This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.
Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:
“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.
I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.
It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.
Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.
The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.
Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?
A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.
In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.
It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.
Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a Reform rabbi but - the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.
Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.
As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).
I understand how enormously painful this is to many people: I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.
First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—
“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”
Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.
As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.
If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.
Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).
The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.
But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.
I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.
I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved. I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.
I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.
I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.
To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.
It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.
And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.
*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.
I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.
When news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?
I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair. As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting. The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.
So it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year. We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.
It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo. It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.
Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.
Ask anyone who knows me and he or she will tell you that I love my social media.
Yes, I’m one of those people. I blog. I tweet. I pin. I update. I link. And tumble and everything else in-between. (And if you have no idea what any of this means, you are not alone.) No, I don’t share what I had for lunch (usually) or every single brilliant and adorable gem uttered by my children. I do share snippets of my life as well as articles that I find interesting, conflicting, thought-provoking.
Bruce Feiler’s recent piece “The ‘I Dos,’ Unplugged,” which discusses a new movement to ask wedding guests to attend sans phones, is one such article.
What drew me to this piece is the notion that not every moment needs to be captured in real time; an idea with which I agree but often feel as though I am in an ever-shrinking minority. Feiler explores the numerous reasons why a couple might choose to ask their guests to check their cell phones at the door — quite literally. For me, the most compelling argument is that against the backdrop of a society that sees every moment as shareable are couples who want their friends and family to experience their sacred moment rather than simply record it. As one groom said, “A wedding is about having people paying witness…How can they do that if they don’t even hear your vows because they’re too busy taking pictures?”
Quite honestly, I was relieved to learn that there is an increasing backlash against the current trend. Because some moments really are meant to be lived in real time rather than posted in real time. I don’t want guests to tweet the play-by-play of what’s happening under the chuppah; I want their focus to be on what’s happening. Other moments are meant to be private as well. How focused can a parent-to-be be on what is happening in the labor room if he or she is too busy tweeting “she’s crowning!!”? And really, do we really need to know that?
In his most famous work, Ich und Du (“I and Thou”), Martin Buber, one of the preeminent theologians of the last century, divides the human experience into two categories: I-It and I-Thou. Buber posits that our lives are enhanced and defined by our relationships – with our goal of being in relationship with God as the Ultimate Thou. Surely it is in these moments, when we invite God into our midst, that we ought to remove any distraction that will prevent the I-Thou moments from blossoming.
Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.
Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.
Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.
Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.
In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”
Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.
In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.
In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”
Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.
This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”
Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.
Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com
I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”
Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia. The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).
To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.
It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.
Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti
We are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.
Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).
Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:
Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.
It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.
Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.
So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.
The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.
Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.
A recent brouhaha has emerged in the Jewish blogosphere over Rabbi Ari Hart’s recent post, “Should I Thank God For Not Making Me A Woman?” Rabbi Hart references one of a series of morning prayers, collectively termed Birkot Hashahar, in which Orthodox men proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” Women, and both genders in the prayerbooks (“siddurim“) of the other Jewish denominations, instead proclaim: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.” Rabbi Hart, an Orthodox rabbi who is the co-founder of a leading Orthodox social justice organization, bemoans the sexism and misogyny the former prayer supports within the Orthodox world but feels duty-bound, as a matter of Jewish law (“halakha“), to continue reciting the prayer every day. He hopes that saying the prayer will make him more mindful of gender inequality in the world and more committed to fighting for equality.
Not surprisingly, Hart’s blog registered some vociferous responses. Those on the religious right have sought to defend the prayer as reflecting the fact that, according to traditional halakha, only men are obligated to perform positive, time-bound commands (“mitzvot“). According to this perspective, men who say the prayer are virtuously accepting the yoke of commandedness that does not similarly bind women. Of course, this system of differentiating between men and women on the basis of time-bound mitzvot itself is the product of an historical context in which women were solely charged with domestic responsibilities that were thought to conflict with the performance of time-sensitive religious obligations. Conspicuously absent from these defenses is any discussion of the propriety of maintaining such a standard in a contemporary society where domestic responsibilities increasingly are becoming shared, if not reversed.
Those on the religious left have reacted with vitriol. They view Hart’s apologist defense of the blessing’s continued relevance as privileging misogyny over equality. Others have protested Hart’s attempt to have it both ways—to bemoan the prayer’s contribution to sexism within Orthodoxy but to assume that adopting a certain mindset while reciting it will somehow eliminate the misogyny engendered by this attitude.
But there is a third approach that has been conspicuously absent from this online debate: why not have women bless God explicitly for making them women? Why not let women thank God for not making them men? Surprisingly, this is not some modern, liberal attempt to mess with tradition. Instead, such a prayer actually exists in a siddur dating back to 1471 Northern Italy, which you can see here (p. 5v). This siddur was written by Rabbi Abraham Ben Mordechai Farissol, a well-respected Italian rabbi at a time when there were no Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or other denominations of Judaism. The prayer’s language is unambiguous and unabashed: blessing God “she-asitani ishah v’lo ish”–for making me a woman and not a man. The beauty of this prayer is that, in one line, it affirms the inherent dignity and worthiness of women in society, rebutting (though by no means removing) the toxicity of the male praise for not being made a woman. Its poignant language promotes gratitude for the privilege of having been born as a woman.
Ultimately, my preference is for both men and women to proclaim the gender-neutral “who has made me according to His will.” This language, which has been endorsed liturgically by all non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, ensures no confusion about which gender is normatively preferred. It recasts the blessing from a negative (and therefore seemingly perjorative) connotation—thanks for not making me X—to a positive one. And it has the added benefit of providing a means for affirming individuals who experience gender fluidity. But for places of worship that, for whatever reason(s), prefer to use the original male-centric wording, I hope that they will also embrace the tradition of the 1471 female-centric prayer as a viable text for women to use in expressing praise to their Creator.
As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.
The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!
- Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder. So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
- Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked? The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
- Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah. Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
- Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
- Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus. Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
- Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
- Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy. There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
- We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
- Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom. This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
- Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
- Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
- Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction. We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
- Miriam’s Cup: Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
- Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.
Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!