If a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?
So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.
And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.
So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?
Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.
Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).
I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.
So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.
It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.
Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.
There is something both absurd and profound about the existence of a Jewish bathroom prayer. Bathrooms have the distinction of being one place where prayer and Torah are to be avoided. The underlying assumption being that what takes place in a bathroom is fundamentally at odds with the holy name. And yet Jewish tradition mandates a blessing be said upon completing our business and exiting.
As a child, this blessing was the bane of my existence. The words, which seems endless and cumbersome to my 6 year old self, were a chore. Not simply irrelevant, in my no so humble opinion, they stood between me and recess, returning to class, or hanging out with friends. And in all honesty, even when I grew to understand the words, I could not fathom the need for such a prayer.
Whether or not we see ourselves as particularly religious, few among us do not feel awe when confronted with a rainbow, a beautiful seascape or mountain view. And for those moment when our own words may fail us, our tradition provides us with options. These moments are so obviously praise worthy.
By contrast, the goings on of the bathroom by contrast seem base, necessary but by no means extraordinary. That is until they don’t work exactly as we need them to.
If you have ever toilet trained a puppy or a child, eaten the wrong foods or maybe too much matza at Passover, you know that the internal plumbing of a being is a finely tuned system not to be taken for granted.
And this speaks to the profound truth of the bathroom blessing.
Grand vistas may appear, extraordinary moments will happen but we do not need to wait for these to appreciate the holiness of the miracles of everyday life. Within the realm of healthy, everyday living, we can easily take for granted the small stuff. The ability to wake, to get out of bed are usually chores. Our tradition, by encouraging us to bless these moments provides us with the opportunity to reframe our understanding of what a miracle is.
The bathroom may not be a place for uttering the holy name, but that does not mean that what happens inside is not holy and miraculous. On the contrary, the very contradiction of Asher Yatzar points to a vision of everyday holiness that if taken seriously, as our tradition encourages us to do, has the power to imbue every moment in life with significant and profound meaning.
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
Yes, its true. An era is ending.
Jon Stewart, who hosted the Daily Show—the “fake news” program on Comedy Central—for the past 17 years, announced he was stepping down yesterday. Jon Stewart, the Jewish kid from New Jersey whose wit and satire helped shed light on the hypocrisies of government and society, who became for a generation a primary news source, who though humor took on the most serious of subjects, is moving on to new projects.
At seemingly the same time, NBC announced that Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News for the past 10 years will be suspended without pay for six months after it was recently revealed that he had misrepresented facts of a helicopter incident while he was covering the war in Iraq in 2003. While he had claimed that he was travelling on a helicopter that was brought down by a rocket propelled grenade, it recently came to light that he was not entirely truthful in his account.
In a way, both of these stories can point to the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment. Stewart, who always claimed that he was not meant to be a “real” news outlet and was anchoring an entertainment show, nevertheless provided real social commentary that both reported and reflected the zeitgeist.
At the same time, Williams, who is one of the most well respected news anchors today since taking over the anchor chair from Tom Brokaw a decade ago, played off that serious persona to comic and entertaining effects. He made the rounds on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and as a frequent guest on the Daily Show. One wonders if his attraction to the world of entertainment led him to embellish the facts of his experiences.
The “real news” pursues entertainment, while the “fake news” pursues seriousness. As I joked on Facebook yesterday commenting on the parallel announcements, “Maybe Jon Stewart has been tapped to take over NBC Nightly News.”
But it would be too easy to draw these dichotomies. It is hard to say what is “the news” and what is “entertainment.” The elements of both are found in the other. Hard news is conveyed in entertaining ways, either though colorful graphics and flashy presentation, and entertainment sometimes reflects and comments on real events.
And perhaps we need a mix of both; the Torah tells us as much. In the weekly Torah reading this week, portion Mishpatim, Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God. God enumerates all of the different laws (“mishpatim”) and practices that the people are to follow. We then read, in Exodus 24:3-8,
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of God and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of God. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to God. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
The laws are serious. But the laws are delivered with pomp and spectacle. The Torah is telling us something about ourselves that Stewart and Williams confirm: we like our news, and we like our entertainment. And indeed, we can’t have one without the other.
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I’ve been looking for meaningful full-time work since crash-landing in Philadelphia in August. After living in Boston for eight years and being known and seen as a resource in the community, I suddenly found myself a stranger again, trying to make it as a rabbi in a new city – one full of other talented rabbis, no less.
I am impatient to move from Point A to Point B: from part time work to full time work, from assistant rabbi to rabbi, from teacher to director of education.
We easily fall victim to the idea that we’ll only be happy when we find ourselves in the perfect situation: the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house. This is what a friend of mine refers to as “the myth of arrival.”
If we stop and pay attention, we notice both the world around us and our sense of what we need and want are in constant flux. No situation will ever be perfect, and if it is, it won’t be. Opposed to our obsession with “making it,” this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, proposes we focus on the journey.
When the Jerusalem Temple existed, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were each harvest festivals which culminated with people bringing offerings to the Jerusalem Temple. We no longer make a pilgrimage to a place like the Temple, but we do make a sacred journey through time: from the barrenness and desolation of winter to the mucky renewal of spring, and the color and heat of summer. During each of the three agricultural festivals, God instructs, “none shall appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).
According to this week’s reading, the pilgrim travels to the Temple on Passover: “for in it you went forth from Egypt”: each year, we start by recognizing that we are journeying from slavery to freedom and to clarity.
What are we to carry with us?
On Sukkot, the pilgrim brings “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”; and on Shavuot the pilgrim brings “the results of your work in the field.” As we make the first tentative steps on our journey, we gather the first fruits of our labor, relishing in our small successes: the dissertation proposal, the first performance, the fact we even got up early to write. We then bring the results of our work in from the field.
We pause three times each year to savor our accomplishments.
The Torah also instructs, “They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). During this dark, cold time of year, the Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given. To recognize if we have been using our gifts we will have something to offer. Our role in this journey is to serve That which is Greater than Us by using our unique gifts – as gardeners, artists, caretakers, healers.
A midrash that connects our verse to the Book of Ruth (a text about Shavuot) says that “every place the people of Israel entered, they did not leave empty-handed.” This commentary suggests that God does not ask us to bring anything in particular, but is simply promising us that if we fully enter our lives, “none [of us] shall appear before Me empty handed.”
For now, as much as I look forward to finding meaningful full time work next year, I am also beginning to remember to cherish my small successes: the moments I sense warm connections forming with my patients and their families in my hospice work; the time I am making to write in the morning; the joy I feel when my teaching lights up my students’ faces with insight.
Perhaps what is most important is to “arrive” by being present to what is in-between Point A and Point B – to the journey of life, itself.
Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street (it is an outdoor mall in the heart of the city) to prepare for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (worth about 25 cents) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed all in white (he was a Bratslaver Chasid), persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law, when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him I would not give him money but would buy him his three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he had asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative Rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know about the laws of Tzedakah (Charity).”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach (Messiah) is near. When a Bratslaver Chasid asks a Conservative Rabbi to teach him Torah, the Mashiach must indeed be coming.” Perhaps for his own reasons, he heartily agreed.
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are , and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However, Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
There are many issues in our world today. There are many causes that grab and hold our attention. There are also myriads of hungry people all around us. They should not be forgotten.
I believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until the Palestinians come face to face with the fact that we Jews have seen ourselves as a people, and not just as a religion, for time immemorial. This is a bedrock fact of our identity. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until we Israelis admit that the there is a national component to Palestinian identity. They understand themselves to be a people, and therefore they are. No amount of denying that will change their sense of themselves.
I also believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until a significant number of Palestinians understand and internalize the simple truth that the Jewish People have a long standing and legitimate connection to all of the Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until a significant number of Israelis understand and internalize the fact that the Palestinians have a long standing and legitimate connection to that same land – all of it.
Both sides have a legitimate claim to all of the land. The claims derive from different foundations but in the end, the same land is both Israel and Palestine. When we first wake up to this realization, it tastes like a bitter pill to swallow. It might seem to make this an intractable conflict, but denying that truth will only cause us to pursue solutions that will eventually blow up in our faces, because they ignore the deepest truths dearly treasured in the hearts of the people that must make peace if they are not to make war.
So many of us on both sides stick our heads in the sand and ignore one half or the other of this truth. Most Israelis dream that we will wake up the next day and find the Palestinians gone. And most Palestinians very likely harbor the vision of a land without Jews. But it is not going to happen. Both sides are here to stay and both sides deserve to stay and to flourish.
I am not afraid of a complex reality. My study of Jewish sources taught me long ago that “these and those are the words of the living God.” Two truths, even conflicting truths, can both be true at the same time. Our rabbis taught us that “you should make you ear like a funnel to hear the words of those who permit and those who forbid,” that is, those who say yes and those who say no. Not only can two contradictory truths be true at the same time, but more than that: we have an obligation to struggle to absorb both and accept both. Only then does the soul expand towards the fullest truth, “the union of opposites” that Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook wrote of so eloquently.
Had do you begin getting to that place? By knowing that all truth is truth from somewhere and never from nowhere. It is from our vantage point, from our perspective – whether individual or national –and is therefore partial. At that is so even for religious truth, revealed truth. God created us such that we rarely see more than a sliver of the whole. Even the revelation at Sinai, according to Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, was only an approximation of the infinite divine truth. God granted us the gift of not knowing it all, in order to provide for us the opportunity to embark upon the journey towards ever-growing truth. Expanding our consciousness to see the truth on the other side, the Palestinian side, is part of the divinely mandated journey.
So how do we Israelis – and the Palestinians – begin the process of seeing and identifying with the other’s truth? By crossing the borders that divide us and getting to know the other. Not by debating but by listening, active listening. By taking off the blinders and opening our eyes to their reality, that is, reality as they see it. By putting ourselves in their shoes. This is not easy. It is challenging and painful and really hard. You have to exert yourself in the search for the fuller truth. You have to hold yourself back from fighting, from arguing, from defending your version of things. At later stages there is room for the give and take of a respectful disagreement, but first you have to listen! You have to listen while you feel offended and attacked and then keep listening. You have to absorb and even identify with it until you feel unmoored and then you still have to listen more. And then you have to put it all together and find room in your soul for two competing, powerful, partial truths.
Naive you say. I would have thought so myself. Except that what I have described is a process of personal transformation that I and scores of other Israelis and Palestinians have experienced over the course of the past year. And thousands of other have been shown a window into this process, all in the framework of an amazing initiative that we have built together in the Gush Etzion area.
Yitzchak Rabin was not quite correct. You don’t make peace with enemies. Here in the Holy Land where our lives are so intertwined, such a peace will not hold. Rather, first each side must learn to see at least some truth on the other side. Then we can be transformed from enemies into human beings, and then into neighbors, and when we are neighbors – each genuinely concerned with the good of the other – political solutions become plausible. As we embark upon the process of making the other into our brother, we can make peace.
This is another way of saying that this is going to require good will. If we come to the negotiating table as if we are at war, doing battle with words, then we will stay at war. If it is about trying to extract concessions from the other side, the efforts to come to an agreement will be doomed to failure. Rather, only when we – and they – truly realize that the more the other side, both sides, can get of its dream, the better off we all will be.
And yes, there are potential ways to fulfill much of the dreams of both sides at the same time. When both sides have made room in their souls for the humanity and the truth and the needs of the other side, we will find the way. There are such plans out there but that is for another article.
To me it appears that this – deep, long term, empathy-creating dialogue – is the secret weapon for the Palestinians to get from us what they want. And it will also achieve for us what we want. It is their tool to attain their dignity – and their rights and their justice and their national aspirations. And it is our means toward recognition and peace. All other weapons harm and kill; this one creates life. If only each side would realize the amazing power of this secret weapon.
A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a note saying, “I would be interested to read your take on vaccinating children being (or not being) a Jewish issue.” My response was one word: “Vaccinate!!”
I sent her to the excellent pieces by Rabbi Jason Miller and Jamie Rubin explaining why vaccinating children is a Jewish value, yet I was trying to get into the mindset of why people might not vaccinate their children. To be honest, I still can’t do it entirely, but I now think it comes down to beliefs.
Now, some of these beliefs are erroneous, like that vaccinations lead to autism, or that immunity can be developed “naturally” without vaccinations. Other beliefs, though, are more subtle.
Rand Paul and Chris Christie have recently said that they believe that parents should have some level of choice over whether they should vaccinate their children. That belief isn’t so much about the science as it is a belief about the role of government. And as the father of a 16-month-old who now cries when she sees her doctor, I can understand the belief that parents don’t want their kids to feel pain when they get poked at a lot. (By the way, having her be uncomfortable for a few seconds is a price I am certainly willing to pay to keep her and her friends healthy and safe!)
But here’s the thing—beliefs guide our actions. And while we can privately believe whatever we’d like, when those beliefs manifest themselves in our choices, there are consequences. And what we can’t choose is what happens as a result of our decisions.
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist and founder of NPR’s blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, makes it very clear that in many ways, nature doesn’t care what we believe:
Infections spread with well-understood mathematical patterns. Planets respond to changes in atmospheric composition via the laws of physics and chemistry. They do this in spite of who we vote for. They do this in spite of our political or social beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.
The world, in other words, has its own ways. Denial can’t change that. But what the Disneyland outbreak makes clear is that science denial has consequences. That is the real news here. The anti-vax and climate “skeptic” strains of science denial have been with us for more than a decade. Until now, however, it’s all seemed a bit theoretical, like just another forum for Internet hate-festing (which we shall all see soon in the comment sections of this post). But now along comes an outbreak of a once-beaten disease and—surprise—we suddenly see that science denial has actual real-world consequences, because it’s about the actual real world (the one we humans invented science to describe).
People often say that “everyone has a right to their beliefs.” But one of the wonderful things about Judaism is that in general, it doesn’t really care what we believe per se. Instead, what Judaism cares about is how those beliefs play themselves out in our lives, in our relationships, and in our world.
So yes, while everyone has a right to their beliefs, Judaism’s emphasis is not on our rights but on our responsibilities, and especially our obligation to care for ourselves and for others. Otherwise, we’d live in the world described by the recent piece in The Onion, “I Don’t Vaccinate My Child Because It’s My Right to Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back.”
Neil de Grasse Tyson once said that what’s good about science is that “It’s true whether or not you believe in it.” But there is an addendum to that statement: our beliefs influence our actions, and our actions create consequences—not just for ourselves, but for others.
After all, science doesn’t care what we believe…until those beliefs lead to measles outbreaks and rising sea levels.
So much of our country is under the pervasive, chilled wrap called winter. It seems harder to reach within, to find wholeness when the shell surrounding our souls feels frozen.
I offer the following spiritual practices (called Hanhagot) as potential antidotes to thaw our spirits. These are indeed religious paths, but don’t let the word religious push you away….these are inspired by, but don’t come directly from Sinai.
– Arise each day and express gratitude that you are actually alive. Wiggle your toes, stretch your legs, stretch your arms, and go to the bathroom. If that all works, say thank you that it is all possible.
– Record what comes to your mind first thing when you wake up. Write it down and know that in the state between sleep and wake is a piece of your vulnerable self that may be worth pursuing to have a better understanding of self.
– Kiss your loved one(s) whoever they may be, because you don’t know if you will be able to kiss them again. If you can’t and/or don’t want to, make sure to ask yourself why. It is the sacred that lives in that relationship, and thus attention and nurture should be contributed.
– Smile at as many people as possible. Everyone needs to be acknowledged, and it might just help them to take the turn or change of direction they need at a crucial crossroads of their journey. It will help you understand that what is going in your life is just not as important as you may think.
– Hush….please hush. Quiet in a noisy world will make space for you when you don’t even know that you need it. There is wisdom in each of us, and to run away from being interactive with that wisdom is to draw away from the world. Shh.. don’t even think about why…just be quiet for a moment longer than you think and your wisdom will come to you at the most important of times.
– Practice one private form of good deed each day. Continue to do public good works as well, but the private kind will help fix your world.
– When things are great, when life is good, when you feel whole, celebrate your joy from the deepest of places. But don’t stay there for days at a time, because then your joy will only be about you. Go back as soon as possible and practice what got you there.
– Engage with every legitimate joy that comes your way. Eat that ice cream cone, see a movie, walk in the park, exercise, study something, go to the ocean, go to a sporting event, read a great book, ride a wave, dance, fly on a plane, walk in the woods, ride a wave, see a bee make honey, play with your dog, engage in friendship and say aloud, “L’Chaim”, to life. We are not ascetics. Connection to the sacred can come strongly through pleasure. Not obsessively or addictively, but in healthy and appropriate doses.
– Seek out friends in relationships that are authentic, meaningful, and intimate. Be vulnerable with them. Be truthful with them. Be critiqued and give that same back with love and the ability to hear. Learn and explore with them. Fantasize with them. Laugh with them. Reconcile with them. Find their soul and have the courage to let them find yours. Give to them generously and find it within you to receive openly in return.
– Make reconciliation. Take stock of yourself and your relationships. Be honest about it. Don’t reconcile until you are ready, but don’t convince yourself that there can never be a “ready”.
– Be humble without putting yourself down. Pride is necessary. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that we are better than anyone else. We all get lost but we can all find our way. Sometimes it is the most unlikely of messengers that redirect our ways.
– No matter, what, have hope. Know that everyday, we can renew ourselves and the world around us. As the seasons change and the night turns into day, we will see that each day can be more whole than the last. If it is day again, we must believe that it can be better.
During these unbearable days of winter, perhaps the above ancient, but new religious practices can navigate our way to wholeness. What do you think?
Last week The New Republic ran a story saying that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the seminary of the American Jewish Reconstructionist Movement, is considering admitting rabbinical students who are in interfaith relationships. Like most rabbinical seminaries in the United States, RRC does not currently allow students to be in interfaith relationships. In the headline of the story in The New Republic and repeatedly in the article, rabbis in interfaith relationships are referred to as “interfaith rabbis.”
I should say first that I don’t oppose intermarriage. I don’t believe that an interfaith partnership necessarily makes a Jew less Jewish. Many Jews who intermarry aren’t very connected to Judaism in the first place. For some, being in a life partnership with a non-Jew encourages them to explore their Judaism more fully, and they become more connected to their religion. Some Jews who become involved with non-Jews end up helping to make more Jews when their partners convert to Judaism. And because rabbis are not on a higher spiritual plane than our congregants, I see no reason that a committed Jew in a relationship or marriage with a non-Jew couldn’t be an effective rabbi.
All that said, being in an interfaith relationship does not make a rabbi an “interfaith rabbi.” To me, “interfaith rabbi” implies that the rabbi is not fully Jewish, and this is not the case. A rabbi is a rabbi. She is steeped in Jewish learning and tradition, that is what she teaches, that is what she brings to her work. Rabbis approach life through a Jewish lens and they are fully Jewish, regardless of who their partners are.
On the other hand, there might be a place for the term “interfaith rabbi.” Many of my congregants are intermarried, as is true in most Reform congregations, somewhat less so in Conservative congregations, and far less in the Orthodox world. However, nearly every rabbi sometimes interacts as a rabbi with non-Jews. I frequently minister to non-Jews, though always through a Jewish lens. Any rabbi who has non-Jewish congregants, or congregants with non-Jewish family members, will likely find himself in a position of working with them in some way. Any rabbi who has done chaplaincy in a hospital has visited and prayed with non-Jews. Rabbis who do these things could probably be called interfaith rabbis, though I still don’t care for the term.
If we were to call rabbis who sometimes work with or take care of non-Jews “interfaith rabbis,” it would still have nothing to do with who their life partners are. To Jews who have the spiritual calling to be rabbis, and who are willing to do the hard work it takes to become rabbis and then the harder work of serving the Jewish community as rabbis, it is an insult to imply that they are somehow not as Jewish because they are married or in a committed relationship with partners who are not Jewish.
Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.