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."