Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.
Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.
Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.
Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.
This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.
Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.
As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.
The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.
The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.
This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).
Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)—a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:” While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.
The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.
So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.
Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.
Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.
Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.
So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.
Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
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 to prepare for Shabbat.
Friday afternoon on Ben Yehuda Street is an experience not to be missed. In the summer you might meet friends from your hometown, your rabbi or see different groups of Hasidim congregating and preparing for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (or “shekel” worth about 25 cents at the time) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed in Hasidic garb, 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 that I would not give him money but would buy him 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 has 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 the laws of Tzedakah.”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach is near, when a Bratslaver Hasid asks a Conservative rabbi to teach him Jewish law, can the Mashiach be far away?”
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.
The Messianic age will not arrive until we understand this lesson.
My ten-year-old son, Jake, has become excessively frightened by lightning. He used to be mildly scared by the noise of thunder. But his fear was augmented by one random event this past summer.
While our family was at a restaurant celebrating a win after one of my son’s ballgames, a storm popped up. During this typical Northeast summer thunderstorm, the building was hit by lightning. We heard the giant crack of thunder simultaneously with a brilliant burst of light. A window in the restaurant shattered and the power went out. The staff gathered us into a protected room away from the broken glass and calmly helped us wait until it was safe to drive home.
It was a dramatic event for sure, but now my sweet boy shutters at the thought of a rainstorm. After talking with other parents who have children the same age we realized that he and his friends are at the stage in life when they first butt up against the realization that there are some things in life they cannot control, and—perhaps more upsetting—neither can their parents. The lightning strike was his light bulb moment of fear, followed by the awareness that his parents could not protect him from all of the vagaries of life.
Jake’s way of dealing with his new-found insecurity is to exert what he believes is a form of control. Every day, he takes my iPhone and checks weather applications to watch for storms. He feels this will make him safe. Logically, he knows that nothing can stop a weather system from moving in, but the more superstitious part of him supersedes logic. No matter how much Jake learns about meteorology, it’s not going to stop what really makes him afraid. He has now been introduced to the fact that the world is sometimes random.
The vexing aspect of this fear is that he, like so many of us adults, spends more time pretending he can control the uncontrollable than he does working on understanding what he can do to protect himself in the case of a real emergency.
This is what we human beings do. We feel terrified of the unknown and so we pretend to control what we can’t touch. Our faith can sometimes becomes one of superstition instead of self-care and preparation. We don’t visit the doctor in fear of the diagnosis. We don’t set up our child’s nursery in fear of tempting the evil eye to visit upon the womb. We wear red bracelets to ward off evil.
We all feel attached to certain family traditions. But I worry when superstition becomes a proxy for our religion. Our faith can be one that encourages us to live healthy and secure lives; one which prepares us to face all of the challenges which come our way. Expending energy on that which we cannot control will only steal away from the aspects of our lives which we can indeed control.
Randomness is frightening. The unknown shakes us to our core. I pray regularly that lighting does not strike any of my children. But in the meanwhile, my wife and I do our best to prepare them for the realities of a life which comes along with extraordinary blessing and the reality of physical and cosmic storms.
If any Holiday teaches about finding joy in the midst of fragility, it is indeed these days of Sukkot. All of our structures are relatively temporary. When we realize we can only control certain aspects of our lives, we might find our way to a bolstered inner-compass and a perpetuated sense of calm.
I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.
What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish history—the mishkan (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.
And these three structures—a sukkah, the mishkan, and the Temple—reflect three different levels of permanence.
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.
Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.
In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.
The mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.
And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.
The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”
It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”
Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.
The sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.
So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.
Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.
As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”
In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkah—remembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.
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There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”
Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacy—and the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.
One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.
In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good. It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.
A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical will—a document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?
I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.
This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.
Tonight begins the 8-day festival of Sukkot (7 days in Israel and in the American Reform movement). One of the core texts from the Torah we learn about the festival of sukkot is v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach—we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness. We even sing a catchy chant using these words. But, is it really possible to command happiness?
We live in challenging times. Wars, diseases, and injustice around the globe, it’s no wonder that this year’s most famous song was so uplifting. Pharrell Williams helped to get us all out of our funk when he sang:
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
I think Pharrell Williams sang the song that we really needed to hear this year. Happiness isn’t easy to come by, but it’s something we’re all searching for—not just on the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, but all year round. But what really is happiness? Because if we don’t know what happiness really is, then maybe we’re wasting a whole lot of precious time in our lives by seeking it out!
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert uses cutting-edge research to show that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. We often think we know what will make us happy, but we really do not. We also say we are happy but oftentimes, as Gilbert explains, we are just misusing the term “happy.” Reading Gilbert’s book forced me to think of new ways to think of happiness and to bring more happiness into my own life.
I love how Gilbert begins his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.”
Rather than thinking about this pursuit of happiness as a search for a life in which we’re always happy in the sense we typically think of happiness—always smiling, laughing, you know, Disney’s concept of Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder—I’d like you to consider three words that better define what we’re seeking. Not happiness, but contentment, gratitude and meaning. Let’s explore these three concepts:
Contentment requires that we look around at our family and our home and our lot in life and we say “Baruch Hashem”—blessed is God for my life. I’m not a fan of saying Baruch Hashem in a reflexive way every time someone asks how things are going, but I do believe we need to spend more time feeling grateful for what we have. That is contentment.
Now, let’s look at another better way to think of the goal of happiness and that is gratitude. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude in their daily life are happier than those who do not. There seems to be a clear connection between learning to be grateful and living a more fulfilling life. Social science research has demonstrated that cultivating gratitude, learning to recognize and respond with thankfulness to the goodness of other people and the beauty in life, as opposed to complaint or indifference, stimulates a host of benefits.
Gratitude means being attuned to the gifts that have come our way. Sukkot, is almost completely about expressing gratitude. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer we sang on Rosh Hashanah (we omitted it this Yom Kippur since it fell on Shabbat) is all about the gratitude we give to God. In fact, the vast majority of our prayers consists of offering gratitude to God for our lives.
And this brings us to meaning: In an article in The Atlantic in January 2013, the author takes a look at happiness through the perspective of Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, who was arrested in September 1942 and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. When Frankl’s camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died, but he survived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. As Frankl saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I wish you a Chag Sameach—may Sukkot help you find contentment, meaning and gratitude in addition to joy.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.