — are a form of social justice protest.
N’shot HaKotel have been meeting for a women’s prayer minyan every Rosh Hodesh for 24 years, to assert that this holy place belongs to all of the Jewish people, especially to women, who are otherwise forced to pray alone quietly in the women’s section.
In my previous experiences with N’shot HaKotel I have been struck by the intense police presence around the group. We’ve been told that we must wear our tallitot (prayer shawls) as “scarves” –not like a tallit, and we have enduring constant “shushing” from the police who try to keep the women quiet. There is a ubiquitous female police officer who videotapes every woman and every move of the group. Fortunately the surrounding police have almost entirely stopped the violence against the group that characterized the early years (from Haredi men and women.)N’shot HaKotel has also been a testing ground for legal actions to challenge the authority of the ruling rabbinical body over the public space of the Kotel, with increasing success in the rulings of the Israeli court.
Yet, on this particular Rosh Hodesh the mood was different. When our cab entered the gates of the Old City we encountered battalion after battalion of soldiers and police officers swarming near the Old City Police station and heading toward the Temple Mount on which the Muslim holy sites are found. Our cab driver told us why – it was not only our Rosh Hodesh, it was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. There was concern about possible violence on the Temple Mount, at the Al Aksa Mosque or Dome of the Rock. Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, brings crowds of Muslim men to the holy sites, and this was an especially charged Friday. Thankfully, it was a quiet day and nothing happened. But the experience was noteworthy. Continue reading
A couple of years ago I learned about a new front in the internal Israeli struggle over religious freedom: gender segregated buses. I was incensed. What century is this?
I have always felt that Israel has great potential to be a “light unto the nations,” inspired by our prophets of old. While the real Israel has many problems in realizing this vision, Israel’s story is still filled with many amazing accomplishments. I remain hopeful that Jewish values will ultimately prevail and the promise realized.
It had never occurred to me that the value of equality, which is so central to my Jewish life, could be rejected by an increasingly powerful and publicly present Ultra Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel. This just doesn’t feel right – this can’t be good for the Jews.
At the time I heard about this segregation I knew nothing about it. But I felt that I wanted to ride a segregated bus and sit in the forbidden (to women) front section. I stood outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with my husband eyeing dozens of passing busses, trying to discern which were segregated – I couldn’t find one. Ok, I was being naïve, but in Jerusalem, where secular people are feeling increasingly squeezed out and sometimes harassed by the growing Ultra Orthodox population, emotions can run hot.
I later learned that the recently developing gender segregation problem is so extensive in some Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods that it spread to service at some bank branches, shops, and medical clinics, and even some streets. There is more – you can read about it on the website of the Israel Religious Action Center — IRAC, which is one of several groups studying this phenomenon and acting to reverse it. IRAC has collected many stories and letters from Ultra Orthodox women who do not feel safe to speak out in their own communities, but have turned to this legal arm of the Israel Reform Movement for help. Their testimonials are gripping.
I was happy to learn that the IRAC is now actively organizing “Freedom Rides,” named after the desegregation activism in the US in the 1960’s. I jumped at the chance to be a participant this summer. I learned why I didn’t see a segregated bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – they have operated only between Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. But I also learned that, thanks to the legal actions of IRAC, a court order made bus segregation illegal. Compulsory bus signs explain that riders should only feel compelled to move if an elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman would need their seat.
The “Freedom Rides” are the next phase of the strategy, providing support and empowerment to the women who need it. As a result of these rides, IRAC has been able to take bus drivers to court when they do not enforce the open seating rule. With bus drivers facing steep fines, real change is now happening. Dozens of segregated bus lines used to travel in Jerusalem neighborhoods. Now only two remain (though other cities in Israel still have some segregated lines.)
Our group of visiting American rabbis and educators, accompanied by Israeli volunteers from IRAC, boarded the number 56 bus in Ramat Shlomo. I sat down in the front section in a grouping of 3 empty seats. We started at the first stop of the line during rush hour, and the drama took quite a while to build. A male colleague sat behind me and said, “I have your back.” While there hasn’t been violence on the IRAC “Freedom Rides,” I was still a bit worried as we started.
It was fine – thankfully nasty looks can’t kill. I got plenty of those! We desegregated that bus, all right. And by the end of the crowded ride, two Ultra Orthodox women had joined me in the adjacent two seats. We all had a memorable day.
In the week that has followed I have been reflecting on this experience and discussing it with colleagues studying with me at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. How do we forge a mutually respectful culture within Israel? It’s complicated. I hope to write more in about this in my next post. In the meantime, greetings of Shalom from Jerusalem!
Last year I was chatting with a member of my congregation over bagels with our Tot Shabbat families. She mentioned a mutual friend who has a photo of himself with Robert Redford on his wall. Having been a big fan of Redford as a young adult, that is – years ago – I was tickled. But in this conversation I noticed that another young woman who was standing with us at that time had a blank look on her face. I asked her if she knew who Robert Redford was, and she said, “no.” Oh, did I feel old!
Last week I saw an interview of Crosby, Stills and Nash on a morning TV show. You know Crosby, Stills and Nash, right? They were (and still are) a folk rock supergroup of the sixties, seventies, and beyond. “Teach Your Children” is one very famous song they contributed to the American musical lexicon. I still listen to their music regularly for its beauty, power and social justice themes. I wish the folk rock music of that era was still the cultural currency of our day!
So imagine my surprise when I sat at a table in a very crowded Apple Store in NJ and noticed a very familiar looking man standing next to me, talking with some companions. I know I could be wrong, but I was thought it was David Crosby. I was so excited; I opened his Wikipedia page to check the photo while he walked away. At that moment the Apple Store technician, clearly 25+ years my junior , came over to assist me. I was all excited — “Hey, he was just standing here!” I said as I pointed at the picture. The technician gave a cursory look at the web page and said, “oh”, “now how can I help you?” I was frantic to find someone in the store who had noticed the (apparent) celebrity, so I searched the faces of the crowd. No one seemed to have noticed. Young, almost all a generation younger than my own, they were oblivious.
Twenty-five years ago I stood with three classmates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and received the title “rabbi.” After five intense years of rabbinical school, following years of preparatory Jewish study, we had arrived. The emotional and spiritual power of ordination was about achieving a dream, but it also signaled a change in our status that would forever define our identities. As rabbis we would now bear responsibility to care for the Jewish people and repair the world, with a unique status of authority.
This past weekend my classmates and I were joined by three more colleagues, as we were honored with our Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) degrees. As has become custom in much of the American rabbinate we were honored with these degrees by virtue of our worthy service to the Jewish people over these twenty five years.
I have been looking forward to this moment for years. I knew it would joyous — a celebration like a significant birthday or anniversary. Many rabbis joke that the D.D., as we all call it, means “didn’t die.” It is a testament to a rabbi’s survival. Reminiscent of the rude awakening I received when I went to buy disability insurance as a young rabbi. I learned that few insurers (at the time of my career’s beginning — only two) would insure rabbis because clergy have the highest rates of disability from stress related illnesses. I still find that statistic hard to believe based on my observations, but no matter, you get the point. We laugh about celebrating survival because we worry about not surviving. We made it, whew!
But surely, as the year and the date approached for my own D.D., I came to appreciate how important it was to celebrate more than the passage of time. This was an opportunity for reflection on the experiences of these years, with the mistakes and achievements, accomplishments and disappointments. My colleagues and I marveled at the enormity of everything we have experienced and done during this quarter century. Our journeys have tracked a time of tremendous change in American Judaism.
What did we learn during these years? What would we have done differently? One of my colleagues wanted to know if I had to it to do over again, would I still have wanted to be a rabbi? Without any hesitation, I said “yes”. My colleague did not.
Of course, it would take a book to document what I have learned. But the opportunity for reflection helped to surface important lessons. I thought of these as I watched with pride and joy the newly ordained rabbis at the RRC graduation. “Be ready”, I thought. “Everything you know and believe can be challenged in the years ahead.” The world — and notably the Jewish world — is shifting around us in dramatic and unpredictable ways. All of my youthful assumptions about what Jewish life would be like at this time have been challenged, and some have unraveled. The stable Jewish community I envisioned in which synagogue affiliation would be central to Jewish life is now very unstable as affiliation rates drop and synagogues are far from being the only game in town. Knowing how to listen to the world around you — and to your own gut — is essential. It takes experience to acquire the wisdom to do this well.
What does it mean to be Doctor of Divinity? It means to be a rabbi who notices and acts on the presence of God within the most mundane moments of life, elevating the sparks of holiness in our world. It means loving the Jewish people and all peoples with an open heart. And it means being ready for change. It means integrating all that you have learned — the texts of our people, the texts of our culture and the texts of your mistakes and your accomplishments — so that you can be better at what you do, every day. It is, as the Psalmist taught, a chance to “Number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Principles, values, knowledge and fluidity — if I have learned anything in these 25 years of service it is that these must guide us in a path of godliness. This, I believe, is the leadership the Jewish community needs. I am grateful for the privilege to serve.
I was thinking today about a Memorial Day breakfast I attended a couple years ago at the home of a friend who happens to live along her town’s parade route. It was a sweet gathering of friends, enjoying the marching bands and town notables as they passed by. It felt patriotic in a low-key way, but it was not especially sad, in a memorial kind of way. I thought about that on this Memorial Day, as I made a point of watching ceremonies for the day on TV. For example, on watching the ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, DC, we were gripped by the testimony of a young widow whose story of constant and enduring loss was a shocking reminder of the personal cost of war. I felt sad, and also privately embarrassed for all of the Memorial Days gone by when I have failed to mark the seriousness of the day. As a memorial, it is about people, families and communities, after all. It is about the cost of war and all of its complexities. It is about America, and all its greatness and accomplishments, and its weaknesses and mistakes.
I have thought about the comparison between Memorial Day here in America and the parallel Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) in Israel. On that day, the sadness pulses through the air. The sirens that begin the evening of Yom Hazikaron sound at the same time throughout the country and everyone stops in their tracks to stand in silence in memory of those who gave their lives for the country. Memorial observances are widely attended, and the TV shows are suspended so that only memorials can be viewed. Shops and restaurants close – this is no day for fun. It is a day to honor memory and embrace one another in mutual support. The mood is appropriate for a Day of Remembrance.
It is not always so here in the suburban USA in which I live. The stores lure shoppers with grand sales; the beaches and pools are full with the start of the summer swimming season on Memorial Day. Backyard barbeques bring friends and neighbors together in a celebration of the season. But the “memorial” part of the day is little more than a distant idea. Even Memorial Day parades do little to capture the sadness of loss and the pain of war.
The truth is we are very separated from the current day experience of war unless we have a family member or friend who was lost. Few in my community have that connection. Most Americans live their daily lives happy to ignore the fact that our country has been at war for 10 years. We face our challenges of daily life, but we do not hold in our hearts those who are currently in the Armed Service, or their families, or those who were lost, or their families. We may hear news about a battle, an attack, a downed helicopter, or an ambush. But that seems so far away, like a distant reality that belongs to someone else.
That’s a far cry from the experience of Israelis for whom that reality belongs to everyone. True, Israel is a small country where most citizens have an obligation to serve in the army, and it has faced decades of war. The experience of loss is close and personal. The American experience of war is at a far greater distance in many ways and for all kinds of reasons. But our collective failure to feel the effects of war is not to our credit. Our failure to be engaged by the reality of war’s devastation enables us to be distant from the responsibility for the war itself. We don’t see it as “our” war.
Unlike the days of the Vietnam War when the newspapers and TV news were filled with stories and images from the front, our news is quite sanitized. When President Bush ruled that we were not to see the returning body bags and coffins from Iraq, a new stage was set. Grief would henceforth be personal and not communal.
America has lost more than 6400 human beings in the ten years of war since 9/11. Their families grieve in a darkened world. But we have lost more than the precious gift of their lives – we have lost the sense of shared responsibility and support that is a hallmark of a strong nation. Those who died for America deserve to be honored and grieved. Their families deserve to be supported and cared for by a compassionate nation that appreciates their sacrifice.
In respect for those who gave their lives, their limbs and their well being, let us not turn away. We owe them better.
Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.
I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.
Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well! I’m watching her.” I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.
We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education. We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.
Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)
There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.
Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.
I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish. Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.
A few days ago I was on my way home from work on my bike when a passenger in a passing car yelled to me, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” It was jarring. I was obeying traffic laws and being as hyper-careful and thoughtful as possible. I have learned that when you are cycling on the suburban New Jersey roads near my home, anything less is very risky and foolish. So what was this guy’s problem? He was more than just an obnoxious North Jersey driver. He was a member of a more selective club – offensive, selfish drivers who put the lives of cyclists at risk.
Once spring weather settles in, I tune up my bike and use it as a primary means of transportation, weather permitting. I not only love the experience of a good ride, but I feel that cycling helps me to live my values. While getting great exercise I am also taking my car off the road – burning less fossil fuel and doing my own little part in relieving the traffic that plagues our New York metropolitan area. The least I would expect from the motorists who pass me is that they allow me to share the road.
This morning I took advantage of beautiful weather and set out early for an extra long ride. Riding on the quieter, beautiful roads away from the main town roads, I was sad when an ambulance sped past. I said a prayer for the person who needed to be whisked so quickly to the hospital. A little while later, as I passed another ambulance, I worried once again for the wounded or sick person whose morning was broken with their emergency. But when I passed a third ambulance a while later, my imagination kicked in. I prayed that the person inside was not a cyclist.
Our rabbis taught that we must not say that we are relieved that we are not the victims in an emergency, since that implies that we are not sympathetic to the person who is truly suffering. So I rebuked myself for such a selfish thought. I prayed once again for healing for whomever was in the ambulance.
But I came by this fear honestly. Just a couple of weeks ago a 25-year-old man was critically injured while cycling (hit by a car) just a mile from my house on a road I often need to travel. We live in an area that lacks shoulders on many of the roads, and harried drivers speed by, sometimes carelessly. A distracted driver can, God forbid, be a disaster for a cyclist. Even as it has become more and more common to see bicycle commuters all over the area, motorists are no more sensitive to our experience.
Last year I was coming to a stop at a light near my house, along with a few other cars. Suddenly, a large rock landed in front of my bike. It had come from one of the cars stopping at the light, from which a guy whom I never saw shouted at me. Luckily it didn’t hit me and, since I was stopped, the rock didn’t obstruct my travel. This was the worst of what I have experienced, thankfully! But it is very common to be jarred by passing motorists who honk or yell because they don’t like sharing the road with a bike (even though the road is not blocked — as I ride far to the right.)
What values are they living? Surely, they lack an appreciation for the need to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (as we learn from this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus 19.) They are too self-absorbed to realize that the best way to build a peaceful, caring society is to “stand in each other’s shoes” and respect each other’s needs. I can only pray that these lessons aren’t learned through tragedy.
A local group is sponsoring the second annual “Bike to Work Challenge.” I proudly display my certificate from last year’s challenge on the wall in my office. Thankfully, there is activism for raising cycling awareness. But the power to change our society resides with everyone. Some kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness and patience would go a long way toward helping all of us.
To all of the motorists who give us space and share the road – Thank You! We are all doing our part in making our world better.
The annual Newsweek/Daily Beast list of America’s fifty top rabbis came out recently. Like many of my colleagues I always read it eagerly to see who got noticed and honored. I revel in reading the names of friends and colleagues whom I regard with the same awe as the Newsweek crew. I always wonder how they determine the list and think of colleagues who coulda/shoulda/woulda been on the list if I had written it. I shake my head at some of the choices, not sure what the reviewers had in mind – but who am I to know, I’m just a rabbi, not a consumer of rabbinic services. Then I shrug my shoulders at the whole exercise. I don’t know what it means, anyway.
But this year the list generated some interesting reactions among some of my colleagues and friends. Some have voiced criticism of the whole idea of honoring rabbis in this way. After all, aren’t rabbis supposed to be humble servants of the Jewish people? The idea of singling out rabbis to call them the “best” in some ways does dishonor to the whole community of rabbis who give their hearts and souls, and in many ways, the whole of themselves. We do this not for honor and fame, but out of devotion to God, Torah and Israel, to bring honor to the Jewish people.
Other colleagues reacted to the slights they perceived on the list. One rabbinic friend started his own campaign to nominate America’s top rabbis using Facebook. (I learned about it when my name appeared on the nominated list, which just made me laugh.) MyJewishLearning.com launched a campaign for nominations and votes for the top rabbis, egging on possible competition between congregations or organizations to get “their” rabbi up there in the ratings.
So what’s going on here? I think this is a very real sign of a gaping hole in our culture — we desperately need heroes. We are starved for strong, inspiring, talented, transformational leaders. Living in a challenging time, filled with rapid change, and so much cultural, political and religious divisiveness, we are all seeking the comfort and hope that a strong leader can offer.
Many Jews feel a deep need for spiritual nourishment that they have not found in synagogues. In a culture that notices and honors those who achieve celebrity status, it is appealing to have celebrity rabbis who might just give us hope and direction.
Psalm 121 pleads, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” We need leaders cast in the mold of Moses and Miriam — courageous, visionary, creative, innovative, nurturing, and also human.
The Newsweek list of their choices for the top 50 rabbis represented leaders in this mold. I am grateful for their leadership and happy to honor them. But it surely must go beyond this. The reactions to “the list” reminds us that there are many heroes of lesser fame and stature whose contributions to the lives of many people are equally as noteworthy, and perhaps even more impactful.
And still we need more — first, by stepping back from the mentality of celebrity and super-human expectations that we learn from our culture. We need to give encouragement and support to emerging leaders. And most importantly, we do best honor to all of our leaders by joining them in the task of transforming our world.
I was recently in an awkward social situation. My husband and I were invited to dinner at the home of friends along with third couple whom we didn’t know. As introductions began, I asked the new acquaintances where they live. I mentioned that I know their town pretty well. “How?” they wondered. I explained that many members of our synagogue live in that town. They asked which synagogue we were from and that launched them into a long discussion of their experience in synagogue life. I assumed from this conversation that they knew that I am a rabbi, but soon learned that I was wrong.
The couple shared lots of reactions to things their rabbi and cantor (but mostly the rabbi) had recently done, and their critique was expansive. It wasn’t an angry conversation, but more like banter about their disagreements with their clergy. I mostly listened, but when the reflections circled back to one particular grievance regarding a change in the synagogue worship, I said that surely that change had been vetted with the leadership and the board (meaning –it is not only the rabbi’s responsibility.) Our dinner companion then turned to me and said, “What…. are you a synagogue president or something?” I said, “No, I’m a rabbi.”
This created some confused and embarrassed sputtering and apologies for gossiping about rabbis. I diffused it quickly by telling them I was amused by the conversation, even as I wondered to myself what my congregants would be saying about what I had done that day as they sat at dinner parties. I laughed it off and the subject was quickly changed (for a while at least, until the “Well, you’re a rabbi, can I ask you….? started up.)
I could have been critical. I could have told them about about the challenge of leadership of the American synagogue, especially during changing times. I could have chided their criticisms as selfish. I could have cited Jewish texts that command us to refrain from speaking ill of others and gossiping. But none of those responses would have been constructive. Instead, I chose to support them for taking sufficient interest in their congregation as to want to talk about it.
While gossip can indeed be breed negativity and divisiveness, I chose to see this exchange not so much as about gossip as being like a Talmudic exchange. In the Talmud, the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we inherited speak in a discourse of disagreement, often quoting their colleagues to support their own positions. It is in the dialogue that Jewish ideas, values, beliefs and practices take shape. The Talmud sets the stage for a long tradition of questioning and critical thinking.
One of the greatest gifts left us by Talmudic sages was the Passover Seder. They managed to create a very structured ritual that is designed to be an open educational experience. They understood that the best way to learn is to ask questions and vigorously discuss ideas and lessons from every angle. They wanted us to enter the world that they modeled for us, where dialogue, debate and personal opinions open worlds of possibilities for growth.
There is an enigmatic story in the Haggadah, the book we use for the Seder. It tells of a group of rabbis sitting up all night learning — discussing meanings and ideas. Historical analyses aside, this story is so cryptic that we have no choice but to wonder out loud, “What were they doing?” “What were they thinking?” “What does this have to do with me?”
If we skip this opportunity for open discussion, we have missed the point of the seder. Just as our dinner acquaintance wanted a forum for discussing the “what was he thinking?” question relating to their rabbi, and no doubt these conversations happen in many a synagogue parking lot, our sages gave us a nod of encouragement to engage.
I hope we use the dinner table of the Seder to banter, to discuss, to question, and to think. “What were they thinking?” becomes “What are we thinking?” It’s more than entertaining; it’s about meaning. I wish you an engaging, enlightening, meaningful Pesach/Passover.