On January 4, my family and I were privileged to attend the final Broadway performance of the revival of Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful musicals. I had not seen it before. It’s the story of a well-educated young prince who, after university, embarks on a search for a meaningful life. He tries being a soldier and being king, and he tries living on a farm. None of it seems to work. He finally realizes that it is the mundane life on the farm with a woman he loves, and her young son, that is the meaningful life.
The day after we saw Pippin, David Brooks published a column discussing the modern search for meaning, and asserting that “Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.” He says today’s seekers of meaning are looking only for a feeling they call meaning, and contrasts them with those who lived meaningful lives in the past, who “subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.”
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman responded last week on this blog, discussing the way Judaism’s moral system and meaningfulness go together. Rabbi Mitelman, like me, lives mostly in the religiously liberal Jewish world, and he mentions in his piece how important it is, for liberal Jews especially, for their religious practice to be meaningful to them.
I teach my congregants that, as practitioners of Reform Judaism, they are obligated to observe the ethical commandments of Jewish law, but are not obligated to follow the ceremonial or ritual commandments. However, it is incumbent on us to learn about the latter types of commandments, and take on those that we find add meaning and holiness to our lives.
The challenge of this is that some practices could potentially bring holiness and meaning to people’s lives, but do not do so the first time one tries them. It can take years of, well, practice, before a practice like meditation or communal worship feels meaningful. Some activities may feel initially awkward or difficult, and therefore may not feel meaningful immediately, like visiting the sick or paying shiva calls, or the hard work of social action (these would qualify as mandatory commandments for Reform Jews). If we are searching for meaning, it is worth our while to commit to a moral and ethical system, and to practices, that others have found meaningful, even if they don’t feel meaningful to us at first. We might seek out people who seem similar to us in temperament or spirituality, and engage with some of the practices that work for them. Then we need to trust that the meaning will eventually come.
In other words, searching for meaning in each experience may not be the most effective way to find meaning. Perhaps we need something that is discussed far less in most liberal Jewish circles than meaningfulness: faith. We need to have faith that some of the morals, ethics, and practices that have led to meaningfulness for others can do that for us too. We need to have faith that if it doesn’t feel meaningful today, it can someday, if we keep with it. Then, like Pippin, we may find that the meaning we’re searching for comes through our day-to-day work to improve the world, and through our rituals, routines, and relationships.
The week began with me feeling self-conscious gesturing with my hands and glittery purple nails. I recently read Rebecca Sirbu’s piece about how rarely we heed life’s painful reminders that this is it. To honor the memory of a friend she had lost, she wore a purple hair extension for a week. When I read Rebecca’s reflection, I recalled how much I wanted to paint my nails. I wrote Rebecca my thanks for her piece. I shared what I wanted to do, and my hesitation about doing it. I was afraid it would be too distracting to the students I teach, or my hospice patients and their families.
As a queer man, I have learned not to take my safety for granted. Several times a year, I am the target of harassment: when I walk down the street, people occasionally shout “faggot!”. In my rabbinic work, my sense of unsafety is more subtle. People remark on how “young” I look, a perception I attribute not only to being 32, but also being queer and small-framed. “Looking young” is often code for inexperienced, not wise, or not fit for the rabbinate. To protect myself from these judgments, I sometimes feel I have to dress in ways that make me appear older or more normatively “masculine”.
As Hanukkah begins, we are instructed to “publicize the miracle” (pirsum ha’nes) of the jar of oil that lasted eight days. The rabbis of the Talmud state, “It is a commandment to place the Hanukkah lamp by the outside door of the house. If one dwells in an upper apartment, one places it by the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to leave it on the table” (Shabbat 21b). Though I am largely safe as a Jew, I am not always sure I am safe as a queer male. As I look back over this week, I realize how many times I was tempted to put my hands into my pockets to hide my nails.
After I painted my nails, I taught middle and high school students. In one of my classes a teen asked, “Rabbi Adam, what’s on your hands?” I told him it was nail polish. He asked, “Who painted them?” “I did one hand, my partner did the other”, I replied. He asked “Who?” I repeated, “My partner.” After he asked a third time, I said, with hesitation, “My boyfriend.” Which he responded to by inquiring, “How do you say nail-polish in Hebrew?” As third period approached, I felt anticipatory dread about the response of my class of Jewish teen boys – historically not a “safe” environment for me. Instead of the comments I would have expected during my teenage years had I worn nail polish, they exclaimed, “Cool color!” and asked “Did you pick that because it matches your eyes?”
These days, the sun races through the sky. Each day is short. As the moon wanes, the night’s darkness deepens. Each year at this time, it is easy for me to despair, to believe the light will never return. At this darkest time of the year, we are instructed to light a light. Some of us do it in secret, some visibly. The Talmud says we always have the option to hide this light when we feel we’re in danger. Despite this, I know I have ancestors who, even in times of danger, displayed their lit menorahs in their windows. They recognized that hiding does not always create a sense of safety.
When I told Rebecca my concerns about wearing nail polish, she responded, “What color do you want to do your nails?” Perhaps, as a queer man, it’s time I began to publicize the miracle of acceptance, of relative safety I am finding. The miracle is that it is safe to flame, to shine my light. This Hanukkah, I know I’ll be flaming all eight nights.
I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
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.
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, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” “do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home. There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.
But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out. This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial. While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table. Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too. At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.
In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more. In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies. And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot. In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience. When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.
Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.
Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
“Habemus Papam!” — “We have a pope!” After days of breathless anticipation by Catholics around the world, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and uttered the words that precede the announcement of every new pope: “Habemus Papum!” The media has been abuzz ever since about the new Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina. His selection has been considered noteworthy for being the first Jesuit priest to become pope, the first pope to choose the name Francis, and, most of all, for being the first pope from the Americas. What stood out to to me, though, was not the novelty of all these “firsts” but the relationship between this sense of newness and the role of Catholic ritual that permeated Francis’ selection: from the cardinals sequestering themselves in their conclave to the black and then white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to signify that a new pope had been elected. Ultimately, the appointment of the new pope was about this dynamic between tradition and change.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pope was chosen at the same time Jews segue in our cycle of Torah reading to the Book of Leviticus/Sefer Vayikra. Leviticus takes us from the narrative of the Israelite exodus and the foundational moment of revelation at Sinai into the arcane, elaborate, and often hard to penetrate world of ritual sacrifice and impurity. The first two Torah portions in Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, offer extensive sacrificial taxonomies, describing with painstaking detail the rituals of the burnt, meal, sin, guilt, and well-being offerings. And the gory details would make even Quentin Tarantino blush: blood being sprinkled about the altar, entrails removed, and on and on. Let’s face it: Leviticus is hard to read and even harder to connect with. How are we to relate to these materials? Is Vayikra obsolete? Unapproachable to modern Jews?
Our Sages of old faced these same questions, but with a good deal more existential angst. Leviticus had served as a priestly manual, instructing the High Priest and his assistants how to perform sacrifices at the Temple. But once the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifice became impossible. How, then, were Jews supposed to remain Jews? The ancient rabbis, in a brilliant move, took sacrifice and transformed its function into two new modes that would come to define Judaism for the next 2000 years. First, they used the structure of the sacrificial system—its times for sacrifice (daily and holiday) and its liturgical accompaniments (such as the psalms that Levites recited)–to create a new system of daily and holiday fixed prayer. Instead of offering sacrifices as the medium for interacting with God, Jews could pray in synagogues and retain the same (or even better, according to the scholar Maimonides) ability to engage with the Divine.
Second, though there was no longer a need to know the ritual details of the sacrificial system for practical purposes, the rabbis insisted that Jews continue to study Leviticus because the act of studying itself became a proxy for the act of sacrifice. “One who occupies himself with the study of Torah has no need for the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, nor the guilt offering.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate M’nachot 110a) Indeed, nearly the entirety of the Fifth Order of the Mishnah, entitled Kodashim, pertains to Temple worship even though it was redacted several hundred years after the Temple was destroyed. Grappling with our textual tradition and seeking to derive wisdom from it became an end in itself as important as sacrifice was to our ancestors. What the rabbis did, in sum, was to innovate, to radically change Judaism, but to do so through a deep, organic connection to our tradition.
Tradition and change remains the dialectic through which we live our Judaism today. The challenge Judaism addresses, the challenge that faces each of us every day, is to live in the murky waters between tradition and change. If we change too much, giving up aspects of our religion that might not feel important anymore, we risk losing our connection to our heritage. But if we remain too rigid, holding on to rituals and practices just because that’s what our parents and grandparents did, then we risk creating future generations that will be disconnected from, and likely reject, our heritage. What we must do is to follow the lead of our Sages: to push ourselves to engage with our tradition’s rituals and sacred texts so that we can deduce new meanings and new contexts from them, meanings and contexts that will resonate for us in our contemporary lives. It is worth noting that the term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” In Hebrew, the common biblical word for sacrifice is, “korban,” which means “something brought near.” Through our modern-day “sacrifices” of prayer and engaging with our sacred texts, we have the opportunity to draw nearer to God and to embrace holiness.
In some ways, our Catholic friends have it easy. They can rely on a pope to lead them, to be the intermediary between God/tradition and their daily lives. We Jews, however, reject the idea of an intermediary. We are all, in a sense, High Priests. This gives us both the blessing of direct access to the Almighty but also the obligation to do what it takes to gain that direct access. It is my hope and prayer that we will rise to this challenge, creating a vibrant, intelligent, and meaningful Judaism for the 21st century.
Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.