Last month Rabbi Yamin Levy (note: I studied with Rabbi Levy when I was a rabbinical student at YCT Rabbinical School) wrote a thoughtful article, The Rabbi and His Board. In the article he details the challenges and opportunities for rabbis and the board of directors of congregations. The relationship between a rabbi and the board can be a delicate and highly orchestrated dance of vision, power and politics. A peculiar aspect of how American Jewish congregational life is organized is that the rabbi is simultaneously a “spiritual leader” of the congregation and an employee of the board of directors. How should congregations organize their leadership? Who sets the vision? Who articulates the synagogue’s goals and direction?
In many synagogues throughout the country it is the board of directors who set the vision. it is the board of directors who lead and articulate the goals and directions of the congregation. The rabbi is sometimes a minor partner in that process but more often simply an executor of the desires of the board. I submit that this system is entirely ineffective. It needs to be turned on its head.
It is the rabbi who studied for years Jewish law, ethics, history and philosophy. It is the pulpit rabbi who has dedicated his or her life to the professional leadership of synagogues. Synagogues term their rabbis “spiritual leaders” but the meaning behind that title is often empty and void. It is time to fill that title with purpose, leadership and direction.
This is not to say that rabbis should act autocratically. It is not in the best interest of the rabbi to be a dictator. All the best research in leadership teaches that the vision and direction of a leader is best implemented when it is done collaboratively and through consensus building. However, the person seeking consensus should be the rabbi for their vision from the board and not the reverse. It is the rabbi who envisions, who sets the goals and who leads. It is the board who empowers the leader they hired to actually lead.
This not only makes the most sense from a practical point of view, the rabbi is the trained professional with the expertise and the board are volunteers representing other professions and different training. It is also makes sense from the perspective of Jewish values. Just as one stands for a Torah scroll there is a mitzvah to stand for a Torah scholar. The Talmud (Makkot 22b) expresses bewilderment of people who stand for a Torah scroll but not for a Torah scholar. The honor and respect we invest in the Torah and its scholars and rabbis is due to the wisdom, values and direction the Torah imparts for us in the way we lead our lives. Would it not make sense to give true leadership to the rabbis, the Torah scholars of our communities, who we invest so much in financially, personally and organizationally? Once again, not as autocrats but let them be the vision makers and articulators of goals and let them build the consensus and actualize that vision.
In an era of increasing challenge for synagogues to remain relevant to a new generation of Jews and boards are struggling with decreasing membership and under-utilized buildings, one piece of advice would be: “Let rabbis lead!”
These are exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.
Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?
Under halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.
And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”
Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?
A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.
Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.
It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:
- Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
- Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
- Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
- Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
- Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul. This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.
Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.
That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.
Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones, that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.
Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.
And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.
Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.
The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.
In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.
In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.
Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.
If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.
“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a vibrant congregation with daily and Shabbat services. We offer young adult programming, empty nesters and seniors groups, adult Jewish learning opportunities and many other exciting programs. Please contact our membership director to schedule a time to visit our congregation.”
This is a fictional welcome message on a synagogue website. However, messages like this can be found all over the Internet. They can be found in introductory pamphlets and can be found printed in weekly and quarterly newsletters. This fictional message expresses WHAT the synagogue does. It offers services and a lot of programming. Yet, it fails to express WHY the synagogue does what it does.
In the well regarded book Start with Why by Simon Sanek (watch a TED talk Simon delivered on the topic) the point is made that all too often our businesses and organizations sell themselves to the wider community with primarily what they do or what they produce. Apple makes excellent computers but that is not why they are the industry leader in personal electronic devices. They don’t market their iPhones as simply great phones or their Macbooks as simply great computers but rather they invite the consumer to “think differently” and to join them in fighting against the status quo. Their first and primary message is why they do what they do and only after conveying “the why” do they tell you “the what” it is they actually produce.
What would it looks like for our synagogues to put forth their why before their what. Why do you exist as a synagogue? What is it that you believe as an institution? Why do you have daily services and adult educational programming and Bnai Mitzvah lessons? Imagine a welcome message that looked something like this:
“Thank you for visiting our website. We are a congregation that believes in the vitality of the Jewish people. We believe in working towards a better world and cultivating personalities that are deep with spiritual intention and Jewish wisdom. We do that by offering daily services and adult educational opportunities. We offer empty nesters and seniors groups because we are committed to building the fabric of community that connects one person to another and breaks down the walls of loneliness and isolation. We would love for you to visit our community. Please stop by or send an email to our staff to schedule a time to come by for a conversation on how you can join us in impassioned Jewish living.”
Jewish communal life organized around the why can be a powerful vehicle for Jewish engagement and revitalization of our synagogue and institutional Jewish world.
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
I have been thinking a lot about Jewish identity recently. How do we define our own connection to Judaism? What unites us and what divides us? In what ways do the modes we use to define ourselves become off putting for someone exploring the Jewish community? These are tough questions and with no easy answer. Yet, there is one thing we could begin doing that would make a big impact.
All too often when we are meeting a new person in the context of a Jewish communal event (e.g. college Shabbat dinner, Jewish young adult group, etc.) our question is: What kind of Jew are you? Are you Reform? Are you Orthodox? Do you affiliate with a particular type of synagogue? Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of attempting to determine how a person Jewishly identifies, we should want to know how they do Jewish. This point was made to me recently by a colleague. As a community we have become too focused on how a person is Jewish and not on what they do Jewish.
This focus on the how is strange considering we are traditionally a religious community defined by our actions more than our beliefs. We are commanded to perform mitzvot. In fact, there is a well known midrash, rabbinic homily, that has God declaring that in a choice between rejecting belief in Him and forsaking the Divine commandments, rather the people keep the commandments. What we do becomes more important than what we believe.
Creating more opportunities for meaningful Jewish engagement that focus on doing Jewish can become a catalyst for further involvement in the Jewish community. Avoiding the questions of Jewish identity can create safe spaces for people to be who they are while still embracing a full spectrum of Jewish actions. The time has come to stop asking how are you Jewish and begin to invite people to do Jewish.