The topic of patrilineal descent has been discussed recently by three fellow Rabbis Without Borders. I find myself agreeing with Rabbis Suskin, Greenberg and Gurevitz in part and disagreeing with each in part.
Rabbi Gurevitz is surely correct in that the Reform movement affirmed patrilineal descent “because it was the right thing to do” — for itself, in the context in which it operates and according to the principles that it holds dear. Yet Rabbis Greenberg and Suskin are also correct that this decision has at times caused difficulties for Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.
To be clear, no one in this discussion is challenging the right of a particular community to define its own practices and membership. Difficult conversations arise and difficult decisions have to be made because none of the movements in American Judaism exists in a vacuum. Rabbi Suskin and Rabbi Greenberg, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, both note in their blog posts that they were raised in the Reform movement and are grateful for the experiences they had in that community when they were younger.
Rabbi Gurevitz is correct that the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent was not the first and is not the only instance of complications and questions about Jewish status. Many Orthodox rabbis don’t accept conversions performed by more liberal Orthodox rabbis, let alone by non-Orthodox rabbis. And although we Conservative rabbis don’t go around advertising the fact, we don’t always or automatically accept every conversion done by colleagues to our left either. This in and of itself is not a problem. It becomes problematic only when “borders” are crossed — a Reform-raised patrilineal Jew seeks to have a Conservative rabbi officiate at her wedding, a young man whose mother had a Conservative conversation becomes involved in the Orthodox community at his college’s Hillel.
I started rabbinical school in 1982 so I still remember the hubbub in 1985 when Rabbi Irving Greenberg famously asked “Will There Be One Jewish People By The Year 2000”? The Year 2000 has come and gone, and the fact that we are even having this discussion proves in a way that we are still one people. Very few Jews are disturbed that they can’t take communion at a Catholic church. Precisely because the borders between Jewish communities are still porous, because Jews are raised in one community but wish to join another as adults, because neither Reform Jews nor Orthodox Jews consider a Reform/Orthodox wedding an “intermarriage,” we on occasion have unfortunate situations where problems or questions arise about Jewish identity. Whatever one may think about the original wisdom of the Reform movement’s decision to accept patrilinearity, that horse has long since left the barn and is not going back inside it. Any rabbi should be delighted when a young man or woman identifies as a Jew, seeks to participate in their community, wants to marry another Jew.
I would love to see all rabbis of whatever community make the following two commitments:
1.) We will explain, accurately and without contempt, the practices and standards of communities not our own. No one who is raised in any of our communities should be surprised to get to a college campus and find that there might be a question about their Jewish status in another community.
2.) When encountering a person who identifies as a Jew but doesn’t meet the standards for identity of our community, we will not tell them “you are not Jewish.” We will respect and acknowledge their self-identification as a Jew, embrace them as someone who shares our faith and fate, and seek to resolve these issues with compassion and empathy.
Wow. It has been quite a busy week here at the Rabbis Without Borders blog discussing patrilineal descent and its implications. Rabbi Alana Suskin got the conversation rolling with a personal reflection on some of the struggles she faces as a Conservative rabbi when addressing status issues (marriage, divorce, and especially conversion) because of Reform Judaism’s decision to accept as Jews those whose father is Jewish but mother is not.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg responded that the Reform Movement’s decision to adopt patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of establishing Jewish identity was a strategic mistake because Reform Judaism failed to take into account the toll this decision would take on relations with non-Reform Jewry since Reform Jews do not exist in a vacuum.
Most recently, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posted a response in which she affirmed patrilineal descent as the right thing to do based on an egalitarian ethos, as well as the practical argument that individuals who consider themselves to be Jews, regardless of their conversion status, generally don’t care what rabbis think about their status.
All 3 rabbis have written eloquently and passionately in defense of their positions. And all three have generated a plethora of strident responses, many of which were constructive, in the comments to their posts. It is precisely this passion that I wish to address here. While I am not normally a “meta” person, it does seem worth exploring why the question of who is a Jew generates such vociferous reactions? At a time when all Jewish denominations are striving to increase Jewish engagement and affiliation, why are we so fixated on, and argumentative about, whom we ought to exclude from Judaism?
This debate sometimes has reminded me of the nastiness of the Birther Movement. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the “Movement” sought to disprove President Obama’s citizenship during the 2008 national election by spreading rumors and innuendo about whether he was actually born in Hawaii, and was later revived by Donald Trump during his fleeting candidacy in 2012. And I have a feeling that should Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling of the moment, decide to run for President in 2016, liberals might mount their own birther challenge to the Canadian-born Cruz. What’s the link? Both patrilineality and birther-ism implicate questions of eligibility of inclusion within what is deemed to be a privileged group identity. And both generate not just passionate but vitriolic responses by those who seek to defend their positions on either side of the inclusion divide. But why?
My humble suggestion is that the reason for such sensitivity to the issue of patrilineality, as it was for the birthers, is that we see ourselves as gate-keepers to a tradition where, for the first time since Sinai, anyone can get a key. As Rabbi Gurevitz points out at the end of her piece, all rabbis who work at synagogues are gate-keepers. From Reform to Orthodox, we all have our particular limits for who is in and who is out. Indeed, no denomination is so egalitarian that a person without a Jewish mother or father, who has not converted, is welcomed as a Jew (though, God-willing, such individuals will be welcomed and treated with the dignity we should accord all people). But our role as gate-keepers has been eviscerated in an era where Judaism, along with the world, is now flat.
The floodgates have opened and we are adrift, searching for a lifeboat of control that just isn’t there. We are powerless to prevent non-Jews from adopting Jewish rituals, as the “bar mitzvah” of Madonna’s son recently proved. What’s more, Rabbis and learned laity no longer hold a monopoly on Torah (however we define Torah) because anyone with wifi and an electronic device can gain access to virtually the entire corpus of biblical and Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the scariest realization, for those of us who are rabbis, is that It is becoming less and less clear why the world needs rabbis for the propagation of Judaism.
I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but for me, this paradigm shift is dizzying and disorienting As someone who enjoys the idea of broadening my borders, I often feel as though each time I “boldly” confront (and maybe even transcend) an halakhic, theological, or other border, some of the borders that remain quickly feel ossified and obsolete. It is like buying a Smartphone–the newest model, within a few months, simply becomes outdated.
So how do we handle this shift? Is there a way to address the meta issues without becoming embroiled in the contentious legal debate over who is a Jew? I certainly don’t have the answers (and I welcome your thoughts). But before we respond viscerally in our comments to the next post on patrilineality, I suggest that we start pointing the finger at ourselves, asking why it is that our feelings are so intense when it comes to questions of Jewish status.
This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.
This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.
Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:
“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.
I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.
It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.
Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.
The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.
Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?
A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.
In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.
It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
Recently a Freshman at Harvard wrote about his first experience at the Harvard Hillel in a op ed to The Harvard Crimson. In his piece, he describes how out of place he felt at the Shabbat dinner table surrounded by a group of Orthodox Jews. As a Reform Jew, he referred to himself as “an endangered species.”
For me this was a painful op ed to read on many levels. I connected to the young man’s sense of “otherness.” Who has not walked in to a room expecting to find people to connect with and felt totally out of place? It is a horrible feeling. Yet, I found his anger at the Orthodox population to be extremely troubling. He gives several examples of where the Orthodox community has behaved badly and used their political clout to harm surrounding communities. In addition, he calls their thinking “medieval” and expressed outrage at how they treat women.
Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews, and I find it increasingly problematic. I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.
I am a Conservative rabbi married to a Reform rabbi. I have had a shockingly large number of people ask me how we manage it. How are we able to talk to each other let alone live together? The answer is, very well, thank you.
I understand the fear of the other. I had never walked in to Reform synagogue until I started dating my husband. I grew up in a house where there was only one right way to do Judaism. I too remember my first Shabbat in college at the Vassar Jewish Union. There was a female rabbinical student, the adviser to Jewish students on campus, leading the prayers, and a fellow female freshman handed me a kipah as I walked in. Shocked, I looked at her and said “Women don’t wear kippot.” She smiled and said, “Yes, they do.” I felt as out of place in that environment as the Harvard student felt in his. Yet, I was open to learning. I was curious about this different way of doing Judaism.
We need to instill this curiosity in the next generation of Jews. There is no one way to do Judaism. And though there are differences between us, we are all part of one family. I know it is often hard for families to get along. We are sometimes too close to one another. And in my work, I have found that intra-faith dialogue can be much more difficult that inter-faith dialogue. But it is time for us, all of us, in every denomination of Judaism to step up and introduce our children to each other.
Walking in to Hillel that first Shabbat on campus, freshman should be prepared to meet members of their extended family. They should know that their cousins may look different, dress different, and talk different, but we are all Jews and all connected to one another. Bashing each other is not the answer.
President Obama’s comments on gay marriage provoked much comment and consternation. In the Jewish world, while one national Democratic leader endorsed it under a rubric of tikkun olam, others reacted publicly against it. Both the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel issued short but forceful statements against the President.
Adding to the mix were two additional responses in the Orthodox community. One was an article in Tablet by a law professor and the other a petition of Orthodox Jews who were disappointed by the statements of the Orthodox Union and Young Israel. As the petition stated: “However, we remind the OU and NCYI that same-sex civil marriage is a legal and not a religious issue.” Professor Levin in Tablet wrote:”For good reason, then, American Jews and Orthodox Jews in particular are usually reticent about imposing our religious values and views on others….Same-sex marriage does not threaten any aspect of Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs or practices. Orthodox Jews should decide whether or not to support it on purely neutral, secular terms, and we should reconcile ourselves to our detachment from mainstream culture just as we always have.”
I am not going to enter into the fray of the gay marriage debate. However what I do fine striking in the Professor’s and petition’s response is the retreat from having Judaism say anything about this question to the broader American community.
As a participant in RWB, one challenge made very clear to us was that Judaism and the wisdom of our tradition has much to offer beyond the borders of our community. While I am personally very committed to defining appropriate borders and maintaining real ritual and social boundaries, is this retreat from a public discussion of this question really the way to go? While one may disagree with the formulations of the Orthodox Union and NCYI, is not a definition of marriage a serious moral question that our tradition has much to address? Would we exhibit the same reticence to discuss our understanding of tzedakah, Shabbat, stem cell research, and medical ethics in the public square? Are we embarrassed to acknowledge the genuine conflict between our tradition and this gay marriage question? Do we feel our moral voices do not in this case fall on the side of our tradition and so we radically divide Judaism from the society in which we live in order to simultaneously maintain our Jewish and moral commitments?
What do you think?
I’m writing this post in Boston, where I’m attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), but its roots are in Austin, Texas.
Though you’d never guess it from our name, the CCAR is the rabbinical arm of the Reform Movement. Our name is a reminder of Isaac Mayer Wise‘s dream to create set of institutions to serve American Judaism that would transcend denominational labels: they would be, simply, “American.”
That’s not how it turned out, of course. American Judaism organized around denominations, and they defined the religious landscape for most of the twentieth century. Jews who belonged to synagogues often chose those synagogues based on their denomination. Reform Jews sought out Reform temples; Orthodox Jews congregated in Orthodox shuls; and Conservative Jews found their way to Conservative synagogues. Reconstructionism was a later addition, founded to transcend the labels but “denominationalized” in due time. Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanism, Open Orthodoxy…. the list goes on.
What follows is a personal observation, and not any grand statement about the need for movements: these denominational lines feel less important to me now than they did when I began my own rabbinate. In recent years, I’ve intentionally sought out opportunities to cross them, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and of course in my fellowship at Rabbis Without Borders. My rabbinate has been enriched by these experiences, and by the relationships I’ve forged with rabbis who didn’t attend my seminary or who don’t serve in my movement.
Which brings me to Austin, and to Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW keynote address. Last Thursday, the Boss referenced “denominationalism” in the world of popular music, running through a list of dozens of sub-genres of rock music, to comedic effect, and ending with ”then just add ‘neo’ or ‘post’ to everything I said.”
Later in the talk, he offered a loving critique of musicians’ tendencies to get hung up on labels:
We live in a post-authentic world. Today authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history, and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.
As I hear it, in light of that earlier riff on genre, Springsteen means by “authenticity” the tendency among musicians and their fans to hang only with people in their own “denomination.” He is commenting on the way people sneer at “sell-outs” or “crossover” artists. Forget the labels, he’s saying; just listen to the music. When the lights go down, does it have power and purpose?
Back to Boston, and to this gathering of Reform rabbis. For me, the highlights of the conference so far have involved studying with Nehemiah Polen and Arthur Green. Later today I’ll be forced to make an excruciating choice between learning with Or Rose or Ebn Leader, who are up against each other in the same time slot (as is Harold Kushner!). None of these teachers would be labeled “Reform;” all of them are drawing good crowds of my Reform colleagues.
These are my teachers, and I’m not so concerned with how they label themselves, which seminary bestowed the title “Rabbi” upon them, or where they currently teach. When the lights go down, they’re bringing some pretty great Torah…and that’s what matters.
The expression “black hat” denotes Jews who are extremely observant in their religious practices. They wear black fedora hats on special occasions, including the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Some come from Hasidic families, but many do not. They are somewhere between Modern Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. The men dress this way to show respect to their past and uniformity in their community.
My sister and I both grew up in a traditional Jewish family in the Bronx with our Polish immigrant extended family. She found her observant lifestyle in Israel while working and living there in the early 1970s. Now, nearly forty years later, her family has blossomed to include nine children and 27 grandchildren.
As I stood amidst the sea of black hats and dresses, I asked myself yet again, “Why all the black on such joyous occasions?”
I learned that the medieval church and state demanded that Jews wear black at all times. At that time, European countries generally decreed so-called “sumptuary” laws (the Latin word sumere refers to spending or consuming). These laws required each social class in the feudal system to wear clothes appropriate to its rank. Hence, the upper class wore gaudy clothes of many colors and ornamented profusely. By law, Jews were non-persons and had to wear black clothes so they could be immediately identified.
Black clothes are also known to Jews as an expression of divrei yirat shamayim, “fearing heaven.” To some Jews, life is very serious, and the Jew is always conscious of his relationship to God. Black is worn so as to avoid frivolity. Black is a statement of values.
As I surveyed the invited guests, I realized that though everyone looks similar, they are as unique as you and I. I knew many of these guests, and I saw that their outer clothing did not hide their true beings. In Jewish tradition, what makes an individual is not the clothing but the character.
My family is part of a community of people that all dress the same. There is only one way to stand out: You have to be original not with your clothing but in your character. You are judged not by what you wear but by how you treat people. Fashion statements come and go; what is hip today may not be hip tomorrow.
I wore my black dress and black shoes in deference to their tradition. I didn’t stand out. I blended in with my beautiful nieces and nephews. I actually felt safe doing so.
I hope my character was my defining essence. I am okay with that.
Last Shabbat, the guest speaker at my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, was Rabbi Andrea Myers, author of a wonderful memoir entitled, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.” Through insightful, and often highly amusing, personal stories, Rabbi Myers chronicles her own journeying from a Long Island home with a Lutheran father and Sicilian Catholic mother, to Brandeis University, coming out as a lesbian, traveling to Israel and converting to Judaism, and then returning to the USA to become a Rabbi, a wife, and a mother.
There are many layers to the stories that Rabbi Myers tell – in each chapter of her book we learn something about Jewish practice, something about inter-family interfaith relations, and a lot about the spiritual journey that can unfold for each and every one of us as we find the courage to become more of who we truly are.
Prior to her after-dinner presentation, Rabbi Myers also spoke during our Shabbat service, sharing words based on a piece that she wrote for The Huffington Post some months back entitled, ‘It Gets Beautiful.’ Our suburban middle-of-the-road congregation loved getting to know Rabbi Myers. We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming, and inclusive, but nevertheless I was struck by how everyone present responded to the bigger message – become more of who you truly are – told through the lens of this Rabbi who is a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian. Even ten years ago in a Reform congregation, such a presentation which today reflects some centrally held values of inclusivity and the affirmation of sexual and gender expression found in the Reform movement, would have been seen as much more radical.
The evolving understanding that GLBT Jews can live full and visible lives as Jews loving the people that they love is something that is no longer found in just one or two of the most liberal Jewish denominations. In 2006, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian Rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Back in November of 2011, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding.
In the UK this past week, there has been widespread reaction to a controversial story reported in the Jewish Chronicle that a power-point lesson about sexuality at the Jewish Free School in London ended with a slide that some students interpreted as an endorsement of the organization, Jonah (Jews offering new alternatives to homosexuality). While the school, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (the majority Modern Orthodox movement in the UK) has denied any such endorsement, the story has sparked thoughtful conversations that indicate that, in today’s world, there are many young Orthodox-affiliated Jews who no longer regard traditional Jewish observance as a barrier to living a life true to one’s sexual orientation.
The UK Jewish Chronicle also reported on January 19 that the Amsterdam Orthodox Ashkenazi community has suspended their Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, who is US-based but travels several times a year to serve the Dutch community. This action was taken in response to Rabbi Ralbag signing a declaration, along with 180 other Orthodox Rabbis, psychotherapists and educators, that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. Ronnie Eisenmann, the lay head of the Dutch community was quoted in the JC, saying: “homosexuals are welcomed and all Jewish couples are accepted as full members so long as they are recognized as ‘couples’ under Dutch law.”
These recent events demonstrate that, as we continue to evolve in our understanding of human sexuality and move toward a place where civil rights are not given or withheld on the basis of sexual orientation, Jews of all denominations are engaging with these questions in new ways that challenge the boundaries for some within our communities. As they do so, many draw on Jewish wisdom and values to reframe the conversation; no longer the language of toevah (abomination) found in Leviticus 18:22, but the language of b’tzelem elohim (made in the likeness of God) or lo tov heyot ha’adam levado (it is not good for a human being to be alone). These conversations require us to consider whether religious truths must be defined by their unchanging nature, or whether, as Rabbi Andrea Myers suggests, truly becoming more of who you really are requires a kind of truth that can evolve with us as we, as individuals and as Jewish communities, continue on our journeys.