Once again HIllel has found itself in the news due to several recent events: Eric Fingerhut’s refusal to speak at J Street, and the response of the students there, as well as Hillel’s threat to sue its Swarthmore chapter over declaring itself an open Hillel, to which Swarthmore students responded by changing their name.
It is unfortunate that Hillel has decided to abandon its Jewish values in favor of making an idol of certain opinions that some of its donors have decided trump any other consideration. Hillel has always been a beacon of pluralism, welcoming students of all sorts – regardless of which movement they belong to, regardless of whether they believe in God, their Jewish status, and in fact, I believe that Hillel does not even have a policy regarding students who might believe in the messiahship of Jesus. Despite a history of openness, Hillel has decided that on one particular topic, students are too naive to -in an academic environment, one which, presumably, is intended for them to be exposed to opinions of all kinds, some noxious and some valuable, some foolish and some brilliant- hear and decide for themselves what to think about the policies of Israel’s government.
The Babylonian Talmud, the enormous document which collects the thoughts, arguments, legal decisions and aggadic – narrative material describing the rabbis’ thoughts about all kinds of topics- discussions of the rabbis, is not a document that shies away from controversy. In it is found not merely the final decisions of what law wins out, but the arguments of not merely both, but often many more than two, parties to the debate on a particular topic.
The talmud in a number of places expresses its opinion on the results of suppressing opinions – both positively and negatively. In tractate Eruvin (13b) we learn read the famous passage regarding Beit Hillel – the school that follows the rulings of Hillel:
“For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’.Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) spoke, announcing, ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’. Since, however, both are the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that, but would teach Beit Shammai’s opinions before their own.”
Elsewhere in the Talmud, we see the results of excluding the minority voice. Many of us have heard of the story of the Oven of Achnai – but very few read it to the end. The story begins with a group of sages sitting around debating whether an oven, once taken to pieces, can be restored to a state of wholeness (this is no accident – it is a subtextual argument abut the Jewish people, as well). In the course of this argument, all the rabbis except one – Rabbi Eliezer – argue for a particular outcome. Eliezer calls on miracle after miracle to prove his point, but the other rabbis reject them – even rejecting a voice from heaven- stating that the Torah is not in heaven, and that majority thus rules. Most of the time when we read this story, we end it here: “Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'”
But in fact, this is not the end of the story, but its middle. What happens next is that the rabbis vote to excommunicate the holder of the minority opinion. When Eliezer is informed of this, “the world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up. ” But that isn’t all: everything that Rabbi Eliezer’s eyes fall on are burned up, and Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi – president of the Great Sanhedrin – ultimately dies.
In other words, the outcome of excluding from the community the person who holds a minority opinion is to nearly destroy the world, and to actually destroy a good part of it.
How ironic is it that an organization whose dedication to pluralism is such that it took the name of the rabbi who founded a school dedicated to hearing both their own teachings and those of the school who disagreed with them? How disappointing that they have been unable to live up to that standard: for Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, too, each believed that the future of the Jewish people relied on them.
The sages, too, knew disagreement. And their response was to make sure we understood the consequences of silencing the minority. I hope, surely, that we can learn that lesson before it is too late.
I cannot remember the last time I switched on the news—be it on the television or the radio—or glanced at a newspaper headline without cringing and wanting to turn away. Without wanting to stop the world and all of its madness and bring about a cure for these seemingly endless ills.
The reports seem to physically rush at my ears and heart as I hold my aching head and wonder at the inhumanity of so much of humankind.
Clearly, many are suffering from this same fatigue. We need to be informed—but we may wonder… how much information is too much? Can we, as concerned creations, look away from our fellow suffering creatures? Are we exhibiting a lack of compassion when we enjoy the lives we are lent? Are we really able to do much of anything to help?
I recently reread Anne Frank’s diary, which speaks of the human struggle to remain reasonable and even good humored, and not lose faith in humanity, even while very well aware of the heart-wrenching fate of others. I am now reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin—another tale of the plague of the powerful over their hapless victims. These timeless stories speak volumes to us in the light our world’s countless present and historical travesties, all of which are committed by the strong over the vulnerable in the name of some terrible immoral ideology.
All who live and have lived in these circumstances have known full-force the reality that we, here, allow only to flutter around the edges of our anxious minds: that life is fragile and sacred, and that we are all vulnerable. That people can be capable of heroism or cruelty. And if we give in to our fears and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, the enemy is victorious not over just the body, but over hearts, minds and the spark that spurs us on to live and love.
And I sense that, as you are reading this, you are no more prepared to let the enemy win that I am, even as we face the harsh reality that the enemy is not just far away, but very near. It is fed by ignorance and cruelty and despotism in all of its forms – all around us.
So what are we to do? First, of course, we can redirect the energy of our frustrations and stand up for what is right and moral and loving. We can educate ourselves and others, and raise our voices about injustices. And yet… we may still feel as if we are small and unable to bring others out of the enslavement of brutality.
We recall a wise and powerful adage from our tradition: If you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. But which life? Where? When? And how?
It seems to me that the evils of the world are fostered where there is a lack of the one thing that makes us human and compassionate, civilized and humane: LOVE. It is the lack of love and kindness and the hope they engender that brings human beings to desperate measures and terrible acts that we cannot in any other way comprehend.
I do believe that love is the only force powerful enough to put an end to hatred and cruelty. And everywhere you look, people are desperate for love. Souls are waiting to be infused with hope. Ignorance is ripe to be overcome. So yes, we need to be vigilant and active about what is happening far away. But perhaps even more so, and every day, to be involved with what is happening here, in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities.
Can we make a difference? Of course we can. It is because we are vulnerable that we cannot give in to feelings of helplessness. As we read in Pirke Avot—we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to turn away. With every act of kindness offered generously and with full hearts—from working at the food pantry to mentoring a child, from offering rides to the infirm to visiting prisoners—we plant a seed of hope not only in the person we help—but also in our own hearts. In a hundred thousand small ways, we can shine light into dark the corners and help ensure that fear and desperation will find no firm foothold. At least not on our watch.
Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.
As a rabbi of an online congregation, I am often asked about whether people have “real” Jewish experiences online. Some argue that you can’t have a meaningful Jewish experience unless you’re in a room with other Jews.
I disagree. I have seen time and time again how having an online community like OurJewishCommunity.org gives people an opportunity to connect to Judaism, to other Jews, and to rabbis.
I was thinking about this as I watched the Super Bowl last night. There may have been 80,000 people in the stadium watching the game, but another 118 million watched on TV – and I’m pretty sure their experience was equally “real.”
Is watching at home the same as watching in a packed arena? Of course not! I know there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in an arena full of fans. You can see the action up close (if you have good seats), you cheer loudly among others, and you feel part of the action. But watching from home also has advantages. You can watch alone or with friends, you can listen to the commentators, and you can see the commercials (either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective!).
Watching the Super Bowl on TV and participating in Shabbat and other holiday services online have many similarities. Here are five:
1. Most people were not watching the game alone. The myth is that if you watch High Holiday services online, it must be isolating. But I know many people who have the equivalent of Super Bowl parties for Jewish holidays! Often, someone will invite over a dozen friends for a Rosh Hashanah meal and then they’ll gather around a flat screen TV with our live services streaming. They’ve printed our unique liturgy and are participating as an intimate community, as part of an even larger community.
2. Not everyone can afford to go the Super Bowl, not everyone has a stadium nearby, and some people who have shown up to games in the past haven’t felt welcomed. It’s the same with Judaism. Some people have physical limitations, geographic barriers, financial obstacles, or other reasons they cannot attend synagogue. For them, an online community is a perfect connection to Jewish community.
3. Some people had to be at work or take care of other responsibilities during the game – and I’m betting many of them DVRed the game to watch later. So too with services. Not everyone can take time on a Friday night to go to synagogue – but everyone can find a break in their week to create what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “sanctuary in time.” That’s why OurJewishCommunity.org makes its services available on-demand. I know one of our community members is an ER physician and works on Shabbat – so she makes her “Shabbat” on Tuesday and is able to participate in our services then.
4. Some people prefer the anonymity of the screen. If you don’t yet know the difference between a touchdown, a field goal, and a two-point conversion and you can’t tell the offense from the defense, you may not feel comfortable showing up with other fans to talk about the game. By watching on your own, you can learn. Many have commented to me that they feel more comfortable asking a rabbi questions online than in person. For some people, watching online is a way to dip one’s toe in before walking through synagogue doors.
5. You can have community across miles. Seahawks fans felt a kinship with one another last night, as did Patriots fans. Participants in OurJewishCommunity.org who have never met feel a connection to one another because of their shared values and philosophical approach to Judaism. During services, we rabbis even encourage online chatting – which means conversations happen between people in different states and on different continents – adding to the diversity of our Jewish conversations.
Technology also means families can have shared holiday or sports experiences, even when separated by geography. During many March Madness basketball games, I’ve sat on the phone with my dad as we each watched the final moments of a close game. After many exciting Wimbledon tennis matches, I would often call my grandmother to debrief the game. While we didn’t live in the same cities, the shared on-screen experience allowed us to enjoy a game together and connect with one another around it. The same thing happens at OurJewishCommunity.org.
One of my favorite emails from a participant in OurJewishCommunity.org came in after our first High Holidays (in 2008!):
I came to work and my partner took the kids to services. I thought I’d be fine, but I was so isolated and getting really upset. I did a google search for a live streaming service, and there you were… So, for details – first, my mother also did not go to services yesterday for her own reasons. She was also sad and called me just before the shofar blew. I quickly sent her the link and we sat on the phone, DC to Florida, and listened to your shofar together. It was an amazing moment for us. I know neither of us would have words of appreciation grand enough to capture what we felt.
When I read that email, I knew our online community was offering something that a bricks-and-mortar experience simply couldn’t offer. Would this mother and daughter have preferred to be in synagogue, sitting with one another that day? Probably. But, the circumstances didn’t allow for that. So, thanks to technology, they enjoyed a holiday together.
Is the Super Bowl the equivalent of a Jewish service? Absolutely not! But they both have in-person and online components – and variety is good.
For those Jews who prefer bricks-and-mortar synagogue experiences, I am glad they have found a place that feels comfortable. And for those who prefer an online Jewish experience, I’m glad those options exist as well. What could be wrong with having more access points to Jewish connection? I’d say that’s a winning proposition!
The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.
As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.
As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.
After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”
These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.
When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.
Almost any article I’ve ever seen to do with Judaism, any religious critique of a political event, and even in promotional materials for Jewish spaces such as synagogues and JCCs, in fact, nearly everything we speak about in the Jewish community, makes some reference to Jewish values. Sometimes we speak of these values specifically: Jewish justice, tzedaka, “tikkun olam,” and so on – but more often we speak in vague generalities – as if Jewish values were a fixed and known set of items, like making a reference to the works of Shakespeare.
But I sometimes find myself troubled by these references. Not because I think it’s wrong to improve the world, or to seek justice – quite the contrary – I’ve dedicated my life to these values, and to doing them Jewishly. But just as in all periods of Jewish history, the American Jewish community has adopted the outlook of the society in which we live, and with it, we have -just as in all periods of Jewish history- adopted many if not most of that society’s values as well.
And in many ways, we are the richer for it: the American secular values of autonomy and self-reliance, assertiveness, diversity, love of novelty and innovation, pluralism and more have been blessings to us and to many groups that have found refuge here – and we have also contributed to the lexicon of values that we share as well. Jews have made outsized contributions to American culture – we are home here, and we are blessed in a way that has probably never existed anywhere else at any time.
I wonder though: perhaps I spent too much time hanging out with the medieval re-creationists in college, but I often muse about the values that we have abandoned, and that we even often disparage: constancy, duty, continence, honor. These are values that we rarely hear about, and are not, at least that I’ve seen, values that are held in high regard in our society.
I don’t know why our society has chosen to emphasize this set of values rather than that, but it would probably enrich us to think about whether we may have lost something when we set them aside. We often associate these “old-fashioned values” with the hierarchies and unequal power – and I don’t necessarily think that’s incorrect – but we live in a world where there are still imbalances of power, and these values were ways that societies chose to ameliorate them. They also contributed to maintaining long-term relationships, partnerships, and societal stability. Perhaps we might want to reconsider whether they have something to teach us.
“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.
The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.
Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.
When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.
At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.
I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.
My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.
I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.
The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.
As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
There is an old rabbinic tale of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinic leaders of their generation. A would-be convert comes to Shammai and offers to “convert to Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai kicks him out of the room. The same person approaches Hillel with the same offer. Hillel’s answer is, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All else is commentary. Go and learn.”
This paradigmatic story is used to illustrate the greatness of Hillel. In his generation Roman persecution reached new heights. Hillel included anyone who wanted to be a part of the community to better sustain it. Shammai is seen as a curmudgeon; excluding and thereby limiting community.
The irony of our reaction is that Shammai was right and Hillel was wrong. What kind of chutzpah does it take for a person to offer conversion under those circumstances? The only rabbis I know of today who would take that offer charge thousands of dollars for a penny-ante conversion which isn’t worth the toner the certificate used in printing. Of what use would this person be?
In point of fact we want to be like Hillel – but we act like Shammai. We want to be inclusive but the majority of the Jewish community is more comfortable with Shammai. Change is challenging. New people coming into our community tend to come to services earlier and sit in our seats. They are not interested in the old feuds that sometimes dominate congregational interactions. They have new ideas and methods. Clergy and congregational leadership, used to their own intrinsic dynamic can be easily put off by this fresh air and mark their territory in uncomfortable ways.
The story is also a cautionary tale for those who practice inclusion. It’s not by accident that the convert offers a deal that is at heart disrespectful. He is mocking the tradition by suggesting it can be encapsulated in just a few seconds. If that’s all there is, why be Jewish? In similar circumstance would we be inclusive to someone equally mocking, equally obnoxious? Would we include a sincere Messianic Jew? Would we count a felon in a minyan? Would you allow a known wife beater to have an honor?
Shammai was Hillel’s contemporary. He too faced Roman persecution. His response was to restrict entrance into the community so that its values and practices remained constant. Can we say he was wrong?
I believe that the key to the story is Hillel’s message. “What is hateful to you, don’t do.” Inclusion and exclusion are byproducts of “ahavat Yisrael,” love of Israel. If you truly act out of love and compassion, you will know when to include and what lines must be drawn to keep the constantly ever-changing nature of the community. The highest purpose to which a rabbi can aspire is to be the guide in this endeavor.