To understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:
A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)
The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:
“The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”
In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.
I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.
In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.
I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.
In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:
“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.
I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”
May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.
At a construction site at the Jerusalem bus station there is a multi-paneled chalkboard with space for people to fill in what they are grateful for.
If I were making the list today it would read, the ocean, the stunning weather, my children’s health. A shift in the carpool this morning gave way to an extraordinary view of the Pacific on the way to work. On another day, I might have not even seen it and concentrated on the flowers or trees instead. The weather today is oddly perfect for San Francisco. There is little chance we will have many more days like this. And despite their general good health, I know better than to believe in the false security that this is in any way a guarantee for my children’s future. I am grateful for the graces of the moment. For that which I see, appreciate right now.
We are counting the Omer. It is a strange practice, which I don’t fully understand. I can of course quote the meanings and explanations that the tradition gives but it remains a bit mysterious to me. Why the need to number our days, to account for the passing of time so very carefully?
But I know it is too easy to let time pass. Days go by without notice. One set of flowers, blends into a sunset, into a fight with a loved one, into a day at the office and errands and then a year goes by. Last week when we observed Yom Hashoah, I was struck by how in my remembered lifetime the pervasive presence of survivors has given way to the dominance of memory and recordings. Time, which once stood still in ghettos and camps, has gone by quickly. In my children’s lifetime the Holocaust will pass into distant memory.
Every day and every moment matters, but for these seven weeks, between Passover and Shavuot we stop daily and take a moment to mark the passage of time. We heighten our awareness of the ancient journey that Israelites took from slavery to revelation. Like the passersby near the Jerusalem bus station, we are given an opportunity to consider the gifts that we have. Noticing does not make the time go any faster or slower but it does help us appreciate what we have in the moment.
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At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”
During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.
Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.
Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.
Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.
Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.
For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.
My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.
Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.
Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.
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As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova “A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
Sukkot was never a big deal for me when growing up. Coming so soon after the pomp and circumstance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed trite. After all, who needs a harvest festival in (then) 20th century America? Especially growing up in Southern California, where crops grow all year long? Worse yet, since I actually enjoyed my Day School, it meant taking numerous unwanted vacations when there was nothing to do (since the rest of the world, including my parents, were not on a Sukkot break). All this for some allergy-inducing palm fronds and an ugly lemon look-alike?
Recently, though, I have developed a completely different take on Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are extremely synagogue-focused holidays.They are, famously, the two holidays each year when most Jews show up to shul. Despite the profusion of new Jewish ritual practices and alternative paradigms for religious expression, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur unabashedly call on us to sit in the pews, for hours on end, just as our parents and grandparents did.
Then, a mere four days after Yom Kippur ends, comes this weird agricultural festival called Sukkot. Sukkot gets its name from the sukkah, a temporary structure we are commanded to build immediately after Yom Kippur ends. (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 624:5). We are supposed to eat and perhaps even sleep for the duration of Sukkot in this flimsy dwelling. At home. Outdoors. Relaxing while dining under the stars. Sukkot thereby becomes the antithesis of the High Holidays. It is the Slow Food Movement Jewish holiday, meant to be enjoyed with leisure, in the company of family and friends, while simultaneously re-connecting us to nature, ecology, and God’s beneficence. The sukkah is built with simple materials and decorated with children’s creativity and relative artistic talent. There are no stained glass windows, no fancy chairs or memorial plaques. When we eat in the sukkah, which are we supposed to do for each day of Sukkot, there is no specific order to what or how we eat. Sukkot at home is decentralized, democratic, inviting us to take initiative. We can even invite ghosts (deceased great Jewish leaders) to hang out with us!
I think there is an important message to this symbolism, one we need to reinforce especially after the High Holidays: Judaism primarily is a religion to be lived organically, inextricably interwoven into our daily lives, not just performed in special places at special times. We limit the potency and potential of Judaism when we treat it as a part-time religion. Sukkot gets us to bring Jewish experience into our own backyards, into the normal rhythms of our day and night. That is why, to me, it is the ultimate Jewish holiday, truly worthy of the name “hag” (festival).
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.
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.