Author Archives: Rachel Gurevitz

Rachel Gurevitz

About Rachel Gurevitz

Rachel Gurevitz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA. In her congregation she is helping individuals to nourish and deepen their own path to positive Jewish living. Her passions include working on interfaith interaction and cooperation, music, chant, and meditation, and Jewish mysticism. Rachel was ordained at Hebrew Union College where she completed the rabbinic studies she began at Leo Baeck College, London. Prior to this, she received her B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from University College, London, researching, consulting and publishing on environmental and sustainable development education from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

This year’s Purim costume: True Self

A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry.  Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear.  Why a story?  Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?

He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me.  It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me.  Who I really am.  Without it being a big deal.  Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’

purim-costumes_1352.3dd48

Sometimes the mask reveals the true self

I understood what he was saying.  For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender.  And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way.  But that’s not how my friend was dressed.  His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.

Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self.  Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life.  So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?

In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’.  The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head.  Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man!  We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.

But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural  context.  We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?

We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female.  From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’  In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another.  As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.

But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion.  What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around.  So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity.  For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty.  We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.

In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting.  If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.

And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition.  Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves.  Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day.  When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes.  If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.

What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?

Posted on February 20, 2013

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Leave my bar mitzvah alone!

Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah.  The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage.  Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.

Pastor Brian with his son, on TLC’s ‘The Sisterhood’

Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School.  As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate.  They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah.  They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview.  In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice.  But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.

My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah.  They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in.  If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that.  What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity.  They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.

My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent.  But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.

I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking.  This class will end the year with Confirmation.  I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony.  They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities.  The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony.  And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.

So then I tried them on weddings.  What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony?  Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line?  ’No’, my students told me.  If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony.  Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage.  For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual  - a child.

Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages.  I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them.  So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality.  We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice.  So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.

I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students.  The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years.  But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey.  While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality.  This was the approach that my students chose.  I think they are ready for their Confirmation.

Posted on January 23, 2013

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“It Was Meant To Be,” and Other Theologically Complex Statements

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal.  I was there to visit my step-daughter who is serving in the Peace Corps.  It was incredible to get a taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country.  Returning home, as many have asked us if we had a good vacation, I have found myself answering, vaguely, “It was an experience.”  I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I’ve ever done for vacation before.

There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life.  But I’d like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, “God Talk” sessions.  The topic? Transportation.

Senegal minibus

Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal.  Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corps family, we opted to use public transport to get around.  We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in.  There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen.  All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely potholed roads that we traveled.  But the most challenging ride we took was in one of the regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town.  After a three-hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.

These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the roof (in another location we saw three goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top).  After a very bumpy hour-and-a-half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.

We had planned to take an overnight back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime.  However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn’t exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage.  Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a 7-seater that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.

The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers.  My French isn’t what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses.  Not just any bus: the bus we were supposed to take. All 26 occupants of the minibus were killed.

After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day’s frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we’d had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, “Perhaps it was meant to be.”  And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed.  Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans?  But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?

As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement.  It’s familiar to many.  But what do we actually mean by it? Continue reading

Posted on January 9, 2013

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Find room for God? Or finding God in the room?

On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message.  In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:

“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.

“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.

In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans.  Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue.  At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them.  He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good.  It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine.  My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events.  But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.

And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors.  Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions.  For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society.  But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two –  the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.

Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’  He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences.  Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other.  For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’

Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand.  From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be.  Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives.  Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same.  We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.

And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God.  Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.

 

Posted on December 26, 2012

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Who speaks for Judaism?

As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest.  The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage.  Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013.  British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.

For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air.  Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.

However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time.  The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community.  Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down.  The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church.  The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.

And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time.  Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.

Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK.  Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable.  Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.

In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent.  While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great.  Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.

In truth, these are not new phenomena.  This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label.  But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part.  They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.

Those needs still exist.  And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs.  But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together.  Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.

And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.

Posted on November 28, 2012

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Petraeus: When leaders let us down

Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes.  While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story.  I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.

And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme.  Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention.  I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.

My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved.  While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.

How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship?  As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from?  Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?

Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior.  Sometimes we must speak out.  Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.

In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value.  I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him.  But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls.  We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?

And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time.  And that is a picture we don’t like to look at.  So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’  But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.

Posted on November 14, 2012

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Politics and the Pulpit

This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.

Wait! What about separation of church and state?  You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?

Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS.  They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter.  It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.

Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’.  There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement.  Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.

And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status.  So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?

Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’.  There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.

I will tell you now, my name is not on that list.  And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it.  I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.  And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading

Posted on October 17, 2012

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Why Forgiveness is the Key

In the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at www.jewishfoodforthought.com Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation.  We watched ‘Forgiveness’ first (Click here to watch).

I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person’s acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions – to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone ‘live rent free in my head’ – it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice.  At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone’s words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me.  I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks.  But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.

Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts.  While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head.  Sometimes that is as good as it gets.  I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing.  It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it.  And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.

Why is it so important to forgive?  I’ve been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life – our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in.  There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity.  Painful memories from the past are some of the ways.  And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I’m more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I’m more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.

But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world?  How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?

Forgiveness is the key.  When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message.  Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva.  When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn’t that what we want?  We want to know that person got their comeuppance.  We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave.  We want to see them fail at something.  But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else’s misery?  Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done.  But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.

Forgiveness is the key.

This piece was originally published at Rabbi Gurevitz’ blog, ‘Raise it Up’ at http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com

Posted on September 19, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Igniting the Spark of Love

During the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a number of bloggers are contributing to #BlogElul – a communal online project initiated by fellow ‘Rabbi Without Borders’, Phyllis Sommer.  Each day of the month has been allocated a theme.  Today’s theme is Love. You can read the daily contributions by following #BlogElul on Twitter.  If you don’t use Twitter, a google search for #BlogElul will enable you to read many of the contributions.

Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called ‘Seven Sparks.’  Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, ‘Positive Jewish Living.’ The origins of both the book and the larger ‘Positive Jewish Living’ project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.

The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: ‘I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.’  From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: ‘I am free to love and be loved.’  She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction.  Why does God need to introduce God-self?  Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced.  God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant).  Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam).  Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love.  We also learn how to receive love.  ’It’s hard to feel that you are loved, if you’ve spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy.  It’s hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism.  When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it.” (Schafer, 2011).

At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called ‘Ignite!’  How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives?  These are her suggestions.  How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:

For yourself:

  • I love myself.
  • I have immense potential to grow.
  • I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
  • I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.

For your family:

  • I express love generously and often.
  • I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
  • I give without expecting anything in return.

At work:

  • I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
  • I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
  • I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.

At your Congregation:

  • We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
  • We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
  • We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.

Posted on September 5, 2012

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A new face of interfaith marriage

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had some very interesting enquiries from couples seeking to be married by a rabbi.  A couple of them are especially interesting because they have two things in common – they found me through a website resource that specializes in reaching out to interfaith couples and families… and in both cases both parties to the marriage were Jewish.  I think its worth sharing and reflecting on these interactions, because they have something to teach us about the changing face of religious engagement, and the landscape that some of us are working in today.

I recently moved to a new congregation in central Massachusetts – Congregation B’nai Shalom – and when I made the move, one of the places where I updated my information was Interfaithfamily.com.  This wonderful site is a depository for hundreds of articles; some written by clergy or for clergy, but the vast majority written by and for people in interfaith families.  They provide introductions to the holidays and Jewish ritual for a non-Jewish family member wanting to understand more.  They provide thought-pieces on the choices people make around raising their children.  They provide a resource for Jewish grandparents figuring out their role in their children’s interfaith family.  And much, much more.  One of the things they also do is provide a referral service to help couples find a rabbi who will say ‘yes’ to the question of officiating at their marriage.  This referral service was designed to bypass the historical experience of many Jews marrying non-Jews who, in the past, would often have to hear many ‘no’ answers before they found a ‘yes’… if they persevered that long.

Now, I know that rabbis officiating at interfaith marriages is a tough topic for many of my colleagues.  And I do respect the path each takes in determining what role they feel they can have, if any.  But today I’m not writing about that choice.  I am a rabbi who says ‘yes’ most of the time.

But I am fascinated by my recent experiences.  One might expect that most of the people who think to use the referral service are Jews marrying a non-Jew.  One probably would less expect to find enquiries coming from two Jews.

In one of my recent exchanges, the bride-to-be was quite clear about how she had taken this route.  She is the child of an interfaith couple.  She was raised Jewish and is fully Jewish according to Jewish law.  But she wanted to find a rabbi to marry her who would have said ‘yes’ to her parents.

In a second instance, an older couple getting married, one for the second time, sought out the website referral service because of a more complex concern involving the first marriage only having been dissolved with a civil divorce and not a ‘get’ – a Jewish divorce.  The details are not important here (although I will say that this was not a case where there was any possibility of children being an issue).  What is interesting is that there was a desire to consecrate a marriage in a traditional, Jewish manner, and a website initially conceived of to primarily serve interfaith families is being seen as a resource for a much wider range of individuals whose particular paths don’t entirely conform with some of the strictures found in some areas of organized Jewish life.  This couple came to interfaithfamily.com because they perceived it to be a place where one could more easily find Rabbis who do Jewish things beyond some of the traditional borders of Jewish life.

In the first instance, we see a case where a young woman practices and identifies with her Jewish heritage.  She chooses to do so, and actively embraces and desires the Jewish religious sanctification of her marriage, even while knowing that there are parts of the Jewish community that would not have warmly welcomed her parents.  The search for a Rabbi who would not only say ‘yes’ to her, but would have said ‘yes’ to her parents is a search for a personal Judaism that offers up the rich wisdom tradition that is ours, with all its beauty, yet also demands a contemporary and inclusive response to the plurality of Jewish identity that exists in America today.

As a rabbi, I’m quite adept at the ‘on on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ argument.  There is no question that one could put forth an argument regarding the rabbi’s role in preserving traditional communal boundaries and practices.  There are many rabbis who do so passionately.  I certainly do not seek to judge that path.  At the same time, as I observe the pathways that many Jews, like the ones above, are navigating to maintain their ties to our faith and traditions, yet on different terms, I believe that it is important for some of us to be there to meet them when they come knocking.  And I believe, based on what we observe as the changing face of the religious and spiritual landscape in America, that these pathways are likely to become more diverse and multi-faceted with time.

In the meantime, to the couples above, and others, I start by saying ‘Mazel tov!’

Posted on August 8, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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