The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsider—it might be dangerous, she said—but I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.
Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish history—and then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.
Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.
For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.
For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and saw—despite my prejudices—human faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heard—of deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflict—were authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.
One Palestinian man—who turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homes—told me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”
As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldier—and it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.
Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.
These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuva—soul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this year—the most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experienced—be acceptable before God.
Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net
Waking up in the morning a definite challenge for me. I hit the snooze button more often than I should. At least three times, I have to say to myself, “OK, time to get up.” I need some real motivation to get out of my comfortable bed.
So that’s why I could really use a product known as “Clocky.”
According to its description, “Clocky is the alarm clock on wheels that runs away beeping! You can snooze one time, but if you don’t get up, Clocky will jump off of your nightstand up to 3 feet high, and run around your room as if looking for a place to hide. You’ll have to get out of bed to silence Clocky’s alarm.”
Clocky is so valuable because very often, what we plan to do is not always what we actually do.
When we go to bed and set our alarm the night before, we’re expecting that when we wake up, we’ll leap out of bed instantly, ready to go. But when that alarm actually goes off in the morning, our best intentions often manage to fall by the wayside.
Understanding how we stumble and miss the mark is all the more important when we think about our choices that can lead us to become better people as we start the High Holy Day season. It is fairly easy to sit in the sanctuary on the High Holy Days and resolve that we will, say, “be more patient” in 5775. It is a lot harder to actually be more patient when we feel like it’s the twentieth time we’ve had to tell our child to clean up their room.
The resolutions about ourselves that we make can be very hard to hold onto when the moment of choice arrives. Indeed, that’s really what we reflect about on the High Holy Days each year—the times when we “missed the mark,” when we aimed to do one thing, but ultimately did another.
So how can we do better?
Recently, psychologist David DeSteno wrote an article entitled “A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses.” He notes that Americans struggle with self-control. We eat too much, we spend too much, we give into our baser impulses too much. And we tend to think that employing cognitive strategies (“you’ve just got to handle your anger better”) is the way to go.
But as DeSteno argues, rather employing cognitive strategies to overcome our urges. we should use emotional strategies. He gives several reasons and suggestions, but perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that
[w]e often make the mistake of assuming that cognition and reasoning will always favor the most objectively rational, long-term outcome. But in reality, reasoning is tainted by bias; we can rationalize pretty much anything if it suits our immediate needs…I deserve an extra drink, a smoke, a sweet, a break, or a luxury today. Why? It’s been a long week. I had an argument with my spouse. Fill in the blank.
So instead, DeSteno suggests, we should cultivate using emotional strategies:
These emotions—gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up, without requiring cognitive effort on our part, to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll be giving ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.
In the end, our goal on the High Holy Days is help us become better people, to use both our heads and our hearts to improve who we are as we start 5775. But as humans, our natural tendency is to be drawn towards the path of least resistance. So we need any and all strategies we can use to make sure our choices help us—and not harm us—on our journey.
And that brings me back to Clocky.
One wonderful metaphor for the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is that of an alarm clock, waking us up to the ways we have acted, and helping us to become the people we wish to be. But all too often, we are likely to hit the snooze button.
So for this year’s attempt to become better people, maybe willpower isn’t the best strategy. Instead, let’s not be afraid to use any tools, tips, or even tricks we can find to help us grow.
And if we do that, perhaps we’ll have just a little less trouble waking up.
One of the reasons I love the fall is because of the NFL. Although I need to garner all of my religious faith to remain a Jets fan, I absolutely adore watching the weekly games with my son.
I am sure that I am not the only parent in America who had some explaining to do this past Sunday. Each day it seemed that yet another player was deactivated for horrific acts of domestic violence. The press kept reporting that it was a “bad week for the NFL.” I disagree. It was a bad week for America. Unfortunately, it takes something as popular as the NFL to focus our frenetic, multi-tasking minds on to an issue, which is horrifyingly prevalent across our nation.
This space is too small for me to take it all on, but I would specifically like to address the issue of corporal punishment of children.
Life was different when I was raised in the 1960-70’s. It did not happen often, but my parents hit my siblings and me when they thought we crossed certain lines. With hindsight, I can say some of it was effective parenting and some of it crossed the line.
I can still feel my father’s wallop across my five-year-old rear end, as I was about to run across the street. He gave me one hard spank, grabbed my arm, looked me right into my eyes and said, “You never cross the street without an adult. You could get badly hurt.” I cried from the physical and emotional pain, but I never did it again. My father feared for my life and he protected me in the way he knew best.
My mother also hit me a couple of times and once took it too far. As a divorced parent of four, she tried desperately to keep us in line. We were rambunctious and probably a handful for her. She once hit me with a belt for misbehaving. Even at twelve years of age, I knew then that the punishment did not fit the crime. I told her so and added that I would remember it for the rest of my life. I have remembered it. It did not significantly define my childhood or my life, but there was nothing helpful about it in terms of helping to shape me into a better person. In fact, it took me a while to draw close to her again. We did draw close and were deeply connected until her death.
My wife and I make a conscious choice not to hit our children. I don’t think that makes us better people than those who choose to do so within appropriate boundaries. Our youngest is still not careful enough when she crosses the street. We have talked to and even yelled at her. I wonder sometimes if a “potch on the tuchus” might be more effective. If we don’t get through to her with our current parenting approach, I would regret her getting hurt forever.
Adrian Peterson, the star Minnesota Vikings running back, crossed the line when he beat his son with a tree branch (a “switch”). I don’t think a four-year-old child can do anything which deserves the kind of beating his wounds seem to indicate. Peterson said that he did so because his parents raised him in the same way. That is a dangerous excuse. How we were raised has great impact on us all. But, it is up to each of us how we integrate it all into our own parenting philosophy. The impact of these decisions lasts a lifetime.
Judgment is one of the hallmark themes of this Holy Day season. We should indeed be wary of how we judge others. And, still, we must speak out to protect the innocent, even if they happen to be connected to our favorite players on our favorite teams. We do, indeed, have a lot of explaining to do to our children these days.
For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”
Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.
I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.
In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):
I have sought your nearness,
With all my heart have I called You,
And going out to meet You,
I found You coming toward me.
These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.
In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.
Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.
It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.
As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.
When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!
The rabbis of the Talmud have taught that the shofar must be blown with a particular intention: to sound like the wailing cry of the mother whose son we have killed in battle. In other words, the shofar is not the sound of our own pain, but the anguished sound of the grief we have caused another, even a distant, anonymous “other.” And if we engage in the mechanism our tradition offers for moving toward repentance as the New Year approaches, we submit to hearing the blast of the shofar every day of this month, confronted every morning by a single shriek, as if the universe is leaking visceral expression of the pain we have caused.
I wonder whether there isn’t a degree of gratification in being reminded that we cause pain, the pain we cause evidence of our agency in what might seem like a fate-driven life. We want to know that we have an impact on the world, that our misdeeds have consequences. The great late 18th century Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you believe that you have the power to destroy, you must also believe you have the power to restore.
If our misdeeds can tear the world open and expose that raw cry, maybe our repentance also matters. I think that’s why we Jews flock to the synagogue during the Days of Awe and beat our breasts, bringing that reminder of our power to both harm and heal closer to our hearts.
In beating our breasts we externalize our very heartbeats, the pulse within us that my dearly departed teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted the Song of Songs in calling kol dodi dofek, the sound of our [Divine] Beloved knocking [from within]. If we put our finger on the pulse of another we feel that same knocking, the same Divine Beloved pulsing within all of us simultaneously, and we do appreciate that we are all connected as a single god-breath.
We understand that the reason we must love our neighbors as ourselves is because, bottom line, there is no such thing as a neighbor, near or far, to whom we are not connected as limbs of the same organismic whole. And this brings me ‘round to the blast of the shofar expressing, after all, not just the pain we’ve caused to others but also the pain we cause ourselves in harming others.
Surely world events bear out this truth. Wherever we stand on Israeli politics, don’t we feel the pain of the mother whose son we have killed in battle? Isn’t the retaliation against our own sons a reverberation of her pain? And don’t we feel her pain simply because we are human with human hearts? Don’t we experience the blast of the shofar as our own anguished cry?
Jolted to awareness of something greater than ourselves, raised up in awe as we confront our mortality and the underlying miracle of our lives, we might catch a glimpse of the interconnected web of humanity. In the elevated state of consciousness the rituals of the High Holidays invite, we just might momentarily achieve a birds’ eye view of all that is contained in Echad, in God’s Name as “One.” That’s the moment in which the sob of the mother of our enemy becomes our own cry. It’s a moment to pursue and savor.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on shofar, Paul Horn on flute, voices of participants at a Transpersonal Psychology conference in Mumbai, 1980′s.
We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identity—what’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”
The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I’ve been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn’t Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I’m asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.
Now a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow’s mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television’s Will and Grace and the movie Meet the Parents. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism since discovering her ancestors were famous rabbis. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.
Conversion is an option for patrilineal Jews who wish to remove any genetic doubt about their heritage, but it can also be an insulting suggestion. We are now facing the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s 1983 resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and are having their own children. Gwyneth Paltrow will likely go through a mikveh conversion to formally (and halachically) become a member of the Jewish community (and remove any doubt that she’s 100% a Jewish celebrity), but that resolution won’t work for every man or woman who grew up thinking they were unequivocally Jewish. The mere mention of a conversion process can be taken as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people. So what are we to do for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who don’t want to convert? Maybe we just need a big name celeb like Gwyneth Paltrow to bring this issue to the fore.
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