Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I Love This Country

When I was in rabbinical school, the message I got over and over again was that there's morality, which can be relative, and there's law. What might be "so unfair!" to one generation might be perfectly permissible or even necessary in the eyes of another. What mattered, said my law teachers repeatedly, was the law. Can the act be justified according to the law? Specifically, said my law teacher, Rabbi Joel Roth, if you can trace the law back to Sinai, you're on solid ground. Just to announce a law is "unfair" and therefore worthy of pitching is to allow contemporary sensibilities to determine what's acceptable. And "contemporary sensibilities" change. That's why they're called "contemporary."

I have been sputtering for a while over the dust-up over gay rights, and specifically gay marriage, in California. I cheered the ruling in 2008 that gays would be allowed to marry. I watched with disbelief when the returns came in on Election Night, as those on the other side of the gender rights divide cheered as Proposition 8, banning gay marriage in California, won handily. In California, I yelled? Here? In my home state? People are saying no?? How is this possible?

In the years since that vote, I've listened to gay people express their frustration at the inability of straights around the country to understand their point of view. I've watched state after state vote down measures that would permit gay marriages to be approved. And I've felt my blood pressure rise as I listened to the justifications of those on the right for their belief that they could determine by vox populi what is acceptable in this country.

The arguments have been made. Is there a point to repeat here that if the voice of the people had been sought in 1954, separate would have continued to be perceived as equal? In 1967, the voice of the people would have overturned the ruling that determined that couples of mixed race (i.e. a black person and a white person) may marry.

Another memory I have of rabbinical school is seeing a cartoon on the dorm room of a classmate. It showed a board room with the table surrounded by men in suits, and the caption read, "The Committee on the Status of Women." Every woman rabbinical student who saw the cartoon no doubt had the same reaction I did - we'd laugh if it weren't so true. The status of a minority is always in the hands of the majority. And when "contemporary sensibilities" determine the fate of the minority, and contemporary sensibilities are moving at a snail's pace (because who in power would ever choose to give it up?), the status quo remains, barring a miracle.

Sometimes, miracles happen, but those "miracles" are in truth only the triumph of dispassionate law over the emotions of the people.

The ruling this week by Judge Vaughn Walker was the triumph of law over the hissy fit of the people. It was the statement of American law that in order for something to be changed, proof (that old bugaboo) must be brought that the change is desirable. To overturn gay marriage, proof must be brought that such an institution is indeed as frightening and evil as it has been presented to be. That never happened, and the brilliance of the judge was that he was careful to document all the "proof" that was brought (one of the "expert witnesses" was someone who presented dire consequences of gay marriage and when asked the source of his findings, proclaimed, "The Internet." There you go - we all know that only truth is found in cyberspace) - or not brought - and to go point by point in explaining why the "evidence" brought by the defense was insufficient to allow Prop. 8 to stand. We understand that the next step will be a challenge on the appellate level, and the record of evidence brought and how it was evaluated will be critical in determining whether there is cause to vacate Judge Walker's ruling. The better his documentation, the better the chances for the anti-8 folks to maintain the ruling. And Judge Walker did a bang-up job.

Once again, I listened to NPR this morning, and once again my blood pressure went up. I heard people complaining that if gays are permitted to marry, straights will cease marrying and therefore procreating, and there won't be any more babies born in this country. Compare that with a recent study showing that there is a growing disparity between higher educated women having fewer children and women who are either less educated or in fundamentalist religious communities having large families (more on this in a later blog -stay tuned). Do these pro-8 people really think that if gay marriage is permitted, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims and Orthodox Jews will stop marrying and having children? Really?

The greatest threat to heterosexual marriage is heterosexuals. The divorce rate stands at 50%, without the help of gays. Children in heterosexual marriages continue to be confused, not because they have two mommies but because one of their parents (or both) seem to think that marriage vows are merely suggestions. Or "to love and cherish" means "to beat to a pulp." Children in heterosexual marriages are exposed to a huge spectrum of experiences, from healthy and loving situations to promiscuity and abuse. There are children of straight marriages who vow never to get married "if that's what it means to be married," or never to have children because "I never learned how to be a good parent from my dysfunctional parents." Prop. 8 does nothing to protect those children. Neither does it do anything to protect the gay children growing up in families where the presumption is that everyone is straight.

To paraphrase the cartoon from my Seminary days, the "Commission on the Status of Gays" is populated by straights, not one of whom understands what it means to be gay, or, since it's hard for anyone to truly "get" what it means to be part of a different population, is even willing to listen to what it means to be gay in America. A 10 year old whose friend has two daddies will not be "influenced to 'turn gay,'" but a 10 year old who knows he's different will be discouraged, despondent, and ultimately depressed if he sees no one in his life who is respected, admired, loved, and gay.

When Barak Obama was inaugurated nearly two years ago, I shelved my lesson plan for the day and decided to have a conversation with my 5th graders about the historical import of the day. They wrote prayers for him and his family. It was very cool. But I'm thinking in particular of one girl who asked how old his daughters were. When I replied, she said, "Oh, then Malia can be my friend, and Sasha can be my sister's friend." I smiled and agreed (from her lips to God's ears, but what a statement!)

It was 2008, and a little white, Jewish kid in the San Fernando Valley was thinking that it was cool that the president had daughters her age and her sister's age. It never once occurred to her that the fact that she was white and they weren't would be any kind of a problem. It was as natural for her to think of the Obama girls as friends as she would think of any new neighbor on her block.

Please God, may the days of stomping around like Rumpelstiltskin end, may the fear and the hissy fits and the circling of the wagons and the overwhelming sense of threat end, and may it be soon that our children can come home to talk about their friends with a different family constellation and find nothing unusual about it. And may the day soon come that gay kids no longer find suicide the only option as they come to terms with who they are.

Monday, August 2, 2010

What's the Big Deal?

This will be a very short post. I just want to know what's changed.

There was so much press about the wedding - no, the Wedding - this past weekend, and in particular among my colleagues about the nature of a wedding with a Jewish participant and a rabbinic co-officiant on a Shabbat afternoon, with huppah (bridal canopy) and a ketubah (marriage contract)... Mah pit'om? What's the deal all of a sudden?

Why are we suddenly so filled with opinion about the nature of intermarriage in this country? Are Marc and Chelsea the first couple to cross the religion line? Hardly. They're frankly not even the first celebrity couple to do so.

Think Caroline Kennedy and Arthur Schlossberg. Not a hiccup. Back in the 70s, Henry Kissinger chose to marry on a Saturday afternoon, and there was indeed a response in the Jewish community about his insensitivity, even though he was marrying a non-Jewish woman. Even Sandy Koufax, American Judaism's hero for not playing on Yom Kippur, married a non-Jewish woman.

So what's the big deal about Marc Mezvinsky?

And you know - that's not a rhetorical question. I don't understand why there's such an uproar, a struggle over "is this good for the Jews." This is not the first interfaith marriage to take place, not the first to have a rabbinic presence, not the first to have a huppah - no one mentioned whether he broke a glass. (For so many families, that's the essence of a marriage where a Jew is involved - you gotta break a glass.) Is this a trumpeting of our having Arrived - look at the celebrity family he's marrying into? Certainly this can't be about the threat of intermarriage - if this couple is the first glimmer of intermarriage you're reading about, what planet did you just arrive from?

So - somebody out there - please clue me in. What's the big deal?

I want my country back

I need to stop listening to public radio. Every once in a while, I hear a piece, or an interview, or a series of call-ins that sends my blood pressure through the roof. I suppose the alternative is to listen to a bit of Vivaldi and put my head in the sand, and I suppose I have an obligation to learn what's going on in the world. If someone wise out there knows how to listen to scary stuff calmly, let me know.

Here's my fear, the real fear. People like me are becoming a minority, and with all due respect, people like me are what made this country what it is - er - what it used to be. I'm not sure I like what my country has become.

When the Founding Fathers met to craft our Constitution, they argued and debated and realized that the only way to believe the infant country would survive would be through compromise. We have lost that skill. We have lost the recognition that everyone has something of value to add to the conversation, that (in Jewish terms) only disputes that are for the greater good are worth engaging in. Disputes not for the sake of heaven (to quote the Mishna) are forbidden, because they are about vanity, about the self, not about the greater good. And all I see around me are disputes that focus on the speaker, or the speaker's constituency, or the speaker's ratings or popularity. Everyone's talking, and no one's listening. Everyone insists on learning the black and white of issues, ignoring the fact that most of life is lived in shades of gray.

Further, as I recall, the Founding Fathers stipulated that the government shall make no laws concerning the establishing of a state religion. If only those on the far right would read the Constitution they profess to love, and note that when the laws of a country are in place to serve only one population, one faith tradition, to the point of making the participating in another faith tradition difficult, we have transgressed the Constitution. Ah, those pesky amendments.

Case in point: all those who rail against abortion seem to be blissfully unaware that there is more than one approach to considering the unborn fetus than the Catholic/Christian one. The Jewish tradition understands the issue is a complicated one (warning: gray area alert). Jewish law understands the fetus to be part of the woman until the birth process begins, and if the fetus is posing a threat to the health of the mother, the mother has an obligation to terminate the pregnancy to save her life. Of course, Judaism does not see abortion as birth control and understands the fetus as having the great potential for life, but until birth, the fetus is as much a part of the mother's body as a gangrenous limb.

So, pre-Roe v. Wade, if a woman sought an abortion because she was facing a medical issue (perhaps it was her fourth or fifth child and she had heart issues), she was simply prohibited from any conclusion to her pregnancy other than the birth of the child, even it meant the loss of her own life. Catholics may respond that a Catholic mother had been baptized while the baby had not, but that works only if you are a Catholic. Religious sensibilities drove (and continue to try to drive) the access to abortion by women who are not part of those religious communities. Preventing me from obtaining a safe abortion if my physical (or mental) health were at risk is denying me my rights under the First Amendment. Does anyone care?

So now, just last week, I was astonished to hear about a move to get yet another proposition onto the California ballot in November (you gotta love California - get enough people with an opinion together with a petition and you can get anything on the ballot - worse - get enough other people together who like what the petition said, and you get new law, whether it's moral or not, whether it makes sense or not - witness Prop. 8 and gay marriage). The people behind this new initiative, (this is not an endorsement), want to go Prop. 8 one better - to truly save heterosexual marriage (I still don't get why it's being threatened), we need to make divorce illegal in California. Now, if you want to leave your marriage, you have to leave the state.

There are those who believe the whole proposal is a satire, like Swift's "A Modest Proposal." If you look at the organization's website, it's not funny. They're dead serious. And not only are they proposing to make life even more difficult for those in abusive situations, once again, they are ignoring centuries of Jewish law by claiming that the notion of divorce is a relatively recent construct. Jesus, they say, never talked about divorce.

Maybe not, but Moses sure did. Divorce is part of Jewish law, again, not encouraged ("when a man divorces the wife of his youth, the stones of the Altar weep") but permitted because Jewish law recognizes the humanness of the partners in a marriage.

I might also point out that gays who decide they have been living a lie and need to come out and live openly as gays (and their spouses) are also condemned to a life of unhappiness. But hey, who cares?

My kvetch? The underlying complaint I have that ties all these issues together? I've disappeared. Not only me, but everyone like me, people who are Jewish and who have a basic understanding of Jewish law, and who would expect to live according to Jewish law to the extent it does not countermand civil law. (The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the law of the land is the law, but there are limits. If a law were passed tomorrow to require everyone to eat a pound of bacon every week because the poor pig farmers are in trouble, we would argue vehemently against this law.)

"The Judeo-Christian tradition" is a fallacy. "Judeo" is put at the front of "Christian" to assuage the rest of us, but in truth we do not agree with everything our Christian neighbors believe, and yet despite our greater visibility in contemporary culture (and all the excitement over the Clinton wedding), our essential differentness is being ignored, or deemed irrelevant, and the result of that perception of irrelevance is the arrogance of presenting laws that satisfy only the Christian approach to private lives.

I don't like disappearing. I don't like feeling irrelevant. What's the point of feeling comfortable announcing I'm Jewish, or a rabbi, if that doesn't mean anything? I have more to bring to the table than just "why don't you accept Jesus?" No one asks. Because no one cares. I hate that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Is It About the Summer?

Tisha B'Av is right around the corner. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is the day on which the entire Jewish people sits in mourning - for the destruction of the two Temples in ancient Jerusalem, and for a litany of traumas that befell our people across the centuries. The Talmud teaches that the first Temple was destroyed as punishment for the fact that we refused to give up the worship of idols, and that the second Temple was destroyed as punishment for the sin of causeless hatred of Jew against Jew.

We sit on the floor in the position of mourning. The lights are dimmed. We read from Aykha, the book of Lamentations, in a mournful key. Our shoes are off. In many synagogues the curtain - the parokhet - is removed from the ark holding the Torah scrolls, as a sign of communal mourning. We fast for 25 hours, the only other full fast in the Jewish year besides Yom Kippur. We invariably enter the sanctuary slowly, sadly, knowing we are about to observe a day that is heavy with memory, all of it bad.

In recent years, many have questioned the need to observe Tisha B'Av. How long, they wonder, do we need to mourn the destruction of a place where animals were sacrificed? It's been two full millennia. Time to get over it. And further - we cannot mourn the loss of Jerusalem, because after all, Jerusalem is ours. We can get on a plane, land in Tel Aviv, and after a short ride into the hills, we can walk the sacred streets once again. How long can we mourn?

And yet.

I remember nearly 15 years ago, members of Masorti (Conservative) communities decided it was time to challenge the power of the ruling Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Since the reunification of the city in 1967, the Rabbanut had decreed that the plaza in front of the Western Wall (Kotel HaMa'aravit) was a synagogue, and as such would follow the rules of all synagogues in the Orthodox world - i.e., there would be a separation between men and women. For the purposes of individual prayer, this might not seem like an imposition, but on a day like Tisha B'Av, when Jews come together as community precisely in the place where the destruction took place, it was important to daven (participate in a service) in that place as a community as defined by those individuals. In other words, Conservative and Reform Jews needed to come together in a mixed group in the plaza before the Kotel. It was decided to assemble far at the back of the plaza, not near the Kotel itself, since (a) the area immediately before the Kotel had a separating wall (mehitza) enforcing the gender separation and (b) our desire to daven as a mixed community should not be seen as forcing itself onto the sensibilities of those for whom that kind of congregation is offensive. We did not seek to offend others. Others were not so kind to us.

For two years, Conservative Jews came together to daven the Tisha B'Av service. And for two years, they were harrassed by yeshiva students nearby, pelted with a variety of substances, and hassled by the police. The upshot of the confrontation was the allocation of another location near the Temple Mount, now called the Kotel HaMasortit, but found down at a lower level. Some are pleased to have a place to daven without hassle. Others find the out-of-the-way location a way of shunting us egalitarians out of sight and therefore out of mind.

But I have a clear memory of the first year the Masorti community attempted to hold a mixed service at the back of the Kotel plaza. I remember going into my synagogue sanctuary in the afternoon, opening the doors to the ark, wrapping myself in my tallit, putting on my tefilin, sitting on the floor and crying. I wept for fear, because I still believe, in a deep-down irrational place, that we were given our homeland back because it was time for us to have it back, but that, as the Torah tells us, we still have to deserve it. And we as a nation were behaving so badly that it would not be a stretch for God to say, "OK you've had your privileges long enough. Back to your rooms."

Years passed, Israel faced challenges, fought back rocket attacks, learned to be tough as only someone can who grows up in a tough neighborhood, and now it's 2010 and I'm fearful again.

I look at the state of Israel, that beautiful piece of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, and I want to be proud. We have developed into a center of high-tech innovation. We are a lone outpost of democracy in an area run by autocrats and fear. When a disaster happens, anywhere in the world, Israel is a first responder, sending equipment, skilled professionals, and supplies. We were in Haiti before the United States. I am so proud of Israel.

And then I watch to see how the ultra-right-wing Rabbanut seeks to dismantle all that is good about Israel and turn her into another theocracy in an area filled with theocracies. The validity of conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis (a redundancy, since Orthodox rabbis have stopped teaching for conversion) has been called into question, and women who have the temerity to wear a tallit and tefilin in public are attacked. The women who meet monthly as a women's group on the women's side of the Kotel mehitza are harrassed, have to fear having chairs thrown at them, and all because they wear tallit and dare read from a Torah scroll. A woman was assaulted while waiting for a bus because a man saw the impressions of tefilin straps on her arm and began assaulting her when she confirmed that indeed she had put on tefilin that morning. And now a woman has been arrested for carrying a Torah.

There is no halakhic (legal) basic for any of these insults, only the frantic desire on the part of the Orthodox authorities to narrow the definition of who is a Jew and how can we define normative - no, strike that - just Jewish behavior. How do we worship as a Jew, as individuals or as a community? Who may wear the Jewish prayer uniform? Authorities across the Jewish spectrum are divided, but clearly the Rabbanut is certain about their position, and their position seems to be the only one that matters.

And so the rest of the Jewish world watches as Israel is being pulled further and further to the right Jewishly, further and further away from the rest of the Jewish world. We feel more and more estranged from our home, a heartbreaking reality.

Jew is fighting Jew again. World Jewry is enraged at the passage of the conversion bill by the Knesset. Women and men everywhere are appalled at the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah. Rabbis are expressing concern for the safety of their communities on visits to Israel - "Will our women be assaulted for showing the imprint of tefilin straps?"

It's the summer again. Tisha B'Av is around the corner again. And the actions and decisions coming from Israel are once again threatening to divide the Jewish people. We no longer have a Temple that God can take from us. We have only our land, a blessing for the past 62 years. And once again I will go to services Monday night and Tuesday morning, and I will cry for what we lost millennia ago, and I will cry for what we are losing today.

What is it about the summer? What is it about this time of year, that the tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel (and world Jewry) come to a head? Have we learned nothing after the losses of the millennia? Or will we continue to fight, Jew against Jew, no matter the price?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Never Really Leave

I knew when I began at the synagogue that I might not be there more than a year. I knew that I'd be there only twice a month, for a weekend. Little chance to really bond with the community. I'd preach. Meet with the kids. Teach a class. Read some Torah. How much could I connect, really?

It's surprising how much you take with you when you leave, and how much you leave behind. I met older people who are struggling with loss of independence and looming health crises. I met kids who were overflowing with energy and questions. I met people who became dear friends and who are now struggling with their own health issues. I met people on life journeys and was privileged to help them to their next milestone. I was their rabbi, and now that I'm no longer there, I'm still there.

I still worry about the people with health issues or loved ones with health issues. I still want to answer all those kids' questions. I still want to know what questions my adult learners have. I want to be able to recommend books.

The time has come to leave, and yet part of me is still there, and they will always be with me. It's the challenge of the rabbi - of any pastor, really. When you leave, you don't really leave, not if you've done it right.

I have a colleague who speaks of rabbis as symbolic exemplars. I'm not perfectly clear what that is, but I think it has something to do with our representing God in people's lives. If we are accessible, God is accessible. If we are available to bring comfort, it's God (or the Jewish community) that is bringing comfort. It's a lot of pressure, but I've seen people's faces change when I walk into a room. It's not ME, it's The Rabbi. And I know that if I don't extend myself to my community, they do will not believe that God cares about them. That may sound arrogant, but in truth it's a very humble statement. Because it's not about me, it's about making God's presence being felt in a community. And when you make yourself accessible to others, they leave parts of themselves with you, and you never leave.

I still think about people in my first congregation in eastern Connecticut. My dear little shul in New Jersey. Even the people in my one-year interims in Philadelphia and Memphis. They remain part of me, populate my interior landscape with their search, their triumphs, their celebrations and their losses. And far from feeling burdened by their presence, I feel privileged to have been part of their lives and to have had them part of mine.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More on the Evolution of the Conservative Movement

Apparently, this was a conversation that needed opening. My last post bemoaned the lack of energy in the mainstream Conservative synagogue. A number of friends and colleagues have kindly shared this post with a number of discussion lists, and I've read the responses with a great deal of interest. Rather than email each commentator personally, I think it would be more efficient to post here and let the cybersharing begin.

Not surprisingly (we're Jews, after all), there was a plethora of issues raised. Some were upset that I focused on music, that there's more to religion than music (true). Others focused on spirituality, and still others were upset I had invoked Mordecai Kaplan and wondered where Heschel was in all this. I guess the first thing I need to say, then, is that the post was a sermon, not a thesis. It was never my intention to give a multi-session course in the history of the movement, its greatest thinkers, and its theological roots. Further, I don’t pretend to have the wisdom to declare thus and such are the ills to be fixed and like magic, our movement will be revitalized. What is wrong with Conservative Judaism is far too broad a topic to be addressed in one blog, or one thread on a discussion list. Are most of our membership not practicing Conservative Jews? Undoubtedly. Is music the answer? Of course not. Those are simple questions and easy answers.

Since my original remarks came out of a rabbinical convention, and since we Conservative rabbis like to pretend that we are the leaders of our communities, it might be thought that if rabbis design the right kind of service (whatever that may be), people will respond. I did say that we need to be ready to respond to what the people are saying they want, that it’s not a rabbi thing, it’s a Jew in the pew thing. But it’s far more complicated than that.

The responses I received that expressed discomfort with music, clapping, dancing…all that new stuff in the service were not from people who just wanted their grandfather’s synagogue. They were serious people who wanted the spirituality that comes from losing oneself in the tefilah, and music for them gets in the way. Guess what: it often does for me as well. We don’t always necessarily need a niggun. We don’t always necessarily need to sing something. If I have learned anything from my study of spirituality in Jewish worship, it’s that there are many paths to immersion in prayer, and music is only one.

I think it was Carl Jung who posited several opposing personalities – the feeling versus the thinking; the intuitive versus the sensory. There are those who come to God by intellectual pursuits – study, the regular recitation of prayer. There are those who come to God by ecstatic prayer – music and dance. And if we want to go outside the sanctuary, there are those who find God in soup kitchens or in building a sukkah. My frustration isn’t with those whose path is different from mine. Frankly, even when I am leading the tefilot in my synagogue, there are times I would like to stand still and just be, but the exigencies of time push me on to finish the page on behalf of my community. The spirituality of silence is a powerful thing and demands to be sought.

No, my frustration isn’t with those who would prefer to avoid the intrusion of music. My frustration is with those who are not ready to work at all, who come in, put on a tallit, open the book, look to see what page we’re on, and simply pick up where the community is, with no warm up and often no understanding of what they are reading. They are the ones, in the language of the classic joke, who came not to speak to God but to speak to Goldstein. They demand nothing of the synagogue service but complain the service is too long. They are the ones who have directed our communities for a generation by and large, and they are the ones from whom the indie minyanaires are fleeing. I think that independent minyan is less about music and more about experimentation. Leaving the comfort zone of the institutional synagogue and trying on new things, tossing things against a wall and seeing what sticks.

What do I want for our movement? I want our members to want more, to demand more. I want them to line up for adult education – serious text study, Hebrew, the opportunity to confront contemporary issues. I want them to demand to learn how to enter the siddur. There seems to be the misperception that if rabbis only spoke about what Conservative Judaism is, the people will get excited and respond positively. We have. It hasn’t worked. We need more than the ability to articulate a message. We need open ears and willing hearts.

A few weeks ago, we read in Torah that Moses and seventy elders met at the Tent of Meeting, and God came down in a cloud to speak to them. Eldad and Meydad, who had remained in the camp, spoke ecstatically just as Moses and the elders were doing. A boy ran to Moses to alert him, and Joshua urged Moses to restrain them. Moses, however, said, “Would that all the people were prophets!”

Would that all the people wanted a meaningful role in synagogue leadership, to join with their rabbi and cantor to create the kind of community that would facilitate individual growth, and that they then took advantage of the opportunities they had created.. Would that the membership dreamed about a synagogue that was a reflection of the best in the tradition and the best of the future, and then worked to make that dream a reality. Rabbis can’t do it alone. Someone once made the distinction between rabbis and “real Jews” – meaning Jewish professionals versus the Jew in the pew. My dream for the Conservative synagogue of the 21st century is the evolution of the synagogue into a vibrant, exciting place, where the line between rabbis and real Jews is blurred, where membership means more than a seat for Kol Nidre – it’s identification with a living, growing, changing organism.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Change Conservative Judaism Needs

What a joy to be back in New Jersey, where I spent eight wonderful years with my community in Colonia. As I look out at the faces in this room, I can truly say that I am home. And I’m delighted to share some reflections on this week’s Rabbinical Assembly international convention, held this year at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
The last morning of the convention, I sat in a session on mystical aspects of prayer and found myself actually “getting” the connection between kabalah (which I’ve never pretended to understand) and normative Jewish prayer – and there’s a lot to be learned there. More important, though, was the very fact of a session on kabalah and prayer at the Rabbinical Assembly. Thirty years ago, this would never have been so. Neither would alternative minyanim that featured meditation.
I met with colleagues who, like me, are on the road again, and in this bleak economy we commiserated and worried about our future. Synagogues are merging, associate positions are disappearing, and colleagues with kids in college are scared. New rabbis are being minted – will they have a place to go? New cantors are being invested – are they being prepared for a movement that no longer expects a Presence on the bima, performing for them, but rather a song leader?
History was made this year, as Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was installed as our organization’s first female executive vice president, and Rabbi Gilah Dror was installed as our first female international president – first woman, first Israeli-born as well.
But I suspect that the issue that most attendees will take away with them – us – is the challenge by Rabbi David Wolpe, the first night of the convention. We need to re-understand, re-invent our movement. We need to be less hazy. We need to be able to put what we believe on a bumper sticker.
I must tell you that most of the speakers that followed him this week expressed discomfort with that notion. And in truth, you can’t summarize anything as complicated as Conservative Judaism in 5 words. That’s not fair to our product. But frankly, I think one of the issues we had with Rabbi Wolpe’s mandate is that in order to sell a product, you need to understand the product. Until we figure out what we stand for, we can’t sell it to the world. We may love it, but until we can define it (and perhaps by defining, limit it), we shouldn’t be worried about a bumper sticker.
Because we really do have a lot of work to do, and it’s not about defining Conservative Judaism. Defining is about what is. Conservative Judaism is about fluidity, adjustment to modernity while remaining true to our Torah roots, and as modernity changes, so must we. What was true about our movement 50 years ago is no longer true. Our synagogues look different. Our leadership looks different. And clearly even our professional conventions look different. Our task is to figure out not what defines us but how we are propelled, how we develop, how we think about change. And for that we need to look to one of our movement’s greats, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.
Kaplan, whose thinking informed generations of Conservative rabbis, is credited with founding the Reconstructionist movement. He saw all of Jewish practice not as commanded by God but as having arisen from the people, and what the people have sanctified remains. Women have lit candles for centuries, so women continue to light candles. Musical instruments were used in the Temple but not in synagogues, but the people have dictated that musical instruments would be nice to have in our services, and so in some congregations, guitars and drums are making appearances. If you look around the movement today, some Conservative congregations still do not include the ritual participation of women. Others are served by women rabbis. Some have instrumental music. Others do not. Some permit pot luck Friday night dinners. Others do not. So indeed, how can we define Conservative Judaism, given the fact that I, as an ordained rabbi and member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly, would be refused an aliyah at congregations served by some of my colleagues, similarly educated and similarly affiliated? We used to talk about tradition and change. I don’t think anyone knows what that means any more.
I think worrying about our movement’s definition is less important than imagining how our synagogues will look in 5 years. What will the services look like? And that’s not the job of the rabbi and cantor. That’s the job, in good Reconstructionist practice, of the people. There’s an old bumper sticker that proclaims, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” So where are the people leading?
We need only look around at the upsurge in independent minyanim that have sprouted up over the last 40 years, beginning with Havurat Shalom in Massachusetts and spreading across the country. The havurah/indie movement began when our kids graduated from Camp Ramah and USY and Pilgrimage and Solomon Schechter schools and wanted more than our cathedral synagogues were offering, so they started their own sacred spaces. That continues to happen today. I ran into a former student on Thursday, now married, living on the Upper West Side, and attending Hadar, one of the most exciting indie minyanim in the country. But she acknowledges that she and her husband will no doubt leave when they have children and want a more diverse community. I was delighted to see that she was aware that kids deserve to see older people in their minyan, people saying kaddish, the elderly…kids need to be able to look around and see people not like Abba and Ima. Indie minyanim seem to be the undergraduate world for today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. The question is, where will they choose to go for graduate school? To mix metaphors, where will they go when they’re ready to take off their training wheels? That’s the challenge of the Conservative synagogue in the 21st century.
What might these young people want? Certainly, more participation, more empowerment, more ownership of the community. But what else they might want will take us back to convention and the opening night concert. The headliner was Neshama Carlebach, but the real hit of the night was her backup group, the Green Pastures Black Baptist Choir. Holy moly, did they rock the room! If you have ever attended a service at a Black Baptist church, or any Pentecostal church, or invited a choir to your community for an interfaith service, I don’t have to say another word. The music they sang was Carlebach music, but they made it their own, and did they ever do it well.
But here’s what happened. By the end of the second number, there were two people standing and clapping along. One was a Black woman who’d come with the choir. You’re looking at the other one. Not only did I stand because I simply couldn’t stay in my seat, I thought that maybe if one person stood, others would follow. Not so much. Now, by the end of the evening, most of us were standing, clapping, some even dancing around the room. They got us going, but it wasn’t easy. We seemed determined to be an audience. No one bothered mentioning that we were supposed to be part of the performance. Because after all, as someone once observed, when it comes to praising God, it’s not about performer/audience. We’re all performers. God is the audience.
I’ve spent a good deal of time reflecting on my experience at convention, on the resistance of my colleagues to get off their chairs and get into the music, and it’s occurred to me that we Jews just don’t feel comfortable doing this stuff. Back in Temple times, we brought our sacrifices to the priests, the Levites did the music, and we watched. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the hasidim danced while the misnagdim sat in their yeshivas in Vilna and scowled. For the most part, we are not happy moving and clapping and, as our Christian friends would say, letting the Spirit flow through us.
That is a problem. I have a Presbyterian friend who regularly observes that his people are the frozen chosen. I am very fearful that our Conservative community will end up that way as well. The midrash tells us that God created six other worlds before creating this one, and what made this one special is that it includes people – us. Why? Because before this world, God had only the angels, and they praised God daily, but that was their job, and since angels have no free will, of course that’s what they did. And God was bored. So God created people, and I suspect God hasn’t been bored since.
But maybe not. When was the last time you noticed something God did? Like blooming flowers, or a sunset, or your baby? When was the last time you experienced what Heschel called radical amazement? What did you do about it? Say, “That’s so nice”? Feel really good inside?
I think what our communities lack today is real excitement. On Friday nights we sing a psalm that ends yis’m’hu hashamayim v’tageyl ha’aretz. Think about those words. The heavens and the earth will rejoice. What does rejoicing look like? Then think about the melody Conservative congregations use all over the country. Yes, there’s a hand-clap. But sorry, it wouldn’t even wake up the heavens and the earth, much less lead them to rejoice.
We have been raised by generation upon generation of Jewish tradition to be observers, audiences, people who sit back and let others do for us. Our young people will not accept that any more, and when they walk into a room where the music is nice – but only nice – they may sit for the morning, but they won’t be back.
The future of our movement rests more in the change than in the tradition. Those who come from the youth-oriented arms of our movement already take tradition seriously. Those who speak about the mind and those who speak about the soul must come together at the same table. It’s time we stopped accepting what is, as “good enough” and allowed the finger of God to touch our souls, to become truly alive, to be not afraid to stand up and put our hands together when music moves us. It’s not just about the music. It’s about our response to it. Vanessa Ochs, writing in Inventing Jewish Ritual, observes:

When an innovation felt especially uncomfortable to me, the feeling was visceral, almost like disgust, something I couldn’t always think away... But I discovered that I could modulate my response to innovations. I could remind myself that my unfamiliarity was not sufficient to disqualify the potential blessings of a new practice. We have all learned to overcome multiple gut responses to unfamiliarity. Who isn’t terrified on the first day of school? But still we press forward and walk into the classroom. I noticed that ritual practices clearly borrowed from other cultures made me feel especially uncomfortable. I realized I could either choose to resist the practices or I could give them a chance. I could consider the plausibility of their fit and evaluate their spiritual power in light of any ruptures they might impose. I could train myself to notice my hesitancy in the face of a new ritual and contemplate it. Then I could let go: I could watch, wait, and perhaps, eventually, accept.

What Ochs says about new ritual we can say as well about the music of excitement. We deserve to be excited about being Jewish and about coming together on Shabbat to thank God for our many gifts. We deserve it and God deserves it. Let me close with a poem by Yiddish poet Aaron Zeitlin.

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.
Praise me or curse Me,
And I will know that you love Me.
Sing out My graces, says God.
Raise your fist against Me, and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise, says God.
But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,
If you sit entrenched in I don't give a hang, says God.
If you look at the stars and yawn;
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Holy Shekels

Have you ever heard of a holy shekel? Of course you know that “shekel” is the currency of Israel. It was also the currency of ancient Israel, and when the Torah speaks of the donations to be brought to the maintenance of the tabernacle in the desert, it speaks of “shekel hakodesh,” essentially holy shekels. The obvious question comes: what’s a holy shekel?

The 19th century commentator Menahem Tziyon has an answer. He asks how many shekels we have given to holy purposes. “Your true worth is not the money that you possess,” he writes. “One’s abiding value is only the shekels that he gave to holy purposes, because, about all else, who knows what the future will bring - even whether or not the money will remain yours.”

I wonder how many people today can say they have holy shekels in their wallets, money they have earmarked to holy purposes. Two news items this week make me wonder whether the notion of holy shekel should be revisited, because it has clearly lost its power today.

First, I learned about Homeboy Industries. This is the nation’s largest gang intervention program, run by Father Greg Boyle in Los Angeles. It serves – or served – some twelve thousand clients a year, 8 thousand gang members from 700 different gangs. It offers hope where hope is an alien term. It runs – or ran - five businesses where enemy/ rival gang members worked side by side with each other (Homeboy Bakery, Homegirl Cafe, Homeboy Silkscreen, Homeboy/Homegirl Merchandise and Homeboy Maintenance). Many thousands of gang members have been trained during two decades of operation. It got its start in Boyle Heights, but now serves all of Los Angeles County. This is a program that our city desperately needs. It is doing amazing work saving young men and women and giving them skills and a place to work. It continues to be a drop-in place for young people looking to leave their gang lives behind them.

And it’s in trouble. The faltering economy has caused funds that support Homeboy Industries to dry up, and last week Father Greg told his staff that if they want to come back tomorrow, they should know it would be strictly as volunteers. The money is gone. The shops that Homeboy runs are still viable – they are even doing well, so Father Greg is hopeful that those businesses will be self-sustaining.

I had heard Father Greg interviewed before, so the news of Homeboy’s imminent demise was terribly distressing. I felt as though I’d lost a friend, as indeed every Angeleno has. But then came the second news item.

Apparently Lisa Marie Presley was upset. She thought there weren’t enough candles and flowers at the crypt where ex husband Michael Jackson was buried. A local fellow heard the distress call and spent several thousand dollars to plant sunflowers, purportedly Jackson’s favorite flower, at the crypt.

Several thousand dollars to plant sunflowers at the burial site of a singer, when young people in danger are losing their way out of the gang life. Something is very wrong here.

Since returning to Los Angeles, I have remarked repeatedly while driving down the 405 that I have never seen so many Beemers and Jags and Bentleys. There is so much wealth in this city. And yet Homeboy Industries is going under. People spend thousands of dollars to plant flowers at the grave of a singer because his ex wife thinks there isn’t enough tribute going on, but kids at risk are losing their life line.

Something is really wrong here.

Los Angeles: How many holy shekels are in your wallet?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

All Those Curses Can Really Teach Us Something

This is a difficult pair of parshiyot. If I were to look for readings for a Shabbat that featured young school children, I’d choose any of a half-dozen readings that would yield a really fun conversation with our students. However, we don’t pick and choose our readings. They are when they are, and so we find ourselves tonight considering readings that contain one of the most difficult passages of Torah to read. I might have avoided them because tomorrow morning we’ll be looking at other passages of Torah, but in truth, there is a lot to be learned from the passage dealing with the blessings and curses that are the rewards and punishments intended for Israel depending on whether the Israelites follow the mitzvot God gave them, and by extension, us.
Let’s look at some of the text. If we follow God’s laws, we will have rain at the appropriate time (and by implication just the right amount). Our crops will be plentiful and there will be no hunger. The land will be at peace. God will dwell among us and we will no longer be enslaved. This is a beautiful vision.
But – if we don’t bother paying attention to what God has taught us? There will never be peace in our land. Our skies will be like iron and the earth like copper. We will work hard at trying to grow crops but we will not succeed. We will never know peace and we will be dispersed among the nations, vulnerable to expulsion and prejudice.
Pretty ugly.
Today, most of us no longer believe that droughts and crop failure has to do with punishment from God. Most of us look at the world through the eyes of science and try to figure out how to make the crops grow in dry years, how to feed the world’s hungry when there seems to be no food in some countries and lots of food in others. But I think that if we think about the blessings and curses in Torah not as rewards and punishments but as logical consequences, we might learn something very important.
My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, taught that all the Torah that we read that warns us about good things happening if we follow God’s laws and bad things happening if we don’t is really very modern. If I tell you to put the milk back in the fridge or it will spoil, and then there will be no cold milk to drink with your Oreos, and then you leave the milk out and it goes sour, is that a punishment? Or just the real consequence of leaving milk out of the fridge too long?
God has given us a beautiful world. God wants us to take care of the world, and if we care for it properly, it will nourish us. If we are careless, we will damage the world and then we will suffer.
I’m thinking particularly about this subject this week because of the oil spill that’s spreading over the Gulf of Mexico. I’m looking at the fragile eco-system in the delta of the Mississippi in Louisiana. And I’m remembering the catastrophic oil spill in Alaska 21 years ago when the Exxon Valdez split apart. And I’m reacting with horror when I learn that the oil from that spill is still there, on the beaches of Prince William Sound. In that event, a record-breaker until now, thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, nearly 3000 sea otters, a dozen river otters, 300 harbor seals, nearly 250 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs. Some scientists estimate that some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.
And now it’s happening again. When people believe they can do whatever they want in order to have something they believe they must have, when we look at the world as a kind of toy store where we can just go in and pick what we want and never have to worry about the consequences, when we think we can take from the earth without thinking of it as theft, we get into trouble. And the world gets into trouble.
There’s a beautiful midrash in which God and Adam are looking around at Eden and marveling at how beautiful it is. God cautions Adam: “I have made many worlds before this one, but in this one I have placed you to tend it. Take care not to destroy it, because if you do, I will not make another.”
Talmidim, the world is in our hands. We have an obligation to take care of it, not to abuse it. We have an obligation to look at the world as though we are only a part of it, not better than it. When we forget that, we get into trouble, and birds and fish die and sand and rocks remain covered with oil for years and years.
The following prayer was written by Rabbi Danielle Upbin and Rabbi David Weizman of Clearwater FL. I’ll be sharing it again tomorrow morning during our Torah service.

"Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, עֹשֶׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּם – Maker of the heavens and earth, the seas and all they contain:

"Grant protection and sheltering peace to the myriads of living creatures who make their watery home in the Gulf of Mexico. Shield them from the slick, suffocating forces of the oil geyser. Guard every turtle and every fish, every crawling creature and every swimming creature. Protect each and every organism from microbe to mammal. The Psalmist wrote:

מָה־רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה' כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם, שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם־גְּדֹלוֹת

"How varied are Your works, Adonai! In wisdom have You made them all. The earth is filled with Your creatures.Here is the great, vast sea, teeming with numberless living things, large and small. [The Psalmist goes on:] All these creatures look to You.

"May we cease from obscuring Your countenance with our contaminants.

"הַבּוֹרֵא - Creator of the Universe, grant us the ability to act responsibly with Your planet. To till and to tend it, to guard it and guide it, to preserve it and to ensure that there is a healthy earth for us and for the next generation to enjoy. Awake in us the spirit of stewardship, to use our resources wisely, to create sustainable energy solutions, and to love and live deeply in harmony with all of Your creation. We are but sojourners on this planet, as we read in Your Torah: כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי - The earth is Mine, says God, and you are but strangers resident with Me.

"Each Shabbat, as we recall Your covenant, may we be strengthed as partners in creation, never to destroy the earth. May we return from our environmental transgressions and set our path straight for a cleaner, clearer and healthier planet."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Seeing and Believing

There’s a famous Yiddish expression that loosely translates to “It’s tough to be a Jew.” You can expand that any way you like, depending on where you are, in history and in geography. For me, one of the toughest things to struggle with (besides the kosher thing and the Shabbat thing, and oh yeah Passover is coming) is the lack of physicality in our worship system. Millennia ago, we had a central place of worship, and serving God meant bringing the right kind of sacrifice. While we didn’t see God, we could watch the priest slaughter the animal, watch the smoke go up from the altar…we had a place to go to and something to see.

Today, not so much. The great gift we gave the world, the notion of one, invisible, unknowable God, sometimes works against us. We have to work harder to get into the prayer mode. We don’t have an image to focus on, or prayer beads to run through our fingers (although tzitzit often do the trick). We have to look inward, find the place inside that is seeking God, turn on our inner ear to hear God’s voice, all the while without having a visual focus. We do it, but it ain’t easy.

And the problem with believing what we can’t see isn’t new. It goes back to the dawn of our people, in the wilderness of Sinai, while Moses was on the mountain communing with God and the Israelites demanded that Aaron build them a god.

They would have been OK (I guess) with Moses there. Moses was the focal point, the place toward which they could turn. Yes, there was a pillar of smoke and fire, but the pillar didn’t talk. They needed their leader, and in his absence they felt rudderless and abandoned. They needed something to look at, so they commissioned a god.

The late Rabbi David S. Lieb of San Pedro, California, wrote about the calf and idolatry, and he expanded his thinking to include sacred space. Rabbi Lieb wrote: “If sacred space is indeed a response to our need to have a focus for our worship, we may need to have that place much closer at hand than the top of Mount Sinai or Friday night services at Temple Sinai. We may need to have sanctuary at home, in the office, in the car, at the all, or wherever…” The challenge, then, is to learn how to carve sacred space wherever you are. How do you do that?

It has been observed that since the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, and the subsequent wanderings of our people, we have had a portable religion. We pack up our books and our candle sticks and our tallit and tefilin and we move on. No bulky, unwieldy altars to shlep around. That’s the good news, I guess. If we have to be ready to move, we have managed to adapt to that reality of our history. But we still have no on-going focal point. How do we evoke the nearness of God? (I remember hearing an observation a while ago about the phenomenon of the cathedral synagogue – huge, with a ceiling that can barely be seen from the lowest seats. “Remember the shtiebl of the shtetl?” the person asked. “The ceiling was very low. Synagogues couldn’t be built higher than the churches around them. The rooms were small. And you felt God near you. Now you go into huge synagogues that accommodate lots of people, but the ceiling is far away. And so, too, often is the sense of God’s presence.” While I know there are many who find comfort in very large sanctuaries, more people, I would guess, who are looking for an intimate prayer experience, look for a smaller space.)

We need something to focus on. That’s why I’m a big believer in mental photographs. The next time you are somewhere where you are overwhelmed by the presence of God, remember where you are, what’s around you, how the air feels, how the vegetation smells or who the people are near you. Then bring up that photograph next time you have trouble preparing for prayer.

The Rabbis recount that the most pious of them often spent an hour preparing for prayer. How? Recitation of psalms, making a separation between the mundane outside the synagogue and the pursuit of the sacred inside its walls. The psalms were the mantras of our tradition. Today, it’s unreasonable to expect to spend a full hour preparing for a service. But how often do we stop and prepare ourselves? How often do we even set out expectations for the prayer experience beyond “It’s morning, I need to say shaharit”? Prayer isn’t for God, it’s for us. And meaningful prayer takes work. My next blog will consider mantras from the liturgy that can be used either to prepare for prayer or on their own. But for now, let’s consider mental photographs.

On my first visit to Israel, I was privileged to witness the ordination of the first graduates of the Conservative seminary in Israel. The ordination took place at the amphitheater at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. As I sat in the audience, I looked out over the city of Jerusalem, and as the sun set, the buildings turned from gold to pink, and the lights began going on, both in homes and in the sky as the stars came out, and I decided I’d never seen such a beautiful sight in my life. Today, when I turn to face Jerusalem as I begin to pray, if I’m having trouble concentrating, I think, essentially, “Where am I facing? What’s there?” And I see that city begin to glow as the darkness settled around her, and the words come freely.

Do you like to hike? Surf? Are there places you’ve been that have taken your breath away? Bring those memories out. We don’t need a location as long as we can access our memories. It even occurs to me that while I can say some parts of the services by rote, there’s a comfort to holding a siddur.

The Kotzker Rebbe asked once, “Where is God?” and answered “Where we let God in.” If that is true, and if Isaiah’s statement is true, that the whole world is filled with God’s glory, then we don’t need to come to a synagogue to worship. We don’t need to shop around to say shaharit. We come to a synagogue to find community. We can find God anywhere. We just need to know how to look.