What makes a rabbi a rabbi?
The number of years of study?
The ability to lead a congregation in prayer?
The ability to counsel individuals at times of crisis? To bury a loved one? To perform weddings?
This is a serious question I face each year as the applications for the Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship program start to come in. (They are due this year on Friday, May 10th. Click here for more information.) Each year I get more and more inquiries from rabbis who have been ordained on line or from other non-traditional rabbinical seminaries. I am not even sure what counts as “non-traditional” any more. Most would say that the “traditional” rabbinical seminaries are those that train rabbis for a particular denomination in Judaism: Hebrew Union College (Reform), The Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly (Reconstructionism) and Yeshiva University (Orthodox.) Yet, there are now a growing number of smaller seminaries. Hebrew College in Boston, The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and California (which are separate institutions) ordain rabbis. So too does Aleph, the rabbinical school of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and a new Conservative Rabbinical School at The American Jewish University. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Maharat are training men and women respectively to lead the more liberal end of Orthodoxy. All of these schools have set curricula and require several years of study before conferring ordination. Does this make all of these schools kosher?
In typical rabbinic fashion, you will find some people who say yes, and some people who will say no. For the purpose of admitting rabbis into Rabbis Without Borders, they all count as “accepted” rabbinic programs.
Yet, each year I hear of new programs. Some require as little as a once a week on line study group for one year before ordaining people as rabbis. My gut twists at this. I spent SIX years studying to be ordained. I had to pass tests in Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Jewish History, Philosophy and Theology. It was not an easy road. In addition, I had to complete internships, learn how to officiate at life cycle events, and master pastoral counseling.
And yet, I have witnessed rabbis who have passed the same tests as I have fail in the real world of the rabbinate, doing harm to others in the process. Could some one less knowledgeable actually be a better rabbi? Do rabbis today in twenty first century America need all this knowledge when we have Rabbi Google? Is one year of study enough? What really makes a rabbi a rabbi?
I posed these very questions to the Rabbis Without Borders selection committee and to this year’s cohort of Rabbi Without Borders Fellows. We had lively conversations. Different ideas were offered as to what made a “legitimate” rabbi. But each time an argument was made for a “standard” to be upheld for a rabbi, a counter argument could be found.
A rabbi can be a scholar, a pastoral presence, a skilled worship leader, and a community organizer. Does one skill take precedence over the others? Is there a base line needed for all of them? And how are these skills acquired?
For centuries rabbi have spent years in study before being ordained. Over this period of time, standards for ordination have changed, and different Jewish communities have conferred the tile of rabbi on different types of people. What are our standards for today? Is there even standards we can agree on?
I don’t have an answer. For the time being this is an open question here at Rabbis Without Borders. We thrive on pluralism, representing a diversity of opinions and ordaining institutions. Maybe we don’t need to answer the question, since in a few years institutions and courses of study which seem fringe now will be normative.
But the question keeps coming up when I meet with groups of rabbis. It echos in my own head. I am curious. What makes a rabbi a rabbi?
Growing up most of the women I saw in synagogue did not wear kippot (head coverings traditionally worn by men in Judaism), tallit (prayer shawls) or tefflin (phylacteries, described more below). And when I saw the odd woman who did, I thought she was just that, odd.
So, you can imagine the discomfort I felt experimenting with wearing this ritual garb when I started thinking about becoming a rabbi. Wearing a tallit was fairly easy. I bought a beautiful multicolored tallit and loved the feel of enveloping myself in it. It felt a bit like God was reaching out and giving me a hug. Wearing a kippah was a bit harder. It was not physically uncomfortable, but I hated how it messed up my hair. Vain, I know, but true. I just did not like the way it looked. Wearing teffilin was harder still. I was given a gift of teffilin which were way too big for me. They had large black leather boxes and thick black lengths of leather that I needed to wrap around my arms. They were uncomfortable to wear.
Having written my undergraduate thesis on Jewish Feminism, I knew that women had fought for the right to wear these ritual objects. I wanted to embrace the practice of wearing them. But even after years of trying, I still feel ambivalent about wearing a kippah, and have stopped wearing teffilin entirely.
These ritual garments are important symbols with in Judaism. A religious Jew defines him or herself by how he or she dresses. In more liberal circles, a rabbi often stands out in the crowd by wearing a kippah or a tallit. The donning of these garments for prayer is a meaningful way to state ones intention to pray and forge a deeper connection to God. Some Jews believe that wearing these garments is a command form God that they must follow. There is great historical and emotional weight attached to the wearing of these garments.
I struggled for years to become comfortable with my own practice of wearing a kippah and tallit when I pray, but not wearing a kippah at other times as many of my colleagues do. In addition, since I found teffilin to interfere with my ability to pray rather than to enhance it, I no longer wear them.
I am now comfortable with my decisions. But what do I teach my daughter?
She attends a Conservative Jewish Day School. Boys are required to wear a kippah. Girls are not required to cover their heads at all. When they reach bar or bat mitzvah age, boys are required to wear tallit and teffilin. Girls have an option to do so. Most of the girls in the younger grades do not wear a kippah, and most of the girls in the older grades do not wear tallit of teffilin.
You might think this practice echoes my own, so I am happy with the school’s policies. But I am not. I am frustrated. I am caught in a bind. This policy which is echoed across the Conservative Movements synagogues, camps, and schools (both afternoon and day) does not sit well with me. By not requiring the same practice from the boys and girls we are sending them a message that God expects different things of them. We may even be sending the message that girls are less than boys because less is expected of them. To have fully egalitarian practices we must have the same standards for both boys and girls.
And yet, boys and girls are different. Like me, many girls may not want to wear a kippah. So let’s get creative. Why not make the requirement for some kind of head covering, which is after all what the Jewish law calls for, but not specify what kind of head covering. The shape of a kippah is not required. Why not let children choose between, a kippah, a hat, or a head band or scarf? This would let boys and girls adhere to the letter of the law while allowing for personal expression.
Why not require all to wear a tallit, and have them make or buy one of their own choosing as many already do?
Why not require teffilin for all and bring the children shopping to choose larger or smaller pairs. And why, oh why, can’t they decorate them in some way to make them more appealing. I have studied this. I know the letter of the law calls for them to be plain black leather. But if we want our children, both boys and girls to connect meaningfully to this traditional practice, then we need to figure out a way to make it more inviting for them to do so. Otherwise, make this practice optional for all.
I believe wearing ritual garb to be important and meaningful on many different levels. But I also believe in egalitarian practices, especially when they send messages to our children. The time has come for the Conservative Movement in particular, and other Jewish communities as well, to address this issue of ritual garb for boys and girls, men and women. One practice does not necessarily work for all. Let’s make a variety of different kinds of practices normative.
The original goal in wearing ritual garb is to deepen our own spirituality and connection to God, or whatever you call the force in the universe. Let’s return to that intent and see what new interpretations and practices grow out of that, and let us welcome them.
A Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, Rabbi Aaron Weininger wrote this beautiful poem/prayer in response to yesterday’s attacks. We are praying for all who have been impacted by this tragedy.
God of Runners, God of Responders
by Aaron Weininger
God of Runners
God of Responders
We mourn the loss of life
Our cries crack through the icy spring of Minneapolis
To the blood-soaked streets of Boston.
As we remember those whose lives were taken by senseless hate
Lives and limbs torn apart in the blasts of bombs
As we remember people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds
Who seek the help of doctors and therapists, of communities and clergy
Let us open our hearts to heal and hope.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Give us strength to love our neighbors as ourselves *
To reach across borders
To love beyond finish lines
To pray for healing of mind and, whenever possible, healing of body.
God of Runners
God of Responders
Cry with us in our mourning
Lift us again to love
Hear us in our prayer for hope, in our prayer for healing
Shelter us with peace.
* Leviticus 19:18
Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Millions of words have been written about the millions murdered by the Nazis. I don’t need to add to that library here. Instead, I would like to ask you to take a moment today to sit in silence for a minute or to light a candle in memory of those who died. We honor them by remembering and continuing to fight against hatred, bigotry, and injustice.
May their memories be for a blessing.
The highlight of my Seder and of many I have attended is the singing of the “Dayenu” prayer. “dayenu” in Hebrew means “It was enough for us.” The song praises all of the things God does for the Israelites,
If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have been enough for us! …
If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel Dayenu, it would have been enough for us!
If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and had not built for us the Temple Dayenu, it would have been enough for us!
The message is that God is great and God did more than enough to take care of us. But there is another message in there for us as well. Most of us think that we are not doing enough. We are not working hard enough, earning enough, spending time with their children enough. You name it. It is on the list of not being “enough.” Part of what Passover calls us to do spiritually is to loosen the chains of bondage that we put on ourselves. Dayenu!
It is enough. YOU are enough. Whatever it is, let the anxiety go and realize that yes, dayenu, it is enough. You can even share at your Seder what anxiety you are letting go of this year. Ask others to share as well. Let us celebrate this feast of freedom by freeing ourselves. Bang on the table. Sing at the top of your lungs, and celebrate the things you have accomplished, the love you give to others, and the very fact that you exist. That is enough.
I grew up in Texas, like in most of the South, people in Texas greet each other warmly and a smile is always in place. During a typical run through a grocery store, I would get smiled at by strangers, smiled at and chatted up by the check-out clerk, and smiled at by the bag boy or girl who carried my purchases to the car. In Texas, no one lacks for a smile. They may hate your guts, but they will still smile at you.
Now I live in New York. Smiling at strangers is verboten. If a check out clerk tries to engage me in conversation, I get suspicious. If a stranger on the street smiles at me, I have learned to look the other way. The Northeast does not believe in a culture of smiling.
This leaves me stuck between two cultures, and it sometimes gets me in trouble, especially in professional situations. My natural Texan inclination is to smile. This works to my advantage when people experience me as warm and friendly. However, it works to my disadvantage when the person I am interacting with interprets my smile to mean that I am simply a sweet person whom they do not have to take too seriously. I smile in tough negotiations, and I smile when disagreeing with someone. Circumstances in which others, particularly New Yorkers, will most definitely NOT be smiling.
I have given serious consideration to trying to unlearn my smiling habit. But then I came across this saying in The Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish book of wisdom, “Receive every person with a cheerful countenance,” (Pirkei Avot 1:15) and it struck me that there is deep wisdom in smiling. To really smile at someone you must look them in the face. Doing so helps you see them as a fellow human being, someone who is like yourself, with their own thoughts, feelings and reactions. By smiling at someone you create a connection at a very human level which can span deep divides. One smile can heal a lot of hurt.
I decided that this is a person I want to be, a person who smiles and connects to others. My smile is no longer just an ingrained habit, but a conscious choice. I like reaching out to others with a cheerful countenance. I like the kinds of relationships this leads me into. I can disagree with someone and smile at them at the same time, communicating that we can be in relationship while standing on different sides of an issue. In our highly fractured all or nothing culture, there is great power in smiling and communicating that message. Consciously smile at someone and see what follows. Your smile holds great power.
This past weekend was Purim, a holiday full of laughter, parody and dress up. Fittingly, many Jewish groups release Purim videos and plays to tell the story of Purim in different fanciful ways.
One video stood out from the crowd this year, a video called “We Doin’ Purim” by a group called Bubala Please. The video, a parody, features Latino and African American Gangbangers from the LA ghetto rapping about Purim complete with four letter words, Yiddish sayings, and the objectification of women. On one level, the video is highly offensive. The F-bomb and the N-bomb are dropped several times, and there are very crude sexual references including a shot of “Esther” holding a large triangle shaped hummantashen over her (clothed) vagina.
But the discomfort the video elicits is not just because of these racial and sexual stereotypes which most liberal Americans will have a knee jerk negative reaction too. The video is discomforting because in some ways it gets at the dark underbelly of the Purim story. In most communities today, Purim is a “fun” holiday aimed mostly at children. They dress up, and for once get to misbehave in synagogue yelling out during services and dancing around. But if you look closely at the Purim story, it is not for children’s ears. This is a story about sex, violence, and the abuse of power. It opens with the King throwing a drunken orgy, moves on to his picking a girl out of his haram of virgins, and ends with the Jews rampaging and killing thousands of people. Telling the story through gangsta rap which embraces sex and violence is appropriate.
Then there are the power dynamics on display in both the Purim Story and this parody video. The story itself is the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. A commoner, Mordechi, and his niece, Esther, manage to over throw a powerful advisor to the King, and gain the king’s ear and political power. The underdog becomes powerful. Gangsta Rap, whether we like it or not, is a vehicle for the African American and Latino gang communities to show how the underdog has gained power though violence and domination of others. To have these rappers mixing in yidishisms and telling a Jewish story conveys this power to the Jewish community which historically is also seen as the underdog. Again the method of using Gangsta Rap to tell the Purim story of triumph of power makes sense.
I think the video is offensive, and smart, and funny all at the same time. For me the essence of Purim comes through. This video throws off our equilibrium – Gangbangers are rapping “Hommies Nashing Hummantashen – We Doin’ Purim!” What? Really?
Having been warned about its offensive content, watch the video if you choose, and make up your own mind, offensive or good fun?
Should rabbis talk about Israel? In years past, Israel was a subject which united people. You could always count on one of the rabbis High Holiday sermons to be about Israel, why she is important to us, what we should do to protect her, and why we should go visit. Israel captured our imagination of what could be – a more perfect country by and for Jews. No longer would we be the down trodden and persecuted people. We would rule ourselves and be a light unto the nations. Her existence was our hope and our miracle.
This is no longer the case. Many rabbis I know are afraid to talk about Israel with their congregations. The topic is simply too divisive. If the rabbi comments on the success of Israel’s technology and innovation sector, perhaps mentions the company Soda Stream as an example, then congregants will quickly respond with a torrent of criticism about Soda Stream building its factory in the West Bank.
Even words will get you in trouble since they signal your political leanings. Do you call the land east of Jerusalem “The West Bank,” “The Settlements,” “Judah and Samaria?” Are the Israeli settlers reclaiming their own land or occupiers stealing the land? Any single word could lead to trouble.
Given these realities, what is a rabbi to do? Many have simply stopped speaking about Israel altogether. I understand why. No one likes being attacked. However, I don’t think this is the answer.
As Jews we are connected to Israel whether we like it or not. Our sacred texts, liturgy, and history all speak of Israel. Instead of trying to disassociate ourselves, we should strive to better understand each others complex relationship and feelings about Israel.
How do we open a conversation that is this divisive? There are no easy answers, and no answers that will work in every situation. But I would begin with the personal. As a rabbi, I would share my own complicated relationship with Israel, and then ask people to share theirs. I would encourage individuals to truly listen to what others are saying particularly if they feel differently. Perhaps if we could all agree to listen to one another, and stop the name calling which happens on all of the different political sides, we could actually have a conversation.
How can we possibly hope to solve the peace process when American Jews can’t even talk to each other if they sit on different sides of the political aisle? We need to start this conversation at home, now.
Tell me, what do you love about Israel? What do you dislike about Israel?
I will start: I love the idea of a Jewish homeland. I love thinking that if my life were threatened here in the US because I was a Jew, there is someplace I can go. I dislike the control the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has over religious life in Israel. As a woman and a liberal Jew, I could not practice Judaism the way I like to in Israel.
I look forward to hearing your answers to these two questions and starting a conversation where all views are heard without judgment.
The Jewish community needs to gain some self-confidence. We are like the beautiful teenage girl who looks in the mirror and only sees blemishes and imperfections when in reality everyone turns to look at her because she is so pretty. We are no longer a despised minority.
Take a look at two items from popular culture that made the rounds of Facebook posts and Twitter last week. The first is a series of costumes that Walmart is selling so that children can dress up like “A Jewish Rabbi“ or “A Jewish High Priest.”
My Jewish friends were amazed that Walmart, the great American retailer would sell such a niche product to the Jewish community. But they are not selling these to the Jewish population of the US, but to the greater American population. The average American, and in particular evangelical Christians, will buy up these costumes. To dress as a Jew is cool. In his book about religion in American, American Grace, Robert Putnam quotes a statistic from his research that Judaism is one of the most favorably viewed religions in the US today. This is hard for many Jews to accept since we grew up in a post Holocaust Era thinking that everyone hates us. We see only blemishes where others see beauty.
Then look at this clip from a new TLC reality show, Sisterhood, about 5 wives of Atlanta pastors. The clip is of a conversation between Pastor Brian, and his wife Tara and their plans to have a Christian Bar Mitzvah for their son. I watched this clip with a combination of horror and fascination. At first glance, I see why Jews might be offended. Pastor Brian grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity. His actions and comments in the clip are the most jarring. He almost seems to make fun of his Jewish heritage by singing Hava Nagila and playing with a tallit, the prayer shawl. But his African- American wife is taking this bar mitzvah very seriously. She has done her research and knows they must have a cake in the shape of a Torah as part of the party. (Yes, I laughed out loud at that.) She honestly wants to honor her son’s Jewish heritage. She is proud of this part of her husband’s past. At the same time, they both want to affirm their Christian faith in the context of the bar mitzvah. They are accurate when they call it a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”
The more I reflected on this clip, the more I realized that instead of being offensive, this clip show how much Christians like and admire Judaism. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? They want to use a Jewish ritual to add meaning to their lives, to mark a lifecycle moment in their son’s life. Isn’t that the root point of a bar mitzvah, to celebrate a child’s movement in to adolescence? Continue reading
First we cry, then we act.
The murders that occurred on Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School are beyond my comprehension. How could something like this happen? As a parent of a seven year old, I just cried a upon hearing the news. The sadness I felt was overwhelming.
As a rabbi, I cannot even begin to offer a pat theology of why bad things happen to good people. There is simply no explanation. Instead I raise my voice and my fists at God and yell, “Why? How could this happen?” I say angry, hateful things to God. I feel safe doing this because I know God can take my anger. God is the receptacle for my emotions, my deep sadness, anger, and terror, it all goes there. Why not? It has to go somewhere.
When I was done crying, I picked my daughter up early from a play date and got ready for Shabbat. Shabbat gave me a break from listening to the news and Googleing the latest information. I had some time to sit with my emotions. It helped.
The minute Shabbat was over, I was ready to act. The Ethical Culture Society in my town organized a vigil to end gun violence Saturday night. My husband and I canceled our plans for a fun night out, and joined the vigil. Sunday morning, I spent time signing petitions being sent to the president and my representatives in Washington calling on them to enact legislation to strengthen our gun laws. I donated to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence . We must outlaw semi-automatic weapons. There is no reason they should be in our hands. We must make it harder for a person to purchase a gun. I am all for background checks, waiting periods, licensing, continuing education in order to hold on to your license, and high taxes on guns and bullets. We enact many regulations to enforce public safety. It is past time that these regulations apply to guns as well.
If it were up to me, I would outlaw all hand guns. Unfortunately I know that will not happen. And I know that no matter how many laws we put in place people who really want guns will get their hands on them. But this should not stop us from making it harder! There are more gun deaths in the US than any other developed country. This is simply unacceptable.
I believe that we live in partnership with God. We both impact events. God was not able to stop this shooting from taking place. But God is here as a support structure to help us get through the aftermath. My role, and your role, is to do what we can on this earth to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Organize locally, call Washington, let’s do our best to get guns out of our homes and off our streets. It is time.