Ideas, Judaism - General, Judaism - Reform, Judaism - Torah

Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon below).


 

I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

Advertisements
Judaism - Reform

What Reform Judaism can learn about Choice from Disney World

In 2002, at the age of 18, I visited Walt Disney World for the first time. My sister was 15, and waiting until this point in our lives to make the trek to Orlando was a supremely wise decision on my parents’ part, as it removed a lot of the stress that accompanies visiting the home of the world’s most famous mouse. No screaming children begging to go on every ride; no crying at not being able to decide what to do next (well, almost no crying); this was to be a fun and pretty smooth vacation.

Today, 13 years later, Walt Disney World has just finished a billion-dollar, half-decade process of innovation and invention which has radically redefined what it means to experience the Most Magical Place on Earth. With the introduction of the MagicBand, a new user electronic wristband that augments visits through the park, Disney has not just manufactured a new piece of technology, they have manufactured a new philosophy.

Only-Disney-Would-Have-RFID-MagicBands

behind-the-scenes Wired article describes the power of the MagicBand (emphasis my own):

Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved… You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please…

[The Magic Band] change[s] almost every detail of the meticulously plotted choreography that rules Disney World itself…

Instead of telling your kid that you’ll try to meet Elsa or ride It’s a Small World… you get to be the hero, promising a ride or a meet-and-greet up front. Then you can be freer to experience the park more broadly. You’re freed to take advantage of more rides. There is an elegant business logic here. By getting people exploring beyond the park’s top attractions, overall use of the park goes up. People spend less time in line. They’re doing more, which means they’re spending more and remembering more.

The old philosophy of a guest at Disney World might be summed up in the question: “What do I do next?” Which ride do I go on? What do I want to eat? What souvenir am I going to purchase? Anyone who has been to Disney World knows that while exciting, this has the potential to be incredibly overwhelming. Instead of a question, Disney’s new philosophy – as represented by the MagicBand – seems to be more akin to an emphatic declaration of awe, punctuated at the end by an interrobang: “This is what I am doing!?” The subtext of this interrobang being “WOW!”

THE DILEMMA OF CHOICE

A key element in Disney’s thought-process has been an understanding of the myriad ways that our world has very quickly been transformed into one with endless new choices and endless entertainment options. Tom Staggs, Chief Operating Officer of the Walt Disney Company observes that the theme park has “a strange dilemma that echoes the dilemmas we face in our digital lives… Walt Disney World is vast. There’s more to do than you could do in a month. That choice is overwhelming.”

Unless you are particularly fickle, the ability to make choices is usually thought of as a pretty good thing. So Disney’s philosophical reduction of choice might seem somewhat counterintuitive. But in doing so, they have created new and richer opportunities to experience the depth of Disney World.

Judaism should be doing the same thing. For those invested in bringing people into the wonderful world of Jewish thought, ritual, and community, we should avoid the temptation to present an overwhelming kingdom of choices. We should instead work to reduce the barriers to having more meaningful experiences (excessive choice being a prime example).

There’s a cognitive science to this – something Disney has embraced and turned into practice. Remove choice (with careful intention), and you actually increase depth of experience. Akin to what Disney has done, we can get people to explore Judaism beyond the top attractions (the High Holidays), we can have people spending less time in parking lots (literally), and more time doing; more time remembering.

WE ARE NOT COMMANDED (EXCEPT WHEN WE WANT TO BE)

The centrality of autonomy, choice, and agency are often espoused as the defining hallmarks of Reform Judaism. While at one point in recent history, there were a number of other characteristics that defined Reform Judaism as absolutely distinct from other Jewish religious movements (gender egalitarianism, use of musical instruments, patrilineality, welcoming of different sexual orientations), these distinctions have largely blurred amongst contemporary liberal/progressive Jewish philosophies. What remains is an almost rigid insistence on the place of choice in the life of Reform Jews as the essential religious component of being a Reform Jew.

But do other Jews not also have the capacity for choice? Of course! What is distinct about Reform Judaism it is not the simple idea of choice in determining one’s religious practices (which every human being is entitled to, even according to the most stringent Jewish teachings), but the theological belief that God does not command us to do anything. Instead, in Reform Judaism, human autonomy is raised up as the most significant factor in defining one’s religious practices.

Reform Judaism has a troubled relationship with the implications of choice. Each Jew is allowed to personally choose which commandments are relevant, but the notion of commandedness is not entirely expunged. Sometimes, when the circumstances merit it, the idea of commandedness sneaks in:

The ancient command “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice shall you seek!” constantly reverberates in our ears. It has become deeply embedded in the Reform Jewish psyche.

Appearing on the Union for Reform Judaism’s website (bold emphasis my own), this is an example of how commandedness is often evoked, when attached to issues of social justice. Yet a similar understanding of commandedness has not become deeply embedded the Reform Jewish psyche when it comes to matters of study, worship, or ritual practice. It seems that commandedness only applies to things which a liberal-minded person was already predisposed to do.

This raises all sorts of theological quandaries. When Reform Jews recite blessings to God, uttering the words “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu…” (who has sanctified us with His commandments, commanding us to…), do they actually believe, for example, that God commands the study of Torah, or the wearing of tzitzit? If so, does that not cause cognitive dissonance with identifying as a Reform Jew? If not, is that not theologically disingenuous?

FREE WILL vs. AUTONOMY

I don’t believe that most of the million or so people who call themselves Reform Jews are troubled by this, as I don’t believe most actually think that much about the theological implications of choice and commandedness. I think that if and when most Reform Jews speak of choice, what they are really talking about is a sense of free will (which is easy to understand), rather than a sense of theological autonomy (which is much more difficult to grasp).

In this case, free will simply describes the human condition and our cognitive ability to make choices (which every Jew has). Autonomy, on the other hand, is the capacity of an individual to make an un-coerced decision. Un-coerced, here, meaning un-coerced by none other than God. How audacious! It is unfortunate that the language of coercion is negative, but it is still apt. Put in a more positive light, I would make the case that a Jew who makes a religious choice out of a sense of obligation to God most certainly acts from a place of free will, but views their choices as defined by and in relationship to something larger than themselves. This is not autonomous choice.

But this, too, is a very human idea! When a parent makes choices for their family, they do not do so absent a sense of responsibility and obligation to their family members. Would a parent ever describe the loving care of their children as autonomous? We can see ourselves in relationship with God in the same way – able to make choices freely, but not absent an understanding of wider implications.

From my perspective, these ideas of responsibility and relationship are frequently neutered in Reform Judaism in the name of an almost stubborn defence of free will as ideologically central. A few years ago, Rabbi Leon Morris called attention to this absurdity, noting that “trying to build a movement on the basis of this term is like trying to build a nation around the assertion that ‘it’s a free country.’ Of course, we would say, but there is so much more that follows.

That sense of “so much more that follows” is what comes with the obligations of relationship. And that is what is so often missing from Reform Jewish thought and practice. The language of obligation that often accompanies ideas of social justice and tikkun olam is nice, but unless you believe that God commands it, there is nothing explicitly Jewish about saying that we are obligated to protect the planet earth. On the other hand, there is something explicitly Jewish about saying that we are obligated to wear tzitzit and tefillin.

Of course, neither of these senses of obligation are mutually exclusive, which is precisely why both appear together throughout Jewish thought. Together being the operative word – we can maintain a commitment to the prophetic ideals of human responsibility to one another without casting away our obligation to God’s commandments. Indeed, both inform one another. There is no reason why Prophet and Priest cannot walk hand-in-hand.

“YOU DON’T LEAVE ME NO CHOICE”

Bluntly assessing the consequences of Reform Judaism’s focus on choice, Rabbi Morris argues that:

A disproportionate emphasis on personal choice has ‘dumbed down’ our movement. While sometimes marketed as ‘informed choice,’ this rarely has meant more than learning a snippet of a classic text about a particular issue rather than the kind of immersion and wholesale commitment that ongoing learning requires.

While autonomy was once a compelling and revolutionary vision of what Judaism could be for people, it was bolstered by the simultaneous avant-garde social changes within Judaism that Reform was precipitating. But those social changes are now mostly widely-accepted social mores, so what we’re left with is a rather empty notion of free will. This is hardly revolutionary and hardly compelling.

This has also led to an enormous gap between the stated religious philosophies of the Reform Movement, and the common practices of the laity. As I’ve recently written, this presents some fairly significant challenges to maintaining personal and communal integrity.

The solution? Follow Disney’s innovative wisdom and get rid of (or at least tone down) the philosophy of choice. In creating the MagicBand, Disney removed significant elements of choice from the equation of a visit to Disney World. They did this, because they understood what is known as the paradox of choice“You make people happier not by giving them more options but by stripping away as many as you can. The ability to plan and personalize has given way to spontaneity. And that feeling of ease, and whatever flows from it, just might make you more apt to come back.”

In mitigating the anxiety that comes from endless choices, Disney has crafted a new experience that allows for experiencing more moments of fun and excitement with significantly less barriers. People think less and do more. What is fun and excitement for Disney is religious meaning and significance for Judaism. Rabbi Morris, presciently writing in 2011, articulates Disney’s same idea, yet in Jewish terms:

Any forward-looking religious movement must come to terms with the fact that the religious communities experiencing the most growth and the greatest dynamism today are those that make real demands upon its members…

Personal choice may sound as though it is predicated on a high level of knowledge to be able to make such decisions. But the impetus for learning is greatest when one feels claimed by what one studies, and when there is a degree of engagement that joins the hand with the heart.

MB

BIND IT AS A SIGN UPON YOUR HAND

A visitor to Disney World can now wear a MagicBand around their hand, carrying that impetus directly on their body. Of course, free will still exists for the Disney World guest, and they are enabled (indeed, empowered) to make suitable choices according to their interests. But with the overwhelming sense of choice toned down, guests are having richer experiences, exploring more beyond the top-hits, spending less time in lines, doing more, and remembering more. And Disney has the data to prove it.

If only there were some magical, innovative, Jewish device we could strap on to our wrists that would remind us of the same ideas, and provide the impetus for similar experiences within Judaism…

tistgla

 
Judaism - Reform

Tradition? Tradition! A response to Rabbi Larry Milder’s “I’m Very Reform”

2707-2

A few questions I think about often:

  • What is “traditional” Judaism?
  • Does any single group or philosophy own the rights to this label?
  • Is it a monolithic concept – i.e. can you open up a book and see the definition of “traditional” Judaism?
  • Did anything come before “traditional” Judaism? What came after it? Where is it located in the world?
  • What larger forces might have impacted upon “traditional” Judaism to give rise to these other approaches?
  • Does the term “traditional” imply that there is “untraditional” Judaism?
  • What is “untraditional Judaism”?
  • If you call yourself something other than “traditional” Judaism, how does that empower you – i.e. what can you now do with that label that you couldn’t before?

There is an article making the rounds through part of the (online) Jewish world right now, penned by Rabbi Larry Milder of Congregation Beth Emek, a Reform synagogue in Northern California. In I’m Very Reform, Rabbi Milder argues against the conception of Reform Judaism as a watered-down version of what he labels “traditional approaches to Judaism.” He makes the case for a Reform Jewish practice that includes “a commitment to consider [Jewish] duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.” As I consider myself a fairly progressive Jew (though not Reform – see below), I appreciate Rabbi Milder’s desire to inject some more depth into progressive Jewish religiosity.

Many people shared the article, and I continued to see it pop up in my Facebook feed again and again. I had the occasion to read and reread Rabbi Milder’s words, and I began to see a problem bubbling to the surface. His writing was prompted as a lament against those who say to him “Rabbi, I grew up very Reform,” which is supposedly meant to indicate the level of their religious observance, i.e. that they “don’t do much that’s Jewish.

This is a frustrating trope; one that is challenging when you consider the breadth of observance and depth of thought within the Reform Movement. Rabbi Milder rightly goes on to argue that the label “Reform” does not carry with it any stated level of observance (or non-observance, for that matter), ergo it is disingenuous to equate it with a non-serious approach to Judaism. That said, his entire subsequent argument rests on whether or not you understand “Reform” to be a prescriptive or a descriptive term.

PRESCRIPTIVE OR DESCRIPTIVE?

It seems to me that Rabbi Milder understands “Reform” to be a prescriptive term, as he notes that subscribing to this ideology and adopting its label entails a certain level of obligation. He defines this as follows:

“To be a Reform Jew is to approach Judaism seriously, to believe that being Jewish means being obligated. Reform Judaism is not a license to abandon one’s Jewish duties; it is a commitment to consider those duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.

If we understand “Reform” to be prescriptive, then Rabbi Milder is absolutely correct. His understanding of kashrut, Shabbat observance, Torah study, is a decidedly serious model for a deep and engaging approach to Jewish life, and he is right to be flummoxed by those who use the term “Reform” to mean “don’t do much Jewish.” His approach is an aspirational understanding of what Judaism can mean to people in 2015.

The challenge for us is that it is just that – aspirational – i.e. not reflective of the current reality. Aspiring to be more than what we are is essential to the human condition. The idea is also a valuable and important part of how Judaism understands itself in relationship to the world. But aspiration, while it looks beyond current realities, should not be detached from reality, particularly if it blinds us from confronting real challenges about our condition, and opportunities for growth.

Rabbi Milder’s emphatic defence of his own Reform Jewish practice unfortunately ignores the reality of Jewish life for the majority of self-defined Reform Jews today. The truth – as evidenced ad nauseam in the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews and its abundant commentary – is that for most of those who today identify as “Reform” (at least in the United States), Rabbi Milder’s definition of Jewish practice holds little semblance.

If we understand “Reform” to be more descriptive than prescriptive, then we begin to see the inherent challenges facing the Movement today. The reality is that most Reform Jews do not keep kosher, are not defining what they do from Friday to Saturday evening as Shabbat observance, and are not engaged in ongoing Torah study. To be sure, Rabbi Milder himself notes that he hears statements equating Reform with non-practice “all the time.” Is there not a serious dissonance if the majority of Reform Jews are not upholding the very values and behaviours that Rabbi Milder and the Movement define as Reform?

The fact that vast numbers of people use the term “Reform” to indicate the (lower) level of their Jewish ritual observance, and the Pew Survey’s corroboration, points to an important sociological trend that should not be ignored. Whether or not we particularly care for how people define (indeed self-define) “Reform,” should be a separate issue from discussing if that definition has truth.

ASPIRATIONS

This issue is reflective of wider gaps between laity and leadership, and is certainly not a phenomenon unique to the Reform Movement. But it is one that we cannot attempt to wash over, simply by encouraging people to consider themselves as Reform, even if their practice does not accurately reflect the supposedly prescriptive definition.

We should confront the reality head-on: for the majority of Reform Jews, at least according to the metrics which Rabbi Milder has established, identifying as “Reform” does indeed equal a lower degree of ritual observance. And if that is a reality with which we are uncomfortable, we should not isolate ourselves into a bubble by saying “no no no, that’s not what Reform Judaism is really about,” instead, we should work to change the reality. This is where aspiration comes into play.

Do we want those who identity as Reform Jews to see themselves as more than instead of less than? Do we want them to engage in more serious Jewish practice? Do we want to aspire to be more than what we currently are? Do we want to envision a world where “Reform” isn’t a minimalist descriptive label, but an aspirational prescription for seriousness and depth?

If so, we need to confront another challenge, one that underlies Rabbi Milder’s arguments, and one that comes to light when considering the role that aspiration plays in Jewish life.

TRADITION?

The standard to which Rabbi Milder measures his practice throughout his writing is an unidentified “traditional approach” to Judaism. I’d like to know to which “tradition” this refers. Is it traditional Ashkenazi Orthodoxy? Is it traditional Sephardi Judaism? Is it traditional American Judaism? Is it traditional Canadian Judaism? Unfortunately, it remains undefined, aside from a reference to halakha, so we are left to assume that “traditional” refers to some vague notion of Orthodox Judaism, which, by virtue of being “traditional,” is seen as more authentic.

Rabbi Milder refers to “traditional definitions” of Shabbat, “traditional Jewish prayers,” and “traditional prohibitions” of kashrut, and that his own “Reform” practices do not follow these “traditions.” But whose traditions are they? Do they not belong to all Jews? Are they not ours, too?! By labeling these “Reform” practices as “not something else” and judging them against the “traditional,” we give weight to an external (presumably Orthodox) standard. But all Jews own and have access to our tradition!

I believe this idea is encountered far too often by too many Jews: that Orthodox Judaism is the metric by which all other expressions of Judaism should be measured. Moreover, I believe that this idea is flawed and unattractive to most Jews searching for depth and meaning in their lives. People crave authenticity, and to sell ourselves as detached from our own tradition neuters this authenticity.

TRADITION!

To be sure, there is no singular “traditional” Judaism. The assumption that there is remains one of the most challenge assumptions that progressive Jews face – case in point, note how Israel’s adoption of an official state version of Judaism leads to disengagement and disenfranchisement from Jewish life.

I ultimately question the need for most Jewish labels. What energy does the label “Reform” provide us when held against the label “traditional”? Are these labels even opposites? Why choose one over the other? If we are going to label our Judaism, shouldn’t the label add something rather than limit it?

No one label, group, or movement can claim to be the sole proprietors of Jewish tradition. Tradition is something which we have all inherited, and must wrestle with on a daily basis if we are to be the practitioners of a serious Judaism of integrity (Rabbi Milder’s own stated goal).

Suggesting that contemporary Shabbat, Kashrut, Torah study, and other Jewish practices are less “traditional” removes from them a sense of authenticity and relevancy to most Reform Jews – which is precisely why these Reform Jews continue to define themselves as less-than. Less than whom? Less than the Orthodox who we are holding up as the de facto owners of “traditional” Judaism!

If we want Reform Jews to see themselves as more-than instead of less-than; if we want Reform laity to aspire to greater depth of Jewish living, if we want Jews to aspire to great seriousness and meaning in their lives, then we must all take full ownership of our tradition. It belongs to all Jews, everywhere.


A full-disclosure point: I have strong ties to the Reform Movement. My family joined a Reform synagogue in the Toronto suburbs when I was 8, and I went on to be strongly involved in Reform youth movements through university. Upon graduation, I worked for the Union for Reform Judaism, and am currently pursuing ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Do I consider myself a Reform Jew? No, I don’t think so. Can’t I just be Jewish?

Judaism - Prayer, Judaism - Reform

Sh’ma: Version 3.0

tumblr_lt1prlhM0V1ql6r33

Reform Judaism might have been the ultimate Dead White Guy club. While your average Reform Jew probably doesn’t know who Geiger, Holdheim, Zunz, and Jacobson were (a really great law firm?), close to two centuries after their radical notions were introduced into Judaism, we are still dealing with the implications of how Judaism deals with such (originally) non-Jewish concepts of rationality, reason, and logic. We owe many debts of gratitude to these founders of Reform Judaism, but we may also be held captive by some of their ideas.

For the early Reformers, the ultimate authorities on decisions of religious importance were these “immutable” laws of rationality, reason, and logic. The sh’ma was a prime target for attempts at expunging any perceived irrational theology from our liturgy. References to divine reward and punishment? Out! Commandments to distinguish ourselves in dress by wearing tzitzit? Out! Notions of divine control over natural weather patterns? Out!

What was left was a very nice catechism on the oneness of God – a perfect watchword of our faith that might be easier for the wider world to digest.

But as I’ve talked about before, not everything we do is really held up to this standard anymore. And for me, this is a great evolution. When everything is rational; when everything makes sense; when everything is smooth and polished in perfection, we stop thinking. It becomes easier to glide through life without thinking about our actions. When everything is simple and easy and clean, we are robbed of opportunities for kavannah.

In the quest for spirituality, many previously rejected “irrational” aspects of Judaism have been re-embraced in Reform. But one hundred and some fifty odd years later, the sh’ma looks more or less the same in Reform siddurim, not keeping fully apace with our irrational evolution. There is, of course, the notable exception of the passages on the tallit being reintroduced in Mishkan T’filah, reflecting the change in approach to wearing tallitot among Reform Jews.

Will there be a day when Reform Jews revisit the other effaced components of the sh’ma? Can we have a progressive approach to notions of God compelling us to be responsible for our actions? Yes, I believe so! In fact, thinking along the lines of Reuven Hammer’s philosophy, the previously expunged parts of the sh’ma may actually be perfect contenders for a Reform approach to this concept. Check out what Hammer has to say, in Entering Jewish Prayer (bold emphasis is my own):

“One need not believe literally in physical reward and punishment to accept the doctrine of the second paragraph of the Shema. Its importance is not in the specific way in which it was formulated and concretized, but in the very assertion that there is meaning in our actions, that there is responsibility for what we do. The human echo of the existence of that Ultimate Reality is that there also exists ultimate responsibility. If man is not the master of the world but is accountable to a greater power, our actions take on grave importance and must be carefully measured.

Doesn’t this sound like the backbone of the Reform notion of social responsibility? Aren’t there countless other occasions in Jewish texts where we don’t necessarily believe the p’shat of the text, instead using it as a trigger for deeper thinking? I was surprised to discover a supporter of this idea in an unlikely place: 1869 Prussia. It seems that not all of the early Reformers were so wed to rationality’s trump card over spirituality. Consider what Gustav Gottheil had to say in 1869 (again, bold emphasis is my own):

“I fully recognize the rights of the present to change the prayer, but I believe that the religious consciousness of other times also has the right to find expression in our prayers. I do not believe that our time, with its cold rational direction, is especially suitable to create warm, heart-stirring prayers….”

With this idea in mind, might there be a way to reframe the challenging aspects of the sh’ma so that it can be both a declaration of our belief in the oneness of God, as well as our supreme belief in humanity’s need to be responsible for our actions on a cosmic level? Wouldn’t that be quite the watchword?

Judaism - Reform

What’s good about Reform Judaism?

Just as we were taking our seats in class today, and with little forewarning, my classmates and I read this question as Rabbi Marmur wrote it on the board. The question had been lingering beneath the surface for a while, as of yet unanswered in our class entitled, Why I am a Reform Jew. Our minds were already racing for answers as the question, “What is not good about Reform Judaism?” joined its pair on the whiteboard.

Ask a group of Jews these questions, and you’re sure to open the floodgates to a world of opinions. As a group of rabbinical students those questions at the Reform rabbinical school, and… well, you better have your scuba gear ready.

Our answers were wide, varied, and deep. They reflect the diversity of opinion and belief amongst our class. Deeply personal at times, they are thoughtfully critical of the things we need to work on, and unabashedly praiseful of the things we’re getting right.

What fascinated me the most was not the diversity of opinions shared (as impressive as it was), rather it was those ideas that appeared in both categories, and those that didn’t appear at all. What do we think that Reform Judaism is doing that is both good and bad? What are we doing that is promising, yet also has room for growth and reconsideration? And what aren’t we doing at all?!

Here’s a rundown of the things that appeared in both columns:

  • Choice
  • No Reform halakha
  • Liturgical creativity
  • The wealth of Reform Jews
  • Patrilineal descent
  • Not enough God-talk

And until we were prompted to think a little deeper, little was mentioned of:

  • God
  • Torah
  • Israel

A word first on the God/Torah/Israel triumvirate: I would hazard a guess to say that we didn’t say much about these three things simply because they are part and parcel of all that we do. While there’s a diversity of belief and practice surrounding these three pillars, they remain the central foci of Judaism. It was only after Rabbi Marmur drew our attention to their absence from either of the lists that we started narrowing down our focus and commenting on various aspects of the three. Those may be the topic of a later discussion, but for now, let’s take a look at our good/bad things of Reform Judaism.

By no means was this a scientific study. That said, I believe our answers shine a light on some of the major issues that are being grappled with today among committed Reform Jews. These are things we aren’t content to let hide in dark corners, untouched:

 

CHOICE

One of the first things mentioned by some in the class was the notion that the slogan “choice through knowledge” still bears weight and meaning, and represents an ideal vision of what Reform Judaism can aspire to be. But it also confronts us with the reality of choice through lack of knowledge, which remains a challenge for the knowledgeable leadership, and an impetus for the continued improvement of our educational models.

 

NO REFORM HALAKHA

On the one hand, the lack of a clearly defined set of instructions of what Reform Jews do and don’t do is a continued frustration for many. It makes it hard for us to talk about ourselves objectively and to think about how we interact with and share experiences with the wider Jewish world. And yet, it is a hallmark of the “big-tent” Judaism that we aspire to be, and makes us uniquely suited to reach out and help many unattached Jews find meaningful new Jewish experiences. So how do we hold high the values of personal meaning-making and self-agency, along with the need to have an accessible guide to Reform Jewish practice and belief?

 

LITURGICAL CREATIVITY

How do we balance a desire to have worship that is firmly attached to our textual roots, yet is freshly inspiring and reaches up to the heights of our creative imaginations? How do we bring together authenticity and creativity? How do we help maintain the liturgical innovations that Reform Judaism brought to the Jewish world, yet not become stagnant in our prayerful language?

 

THE WEALTH OF REFORM JEWS

Once, eons ago, Reform Judaism might have believed that Judaism is a private matter of the individual. Now, that idea is as anathema to us as a mechitza. clearly, there is an interplay between religion and the wider world that is of paramount importance. The gross wealth inequalities in North America – and yes, this includes those among Reform Jews – is something that draws our attention. This wealth opens many doors to meaningful experiences (summer camp, higher education, philanthropy, etc.), yet it cannot merely be seen as a private matter. What is the balance between personal and communal responsibility? We need not look further than Rabbi Hillel for the answer…

 

PATRILINEAL DESCENT

A key and central idea of Reform Judaism’s inclusiveness: the way a family observes Judaism at home and educates children is more important than which parent “owns” the right to pass Judaism on to their child. While this was a radical innovation when the Reform Movement introduced it in 1983, it actual has its roots firmly in the tribal affiliation of our biblical ancestors. Without question, championing patrilineal descent has brought tens of thousands of people into the realm of Jewish life, and has enabled countless families to make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives. Can we even begin to imagine how different life would have been for these people in an alternate reality? At the same time, the decision represented a radical divergence in the trajectory of Jewish life, further distinguishing Reform Judaism from other movements. An issue that cuts directly to the core of our being, this isn’t just a question of personal or communal belief or observance – it has to do with how we define ourselves as humans. So how do we take our firm belief in patrilineal descent in one hand, along with our desire to not be isolationists in the landscape of Judaism?

 

NOT ENOUGH GOD-TALK

Once we were prompted to think about more about how God, Torah, and Israel fit within the context of the two guiding questions,  a number of new ideas jumped out, but all were confined to one side or the other – except this one. While Reform Judaism makes room for a diversity of beliefs and conversations on the nature of God, I believe it is equally important for us to push ourselves to think and talk more about God – discovering new ideas and approaches to our relationship with The Most High. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein once shared with me: “It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.”

 

A closing caveat and thought: the ideas above don’t represent any official stance of Reform Judaism, nor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion nor of our instructor, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur. Rather, they are the thoughts, ideas, and challenges being confronted, upheld, wrestled with, and championed by this generation of rabbinical students. Like any ideas, they have supporters and they have detractors. There are a multiplicity of opinions on how significant these issues are, and how we should approach them (or if we should at all).

I think, perhaps, that this is my favorite part of Rabbinical School so far – the ability to dive head first into issues of real substance, get dirty, wrestle and play around in the muck; then think about how much I want to shower off, and how much I want to make a part of my skin. It’s not easy – I’m confronted with serious challenges to things I thought I was sure about, and with real questions about the ideas of others. But perhaps this is precisely the idea at the heart of the words of R. Yosey ben Yoezer:

“Make your house a meeting house for the sages; and get sooty in the dust of their feet, and drink with thirst their words.”

(Pirkei Avot 1:4)

 

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.

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…