Once again HIllel has found itself in the news due to several recent events: Eric Fingerhut’s refusal to speak at J Street, and the response of the students there, as well as Hillel’s threat to sue its Swarthmore chapter over declaring itself an open Hillel, to which Swarthmore students responded by changing their name.
It is unfortunate that Hillel has decided to abandon its Jewish values in favor of making an idol of certain opinions that some of its donors have decided trump any other consideration. Hillel has always been a beacon of pluralism, welcoming students of all sorts – regardless of which movement they belong to, regardless of whether they believe in God, their Jewish status, and in fact, I believe that Hillel does not even have a policy regarding students who might believe in the messiahship of Jesus. Despite a history of openness, Hillel has decided that on one particular topic, students are too naive to -in an academic environment, one which, presumably, is intended for them to be exposed to opinions of all kinds, some noxious and some valuable, some foolish and some brilliant- hear and decide for themselves what to think about the policies of Israel’s government.
The Babylonian Talmud, the enormous document which collects the thoughts, arguments, legal decisions and aggadic – narrative material describing the rabbis’ thoughts about all kinds of topics- discussions of the rabbis, is not a document that shies away from controversy. In it is found not merely the final decisions of what law wins out, but the arguments of not merely both, but often many more than two, parties to the debate on a particular topic.
The talmud in a number of places expresses its opinion on the results of suppressing opinions – both positively and negatively. In tractate Eruvin (13b) we learn read the famous passage regarding Beit Hillel – the school that follows the rulings of Hillel:
“For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’.Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) spoke, announcing, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that, but would teach Beit Shammai’s opinions before their own.”
Elsewhere in the Talmud, we see the results of excluding the minority voice. Many of us have heard of the story of the Oven of Achnai – but very few read it to the end. The story begins with a group of sages sitting around debating whether an oven, once taken to pieces, can be restored to a state of wholeness (this is no accident – it is a subtextual argument abut the Jewish people, as well). In the course of this argument, all the rabbis except one – Rabbi Eliezer – argue for a particular outcome. Eliezer calls on miracle after miracle to prove his point, but the other rabbis reject them – even rejecting a voice from heaven- stating that the Torah is not in heaven, and that majority thus rules. Most of the time when we read this story, we end it here: “Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'”
But in fact, this is not the end of the story, but its middle. What happens next is that the rabbis vote to excommunicate the holder of the minority opinion. When Eliezer is informed of this, “the world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up. ” But that isn’t all: everything that Rabbi Eliezer’s eyes fall on are burned up, and Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi – president of the Great Sanhedrin – ultimately dies.
In other words, the outcome of excluding from the community the person who holds a minority opinion is to nearly destroy the world, and to actually destroy a good part of it.
How ironic is it that an organization whose dedication to pluralism is such that it took the name of the rabbi who founded a school dedicated to hearing both their own teachings and those of the school who disagreed with them? How disappointing that they have been unable to live up to that standard: for Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, too, each believed that the future of the Jewish people relied on them.
The sages, too, knew disagreement. And their response was to make sure we understood the consequences of silencing the minority. I hope, surely, that we can learn that lesson before it is too late.
Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
I love the ocean. Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific. Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses. From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly. I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago: caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.
This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Iran is the most obvious of these threats. Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race. It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah. Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel.
Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists. Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth.
Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs. Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women. Who was that country? Not Saudi Arabia. Not Sudan. Not Nigeria. Israel.
These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel. Period.
On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government? In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.” I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state. He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.
Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights. Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands. Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population. Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”
So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies. Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance. How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)? The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason. Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel? As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?
The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations. It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation. Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East. Israel is my spiritual and moral home. As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard. I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality. Am I expecting too much?
So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it. I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity. I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.
I have sung the song “David Melech Yisrael” thousands of times. It’s easy to learn and fun to sing with hand motions. The song voices the hopes of the Jewish people; exiled, dispersed, powerless and persecuted, we have longed for the “good old days” of the strong, unified and powerful kingdom of King David. Some three thousand years later, we haven’t stopped wishing for a return to the Davidic monarchy. It is our messianic yearning, fueling optimism and collective hope.
Optimism is one of the Jewish values that most animates our spiritual worldview. But recent events have prompted me to revisit the content of this narrative. The wish for a monarch who rules over a united Jewish nation, even the whole Jewish people, looks different now.
It is time to replace “David Melech Yisrael” with a different trope. We do not have a King of Israel, and we shouldn’t. That was then, and this is now.
In 70 CE, when we lost the last grasp on our Jewish nation, our people dispersed. During that time of dramatic change, our leaders took to the study halls. Their leadership was built on learning, interpreting, and vigorous debate over all aspects of life. The record of those holy disagreements became the Talmud, the sourcebook for rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish ideas that inform our lives today flow from those pages. “When there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” the joke goes. But it’s true. The Jewish people thrive on diverse opinions freely shared.
Today, during another time of great change, the yearning for King David has a new voice. As if “David Melech” once again lives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed the mantle of power for all Jews. The Prime Minister recently asserted that he is the representative of the “entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu argues that the Jewish people are endangered, and only a strong state of Israel can protect all of us. Together with his invitation to French (and other European Jews) to make aliyah – move to Israel – the Prime Minister has stirred an anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.
We’ve been down this road before. In 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee negotiated a pact with founding Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement with Israel asserted “without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.”
I support policies and politicians who make the world safer for Jews, and make Israel strong. But we will best accomplish this goal by vigorous debate and respectful divergence of views. My prayer for a safe, strong Israel includes a vision of a just, democratic nation. The voices of all its inhabitants, and all Jews, form the chorus to the song of Israel. No one representative, no king or absolute ruler, can achieve that. Only we can do that together.
When does time begin? What does time measure? What came before the beginning? Such mind-bending questions evoke timeless truths especially relevant at this very moment in the Jewish year.
Humans measure space and time from origins – beginnings deeply rooted in history, culture and values. Moderns traveling east or west across the globe chart distance in longitude from Greenwich, England, a relic of the British Empire’s dominion. Modernity marks secular time against Greenwich Mean Time, which scientists call “Universal Coordinated Time,” as if the whole universe sets its clock by London’s lights. Spiritual time and space also chart from starting points. Jews traditionally pray toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as if the Temple once towering above was the center of the world, the axis mundi around which all else revolves.
Jewish time spirals from not one but four origins – four New Years, each with unique spiritual and historical purpose. Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) marks the physical creation, cycle of teshuvah (repentance), ancient tax year, and sabbatical and jubilee years. Tu Bishvat (“New Year of the Trees”) marks the agricultural birthday of trees. Rosh Chodesh Elul marks tithe years for cattle and Moses’ ascent of Sinai to receive the second tablets.
This weekend (March 20-21, 2015) marks the fourth Jewish New Year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, origin of Jewish identity and spiritual consciousness. Two weeks before the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, “God said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt: “This month [Nisan] will be for you the first month… of your year,” a tribute to the upcoming liberation that would define the Israelites as a people (Ex. 12:1-2). This tribute to freedom – defining Jews as a people released from bondage to reach toward spiritual liberation – is the origin of Jewish time. In a spiritual sense, Jewish time exists only in relationship to our bondage and liberation.
Jewish time exists only in relationship to bondage and liberation. If not for liberation from bondage, there would be no Jewish time. As then, so now. When we are gripped by inner emotional or spiritual bondage, in a sense Jewish time stops because in bondage we stop living. Just as Shabbat reboots the weekly Jewish work cycle, Rosh Chodesh Nisan reboots Jewish time itself.
A coincidence of Rosh Chodesh Nisan helps illuminate this truth. On this day, newly freed Israelite slaves wandering the desert completed and dedicated the mishkan, ancient cultic focus for God’s indwelling presence. As the people journeyed, the miskhan was the center of their camp. The mishkan, symbol of holiness and holy living, became our forebears’ origin in space, linked to Rosh Chodesh Nisan as their origin in time. It was the mishkan to which they brought not only celebrations and triumphs to be uplifted in gratitude, but also guilt, shame and defeat to be uplifted and released. The mishkan offered ways to express yearnings for holiness, to release heart and soul from the grips of emotional and spiritual bondage.
The ancient cycle of bondage and liberation continues to this day. Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks the two-week countdown to Passover, marking the liberation from historical bondage. Each day and each moment invites us into emotional and spiritual release from inner bondage. Community and ritual – playing out in space and time – bring this drama to life on the human plane.
And now – right now, at Rosh Chodesh Nisan – is our time to begin again. Time itself refreshes and renews. We get ready for freedom anew. At long last, we welcome the radical liberation of Now.
I cannot remember the last time I switched on the news—be it on the television or the radio—or glanced at a newspaper headline without cringing and wanting to turn away. Without wanting to stop the world and all of its madness and bring about a cure for these seemingly endless ills.
The reports seem to physically rush at my ears and heart as I hold my aching head and wonder at the inhumanity of so much of humankind.
Clearly, many are suffering from this same fatigue. We need to be informed—but we may wonder… how much information is too much? Can we, as concerned creations, look away from our fellow suffering creatures? Are we exhibiting a lack of compassion when we enjoy the lives we are lent? Are we really able to do much of anything to help?
I recently reread Anne Frank’s diary, which speaks of the human struggle to remain reasonable and even good humored, and not lose faith in humanity, even while very well aware of the heart-wrenching fate of others. I am now reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin—another tale of the plague of the powerful over their hapless victims. These timeless stories speak volumes to us in the light our world’s countless present and historical travesties, all of which are committed by the strong over the vulnerable in the name of some terrible immoral ideology.
All who live and have lived in these circumstances have known full-force the reality that we, here, allow only to flutter around the edges of our anxious minds: that life is fragile and sacred, and that we are all vulnerable. That people can be capable of heroism or cruelty. And if we give in to our fears and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, the enemy is victorious not over just the body, but over hearts, minds and the spark that spurs us on to live and love.
And I sense that, as you are reading this, you are no more prepared to let the enemy win that I am, even as we face the harsh reality that the enemy is not just far away, but very near. It is fed by ignorance and cruelty and despotism in all of its forms – all around us.
So what are we to do? First, of course, we can redirect the energy of our frustrations and stand up for what is right and moral and loving. We can educate ourselves and others, and raise our voices about injustices. And yet… we may still feel as if we are small and unable to bring others out of the enslavement of brutality.
We recall a wise and powerful adage from our tradition: If you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. But which life? Where? When? And how?
It seems to me that the evils of the world are fostered where there is a lack of the one thing that makes us human and compassionate, civilized and humane: LOVE. It is the lack of love and kindness and the hope they engender that brings human beings to desperate measures and terrible acts that we cannot in any other way comprehend.
I do believe that love is the only force powerful enough to put an end to hatred and cruelty. And everywhere you look, people are desperate for love. Souls are waiting to be infused with hope. Ignorance is ripe to be overcome. So yes, we need to be vigilant and active about what is happening far away. But perhaps even more so, and every day, to be involved with what is happening here, in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities.
Can we make a difference? Of course we can. It is because we are vulnerable that we cannot give in to feelings of helplessness. As we read in Pirke Avot—we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to turn away. With every act of kindness offered generously and with full hearts—from working at the food pantry to mentoring a child, from offering rides to the infirm to visiting prisoners—we plant a seed of hope not only in the person we help—but also in our own hearts. In a hundred thousand small ways, we can shine light into dark the corners and help ensure that fear and desperation will find no firm foothold. At least not on our watch.
I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:
“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”
Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.
Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?
Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.
Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)
I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.
The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.
Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.
When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:
“In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”
Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.
In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.
Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.
One way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).
Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.
This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.
We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.
Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.
To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.
Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).
In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.
Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.
For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.
Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.
If a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?
So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.
And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.
So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?
Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.
Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).
I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.
So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.
It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.
Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.
Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street (it is an outdoor mall in the heart of the city) to prepare for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (worth about 25 cents) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed all in white (he was a Bratslaver Chasid), persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law, when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him I would not give him money but would buy him his three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he had asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative Rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know about the laws of Tzedakah (Charity).”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach (Messiah) is near. When a Bratslaver Chasid asks a Conservative Rabbi to teach him Torah, the Mashiach must indeed be coming.” Perhaps for his own reasons, he heartily agreed.
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are , and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However, Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
There are many issues in our world today. There are many causes that grab and hold our attention. There are also myriads of hungry people all around us. They should not be forgotten.