If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still picture the expression on her face. My breath catches in my throat. I remember the tiny sob that escaped as I tried to say, “Amen.”
Two weeks ago, I experienced a spiritually charged moment in synagogue. In my experience, that’s pretty rare. Like many people I know, I enjoy the social aspect of attending synagogue and endure the lengthy services and sermons. I feel closer to God in silent mediation.
However, on the morning of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah, every word of the morning prayers seemed to be infused with divine energy. Dalia has autism and is non-verbal; she cannot communicate with words what this moment meant to her. Still, her excitement was palpable throughout the service. It was unlike any Bat Mitzvah and just like every Bat Mitzvah I’ve attended, only more so: more joy, more crying, more coming together as one community.
Dalia’s mother, Rebecca, and I forged a friendship when she approached me more than a year ago. She thought my input both as a mother and rabbi would help her as she designed a ceremony that would accommodate her daughter’s special needs. I’ll never forget our first lunch meeting; Rebecca brought a legal pad filled with notes and questions that she had essentially already answered. I reassured her that she knew, better than anyone, what Dalia could learn and achieve.
Two weeks ago, after countless hours of preparation and endless attention to detail, including several rehearsals, Dalia showed just what she was capable of doing. Using her communication device that was programmed with visual supports/prayers from Gateways’ resources and wired to the synagogue’s sound system, Dalia sang the blessings before and after she signed the Shema as her Torah reading: “Praised are you, God, Giver of the Torah.” The congregation of more than 150 honored guests answered, “Amen.”
As a mother, I know what this rite of passage meant to Rebecca. We both want our children to feel they have a place in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. As a teacher, I share Rebecca’s belief that “kids with autism are so capable, it just takes time and patience to help them succeed in their own way.” Each of us strives to fulfill the biblical instruction, “Teach a child according to her path; she will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One reason Rebecca encouraged media coverage of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah is she hopes that parents of children with autism who Google “autism” and “bat mitzvah” will see Dalia, will see what can be possible for their children to accomplish.
I also have hopes. I hope to see Dalia, and other kids with autism, in our synagogues all the time. I hope to see articles about their b’nai mitzvah in my Facebook newsfeed all year, not only during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. I hope to experience more joy, and more crying, as each child finds his or her path to Torah.
The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.
As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.
As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.
After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”
These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.
When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.
“Wear red lipstick when you meet with him,” warned a grad student. I only vaguely understood what she meant. The man in question was a revered academic scholar. His taking time to meet with a lowly undergraduate was an honor. His advanced years and disheveled fashion clouded my naïve ability to see him as a sexual predator. But after he began calling me sweetheart, asking me to sit up in the front row during class, and putting his hands on my thighs under the table, the meaning of her warning became crystal clear. I always wore lipstick and stopped going to closed door meetings.
The arrest and charging of Rabbi Barry Freundel was a terrible shock to most. But in reading some of the first-person accounts of encounters with Freundel, a pattern has emerged of a man whose abuse of power was not entirely unknown but never publicly challenged. From Toronto, in the county in which I grew up and love, similarly the story of Jian Ghomeshi, a former rock star turned popular radio host, has uncovered tales of years of abuse and exploitation spoken about quietly and never explicitly published or charged.
Reading these now public accounts has opened up floodgates of personal memory and laid open the implicit challenge that comes when men in power abuse or harass women, in particular young or vulnerable ones. And having grown up in and become a professional in the inner circles of the Jewish community, the memories and stories come from inside our “kodosh kodoshim,” our holiest of places and institutions.
When I was 19, I was invited to a high-level meeting of my student group being held in the Old City in Jerusalem. As Shabbat descended, I found myself in a small private bedroom where the only other female leader was sleeping soundly. I was flattered that our executive director had sought me out to discuss some of the upcoming business; I was political, ambitious and believed in the causes we were activists for. But at some point he began undoing the zipper on my dress and pushing me down on the bed. I told him to cut it out but that was only mildly effective. I remember my confusion. Young and sexually inexperienced, I was not attracted to this man. He was someone I respected. I did not want to wake my roommate. He told me not to fuss. The Shabbat siren wailed; my roommate woke and we went to pray. Over the mechitzah, he continued to leer at me and my confusion turned to anger.
At dinner, I made sure not to be seated with him, but at some point when he made a comment about changing that, I stood up and said before all assembled that I had not come to be physically or religiously pressured. All conversation stopped. I looked a fool, I am sure, but the harassment stopped there.
I was proud of myself. I felt empowered. But it was no easy feat. No one, not even the other female on the board, ever asked about my outburst. This was not surprising. At other retreats I had seen board members stick their penises in the faces of sleeping friends, and others prey on underage girls. Sexualization and harassment were part of the culture, and if I wanted to play in the big leagues I had to be strong enough to deal with it. So as hard as it was, I internally spun the story as one of pride for my ability to talk up, playing down the utter humiliation and isolation.
My brashness came in no small part from an understanding of my self worth (thanks to my ima for that) and the Jewish values that were part of the same education package the men I knew had grown up with. But there was also a piece that I would come to understand only with time. The stakes were low and the violation, while upsetting, relatively minor. I had little to lose by speaking up. The harassment, while troubling, had not crossed in my mind that imaginary line that often makes the shame too hard to overcome for the sake of reporting. This man, while in a position of power, was of increasingly little consequence in my life and I did not worry about direct retribution. And finally, I was young and still not fully aware that holding men accountable for abuse of power could and often does have repercussions that can add layers of trauma.
I wish I could say that that is the end of this story. Through the years I’ve supported women who have had to sit and watch their rapists lead tefillot, or suffer as their abusers are celebrated as among the great Jewish leaders. I personally have had to face inappropriate behavior from men in the Jewish community. Sometimes I’ve spoken out, and sometimes not. I’ve avoided some very bad situations because even when women don’t speak up publicly they share information quietly. With the help of this informal network, I’ve avoided getting into elevators alone with particular men. I’ve chosen not to engage in conversations with certain men or pursue specific opportunities.
The good men of the Jewish world far outweigh those who abuse their power. But abuses, small and large, exist and come at a cost. Women rarely have the opportunity to speak up and push back, for when we do, we risk at best being told that we are too sensitive (what I was once told by a colleague when I objected to being told to “stop acting like a wife”) or at worst that we brought it on ourselves (what I was told when I recounted the Old City story to a loved one). We risk being labeled as difficult, getting a reputation as too outspoken or jeopardizing employment if we challenge the wrong people. Sometimes we walk away from the Jewish world, because it is just too hard to live in close quarters with those who betray our trust or because the values that are supposed to come from the holiest place are the same ones that are used to overlook deplorable behavior.
As I watch a new generation of young women begin to take their places in the Jewish world, I wish for them more safety and less exploitation. But barring that, I pray that they have the strength to find the support that they need when they need it, so that they remain safe and holy in body and spirit. In lieu of protection I cannot guarantee, I offer this advice: take the rumors to heart. No level of observance, power, or privilege is immune to men who exploit their manhood. And if bad things happen, do not blame yourselves. It is not your fault. You did not bring it on yourselves. You are holy, created in the image of God. No one has the right to treat you otherwise.
If you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep. starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.
The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theory, science and religion.
Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.
Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”
Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”
That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.
Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.
So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties': enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”
That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.
If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jews—and will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.
One of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).
Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.
So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havruta—and Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.
After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”
A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first time—perhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.
Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"—or "rabbi" means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]
So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”
Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.
The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”
Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itself—through censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell you—especially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the tradition—even about political problems.
It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinion—there never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so on—we always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.
But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truth—but silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.
Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, that way lies only death, and madness.
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In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)
A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”
I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.
The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.
In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.
But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.
Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.
I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.
Speakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.
The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.
To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other. But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.
But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.
As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.
Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)
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Can a 6’5’’, 310 pound man be bullied? Prior to this week, many of us probably thought such a question to be absurd. But the recent allegations surrounding the treatment of Jonathan Martin, a 24 year-old right tackle for the Miami Dolphins, should cause all of us to take a step back and reassess the complexity of power relationships.
The drama surrounding Martin grows more surreal each day. He left his team after a lunchroom hazing incident and checked himself into a treatment facility for emotional distress. Then a voicemail message from his teammate and fellow offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, surfaced in which Incognito berated Martin with racial slurs (including the use of the N-word), death threats, and physical threats against Martin’s mother. Additional allegations surfaced involving physical, verbal, and financial hazing by Incognito and others against Martin. Incognito, who was kicked off two teams in college and was voted the NFL’s dirtiest player in the past, has been suspended by the team.
Incredibly, rather than rallying in support of Martin, many of Martin’s teammates, and other NFL players, have at least partially blamed Martin! As Antrel Rolle, a safety on the New York Giants, put it:
“Was Richie Incognito wrong? Absolutely. But I think the other guy is just as much to blame as Richie, because he allowed it to happen. At this level, you’re a man. You’re not a little boy. You’re not a freshman in college. You’re a man.”
As a football fan, a parent, and a rabbi, I am appalled by the harassment Martin was forced to endure and even more appalled by those who fault Martin for breaking a code of silence or for not being “man” enough to retaliate physically. Many in the media rightfully have been quick to vilify Incognito and decry the destructive machismo of the football locker room. I am glad that Incognito, and the racist, homophobic, “warrior man” culture he embodies is being addressed. Yet Martin is a multi-millionaire adult with a degree from Stanford. Whether or not he plays football again, I believe he has the resources to come out of this ordeal and go on to lead a healthy, productive life.
But what about all those who are bullied yet lack the support systems or resources to cope with its destructive impact? What about the 15 year-olds like Jordan Lewis of Chicago, who killed himself because he couldn’t tolerate the bullying in his school? Or Rebecca Sedwick, the Florida teen who jumped to her death from a silo because she couldn’t handle the onslaught of online bullying from fellow teenagers, one of whom responded to her death by posting on Facebook: “”Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a f—k.”?” I could go on and on, but instead I urge you to just google “teen” “bullied” and “suicide”: the sheer number of hits, of lives lost to bullying, is sickening.
So where do we go from here?
The ugly truth is that we all have some Richie Incognito inside of us. In our various relationships with others, there are times when we have relatively more power than others and a temptation to exploit that power for our personal gain. We don’t like to admit this. How often do we look in the mirror and point the finger at ourselves, at how we conduct ourselves in our own “locker rooms?” Even where we are not the actual perpetrators of bullying, how often do we permit a permissive bullying culture to persist around us? ADL and others have developed incredible resources for combating bullying, including resources for families to use with one another. It is incumbent upon us, as rabbis, parents, teachers, and members of a community where our youth are essential to our survival and prosperity, to shine a spotlight on the permissive culture of bullying and demand that we change. We need to insist that our religious schools, youth groups, and other fora where vulnerable and impressionable children and teenagers find themselves are safe spaces. We need to affirm, not marginalize, their value as unique and special human beings is affirmed. We need to be vigilant against “just letting things slide,” or minimizing the impact of harmful words or actions. The Talmud (BT Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.” We all have the potential to shed this blood, but we also have the potential–and the obligation–to ensure that this blood is no longer spilled.
You might also be interested in: Should a Known Bully Be Allowed to Become a Bar Mitzvah?
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.
On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.
But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner. Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.
One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys. As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity. Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious. And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth. I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give. So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.
A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” “do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.