Over the course of more than 18 years in the rabbinate, there has been one question that I was asked at every interview for any congregational rabbinic position – will I officiate at an interfaith wedding?
The holiday of Hanukkah should be a fraught one for American Jews. Most of us know it as a gift-giving holiday, oriented towards our children, and we like to focus on its religious aspect as a holiday of religious freedom. And it is those things.
Rabbis are rabbis in no small part by the work they do, pastoral, ritual, social justice, organizational, all informed by a sense of responsibility to the community and to tradition. But at the moment of ordination, that moment before the work of the rabbinate begins, in earnest, what makes a rabbi a rabbi is the education that she has acquired and her commitment to bring the values and vision of that education into the work she will do in her rabbinate.
Over the next few weeks, the Torah portions we are reading obsess about two terms with which translators struggle mightily. Part of the reason for this struggle is that the framework in which they make sense is one which is almost completely lacking for most modern people: the idea of a holy place. “Tumah” – usually translated as “impure” or “unclean” -although it actually doesn’t mean either, and its counterpart “taharah,” generally translated as “purity” or “cleanliness,” again, incorrectly, is a function of sacredness. What these words when translated in context mean, is simply “acceptable to bring into the place of sacredness.”
I’m a city girl from North America, used to big city Judaism. I have grown up and worked in cities with a substantial Jewish community: many synagogues representing diverse denominations, multiple choices for educating Jewish children, assorted summer camps nearby, a Jewish Community Center or two with strong arts and athletic programs, kosher residential eldercare options, and a strong Federation helping everyone fundraise together as they negotiate community politics.
There is a famous story in the Talmud that describes several rabbis arguing about whether a fellow’s oven is fit for use. In the course of trying to prove his point, the rabbi who holds the minority opinion attempts to convince his colleagues that he is correct by calling upon God to support him. After the river runs backwards and a voice calls out from heaven that he is correct, his colleagues scoff, saying that they do not determine legal matters based upon heavenly voices. They quote God, who told Moses and the people of Israel that the law is “not in heaven,” but in their own hands (Deuteronomy 30:12).
One of my favorite poets, a slam poet named Vanessa Hidary, asks, in one of her remarkable pieces in which she confronts stereotyping of Jews: “What does Jewish look like to you?” Last week, the idea of what Hanukkah looks like was changed forever by the improbable confluence of one young Israeli man, three Romanians, two French women, one young man from Washington and his not-yet-Jewish partner, an older Jewish couple from Miami and their six gentile friends, eight or nine children of mixed ages and their parents, and 20-some adults of all ages from all over the U.S. and many from farther afield.
As an irrepressible, even relentless, optimist, I hold great hope for Jewish life in America. I wonder if that is because I fell in love with Judaism as an adult. It is true that I carry no terrible memories of Hebrew school as many do — nor resentment born of feelings of outright rejection by non-Jews or Jews. At the same time, having been raised in a secular home, I had no lovely memories of Passover seders or singing in the glowing light of an heirloom Hanukkah menorah, sitting with my bubbe [grandmother] in shul, or seeing my parents involved with their faith tradition.
The High Holiday season just ended. A spiritual, emotional and communal journey through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot culminated in the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah, though it is so close to the holiday of Sukkot on the calendar, is actually a separate holiday and has become part of the celebrations of Shemini Atzeret. On Shemini Atzeret we put down the lulav and etrog, many of us step back into our homes from our sukkot (huts) and we focus in on one crucial area: Our relationship to God.
In the Beginning, the friendship of three rabbis was created and nurtured at an annual Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat.