Film lovers will be familiar with the concept of a “macguffin”—a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, master of mystery and psychological and emotional manipulation. He defines it as a point of focus that is not central to the story, but which drives the complex and layered plot forward.
If I were to create a film of the ever-unfolding mystery of Jewish life in America, the opening scenes would direct us to a particularly Jewish macguffin: the twin troubling questions of who is a Jew and what is a Jew—both of which, in my opinion, have become increasingly irrelevant. Likewise the question “what is our purpose?” because that question is too easily met with the assured response: “to be a light to the nations”—similar to “what is our mission?” which calls for its equally familiar answer: “to heal the world.” Or some similar answers. You can fill in the ones you like best.
I have become increasingly impatient with these questions because I think they misdirect our attention away from far more critical concern. The plot of my cinematic masterpiece would be teased out from the liminal space between these distracting questions, where dwells the somewhat neglected inquiry: how can we best live as Jews? When we put our energy into intellectualizing Judaism, battling over religious or ideological issues in the fragile territory of faith, we run the risk of alienating those who simply want to live their faith as best they can without the shadow of judgment or demographic studies and purveyors of doom over their shoulders.
Rather than elevate us, “Jewish news” too clenches our kishkas. I am saddened by those who draw attention to, and sometimes instigate, differences and difficulties, rather than to the beauty of Jewish life. I am equally saddened by conversations that add and subtract individuals, pressing them into neat columns called “movements” or “unaffiliated”—without spending much time exploring why they made that choice. And then, quite contrary to reason, we divide ourselves worrying about whether we will multiply. And kvetch about it – a lot. The more we engage in boundary-drawing, wall building and hurdle-raising, the less attractive Jewish life can look to both born Jews and those who might want to join this remarkable faith and people.
Considering this, and looking at the last century of Jewish life in America, should we expect different results? It’s a difficult question, because it reminds us that we may have been focusing on the macguffin while the story has been unfolding off-screen. And that means we have to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen these particular points of focus.
I would ask those who pore over demographic studies and declare, with thunder and lightning flashing, that we are at a difficult and critical point in our history, to focus less on quantity and work instead to increase quality, fostering healthy, inclusive Jewish communities.
I would implore those who fight over who is a Jew to welcome all who sincerely professed their allegiance to the faith and the Jewish people. And to those who maintain the mitzvah of being a light to the nations: please continue to light the path for others who are striving to walk in the light.
So, did I just kvetch about kvetching? Yes, I did. So here is another take on it: Let’s stop talking about talking about it—and be it. Get out there and be the best Jews we can be. Not the best purveyors of an ideological point of view, or the best spokesperson for a movement—but just to live as Jews—wherever we are on the spectrum of faith and spirituality—supporting the kahal (community) in every way we can—without judgment, and without fear of being judged. This is the way we chose another way to bring the beauty of Jewish life into full flower. As a mentor once taught me: you can’t jump half-way off a cliff. Let’s jump.
Let’s take a running start—and jump!
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“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
A week after coming home from a month in Israel, my soul remains immersed there. The tension in Israel, charged with fear and worry, can become like a cloak around your shoulders, enveloping you.
After arranging to come home a day earlier than planned, I was lucky to catch one of the last flights out before the temporary shut-down. Some colleagues were significantly delayed—one more stress added to the anxious experience of living in the midst rocket fire. But still, it was nothing compared with the suffering of Israelis living under constant fire in the South, or those whose loved ones were sent to fight in and near Gaza.
When I called the airline to change my ticket, I had a passing and ridiculous superstitious thought—what if I made a decision that put me in harm’s way? In a crisis, especially in the psychological warfare of rocket fire, irrational thoughts happen. I got a grip, emerging with still more sympathy for all the folks living under fire.
But something else remained with me. The airline agent, hearing that I was in Israel, said, “I’d high-tail it out of there right away.” After thanking her for her sympathy, I became protectively defensive of Israel, insisting it was no problem to stay there. My changed plans shouldn’t reflect on Israel, Israelis, or on my personal commitment to being there in support.
With kindness, she replied, “OK, well, keep the faith. No charge for the changed itinerary—after all, you’re in a war zone.” My reaction caught in my throat while I pondered “keeping the faith.” What does that mean in this situation?
We all know the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it’s not so simple. In Israel I heard that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi had told his followers that the IDF didn’t need to defend Israel—if everyone prayed, God would do the work. I was sickened. Didn’t he read the many rabbinic statements about human responsibility in partnership with God in completing the work of creation? Or the ethics taught by our Biblical prophets, often recited in synagogue as haftarah? Our tradition teaches us to repair the world on God’s behalf; empowering us to fight hatred, evil, cruelty, injustice and violence. We have all the tools we need to bring caring, compassion and healing to our world.
I was glad to have been blessed by that airline agent, even though I am guessing my approach to “keeping the faith” isn’t what she meant. It doesn’t matter. When the world feels out of control, there is a very real way to regain agency. Coping with crisis by “keeping the faith” isn’t irrational, superstitious or magical thinking. It’s a way of being, rooted in meaning, transformative and completely empowering.
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Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,'” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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A lot has been made of the new Pew Study on the Jewish population. I am enjoying reading the various blogs and articles about it. It seems every Jewish professional feels the need to weigh in, even before they have read the full report. In many ways I think this is much ado about nothing. As Rachel Gurevitz , in her post here last week so eloquently stated “correlation does not always mean causation.” The numbers are a snap shot of time today, and they reflect the biases of the authors of the questions themselves. They are not portents of the future.
We cannot answer the age old question, “Is Judaism dying out?” based on the numbers in this study. Yet, the hand wringing and moaning continue, particularly from people in the Conservative Movement whose numbers show a deep decline. Dr. Jack Wertheimer, himself a professor at the Conservative Movements flagship institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary is one of the loudest naysayers. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of its Jewish identification.”
Perhaps it is this very negativity that is part of the problem. Stop finding doom and gloom and instead have a little faith..
Yes faith – 75% of people in this study say they believe in God. I wish the social scientists and the handwringers commenting had as much faith as these respondents. I personally have a lot of faith in both God and the Jewish people. If God wants there to be Jews in the world, then there will be Jews in the world. The numbers may go up and down, but we will still exist. It actually is not up to us.
But even if it were up to us, I also have faith in the Jewish people. After all we have survived a long time already. If nothing else, we are an inventive and creative group. The practices of Judaism have changed and will continue to change over the years, but the essence remains, a belief in one God, a focus on family and community, a constant struggle to find ways to make life more meaningful, and the unique ability to simultaneously survive great tragedies like the Holocaust and be known for our humor. We are going to be alright.
Have a little faith.
“Even if the messiah tarries, nonetheless, I believe and wait for him, but peace with Iran? Impossible.” When I asked a group of twenty well educated religious Jewish adults the question, “Can you imagine Iran and Israel making peace,” their unanimous answer was, “No.” Can you imagine peace in the Middle East in your lifetime? Call me crazy, but I can. What can I say, I’m a rabbi, I’m all about faith. I asked the group about Iran because they are largely seen as the most power negative actor in the region (by no means the only one, just the most troublesome). What to do about Iran? Like our congress, I have no idea, still, I believe we will eventually find peace.
Recently, the US Congress considered an increased oil embargo of Iranian oil, to teach them a lesson, to isolate them even further. Even as the Senate voted 100 to 0 to freeze the assets of Iranian Central Bank, they decided against an oil embargo against them. Why? Because even if the intension was to hurt Tehran, the result could very well be a rise in oil prices which actually helps Iranians instead. How to navigate around such a dangerous, crazy, and powerful foe? Again, I have no idea.
So why be hopeful? Again, I am a rabbi, I have a strong proclivity toward faith in a better future. But beyond that, there is a little known secret that keeps me going – pistachios. Israel and Iran have a long history together. I live in Los Angeles, with a large and proud Farsi community. The Tehrangelinos that I know, both Jewish and non-Jewish, religiously observant and not, all take great pride in the the Purim story. The story of Esther and Mordechai draws parallels, if not direct connection to, King Cyrus allowing the Jews back to Israel, and to rebuild the Temple. There is a connection. In fact, there is a tradition that there is a tunnel from Hamedan, Iran, the site of the Persian claimed
tomb of Esther and Mordechai, all the way to Israel (some claim their burial site to be in a forrest near Safed, Israel). Before the Revolution, and into the early 1980’s most of Iran’s weapons were American sold via the Israelis. See, we can play nice together (see Iran-Contra). Have the Israelis broken ties with Iran? They’d have to be nuts, and they are, for pistachios (In fact, there is really fun rumor that the payment for some of the arms were transfered via cheap pistachios). According to an LA Times article, Israel has the largest per-capita pistachio consumption rate in the world. And their greatest supplier? Via third parties, Iran.
Do I really think that Middle Eastern Peace can be settled over nuts? Not really. But here is what I take from the lesson: Be it oil, or pistachios, or major arms deals, or even the even more potent concept so desperately sought by Iran’s majority of young people, freedom – no amount of Government intervention can shut down the back doors to what what people really want. It can take time, it can be difficult, but if it’s not impossible, well, that makes it possible. My concern is that we suffer from a lack of hope. Hope in a human future which is greater than today is perhaps the greatest by-product of a religious outlook on life.
The inability for religiously minded people to believe that there can be peace in the Middle East is to fly in the face of the great Prophets of Israel, and even for the non-religious, it is a stance so defeatist that it is no wonder there is such apathy around the cause of peace. Religious or not, faithful or pragmatic, there can be no progress without the idea of hope. That idea does not reside only with the Iranians, or the Israelis, or the Senate, or any single person. Hope is of the mind and of the soul. I am not so foolish as to imagine that just believing will make peace come (I’ve clicked the heels of my ruby slippers and nothing, so, It’s not like that route hasn’t been tried). I understand it takes work. My contention is with a mindset that says “we have to accept things the way they are.” A lack of hope is a poison.
To my mind, it helps accounts for the epidemic of depression and loneliness that we have become accustomed to in the fast paced age of the 21st century. Regardless of one’s religion, regardless or one’s religious observance of his or her religion, regardless if one even has a religion or not, I believe that hope, a move from darkness to light, is always possible. Ultimately speaking, faith and hope are the enduring purposes of Hanukkah, without a little bit of light, on future that we can only just imagine, we will sink into darkness.