The Torah of Vulcan

Leonard NimoyOn Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.

Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.

When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.

Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.

Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.

Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.

Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.

IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data  that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.

We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that  our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.

As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.

Posted on March 1, 2015

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Will There Be One Jewish People?

A photo from Limmud NY

A photo from Limmud NY | Yossi Hoffman Photography

I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:

“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”

Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.

Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?

Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.

Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)

I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.

The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.

Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.

When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:

In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”

Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.

In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.

Posted on February 27, 2015

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C’mon Baby, Light My Fire

light my fire blog image smallestThis week our Torah portion (Tetzaveh) will open commanding the Israelites to “light lamps that will burn day into night and night into day,” eternal lights. If I read our sacred mythology as Jung would read a dream, every object is the dreamer—me/us, and so I wonder what it is to be a flame always burning. A lamp generates heat and light—energy. What might my role be as a ready source of power maintained in a perpetual state of warmth and illumination?

The Book of Proverbs teaches: “The human soul is the lamp of the Lord.” Does this means that we have the capacity to light God’s way, or, even more significantly, to light God’s fire, warming God’s heart, arousing God’s creative and sustaining impulse? To be a lamp of the Lord suggests that I am empowered to fashion myself as a medium of divine accomplishment. Perhaps I have what it takes to nurture God in God’s work. Perhaps God welcomes, or even needs, my participation. If my soul is a flame fueling God’s spiritual irrigation of the world, then keeping my wick wet and my fire burning gives me agency in the outcome of it all, and agency give me hope in the face of the very real darkness that exists.

I like to imagine a circuit of energy that connects me to my Creator in a give and take that quickens the flow between us. Our relationship is in that flow. God streams spiritual light into the world on what the Zohar calls a River of Light. God’s light imbues all I encounter with a vitality that has the potential to transform the quality of my life and all life. Our mystical tradition teaches that it is our human work to discover and release the sparks of godliness embedded in Creation so that they fly free, revealed. Affected by God’s light as I encounter it in the world, I can be moved to raise my behavior in the manner that we call “mitzvah,” acting with awareness and appreciation. In turn, God is gratified by all that I notice and honor, and God’s desire is stimulated so that She overflows Her bounty yet again and more light flows from Eden.

I even like to imagine that, as a lamp to the Lord, my dedicated attention to particular mitzvot can shine light on specific needs in our world, inspiring God’s empathy to express itself in ways that  stream divine grace into those suffering sectors.

Our Torah portion calls for “pure oil pressed from olives” to fuel the eternal light. Proverbs also teaches that “mitzvot are a lamp and Torah is light.” The Midrash says that we fuel the wicks with which we warm and ignite God, and light Her way, with a purity of action pressed from us like oil is pressed from olives. Pressing ourselves, we put pressure on ourselves to continuously behave in ways that respect all inhabitants of the earth and all that we borrow from God’s Creation. Our mitzvot bring light to the world directly, of course, making it a better place, but through this lens acts of goodness also empower us to affect God, increase God’s light and the way in which it shines upon us.

God’s job is to perpetually renew the act of Creation, ours is to perpetually light God’s fire. Maybe that’s what it means to partner with God creating our world.

Note: This post is inspired by a teaching offered by Rabbi Sara Leah Schely on the occasion of the end of her year of mourning for her mother, may her memory be a blessing.

Posted on February 26, 2015

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Rabbis Should Double Down on Pop Culture

Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.

I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?

Pop-Culture-Rabbi-Jason-MillerPop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.

So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.

When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.

The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.

Posted on February 25, 2015

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God is Coming and She Brings Hope

ducklings mom safetyFor forty-eight minutes, Father O’Neal was dead.

As he crossed over into the next realm, he saw God.

Forty-eight hours later, he was well enough to speak about his vision: “She had a soft and soothing voice and her presence was as reassuring as a mother’s embrace.”

His Archbishop intervened quickly, issuing a press release stating that Father O’neal had suffered hallucinations linked to a near-death experience, and that God is not a female.

Just forty-eight hours after publication, the story was revealed as a hoax.

Still, it inspired our family to a great forty-eight minute discussion. We discussed images of God, authority, and creed in our own religion of Judaism.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my husband, “because all of them are right!”

He was referring, of course, to the proliferation of metaphors for God in the Torah: eagle, consuming fire, spirit of compassion, mother bird.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my son, “because all of them are wrong!”

He was referring, of course, to the Zohar’s teaching that the best metaphor for God is Eyn Sof, infinity. All other images say more about what people need to believe than about Divinity Itself.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my daughter, “as long as you light the Shabbos candles in just the right way!”

She was referring, of course, to the view that some religious traditions are defined by practice, rather than faith or credo.

We, as a family, are glad to see this view recognized. Calling religions “faith traditions” seems to elevate one religion, Christianity, as the standard for all. Faith defines Christianity: in 35 C.E., the Apostle Paul declared it the key. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Council of Nicea delineated what Christians should believe.

Our Jewish family does not believe that faith is the key, and we certainly don’t agree on who God is. Instead, we agree to disagree — on God, and on whether Judaism has a credo.

Stephen Prothero writes in God is Not One, that “Judaism has no real creed.” Instead, he says, a key motif shapes our thought: exile and return. Losing connection with God, splintering of human communities, suffering unanswered — these are all states of exile. We constantly seek return, through Shabbat, ethical behaviour, and tikkun olam.

Still, as Reb Zalman z”l writes, this constant seeking does add up a to a doctrine: the doctrine of hope.

A fierce doctrine, to be sure, but also a soothing, reassuring one. A doctrine that is always available — as we imagine our ideal mothers might be. Not coincidentally, the prophet Isaiah sometimes describes God as an ideal mother. “Though a human mother might forget her children, I could never forget you,” says God to Isaiah (49:14). I could never forget you, because after exile comes return. If this is the structure of reality, hope is always an option.

Maybe images of God do say a great deal about what people need to believe. All around me, I see people invoking images of warrior Gods, meeting their needs to fight for liberation or dominance. Without a balance, I begin to despair. If a nurturing God brings hope in troubled times, I, too, need a vision of her reassuring presence.

Photo credit: Tony Alter, wikimedia commons. Caption: “The baby mallards were all over the creek, but within 10 feet of mom, but when I stepped on the bridge they all rushed to mom’s side and she took them to safety under the bridge.”

Posted on February 23, 2015

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Why Freedom of Expression is So Essential

shutterstock_243316642The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?

The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.

There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.

I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)

Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?

These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.

Posted on February 22, 2015

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In Good Faith: Why Religious Freedom Must Go Hand in Hand With Dignity for All

Today I was in the Georgia Capitol to speak against a bill entitled  the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The battlelines have been drawn, for the most part in familiar places.   Supporters tend to highlight that the bill protects the rights of the religious and does not impinge too much on the lives of anyone else. Opposition to the bill emphasizes that the measure would legalize discrimination, especially against those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression are deemed forbidden by another’s beliefs. The fear of government overreach into people’s personal lives, a powerful reason given by some of the bill’s supporters, is not something to be taken lightly.  However, as a Conservative rabbi, and what is often called “a person of faith,” I find more harmful the way my state’s current denial of the legality of same-sex marriages affects my own religious life greatly.

Within the Conservative movement, I have seen great scholars of Jewish law struggle with how to understand the holiness of a loving relationship between two men or two women or a family that is built on these relationships. My inspiration to become a rabbi, however, came hand in hand with a strong sense that Jewish teachings of the holiness of sexuality and recognition of the image of the Divine in every human being had to point toward fully including and celebrating loving relationships across the spectrum of human sexuality and gender.

I became a Conservative rabbi despite that the movement’s official policies at the time did not reflect my own support of gays and lesbians becoming rabbis and being recognized in marriage. However, I believed that the Conservative movement would embrace this position as they now have. I have had the honor of performing same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and elsewhere. However now, despite my religious beliefs and the official permission of my religious institutions, I am told by the state of Georgia that weddings I would perform according to my faith would be considered invalid.  And I am of course not alone. Many Christian, Jewish, and other religious leaders represent branches of our faiths that recognize and sanctify same-sex unions in matrimony. In this way, I believe that commitment to religious freedom, as well as freedom to act according to conscience, would call for supporting state recognition of same sex marriage rather than legislation that would allow only certain religious beliefs to hold sway over the way others live their lives.

Freedom is a powerful value without which our country’s greatest achievements would be meaningless. For me, what Jewish tradition teaches us about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with the respect for human dignity and the call to be holy that are core values of our Torah. The continuing recognition and support for all, regardless of how and whom they love and regardless of how they identify and express their gender, is for me a vital part of living in good faith.

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Posted on February 20, 2015

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Denominational Ins and Outs: The New Mishkan

Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.

Australia_R2-2_(L).svgOne way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).

Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.

This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.

We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.

Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.

To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.

185px-Royal_Arch_Room_Ark_replica_2Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).

In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.

Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.

For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.

Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.

Dedicated to the memory of R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zeide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal, who taught that “the only way to get it together is together.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

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What Should Rabbis Talk About?

debateIn recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others.  Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.

As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.

However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter.  While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.

When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be.  And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.

We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.

Posted on February 18, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Israel or America?

Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?

imgres“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
– Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu after a second terrorist attack in Europe within just a few weeks.

After an a murderous terrorist attack in Copenhagen, killing a cartoonist, two policeman, and a Jewish man walking out of the main synagogue in the Danish capital , Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu went to the media and announced that it was time for the Jews of Europe to move home.

“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.

He said these things and I was confused. Anti-Semitism is hideous and frightening wherever it pops up, European anti-semitism terrifies some of us in a unique way – the Shoah (Holocaust) is still fresh in our collective psyche. Part of me thought, “Yes, get out of Europe. Go with Bibi. Go to our Promised Holy Land.” But there was another part of me, a darker, deeper place inside me that said, “Yes, leave Europe, but come here, to America – It’s safer.” These might be the voices you would expect from a duel American-Israeli citizen. But it also speaks to the popular narratives of modern Jewry. Where does Yentl (Barbara Streisand) go when she realizes that Europe, the old country, could no longer be home? America. At the end of Schindler’s List, after having ‘saved’ by Oskar Schindler, the group of Jews come upon a Russian soldier.
“Where should we go,” one of them asks.
The soldier answer, “Don’t go East, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.” And, more or less, the credits roll as we watch the real survivors walk with the actors that portrayed them to place a stone at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel.

“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” – Jacob’s prayer before reuniting with Esau who swore to kill him (Genesis 32:10).

Has the Jewish people become two camps?

There can be no replacement for our home:

כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה’ מירושלים For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Holy Blessing One from Jerusalem.

And yet, we cannot ignore the importance, and historic roll of the Diaspera (those Jews dispersed in lands not our own). Judaism has been deeply influenced by the cultures in which we have lived – Even the Torah was given to us outside of the land, not to mention the encyclopedia of rabbinic thought, the Babylonian Talmud.

Some will argue, but I do not think all the Jews of France and Denmark should leave their homes. Freedom is work standing up for. And yet, and yet. The primitive, fear-driven part of my brain wonders: “Might it be that we have indeed become ‘two camps’ for the same pragmatic reasons that Jacob once divided his family? If one should be attacked, at least the other would survive.”

Posted on February 17, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy