One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.
Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision. I looked back in history to see how this debate played out at the time of the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. Initially, there was a question of boycotting the games that was perhaps most intensively considered in the USA. According to a review of those events provided by the Holocaust Encyclopedia hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
However, Brundage then went on to assert that his investigation led him to believe that German Jewish athletes (and other Jewish athletes) would not be discriminated against at the games. He argued “…that politics had no place in sport. He fought to send a US team to the 1936 Olympics, claiming: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He wrote in the AOC’s pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes” that American athletes should not become involved in the present “Jew-Nazi altercation.” As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would we argue today that a different decision should have been made? I struggle with the answer. I know that one of the things that I most remember from what I have previously learned about the events of that time is the victory of Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals, highlighting the absurdity of Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Will we loudly celebrate every success of a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender athlete at the Sochi Games?
I hear the perspective that it is the presence of the games in Russia that is heightening media attention on the realities in that country. Attention which, I believe, these horrific laws and actions would most likely not receive to the same degree were it not for the games. I also struggle with the question of what sponsors should be doing. I would like nothing more than to learn that Russia finds itself with a huge bill at the end of these games because international corporate sponsors like Coca Cola were not propping up the games. But I’m not sure how or if this would help any of the citizens of Russia whose lives are being affected by Russian government policies. Is a pro-LGBT Coca Cola ad during the NFL Super Bowl enough to make a different kind of statement?
Ultimately, while I struggle with the question of the Olympic games in Sochi, I am much more certain about what needs to happen after Sochi. The media attention must not go away. The corporate sponsors must not stop demonstrating their explicit support for a diverse and inclusive society. And when, (and I’m sorry that I believe it is more of a when than an if) we hear that LGBT Russians are seeking asylum from prosecution and fear of death in their native land, we must ensure that they have a safe place to go and are welcomed here and in all countries who have declared their support and concern for LGBT lives in Russia while supporting the Sochi games.
Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.
This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.
I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.
But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:
1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.
2) A young adult, as a sign of pride in her Jewish identity, chooses to have the Hebrew letters that spell Chai, meaning ‘life’ tattooed just above her heart. For her, it is a sign of her connection to her people and to the land of Israel – Am Yisrael Chai – the people of Israel still live.
3) A man, upon reconnecting with his sense of Jewish identity, community, and recommitting to Jewish learning, decides to have his Hebrew name tattooed on his shoulder as an outward sign of his return to his faith.
How are we to respond to these stories? Are these well intended but misguided choices? Would not a necklace or a bracelet with the same words have sufficed? Or are we living at a different time? A time when our study of the subject reveals that the origins of the law – a prohibition against idolatry – clearly do not hold in these cases. For those who are not bound by the halachic process, where later rabbinic positions are not regarded as the final word on how we observe today, the landscape of decision-making is clearly different to what it once was. We know that many Jews continue to observe and celebrate based on the additional criteria of personal meaning, and these three examples are saturated with such meaning.
I don’t have easy answers. I believe there are Jewish ways to explore the questions. And, as I reminded those in my congregation last Friday, we can all look back at photos of ourselves from past decades and regret some of the fashion choices we made. The good news is that most of us have the luxury of being able to change our clothes and update our hairstyles quite easily. Removing a tattoo is a much more costly and involved process, so there are still plenty of good reasons to pause for a good, long time before proceeding down that path, even if the threat of banishment from a Jewish cemetery isn’t one of them.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This past Shabbat I hosted the last in the three-part set of gatherings that had been planned, designed and implemented by our congregation’s membership committee. The goal of the gatherings was to introduce our new member families to our community, providing some orientation to many of its moving parts, and to each other. Our final gathering was purely social and it was quite evident that wonderful connections have already been made. In the space of just over a month, those families who chose to avail themselves of this opportunity probably traveled further, in terms of community connectedness, than they might otherwise have done in the space of two or three years of synagogue membership. Our next steps are looking at other groups within our congregation where we could help facilitate this kind of connectedness, whether they have joined us in recent years or been members for over 10 years.
Among the many conversations I had on Shabbat afternoon, was one where a parent thanked us for facilitating and providing the times and spaces for connections to be made beyond the walls of the synagogue and the timeframe of prayer services. With young children she said, quite honestly, that she didn’t expect to be a regular attender at Friday night services, but that they were interested in being a part of a community in other ways and at other times.
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a short first career, before deciding to retrain for the rabbinate. I did my PhD at University College London, in Cultural Geography. My thesis was examining the world of environmental education – so often aimed at youth with the hope that the next generation will be inspired to do more than their parents’ generation to alter behaviors that will enable us to live more sustainably on the planet. In my cultural/sociological research into the lives of some of these children, my research pointed out that, so often, the claims made by educators and the assumptions made about the effectiveness of such education were made in a vacuum. Content or Program alone could not tell you how effective the efforts of environmental educators would be. Children, just like the rest of us, live their lives in connection to others. Why, I might ask them, did they join the Scouts/Guides? Why did they get interested in a particular hobby? What kinds of experiences had they had in different kinds of natural environments? Over and over again it was members of their family who provided one primary set of influences, and their friends – their social connections – that drove the vast majority of what they did or didn’t do. Not so surprising a conclusion, but nevertheless so many people who are passionate about the environment focus solely on the educational content and program and continue to ignore the social context in which all of our everyday behaviors and choices are embedded. The former may be easier to create and form than the latter—it is more concrete and tangible—but that doesn’t make it the most effective way to go about doing things.
I share this, because that background and research has guided much of my thinking about religious education and religious communities too. We Jewish professionals tend to overly focus on the prayer service, the program, and the educational course without spending enough time focusing on the social context. To be successful, we need to know who are congregants are and the lives they are leading. Because of the particular demographics of the community where I am based, those dynamics can be quite different to those of another community in another geographical location. What I am learning is that, by emphasizing how gathering opportunities will facilitate community connection, and then being more intentional to make sure that the timing and the nature of the gathering will truly lend itself to these goals, all of the other Jewish content can be shared too. But we start with the connections. Last Shabbat we shared a beautiful Havdalah ritual together, and I was able to teach something about this ritual that many of the children present (and plenty of the adults too) were seeing for the first time. But we didn’t invite them to a Havdalah gathering; given the lack of context for that for some of them, that would have been a meaningless label to describe the nature and purpose of the invitation.
This, of course, is the whole rationale of what Ron Wolfson has termed ‘Relational Judaism‘ and many congregations are turning their attention toward how they can do a better job of being relationship-based communities. Today I fly to San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. Always vibrant and energetic gatherings, this one is bound to be no exception. And, while there will be many useful sessions designed for information and idea sharing on all kinds of topics that will enable communities to reach toward greater excellence on many fronts, these conferences are, ultimately, all about relationship-building themselves. I almost always get more from the individual conversations I have with old friends, with strangers sitting next to me, and with colleagues, re-invigorating me in my work and inspiring me with the things they’ve already thought of and tried in their communities. Understanding this, the conference organizers this year have provided times and places—forums—simply to meet with others who show up around a common area of interest to share ideas and learn from each other, in addition to the more formally organized workshops.
We used to hear a lot of “build it and they will come.” Today, perhaps the more appropriate adage should be “connect, and together we will create.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Last week, in the midst of an independent study meeting with a fourth grader, I was exploring the topic of mixing up holiday traditions, and trying to gauge my student’s opinions. Because it had just recently shown up on my Facebook feed, I shared with her the website for a Menorah tree – the latest innovation in cultural appropriation during the December holiday season. When I asked her what she thought, my incredibly bright and thoughtful student responded, “I think I’d need to know more about the origins of both symbols before I could decide.” No knee-jerk reaction. No embracing of the commercialism or rejecting of the “non authentic.” Just a considered response that indicated the need to understand more about symbols, where they come from, and what they mean to people, before reaching a personal conclusion.
One of the things that I’ve noticed this year, with the confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, creating Thanksgivukkah for those celebrating in the USA, is that I’ve had many thoughtful conversations like this over the past few weeks, with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults alike. Yes, people are having fun with their “Menurkeys” and blended Thanksgiving meal menus this year, but what I’m finding is that people are asking really good questions and having really good conversations about the meaning of the holidays, what the symbols represent, where a valid connection can be made, conceptually, between parts of the Thanksgiving myth and parts of the Hanukkah myth (as so eloquently laid out by my RWB colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, earlier this week). When my congregants had these conversations with me, it has provided many opportunities to share aspects of Hanukkah at a deeper level. People are asking – they want to know. They want to find ways to make it all as meaningful as possible and, in order to do that, they are looking to mine the riches of our traditions, not simply invent and make up new ones. That’s why, in my congregation this Shabbat we’ll be celebrating and highlighting Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in one of monthly ‘Ritual Lab’ services, providing another opportunity for our community to examine both holidays, compare and contrast and learn together while also celebrating Shabbat together (courtesy of my colleague, Rabbi Joe Eiduson, who has put together an innovative weaving of materials).
So, while I’ve read other articles where the authors wish that Hanukkah could just be Hanukkah (you know, that authentic Jewish holiday where we play a 10th Century Anglo Saxon gambling game with a spinning top, eat fried foods common to the cuisine of Germany and Central Europe, and sing a festival anthem set to the melody of a Medieval German marching tune!), I believe otherwise. This year’s juxtaposition of secular and Jewish calendar has opened up rich and meaningful conversations that might not otherwise have taken place. More people know a little bit more about their Jewish heritage and traditions than they otherwise might have.
There’s something else that I think we might consider dropping when we talk about Hanukkah. Let’s stop describing it as ‘a minor Jewish holiday’. The origins of this statement may be halachic in nature – the rabbis did not require Hanukkah to be like some of our other Festivals where we do no work and follow many of the other restrictions of a Sabbath day. They did insert some additional liturgy to mark the holiday, but not at the scale of many of our other festival days. This move was partially historical, but also somewhat political – there were reasons that the Rabbis were, in fact, somewhat ambivalent about the Hasmonean rule that emerged from the Maccabee victory and, while the festival was already firmly established, they did not want to overemphasize its importance in the Jewish calendar.
However today, when I hear people talk about Hanukkah only being a ‘minor’ holiday, what I hear is more of a disdain for the commercial competition with Christmas. But too often, what we are actually telling our communities, inadvertently, is not ‘don’t go over the top with the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday’ but rather, ‘this isn’t really one of our important holidays.’ And so, in fact, we end up sending the message that Hanukkah cannot and should not be held up, embraced, celebrated, enriched and enjoyed (and yes, that means the light-hearted commercial kind of enjoyment too) as a meaningful winter holiday of hope and light in the midst of the dark and the cold. We send the message that only Christmas can do that at this time of year – our little holiday simply can’t ‘compete’. Why do we want to impart that message? If having an inflatable, lit-up menorah on your front lawn, or a menorah tree in your house, eight nights of gift-giving, or creating new secular-styled ‘pop’ Hanukkah songs makes for a joyful celebration in your home and extends the time you spend thinking about and celebrating this Jewish holiday, isn’t that a good thing?
As we arrive at erev Hanukkah, and erev Thanksgiving, tonight, I wish you all a wonderful, enjoyable, and meaningful Thanksgivukkah!
You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment. In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.
Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.
First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”
I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.
And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:
“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui]. It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?” (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).
And here is a story that illustrates this principle:
The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).
Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by.
My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
It’s probably one of the first things that I learned from my time as a social science researcher – the short research and academic career that I had before deciding to turn to the Rabbinate … correlation does not always mean causation. Statistics are very good at demonstrating the former but, by themselves, cannot determine the latter without further investigation.
So, for example, a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level. Most of us would recognize that there is a third factor – age – that accounts for both.
Then there’s the joke about the lunatic who wants to demonstrate to his doctor that he can control spiders. He speaks to the spider ‘Go left!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the left. Then he calls out ‘Go right!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the right. Then he says to the doctor, ‘but that’s nothing – watch this!’ He proceeds to pull the legs off the spider. When he calls out ‘Go left!’ and ‘Go right!’ again, the spider doesn’t move. ‘See!’ says the lunatic, ‘If you pull a spider’s legs off he’ll go deaf!’
In the past 24 hours there have been multiple reports and responses to the Pew Portrait of Jewish American life in major newspapers, blogs, and conversations on Facebook pages. It has sparked many interesting and reflective responses, all containing good observations. But there is also the tendency to misread the data, jump to assumptions about causation when only correlation has been determined, and to focus in on some of the data while ignoring other parts. I have found conversations about what part of the data has been most shocking/surprising/unexpected particularly interesting. Some are shocked by the statistic that 34% said that you could still be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah, for example. Many are concerned that, of those who identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish, 2/3rds of them are not raising their children Jewish in any way.
One of the things that I learned as a social scientist is that there are many ways of seeing, based not so much on what lies before us, but rather on who is doing the seeing. The artist, the developer, and the farmer can all look out at exactly the same field and see completely different things. So it is that those of us who work within institutional Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, look at this data with one set of concerns, whereas those who have created new Jewish cultural projects that seek to engage Jews outside of those traditional institutions would look at the data quite differently.
The full Pew study is over 200 pages long. I have not had the time in the last 24 hours to read and digest it. So it is not my intention to add my own layer of analysis to those that are already out there at this time. Rather, to caution us to think about our framing, how we are approaching and responding to the data that has been collected, and to be careful about jumping to conclusions. For example, if I add my own voice to those that have highlighted what is most interesting to them, I would draw attention to something that is mentioned but which hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the analysis so far. On the Pew Forum’s own summary page of the report, with regard to the youngest generation of Jews surveyed who show an increasingly ethnic but not religious sense of identification, they state:
This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).
This piece of data should immediately alert us to the likelihood that there are a combination of factors that are shifting the culture of American society in general, to which we in the Jewish community are not immune. Does that mean that we who are Jewish professionals throw up our hands and give up on our attempts to keep Jews Jewish, help interfaith families make Jewish choices, and demonstrate the meaningful connections to our faith and heritage that we wish to share with younger generations? Of course not! But it does mean that we cannot jump to conclusions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t be achieved, and what our expectations are, without reference to the larger cultural context in which we are living and working. And perhaps most of all, an awareness of the trends in this larger cultural context can help us keep our emotions in check. Instead of the hand-wringing and angst that sometimes drives a narrative that can sound a little too desperate as we mourn the ‘ever-dying Jewish people‘, if we acknowledge and even embrace the reality that we live and work in today we can more joyfully reach out and share what we have to offer, and are probably more likely to connect with Jews who identify differently to us because we are more present to who they are and will be less likely to try and make them fit inside our pre-existing structures.
I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.