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

 
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Jewish Education

Inside and Outside Questions of Jewish Education

It’s been a while. Time to shave the stubble off of the blog’s beard and contribute some substance.  In doing some research on articulating my own philosophy of Jewish Education, I dug up some articles I had saved, and rediscovered a few gems. Here’s a sneak-peak at a paper I’m working on for a Jewish Education class at school:

It is no longer radical to assert that the North American Jewish milieu is at the tail end of a transition away from a world where clearly segmented Movements defined beliefs and behaviors, and people identified with them writ-large. Leaving behind a world where Jewish education came with an adjective attached to it (e.g. Reform Jewish education, Orthodox Jewish education, etc.), we now find ourselves in a world – an ecosystem – where families and students seek out teachers whose approach to Jewish life aligns with their own questions, in the quest for personal meaning making. This shift is most visible in the progressive end of the Jewish spectrum, but has also crept into the more liberal edges of Orthodoxy.

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, eloquently describes this paradigm shift:

Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.[1]

It is against this backdrop that Jewish education is evolving away from pedagogies which sought to answer the “outer” question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the “inner” question, “Why be Jewish?

I find myself sitting between these two poles – believing that a rich and robust answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” is absolutely critical for engaging the vast majority of Jews today. That said, I am confident in and inspired by the strength of our millennia-old heritage which holds that Judaism is an active religion, that one must also know what to do as a Jew, and that is an Educator’s responsibility to impart this knowledge. To be sure, I believe that this has emerged as the primary challenge for Jewish leaders of our age: to discern how to get people close enough to us to see that what we offer them as human beings and as Jews is worthwhile.

I agree with Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann’s approach to this challenge, which envisions Jewish education at its best as an endeavor which, “inspire[s] and equip[s] us to achieve the deepest aspirations of Judaism… [and] enhance[s] people’s engagement with the world by providing Jewish resources that enrich and encourage creating thinking and doing.”[2]

The Janusian thinking[3] at the heart of Lehmann’s vision reflects my own of an ecosystem of Jewish education that does not reject those things once held as incongruous: we must inspire and equip – arming learners with spiritual meaning and practical knowhow. We must have an engagement with the wider world and within our own Jewish milieu – not substituting universal liberal values for intrinsic Jewish ideals, but holding up both together. We must enrich and encourage – not simply meeting people where they are, but encouraging them to aspire to greater heights. And we must ultimately think and do – embodying the Torah’s principle of na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will listen/understand. (Exodus 24:7).

[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel: Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/11NySJJ

[2] Lehmann, Daniel: Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/1rQ53Nu

[3] Janusian thinking is the capacity to consider and utilize seemingly opposite or contradictory ideas simultaneously. See more at http://www.creativitypost.com/create/janusian_thinking

Judaism - Prayer

Praying on the very tip of a rabbit’s hair

At school, we’re required to lead a number of services for the community throughout the year. The following is from an iyyun tefilah (contemplation/meditation on prayers) that I delivered as part of shacharit services I led at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem this shabbat:

In Sophie’s World, Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder compares the world in which we live to – of all things – a rabbit:

“All mortals are born at the very tip of the rabbit’s fine hairs, where they are in a position to wonder at the impossibility of the trick. But as they grow older they work themselves ever deeper into the fur. And there they stay. They become so comfortable they never risk crawling back up the fragile hairs again. Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care. ‘What a bunch of troublemakers!’ they say, ‘Would you pass the butter, please? How much have our stocks risen today?'”

There’s a moment when I walk to the bus stop to go home from school, when the buildings part and I have a clear view straight down Rechov Keren HaYesod and Derech Hevron, over the Judaean Hills, and beyond the limits of Jerusalem. From this vantage point, I can see the concrete walls of the Separation Fence rising out of the dusty earth. Here in Israel – particularly in Jerusalem – we exist in a world where there are boundaries all around us. Physical and symbolic. Hard and soft. Between the “us” and the “them”. Between rich and poor. Between Israelis and Palestinians. Between religious and secular. Some boundaries are necessary and exist to help us make sense of our world; others are often obstacles and barriers for us.

This Shabbat, I invite us to think about these boundaries, and our relationship to them. Later, as we read from parashat Noach, we’ll hear about how humanity crossed the ultimate line; overstepping its collective boundaries, and resulting in the ultimate punishment – the end of existence for almost all of humanity.

As we pray together this morning, let us consider what we can learn from Noach about honoring appropriate boundaries. But let us also consider how are we like the mortals in Sophie’s world, held captive by our own boundaries. How should we be like the philosophers? As we pray, how can we arrive at the outermost reaches of language and existence – that place where we find God?

We start the Amidah with the words: Eternal God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai, as we know, means (my) lips. But s’fatai may also be translated as “the banks of a river,” in other words, the limit or defining line of a body of water. A boundary.

But not just any boundary – the banks of a river are a soft boundary – the river can expand beyond its limits, and become more than what it once was.

Perhaps… our opening petition is better read: “Eternal God, expand my own boundaries, so that my mouth may declare Your praise!”

A thought and question to help us focus during the Amidah: How do we limit ourselves from praising God? What do we want to ask for, so that we can arrive at those outermost reaches of language and existence that we rise on our toes three times to reach – that place where we find God!

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…

Judaism - General, Philosophy

The Mathematics of Faith

Full Disclosure: I failed grade eleven math.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve had any real formal education in the mathematics, so I’m not going to be preaching any sort of math related truths here. Or maybe I am. I guess it depends on how much faith you have in math.

As I was skimming through blog posts of old, I came across some teachings about God by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein that really jumped out at me a few years ago while she was teaching at my shul. I’m thrilled to have stumbled upon them again, as they fit in with a post I had been planning. Here’s what she has to say:

“Thinking about God is like thinking about infinity; you can do it, but it really hurts sometimes.”

I remember being younger and trying to think of infinity and actually getting cramps in my head. It still happens. The same happens when I think about the creation of the universe. Or the size of the universe. Or God. I find it particularly comforting that even in Judaism where we have a plethora of ways to describe God, sometimes we need to stop and remember that God is bigger than us. Much bigger. So big, that at times, we can’t even think properly. It’s humbling.

This eerily parallels a discussion I was engaged in earlier this summer at Kutz, where Rachel Petroff posited a brilliant and beautiful notion:

“Faith is not math… we’re not building what the early reformers were. It’s not all about rationality. Everything doesn’t have to equal out.”

Odd that the intangible and indescribable can be solid building blocks. Just as we have a hard time conceiving of infinity, it is nevertheless one of the building blocks of math. Try telling a mathematician that at some point, the numbers have to end. And just as we have a hard time conceiving of God’s presence, it is an ever-present part of our Judaism. But Judaism isn’t mathematical. It’s not always about logic and equal sums. It’s not about proofs and equations. Belief in God isn’t about what’s on the other side of an equal sign.

Rabbi Goldstein goes on:

“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.”

The mathematician responds: “It’s very hard for me to think of infinity. But it’s even harder for me to think of a world where the numbers stop.”

I may have failed math, but I do understand this equation.