Like everyone else I know who is active in the Jewish community, my Facebook page and email inbox have been inundated with articles about the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews that was released at the beginning of October. With varying degrees of hand-wringing, they say it seems that the Jewish community is shrinking, and in another hundred years or so there will be no more Jews in the U.S. except a small number of Orthodox Jews. The message: We have to do everything possible to get people to stay Jewish and raise Jewish kids, or there won’t be any more Jews.
As I led Torah study at my synagogue in Brooklyn on Shabbat morning last week, these articles were on my mind while we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. The story struck a chord for me this year. I realized that I sometimes feel like the Jewish community is saying, “If we could just build a big enough tower, we could get people to keep being Jewish!” and “We need to make a tower that 20-somethings will think is really cool, and then we’ll be OK!”
Of course this is a flipped-over Tower of Babel. Instead of a tower project enabled by everyone speaking the same language and having the same words, this tower is about trying to get everyone to speak the same language and have the same words. Nevertheless, both towers are about control—let’s make a name for ourselves, let’s control where the community is going.
The Jewish community is changing. I’m not sure what everything in the Pew survey means, though I do know it’s a snapshot in time, and that people’s spiritual needs change over time. I also know that I am a part of a rich and wonderful tradition that has a lot to offer. I trust that tradition. I believe we need to innovate and change. I believe we need to help Jews find a way to live their Judaism that is relevant and spiritually fulfilling. But I want that innovation and that outreach to be based on joy and love for our tradition, not on fear for its future. That positive attitude is what will make us stronger; not an attitude of desperation.
My synagogue is a small community—right now we have just over 100 families and individuals as members. At that Torah study last week there were 25-30 adults who were engaged and excited to wrestle with our Torah. They ranged in age from parents of young children to retirees. Some did not grow up with Judaism. Some weren’t interested in Judaism when they were in their 20s and 30s but became engaged later—through children, or spouses, or an awakening of interest in spirituality or their heritage. They don’t like everything they find in our tradition, but they find a lot that speaks to them where they are in their lives. Torah study allows us to get deeper than the superficialities of everyday life; it gives us a space to talk about the big issues and questions.
I’m less concerned with the Jews in the Pew survey and more concerned with the Jews in my pews. If, as a rabbi, I can facilitate exploration of Judaism and open the door to the joy and richness of Judaism for the people I meet at my synagogue and elsewhere, then perhaps they will choose to increase their involvement with Judaism in one way or another. Or maybe they won’t. I don’t control that. So I’m not going to wring my hands over it; I’m just going to keep trying to help people in their spiritual searches, and not try to build a Tower of Babel that will get them to be the Jews I think they should be.
It’s probably one of the first things that I learned from my time as a social science researcher – the short research and academic career that I had before deciding to turn to the Rabbinate … correlation does not always mean causation. Statistics are very good at demonstrating the former but, by themselves, cannot determine the latter without further investigation.
So, for example, a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level. Most of us would recognize that there is a third factor – age – that accounts for both.
Then there’s the joke about the lunatic who wants to demonstrate to his doctor that he can control spiders. He speaks to the spider ‘Go left!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the left. Then he calls out ‘Go right!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the right. Then he says to the doctor, ‘but that’s nothing – watch this!’ He proceeds to pull the legs off the spider. When he calls out ‘Go left!’ and ‘Go right!’ again, the spider doesn’t move. ‘See!’ says the lunatic, ‘If you pull a spider’s legs off he’ll go deaf!’
In the past 24 hours there have been multiple reports and responses to the Pew Portrait of Jewish American life in major newspapers, blogs, and conversations on Facebook pages. It has sparked many interesting and reflective responses, all containing good observations. But there is also the tendency to misread the data, jump to assumptions about causation when only correlation has been determined, and to focus in on some of the data while ignoring other parts. I have found conversations about what part of the data has been most shocking/surprising/unexpected particularly interesting. Some are shocked by the statistic that 34% said that you could still be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah, for example. Many are concerned that, of those who identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish, 2/3rds of them are not raising their children Jewish in any way.
One of the things that I learned as a social scientist is that there are many ways of seeing, based not so much on what lies before us, but rather on who is doing the seeing. The artist, the developer, and the farmer can all look out at exactly the same field and see completely different things. So it is that those of us who work within institutional Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, look at this data with one set of concerns, whereas those who have created new Jewish cultural projects that seek to engage Jews outside of those traditional institutions would look at the data quite differently.
The full Pew study is over 200 pages long. I have not had the time in the last 24 hours to read and digest it. So it is not my intention to add my own layer of analysis to those that are already out there at this time. Rather, to caution us to think about our framing, how we are approaching and responding to the data that has been collected, and to be careful about jumping to conclusions. For example, if I add my own voice to those that have highlighted what is most interesting to them, I would draw attention to something that is mentioned but which hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the analysis so far. On the Pew Forum’s own summary page of the report, with regard to the youngest generation of Jews surveyed who show an increasingly ethnic but not religious sense of identification, they state:
This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).
This piece of data should immediately alert us to the likelihood that there are a combination of factors that are shifting the culture of American society in general, to which we in the Jewish community are not immune. Does that mean that we who are Jewish professionals throw up our hands and give up on our attempts to keep Jews Jewish, help interfaith families make Jewish choices, and demonstrate the meaningful connections to our faith and heritage that we wish to share with younger generations? Of course not! But it does mean that we cannot jump to conclusions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t be achieved, and what our expectations are, without reference to the larger cultural context in which we are living and working. And perhaps most of all, an awareness of the trends in this larger cultural context can help us keep our emotions in check. Instead of the hand-wringing and angst that sometimes drives a narrative that can sound a little too desperate as we mourn the ‘ever-dying Jewish people‘, if we acknowledge and even embrace the reality that we live and work in today we can more joyfully reach out and share what we have to offer, and are probably more likely to connect with Jews who identify differently to us because we are more present to who they are and will be less likely to try and make them fit inside our pre-existing structures.
I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.
Even as a teenager, at best I was probably pretty geeky, and what’s more, not appreciably bothered by it. I liked the Beatles, had hair down to my tush, wore nothing but jeans and t-shirts other than when I was hanging around at the Renaissance festival, and spent most of my free time reading. Even my mother, decidedly not a fashionista, would wonder aloud about which era I had been born into—apparently the one before hers.
When my son was a toddler, I read to him all the time. I often read classics—but a lot of the gender and race descriptions in some of those could be a bit squicky, so I would change them on the fly. This proved to be more difficult than one might think: toddlers—at least mine—have excellent memories, and like to be read the same stories over and over, which meant I also had to remember exactly *how* I read the story the last time. Because it had to be exactly the same.
These days, being unhip in the Jewish professional world is a terrible disadvantage. Grants go to the young and groovy -which I never was, even as a teenager—programs have to be innovative, and tefilah prayer services have to leave one panting with joy and overflowing with meaning.
I admit, I like a good indie minyan myself. And I have nothing against meaning, or innovation. But I do begin to wonder whether we really need those things—at least as much as we seem to think we do. Or even if we are sure about what they are and where they come from.
Our community has gone from one where elders are revered to one where they are ignored; where meaning seems to be derived from “finding something new to do,” and where innovation replaces commitment. It’s not that I don’t like new tunes, and I always find something new when I study a text (which I admit I prefer to davenning), but it seems to me that we have become hampered by our search for something to stimulate us. We want happiness, but what we seem to reach for instead is distraction.
I wonder what would happen if, instead of looking for new things, the Jewish community started cherishing some of our old things – starting with our elderly. I’d love to see a liberal shul teach their community to rise before their rav (or rabbah) and their aged (just FYI, I don’t work in a synagogue, so this isn’t some personal grandiosity).
What if, instead of “programs,” the shul simply instituted regular study at different intervals (for people who had different schedule-juggling needs) – no more movie-night slichot, but instead an evening of study followed by simple tefilah, maybe with explanations for those who are beginners? What if we asked our communities to make a commitment to some kind of regular out-of-shul meet-ups with other congregants, and to commit to attending weekday services a certain number of times a year? It would probably be different for different communities, but what I’m aiming at is less innovation, less programming, and stripping things down not to basics, but to core.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the warmest, most active shuls I’ve been involved
with are ones that aren’t so interested in inviting the hippest groovy innovator—they’re the ones that keep on rolling in their homely little buildings with active lay people who simply do human things week after week – phone calls and davenning, and bikkur cholim,and dinner together on Shabbat. Ones where there is a commitment to consistency.
It isn’t only toddlers who need repetition to learn and to feel comfortable, and it isn’t only geeky teens who are uninterested in doing something new, just because. I wonder how much of the “search for innovation” is counterproductive, and I wonder if we spent less time on flashy gewgaws, would we actually attract more people—people looking for an alternative to, or at least a supplement to, the highly innovative, always stimulating, constant change of the secular world.
This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.
Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:
“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.
I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.
It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.
Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.
The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.
Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?
A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.
In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.
It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.
Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a Reform rabbi but - the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.
Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.
As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).
I understand how enormously painful this is to many people: I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.
First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—
“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”
Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.
As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.
If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.
Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).
The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.
But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.
I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.
I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved. I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.
I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.
I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.
To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.
It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.
And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.
*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.
I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.
We have to bring more Jews into Jewish Life.
We have to keep the Jewish community strong.
We have to strengthen Jewish identity.
These statements are the mantras of the organized Jewish community. I hear them expressed all the time. And I have a question: Why? Why do we need to do these things?
When I asked this question at a recent conference, blank stares greeted me. The highly intelligent people in the room had never asked themselves this question. They never had to because they already bought in to the system. They liked being Jews, identifying as Jews, and took for granted that when they moved somewhere they would join the local synagogue and JCC. It never occurred to them to ask why they did these things. They just did them. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they wanted to sing out “Tradition, tradition…..”
“Tradition” is no longer an answer that holds weight. We now need to think about what we get out of being Jewish. Each of us needs to ask ourselves, if we belong to a synagogue, or any other Jewish organization, or practice Jewish rituals are home, why do we do these things? What value and meaning do they add to our lives?
For me the answer is clear. I do these things because I want to bring God in to my life. I want to feel close to a higher power. I want to feel loved and cared for. Sometimes I feel that love in deep spiritual moments from God directly, and sometimes I feel that love through the community of friends and family which surrounds me. I am in the Jewish community because I believe and have experienced that life is better when we connect with other humans, when we help each other with the challenges we all face in life. By helping each other, we make the world a better place thus becoming partners with God in the continual creation of the world.
We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity. But we need to talk about what I see as the underlying reason for why we do all of these other things, which is searching out a connection to God.
How would the organized Jewish community look different if we put God front and center?
Even writing this idea causes me to feel anxious because “we” the “Jewish community” don’t speak like this. We tiptoe around the idea of God and even religion.
We need to bring God back in to our conversations. Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish? To be an active participant in a Jewish community? No. Nor do we all need to believe in the same God. But how can we continue to urge people to join a religious community when the topic of God is never raised?
I know critics will say we are more than a religion; we are a people, a tribe. Yes, this is also true. But this people would not have existed if a group had not originally come together in service of God.
So now, where does God fit in? Let’s start this conversation.
I recently read an essay published earlier this year on xoJane that a woman wrote as a paean to her (still living) mother. The essay outlined how her mother saved women from abusive partners, helping with money, or helping them, literally, escape.
The crux of the story, though, isn’t just her mother’s heroism, but how her mother came to it. To the daughter, it was the following anecdote that was at the center:
You know, it’s funny — Cindy was the one who tried to sponsor me for that women’s sorority. I didn’t have many friends here, being from away, and I’d helped her with all these fundraising projects. I thought it would be so much fun to have women friends. And she put my name in at her sorority, but of course I’d been married before and divorced, and that was a black mark against me. Those women turned their noses up and said they didn’t want a woman like me. Cindy cried when she told me, she even resigned over it. Over me.” “So, after that I sort of kept my head down, you know? That had killed what little self-esteem I had; I didn’t have much to begin with. That’s when I decided I couldn’t win. Been born on the wrong side of the tracks and that was just that. Of course, looking back on it today, I wouldn’t have fit in with any of those women anyway. That’s when I quit trying to be social. And not long after that, I guess, women just started coming to me.”
According, at least, to this telling it is the mother’s otherness, her inability to fit into the mold of the good housewife type of the time, which freed her to do the things that other women simply wouldn’t do – like take in women being abused by their husbands to protect them.
The story reminded me a little of my own mother. I had no idea, growing up, that it was at all unusual for a family to have people who weren’t related to you living at your house, just because they needed a place to stay. When a high school friend of mine’s family decided to move back to Texas in the middle of the year and he didn’t want to go, it was our house where he lived until he graduated. When a friend of my sister’s was kicked out of her own house, she lived with my family. I don’t remember thinking anything of it, off at college. That was just what my mother did, along with making jewelry, and hopping on board with the latest appalling health food fad (please, just don’t mention wheat germ or lecithin oil).
The writer of the essay explained that, “As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s ‘otherness.’ She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago.”
It is a natural human tendency to try to “fit in,” and failing at it, or deliberately turning away from what is “normal,” can make one an object of pity, or disgust. Perhaps it’s for that reason that there are so few Jews. Judaism does not only set us apart, it demands our separateness, in our speech, our habits, and in our families. To sanctify is to separate. And it is hard.
But it is also a blessing. To be separate can allow us to see and to do what others are unable to see and do. One who is other can be dangerous, beyond the boundaries of “normal” behavior. On that path can be sociopathy, but it can also be heroism.
Being “outside” is painful. Humans thrive as part of a group, and we need one another. We crave acceptance. But the story from xoJane reminds us that being separate, other, outside - sometimes makes us the ones closest of all to others. When we make that choice to accept and use it.
Recently there has been a rash of articles declaring how stupid American parents have overcoddled their children in all sorts of way, resulting in college students who call to ask their parents for advice daily, college graduates who move back into the parental home – sometimes for years, parents who call their offsprings’ college professors to demand that they should receive higher grades.
The resounding opinion seems to have become that parents are investing too heavily in their children, protecting them from too much, and refusing to let them grow up. Is this true? Are we producing a nation of wimps?
Except for the last of these, which strikes me as Snopes-bait (the over-the-topness combined with the lack of specificity smells strongly of urban legend), I’m going to offer a suggestion: it’s a crock.
It’s not that there aren’t individuals who hop on to ridiculous trends, or that children have less freedom to play on their own and roam around relatively unsupervised, or even a tendency to emphasize “specialness” over achievement. By and large, human beings are resilient enough, even as children, that this makes not that great an impact. What I doubt is the underlying thinking of the idea that caring deeply abut one’s children is divorced from the circumstances in which we live – in which success is more and more difficult to come by, and as we have fewer children, the success of each one counts more, as there are fewer of us to help one another.
But the true underlying thought is a peculiarly American idea – that respect and love for one’s parents is a flaw; that true adult hood means cutting oneself off from one’s family; that advice from one’s elders is a bad thing; that individuals should stand alone. These ideas have become dominant in American society – but they are lies.
Many cultures expect children to live with their families, to ask their parents for advice, to remain in a network of relationships in which to protect one’s circle is of paramount value – including Judaism. Rather than criticize the cell phones for “making” adult children depend upon their parents, we should be examining the society in which we live, where it has become a necessity for us to rebuild natural familial ties with one another. Many people speak of the contract of our society being broken: our businesses take no care for their employees, preferring to work them hard without sufficient compensation, our government and communities fail in caring for the power and powerless; laws favor the wealthy. But if anything, the dependance of children on their parents is a sign of healing, not of harm. Perhaps it is from here that we will once again begin to build communities and a society in which instead of valorizing the self over all others, we will once again begin to value our relationships with others.
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine gleefully forwarded a link to a study that asserted that atheists and agnostics are more motivated by empathy to help others than the religious are. Although this isn’t precisely news (similar reports were made nearly a year before based on three other studies), I wondered why my friend (and others who passed this around) were so pleased by the findings.
I suspect it is in part because our culture valorizes emotion, and in part because this cultural elevating of emotion leads people like my friend to think that less empathy is somehow not as good, that religion, if it is to do any good, must encourage people to be more empathetic.
But I disagree. I cannot speak for other faiths of course, but the sages of Judaism knew their business when they maintained that “a person who is commanded and does receives a greater reward than one who is not commanded and does” (B. Talmud, Bava Kama 87a).
We live in a society that considers personal choice to be the highest value. However, while choice can lead us to making good decisions, and is necessary for us to make moral choices in our interactions with others, more empathy isn’t necessarily better, and indeed it may well be that in terms of moral decision-making, especially moral decision making that involves long-term planning (such as environmental choices that involve personal discomfort over long periods) or large numbers of people – especially people we’ve never met, rule-bound and rational decision-making will lead us to far better decisions.
This week’s New Yorker has a wonderful article that reminds us that empathy works best when we are in one-to-one situations – humans tend to be motivated to feel for babies who fall down wells, children shot in schoolhouses or three women with compelling stories who survived years of torture by a sociopath. Yet our reactions, though well-meaning- to such tragedies may not be useful. We want to do something, and so we send food,clothing, toys – and the towns which don’t need these things are overwhelmed. We organize to send thousands of t-shirts to Africans – thus making a situation worse rather than better by undermining local textile economies with cheap junk, or pass laws that do the opposite of what we would wish to see. The New Yorker article offers these examples:
In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.
Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent. Many of the same kindly strangers who paid for Baby Jessica’s medical needs support cuts to state Medicaid programs—cuts that will affect millions. Perhaps fifty million Americans will be stricken next year by food-borne illness, yet budget reductions mean that the F.D.A. will be conducting two thousand fewer safety inspections
One of the reasons I find this tension compelling is that as a Conservative, female, rabbi, I spend a lot of my time negotiating the tension between halacha, Jewish law, and the need for Jewish societal change.
Halacha by its nature requires us to follow rules, but to be who I am, it’s also necessary to find empathy for people who traditionally have been excluded by tradition, to interpret laws in ways that makes the people more equal but also to interpret law without destroying it. Those laws are the framework by which we measure moral judgements, they should be the framework through which we, as Jews, see the world. Empathy, while important, is not, cannot, and should not be, the only driving force behind a moral decision. I am thankful that the rabbis also valued svara- logical reasoning- as a means of interpretation. But even reason alone is not pure – all of us are living like fish in the water, unable to see the rules and assumptions that go to making up our world, and making decisions based upon those assumptions without even recognizing them as social constructs. Reason thinks it is unaffected by these structures, but the reality is that reason itself is affected by emotion.
There is ultimately no escaping our frameworks – the best we can do is to try to balance them. And what that means is that being human, and being a good Jew, will always mean vastly divergent views on what God demands of us, and how we are to fulfill those demands. But while we are not require to finish the task, neither will we ever be free from struggling with it. And juggling all the parts of our human selves that make it difficult – and make it worthwhile.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.