I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:
“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”
Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.
Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?
Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.
Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)
I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.
The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.
Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.
When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:
“In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”
Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.
In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.
In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?
When we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.
I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.
Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”
On one hand, we encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.
The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.
The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.
Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.
When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.
The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.
These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.
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.
Hear from more LGBTQ clergy, including Ariel Naveh, on the Keshet blog.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. But I had no choice. At the time, and until 2007, the Conservative Movement did not allow openly gay students to be ordained, so my sexuality and the life I had built with my girlfriend at the time were hidden behind closed doors. I had a plan in mind: I would get settled, prove myself, and then come out six months into the job and share my life with the community.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. I started working and almost immediately quickly realized the community was one of tremendous honesty and kindness. I couldn’t keep secrets if we were to have a truly holy relationship as rabbi and community. So I came out, first to the senior rabbi and president and then very quickly to everyone else, and I mean everyone: the board, the staff, the religious school volunteer board. I had endless conversations about my sexuality. Looking back on it now, it might have been overkill, but at the time it was what everyone felt was necessary to be forthright and address whatever “issues” people had with the now openly gay rabbi.
It was, I think, the last time I spoke so much about my sexual identity. I remember when I told the then-president of the synagogue, who has since become a trusted friend and wise advisor, over lunch and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, okay – can we order the sushi now?” And that is kind of how I have always felt about this issue: Can we stop talking about this and get back to studying and teaching Torah, creating holy moments at your wedding, bar mitzvah, or when I share the journey at the end of someone’s life? Might we get back to doing the business of helping each other grow in Judaism and learning, in holiness and meaning?
Not everyone was happy with me, of course. A community member once interrupted my Talmud class to tell me I wasn’t talking enough about how hard it was to be gay, chiding me that I had a responsibility to help other gay people by being more vocal. Then there were the other folks – the ones who did not understand why my girlfriend and I held hands as we left services on Shabbat morning—why did I need to be so public? Too gay, not gay enough, either way I was always a troublemaker.
When I am teaching Torah, I am trying share sacred wisdom as a rabbi, period. When I am standing under the huppah with a couple as they join together in a holy union, I am trying to usher in Judaism sacred joy and sanctity. When I sit by a bedside as someone lays dying, I am trying to offer the tradition’s wisdom of comfort and care. I am being a rabbi – a sacred teacher of wisdom, a vessel of Divine holiness and care none of which have anything to do with being gay or straight.
Yet from a young age, I felt different. It took me almost two and a half decades to figure out why. Simply put, being gay feels to me (and has always felt to me) like being a round peg in a square hole – trying to fit in and sometimes squeezing, but never making the perfect fit. In my professional life I feel treated fairly and equally, but I live in a world where I understand what it means to not quite fit in. I know what it’s like to look around and wonder if you have an ally in the room, and what it means to be in a deep and narrow strait and not be sure if you have the strength to break forth to freedom. Perhaps this is where being a gay rabbi is really as much about my sexual identity as my profession – no one has to be able to prove to me how painful it is to be an outsider. I know it from the inside and out and as such have always tried to use this round peg to help others find their place in the wisdom and holiness of Jewish life.
I have a teacher and mentor who taught me the phrase, “it’s a Torah world.” She was trying to explain to us that in each day there is holy wisdom to be found in the world we live in, real life and everyday existence. Jewish wisdom can help people connect not only to the tradition with great sacredness but also to life’s most mundane moments in the deepest of ways. She was so right. It is a Torah world and in that world of holy seeking, being gay has nothing and everything to do with the kind of rabbi I strive to be.
Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity. Continue reading
A number of recent essays have been swimming their way across the blogosphere and seem to have serendipitously swirled together. The Conservative movement, even at its largest and healthiest, has always been, like the Jewish people itself, overly worried about its imminent destruction, so when a young woman asks why men raised in an egalitarian setting, who like her, care about halakha, leave for Orthodoxy, when she cannot do so, when the Pew report seems to indicate shrinkage in the stable Jewish middle, when the once-dean of a Conservative rabbinical seminary writes the movement’s obituary, and when the smirky response to the woman asking how her friends could abandon her is responded to with the claim that it’s her own fault for daring to be equal, cause ya know, men can’t stand to have anyone be equal to them, it makes them expendable, one might expect a flurry of worry from the most worried of all Jewish movements. And there were.
Of course, there were also some very interesting discussions spawned from these articles ( by which, yes, I do mean to imply that I found most—except for the first of these—exercises silly). The one that I found myself most interested in was a discussion of when we lost the idea of obligation, and how important it is to get it back. Not simply for the idea of halakha—but also in terms of obligations to one another, and to our communities, and to God—rather than the pursuit of happiness, that goal that seems to take up so much of Americans’ time, and yet be so fleeting.
And so I invited those people who, like me, are Conservative because we care about halakha, deeply and passionately, and we care about the idea of obligation, in all those ways, to have a conversation about how to revive it: To revive a sense of seriousness about halakha, about egalitarianism, and about obligation, together.
The Conservative movement is my home because these are all things that I cannot do without, and I’m ready to find that core of people—whom I know are there, because I’ve met them and davenned with them, and eaten with them—so that the Conservative movement knows they’re there, too.And I invite you too. If you’re interested, leave a message for me and let’s start talking.
Wow. It has been quite a busy week here at the Rabbis Without Borders blog discussing patrilineal descent and its implications. Rabbi Alana Suskin got the conversation rolling with a personal reflection on some of the struggles she faces as a Conservative rabbi when addressing status issues (marriage, divorce, and especially conversion) because of Reform Judaism’s decision to accept as Jews those whose father is Jewish but mother is not.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg responded that the Reform Movement’s decision to adopt patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of establishing Jewish identity was a strategic mistake because Reform Judaism failed to take into account the toll this decision would take on relations with non-Reform Jewry since Reform Jews do not exist in a vacuum.
Most recently, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posted a response in which she affirmed patrilineal descent as the right thing to do based on an egalitarian ethos, as well as the practical argument that individuals who consider themselves to be Jews, regardless of their conversion status, generally don’t care what rabbis think about their status.
All 3 rabbis have written eloquently and passionately in defense of their positions. And all three have generated a plethora of strident responses, many of which were constructive, in the comments to their posts. It is precisely this passion that I wish to address here. While I am not normally a “meta” person, it does seem worth exploring why the question of who is a Jew generates such vociferous reactions? At a time when all Jewish denominations are striving to increase Jewish engagement and affiliation, why are we so fixated on, and argumentative about, whom we ought to exclude from Judaism?
This debate sometimes has reminded me of the nastiness of the Birther Movement. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the “Movement” sought to disprove President Obama’s citizenship during the 2008 national election by spreading rumors and innuendo about whether he was actually born in Hawaii, and was later revived by Donald Trump during his fleeting candidacy in 2012. And I have a feeling that should Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling of the moment, decide to run for President in 2016, liberals might mount their own birther challenge to the Canadian-born Cruz. What’s the link? Both patrilineality and birther-ism implicate questions of eligibility of inclusion within what is deemed to be a privileged group identity. And both generate not just passionate but vitriolic responses by those who seek to defend their positions on either side of the inclusion divide. But why?
My humble suggestion is that the reason for such sensitivity to the issue of patrilineality, as it was for the birthers, is that we see ourselves as gate-keepers to a tradition where, for the first time since Sinai, anyone can get a key. As Rabbi Gurevitz points out at the end of her piece, all rabbis who work at synagogues are gate-keepers. From Reform to Orthodox, we all have our particular limits for who is in and who is out. Indeed, no denomination is so egalitarian that a person without a Jewish mother or father, who has not converted, is welcomed as a Jew (though, God-willing, such individuals will be welcomed and treated with the dignity we should accord all people). But our role as gate-keepers has been eviscerated in an era where Judaism, along with the world, is now flat.
The floodgates have opened and we are adrift, searching for a lifeboat of control that just isn’t there. We are powerless to prevent non-Jews from adopting Jewish rituals, as the “bar mitzvah” of Madonna’s son recently proved. What’s more, Rabbis and learned laity no longer hold a monopoly on Torah (however we define Torah) because anyone with wifi and an electronic device can gain access to virtually the entire corpus of biblical and Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the scariest realization, for those of us who are rabbis, is that It is becoming less and less clear why the world needs rabbis for the propagation of Judaism.
I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but for me, this paradigm shift is dizzying and disorienting As someone who enjoys the idea of broadening my borders, I often feel as though each time I “boldly” confront (and maybe even transcend) an halakhic, theological, or other border, some of the borders that remain quickly feel ossified and obsolete. It is like buying a Smartphone–the newest model, within a few months, simply becomes outdated.
So how do we handle this shift? Is there a way to address the meta issues without becoming embroiled in the contentious legal debate over who is a Jew? I certainly don’t have the answers (and I welcome your thoughts). But before we respond viscerally in our comments to the next post on patrilineality, I suggest that we start pointing the finger at ourselves, asking why it is that our feelings are so intense when it comes to questions of Jewish status.
This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.
A couple of weeks ago, Yair Rosenberg wrote a thought-provoking article in the online Tablet Magazine, entitled ‘America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats: Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.’
The starting place for the article is a reaction to the lack of critical commentary to a group of clergy going to Washington to bring attention to National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. Imagine, Rosenberg asks, if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington to promote a campaign advocating against abortion. There would, he contends, be an outcry from liberal commentators and politicians about such a religious encroachment on national politics. And yet there did not appear to be any such outcry to the clergy speaking out against gun violence, and the legislative demands that went with it.
Rosenberg goes on to examine what he sees as a double-standard in public response when religious conservatism is expressed in the public square vs religious liberalism. He argues: “In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.”
Ultimately, Rosenberg calls for more honesty and consistency when talking about the role of religion in politics. He makes a good point. As someone born and raised in the UK, where there is no constitutional separation of church and state and yet the country as a whole is far less driven by religiously-based interests, I have always been struck by the extent of religious presence in the public sphere in the USA. Presidential candidates are examined for signs of an authentic religious life, and this seems to matter in political commentary. Over time, I have come to understand the importance of my contributions to public conversation on many issues that have a political dimension – I believe that to abstain from all of these issues is to render ourselves irrelevant.
Legislation is one response to shaping the kind of society we want to live in, but to abstain from bringing one’s religious heritage and wisdom teachings to that conversation is to present Judaism as having nothing to say about daily communal life. And Judaism, especially but not uniquely, has always been a religion that embraced life holistically, with laws and wisdom on how we do business with each other, how we take care of the vulnerable in society, as well as how we pray and celebrate Jewish festivals.
But Rosenberg isn’t arguing for abstention from the political realm. He’s simply asking for equal treatment of those who draw on their understanding of religious wisdom to present more conservative viewpoints as those who present liberal ones. I agree with the general premise – surely we should allow all contributions to stand on their own feet in the public square? And I think they do. That also means that we must be willing to hear all of the responses that we will hear when we voice these opinions. There is no organized cabal that is critiquing one set of religious viewpoints but not another. The kinds of responses we hear tell us something about the society we live in, and the other competing perspectives that are being brought to bear on the same core questions of life and community that clergy, politicians, social workers, teachers, journalists, and private corporations are all addressing in very different ways.
But for me, there is another component to consider when I think about how and when I draw on my understanding of our faith-based wisdom to offer commentary on matters that are currently being debated in the political realm. And here, I believe, there is often but not always a difference between more conservative and more liberal religious voices that shines a light on the juxtaposition of religion and politics in a different way. It is often the case that conservative voices, by their nature, advocate for a more restrictive perspective on a range of issues – a more limited definition of marriage, a more limited view on when life begins and, being conservative in nature, tend to lean toward preserving the status quo.
As a more liberal leaning rabbi, I often find myself asking two different questions: 1) does my faith tradition have wisdom to offer on how I and/or my faith community should act in this situation? 2) what kind of framework in my secular society enables me to achieve 1)? So, for me, I’m going to speak out against more conservative positions on abortion that deny me the right to make choices based on Jewish wisdom. However, the existence of more liberal laws on abortion in this country do not prevent someone, guided by a more conservative faith, from making more restrictive choices. I, personally, guided by Jewish wisdom, am against assisted suicide. But when legislation in the state of Massachusetts was brought up at the last election that considered a way of permitting some form of this, the study and conversation that I had with my congregants both shared and explored the ideas behind Jewish teachings on this topic yet also raised the question of whether our choices based on our beliefs should lead to legislation that limits everyone else in our State to our religiously-informed position.
If someone truly believes that aborting any fetus is murder, and that preventing this is more important than all other considerations, then they will feel compelled to advocate for national, secular laws, that prevent such as act. I can understand why this belief leads to this outcome, but I can also understand why they will face powerful opposition from a large proportion of Americans who do not share their belief. And this, I believe, is where Rosenberg’s call for fairness in treatment is too simplistic. Depending on the issue at stake, a position that makes restrictive choices for all in national legislation demands a different level of scrutiny than a position that is less restrictive (but still allows for individuals to make more restrictive choices).
Another element that plays into these debates, independent of whether a position is liberal or conservative, is whether the issue affects individual freedoms or the community as a whole. And this one is much more complex. In fact, what we often see played out in the political sphere is the framing of an issue in different ways that emphasize these different frameworks. For example, a proponent of gun rights is likely to emphasize their individual rights according to the constitution. A proponent of gun control is likely to argue that some of those individual rights have to be restricted when the effect of exercising them leads to the deaths of innocent victims – a communal framework. Proponents of gay marriage emphasize the civil rights of individuals within our society. Opponents draw on arguments that emphasize their perception of the changes it will bring to society as a whole. In a country that, culturally, heavily emphasizes individual autonomy, political positions that emphasize individual rights tend to play better in the public square. When they don’t it is because the case for the greater good has been powerfully made.
Where does this leave us as clergy contributing to these debates in the public sphere? Ultimately, I believe it leaves us as offering the wisdom that we have gleaned from our faith traditions as useful and legitimate input to the public square. Self-awareness and, perhaps, some humility, will enable us to discern how best to use our voices and understand the larger landscape of which we are just a small part.
Recently a Freshman at Harvard wrote about his first experience at the Harvard Hillel in a op ed to The Harvard Crimson. In his piece, he describes how out of place he felt at the Shabbat dinner table surrounded by a group of Orthodox Jews. As a Reform Jew, he referred to himself as “an endangered species.”
For me this was a painful op ed to read on many levels. I connected to the young man’s sense of “otherness.” Who has not walked in to a room expecting to find people to connect with and felt totally out of place? It is a horrible feeling. Yet, I found his anger at the Orthodox population to be extremely troubling. He gives several examples of where the Orthodox community has behaved badly and used their political clout to harm surrounding communities. In addition, he calls their thinking “medieval” and expressed outrage at how they treat women.
Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews, and I find it increasingly problematic. I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.
I am a Conservative rabbi married to a Reform rabbi. I have had a shockingly large number of people ask me how we manage it. How are we able to talk to each other let alone live together? The answer is, very well, thank you.
I understand the fear of the other. I had never walked in to Reform synagogue until I started dating my husband. I grew up in a house where there was only one right way to do Judaism. I too remember my first Shabbat in college at the Vassar Jewish Union. There was a female rabbinical student, the adviser to Jewish students on campus, leading the prayers, and a fellow female freshman handed me a kipah as I walked in. Shocked, I looked at her and said “Women don’t wear kippot.” She smiled and said, “Yes, they do.” I felt as out of place in that environment as the Harvard student felt in his. Yet, I was open to learning. I was curious about this different way of doing Judaism.
We need to instill this curiosity in the next generation of Jews. There is no one way to do Judaism. And though there are differences between us, we are all part of one family. I know it is often hard for families to get along. We are sometimes too close to one another. And in my work, I have found that intra-faith dialogue can be much more difficult that inter-faith dialogue. But it is time for us, all of us, in every denomination of Judaism to step up and introduce our children to each other.
Walking in to Hillel that first Shabbat on campus, freshman should be prepared to meet members of their extended family. They should know that their cousins may look different, dress different, and talk different, but we are all Jews and all connected to one another. Bashing each other is not the answer.