Israel, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Prayer

There is a Wall in Your Way

Jerusalem-15412

At the Wall, all anyone can do is look at the Wall.
From all her angles.
At the Wall all you can do is close your eyes because there’s nothing to see there.
There is a Wall in your way…

– From “Along the Wall” by Rabbi Joshua Bolton

I had the joy of joining with Women of the Wall this evening to help kick off the group’s 25th anniversary. A few of us from school were asked to songlead during the opening ceremony, and I welcomed the opportunity. Tomorrow, I will join their Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel (from the men’s side of the mechitzah), in support of my peers, colleagues, and friends.

My visit to the Kotel tomorrow will only be my second since arriving in Israel over four months ago (the other being on Tisha b’Av). I have a tenuous relationship with the Kotel, and as of late, I do not find it spiritually conducive to my Jewish practice. As an aside – is it absurd to speak in terms of having a “relationship” with a pile of old stones?

In commemoration of the Women of the Wall’s celebrations, a group of girls from NFTY came to Israel to represent the Movement. Speaking about the history and significance of the Kotel, one particularly wise teen said to me – “but it’s just a retaining wall!” That’s a pretty concise yet accurate statement of where I’m at these days. This statement is indeed true, but there is much more to this truth. Certainly, I recognize the immense historical significance and symbolic relevance of the Kotel, and this is something that I do connect strongly with. But as a symbol of Orthodox hegemony and oppression of the rights of women and Jews, I find it to be an incredibly challenging and emotionally draining place. Which is why I don’t go much these days, even though I live and study steps from its ancient stones.

While discussing the challenges at the Kotel, a friend of mine remarked that she really values the unique roles Judaism ascribes to each gender, and finds deep meaning in what she is empowered to do as a Jewish woman. And that it is precisely for that reason that she, too, finds the Kotel to be a challenging place, since the imbroglio takes away from her ability to pray there as a woman, in a Jewish environment surrounded by women who aren’t trying to silence her.

For me, alongside my deep commitment to a fully egalitarian Judaism, I also identify strongly with the various ways that Judaism welcomes men and women to access their Judaism in different ways, at times using different language. I have no problem referring to the shekhinah any more than I do speaking of Avinu Malkeinu. To be sure – not withstanding the historical bias towards a male-oriented language that Jewish history has had – I relish the different metaphors and allegories we use to talk about God and our relationship with Her/Him.

It is for that reason that the Kotel’s hijacking by the Orthodox disturbs me the most – precisely because it is being done by my fellow Jewish men, in the name of a Judaism to which I – and the majority of both Israelis and Jews around the world – don’t ascribe. When I go to the Kotel and bask in the vastness of the men’s section, I can walk freely up to the ancient and holy stones without having to push my way through a crowd, as the women do. I don’t have raw eggs thrown at me for wearing tallit and tefillin, and I can pray the words of the Shema without fear of being arrested. For me to do these things, while other Jews cannot, requires immense cognitive dissonance; that these offenses are committed by fellow Jewish men towards women because they are not men causes me great distress.

Yet tomorrow, I will join thousands of other people in recognition of the ongoing struggle to make Israel a better place. Surely, I can’t just sit on the sidelines whenever the fight gets dirty. Often, it’s important to get a little closer to the things that make us uncomfortable, to get a better perspective, and to push ourselves to right the wrongs we see in the world. As we sang tonight, overlooking the gates of the Old City: “Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter and give thanks to Adonai.”

Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform

Men Can be Rabbis?

Crossposted at RJ.org and the NFTY blog

“Who’s that guy?” I asked my mom.

“He’s the rabbi,” she answered. I stared up at my mom, with a blank gaze on my face.

When I was eight years old, my family joined a synagogue for the first time.

Even before then, we always had a fairly strong sense of Jewish identify in our home – celebrating Shabbat every week at my grandparents’ house and observing Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and Chanukah together. From an early age, I was taught how to express the guttural ‘ch’ sound that permeates our people’s speech, and I have fond memories of helping my bubby place all of the items on the seder plate at Pesach, as I checked them off one-by-one in my own coloring book haggadah. The fact that my zaidy had given me The Big Book of Jewish Humor at a young age probably helped, too (or just made matters worse, according to my mother)

So I don’t recall struggling with any heavy questions about Judaism when my parents announced to my sister and I that we’d be joining a shul. They explained all about services, the rabbi, Hebrew school, and the like, and it all seemed fairly straightforward to me.

A few weeks later at the age of eight, I was shipped off to Hebrew school for the first time.

I was that rare breed of kid who actually enjoyed Hebrew school. Maybe it was partly because I was a dork, but I ascribe much of my thirst for Jewish knowledge to the inspirational education I received at the hands of my very first rabbi – Rabbi Nancy Wechsler (now Rabbi Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA).

She was a product of our URJ camps, played guitar and sang with a beautiful voice, and led worship and classes with warmth and inspiration.

She had that rare ability to make eachof her young congregants truly feel that their connection with Judaism and with God was personally meaningful, important, and unique. She saw in each of us a holy spark to be nurtured as we travelled along on our Jewish journeys. On a weekly basis, she made us feel that being Jewish and coming to shul wasn’t a boring and burdensome task, but an exciting and meaningful part of our lives.

So when I looked up at my mom and asked her “Who’s that guy?” you can forgive me for not being even more confused.

I asked my mother that question at the age of nine while sitting in the pews of a synagogue that wasn’t our own. We were attending a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, and their congregation’s rabbi had just ascended the bimah.

He… was a ‘he.’

Men can be rabbis?!” I exclaimed.

I don’t recall my mother’s response, but she assures me that it was a mixture of hilarity, amusement, mild embarrassment, and pride.

I had only known from Rabbi Wechsler, and assumed that all rabbis were women. I wouldn’t understand until years later that my then nine-year-old self had just wandered into one of the great issues of modern Judaism– women in the rabbinate and the role of women in Jewish life.

With the sudden realization that an entire new world was open to me as a male, I started pondering the possibility of a career as a professional Jew. At least that’s the version of events I tell myself today. I’m sure that nine-year-old Jesse just wanted the service to end as quickly as possible so we could get to the oneg.

But there is little doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have stayed connected to my Judaism through high school, university and beyond, and wouldn’t today be a Jewish Professional if it wasn’t for the foundation Rabbi Wechlser-Azen laid two decades ago.

So while I learned that day that men can indeed be rabbis, I’m pretty thankful that women can be, too.

Canada, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Politics

Steven Harper could learn a lot at Yeshiva

To those who, in the upcoming election, might be compelled to base their vote on their religious affiliation:  If you are intent again to use a theo-political issue to trump your vote. (certainly, the Tories have done and are doing everything they can to convince you that this is a good idea), perhaps, first study some Midrash:

“Moses said: ‘I know that the Israelites are malcontents. Therefore, I will audit the entire construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)’. He began making an accounting: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ and he began reporting everything, the gold, silver and bronze, and the silver of the public census… He continued reckoning each item in the Mishkan in order, but forgot 1575 shekels from which the hooks on the pillars were fashioned, but which were not generally visible. He stood bewildered and said: ‘Now they will lay their hands on me, saying that I took it’, and he went back to recalculate. Immediately, God opened Moses’ eyes and showed him that the silver was used in the hooks on the pillars. He began to reply to them, saying: ‘and 1575 were fashioned into pillar hooks’ and the Israelites were immediately appeased. What enabled this? The fact that he sat and made an accounting…

…But why did he make an accounting?… It is only because he heard the cynics talking behind his back, as it says ‘And when Moshe left…they looked back at Moshe’. What did they say? R. Yitzhak said that people spoke positively. Then others would chime in: ‘Imbecile! He’s the one who controlled the entire enterprise of the Mishkan… gold and silver that were not counted, weighed, or numbered! Wouldn’t you expect that he be rich?’ When Moshe heard this, he said: ‘My word! When the Mishkan is completed, I will make an accounting’, as it says ‘These are the records of the Mishkan.’”

-Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 7

What’s going on here?

In short, the Midrash is teaching us that the fiscal cost of the Tabernacle – as a public project funded by the taxes of the Israelites – must be entirely accounted for in an open, transparent, and accessible way.

It’s also teaching us that Moses – as leader of the people – is answerable to the people. Even Moses, who speaks to God face-to-face in a way that no others do, must still face the people.

In a broader sense, it speaks about the virtue of transparency among leaders and the need to be open and answerable to the public.

Stephen Harper could learn a lot from Moses.

An egregious lack of transparency and accountability related to the purchase of military aircraft is exactly what led the Conservatives to be censured for Contempt of Parliament this past week. Of course, anyone with their finger on the pulse of Canadian politics knows that this specific issue is part and parcel of a greater patten of behaviour on part of the Tories; one that paved the way to the landmark ruling by (famed non-partisan) Speaker of the House Peter Milliken.

Certainly if we Jews acknowledge that Moses was expected to be held accountable to the people and to act transparently, we should bestow the same criteria upon Mr. Harper. Certainly if our Midrash teaches us the virtues of un-opaque leadership, we should value that in our national leader as well.

It is challenging for me to view how Harper and the Conservatives can be painted as an honest, transparent, accountable, and open government. Sure, there have been individual instances when they acted reasonable on these grounds. But the story of the Tories – as any learned political observer will tell you – is one of secrecy, opacity, avoidance of responsibility, centralized power, and tight-lipped relations with the Canadian people.

So to the Jews who will likely vote for the Conservatives on the grounds of their supposed dominance of the “support for Israel” (whatever that means) issue: if you value our rabbinic instructions as much as you value the Conservative’s platform (which, remember, didn’t exist when you voted last time…), perhaps you should reconsider the value of your vote.

P.S.: Not convinced that the Tories have a national Jewish-vote buying strategy in place? It isn’t just happening in Thornhill, it’s also taking place down the 401 in Montreal’s Mount-Royal riding.

Judaism - Pluralism

But daddy, why can’t we have a Chanukah bush?!

My dad was in town on business this week, fortunately timed so that he could join me for the first night of Chanukah. He happened to be here with one of his colleagues (who happened to not be Jewish), and asked if he could join us as we lit the Chanukah candles before going to dinner. Of course, I said yes, and so on the first night of Chanukah, there was a nice informal interfaith thingy in my apartment.

At dinner, my dad pressed his associate to tell me about what his son was learning at school. This being the “holiday season” (insert groan), turns out his young son had learned about the “miracle of the oil,” had also learned all about dreidles, and had in fact been playing with one non-stop at home. I happen to think this is fantastic; learning independently about others’ religious and cultural practices is great, fosters tolerance, and doesn’t succumb to the lame and possibly dangerous tendency to combine different religions into some hybrid mishmash.

See here for my earlier thoughts from a few years ago on how dumb people can get at this time of year when it comes to interfaith interactions.

Later during dinner, my dad’s coworker stepped out to take a phone call from his family. When he returned, he told us that he shared with his son that he had joined us for our Chanukah celebrations, to which his son proclaimed “AWH! Lucky you, dad!”

I still can’t get over how awesome this was to hear. For Jews who most often live in the shadow (the big, beautifully lit and great smelling shadow) of the Christmas Tree, it’s nice to know that it’s possible to foster a mutual respect and appreciate of each others’ traditions.

Billboard Judaism, Israel, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform

The Schizophrenic Jewish Hierarchy

I just read that at the JFNA General Assembly, Kadima MP Tzipi Livni addressed the crowd with a message of Jewish unity, calling for “dialog between the Jews of the Diaspora and of Israel to ensure that we would forever remain one people. That is how I see you when I stand here today… not as Reform Jews or Orthodox or Conservative.

Setting aside the cookie-cutter content of her speech, am I the only one that thinks when someone mentions the three major Movements of North American Judaism in the same breath, there’s an inherent resistance that takes place, our of fear of establishing a hierarchy?

I can imagine Livni’s speech-writers spending hours formulating that one sentence:

– Who do we put first? Reform? If we say Reform first, then we have to say Orthodox second, otherwise it will look like we’re going bottom up along the religious scale.

– There’s a religious scale?

– Of course there is, everyone knows there’s an identity problem in North American Judaism.

– Nu? Maybe we shouldn’t put Reform first, it makes it look like we’re starting at the bottom.

– Ok, so let’s start with Orthodox.

– No, then it looks like we’re starting at the top and working our way down.

– What is wrong with North American Jews?! Why can’t they just be like us Israelis and have one, state-sponsored religious stream. Things would be so much easier that way…

– Yes. Yes, they would.

– Ok, so what about Conservative Judaism… why don’t we start with them?

– If we put Conservative first, then it will be too obvious that we’re trying to avoid establishing a hierarchy.

– Ok, so let’s start with Orthodox, but then go straight to Reform so it looks like we understand religious pluralism.

– Then we’re leaving Conservative for last; people will think we’re making a comment about the dying state of their movement.

And on, and on, and on, and on…

Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform

Law & Linguistics (which even though it sounds so, is not the title of a University course)

Progressive Jews refer to Jewish law/Halacha relatively frequently. For a quick and imminent example, check out today’s Mishnah Day email from the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah series.

For those playing the home game, progressive/Reform Judaism (at least institutionally) does not accept Halacha as theologically binding. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, one of the foremost scholars on Judaism and Jewish Law notes, “we do not regard halakhah as a process which yields mandatory conclusions.

I don’t want to debate whether or not Jewish Law/Halacha has merit as an institution. I happen to think it does. But I was struck today with what I think is an odd realization…

Question: Is it contradictory – or at the very least, confusing – for progressive Jews to acknowledge that there is an institution called “Jewish Law,” while simultaneously stating that it is not mandatory?

When we call something a law, we implicitly indicate that it is mandatory. Yet Washofsky writes that Reform Jews have their own “unique approach to halakhah.” Hmmm.

I can think of no other example of a group of people that has a body of optional laws, or laws that can obeyed or not obeyed depending on the unique approach to them by individuals. If such a group exists, they certainly don’t wouldn’t call such an institution “laws”.

Of course, civil courts have laws which can be challenged, updated, appealed, repealed, and interpreted in different ways by judges so as to set legal precedent. But in any given moment, for example, Canadian Law as a body isn’t open for individual interpretation. That’s why it’s called “The Law” and not “The Suggestion”. A citizen can’t decide for themselves (without legal ramifications) that theft is justified, even if they’ve studied criminal law ad nauseum.

This is not all to say that Reform/progressive Jews should follow Jewish law in its entirety. That’s not my place to suggest. This is also not to say that Halacha – as a humanly created system – shouldn’t be open to interpretation by humans. I think it should. I also think that any humanly created legal system that is held to the immutable standards that halachah is by Orthodox Jews borders on idolatry and more often than not misses the point of having the legal system in the first place.

What I am suggesting is that there is a linguistic difficulty in calling something that is not binding “The Law”. If, as Washofsky suggest, Jewish Law is “a discourse, an ongoing conversation through which we arrive at an understanding,” then perhaps we shouldn’t be calling it “Law” (at least in English). Perhaps we need another term.

In Hebrew, “Halachah” means “The Way” or “The Path.” Even these translations imply a singular reality, and not the pluralistic approach Washofsky suggests.

If we agree that Jewish Law has a role within progressive and Reform Judaism, it’s time to give it an appropriate name that reflects its role. I’m not a legal scholar or a linguist, so I’m not sure yet sure what is the right word/phrase to use, but I am certain that the language we’re using now doesn’t reflect the praxis that exists on the ground by the majority of progressive/Reform Jews.

An additional thought – a new term may even encourage more people to study and engage with what we call Halacha. Jewish Law as a term is heavy and can be scary unless you’re open to accepting that Law = a binding system.