I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
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At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. “Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.