Thursday, December 31, 2009
Looking back at these first 100 posts, what have I learned?
It's hard to say something new about Judaism.
Seriously! I keep having these wildly radical ideas (compared to what I see around me), getting all excited about them, and telling my friends, only to have them say, "Oh, so you've been reading Rabbi so-and-so!" Or I'll crack open some history book and find that a few centuries ago this "radical idea" was considered passe and old fashioned.
What's a young Jew to do?
Also, I'm feeling my lack of knowledge. Granted, I'm not investing the amount of time in each post that many "serious bloggers" recommend, but I keep finding other bloggers, articles, etc. who bring so much more depth to their writing than I do. This is one of the major pieces I want to gain at school; the background and knowledge base that will allow me to support my writing with citations, references, and links that will make my writing stronger.
I don't write this post to be hard on myself; I'm very happy with what I've done this year, and like the way my writing is developing. Rather, I am acknowledging my awareness of my need for further development. On a larger scale, it has been an interesting reminder of the cyclical trends in human history. And, as humans, that applies to Jewish history as well.
My biggest revelation in this vein was realizing that what we now think of as "Traditional Judaism", and all of rabbinic Judaism for that matter, represented a huge divergence from the "original" Judaism. One writer suggested rabbinic Judaism could potentially be the single largest heresy in religious history!
When you look at it that way, it's not surprising I want to be one.
Thanks for reading; have a safe and happy new year, and see you all in 2010!
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
When your friends become a statistic. When they become headlines. When the thing that could never, ever, happen to you, happens to them.
It's hard to be strong for your friends.
Friday, December 25, 2009
We celebrated The Annual Jewish Holiday today in the traditional way: we saw a movie and ordered Chinese food. My sister pointed out that the crowd at the movie theater when we got there, for the noon show, was mostly Jewish and immigrant families; when we left, it was almost all Christians. Must they steal all our traditions?
It's 5pm in Chicago now, meaning sunset was about three hours ago, so technically it's Day-After-Christmas Eve. We talked about "The Holidays" a lot this week, and I have a much longer post to write about the need to transition to a post-inclusive world, but for now I just want to say this: I have no objection to Christmas, I just feel frustrated, exhausted, and trapped because I can't get away from it without becoming a complete recluse for several weeks out of the year. I hope everyone who observes it has a happy, safe, healthy, and fun Christmas, but please remember that it's your holiday, not everyone's holiday, and the rest of us sometimes need a break.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
A fair question, to be sure, and one I have spoken to in much of my writing, directly or otherwise. My answer had three parts:
1. I love studying, reading, and teaching Torah and Jewish history.
2. I like non-profit work, and my passion for Judaism will drive me professionally.
3. My favorite part of working with people is watching them grow and develop.
She found my answer lacking because I did not, in all that, mention God or spirituality. I felt I did; in describing education, social justice, and family life I described my spirituality and connection to God.
The ensuing debate contrasted very mundane, secular issues with religious, spiritual ones; any regular reader of this blog will know the intersection of those perspectives is one of my favorite places to be. I brought the question to several of my friends I visited last week to get their input, and the majority agreed my grandma was right.
Grandma had an excellent point. I cannot get so caught up in soaring intellectual, spiritual answers that I ignore good interview technique. I am reconsidering my answers to say the same things but use the essential buzzwords.
But there's another issue at stake for me, and it's big enough I almost want to ask the interview panel their opinion on the subject. I believe religion, and God, is not something to be separated from the rest of my life. I am just as Jewish when I'm at the office, stuck in traffic, blogging, praying, or watching TV. God is not unpacked for the holidays like some table decoration to be put away again once the festival is over; God is God at all times, and my relationship to God is likewise constant.
The question "Why do I want to be a rabbi" is different than the question "What is my relationship with God". But the second question underlies the first, and probably is the one that should be asked first. The question my Grandma should have asked me, and that hopefully the interview board will, is "Given your relationship with God, why do you want to be a rabbi?"
My non-Jewish friends spoke about a sense of "being Called" to the clergy. That's not really part of Judaism. In fact, I think people that decide to be rabbis primarily because of their strong love for God will have a very difficult time of it. They will quickly burn out, for the same reason as many of the excellent camp counselors who utterly fail as camp administrators; they take the job thinking they'll get to be at camp all day, then discover they are working a difficult office job that just happens to be on the camp grounds.
Monday, December 21, 2009
On Religion: In a Manhattan Classroom, Judaism Meets the Facts of Life
I want this story spread to all corners of the net, especially those where some of my favorite bloggers sit bashing religion in general, and its views on sex in particular. Granted, I probably should learn more about what, specifically, this rabbi has to say about these complicated issues of sexuality before deciding to endorse him too strongly, but look at the types of things he says in this article:
“Sex is fun...Sex is pleasurable, no question about it.”Without knowing more specifics about his curriculum, that's the type of attitude I want sex educators, and religious educators, to have. I'm even ok with it when he says, “[Sex] really has to do with relationships. It isn’t just something you do." That falls within my range of acceptable messages, that sex is something sacred and special, and is best within a relationship. We could have some debate about what constitutes an acceptable relationship, but that essential idea is a strong part of my own sexual ethics.
“The Ramaz that I’ve associated myself with prides itself on being open to all issues, to all views, while maintaining its Modern Orthodox stance. Nowhere does that get more difficult than in the area of sexual ethics."
“I keep saying to the students as we move along in the course, ‘I believe there is a right and a wrong. But you’re going to make a decision.’ So it’s better not to just come down on them with a heavy-handed moral absolutism.”
I get very frustrated by the common perception that religion is sex-negative. Yes, some religion is, and there are definitely pieces that seek to control sexuality, but religion done properly promotes life, community, self-development, family, and happiness, and sex is a part of all of these.
In Judaism we are commanded not to just have sex, but to enjoy it. Some, unfortunately, try to regulate the definition of "enjoyment" just as they do "relaxation", "celebration", and "prayer" in other parts of life. It is regrettable they apply this constrictive viewpoint to sex, but I guess it's at least consistent.
Anyway, my point is religion and sex can co-exist happily, and promote each other. There is at least one rabbi out there teaching this; give me a few years and there will be two.
Friday, December 18, 2009
This has become a universally accepted standard at Jewish events across the ideological spectrum (at least at the ones I see; it's possible congregations at the extreme Right or Left feel differently). But should it be? One of the traditional anti-semetic attacks is that Jews cannot be trusted because their "true" loyalty is to the "Jewish state", therefore they are not "Real Americans". Or French, or Germans, or wherever we're being kicked out of this year.
Are we making this calumny true in the era of Israel? Singing a national anthem, to a flag no less, is a declaration of loyalty. Not quite a loyalty oath or applying for citizenship, but still a nod in that direction.
Is this appropriate behavior? I've said before that I believe our identity as modern American Jews doesn't necessarily include "Israeli" anymore, but even if it did would this be ok? Imagine learning a presidential candidate sang the anthem of another country every week; it would end the campaign!
Not that we should plan our traditions around electoral politics or public opinion. But is this a tradition whose time has come? Or one whose time has passed?
Turns out the "save" feature does not work automatically on my phone, so I must now take the following steps, in order:
1. Rewrite the post.
2. Locate my hammer.
3. Purchase a new cell phone.
The reconstructed post will be much shorter, since most of the original passionate inspiration has faded and I am working from memory rather than notes.
The question is this: at many "official" American Jewish events, especially school and camp events, we open with the Star Spangled Banner, followed by Hatikvah; should we continue to do this?
One of the classic tropes of antisemitism is that Jews can never be real Americans, Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Russians, Greeks, Romans, Brits, etc. is that they hold a "secret loyalty" to another nation, the "Jewish nation", and therefore can never be fully trusted in our own. In opening all major Jewish events with Hatikvah, we provide some small measure of truth for this calumny to work with.
I understand, or think I understand, the underlying motivation. Israel is a strong part of American Jewish identity, especially after the wars of the 60's and 70's. Singing Hatikvah is a show of solidarity with and love for Israel. But singing a nation's anthem is more than that. Singing the anthem, to a flag no less, is a declaration of loyalty. Look at Olympic athletes; the medalists sing their own anthem but not the others. Many times this is probably because they only know their own anthem, but what about the international NBA players; surely they know the US anthem in addition to their own? What about Jewish athletes from anywhere around the world? It would be regarded as highly inappropriate for these athletes, as representatives of their nation, to sing the anthem of another country.
Imagine how this would play out in a presidential campaign. If it got out that a Jewish presidential candidate (suspend disbelief for the duration of this argument and pretend there could be such a thing) regularly sang the Israeli anthem, it would end the campaign! Don't believe me? Imagine if it were a Muslim candidate singing the anthem of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
I do not mean to suggest public opinion should be the guide for our actions, and creating traditions out of fear of possible antisemitism has already damaged our religion enough. But we are now at a point where we can, and should, consider this particular tradition and reevaluate its place in our culture. I love singing Hatikvah; it always fills me with a sense of pride. But isn't that part of the problem?
And now, if you will excuse me, in the spirit of holidays recently passed, I will emulate Judah Maccabee to my cell phone's Antiochus.
Monday, December 14, 2009
I was reading some obscure presidential history...trivia, really. At the risk of spoiling the end (go read it; I'll wait.....ready? Ok.), I got chills from this line:
Their grandfather, as a child, made regular weekend visits to hang out with Thomas Jefferson. Their grandfather was born before the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.From a US History standpoint, it's always shocking to remember that these issues we think of as "buried in our past" are actually so recent we can reach them in three generations. We talk about the Civil Rights movement like it's a ling time gone, but how can it be old news when there are people still living whose grandparents were slaves? For that matter, ginandtacos's example shows we're really only three generations away from the founding of this country.
Puts things into perspective, doesn't it? We're the nation equivalent of a 26 year-old recent college graduate at their first big job.
Then I put this into a Jewish perspective. We had a guest speaker at temple this past Friday. I did not agree with much of what he said (can you hear my blood boil from there?), more on that later, but he pulled several of the traditional lines about Judaism in America. Such as, "We've never faced persecution here", and "We have a great tradition in this country"; things of that nature.
Ignoring that the first point is just plain wrong, you hear this general line of reasoning fairly often. Granted, compared to how the rest of the world treats Jews, the US is a paradise for us. I mean, I can count the number of religion-based death threats I received in Junior High on one hand (three); that's unheard of in most of the world! But we act like this has been going on for a long time, and ginandtacos's article, in many ways, gives that idea the lie.
The first documented Jewish presence in America dates back to the 1650's, but the bulk of Jewish immigration happened in the late 1800's. More occurred post-WWII. Most of us don't have to go back very far at all to find our family's entrance to the country; probably just two generations, even without the huge families and long lifespans ginandtacos points out.
To me, that's a sobering thought. Partially because it means that my parents were here, and my grandparents, but to my great-grandparents this country was an alien land; not a place of tradition (מקום של מנחג - I show off in Hebrew!), but the strange land in which they were strangers.
But also partially because that's just long enough to forget. I have no memories of my great-grandparents; I know a few of them lived long enough to meet me, but to me they're essentially just names and photos. Which means every living member of my family grew up here. They - no; we - have only really known acceptance - with some small friction, perhaps. As far as we know, this land has always been a good place for the Jews.
But I've been reading a lot of history lately.
About cycles of nations.
And about other places that were paradises for Jews.
My parents and my grandparents.
Just two generations.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
I saw this story on the God Blog today. To sum up: the Obama administration briefly considered not displaying a Christmas creche; the "community of social secretaries" - seriously - found out about this, and "emitted a collective gasp". This gasp was apparently a strong enough statement of public outcry that the White House will, you'll be glad to know, be displaying the creche.
I know there's a lot of gray area about what can be show without denoting religious bias, and frankly I guess I don't care too much about this one - slightly tacky - decoration. It was really the end of the article that got me.
I don't know what it was about this passage, but it left me feeling...betrayed. Or maybe it's more accurate to say "sold out". Like Team Obama said, "We know this might bother you, buddy, but we're going to do it anyway because it could gain us a few points in the polls". I know that's the core of politics...this one just felt personal.
Let me give another hat tip here to my friend Eric Metaxas, who, as a former editor of The Record at Yale University, knows a few things about satire, politics and culture. He is also the author of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask)” and a bunch of other books. In his commentary at the Fox News website, Metaxas noted:
If President Obama wanted to fuel the fears of every serious Christian in America and actually prove that he is every bad thing they’ve ever heard about him on every crazy Web site, the idea of symbolically taking Jesus out of the White House at Christmas would be just the ticket! Let’s face it: “Brand Obama” dodged a bullet by not going forward with this terrible idea, but only barely dodged it. After all, the facts of the story are right there in The New York Times for all to see.
Amen. A highly symbolic close call, for Obama and other Democrats who want to stay in touch with ordinary American who frequent mainstream church pews.
Monday, December 7, 2009
So last night I was replacing several frayed tzitzit, and a flat-out lovely thing occurred. While I sat in the family room tying, my kids came in, sat down, and proceeded to read. Their reading is not uncommon, but this quiet moment in the middle of a hectic life, that's uncommon. So there I was, tying my tzitzit, focusing on the task, and what occurred? Quiet family time together, all anchored around a mitzvah.I was just explaining to a friend at dinner that the core of Judaism revolves around the family, and, properly done, always leads back to a richer familial experience. Then I logged on and saw this post. Thanks for backing me up Tevel!
As a bit of an aside, but not really, I love reading Shira's and Tevel's blogs because I feel like they are on the same path I am, but coming from different starting points and headed to different destinations. Their writing has been very inspirational for me; I hope that one day my readers gain as much from my blog as I do from theirs.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I absolutely agree; the point of differentiation is fairly weak. A hand-woven blanket is no less natural than honey; both are made by naturally occurring organisms using materials gathered from their environment. I'm not very well read on the honey-making process, so I don't even know which is more complex. The only real difference I can see is humans make intermediate objects; we make machines that build other machines that make the blankets. I guess if we find bees building wax golems we'll have to reevaluate.
On my way to D.C.; take care of the 'net until I get back.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Police on Wednesday arrested a woman who was praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, due to the fact that she was wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit).Facebook update: Israel has joined the group "Nations that arrest Jews for dressing like Jews".
The woman was visiting the site with the religious women's group "Women of the Wall" to take part in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer.
Police were called to the area after the group asked to read aloud from a Torah scroll.
I wanted to write about this, but didn't. Partially for time, partially because I always feel a little weak commenting on the female side of gender issues. "This upsets me because it is very clearly wrong" just doesn't tell the full story. I could reference other writers and draw from them, but since I lack the personal experience to ground it, it always feels like I'm quoting a talking points memo.
Leon sent this to me; it's a sample letter to the Israeli ambassador condemning this outrageous arrest. I'm posting it here to encourage as many people as possible to participate. It doesn't take long to write a letter and send it; please do so and ask your friends to as well. And next time I'm in Israel, I plan to daven with the Women of the Wall as much as I can.
(From Shulamit S. Magnus - Associate Professor, Jewish Studies and History Chair, Program in Jewish Studies, Oberlin College)
Many asked me this past Shabbat about the Women of the Wall and what we can do to help.
Here is something simple, quick, and effective: send emails to the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Use your own language-- which should be respectful, if forthright-- or feel free to use or adapt from mine, below. Use your contacts and encourage others to send an avalanche of these to the Ambassador; the Embassy and Consulates are Israel's nerve endings abroad. They will register and report on Jewish public opinion and are our best, most direct form of influence.
The other is to ask every Jewish organization with which you are affiliated-- Federation; women's groups; camps; Zionist organizations of whatever stripe; shuls; schools-- to do the same, and to raise this issue in each and every contact with counterparts in Israel, ceaselessly, as was done, lehavdil, with Soviet Jewry, until Israel does right.
When YOU go to Israel, seek out this group, and daven with them.
Below, the text of my email to Ambassador Oren AND THE EMAIL ADDRESSES TO USE:
Subject: from Professor Shulamit Magnus Arrest women for praying at the
Kotel? FOR SHAME! IMMEDIATE REMEDY!
Dear Ambassador Oren,
I write to express my outrage at the arrest of a woman for wearing a talit and reading from a sefer Torah at the Western Wall.
What a disgrace that the only place in the world where such an action could be taken without the denunciation and intervention of the State of Israel is Israel itself. For shame! To what depths have we descended in our capitulation to religious fundamentalism, intimidation, and coercion that a law in the Jewish State actually criminalizes Jews praying in prayer garments and reading from the Torah anywhere in Israel! Are we to compete with the Byzantine Christians, the Ottomans, the British, and the Jordanians in restricting religious expression at this site, for whose liberation brave soldiers gave their lives so that we might all have free access and expression there, after centuries of oppression and restriction?
We ask you to convey to the Government of Israel our shock and indignation -- and our profound disappointment in our beloved Israel-- that such a policy could be tolerated, and our expectation that remedy will be forthcoming immediately so that this sacred site of Jewish memory and connection will be a place of mutual respect for the plurality of Jewish prayer customs, from which intolerance, fanaticism, misogyny and coercion, not women at prayer,
will be banished.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
One of the greatest blessings of Reform Judaism is that authority to interpret and apply Jewish law rests with the individual. This creates a safe space where we have the opportunity – nearly, in fact, the obligation – to continue learning, exploring, and developing our understanding of Jewish tradition and practice.
This freedom also creates one of the greatest challenges facing the modern Reform movement. Without stringent guidelines and requirements, many Reform Jews neglect their Jewish education and development, virtually disappearing after their b’nei mitzvot. As a result, community leaders must struggle to keep the ritual accessible without oversimplifying and divesting it of meaning.
Rather than drawing members back to the community, oversimplification hinders membership development. The purely secular Jews will not be attracted no matter how simple the service becomes. Meanwhile, members coming to temple for community involvement and those seeking to explore their faith will lose interest and drift away because of the lack of meaning.
My high school history teacher conclusively demonstrated that the reason most people find history “boring” is because they receive too little information, not too much. He would take stories that were normally represented as dull, two-line stories and expand them into hour-long action packed sagas that ensured the message stayed with us. The same holds true of religion; oversimplifying Shabbat services is the problem, not the solution, reducing the spiritual high-point of the week to a series of confusing, empty call-and-response readings.
Imagine, instead, if each week’s service were used as an educational opportunity, providing an opportunity for improving skill and knowledge. Members driven by curiosity would be drawn to return each week, eager for the next installment. This is how I first learned the silent amidah at summer camp. The daily services were new to me, and I struggled to keep up with my friends; I started forcing myself to read the prayers in Hebrew, reading as much as I could before the group got to Shalom Rav, and getting a little farther each day. I have not regularly attended morning prayers since that summer, but even now, years later, I know the prayers by heart and the amidah remains my favorite part of the service.
One of the greatest challenges for Reform rabbis is how they navigate this issue; how do we provide depth and meaning while promoting free expression? How do we provide guidance without enforcing direction? This is the question I hope to answer as I pursue ordination.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
“Now, the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses.” [Leviticus 24:10-11]The incident is used as an opportunity to introduce several laws and punishments before ending with the unnamed man’s execution. This brief story conceals an issue that should be very troubling to us as modern Jews. The man is put to death for speaking a single word, a difficult notion to reconcile with our value of Free Speech. The unnamed man is executed for the crime of blasphemy: using the holy name in an irreverent way. Immediately after learning what his punishment shall be, however, we are informed that “if a man strikes down any human being he shall be put to death.” [Leviticus 24:17] There is an uncomfortable tension created by the juxtaposition of these two capital offenses; the implication is that speaking a word can be as bad a crime as murdering a human being.
Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man put to death when Moses is allowed to live?
There does not seem to be a clear answer. This inequity seems a gross injustice. Jewish law teaches us that before one can be sentenced to death, they must be warned their behavior is wrong and given the opportunity to stop. Yet the unnamed man receives no warning, while Moses, presumably, had known murder was wrong. It says Moses “turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man” [Exodus 2:12] before striking, implying he knew the act to be wrong and wished to avoid witnesses. Murder, in this circumstance at least, is a forgivable offense while blasphemy is severe enough to warrant waiving proper protocols.
This ups the ante considerably; blasphemy is now a worse crime than murder. How can we, as Americans, make peace with this imbalance; how can we conscience executing someone for their speech?
We do not. We cannot, emotionally, and should not, morally, countenance turning speech into a capital offence. While there are many crimes that can be committed via speech alone – such as blackmail, intimidation, and perjury – there is only one that is a capital offense: treason. A crime so important it is the only one defined in the United States Constitution, and so rare there have been less than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions.
So how do we deal with this story?
We could put the story into a historical perspective. Blasphemy belongs to the class of speech acts known as declaratives; these are statements that, in being spoken, effect change in the world. Classic examples are “I adjourn the meeting”, or “I thank you”; the statement itself is the action. In ancient cultures declaratives could carry great power. But in the digital age, with over a trillion webpages and a billion new ones appearing each day, talk has become cheap.
We could turn it into a metaphor for modern life. This is the era of the sound bite and the text message: brief statements that fly around the world, and whose short shelf-life is offset by potential for deep short-term impact with long-term effects. While few of us would literally kill someone for their words, we symbolically execute politicians, celebrities, and relationships over a few ill-chosen words. Just last year, for example, Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, was forced out of a 55-year career for implying a genetic link between race and intelligence, his words erasing a lifetime of valuable scientific contributions.
There is a time for each of these approaches. The Torah is many things to the Jewish people, including a historical document and a source of inspiration. By viewing the text from these perspectives, the Torah helps us improve our understanding of our people’s past and present. In the end, though, we cannot in good conscience, as good Jews and good American citizens accept these easy answers. The questions raised by this parsha are unanswerable, showing once again why we are known as the People of Israel: those who wrestle with G-d.
Too many people view religion from only a single perspective. They seem afraid that learning to see more than one perspective will completely fracture their worldview. That mindset reminds me of one Calvin & Hobbes strip, in which Calvin starts seeing everything in a neo-cubist style. We learn that,
"It all started when Calvin engaged his dad in a minor debate! Soon Calvin could see both sides of the issue! Then poor Calvin began to see both sides of everything! The traditional single viewpoint has been abandoned! Perspective has been fractured! The multiple views provide too much information! It's impossible to move! Calvin quickly tries to eliminate all but one perspective!”He successfully regains his single-perspective viewpoint, then informs his dad, "You're still wrong, Dad."
I never understood this mindset. It is much easier to navigate any terrain using multiple viewpoints to triangulate, and in every field I have studied I have likewise found that multiple intellectual viewpoints further learning and understanding. Today religion in our country is at the center of several major ideological debates, most predominately “Science vs. Religion” and “Secular vs. Traditional”. I never saw the inherent dichotomy in these debates, preferring to study on both sides to gain a better understanding. Granted, the large difference between these extremes creates intellectual pressure, but physics teaches us that pressure generates energy, which can be used to do useful work.
I saw such pressure lead to beneficial results when I lived in Oklahoma. I lived there 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 Jewish memories too. There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly; when viewed from that perspective it is unsurprising 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 recently I realized something new.
This summer I read Jew vs. Jew, Samuel G. Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, found 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 consecrated, 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 is 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 went 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. This is where my sense of Jewish peoplehood developed, in a place where the difference between denominations mattered less than the friendly rivalry over which local football team you supported.
It's the irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just were not 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 idea is a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population, a number smaller than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it is possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.
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 would 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.
This idea really hit home while I was watching the movie The Prince of Egypt. It was released when I was a sophomore in college, and I went to see it with a Catholic friend when we were home on break. We wound up the only people in the theater (gotta love early afternoon mid-week showings!) and had fun mocking the previews, yelling at the screen, and providing…”helpful insights” to the characters throughout the movie. Let’s just say it wasn’t a kid’s movie anymore when we were done with it.
Then halfway through the movie something happened. I don’t know what, or which scene, or why that moment, but like a comet it hit me; if I was there, they would have done that to me. They wanted to do that to me. The only reason they didn’t do it to me was I wasn’t there. They did this to me.
Suddenly I was crying. Quietly – I’m not sure my friend even noticed, or if he did he made no mention. Everything quickly followed from there. The Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pogroms; every time and place Jews were attacked, enslaved, and destroyed, those responsible also wanted to do it to me and only the fact I was born hundreds of years and thousands of miles away saved me.
Do you realize how embarrassing this was? I’d heard the Passover story countless times. I’d seen more Holocaust movies than I care to think about. Schindler’s List? Completely unimpressed and unmoved. Sure, what happened was terrible but no worse than the mini-series I watched with my family when I was eight. I picked up Maus once in our Temple’s library one week during Sunday School, expecting to read a funny comic book. The story inside was excellently written and drawn, but there was no emotional space left inside me for outrage about Jews being killed; it had already all been used. And now this, this…children’s movie reduced me to tears.
I came to realize that maybe this is why we tell the story every year. Maybe this is why we tell the story in so many different ways; eventually one will connect. The first time I heard the story of the Exodus it was like some scary campfire story, complete with evil kings, magical events, and food to eat while we listened. We gasped when Pharaoh was cruel, laughed when Moses was tricky, and cheered when the Jews reached freedom. Then it was hunt for the affikomen, eat dessert, check Elijah’s cup, and go to bed.
This movie-moment has stayed with me through the years. Now whenever I see Jews being attacked for being Jews, in fiction or in life, I hear that voice again reminding me they did this to me. Even now, in writing this, I am choked up with tears remembering that I was a slave and oppressed until HaShem freed me. And on the other side of the coin, every great Torah scholar, every prophet, every Israeli hero, well, they did that for me too. This too is part of peoplehood.
Thank God we have children’s movies.
There were other moments on my spiritual path – climbing the steps to Masada, my grandfather’s funeral, tutoring my first bar mitzvah student among them – but that moment in the theater was the first identifiable one. Then one day in Kalamazoo, Michigan my then-rabbi, Rabbi Stephen Forstein, asked a simple question: “What is your relationship with God?” I babbled on for several moments before my brain finally caught up and I fell silent. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before, and finding the answer would require me to explore entirely new worlds of thought. It was that moment, as much as I can point to any single moment, that decided me. As with fencing, if I truly wanted to understand, I would have to be the guide for others. I wanted to be a rabbi.
This experience reawakened and enflamed my passion for the Jewish people. Having identified so strongly with K’lal Yisrael, I cannot ignore it. I am driven to immerse myself within it, to help it – to help us – grow and thrive. And so here I find myself, trying not to “deviate to the right or to the left” [Deut. 28:14]. We cannot reject tradition, but we also cannot be ruled by what it says. We cannot ignore science, but we also cannot be limited by what it has proven. We cannot reject modernity, but we also cannot lose our identity within it. There is a path here, down the middle, that we can safely walk. We will need good guides to help blaze the trail, and I put myself forth to be one of them.
I'm posting my admission essays in their "final form" (essays of this nature are never really "finished"; they're just past their deadline). I'll stagger them a bit to prevent "Genius Overload", which could be caused by reading all three back to back to...other back.
Parts of these essays may seem familiar; I found out on a Monday that the essays were due the following Thursday, so I borrowed liberally from previous blog posts. Don't worry; I gave myself full credit where needed, and if I'm caught, I probably won't press charges.
So last week was an exiting and interesting week. This is the first "Holiday Season" with my girlfriend. We spent Thanksgiving morning with my family, and did dinner with some of her friends. Fun, and we got through both parties without serious incident.
It was hard to get into the spirit, though. We started the holiday with tragedy. Wednesday night my girlfriend's 14 year old cat finally lost his battle with diabetes. We took him to a nearby 24-hour animal hospital, said our goodbyes, and the vet gave him the shot. I held my girlfriend tight, we said kaddish, and went home to try to sleep and get ready for celebrations the next day.
It's strange watching someone you love grieve. Seeing them overcome by emotions so powerful, and knowing all you can do is hold them and watch. Having to keep your own grief in check because someone needs to sign the papers and drive the car, and because yours is such a small, pale thing in comparison.
There's so much more I want to say, about grief and about relationships and about the empty space in our apartment. It's still a bit too raw though.