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.
I can’t seem to decide, do I want to move America “Forward” or do I “Believe in America”? I’m not sure if it matters that I back President Obama or Governor Romney because what I really worry about is what they can or can’t get done. Congress seems so divided that precious little can ever get done. According to Gallup, Congress’ Approval Rating was at 10% in February; now it is up to 17% (April). By comparison, BP’s approval rating during the horrible oil spill in the Gulf was 16%. I won’t be surprised when I see“Congress, we’re kinda like cheap gas” on the bumper of the Subaru that keeps my neighborhood politically informed.
The system of checks and balances that we have in this country looks to the Justice System, the Supreme Court, when the other two need sorting out. With life-time appointments, our highest justices are suppose to be the adults in the room. Are they? Before the Supreme Court, right now, is the best Health Care bill our great nation has been able to produce since the creation of Medicare. It’s not perfect, but I believe in incremental progress when the alternative is gridlock and argument while those in need suffer.
The need for progress in health care is startling, and marks a divide be in our county between those who have and can afford access and those who cannot. The journal Health Affairs, recently presented us with this stark reality:
“…Access to health care and use of health services for adults ages 19–64—the primary targets of the Affordable Care Act—deteriorated between 2000 and 2010, particularly among those who were uninsured. More than half of uninsured US adults did not see a doctor in 2010, and only slightly more than a quarter of these adults were seen by a dentist.”
The central role of government is to keep us safe, which includes much more then external military or terrorist threats, but also our physical and mental health. The Talmud teaches that a rabbi is prepared to interpret law, when he or she can prove that which is unkosher to be kosher in twenty-four different ways. I assume the same thing of Supreme Court Justices, civil jurists of the highest ability. Activists or strict Constitutionalists, I believe that they can find what they want in the law to say whatever they want. Which brings the issue to a moral question – Everyone deserves medical coverage. In one of the most affluent nations in world history, it is an embarrassment that 5000 people have to wait once a year outside a sports area to get free health care (a big “thank you” to the volonteers at CareNow LA, now called Care Harbor).
If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out. If the Health Act tanks, Obama won’t save us, and Romney won’t either. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “in a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” So if they mess it up, its on us, people. We’ll have to act. If they do strike it down, this is what I want you to do: “I want you to go to the window, open it, and shout, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!‘”
No matter how much we “believe in America”, it may take a collective crescendo of rage to move us “forward”.
The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.
Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.
Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.
The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?
It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.
Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.
Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”
Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.
Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.
I am a “Rabbi Without Borders” who is also a “Rabbi at the Border.”
Readers of this blog may know by now that a “Rabbi Without Borders” is a rabbi committed to testing the assumptions that the Jewish people have made about the various boundaries that define Jewish life, both individually and communally. We are not entirely without borders, of course…but each of chose to associate ourselves with CLAL and with RWB because we believe that life is much more interesting near the margins, and that our rabbinates are at their best when we are away from the easy, comfortable middle ground that might define our denomination (for example).
So what is a “Rabbi at the Border?” Quite simply, a rabbi who serves a congregation in El Paso, Texas! Living and working right at the U.S.-Mexican border (and I do mean “right at” the Border…I really can see Mexico from my synagogue) is different, in all sorts of ways. I am truly blessed to live in a place that reminds me, on a regular basis, of some of the key teachings of my faith with respect to hospitality and justice for all…and especially for gerim, which is usually translated as “strangers,” but which I think of as “people at the threshold.”
There’s a Jewish teaching which grounds me as a Rabbi Without Borders at the Border:
“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1). This teaches us that only one who can make himself like that wilderness, ownerless and free, can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).
Widsom and Torah, in other words, are available to us only to the extent that we can step away from that which is easy, comfortable, “ours.”
To live where I do, at the threshold between two nations and two languages, and to do so as a member of the paradigmatic threshold people — the “wandering Jews” — is sometimes a challenge, but always a blessing. I look forward to bringing bi-weekly dispatches from the Border, through the lens of an open, affirming, welcoming Torah whose ways are pleasantness, whose paths are peace!
I run a pretty rockin’ Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah service. I’ve officiated at several hundred of these events. I’ve been to hundreds more by some great Rabbis, but even with the warmest clergy, the best intended preparation programs, and helpful guidance of thoughtful books such as Putting God on the Guest List (by, Jeffrey K. Salkin), Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are missing the mark.
The original meaning of the celebration was that a child was entering puberty, and now was responsible for the commandments. Puberty can be a tricky time, no wonder so many wise traditions developed rituals for its arrival. Age 13 boys (and 12 for girls), is the average on-set of puberty. In the Mishnah (200 CE), this corresponded to having grown 2 pubic hairs (2 is for real, 1 eh, might just be shmutz), B. Talmud Niddah 52a. As a rite of passage, dealing with the physical changes of adolescents might be meaningful. However, we live in an age where people are rightfully creeped-out by almost anybody talking about sexuality with minors. Perhaps, especially clergy. So puberty remains the elephant in the room. Even dealing with the physical and hormonal changes of becoming a teen is a topic that most clergy wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Because we collectively fail to connect what is really happening in the life of the teen, the celebration’s meaning, both the service and party, has been diminished. When a rite of passage looses its core it can become fairly comical, think Keeping the Faith with Ben Stiller and Ed Norton, or more recently the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Faux-Mitzvahs have been popping up over the past few years. These are celebrations for 13 year-olds of any religion that want to celebrate the way their Jewish friends are doing. And why not? Have you heard the joke: “That was more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’?”
I love the “today you are a man” speech. This kid doesn’t have a job, nor has he seriously considered how he intends on investing his 401k. Even being a little league star hardly counts as manhood. In truth, this kid is about to head into some fairly big ups and downs. Such is the nature of becoming a teenager: All the physical capabilities without the sechel (smarts) to navigate. Consider this insight from the Department of Health and Human Services:
With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior. Recognizing the asynchrony of development of the regions of the brain helps us to see adolescent risk-taking in a whole new light. This broadened view of risk-taking and the concept of self-regulation are explored in the next section.
As my Head of School at New Community Jewish High School, Dr. Bruce Powell, says, “The car rental agencies have it right.” It turns out, you can’t rent a car until you are 25 years old, the accurate age of the end of adolescence. With brain scans, neurologists tell us that the frontal lobe continues to develop until the age of 25 (leave it to the free-market to figure it out before science). If we’re not going to deal with kids’ physical and psychic development at Bar Mitzvah, we might be wise to wait until the next, more politically correct milestone, maybe getting a driver’s license, or high school graduation. And if we want to hold onto the golden “today you are a man” line, might I suggest waiting till age 25.
Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on MyJewishLearning.com! Humm, “Rabbis Without Borders” sounds like “Doctors Without Borders,” so this must be blog about rabbis traveling around the world tending to people’s spiritual needs, right?
Well, not exactly. Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer Jewish wisdom, wisdom from the Jewish tradition, in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish in your life, to help you live and grow. The “with out borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we want to offer you wisdom from a variety of perspectives. There will be 10 different rabbis writing on this blog and each rabbi comes from a different stream in Judaism. Some of the rabbis will answer your questions on the weekly Torah portion. Some will answer your questions about what Judaism has to say about what is going on in the world today. Some will answer your questions about God and spiritual matters. And some will answer your questions about parenting, household issues, and navigating challenges in life. The Jewish tradition has wisdom on each of these subjects and many more. Our goal is to help you access that wisdom and use it in your life.
All of the rabbis writing here are Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at Clal- The National Jewish Center for learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal (www.clal.org) is a think tank, leadership training institute and resource center. For over thirty years Clal has led the way in building creative, compelling, pluralist Jewish community and life. Rabbis Without Borders is the next phase of this work.
Rabbis Without Borders (www.rabbiswithoutborders.org) Fellows have completed a year long intensive Fellowship which has pushed them to think out side the box. These are rabbis who use our ancient tradition in new and exciting ways. We are networked with each other and continually challenge each other to try new things. We are excited to partner with myjewishlearning.com in sharing our ideas with you.
We hope that you find our thoughts to be meaningful and useful. We look forward to reading your comments and hearing your thoughts on our posts.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
Director, Rabbis Without Borders, Clal