Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.
Rabbis Without Borders is thrilled to be listed in the new Slingshot Guide of The Top 50 Most innovative Jewish programs in North America. It is an honor to be listed along with MyJewishlearning.com and our fellow bloggers here at MyJewishlearning, Keshet, and The Institute for Southern Jewish Life. We are truly grateful that MyJewishLearning gives us this venue to share our insights.
RWB is the only organization in American today that provides a safe space for rabbis of all denominations to come together and form a network. This network allows rabbis to address issues facing the Jewish community from a variety of viewpoints, problem solve, and focus on innovative ways to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to anyone looking to enhance their lives.
Using cutting edge methodologies, RWB makes Judaism relevant to people today, and we are ahead of the curve in thinking about tomorrow. We focus on the current trends in society: the shifting of religious identities, the uses of technology, bioethics, positive psychology, the intersection between religion and politics and train rabbis in using Jewish wisdom and traditions to speak to the current issues. RWB rabbis then go back to their communities and apply their learning.
In the evaluations, participants report that RWB has changed how they rabbi. They now speak, teach, and preach in more open, creative, and pluralistic ways. Every rabbi who has completed our Fellowship program and joined our network is creating new innovative Jewish experiences in a variety of ways and settings for both existing and new communities. RWB is collectively reaching over 750,000 individuals a year and growing.
We look forward to continuing to being new idea in to the Jewish world. This blog is a space to air our thinking. We hope you are stimulated by what you read, and look forward to hearing your comments.
Thank you for reading!
A lot has been made of the new Pew Study on the Jewish population. I am enjoying reading the various blogs and articles about it. It seems every Jewish professional feels the need to weigh in, even before they have read the full report. In many ways I think this is much ado about nothing. As Rachel Gurevitz , in her post here last week so eloquently stated “correlation does not always mean causation.” The numbers are a snap shot of time today, and they reflect the biases of the authors of the questions themselves. They are not portents of the future.
We cannot answer the age old question, “Is Judaism dying out?” based on the numbers in this study. Yet, the hand wringing and moaning continue, particularly from people in the Conservative Movement whose numbers show a deep decline. Dr. Jack Wertheimer, himself a professor at the Conservative Movements flagship institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary is one of the loudest naysayers. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of its Jewish identification.”
Perhaps it is this very negativity that is part of the problem. Stop finding doom and gloom and instead have a little faith..
Yes faith – 75% of people in this study say they believe in God. I wish the social scientists and the handwringers commenting had as much faith as these respondents. I personally have a lot of faith in both God and the Jewish people. If God wants there to be Jews in the world, then there will be Jews in the world. The numbers may go up and down, but we will still exist. It actually is not up to us.
But even if it were up to us, I also have faith in the Jewish people. After all we have survived a long time already. If nothing else, we are an inventive and creative group. The practices of Judaism have changed and will continue to change over the years, but the essence remains, a belief in one God, a focus on family and community, a constant struggle to find ways to make life more meaningful, and the unique ability to simultaneously survive great tragedies like the Holocaust and be known for our humor. We are going to be alright.
Have a little faith.
That sentence strikes fear in to the heart of many pulpit rabbis. There is so much preparation that goes in to creating a Rosh Hashannah service. The pressure on the clergy is immense. Thousands of Jews come to synagogue on the High Holidays who only show up that one time a year. The rabbi must lead a meaningful, interesting, and moving service while at the same time inspiring each person in the congregation with his or her sermon. The bar is set very high.
I sit in a very interesting space for the High Holidays. I am a rabbi who does not lead services. I sit in the pews with other congregants, and this gives me a unique perspective. I experience both the tension of my fellow clergy in preparing for the services and the expectations of my fellow congregants when I come to synagogue. I listen intently to both what the rabbi has to say from the pulpit and what the Jews in the pews say in response.
One thing has become abundantly clear to me. The rabbi and other service leaders do have an impact on a congregant’s prayer experience. They set a tone and space for spiritual contemplation. However the people who have the most meaningful experiences at services do so because they take responsibility for their own experience.
What does this mean? It means that they take time BEFORE service to think about what they want to do DURING the service. This plays out differently for different people. Some people spend time before Rosh Hashannah reflecting on the year that is ending, and come to services ready to dedicate themselves to new goals. They then use the time during the service to clarify their goals for the year to come. Others decide to spend the service time itself reflecting on the year that has past. Others bring reading material with them to the service, not just to keep them from getting bored, but to help them move down whatever path they are traveling. I have seen people read Jewish texts, spiritual guidebooks, and self help books. Some people use the familiar melodies and prayers to contemplate God, and pray. And some people use the service time to catch up with old friends since this is one of the few times of year they see each other.
All of these are meaningful options. What matters is that these people have put some thought in to how they want to spend the few hours they are in synagogue. The time we have to sit in synagogue is really a gift. Instead of being bored, and let’s be honest, the most common complaint I hear is that services are boring, do some preparation so that you are not going to be bored. The prayers, the music and the rabbi’s words are there to help us get to in to a different spiritual space. But as with anything else in life, if we don’t take responsibility for our own actions, we are not going to achieve anything.
So, if you want to have a more meaningful High Holiday experience this year, you now have a month to prepare. Think about what would be a meaningful use of your time this year. What do you need to reflect on in your life? What might you want to change or improve upon? What do you want to read about? Can others in your life help? What would you like to say to God?
It is one month until the New Year. What do you need to do to prepare?
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.