Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?
This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”
In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective actions that democratically accountable governments make possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.
While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.
Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?”
This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?
These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.
These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.
Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.
First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.
Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.
What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).
While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.
Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.
This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” -Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley.
I’m proud of the stance taken by the governor of my state. The plight of young children coming into the US, fleeing persecution is one we can relate to. The Jewish tradition has reminded us for millennia, that the land is not ours free of charge, but rather that it is God’s, to distribute to whom God will, and that our souls are weighed by the way we remember our privilege, and to what extent we share it.
The Talmud teaches, “The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them. …. They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of [our] earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish refuse to allow strangers to come to our land, as it is written, The flood breaketh out from the inhabitants, they are forgotten of the foot; they are dried up, they are gone away from men.(Job 28:4) (Sanhedrin 109a)”
But it seems that in every generation, we had need of a reminder: a story is told of the Gaon of Vilna, who sat with voice but no vote on the Council of the Jews of Vilna. His task was to comment from a Torah perspective on new legislation proposed before the Council. When there was no such new legislation, he did not take part in the meeting.
One day a member of the Council put forward a proposal for ending or greatly reducing the influx of Jews from poorer regions into Vilna, where they hoped for a better life. The Gaon rose to leave the meeting. “But Rabbi,” said a Council member, “we need your comment on this proposed new legislation!” “What new legislation?” said the Gaon. “This was already the law of Sodom, long ago!” And he left. The proposal was dropped.
One of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).
Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.
So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havruta—and Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.
After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”
A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first time—perhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.
Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"—or "rabbi" means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]
So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”
Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.
The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”
Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itself—through censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell you—especially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the tradition—even about political problems.
It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinion—there never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so on—we always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.
But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truth—but silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.
Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, that way lies only death, and madness.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah seems to have brought more than the usual rush of madness to Hanukkah, which has become a major holiday in the USA by virtue of its usual proximity to Christmas. Although most of the Thanksgivukkah posts have been at least a bit tongue-in-cheek (other than the ones with recipes, which all look either terrifyingly heavy, or not particularly appetizing), one article I saw recently castigated the Thanksgivukkah celebrants, pointing out that Thanksgiving was not, and is not, a celebration for Native Americans, who remember it a bit more as the beginning of the end of their cultures, a destruction of their peoples, and as the beginning of the theft of their land.
Dare I say it? It’s something for us to consider that people at the borders of cultures can see the very same thing quite differently—and here’s your dangerous aside: It’s legitimate for Native Americans to mourn this day, just as we celebrate it, and it is legitimate for Palestinians to observe their Nakba, or catastrophe, rather than Israeli independence—without it meaning unending hatred of either side for the other—only history that must be understood and moved forward from.
Native Americans and non-Native America have a quieter, but no less fraught relationship. Native Americans still suffer from poverty, and violence. They will never, though, have full sovereignty of their original lands, which makes sympathy easier—at least in part because we have no expectation that we will ever have to give up anything. But there was a time when Native Americans were portrayed as dangerous savages, people who would rape or steal your women, scalp you in your sleep, or any number of other stereotypes—and everyone knew these things as truths.
Today, there are still plenty of places where stereotypes of Native Americans continue—not the least of which is the noble tribal elder, or primitive wisdom hawker, no less than the shiftless alcoholic, and there are places and people who know these to be “truths,” as well.
In the Middle East, our “truths” are just as hard, our stereotypes just as firm, and we are just as distant from seeing one another as people. But we also should have hope. Perhaps someday, Thanksgiving will come to be a symbol of overcoming years of prejudice and wrongs. and perhaps someday, there will be a day that Palestinians and Israelis, too, can celebrate together, remembering a time when we were enemies, but were able to make peace, and eventually became neighbors, and who knows—maybe even allies.
We are in a moment now, when that could begin to happen—if. If we are willing to step out of the stories that we know to be true, and take a breath for a moment instead of repeating the histories that are our own perspective. Not because they are wrong, but because at this time, in this moment, they are not helpful. They will be, someday, something we can talk about together, but when we come together to discuss how to make peace, they turn into a whose-victimhood-is-more-important contest. If we stop insisting on the stories that we usually tell ourselves, and instead look toward the future we could build, then it could be no dream.
We can’t be Pollyannas about it—it does mean that we—both—will have to give things up. Not least of which is the idea that the Palestinians have given nothing up. Not least of which is the idea that all descendants of the Palestinians will be able to return. But it will be worth it, because the foundation of the world is built on peace, truth, and justice, as Pirke Avot reminds us, and it is in our hands to make those foundations firmer.
As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.
So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?
Well, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”
Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.
There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.
Two articles posted earlier this week made reference to an individual who had been born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, but had had an upbringing that compelled her to choose a Jewish path, ending in her ordination as a Reform rabbi but – the articles implied (or stated outright in one case)—she did not convert to Judaism. As it turns out, both articles* were incorrect on this point, but what was interesting to me was the question that the articles raised with regard to the possibility of such a thing happening, and the responses to that.
Most people have reacted to this article in one of two ways: a sort of galloping schadenfreude — “haha! told you those Reformim were up to no good, they’re not really Jews at all!” (not to mention the general inability to distinguish between Reform Judaism and other kinds of non-Orthodox Judaism. I’m not sure they even know what Reconstructionists are) and on the other end of the spectrum an open rage that traditionalists don’t accept the children of a non-Jewish mother as Jewish, often coupled with the idea that this means those traditionalists are racist.
As a Conservative Jew, the movement to which I belong explicitly does not accept the Reform position of patrilineality. As a Conservative rabbi, I have bumped up against the enormously painful problems generated by the American Reform movement’s promotion of patrilineal descent, over and over again (American because outside the USA, patrilineality is not generally accepted, even in the Reform movements).
I understand how enormously painful this is to many people: I understand that for many people, what I’m going to write will make them angry, and I accept that and offer my apologies in advance.
First of all, those who denounce the Orthodox and Yori Yanover (the author of the article in TheJewishPress.com) as racist, because they are opposed to patrilineal descent are wrong. I presume that some Orthodox, like some of every group, are racist, but it is not racist to maintain that before a person can be called a Jew, they should convert to Judaism, unless their mother is Jewish (which of course includes women who have converted to Judaism). Yanover, himself, says— and I believe him—
“In the shuls I attended on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spotting an African or a Hispanic face was always such a source of pleasure. As a tiny nation and an even tinier religious group, we prize every gentile who embraces our faith and goes through the sometimes grueling process of becoming one of us.”
Putting aside the extremely problematic assumption that if they’re Hispanic or African, they’re obviously a convert, this isn’t rejection of someone from Judaism because of race.
As it happens, converting isn’t all that difficult, halakhicly (according to Jewish law) speaking. We can debate whether it’s a problem that different Orthodox sects won’t accept perfectly valid conversions from other sects or from Conservative rabbis, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically a simple thing to do. But it is necessary.
If one wishes to become a doctor, it’s not enough to be the most fabulously gifted natural talent as a healer on earth. It’s not even enough to have done lots of home study. And it’s certainly not enough to be a doctor in your heart, or have a wonderful bedside manner, or to really love medicine, or to have someone call you “doctor.” In this country, you have to go to medical school, pass exams, do a residency and join a professional guild. Until then, you may be many things, you may even be a tremendous healer, but you are not a doctor. In other countries, the rules may be different. They may just be hoops, but you still have to jump through them.
Anyone who works as a non-Reform rabbi in the Jewish community runs up against the patrilineal descent problem all the time. And it is staggeringly painful for someone to hear that despite being dedicated to their faith and practice, it’s not enough. But it’s also something which is easy to fix – unlike, say, sexual orientation, which is a comparison I often hear (if “the Conservatives” can reinterpret how we deal with gay men, why can’t we change them for the children of Jewish fathers).
The answer is partly that Jewish law is fiercely stringent with regard to what we sometimes call “status issues:” Marriage, divorce, conversion. These are flashpoints for halakha, and they are flashpoints for successful continued existence as a people and a religion. They are also, unfortunately, matters which are deeply in the heart and desperately important.
But additionally, the Reform movement—however well meaning when it decided that either parent transmitted Judaism equally-—was not working from a halakhic framework.
I deeply admire and respect many Reform colleagues. I, myself, grew up Reform, and my parents belong to a Reform shul. Which is why I find this rift so enormously difficult. In my own family, I have had to reconvert family members who underwent Reform conversions because there was no mikvah (immersion in the ritual pool) involved in the conversion in order to be involved as a rabbi in their weddings. I have had to turn down the request of old family friends to be involved in their weddings because the future husband had been married before and refused to get a get – a Jewish writ of divorce. And I have had to tell people, people I love and care about, that if they cannot stomach the idea of completing the minimal requirements of a conversion, I cannot be involved in their wedding.
I find it extremely difficult to ask people whenever I am involved in a lifecycle event where status matters, “did you convert; did your mother convert; who did the conversion; what was the process…” and all the other questions that I have to ask. I hate having to tell some of those people that there is still a hoop they have to jump through if they want me to be involved. I try to make it as painless as possible, but I understand exactly how painful it is when someone tells me their mother isn’t Jewish, but they have always thought that they were Jewish, and I understand that it feels insulting to them to ask them to convert. I am horrified that I now also have to track down who is the rabbi of a convert to find out if their rabbi was Jewish.
I never went by the theory that since some Reform rabbis don’t fulfill the requirements for conversion, one should consider Reform converts all to be invalid. I do not accept Yanover’s conclusion that “we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do ‘Jewish’ in any way at all.” I always asked about the process and just went around filling in the missing pieces—if necessary. And if nothing was missing, then it was fine. I consider Reform Judaism to be Judaism, and Reform rabbi to be rabbis. But I am at a loss as to what to do when presented with the identity issues that are now extremely prevalent.
I have no idea what the answer to this problem is. But I will say, that when I do a conversion, as a Conservative, female rabbi, I always tell my students that if I do the conversion there will be problems with their status in other movements, and in Israel. And I always offer to make other arrangements for them—and explain what all the various problems that could arise are, and different ways that they could deal with some or all of them.
To me, it would be utterly dishonest and completely unethical for a person whom I taught to go out into the world not knowing that some people would not consider them Jewish, and that for various different reasons, circumstances could require them to convert again, and that it is not a judgement on them, and that they shouldn’t consider it an insult to me or to them if it should be necessary.
It is as essential a part of the conversion process, for me, to teach that, as it is to teach them the differences between the movements, to explain why I consider the movement to which I belong -in its theory, and its expectations, at least, even if not everyone fulfills those expectations- to be halakhic, to explain why even though lots of Jews who are born Jewish don’t observe halakha, I won’t finish the conversion process unless I see the student has a commitment to kashrut, shabbat, and other ritual observances as well as to joining a Jewish community and synagogue,a sense of peoplehood, and a Jewish idea of God.
And ultimately, I have to at least partially echo Yanover, in that I find it problematic to discount the halakha and the halakhic process as divine (I’m willing to debate in what ways). I find all of this terribly difficult, personally—I truly have no idea how to bridge the gap between a commitment to the view of Judaism as a divine mission with obligations, and not insulting people whom I care about very much. In fact, I’d love to hear from people who have found ways to do that very thing.
*Author’s correction: An earlier version of this article was posted by beginning with a link to articles about a Reform rabbi about whom incorrect information was cited. After two people whom I respect pointed out that even having her name linked with this discussion was a form of lashon hara, I decided to remove that part of the article – and truthfully, she isn’t really relevant to the discussion, but was only a jumping off point.
I’m going to remove her name altogether, as well as the links to the articles with the incorrect information. I apologize to her for the original linkage.
A couple of weeks ago, Yair Rosenberg wrote a thought-provoking article in the online Tablet Magazine, entitled ‘America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats: Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.’
The starting place for the article is a reaction to the lack of critical commentary to a group of clergy going to Washington to bring attention to National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. Imagine, Rosenberg asks, if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington to promote a campaign advocating against abortion. There would, he contends, be an outcry from liberal commentators and politicians about such a religious encroachment on national politics. And yet there did not appear to be any such outcry to the clergy speaking out against gun violence, and the legislative demands that went with it.
Rosenberg goes on to examine what he sees as a double-standard in public response when religious conservatism is expressed in the public square vs religious liberalism. He argues: “In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.”
Ultimately, Rosenberg calls for more honesty and consistency when talking about the role of religion in politics. He makes a good point. As someone born and raised in the UK, where there is no constitutional separation of church and state and yet the country as a whole is far less driven by religiously-based interests, I have always been struck by the extent of religious presence in the public sphere in the USA. Presidential candidates are examined for signs of an authentic religious life, and this seems to matter in political commentary. Over time, I have come to understand the importance of my contributions to public conversation on many issues that have a political dimension – I believe that to abstain from all of these issues is to render ourselves irrelevant.
Legislation is one response to shaping the kind of society we want to live in, but to abstain from bringing one’s religious heritage and wisdom teachings to that conversation is to present Judaism as having nothing to say about daily communal life. And Judaism, especially but not uniquely, has always been a religion that embraced life holistically, with laws and wisdom on how we do business with each other, how we take care of the vulnerable in society, as well as how we pray and celebrate Jewish festivals.
But Rosenberg isn’t arguing for abstention from the political realm. He’s simply asking for equal treatment of those who draw on their understanding of religious wisdom to present more conservative viewpoints as those who present liberal ones. I agree with the general premise – surely we should allow all contributions to stand on their own feet in the public square? And I think they do. That also means that we must be willing to hear all of the responses that we will hear when we voice these opinions. There is no organized cabal that is critiquing one set of religious viewpoints but not another. The kinds of responses we hear tell us something about the society we live in, and the other competing perspectives that are being brought to bear on the same core questions of life and community that clergy, politicians, social workers, teachers, journalists, and private corporations are all addressing in very different ways.
But for me, there is another component to consider when I think about how and when I draw on my understanding of our faith-based wisdom to offer commentary on matters that are currently being debated in the political realm. And here, I believe, there is often but not always a difference between more conservative and more liberal religious voices that shines a light on the juxtaposition of religion and politics in a different way. It is often the case that conservative voices, by their nature, advocate for a more restrictive perspective on a range of issues – a more limited definition of marriage, a more limited view on when life begins and, being conservative in nature, tend to lean toward preserving the status quo.
As a more liberal leaning rabbi, I often find myself asking two different questions: 1) does my faith tradition have wisdom to offer on how I and/or my faith community should act in this situation? 2) what kind of framework in my secular society enables me to achieve 1)? So, for me, I’m going to speak out against more conservative positions on abortion that deny me the right to make choices based on Jewish wisdom. However, the existence of more liberal laws on abortion in this country do not prevent someone, guided by a more conservative faith, from making more restrictive choices. I, personally, guided by Jewish wisdom, am against assisted suicide. But when legislation in the state of Massachusetts was brought up at the last election that considered a way of permitting some form of this, the study and conversation that I had with my congregants both shared and explored the ideas behind Jewish teachings on this topic yet also raised the question of whether our choices based on our beliefs should lead to legislation that limits everyone else in our State to our religiously-informed position.
If someone truly believes that aborting any fetus is murder, and that preventing this is more important than all other considerations, then they will feel compelled to advocate for national, secular laws, that prevent such as act. I can understand why this belief leads to this outcome, but I can also understand why they will face powerful opposition from a large proportion of Americans who do not share their belief. And this, I believe, is where Rosenberg’s call for fairness in treatment is too simplistic. Depending on the issue at stake, a position that makes restrictive choices for all in national legislation demands a different level of scrutiny than a position that is less restrictive (but still allows for individuals to make more restrictive choices).
Another element that plays into these debates, independent of whether a position is liberal or conservative, is whether the issue affects individual freedoms or the community as a whole. And this one is much more complex. In fact, what we often see played out in the political sphere is the framing of an issue in different ways that emphasize these different frameworks. For example, a proponent of gun rights is likely to emphasize their individual rights according to the constitution. A proponent of gun control is likely to argue that some of those individual rights have to be restricted when the effect of exercising them leads to the deaths of innocent victims – a communal framework. Proponents of gay marriage emphasize the civil rights of individuals within our society. Opponents draw on arguments that emphasize their perception of the changes it will bring to society as a whole. In a country that, culturally, heavily emphasizes individual autonomy, political positions that emphasize individual rights tend to play better in the public square. When they don’t it is because the case for the greater good has been powerfully made.
Where does this leave us as clergy contributing to these debates in the public sphere? Ultimately, I believe it leaves us as offering the wisdom that we have gleaned from our faith traditions as useful and legitimate input to the public square. Self-awareness and, perhaps, some humility, will enable us to discern how best to use our voices and understand the larger landscape of which we are just a small part.