Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
There is a big election coming up on Wednesday, one many American Jews might not be aware of. In response to January’s parliamentary elections, Israel will elect new Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis. While the election for Sephardi Chief Rabbi has important implications for the future power of Rav Ovadya Yosef, the highly influential and controversial former Chief Rabbi who has several sons running for the position, I am far more interested in the outcome of the election for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: I find myself in the unusual position of hoping that the “liberal” candidate, Rabbi David Stav, loses to his more right-wing rivals. Rabbi Stav hails from the National-Religious movement and is therefore “Modern Orthodox” by Israeli standards (he does, after all, wear a knitted kippah). He has been denounced as “wicked” by the Sephardic religious party Shas for trying to help people establish their Jewish identity and therefore get married. And he promises “real revolution” if elected. All this should sound good to a liberal Jew like myself, right?
The problem with a Stav election, however, is that it likely will mean the continued vitality of the Chief Rabbinate (or Rabbanut in Hebrew). The Rabbanut itself is a $5.6 million institution, created by the British in 1921, that has become a calcified, corrupt, politicized, and reactionary body. It prevents women from getting divorces from abusive husbands, prevents consenting adults from getting married, and vehemently opposes Jewish pluralism within Israel. As this op-ed in the Jerusalem Post recently put it:
What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk, is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be organized in the State of Israel?
Nor is Rabbi Stav himself committed to radically reforming the Rabbanut from within. His “revolution” consists primarily of making the Chief Rabbinate a more user-friendly service organization. Were Stav to lose, however, many insiders feel that a real revolution would occur, with non-religious and National Religious alike coming up with alternate, “privatized” rabbinic and religious functions in areas ranging from conversion and marriage to kashrut certification. Such changes are already underway through efforts such as the Beit Hillel Movement, which includes both men and women in its rabbinic organization. As this article in Ha’aretz suggests, a Stav loss makes it likely that “such trends will intensify and accelerate – and a de facto alternative to the Chief Rabbinate will arise. Not only the nonreligious, but also the national religious will reach the conclusion they have no place within the Rabbinate.”
For secular Israelis, and for religious Israelis who support pluralism and a sense of klal Yisrael, this would be a wonderful turn of events.
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.
Last summer when I made my first tentative foray into camping in the wilderness, I was shepherded by my three very able young adult children, who were more experienced, savvy and courageous than I had been. They’d done this before. Our four days of hiking together on a segment of the Appalachian Trail was very intimate — our mutual trust made our ability to help one another flow naturally. It was not only comfortable, but comforting, to share our two small tents, each only large enough for two people to lie down and stay still.
The tent is a place of safety and care. This reminds me of the Torah’s story of a welcoming tent, when three visitors came to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Genesis 18:1 tells us how Abraham was sitting at the entrance of their tent on a hot day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. He ran to greet them and, bowing to the ground, begging them to stay to be refreshed. Abraham prepared a feast and water for his unexpected guests. He became our model for the value of hospitality. In Jewish imagination Abraham’s tent signifies graciousness and openness. In today’s modern ethos, we imagine this tent as a welcoming place for inclusive, pluralistic Jewish community.
Yet, it seems that our Jewish communal tent has shrunken in size, with its sides nearly closed, keeping out unwelcome conversation about uncomfortable topics. At the top of the list: Israel.
It has become impolitic, unwelcome, and sometimes relationship-altering to express opposing views when traveling between the camps of the right and the left. The JCPA’s “Civility” campaign was an attempt to turn down the temperature of the heated differences within our community. But beyond that there is a demonization that has become acceptable among many communal leaders, targeting those of “the other camp” as immoral, ignorant, naïve, and worse.
That was why I was so encouraged by the program at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this past November. There were several sessions at the convention that addressed the environment of our “tent” – and how we can have a “big tent.” There was a concerted effort to re-expand the tent. I felt hopeful that this would re-humanize the conversation, returning the spirit of generosity and grace that we celebrated in the years when “We are One” was the motto of the organized Jewish community.
It was a good start, but we have a long way to go. In the three months since the GA, I have experienced and observed more painful demonization, labeling, name-calling and hostility relating to conversations or views about Israel.
Why do we need a big tent? For generations our ancestors shared a sense of mutual responsibility that was borne out of an understanding that they were one people, a kind of extended family. It was a key to our survival and our accomplishments as a people.
Today that feeling of familial mutual responsibility is fraying. Many Jewish leaders are worried about this. And here we are, tearing the fabric apart by defining who is”in” and who is “out”. It’s not good for the Jews.
I know that I have an overly romantic view of the unity of the Jewish people in the past. I like that aspiration. Aspirations are really important to what we choose to do with our resources, our words, our relationships and our efforts.
As my own children are leaving the “nest” of our home, I aspired to share something mature and real with them in our newly adult relationships. Hiking up the mountain, sleeping in those tiny tents, we could enjoy our relationships, trusting each other and the mutual love that sustains us. That was all that mattered.
The tent of the Jewish people should be a place of safety and refreshment, nourishing and cooling us when we come in from the harsh, dry air of the wilderness. To be a Jew is to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, open and welcoming, hospitable and generous. I dream of a big, open tent. It’s cozy inside the tent – come on in.