We have to bring more Jews into Jewish Life.
We have to keep the Jewish community strong.
We have to strengthen Jewish identity.
These statements are the mantras of the organized Jewish community. I hear them expressed all the time. And I have a question: Why? Why do we need to do these things?
When I asked this question at a recent conference, blank stares greeted me. The highly intelligent people in the room had never asked themselves this question. They never had to because they already bought in to the system. They liked being Jews, identifying as Jews, and took for granted that when they moved somewhere they would join the local synagogue and JCC. It never occurred to them to ask why they did these things. They just did them. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they wanted to sing out “Tradition, tradition…..”
“Tradition” is no longer an answer that holds weight. We now need to think about what we get out of being Jewish. Each of us needs to ask ourselves, if we belong to a synagogue, or any other Jewish organization, or practice Jewish rituals are home, why do we do these things? What value and meaning do they add to our lives?
For me the answer is clear. I do these things because I want to bring God in to my life. I want to feel close to a higher power. I want to feel loved and cared for. Sometimes I feel that love in deep spiritual moments from God directly, and sometimes I feel that love through the community of friends and family which surrounds me. I am in the Jewish community because I believe and have experienced that life is better when we connect with other humans, when we help each other with the challenges we all face in life. By helping each other, we make the world a better place thus becoming partners with God in the continual creation of the world.
We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity. But we need to talk about what I see as the underlying reason for why we do all of these other things, which is searching out a connection to God.
How would the organized Jewish community look different if we put God front and center?
Even writing this idea causes me to feel anxious because “we” the “Jewish community” don’t speak like this. We tiptoe around the idea of God and even religion.
We need to bring God back in to our conversations. Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish? To be an active participant in a Jewish community? No. Nor do we all need to believe in the same God. But how can we continue to urge people to join a religious community when the topic of God is never raised?
I know critics will say we are more than a religion; we are a people, a tribe. Yes, this is also true. But this people would not have existed if a group had not originally come together in service of God.
So now, where does God fit in? Let’s start this conversation.
There is an old joke about the rabbinic search committee who in looking for a rabbi wanted someone who was creative, dynamic, fresh out of seminary, and had thirty years of experience.
Obviously, this is an impossible combination. The traditional image of a rabbi is an older man with a long white beard and glasses. The word “rabbi” itself evokes a sense of someone with wisdom, learning, and years of knowledge behind him. Yet this image of a rabbi is at odds with the reality of the state of the rabbinate today. Today, rabbis are male, female, young, old, and some even specialize in different areas, pastoral counseling, organizational management, or academic learning to name a few. The nature of the rabbinate and what one expects from a rabbi has changed dramatically in the past 50 years.
In most cases, I would argue that this is a good thing. However, there is one aspect of the changing perception of rabbis which concerns me. And that is the thought that the younger the rabbi, the better. I have the great pleasure of working with rabbis at all ages and stages of their rabbinates. I know extremely talented new young rabbis and extremely talented seasoned older rabbis. There are advantages to being on either end of this spectrum. But with each passing year it seems as if our youth obsessed American culture is leading our communities to discount the wisdom and expertise of older rabbis.
I should define my terms. A “younger rabbi” is someone in his or her 20s or 30s. And an “older rabbi” is anyone over 50 years. The 40s seem to be, for the moment, a middle ground, but the age of an “older” rabbi does seem to be trending downward in to this realm as well.
In the past week, I read an article by Michal Kohane in which she takes to task the Jewish Community for ignoring the Jewish population over 40. While her article makes several assertions I do not agree with. I do think that her central point, that as a community, we have become obsessed with youth to the detriment of the older population, has some validity. I certainly see it in the professional sphere. As a colleague of mine said in a meeting this week, “If you are a rabbi over 50, and you lose your job, good luck finding another. It is almost impossible.” Given this reality, another rabbinic colleague said that the time has come for rabbis to get used to the idea that they will need to launch a second career later in their lives. There just are not enough communities or jobs interested in hiring them.
While there are some rabbis who burn out and should retire form the rabbinate in their 50s, there are many, many more who still have much to offer. I wish I knew of a way to combat the ageism I am seeing in the Jewish community. I firmly believe that each individual needs to be judged on his or her merits. A rabbi who is committed to on-going learning of traditional texts, current events, and leadership skills can be an innovative leader throughout his or her life.
How can we hold multiple visions of rabbis in our head at one time? Young,/old, male/female, gay/straight, black/white/Asian all kinds of people make inspiring rabbis. Let us honor them all.
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.