Monday, September 28, 2009

The Other Dayenu

"Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?"

You listen to the sermons and read the haftarah and feel good about yourself. You talk about the homeless, as if it were enough.

As if it were enough to talk about the homeless, but not see them in your streets.

As if it were enough to see them in your streets, but not feed them.

As if it were enough to feed them, but not shelter them.

As if it were enough to shelter them, but not clothe them.

As if it were enough to clothe them, but not give them medical care.

As if it were enough to give them medical care, but not educate their children.

As if it were enough to educate their children, but not welcome them to your society.

As if it were enough to welcome them to your society, but not love them as yourself.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Soon You Will Call Me...

Reading today about the origin of rabbinic Judaism, and made an interesting connection.

"Rabbi" means literally "My master"; it is a title of honor for the rabbi's role as teacher. Therefore, it's essentially equivalent to "Sensei".

All of a sudden the combination of religion and sword fighting makes more sense.

Jewish Pantheism

Found this on Wikipedia's article on pantheism:
Biblical Judaism asserts the origin of the Universe was brought forth by the Torah law of nature. Thus the original Torah is found not within the writing of Moshe, but within nature itself. "Reading" the Torah of nature is seen as equivalent to "reading" the Torah of revelation and theoretically will agree with one another in the end [as illustrated for example in the discovery of the Big Bang in 1965]. Rabbinical Orthodoxy viewing this as a discrepancy, in order to maintain the written Torah above that given first in nature, has argued that written Torah preceded creation, and it was from the written Torah that God "spoke" creation. A view rejected by Biblical Pantheists.

Maimonides, though Orthodox, reflected the sentiment that the Torah of nature and the Torah of scripture were equivalent and found its logic inescapable, in his comments on the reconciliation of science with scripture.

Not sure what the bit about the Big Bang refers to (I know what the Big Bang is, and I can guess how it relates to Torah, but it's not a theory I've seen before), and I'm disappointed but unsurprised by the gross retconning by "Rabbinical Orthodoxy", but in general I love this view of connection between religion and science. This is what I've always believed, and how I came to my faith.

Also love this description of Hindu pantheism: "As the sun has rays of light which emanate from the same source, the same holds true for the multifaceted aspects of God emanating from Brahman, like many colors of the same prism."

The Illusion of Free Choice

I like this one; I'll let you figure out why it goes here:

Including Men in Engendered Judaism

Just started Jonathan Kirsch's "The Woman Who Laughed At God", and I'm already enjoying it greatly. He also wrote "The Harlot By The Side Of The Road", another favorite of mine, so I am not too surprised.

Despite the title, the book is not about women in Judaism - neither of them are, actually - but an exploration of "Who is a Jew?" using the famous story of Sarah as a launching point. Sarah's laughter at God's prediction of a child does not incur the wrath that other seemingly lesser infractions do elsewhere; Kirsch leads from that into the multiple authors of the Torah, to multiple interpretations of the material, multiple theologies underlying the variants, and the evolution of Judaisms rather than Judaism. Having said that, he actually does spend a lot of time discussing women in traditional Judaism, starting with the hinted-at existence of Hebrew goddesses and moving through rabbinic Judaism to the modern era.

As he discusses the raw deal women tend to get from the Old Testament and its most fervent followers, I am coming back to one of my personal hot topics; where do the men fit? The single-issue focus of feminism destroyed (mostly) the old definition of what it means to be a woman, replacing it with something new and vibrant. The old definition of what it means to be a man was just destroyed. Nothing new was put in its place. Traditionally male traits are now "bad", and the only thing most men have left to define their identity is, ironically, their relationships with women. I recall a retreat a few years ago where the group split along gender lines to define "male" and "female". Everything the men came up with was some variation of "we are here to support and love you"; they were not able to define themselves independently.

The same issue arises with engendered Judaism; we have created new rituals and opportunities for women, and the men...keep the same archaic stuff we always had? If the old way was flawed and didn't work for women, why do we assume it will work for men?

I especially see this as an issue in Reform Judaism, largely because of the large number of very active, highly talented women at all levels of the movement that are transforming the religion into something more accepting - no, not just accepting; enthusiastic about women. This is good, and as it should and needs to be, but what works better for women does not always work well for men. This has become a problem for our children in the schools, young adults in colleges, and now I see it in religion.

This is a somewhat incoherent rant, I realize. It's late and I'm tired. But Kirsch stirred me, and, as I said, this is a hot topic of mine. More later.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A thought from last night:

We read the line "Renew our days as in the past", but the Hebrew word used comes from חדש, meaning "new". So really what we're getting, as our choir director put it, is not Renewal but Newal.

May this coming year be fresh and new; a year of joy, a year of healing, a year of learning, a year of life.

L'shana Tovah!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keeping It Covered

Another great post from Leon: "You Can Leave Your Hat On". He describes his struggles with wearing a kippah in public. My hat's off to him (sorry) because I only made it a week when I tried. The constant "Nice hat!" remarks wore me down quickly. Ironically, this was at a job where I was supposed to model religious commitment for children and their families.

Now I work in an environment where it would be accepted, even welcomed. I'm spending a lot more time in Temple, especially during the run-up to the Holy Days. I've spent several Friday nights at local assisted living facilities, leading services for the residents. But I find I'm more concerned about the message inherent in starting to wear a kippah than I am about actually wearing it.

Why am I concerned? As Leon points out, it's not an actual commandment. As such, the perceived obligation to keep our heads covered represents what is, to me, a stringent type of "Tradition As Law", in which the views of a particular rabbi (or group of rabbis) become as binding as the word of God. There is a specific mentality that takes tradition, turns it into law, applies it universally, and condemns - explicitly or implicitly - everyone that does not fall in line. Given the tendency for extreme religious observance to gradually become the norm, I feel almost obligated to resist just to maintain the middle ground.

There is also a statement made by adopting a new observance. What would you assume about a 30-something single guy [it should be noted my girlfriend objects to this description] that suddenly picks up a new, highly visible, religious habit? The "born again" or "baal teshuvah" implications are stronger than I'm comfortable with.

Is "being Jewish" now such a large part of my identity that I want to visibly distinguish myself at all times? Wearing a full-time kippah makes as much a statement at my temple as it does in at the grocery store, the bank, or the airport. I do not object to this marking, although I have equal reluctance to brand myself in general; I avoid wearing sword-shaped pendants despite my interest in fencing, I do not have cat pictures on my desk at work despite being a cat lover, and I do not put BSA logos on my car despite being a Boy Scout. No one of these defines my identity, and I don't want people to think of me as "the Jewish guy".

I also object to allowing ultraobservant "traditionalists" to define what qualifies as a symbol of Jewish identity. If I allow arcane rabbinic interpretations to define the expression of my Jewish identity, how can I object to their interpretations of dietary laws or conversion? I was thinking about this during Rosh Hashana, and was struck by how much the rabbi and cantor were falling over themselves to look Orthodox, even as the service was filmed and projected onto multiple screens, and a piano, violin, and cello accompanied the music.

There is an uncomfortable tension between these two ideas. Granted, Reform does not need to be a total rejection of Orthodoxy, but the "pick & choose" mentality, I think, really weakens Reform Judaism's theological arguments. Yes, a kippah has tradition behind it; it's what our ancestors wore, after all. But argument from tradition is a weak justification. There is a long history of distinctive Jewish clothing, most of them from traditions we'd rather not revisit.

I respect Leon for his courage and perseverance. I respect him even more for his thoughtfulness and consideration in making the decision. This ability to wrestle with God within your own life, to find the personal intersection between tradition and modernity, is to me the best attribute of modern Judaism. The process is more important than the result. It is how he and I remain friends not in spite of our different observances, but because of them.

Daven Like A Pirate Day!

From Leon at The Edible Torah:

"That magical day is upon us again, coming as it does, every year at this time: September 19, also known to some of us as

National Talk Like a Pirate Day

This year, it is coincidental with another, perhaps only slightly less exciting holiday: Rosh Hashanah.

I realize that the two may not appear, at first blush, to be compatible. But with just a bit of creativity and open-mindedness, you can combine these two important moments on the Calendar into a pleasing and harmonious whole..."

My favorite suggestion is "Augmenting the Unetaneh Tohkef with the rarely heard question: “and who by walking the plank?”" Visit his blog for the full list.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish In Oklahoma

I lived in Oklahoma from age three to thirteen, give or take a few months. My major Jewish memory from this time is a general theme of conflict and isolation; in a Junior High of 1,600, I was the only Jewish kid, just to give a sense of scope. There were two shuls in town, one Reform and one Conservative, and both fairly active, but all my friends there lived far enough away that I usually only saw them on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I had the teachers that yelled at me - in front of the class - for not wanting to write a letter to Santa, and no one was surprised when major tests were scheduled for Yom Kippur.

There were good memories too, don't get me wrong! There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly, and when viewed through those lenses it's small surprise I want to be a Rabbi. But I knew my non-Jewish friends had those things too. What I had that they missed was conflict. Ironically, the community was homogeneous enough that racism and homophobia were entirely off my radar, so it was a long time before I learned I was not alone in my isolation.

I thought the lessons gained from this were strength and confidence in my beliefs, the ability to teach and explain my religion to my friends, the skill to debate religion on multiple fronts, and the desire to merge "being American" with "being Jewish". And I did get those things, but tonight I realized something new.

I am reading Jew vs. Jew, Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, find myself firmly in the middle. As I dug deeper, I realized that I grew up without a real sense of Orthodox Judaism; it was as foreign to me as it was to my Christian friends. Like I said, there was the Reform temple and the Conservative synagogue and that was it, in my limited world view. I knew what Reform was; that's where we went, where I was Confirmed, where the Rabbi gave my sister her Hebrew name. I knew what Conservative was; that's where the other Rabbi was, where they used a different book and spent two days on Rosh Hashanah.

Reform was home.

Conservative was my friend's house.

I went to a Reform summer camp - Young Judea in Texas. A couple times per summer the kids from Camp Ramah came over; they were The Enemy, to be defeated whenever met on basketball court or kickball field. But after that they were our friends, we were all Jewish after all. They were just a little more...intense about it, and I couldn't follow their prayers. But my mom was a music teacher; I understood that some people use different melodies for the same songs, so that wasn't a problem.

A couple years before we moved away the congregations merged their Sunday Schools, so I got to learn more about what Conservative meant; the girls were bat mitzvahed at 12 instead of 13. Sometimes we'd go to services at one place, sometimes the other. I had friends at each, and friends at both. One Sunday I was recruited before class started to help round out a minyan; this was before my bar mitzvah, so I was handed a chumash with the explanation that it added two years to my age. It was an awesome experience; I was so proud to help out.

The point is, we were all Jewish. I knew there were differences, but I figured they just weren't important. Oh, sure, some were Important, but even those didn't really matter. You just remembered who would or wouldn't eat cheeseburgers and everything was ok.

Again, it's an irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just weren't enough of us to get really fractious. Then I moved to Chicago, and first encountered the idea that there were so many Jews we could sit around arguing about who is or is not Jewish. That's a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population; that's less than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it's possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.

This isn't the place where I'll argue the case for Jewish unity versus plurality; I'm still working out a way to incorporate both into a single philosophy, I'll let you know what I come up with. I was struck by this realization because I always thought growing up Jewish in Oklahoma was an unpleasant "character building" experience that, all things equal, I'd just as soon do without. Now I see there was a true benefit to learning Judaism in that environment. The small space we lived in stripped away even the possibility of the idea of Jewish factionalism; we were pressed together to form a single community. It was the kind of pressure that breeds diamonds.

Lilah tov

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fixing Reform Judaism

A short post; I want to expand on this later, but these were my thoughts over lunch and I wanted to get them up.

Don't make it simpler, make it deeper.

People rise to your expectations.

The problem is empty, meaningless ritual; congregants are unattached to it. Create the connection, and they become active.

The Seder plate: the actual food item isn't nearly as important as pointing at it, asking "What's this?", and explaining why it's there. Dark chocolate could stand in for horseradish as the marror as long as you explain that we eat it so the bitterness reminds us of slavery's harshness. Ok, maybe chocolate won't work. Baker's chocolate might.