Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.
It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling. We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading
So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?
Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?
But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.
Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.
I’m going to be busy this coming week. I’m heading to Israel, England, Iran, Canada, China and Jamaica. There will be music, exotic foods, late night parties and lots and lots of learning. My passport is ready, because on Sunday, I head off to Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jewish camps are a cornerstone of Jewish life. And in many ways they all build on a similar set of ingredients. In our day to day lives we exist in multiple communities in multiple settings. At camp, we exist in one community and come together with a focus on Jewish identity. So while we swim, hike and sing, we are able to look around and know what we share.
Much of that holds true at Camp Be’chol Lashon, but instead of setting aside our multiple identities, we embrace and celebrate them, making them the focus of our Jewish conversation and connection. Camp Be’chol Lashon takes the diversity of the Jewish people as our starting point. Each day the camp “travels” to a different country using our camp passports to record our impressions as we experience Jewish life around the globe through art, music, dance and crafts. These explorations not only teach us about the traditions of Indian or Ugandan Jews, for example, but also provide the platform from which we launch conversations about complex contemporary issues such as living as a minority in a majority culture or the place of tradition in keeping a community strong.
The campers at Be’chol Lashon come from around the world and from right in our neighborhood. Their racial backgrounds and personal histories are as varied as those of the Jewish communities that we “visit” each day. In many settings Jews of Color have to choose which part of their identities they will put forward and which they will leave at the proverbial door. At Camp Be’chol Lashon, they have the opportunity to be their full selves in a community that celebrates racial and ethnic heritage and the reality of modern Jewish life.
Jewish camps are treasured places but all too often they are seen as places that inoculate Jews against the complexities of the broader world. At Camp Be’chol Lashon we embrace the complexity, for not only does it represent the reality that most of our young people encounter, it represents the world that they will grow into. By grounding their vision of their Jewish selves in the complexity, we hope to prepare them to lead us into the Jewish future.
There is an old joke about the itinerant maggid (preacher) who would go from town to town and give a public sermon. He was a passionate speaker and developed quite a reputation. The only problem was that he had only one good sermon for Parashat (Torah portion of) Korach. This was quite troubling as he was asked to speak in many towns on different weeks of the year and the expectation was he would speak on the weekly Parashah.
So what would he do? As he began his talk, he would “accidentally” knock his Bible off the lectern, bend down to retrieve it and declare, “Oy, the earth has swallowed up the book which reminds me of when Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the earth”, and proceed to give his Korach sermon.
To rehash the role and importance of memory in Judaism is not needed. However, there is a quality of “which reminds me” that is a staple of traditional Jewish life. This is true of our sacred texts. It is quite common in Talmudic literature to see later debates being described as manifestations of earlier ones. Debates about particular issues are analyzed in what might first appear as not easily related other debates. There is a mode of thinking that draws on the tradition and earlier contexts. While you are a voice in the discussion, you are only a voice. The conversation requires many voices over time. Your creative input is welcomed and desired in the broader context.
Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.
The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.
Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.
Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.
The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?
It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.
Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.
Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”
Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.
Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.
Last week, I was having a conversation about the future of Judaism at an informal gathering of Jewish professionals, Jews who work for various Jewish institutions. One man stated, “I have dedicated my life to working for the Jewish people and educating the next generation, but it’s all for nothing. Within a couple of generations, only Orthodox Jews will be left.” I was jarred by his assertion and countered that I too have dedicated by life to working for the Jewish people, but am quite convinced of the opposite. I believe that liberal Judaism, non-Orthodox Judaism, is experiencing a renaissance.
In my work at Rabbis Without Borders at Clal, I am privileged to work with talented and creative rabbis, from all streams of Judaism. These rabbis are a diverse group. They span the age range of early thirties to mid sixties, represent different geographical regions of America, and have different kinds of rabbinates. In fact, about 50% of the rabbis are not in pulpits. They are working in Hillels on university campuses, in day schools, in non-profits, and in their own independent projects. While many in the Jewish community moan about the drop in membership rates at traditional synagogues, very few people are paying attention to the numerous new ways rabbis are reaching people. Their creativity takes my breath away.
Using traditional Jewish texts and liturgy, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rabbi Andrew Hahn are each creating distinctive new ways for Jews to express their spirituality through meditative chanting. Their musical styles are different and unique. Shefa builds harmonious chants which can be sung over and over in a meditative style. Andrew’s chants are based on the call and response style of Indian Kirtan chanting. Both are beautiful expressions of Jewish liturgy and faith. Both are gaining traction and appealing to Jews and non Jews alike looking for spiritual uplift.
Rabbi Laura Baum has created an online community at www.ourjewishcommunity.org. It is a first of its kind. While some question the impact an online experience can have in someone’s life, Rabbi Baum relates stories of how her community brings people together. She brought tears to my eyes when she read a letter from a woman thanking her for broadcasting a Rosh Hashanah service on the web. The woman wrote about how she was feeing lonely at work on Rosh Hashanah. So she searched the web for some kind of service or something Jewish to connect to and came across the live stream of Rabbi Baum’s service. Since it was about time for the shofar service, she called her mother on the other side of the country and together they listened to the shofar being blown. Without this experience, neither one of these women would have connected to the Jewish community that day, and they would have missed a powerful moment of connection with each other.
Rabbis are also finding new avenues for Jewish expression that are not necessarily spiritually based. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, who also writes for this blog, explores the intersection between Judaism and science in his writing and teaching. We need liberal rabbis like him who can grapple with traditional text and use them to shed light on biomedical issues and ethical concerns that arise today. Inspired by the Jewish call for social justice, Rabbi Alana Suskin has been a major leader in the Occupy DC and Occupy Judaism protests. Social action continue to be an extraordinarily meaningful way for liberal Jews to connect with their Jewish tradition and to build community with one another. Look at the number of Jews who attended Kol Nidrei services at the Occupy Wall Street protests this past fall. The thousand Jews who were there showed up because this was an expression of their Judaism. Many of them would not have shown up at a synagogue.
This is just a small sample of the innovations I have witnessed in the past few years through Rabbis Without Borders. Far from dying, I think liberal Judaism is stretching itself in new ways. According to a report by Jumpstart there has been a record number of Jewish start ups, over 600 initiatives serving more than half a million people across North America founded in the past ten years, the Jewish Innovation Economy. This is incredible.
I cannot tell you what liberal Judaism will look like in a couple of generations. It may look very different than it looks today. But I do know that it will continue to exist and even flourish. Liberal Jews will continue to have synagogues, since synagogues have been and will always be important places to gather to learn and pray just as churches are in this country. But liberal Judaism will also take place in a variety of other settings too: on line, in retreat centers, in people’s homes and in public venues. I for one am very excited to see what the next few decades bring.
In addition, it is my hope and prayer that the vast divide that seems to be growing between liberal and more traditional Jews is bridged. In his column this week, Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote an article highlighting the lack of communication between liberal and Orthodox Jews. He calls upon both communities to talk to each other more, “There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?” I could not agree more. Some of the most amazing experiences we have had among the rabbis in our Rabbis Without Borders gatherings are when the stereotypes we have of each other break down.
If my colleague who declared that liberal Judaism was dying out could be in dialogue with the rabbis and communities I have worked with, he would have a greater understanding of the richness and creativity inherent in liberal Judaism. He may not like all of the new developing trends, but I think he would have to agree that these communities are living and growing Judaism. We are strong, and we will continue to go from generation to generation.