The following is an excerpt from my personal Haggadah, a story of my enslavement to a principle and my discovery of the freedom to speak my mind.
For many years, I stuck to my principle to keep politics separate from my rabbinate. Though trained to engage in political discourse in the public square, I avoided discussing politics from the bima and on my blog until about a year ago, when I attended an advocacy training session for clergy led by Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality. Along with Robbie Medwed of SOJOURN, Jeff helped me recover the desire to raise my voice in the political arena. In particular, I find it impossible to remain silent when religion is hijacked by politics, as it recently has been here in Georgia.
During the weeks leading up to the holiday of Passover, I’ve had numerous occasions to cry out in protest against the disingenuously named Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) making its way through the Georgia State Legislature. Because my religion espouses that we love our neighbors and protect the most vulnerable members of our society, I find the guise of “religious freedom” to discriminate against anyone deemed “other” really rankles. I sent emails to my state representatives urging them to reject the bill, shared updates on Facebook encouraging friends in Georgia to join me, and took every action suggested by Georgia Unites Against Discrimination to ensure that my religious views were heard. Then SB 129 was passed while the opposition stepped out to use the restroom.
Suddenly, I remembered why I don’t like politics. Intense feelings of despair threatened to overwhelm me. To paraphrase Kohelet, everything seemed futile. Then, from the brink of despair I was lifted up, encouraged to stand on the steps of Liberty Plaza with clergy members at a rally to oppose RFRA. When Rabbi Josh Heller commanded the podium and delivered a resounding cry of “not in my name, not in our name, not in God’s name,” my despair transformed into exhilaration.
In that moment, I understood that Rabbi Heller was reshaping the narrative of RFRA’s journey through the legislature. One week later, Rabbis Without Borders colleague Rabbi Michael Bernstein testified at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing and inspired me to continue my political opposition to RFRA.
Another week later, watching the protests in Indiana and hearing that lawmakers in Georgia have postponed further hearings, I begin to hope. I find strength to speak at today’s Rally & March to the Capitol, to oppose RFRA and call for its defeat in these final days of the legislative session.
Friday evening, we’ll begin the maggid segment of the Passover Seder with verses from Deuteronomy describing how Laban sought to destroy our ancestors. The rabbis of the Mishnah suggested that we begin our narrative in despair and end with songs of praise to God, because they intuitively understood the transformative power of storytelling; the narrative structure is a scaffold that lifts us up. As I raise the second cup of wine and sing the words, “God brought us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to holiday…therefore let us sing to God a new song” I will raise my voice in praise and thanksgiving. I will celebrate freedom from discrimination and the promise of redemption, here in my corner of the world.
Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.
I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session. I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.
In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community. The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.
The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.
Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.
We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.
I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.
I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.
Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.
These past weeks have brought a recipe of complication and hardship which have sent us reeling in disbelief. From Ebola, to ISIS, to racial strife, to the suicide of a comedic hero, to existential danger in Israel. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check the news wire and see if things have gotten any worse.
I know I am not alone in my concern for our fragmented world. And yet, I also wonder and worry about us….you and me. I don’t just mean “worry about us” as it relates to world events. I worry that the world keeps throwing so much at us that we stop making time to look in the mirror to be sure that we ourselves are in balance. I am not suggesting that we be selfish. But I wonder if we use the complications of our world as a disguise from doing our own inner-work.
I fret that we obsessively watch the world; react to the world; yell at the world—and, then, well, we forget to look at the mirror and inquire about our own role in the drama we call life.
We rabbis are beginning to prepare for the Jewish Holy Days. The coming season is one we refer to as the season of Teshuvah—of turning; of change, of reflection, of renewal. In the coming weeks, we will be reminded that we all have primordial purpose; a reason we are here on earth. During the year, our vision becomes clouded and unclear. The burden of our responsibility is heavy; indeed, we work diligently to fulfill everything we are supposed to get done and be for everyone else. And, so, we forget to remember why we were put here in the first place. We forget that we are unique and important and vital to the cosmic process of our beautiful universe.
These days, we cannot help but be called by events in the world. We are summoned to do our part in picking up the pieces of brokenness. I hope we feel the need to create clarity in the fog of confusion. But, we are also called upon to change and evolve as human beings if not first, then at least simultaneously.
I am asking my community during these days to pay attention to the complexity of the world, but to also take a few minutes away from the world’s noise and reflect. I am asking them to think about how they are doing; to think about why they are here; to think about how fulfilled they are in life; to think about their relationships; to think about their jobs; to think about how they act; about the way they are treated.
How are we doing in the midst of the madness? While the world has gone a bit mad, I wonder about all of us, who constitute in small pieces, the makeup of our world. The world does not just exist on CNN; it exists within our own reflections as well. When we look, I wonder how it is that we love, speak and share. I wonder about our sense of compassion, sensitivity, jealousy, anger, guilt, joy and sadness. I wonder which parts of ourselves we need to change, so the world can change also.
The world is trembling. There is much for us to say and do in response to it all. But in the meanwhile, I am thinking about what we owe ourselves in our own process of evolution.
I hope as we head towards the Season of Change, that we find the renewal within to help renew our world.
In the past week the rabbis witting on this blog have commented on several current controversial issues, Christian anti-Semitism, US immigration law, and the Hamas-Israeli conflict. The views expressed are varied, and if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will often see rabbis taking different opinions on the same issue. This is the kind of pluralism and open dialogue Rabbis Without Borders fosters. We believe that the Jewish community is stronger when we all have the opportunity to share our views and take the time to truly listen to the people who do not agree with us.
Rabbis Without Borders is a growing network of over 150 rabbis from across the denominational spectrum. We represent a variety of ages, geographic realities, and lived experiences. Our goal is to creatively share how Judaism can be useful to anyone looking to flourish in their lives. We do this by meeting people wherever and however they are. We shy away from pat answers and knee jerk reactions to questions. Instead, we welcome diverse conversations and ideas.
Since we value a multiplicity of viewpoints, beginning Monday August 4th you will start to see many new rabbis blogging sharing thoughts from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionsit, Renewal and Post-denominational streams of thought. As always, the rabbis will write about current issues in the world, share their perspectives, and comment on each other’s posts. The new voices will add of the depth of our conversations. We hope they will stimulate new ideas for you, and we encourage you to comment and ask questions. If there is an issue you would like to see addressed from a variety of viewpoints, please let us know. Add your voice to the mix. We want to learn from you as well!
Hear from more LGBTQ clergy, including Ariel Naveh, on the Keshet blog.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. But I had no choice. At the time, and until 2007, the Conservative Movement did not allow openly gay students to be ordained, so my sexuality and the life I had built with my girlfriend at the time were hidden behind closed doors. I had a plan in mind: I would get settled, prove myself, and then come out six months into the job and share my life with the community.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. I started working and almost immediately quickly realized the community was one of tremendous honesty and kindness. I couldn’t keep secrets if we were to have a truly holy relationship as rabbi and community. So I came out, first to the senior rabbi and president and then very quickly to everyone else, and I mean everyone: the board, the staff, the religious school volunteer board. I had endless conversations about my sexuality. Looking back on it now, it might have been overkill, but at the time it was what everyone felt was necessary to be forthright and address whatever “issues” people had with the now openly gay rabbi.
It was, I think, the last time I spoke so much about my sexual identity. I remember when I told the then-president of the synagogue, who has since become a trusted friend and wise advisor, over lunch and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, okay – can we order the sushi now?” And that is kind of how I have always felt about this issue: Can we stop talking about this and get back to studying and teaching Torah, creating holy moments at your wedding, bar mitzvah, or when I share the journey at the end of someone’s life? Might we get back to doing the business of helping each other grow in Judaism and learning, in holiness and meaning?
Not everyone was happy with me, of course. A community member once interrupted my Talmud class to tell me I wasn’t talking enough about how hard it was to be gay, chiding me that I had a responsibility to help other gay people by being more vocal. Then there were the other folks – the ones who did not understand why my girlfriend and I held hands as we left services on Shabbat morning—why did I need to be so public? Too gay, not gay enough, either way I was always a troublemaker.
When I am teaching Torah, I am trying share sacred wisdom as a rabbi, period. When I am standing under the huppah with a couple as they join together in a holy union, I am trying to usher in Judaism sacred joy and sanctity. When I sit by a bedside as someone lays dying, I am trying to offer the tradition’s wisdom of comfort and care. I am being a rabbi – a sacred teacher of wisdom, a vessel of Divine holiness and care none of which have anything to do with being gay or straight.
Yet from a young age, I felt different. It took me almost two and a half decades to figure out why. Simply put, being gay feels to me (and has always felt to me) like being a round peg in a square hole – trying to fit in and sometimes squeezing, but never making the perfect fit. In my professional life I feel treated fairly and equally, but I live in a world where I understand what it means to not quite fit in. I know what it’s like to look around and wonder if you have an ally in the room, and what it means to be in a deep and narrow strait and not be sure if you have the strength to break forth to freedom. Perhaps this is where being a gay rabbi is really as much about my sexual identity as my profession – no one has to be able to prove to me how painful it is to be an outsider. I know it from the inside and out and as such have always tried to use this round peg to help others find their place in the wisdom and holiness of Jewish life.
I have a teacher and mentor who taught me the phrase, “it’s a Torah world.” She was trying to explain to us that in each day there is holy wisdom to be found in the world we live in, real life and everyday existence. Jewish wisdom can help people connect not only to the tradition with great sacredness but also to life’s most mundane moments in the deepest of ways. She was so right. It is a Torah world and in that world of holy seeking, being gay has nothing and everything to do with the kind of rabbi I strive to be.
Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself – a message that speaks to people of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.
And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.
But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts. Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai). I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.
And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times. Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.
The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images. And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images, society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself, can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.
I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.
As an ex-pat British Jew, living and working in the USA, I’ve been following the press coverage on the search for a new Chief Rabbi in the UK with interest. The Times of Israel just recently published an update on what is becoming quite a lengthy and arduous search, raising a number of poignant issues in its coverage. Its been nearly two years since Rabbi Jonathan Sacks announced that he would be stepping down from the position come September 2013. British commentators have noted that the Anglican Church managed to appoint a new Archbishop of Canterbury in a mere 8 months.
For those less familiar with the British religious landscape, that comparison was not just plucked out of the air. Rabbi Herman Adler became the first, self-designated ‘Chief Rabbi’ from 1891-1911, and promoted this role as the Jewish equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. With a much more centrist Orthodox rabbinate, the fledgling progressive communities were content with this singular spokesperson for the UK Jewish community for quite some time.
However, the official title is actually ‘Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth,’ and the preciseness of this label has become more pertinent over time. The United Synagogue, as it is often referred to, is the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox communities only. As the rabbinic authorities in the UK – the Dayanim – (judges that sit on the Beth Din – the Jewish Court) have played an influential role in moving the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue further and further to the right (in part, no doubt, responding to pressures felt from their counterparts in Israel), and as the Progressive movements have grown in number and strength over the decades, it has become virtually impossible to conceive of one person who can represent and speak on behalf of the British Jewish community. Here, the parallel with the Archbishop of Canterbury breaks down. The archbishop only speaks for the Anglican Church. The fact that this is still somewhat of an influential voice in British culture is not because he speaks for any of the other Christian denominations to be found in the UK, but because of the UK’s own political history, by which the Anglican Church is the official State religion of the country.
And, in fact, there has been an official spokesperson for the Sephardi Jewish community, the Reform and the Liberal Movements of the UK for quite some time. Over the past 20 years or so, the British government has become much more attuned to this plurality of voices and representatives, ensuring that they are all invited to the appropriate State events.
Even before the current dilemma on who to appoint as the next Chief Rabbi came into being, I’ve found my American counterparts to be quite amused by the whole system in the UK. Here, the land of rugged individualism and autonomy, the thought that one would even attempt to find one spokesperson for the Jewish community is seen as laughable. Aside from the enormous diversity of Jewish expression to be found here that is movement-based, there is also a great deal of independence within each and every community.
In today’s cultural milieu, more than ever, when a congregation finds that its’ members values and practices are at odds with the official positions of the movement to which they affiliate, we are seeing more of them choose to go independent. While something is lost from being part of a larger collective, most intently felt when the movement brings people together from across the country or speaks up in the public sphere in a way that makes us proud, there is a growing feeling that communities are willing to let go of those larger affiliations if they perceive the restrictions laid upon them to be too great. Likewise, while rabbis still have great capacity to teach and guide a community, if they are perceived as being too out-of-step with the community, they are likely to find themselves looking for new work.
In truth, these are not new phenomena. This was very much the way of things for many Jewish communities across the world, prior to the communication and travel technologies that enabled geographically spread and diverse congregations to find each other and gather under the banner of a common label. But let us not be fooled – the desire to do so was in the fulfillment of larger communal needs as Jews sought full emancipation and inclusion in the larger societies of which they were a part. They provided a means to gather with other like-minded communities as we found ourselves responding to modernity and figuring out how to keep our religious traditions and practices relevant and meaningful within this new world.
Those needs still exist. And I am certainly making no early pronouncement that our movements no longer fulfill those needs. But what is clear, in the age of social networking and crowd-sourcing, is that they no longer remain the only way for separate communities to explore those questions together. Organizations like Darim Online, and CLAL (National Center for Learning and Leadership) – the creators of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program – demonstrate that speaking across and beyond denominational and movement-based lines can enable all of us to move forward in the ways we create and run spiritually purposeful Jewish communities today.
And we, the Jewish people, continue to do what, in fact, we have always done – we speak for Judaism whenever we engage, act, celebrate, and live our lives through a Jewish lens.