I recently had the privilege of listening to Professor Ron Wolfson give several talks to my community about his new book, Relational Judaism. Professor Wolfson’s thesis, as he explains here, is that Jewish institutions are failing us, and hemorrhaging affiliated members as a result, because they focus on “transactional Judaism” rather than he what terms “relational Judaism.” Transactional Judaism connotes a fee-for-service approach in which institutions offer programs, activities, services, and schools, in exchange for money. Instead, Wolfson argues that institutions and their leaders need to focus more time, energy, and financial resources on building face-to-face relationships, micro-communities, and programming with a relationship-generating component built in.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wolfson’s book, and I commend it as critical reading for all Jewish professionals, from rabbis to federation leaders to school principals. Making synagogues more welcoming of visitors, taking the time to meet parents of students or JCC members one on one, and cutting back on committee meetings will make Jewish institutions of all sizes and locations more vibrant and personal. But as I read through the case studies in his book, and heard him speak, I kept feeling a sense of disquieting disconnect: the Jewish world he describes in his book does not equate with the Jewish world I experience out in the hinterlands of Connecticut.
There are two different worlds of Judaism in America today. There are huge Jewish demographic presences in the big cities (New York, LA, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, and a few others) and their surrounding suburbs (the Valley, Westchester, areas in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia), where the variety of religious expression and opportunity is incredibly rich, perhaps richer than ever before in the history of the Jewish Diaspora. Here, relational Judaism can be a huge benefit to large synagogues and other organizations that have lost their personal touch. Relational Judaism can serve as an effective way to re-vivify places that have grown cold, sterile, and indifferent. Larger federations can and should hire Jewish concierges to help steward new members of the Jewish community and existing members passing from one life stage to another (e.g. post Bar/Bat Mitzvah or new empty nesters) to various organizational presences and opportunities. Synagogues with multiple clergy should deploy them in more interactive ways, such as having a rabbi meet religious school parents in the parking lot to ameliorate the nefarious “drop off” effect or creating an alternative Friday night service in congregants’ homes.
But, as I told Professor Wolfson, I remain unconvinced that relational Judaism can work in small communities where resources are so scarce that institutions spend most of their time just trying to run basic programs and keep the lights on. On Shabbat morning, the rabbi of a small synagogue—who is the only clergy—cannot simultaneously greet people who come in during services and lead the congregation in prayers. When the religious school director is also a teacher, in order to make the budget work, he or she cannot both teach students and engage with parents post-drop off or pre-pick up. A federation that cannot sustain its local day school or JCC does not have the funds to hire a concierge, and communities here are so territorially sensitive that it is not clear a concierge could even work.
I should add at this point that I remain committed to the vision that relational Judaism espouses. To me, the issue of relational Judaism’s application to smaller Jewish communities leads directly the broader question of the future of these communities as presently constituted. I think we need to begin having far more candid conversations about merging older institutions and achieving economies of scale that enable the kind of vibrant, personal, creative Jewish expression that millennials—and many other Jews—crave. Where I live, there are four Conservative synagogues and two Reform synagogues within 20 minutes of one another. None have more than a few hundred members; some have far less. These synagogues are competing with one another for scarce members, replicating administrative and other staffing costs, and fragmenting rather than unifying the Jewish community. This is crazy! Imagine what kind of places they could be if they came together: imagine how spirited and uplifting services could be if several hundred people showed up each Shabbat, and how many opportunities there could be for multiple minyanim; imagine how many friendships could be created in a religious school with 100 students rather than 4 schools with 20-30 in each; imagine how large and effective a bikkur holim (visiting the sick) society could be established to reach out to those in need within our communities; and on and on.
As you probably know, this kind of community-wide view of local institutions is highly implausible today. Donors want the organizations they have supported to remain open in their current forms, even if doing so is short-sighted. What we truly need is the leadership and courage of our community leaders, in small Jewish communities across the country, to engage donors and other local decision-makers in the process of re-visioning the future of these communities. Perhaps through a relational approach–engaging these decision makers in one to one conversations and small group meetings–we can plant the seeds for the growth of relational Judaism in communities both large and small.
Clothing is on my mind. Not because I’m a superficial person, but because fabric art has been featured in the last five weekly Torah readings. Uniquely dyed wools – sky-blue, royal purple, and earthworm red – house God’s presence in the mishkan (sanctuary). Fine designers bring to life the High Priest’s sophisticated “layered look,” complete with jeweled accessories. All priests must wear linen underwear, lest they die.
Clothing worn during holy service must be chosen consciously: that is the principle. Why? Torah itself does not explain, but interpreters do. Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Leaders should be adorned with articles made in the community. Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a role. Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual.
When I, a female congregational rabbi, dress for holy service, I keep these ideas in mind.
Spiritual facilitators should physically feel God’s being. Hat, yes. Donning a hat is part of my daily spiritual practice. I synchronize my action with the traditional morning blessing, ”oter Yisrael b’’ifarah”: Thank you God; you crown your people with splendor. My hat reminds me that I intend to remain a “God-person,” i.e., spiritually aware, all day. And that “splendor,” i.e. health and inspiration, are special gifts. If I receive them today, I will put them to good use.
Priests need physical protection from God’s powerful presence. Modesty, yes. No cleavage. No short skirts. No bare shoulders. As a clergy person, I accompany people through sensitive transitions, tinged with God’s luminous or terrible presence. My companionship can evoke powerful memories, emotions, reflections. Sometimes it feels as though God arises and envelops our interaction; those times, though beautiful, are exhausting. Juggling complicated associations with romance or sex would be even more exhausting. So I try, in behavior and dress, not to evoke them.
Leaders should be adorned by articles made by members of the community. Talit, yes. I wear a beautiful one made by a woman artist who attends our synagogue. Following a popular traditional design, my talit has stripes and a special collar with Hebrew words. But the stripes are embroidered flowers and the collar is decorated with coloured beads. The inspirational Hebrew words connect priestly service with women’s work: v’chibes begadav hacohen (“the priest shall launder his clothing,” Numbers 19:7).
Priests don a persona not their own as they step into a religious role. Yes, and no. I cannot fully adopt an alien persona. So, tefillin, no. I do not regularly wear tefillin on weekday mornings, though I know from experience how powerful the practice can be. Honestly, it’s a bit of a personal protest for me. Some people insist that in order to be a rabbi, a woman must fulfill a man’s traditional time-bound mitzvot, including laying tefillin. This makes no sense to me; it suggests that, to be authentic, I have to behave like a man. Why can’t I just be scrupulous about fulfilling the traditional women’s mitzvot?
Attractive visuals enhance religious ritual. “How you dress is a reflection of your personal brand,” said Troy Alexander in The New York Times. Yes, personal style. Mine is feminine, west coast, eclectic, artsy, purple, comfortable, weather-adjusted, and carefully selected for my size and shape. Each day, I consciously assemble disparate elements into a coordinated outfit. Life is ambiguous and filled with unexpected surprises. Dressing myself with creative order helps ground me as I start the day. Reliable yet flexible structure is a gift I bring to religious ritual.
Beginning female clergy worry when congregants judge their clothing. Over the years, however, I have adopted a different approach. Congregants can talk about my clothing all they want; I do not take it to heart. They also talk about my sermons, my classes, my children, and how many cats I’m rescuing this week. They talk because they are interested in the synagogue and its people. I trust them not to cross the line into lashon hara (destructive gossip); if a genuine issue arises, I expect them to speak directly with me. We might even end up talking Torah!
“Nevertheless, we followed the advice from every magazine editor who told us that rankings matter: if you want people to pay attention, you need a scorecard. The Rabbis needed standings.” In that one quote can be summed up so much of what was misguided about the annual rabbi rankings list Newsweek published for the past 7 years. Michael Lynton, Gary Ginsberg and Abigail Pogrebin in an article in The Forward explained why they were discontinuing the annual Passover tradition and that one quote is the one that struck me the most.
Every year I felt uncomfortable with the list of “top rabbis in America” and it was always difficult to pinpoint exactly the source of that discomfort. However, reading that the founders of the list initially wanted to highlight the “broad diversity” of the American rabbinate but the only way to do so in the magazine world was to make it a scorecard illustrates for me so much of what is at fault in the way we view our clergy. Do we rank them on how entertaining their sermon was? Do we score them on their clothing style? How many times they appear in a Google search?
When we transform our rabbis into only entertainers and quasi-celebrities we come to forget much of the heart of the rabbinate: the one to one interactions; the Torah shared and the relationships developed and sustained. It is about diligently and patiently bringing about positive change, goodness and Torah into the small part of the world that the rabbi lives and works in. This rarely would receive the accolades of a national ranking but this is the essential work.
Rabbis don’t belong on scorecards, whether from Newsweek or from anyone else. When we close the score books and open our hearts that is when the real work of our clergy can earnestly begin.
When we are small, we wait for everything. Every day takes forever until you get to the time when you get to go out and play. Each year, we count the days until our birthday. At the end of the year, we finish one grade, and then we look forward to summer vacation, and then begin a new grade, with fresh notebooks, clean and untouched. Eventually, we get to high school, and graduate, and then, perhaps, college, and even, maybe, graduate school. And then most of us get jobs, perhaps get married and maybe have children. Then one day we wake up and wonder: when do we get a “next thing?”
Most of our lives, we are trained to look for the next thing, the next grade, the next age, the graduation, the “real world.” And then we finally get there, and all of a sudden, it seems that one day is much like the next and one year, too.
The recent passing of Harold Ramis reminded me of the wonderful film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a self-centered news reporter, who is forced to relive the same day, over and over again until he changes.
In the film, one might think that under the sway of some providential guardian, the world is forced to hold still while he is forced to learn a lesson. But in some ways, the world does not stay the same. Even though each morning Phil (the character’s name) is “sent back,” in reality, each day is different due to the choices Phil makes. At first, he takes advantage, then he despairs, and finally, he tries to improve himself and to help others – even though he knows that the next day everything will be undone.
Groundhog Day is a fantasy, but in some ways, not a very far-fetched one. In most ways, unless we are either particularly selfish, or extremely flighty, our lives are a sort of Groundhog Day. We spend each day doing much the same things as we did the day before, and as we will do the day after.
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” It is a kind of strangeness that when we count something, each successive number is different, and yet, the act of counting confers a kind of sameness on the thing we are counting. So it is with our lives. We can take a sort of Buddhist approach and deny the counting, focusing on the moment. But Judaism suggests that there is a wisdom in the counting itself, in the not focusing on the moment. Is it because when we count, we are able to gaze at a larger picture? Does it remind us that someday, eventually, there will be an end to counting – the great graduation, let us say.
Or, is there a certain courage in noticing that even when we think that everything is the same, there are differences, and those small differences come from us, acting, even when it can’t seem to make any difference.
Even if tomorrow, the cat needs to be rescued from the tree once more, perhaps it is a kind of God’s-eye view to be able to know that that is the case, and, once again, to rescue it.
Is religious freedom of greater importance than the constitutional right of equality?
Arizona’s state law SB 1062, which has passed through the legislature and awaits gubernatorial support or veto, argues, ‘Yes’. I suggest, ‘no’, and I do so on religious grounds.
The argument for Arizona law SB 1062 is the protection of the ‘free-exercise-of-religion’. The new statute mandates that as a business owner, I should not have to serve people in my business, if I disagree with their actions on religious grounds. That is, the religious conviction of the business owner would trump the equal treatment of his or her customers. For example, a gay couple at a hotel could be turned away if the hotel owner objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. This is the definition of discrimination.
In this country, for a long time, even to this day – but no longer under the protection of law, we discriminated on the basis of race. This, of course, was a violation of a cornerstone of our constitution; equality. Today, under the guise of religious rights, the Arizona legislature has passed a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve individuals in the public because of religious differences.
We don’t yet know if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will sign it into law. I dare say, she seems capable of any crazy thing. Remember when she wagged her finger inches from our president’s face? Even if she does sign it, it’s hard for me to imagine that it would stand the test of constitutionality in the long-run.
I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I fail to see how this an issue of religious freedoms being impinged. If your religion prevents you from interacting with the public with fairness and equality, than change your business. There is no government mandate that you work in a public forum. Regardless of the constitutional point, religious assertion into the public square is fundamentally bad for religion, and ergo, bad for the public.
The Talmud suggests that true freedom of religion begins with freedom from religion:
At the moment the Israelites were about to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah records that they stood at the foot of the mountain. The literal translation is “And they stood under the mountain.”(Ex. 19:17). If the people stood under the mountain, with God literally lording it over them – than acceptance of the Torah was hardly a choice.
Rabbi Aha, the son of Jacob, observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. [ That observance of the Torah is through coercion!!!]
Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]” (Esther 9:27). -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a
Raba’s point is that it cannot stand that religion, i.e. observance of the commandments, is a response to a Godly threat. It is untenable for the sages to imagine that God forces our observance and faith. Indeed the entire enterprise of morality is dependent on the freedom to choose otherwise. Much better to see the observance from a less obvious, obscure verse from one of the last of the books of Hebrew scripture.
The rabbis of Babylonia circa 500 CE understood what religious fundamentalists in Arizona today have yet to learn: Faith does not come from coercion or imposition of faith is granted a a wide berth. I believe this to be just as true in Israel (see my blog on this issue as it relates to the Israeli rabbinate) as it is in Arizona. If you understand your religion to mean not eating pork, or lighting candles 18 min before sundown on Friday evenings, or not marrying someone you love because they are of the same sex as you, or any other wacky thing, do or don’t do it. Amen. The need for the state law to bless it is bizarre.
Faith’s real power, our sages understood, comes from the freedom of the individual’s choice of action, not by the power of the state, not even by the power of God: God can control anything,with the single exception of faith in heavens themselves. Hakol B’yadei Shamayim – Hutz mi’yirat Shamamyim.
Infertility is so difficult to talk about since it is such a personal struggle and everybody experiences it in a different way. As a society, we even struggle to define it. Is it an illness or not?
A friend recently shared her struggles with infertility with me. She felt she was in the middle of a storm without an anchor. Having struggled myself to have a child, and ultimately adopting, I resonated deeply with her pain. Infertility is a strange state to be in. You are not “sick,” exactly, yet the medical establishment often treats infertility like a disease, prescribing medicines and procedures with the hope of a “cure,” a healthy full term pregnancy and live birth.
During the time of my “treatment,” I was at the doctor’s office every other day getting blood drawn, checking hormone levels, and receiving shots. The feeling of fighting a disease, striving for a cure was palpable. Each time a procedure failed the doctor has a new one to try. Of course, the infertility industry is big business for the medical establishment. They want you to believe that they can cure what ails you and a pregnancy is just down the road.
But are you really sick? Is infertility a curable disease? Even the insurance industry which supports the medical establishment is not sure. Are infertility treatments necessary medical interventions and thus should be covered by insurance, or are they not? Some are covered, and some are not.
This leaves the women and men suffering in a strange kind of limbo. On the outside, everyone appears “normal” and “healthy.” Yet, internally we are suffering great pain psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. Many of the treatments hurt. I had to wear long sleeves to cover the needle marks and bruises on my arms.
My body was working, yet it wasn’t. As both a spiritual and religious person, I wanted to find some prayers in the Jewish tradition that would confront me during this time. Flipping through the prayer book I landed on the Asher Yatzar prayer,
“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).
At first, it seemed to be what I was looking for, a prayer for health. A prayer to help things flow the way they needed to. But then it hit me, the prayer reminded me yet again that I was in a funny grey area. My body was functioning normally most things were opening and closing as they should, yet not functioning at the same time. I was alive, but could not produce life. I needed to look elsewhere for comfort. The traditional Jewish’s sources did not work for me, I had to pray the words composed in my own heart and through my own tears.
This area that infertile couples deal with between sickness and health is unnamed and undiscussed. I know several friends who hid most of their visits to their doctors since they were not public with their infertility. How can you explain so many doctors’ visits without someone thinking you are seriously ill?
Navigating the maze of doctors, insurance claims, and your own sense of failure for not being able to conceive can make anyone feel that they are diseased and in need of treatment to make them normal, healthy, and whole again.
For some people, going through this maze of treatment might be the right way for them. It was not right for me. I ultimately came to her conclusion that I was not sick. Thankfully my body was functioning in every other way. I was indeed a healthy young adult.
This helped me recalibrate my thoughts. My goal here was not to “cure” myself by getting pregnant, but rather to be a mother. For my own sanity and sense of self, I left the medical world behind and chose to adopt.
Clearly for me, this was the right decision. I felt a million times better physically and spiritually as soon as I focused on this path. I stepped in to a world that had more clarity. Even though there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding adoption, I knew that at the end of the process I would have a baby. I would be a mother.
I left the world of limbo. As I filled out the papers to adopt, and there were a lot of papers, no one told me that there was anything wrong with me. I did not feel judged. I was healthy, whole, working towards a worthy goal.
Everyone experiences infertility differently. We all have our own expectations, disappointments, hopes and dreams. But I firmly believe that we are not diseased. May all who are struggling find their personal path to health, wholeness, and happiness.
Last week, Derek Jeter — the New York Yankees’ star shortstop for almost 20 years — announced that 2014 would be his final year. Not only was he the face of the Yankees, in a poll of over 1000 baseball fans, he was seen to be “the face of baseball.”
So as his incredible career comes to a close, and as both Yankee fans and baseball fans start to think about his impact, I want to highlight one Jewish value that I think exemplifies Derek Jeter’s legacy: da lifnei mi atah omed – “Know before Whom you stand.”
That phrase from Rabbinic literature is on top of many arks in synagogues. The idea is that if we are constantly reminded that God is watching us, we become that much more likely to consider our actions and to ensure that we behave in ethical ways.
And as a lot of research shows, if we have someone else we have to answer to — whether that is a boss, a colleague, a spouse or simply public opinion — we become much more committed to fulfilling our goals and acting more appropriately. After all, we humans are masters at rationalizing poor behavior. We can easily talk ourselves out of going to the gym (“it’s raining out!”), or into cheating a little bit on our taxes (“everyone else does it!”). If we don’t have anyone else to answer to, our brains are experts at creating excuses.
So even if we don’t believe in all-powerful, all-seeing Deity, if we are constantly reminded that someone may always be watching and that we should “know before Whom we stand,” then we act more responsibly.
That was a lesson that stuck with Derek Jeter over 20 years ago, three years before he truly broke into the Major Leagues. During spring training in 1993, Jeter and Don Mattingly (the face of the Yankees of that time) were heading back to the clubhouse from the field. The stands were empty — there were no coaches, no other players, no media. Despite that, rather than simply strolling back to the dugout, Mattingly told Jeter to run in anyway. Why? “Because you never know who is watching.”
Mattingly’s lesson that “you never know who is watching” inspired Jeter at the outset of his career. He would hustle, he would play hard, and he wouldn’t showboat because he always knew that anything he did would be watching and scrutinized. In the end, that made him a fantastic ballplayer and a mensch of a human being.
Indeed, if we always keep in mind that someone is paying attention to our words and actions, we will make sure to bring our A game.
That was a lesson the Rabbis wanted to teach, as well. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students went to visit him. They said: “Master, give us your blessing.” He answered: “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings.” They said: “Is that all?” He replied: “That is more than enough, believe me! Don’t you know that when we are about to do something wrong, we dismiss God from our minds and hope that no human eye will see us!”
In our world today, someone is always watching. And that’s why Derek Jeter was “the face of baseball.” Yes, other players had better stats and may have objectively have been better players. But because he always “knew before whom he stood,” he acted with respect, hard work and humility — towards himself, his teammates, his opponents and the game of baseball.
And that’s a legacy we all can strive to leave, as well.
Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
Last week, the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed a healthy two year-old giraffe named Marius. Zoo staff dissected Marius’s body in front of visitors, calling it “an educational program.” They stored Marius’s meat to be fed to large carnivorous mammals.
Without a context, this story is horrifying. In fact, zoo staff members have received death threats.
But there is a context, important in the world of zoos. Zookeepers responsibly try to prevent overpopulating a zoo or inbreeding a small herd. In the U.S., zoos rely on contraceptives, rarely killing healthy animals. European zoos, however, criticize American practice as unnatural and unhealthy in the long term. Thus, in Europe, the average professionally run zoo kills five large mammals per year.
From a Jewish perspective, should this context quell your horror? Not necessarily.
Giraffes, you may be surprised to learn, are kosher animals. Giraffes meet the Torah’s criteria for kosher mammals: they have split hooves and chew their cud. Many scholars say they are listed explicitly in Deuteronomy (14:5) by the Hebrew name zemer. To be fit for eating, a kosher animal must be killed with a cut to the neck; the giraffe’s long neck makes it very easy.
However, it’s just not socially acceptable in Jewish circles to eat this beautiful, exotic animal. When the ancient Israelites built their mishkan (portable desert sanctuary), they covered it with skins of an animal called in Hebrew the tachash. The exact meaning of this rare Hebrew word has confused scholars. Some say it is a mythical animal; others say it is a dugong from the Red Sea; still others say it is an African giraffe. The Talmud describes the tachash as a large, kosher, non-domesticated animal, with beautiful skin and a horn on its head.
Kosher animals ought to be treated with great respect—though often, in our world of factory farms, they are not. Our Torah’s account of the Exodus includes explicit mention of the sheep and cows who walked to freedom. In the book of Jonah, God asks the prophet, “Shouldn’t I care about a city with 120,000 people, and also many cattle?” Anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that only kosher animals were allowed to enter the Temple precincts; thus, they were in some sense part of a covenant of holiness. From an anthropological perspective, one particular kosher animal—the sheep—seems to emerge as Judaism’s totem animal. Our ancestors were shepherds; we still blow the shofar, a ram’s horn, to announce the New Year; observant Jews wear a talit and with tzitzit—woolen fringes.
Contrary to these values, people often treat food animals horribly. With a little interspecies imagination, an industrial farm looks like an overcrowded detention camp. You know the shocked question, “How could people treat one another like this???” Some animal activists answer, “We practiced on animals, and transferred the skills.”
Perhaps you remember the animated DreamWorks movie Chicken Run. Spoiler alert: a group of chickens escapes from a factory farm. The farm looks very much like your worst nightmare of a secret maximum-security military prison. If you have not seen the movie, do try to watch it. It’s actually funny and inspirational, not gruesome at all—but it does make you think twice about human-animal relations.
So, yes, be horrified. Be very horrified.
But do not lose hope. Instead, take action. Keep in mind a famous principle from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single [human] life, it is as if they have saved a whole world.” When you save a life, you give life to a person’s future generations. You make it possible for the living person to help others. One life is connected to other lives in a great network, and one saved life means more than you can imagine.
Keep using interspecies imagination: Whoever saves one animal life, it is as if they have saved an entire world. When you adopt an animal from a shelter, choose vegetarian for a single meal, or sign a petition, you are a node in a network that changes the world. You help save one animal life; you demonstrate a more respectful way of living with other species; you undercut lessons of dehumanization; you influence human behaviour. Torah teaches that animals and humans are intertwined, practically and psychologically. Think about how you can make use of that teaching.
Traditional Jewish memorial prayers say: in honor of the one I remember today, I pledge tzedakah—righteous deeds and charitable donations. If you are one of Marius’ many mourners, what action will you take?
In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)
Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.
What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.
The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.
And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.
For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.