It’s a big sports week in the Jewish South! First, there’s a new Jewish college basketball coach at a big school down here, which folks are clearly pretty excited about. And second…
It’s time for Mensch Madness, Game Two!
We have a very close game today. Our number two seed, Miriam is up against our number three seed, Devorah.
This is going to be a tough match-up. Both of these powerhouses had a big impact, and both had songs written about them by Debbie Friedman, which elevates both in my eyes…
Let’s start with Miriam: She is very well known, seeing as she is an important character in the story of Passover (coming up soon!) and the Exodus. As Moses’ sister, Miriam was the one responsible for putting baby Moses in a basket and down the river, where the Pharaoh’s daughter found him. Already brave, Miriam approached Pharaoh’s daughter and told her that she knew a woman who could nurse the baby (hint: it’s their mother, Yocheved).
Once the Jews were finally across the Red Sea, Miriam led everyone in song, dancing with her timbrel. During the Jews’ time in the desert, a well of water followed Miriam because of her merit and righteousness. HOWEVER, we must not forget that Miriam suffers from the affliction of leprosy after she and her brother Aaron speak ill of Moses’ wife, a Cushite woman. Lashon hara, gossip, is certainly not an admirable characteristic, but it shouldn’t over shadow her positive attributes.
And then there’s Devorah: She is not as public a figure as her competitor, but she was a great leader for the Jewish people after Moses, Miriam, and Aaron died. Devorah was a judge in Israel; she was a strong woman, without whom Barak (a general) would not enter battle: “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, I will not go.” Devorah is happy to join in the journey, but in being realistic about gender roles of the time reminds Barak that he will not receive any glory because a woman is accompanying him as an advisor in battle.
But Devorah does not flee from leadership, even despite the gender norms of the day. Devorah is therefore seen as a mother in Israel, during a time when leadership was much needed. Israel was finally at peace, with Devorah at the helm.
Miriam and Devorah were both amazing women, who are great role models among women from the Tanakh. In this very close game, every move counts… and Miriam fouled with her negative attitude towards Moses’ wife, while Devorah accepted her leadership position and held court with poise. Her bravery and strength are ever-present, despite the male-dominated community.
As the only female judge of the time, I consider her a trailblazer, a pioneer, a winner in this round of Mensch Madness! See y’all at the next game!
In the South, we love our sports. March Madness is on the horizon and our minds are on the game! Of course, Southern-and-Jewish sporting (especially if you’re an Education Fellow) can look a little different.
In this afternoon’s game we have the number one seeded Queen Esther up against the number four seed, Hannah.
Esther’s story is probably fresh in your minds as we’ve just celebrated her holiday of Purim. As Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, tells us, the beautiful young Esther won a beauty contest to become Queen of Persia after Ahashveros kicked his first queen out of the palace. Esther then went on to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the evil Haman. Esther was brave enough to enter the court of the king even when faced with the possibility of death for speaking to the king without being summoned. She was then clever enough to invite him to a feast and flatter him before asking the difficult question she truly wanted.
She has a lot going for her, this Esther. She has a whole book named after her, a holiday to celebrate her bravery, and we all know who every little girl wants to dress as on Purim.
The one area in which Hannah might outplay Esther is prayer – and a strong prayer player is a good skill! Esther’s account of the Purim story does not mention God at all, not even once! She appeared to be pretty pious when she fasted and prayed before going to see the king, but even then we did not have any idea of what she said or if she was really praying to God. Hannah, on the other hand, has this prayer thing down. She is acknowledged as the first Jew to employ personal prayer. Devastated by her inability to conceive, Hannah went to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem. She prayed so fervently, moving her lips but not making a sound, that Eli the High Priest thought she was drunk. Being the strong woman that she was, Hannah stood up for herself and told Eli no, she was not drunk, she was praying to God from her heart.
We see that God obviously approved of Hannah’s actions because he granted her wish and she became the mother of Samuel, the famous prophet. We never saw that kind of Godly approval for Esther. And don’t think that Hannah is left out of the important scripture. She may not have a book of Tanakh named after her, but the haftarah portion narrating her story is read on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah. We wouldn’t read the story of just anyone on this holy day!
Folks, it looks like Hannah may come from behind to win this one, after all. Sure, Esther has that fame thing going for her, but Hannah is responsible for Judaism’s acknowledgement of personal prayer. What an incredible game this has been! Prayer, subterfuge, and all at the hands of two brave and intelligent leading ladies.
Hannah, The PRAYER PLAYER, will go on to face whoever wins the showdown between Miriam and Devorah… keep tuning in, sports fans!
I spend a lot of time with Conservatives in the South. Conservative Jews, in this case (probably not what most people picture when you say “Southern and Conservative”).
With all of the information about the downfall and slow death of the Conservative/Masorti movement flying around the Internet (check out some examples here and here), there have been many responses from rabbis and lay leaders all over to the contrary (like this one and this one). One perspective that’s been missing, however, is that of Conservative Judaism in the South.
We here at the ISJL are trans-denominational – which means we value and teach those things that most all Jews share – the importance of Torah and Jewish knowledge, acts of loving-kindness, and meaningful relationships with God, other Jews, and the rest of the world. It also means that we partner with any Southern Jewish congregation, regardless of its denomination.
As an Education Fellow traveling throughout the South, I manage to intimately interact with many different synagogues throughout our region, including many Conservative synagogues from Waco, Texas to Greensboro, North Carolina, and many others in between. Based on my observations, I can say that some of the concern is true – the Conservative movement is shrinking in numbers and that membership and religious school rolls are down throughout our region. However, I am not convinced that it is “dying.” In fact, I’m convinced that in many ways it’s stronger than ever.
After visiting these synagogues on the ground, seeing and talking to real, involved Conservative Jews, I see a much different picture than the one conjured up by the variety of commentators out there. I see a larger community that is being reborn. I see things like:
Able, involved, knowledgeable and inspired laypeople. I’ve seen many laypeople able and willing to lead Shabbat evening and morning services, entirely in Hebrew, without the assistance of a rabbi or cantor: a 13 year old boy leading the entire Musaf service – with repetition, a man in his mid-60s leading all of Shacharit. I’ve witnessed laypeople go out of their way to make sure that services happen.
New innovations all over the place. One rabbi hands out a source sheet to go along with his short Friday night d’rash, so people can follow along. Another one leads Kabbalat Shabbat with the assistance of an MP3 player, for some variety – and since it’s before sunset – there’s no violation of the Sabbath in using electronic devices. I can’t forget to mention the rabbi who plays the accordion as little children dance around and learn how much fun it can be to be Jewish. Several educators have instituted Shabbat School, to bring kids and parents to both participate in services and learn at the same time.
Passion for Judaism and an involved Jewish life. In every congregation, even before I’ve been introduced, people have gone out of their way to meet me and tell me about the congregation and ask me about myself. I’ve been surprised to see packed houses at almost all of the Shabbat services I’ve attended at these congregations.
Engaged and interested youth. Through the work of amazing, talented educators and rabbis, the youth I’ve worked with care immensely about being Jewish. They are proud to be Jewish. They’re willing to sample any wild lesson I might bring with me that weekend, and they’re able and interested in having conversations about important issues.
Based on the Southern and Conservative communities I work with down here, I’m excited about the future of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. I see transformation, growing meaning and vibrancy, and true innovation. Traveling through the South, I see congregations ready to adapt to the changing face of Conservative Judaism, and the changing face of the Jewish world head on. They’re revitalizing Judaism for the future. Likewise, I’ve seen the same characteristics in the Jewish congregations of other denominations I’ve visited throughout the South.
I’m excited for the future of Southern Conservative Jewish life, and truly that of Southern Judaism overall – whether Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or unaffiliated. If you ever get a chance to check out one of these Southern Conservative congregations, or really any Southern Jewish community, check it out. I guarantee you won’t regret it!