While on the surface, the last two posts on this blog from my colleagues, Laura Duhan Kaplan and Joshua Ratner, are about two very different things, they are, I believe, both reflections on the shifting culture in which our Jewish lives and worlds are embedded. Sometimes, in our analysis of our field of focus, we can lose sight of a broader set of dynamics that may have as much, if not more, to tell us about a situation we are examining than some of the specifics of the situation itself.
Let’s start with Joshua’s concern that, at a recent rally for the three kidnapped boys in Israel, there was a stark lack of young people present. Likewise, he notes, at communal Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, the presence of a younger generation is often lacking. Is it that they don’t care? Are we dealing with a more self-centered generation than in the past? These are some of Joshua’s questions.
While there may be some partial truths there, I think a step back to look at the worlds that many of our teens and young adults are living in may be more instructive. And not just our teens and young adults, but many other segments of our communities too. One of the things that I’ve observed is that often, regardless of the topic or the issue, any Jewish gathering that aims to or claims to bring all sections of the community together often reaches none, or very few. Perhaps only those who are comfortably self-identified as the Jewish establishment will appear (those are the 50+ folk that Joshua saw in his crowd). They know that we are addressing them. Others may not be so sure unless we break things down and are more explicit about who we mean.
This is why there are many independent communities and minyanim that have popped up in recent years. Not necessarily identified along established denominational lines, they are, in part, a result of young Jews who are less interested in simply “belonging” to an established Jewish entity because it is already there, and are more interested in creating something that fits who they are, where they can be with like-minded folk. It is why, within a more established kind of Jewish congregation—one like my own where we are the most significant gathering place for Jews who come to us from 20 different towns—our ability to engage and connect with our members requires us to correctly identify many of the different groups and interests within our larger membership and provide a range of doorways in for those specific needs (creating many small gatherings and opportunities within the large). Its why many congregations realized that when you simply advertise “adult education” you always seem to get the same group of, primarily, empty-nesters and retirees in attendance. Its not that others aren’t interested in learning; it’s just that its only when the kids have left home that you finally have some time to do study for its own sake. Or perhaps you now begin to seek new realms of meaning now that not so much of that meaning-making is invested in raising children. That doesn’t mean we can never get other groups to come and learn with us. It just means we have to be really smart about what it is they need at other junctures of their lives.
So I’ve found teens and young adults to be very engaged with Israel, and deeply able to connect with the impact of the Shoah on Jewish peoplehood, but in places where they come to be with each other. Joshua and I shared the same community for a while. The year that we brought our annual Yom HaShoah observance into our community High School Tuesday evening gathering, it was very powerful to see a couple of hundred teens watch Holocaust survivors light candles, and hear the testimony of one of them. Several teens every year did the “Adopt a Survivor” program and personally got to know one survivor and commit to tell their story. It was clear that they had a connection in our debrief the following week. But do they come on a Sunday afternoon for a “communal” event? Not so much.
Laura’s very honest reflections on how, at an event that was meant to bring community together, she felt somewhat uncomfortable and disconnected from narratives being offered by Jewish leadership from another denomination is, I believe, another dimension of some of the same cultural phenomenon. On almost no topic are we a “one community” mindset. It is almost impossible for anyone to speak anymore and be accepted as “the voice” of the people, or even of a particular moment. Perhaps there was a time, in a more modernist era, where we were willing to let voices of authority speak on behalf of all of us—a Chief Rabbi (in the UK, for example; something that was far more accepted a few decades ago than it is now), a communal leader at a rally, an Op-Ed in a newspaper. But today, some of the most successful Jewish communal events are ones that focus on and celebrate plurality and diversity of voice—take the enormous world-wide success of Limmud, for example. Even on something where you might have assumed that, at least publicly, we’d all stand with one voice, it is the right to have even the minority voice heard that overrides any sense that doing so might undermine a perceived communal unity. Take the position of Jewish Voice for Peace on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), for example, and their recent role in a Presbyterian Church vote to partially divest from three companies doing business in Israel. Some are outraged by their presence in the public square of debate on Israel. But, if we take a step back from the issue and better understand our cultural context, in which we have celebrated and empowered those who are drawn to define and act upon their own sense of justice in a plurality of ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the result.
Just to be clear, I’m not mourning the lack of perceived unity and peoplehood. Neither am I celebrating it. I’m simply describing the cultural landscape that I believe we are living in the ways that I see it. Simply better understanding it can, I believe, help us do our work in connecting Jews together, engaging Jews in communities, activities and causes, with more successful outcomes. Trying to get everyone at the same event, on the same page, and caring in the same way is a fruitless exercise. We can, however, be successful in creating or supporting many gateways, many voices, and many opportunities to be and do Jewish with each other.
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I recently spent some time at a gun range in a class that provided an introduction to guns. During my class I was shown how to safely hold and fire a pistol, a revolver, a rifle, and an AK47. I’ve always been quite good at fairground rifle ranges, picking up a few prizes in my teens. I have to say that I enjoyed the target practice, and it was quite exciting to have the opportunity to learn how to fire these guns. I’d go back and do it again. My instructor was professional, and at the end asked if any of us was interested in taking further classes to obtain a gun license, but there was no propaganda and no hard sell.
While I was there I observed many people coming and going, the majority of them middle-aged husbands and wives, stopping in for some target practice. I asked my instructor how many people who belonged to this school bought their own guns vs how many simply used the considerable selection available in the school. He estimated that about 70% probably had their own. This in a state with very strict carry restrictions. These guns are meant to remain unloaded, in a locked cabinet at home. They are brought in a locked case to the gun range. They are opened up on the range, then loaded and fired. Yet 70% of the people coming back and forth felt the desire to buy one or more guns of their own. I was struck by how much potential risk was being introduced into so many lives by that one statistic. Guns that might be accessed in a marital dispute. Guns that might be played with by a child who accidentally injures themselves or a friend. Guns that might be picked up in a moment of suicidal despair. Guns that might be stolen in a burglary and sold on the black market to other criminals.
There are an estimated 270-310 millions guns owned by citizens in the U.S. A quick glance at The Gun Report indicates how many of the thousands of incidents of gun violence a year fall into one of the above categories. Guns are clearly a sensitive topic of conversation in the USA. There’s plenty of room for debate about precisely what kinds of actions or laws could be effective or should be enacted. But 74 school-based shootings after Newtown, one thing seems clear – gun violence in the U.S. is out of control. When, instead of figuring out how to reduce the amount of gun violence in our society we appear to be resigned to a new reality, instead creating bullet-proof blankets for children to hide under in their schools, it’s well past time to stop the insanity and take another look at our assumptions.
While there are some contributing factors to this that are more complex to define and solve, there is little question in my mind that some universally accepted and enforced gun control and registration process would be at least a step in the right direction. It’s not only a pragmatic thing to do; it’s also the Jewish thing to do. Centuries before guns had even entered the imaginations of those who sought to exert power and control over others through violence, Jewish thinkers had already applied the wisdom and ethics of our faith tradition to consider what kinds of obligations we had to mitigate the potential harm that the existence and ownership of dangerous things could cause to others.
We see this concern first expressed in the Torah itself, with regard to building a house:
“When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]” (Deut. 22:8).
Rabbinic commentary on this verse extrapolates from this that we need “fences” to provide some additional protection from anything that could cause harm to another, to ensure that we don’t accidentally come to cause blood to be spilled. The text doesn’t ban flat roofs, but it does emphasize our obligation to take necessary precautions. Applied to the context of guns, this certainly provides a solid basis for thinking about all the things we could be doing to minimize the danger that guns bring into our homes, our schools, and our communities.
From the Talmud, we find another teaching that, when extrapolated, seems to go further:
R. Nathan says: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog in his house, or keep an impaired ladder in his house? From the text (Deut. 24:8), “You shall bring not blood upon your house.” Talmud, Bava Kama 46a
If we think more broadly about the application of the proof-text quoted from Deut. 24:8, we might conclude that we should not knowingly bring into our homes things where there is a high risk that they will eventually cause harm to someone. Certainly there would be some who would make the case that by keeping a gun at home they could prevent the bloodshed of their family were an armed attacker to enter that home. But for that to even be a likely scenario, that gun would have to be kept, unsecured, immediately accessible, and loaded to do someone any good. And in the meantime, that is a deadly weapon that is sitting around each and every day that is far more likely to end up causing harm to those same loved ones. Other commentaries on this talmudic teaching suggest that it is ok to own a dangerous dog if it is kept chained up at all times. This would bring us back to the need for incredibly secure gun safes, with ammunition kept equally safe and separate from the gun, being a requirement of gun ownership.
There are additional references in rabbinic discussions in the Talmud that prohibit the sale of weapons to those who are believed to want to cause us harm (Avodah Zarah 15b; YD 151:5-6). The application of these teachings would certainly support the idea of universal background checks and the kind of licensing and tracking of gun purchases that might truly have an impact on the ease with which criminals can obtain guns.
Like many, I am heart-sickened by the daily reports of more deaths by gun violence. I believe that we have the ability and the obligation to enact some changes to our laws and our culture that would make a real difference. I see no responsible, ethical basis for the recent stories we have heard of some States and localities moving in the opposite direction. When will we say “enough”?!
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I am an immigrant to the United States. I am the holder of a green card—the documentation that gives me the status of “permanent resident.” I arrived at this status by way of a J1 visa (to enable me to work at a Jewish summer camp for a season), an F1 visa (a 1 year visa when I came to Hebrew Union College as a visiting student), then another J1 visa (another summer at camp), then another F1 visa (because I had transferred my rabbinic studies from the UK to the USA), and then two R1 visas (temporary religious worker visa—one needs to hold this and have a minimum of two years unbroken employment before one can begin the green card application; most people need to apply for two rounds, otherwise their authorization to work will run out before their green card has been processed).
That’s seven rounds of paperwork, lawyers fees and application fees. The cost was around $15000. And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a rabbi, congregations who needed not just “a rabbi,” but a rabbi that was a good match for their community, could present the need for my presence in the U.S. much more precisely than is the case in many other lines of work.
You might think that, after such a complex and drawn-out process (9 years in total), I would not be pleased at the thought that others were living and working here entirely undocumented. You might think that I would not be supportive of their hopes that a path to citizenship be attainable without having to go through the process that I so diligently observed.
But you’d be wrong.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the means, the language skills, and the communal support, to do all that I did and wait my turn. I cannot fathom how someone crossing the border from Mexico, hoping to make a little money on a tomato or orange farm to send back to family, could possibly navigate or afford what I did. I cannot imagine a woman, arriving under the guise of a tourist, but then remaining to avoid the sexual assaults she suffered in her native land, and now working nights cleaning offices, could gather the means to do as I did.
Next week is the festival of Shavuot. There are many themes in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read at this time, but it is not difficult to find the story of an immigrant in this book, and all that is gained when the stranger is greeted with compassion and provided with the opportunity to make a life and contribute positively to a society, instead of hiding in the shadows.
As Rabbi Natan Levy recalls from that story, on the Times of Israel blog,
“…and Boaz watched the strange Moabite women in his field, and he says to his reapers: Leave her unmolested, and to his harvesters: Leave her a few extra sheaves of barley, and to his servants: Draw the well-water for her when she comes out of the heat of the Israeli summer. And when Ruth understands these things she turns to Boaz and asks a question: “How could I have found grace in your eyes that you should recognize me (l’hakireni)—Yet I am foreign (nokhriya).” (Ruth 2:10)”
Rabbi Levy, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, goes on to note that the word meaning “to recognize” (to grant rights and privileges) has the same Hebrew root as “to be a stranger/foreigner.” He says, “A single Hebrew word spans the spectrum of human interaction between recognition and estrangement, compassion and indifference.”
I am no expert on precisely what form new legislation to provide immigration reform should take. But on one thing I am clear. Jewish wisdom, paired with our own experiences of being the stranger, seeking a safe haven from oppression, demands compassion from us when we consider those who seek opportunity or safety among us. That is why I stand with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, in supporting comprehensive immigration reform. Drawing from a liturgy created especially for this Shavuot to reflect on this issue, we are reminded of a midrash on the Book of Ruth:
And why was the Scroll of Ruth written?
Rabbi Ze’ira says: “To teach [us] of a magnificent reward to those who practice and dispense chesed/loving kindness” (Ruth Rabbah 2:15).
Hear now the voices of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz:
I am Ruth.
With beloved family I came to a new country. I worked hard, determined to create a better life for myself and my loved ones. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans strengthening this country through the work of their hands and the love of their families. On this Shavuot, please stand with me in recognition of the dreams of so many.
We are all Ruth.
I am Naomi.
I fled tragedy in one country to come to another filled with promise…only to be rejected—my dreams dashed against unthinkable challenges. Today, I see my experience reflected in the lives of so many aspiring Americans facing the fear of deportation, a promising future turned bitter. On this Shavuot, please stand with me as we turn dreams sweet once again.
We are all Naomi.
I am Boaz.
I recognized those toiling in dark shadows in the corners of the field. I used my power to bring light to lives burdened by daunting trials. Today, I would like to see my experience reflected in the lives of many more American working to change current policies that keep bright futures dim. On this Shavuot, please stand with me to welcome those toiling in the corners of this country.
We are all Boaz.
On this Shavuot, we stand with Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth. (liturgy extracted from the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Initiative of The RAC).
A week after we celebrated the 66th anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel, I’ve been reflecting on how we talk about Israel in our communities. At the beginning of the month the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted against accepting the membership of J-Street into the Conference (see Gary Rosenblatt’s editorial in The Jewish Week for a good summary of this story). With the announcement of a new alliance between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, hope has considerably waned that the recent round of peace talks with Israel will amount to any new breakthroughs. Some have expressed the belief that this is the direct result of Netanyahu’s stance during the talks. The blame game has begun. It is easy to feel somewhat demoralized by all this and frustrated when it comes to talking about Israel.
And yet, at the same time this past week one of our congregants, a member of the Board of Directors of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed our congregation after recently returning from a remarkable trip led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, where they had the opportunity to meet with and speak with leaders in government, the Israel Religious Action Center, observe the growth and development of Reform Judaism in Israel, and meet with Palestinian businessmen in addition to Israeli leaders in the business and innovation world. He returned hopeful and inspired, and he inspired all who heard him speak. Our congregation is planning on a community trip to Israel next year, and people are eager to go.
Last night, in my final class of the semester with our 11th and 12th grade students, we explored a range of Jewish values from Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s “Mitzvah Cards” and I asked students to choose ones that they felt they already ‘carried with them’ and ones that were challenging to them. One of those challenge cards was Israel. A student conveyed something that I remember feeling so strongly myself as I entered my first year of college—a sense of struggle and frustration that sometimes a thoughtful and critical engagement with Israel was silenced within Jewish settings.
I remember attending an event run by the Hillel at my college during the first Gulf War. Scud missiles were being sent Israel’s way. It was a scary time for the population of Israel. Gas masks had been widely distributed. There was no question that we would be praying for the safety of all in Israel. In the midst of an informational session one student stood up to contribute to a discussion about Israel to express his hope that, even in the midst of a time when we needed to stand by Israel and pray for its safety, we wouldn’t lose sight of other issues regarding the peace process or equality within Israel that were also important to talk about in a Jewish setting on campus. He was literally shouted down—how dare he even ask the question at a time like this!
I have a visceral memory of my internal reaction to witnessing that moment. I wanted no part of it. I cared deeply about Israel and its future and its safety. And at the same time I found the culture that squashed thoughtful and caring debate and discussion about all aspects of life in Israel to be enormously unhelpful. That was 25 years ago—no wonder that J-Street has 180,000 supporters and 50 chapters on campus. You may not agree with them, but they exist because there was insufficient room within previously existing organizations for those who wanted to engage more fully with all dimensions of Israel.
Let me be clear—I’m not writing this to express personal support of any one organization or perspective. Rather, I plead for Jewish community to be a place where we can lovingly and respectfully engage with the fullness of Israel. Like my country of origin—the UK—or my country of residence—the USA—there are things that make me feel extraordinarily proud, and there are things that sometimes happen that cause me to feel embarrassment or disappointment. Israel has to be experienced—it is an amazing place. The people are as diverse in background and opinion as any other place. There is so much to learn there. The innovation in science, technology, agriculture, and more is breathtaking. A country that is only 66 years young has developed politically, socially and economically in remarkable ways. And it is still finding its way in some areas—religious pluralism, equality, the place of minority groups in a country that is still fighting for the right to define itself as a Jewish homeland.
What we don’t need is propaganda. We don’t need trips to Israel that pull the blinders over the breadth and complexity of a fully realized, living, breathing modern nation state. We don’t need to silence each other. I do not pretend to offer expertise on the complexities of the political situation and the peace process. It is my job to listen and learn, and to facilitate conversation. It is my job to point out where I observe insightful analysis and information being shared, and where I see ideological lines being drawn in the sand that ultimately help no one. And it is my job to help my student, as she goes off to college, know that there are people and places where she can engage with the fullness of all that Israel is and may still come to be, without feeling shamed or silenced.
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“So it’s finished?” I heard one commentator on local NPR ask sarcastically in a discussion about the NBA decision to issue a life-time ban on Donald Sterling. Of course, we know that the conversation about racism in our society, how it manifests and how it effects the lives of millions of citizens each and every day, is clearly not over. But while most media outlets are moving on to the next story, it is also quite clear that, if Sterling’s private conversation with his girlfriend was being held up as an example of the kind of racism that our society won’t tolerate, the conversation never really even began.
Because it is way too easy to hold up people like Donald Sterling as examples of racists so that the rest of us can congratulate ourselves on not being racists “like them.” Most people don’t want to look in the mirror when these stories highlight only a caricature of racism to delve a little deeper into their own, real life experiences.
It just so happened that, while this story was breaking this week, I attended an extraordinary multi-media one-woman performance called “Crossing the Boulevard” by Judith Sloan. Sloan engaged youth and adults over several years in what is probably the most ethnically diverse borough in the USA: Queens. Through an exhibit which became a book, which became a stage show, Sloan brings to light the hidden stories and experiences of people of so many different faith and ethnic backgrounds who she met through her project. By telling pieces of their diverse and fascinating stories she brings forth the most important facet within each and every one of them—their humanity.
Her presentation was brought to my town by the Friends of “Facing History and Facing Ourselves” program that is taught in our local High School. The performance highlights how each and every one of us knows so little about our neighbors because of the silence that exists, separating people of different backgrounds. Part of this is due to our uncertainties and anxieties about ‘the other’ and part of it is the way in which we seek to understand ourselves partly through defining with whom we belong. Hence we seek others “like us” as part of that search for meaning. This is not inherently wrong. It is human nature. But it means that it takes an active choice of will to simultaneously exert effort to build genuine relationships with others. Inaction too quickly leads to a separatism within which power exerts itself and racism is easily inserted into the equation.
I yearn for intelligent conversations about difference and diversity. I hold a professional position that makes a great deal of my work about helping Jews hold up, engage with and love things that are specifically Jewish, and require Jewish community coming together to share some of the best of those things. And I also recognize the need to do this in ways that are outward looking, that seeks opportunities to share our specificity with others who will have equal opportunity to share theirs with us. His kind of sharing doesn’t usually “just happen.” It takes an act of will. Just last month we hosted a Shabbat service to highlight the learning that took place among a group of 8th-12th graders learning and leading in a program that provides Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus with a meaningful encounter over six weeks of being together. We need programs like this in our schools, in our communities, and for adults as well as children.
If the story of Donald Sterling is to teach us anything, let it not be what racism looks like—that’s too easy and simplistic. Let it remind each of us to take that active step, personally and individually, to have a conversation with someone we see as “other.” Let it remind us not to hide our own sense of “otherness” in a desperate attempt to fit in to something that we perceive might not accept the fullness of who we are, but gently, and with tolerance and patience, we can help teach others when we share that “otherness” with them. We may not complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.
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While we certainly were not the first to realize how much fun it would be to re-write the words to the hit song from Frozen in honor of the upcoming holiday of Passover, our congregation, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, is very proud of what a team of volunteers put together in approximately two weeks. Aside from having a great deal of fun making this video, we learned a lot in the process. It is a concrete and immediately gratifying example of what can happen when a community find more ways to say “yes” and asks, “how can we help you with that?” A new congregant conceived of the project, recruited 2 talented friends to sing, and then turned to her congregation for assistance. Once we identified a professional videographer and a theater director within the congregation who were willing to volunteer their time and talents, the plan started to fall into place. We recruited 23 congregants in the space of 5 days who gave us from 1 hour – 6 hours of their time last Sunday afternoon to help us film the scenes. We thank our congregant, Elyse Heise (nee Rothman), for giving us the opportunity. Our congregants love it, and we hope you will too: Congregation B’nai Shalom presents “Let us Go”
This week, my partner and I sat down to plan our seder. For us, this involves much more than deciding on the menu. While we use a haggadah that we compiled as a guide to take us through the 15 steps that make up the seder (which means “order”), what we do with those steps varies from year to year.
This year, I was inspired by two wonderful suggestions from our cousin, Ilana Stein Ben-Ze’ev. The first is a beautiful and moving new ritual, shared out of the experience of the death of her father, Professor Jerome Stein. She writes:
We have Eliyahu’s Cup, and Miriam’s Cup, and now, at my home: The Memory Cup. Kos Zikaron. Even though Pesach is ‘Zman Simchatenu’ (A time of our happiness), I knew I would miss my father- his seders were a big part of our family life. I had a friend coming who had also recently lost her father. So, I took one of the many goblets I’ve made over the years, and declared it to be Kos Zikaron. Before we started the seder, we filled it and passed it around the table. Whoever wanted to, announced whose cup it was for them, and why. For me: “This is my father’s cup. I have so many seder memories and he is in them all. I’d like his presence at our seder.” And so it went- I was surprised that everyone found someone to bring in (and glad I didn’t have to feed them all!).
Ilana’s second sharing in inspired by the line with which we begin the Maggid (story-telling) part of the Seder. She writes: Kol dichfin (the line in the Maggid that pronounces – let all who are hungry come and eat!) – let’s put our money where our mouths are: Donate the cost of feeding 1 Seder guest to a food bank.
There are also those who make a habit of donating all of their unopened hametz to a local food bank in advance of Passover. In our congregation, we have reinterpreted the period that begins on the 2nd night of Seder – the counting of the Omer – as a time to donate grain-based foods to the local food bank. Historically, this was when our ancestors gave thanks as the different kinds of grain (barley first, wheat later) became ready for harvesting, and the first sheaves were brought to the temple as an offering to give thanks. During Passover we begin with rice, but once Passover has ended, cereal boxes, cookies, and other non-perishable grain-based foods are donated and publicly displayed as the collection grows, culminating at Shavuot.
The haggadah does not begin with a retelling of the Exodus narrative. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find that narrative laid out in the haggadah. The entire Maggid section is more of a teacher’s guide to the spiritual and practical lessons we can learn from engaging with the story not as re-telling of an historical account, but as a guide to the spiritual landscapes of our own lives and the society and world that we live in today. That is why we are commanded to experience the Exodus “as if we, ourselves” were freed from slavery. That’s not necessarily an instruction to imagine yourself back in time as a character in the story (although that can be fun and insightful too). It is an instruction to look at how those themes of enslavement, constriction, limitation, and of freedom to become, fully, are played out today. One way to more deeply share the meaning of these narratives with the guests at your Seder is by examining these themes through poetry, images, news stories, and personal sharing.
If Pharaoh is the one that limits and controls us, making us a slave to needs that line the pockets of another and constrains us from living expansively, guided by our inner truth and our relationship to the Divine (which, for many, is experienced through our relationship with others), then we can ask what manifests as Pharaoh in our life today?
This year – especially this year – when the weather patterns have left us longing for spring to finally be upon us, we can ask what new seeds are we nurturing, and what might we be hoping to see blossom in our lives in the coming year.
These are just a few ideas to enrich your seder ritual this year. Share your creative rituals with us here, so that we can inspire each other this Passover.
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.