Friday, December 30, 2011

In The Wilderness

The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Torah and it covers 37 years and 9 months out of the 40 years desert experience. While the book is called “Numbers” in English, its Hebrew name BeMidbar means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” The desert or wilderness period of our people’s history was a period of transition. God realized that the generation which was raised in slavery was not yet ready to live the life of an independent nation.

It is interesting to note that in the Torah, God learns. He changes his mind twice in the story of Noah and the Flood. First, he regrets having created humanity and brings the flood; then after the flood, he realizes that there is nothing which can be done to change human nature and promises not to destroy humanity a second time.  After the sin of the Golden Calf, God realizes that he should have given the Israelites more concrete rituals to follow so he institutes the sacrificial system. After the incident of the spies, wherein the people become disheartened about their ability to conquer the Promised Land, he realizes that the people are not yet ready to enter it. It’s a legitimate question how an omniscient God needs to learn or is capable of doing so, but the Torah is not a Greek philosophical treatise and the Torah clearly has no problem with God learning.

One of the things we discussed last year as part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship is the culture of Jewish institutions. Jewish institutions, deservedly or not, have a reputation for being slow to change. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman once wrote that most synagogues have the saying “Know Before Whom You Stand” written over their Ark, but they really should write “We Have Always Done It This Way.” 

Companies and institutions which thrive tend to be those which encourage experimentation. Companies which punish their employees for failed experiments create a culture which discourages innovation. For every successful idea there are going to be many that don’t pan out well. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a very interesting article in the New Yorker on the historic relationship between  Xerox and Apple. Xerox actually invented the personal computer, the laser printer, and the computer mouse; but because they didn’t fit into what they perceived as their business model, they never perfected them to the point where they could become mass market consumer products.

In the Conservative movement and perhaps beyond, we are at the point I think where we know what doesn’t work. The synagogue that was an ethnic club, or the child-focused suburban congregation that was fueled by Hebrew school, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and youth group -- these models are no longer viable.We don’t yet know what will work and part of that is the fact that there is no consensus on what we want to be working towards. We are in a wilderness period. But the lesson of the Book of Numbers is that this is a necessary period that cannot be skipped. We need time to figure out what our next iteration will be; but we also need to be brave enough to try things out, to be experimental, and not create a culture which chokes off creativy.

Michael Walzer ends his seminal book “Exodus and Revolution” with what he calls three truths about Exodus politics. One, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt. Two, the Promised Land does exist. Three, the only way to get there is by marching together through the wilderness; there are no shortcuts.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the New Paradigm

The story is told that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, "Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!" But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, "Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim - acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, 'For I desire hesed - loving-kindness - and not sacrifice!'" (Hosea 6:6). Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21.

This story takes place shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which both Rabban Yohanan and Rabbi Joshua witnessed. It is an important text to consider in the ancient (and contemporary) Jewish-Christian disputation. The argument Christian missionaries make is that, lacking a Temple, we Jews have no way of gaining atonement for our sins, and therefore need the atonement which Jesus’ death provides. Rabban Yohanan’s answer says no, the Temple was not the only means of atonement. We don’t need to be sad that we have no Temple -- and therefore by implication we have no need of Jesus either. What we have instead of the Temple is loving-kindness, hesed, which can also be understood as covenant faithfulness. As long as we have hesed -- our hesed to each other -- then we have divine hesed as well, since God is faithful to the divine promises.

We study this text on Shabbat mornings very early in the service, and I think we sometimes fail to realize how revolutionary and important it really is. We don’t really appreciate, I think, the tremendous impact that the destruction of the Temple had for the Jews of that era. It was at least as devastating to them as the Shoah is for us, if not more so. The central religious act of ancient Judaism was the ritual of animal sacrifice in the Temple, which could no longer take place. Not only was the Temple in ruins, but the Romans had built a pagan shrine in its place and forbidden Jews even to approach the Temple Mount. And of course tens of thousands of Jews had been killed and many times that sold into slavery and exile. Imagine if during the Holocaust every Torah scroll in the world had been destroyed, and that it was impossible to replace them -- which would of course mean the end of the Torah reading ritual in every synagogue throughout the world. Perhaps through that thought experiment we may begin to understand the magnitude of what happened in 70 CE.

The destruction of the Temple could well have meant the end of Judaism as a religion. How can a religion continue when its main ritual can no longer be performed? There is no doubt that after 70 CE, some Jews gave up their Jewishness. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that most Palestinian Christians are, ironically, descendants of Jews in the Land of Israel who converted to Christianity at some point during the Roman Empire.

But Judaism did not disappear. What it did is transform itself. From a religion centered around Temple, priesthood and sacrifice it became a religion centered around Torah study, prayer at home and in the synagogue, and gemilut hasadim. From a historical point of view it is accurate to say that Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism are two different, though of course related, religions.

It was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai more than anyone else who made this possible. Some of you may be familiar with the story of how he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin shortly before the destruction of the Temple. He went down to Yavneh, a small city on the coast south of present-day Tel Aviv, and set up a yeshiva there. It is the sages in Yavneh who codified the Mishnah and established the structure of our prayers as they remain to this day. Others fought in vain against the Romans. Rabban Yohanan saw the writing on the wall and began the act of rebuilding even before the destruction had occurred. If not for his foresight and his recognition that Judaism could evolve, Judaism would indeed have vanished from the earth.

Rabban Yohanan realized that the paradigm of Temple and sacrifice was dead. He set about constructing a new paradigm and reminded Rabbi Joshua not to mourn excessively for the old.

The parallel for our generation, it seems to me, is clear. The paradigm of the suburban synagogue-center is dead. It is not working for the majority of Jews except those who are truly Orthodox, who express their opinion by not joining and not paying dues. It is not working even for the majority of our members, who faithfully pay their dues but rarely participate in synagogue activities other than High Holiday services and life cycle events.

Judaism in the United States will survive outside of Orthodoxy only if, like Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, we find a new paradigm that is more meaningful than the one we are leaving behind. Deliverance will not come through grieving for the past, nor by trying to recreate it. It will come through hesed.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph Dines Solo

Joseph's brothers have come down to Egypt a second time, this time
bringing with them their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph of course
knows who they are but they still do not know who he is. The brothers
are invited to a festive banquet at Joseph's house. The seating
arrangements are odd. The brothers are at one table, Joseph's staff
and household at another, and Joseph eats by himself. The text tells
us that Joseph's Hebrew brothers had to sit separately from everyone
else because the Egyptians will not dine at the same table as Hebrews,
because "it is an abomination to the Egyptians."

But the text does not tell us why Joseph has to eat by himself. We
know why, as the viceroy of Egypt, he can't eat with his brothers who
are foreigners. But why can't he eat with the other Egyptians?

Both our current Etz Hayyim commentary and the older Hertz Chumash say
that it has to do with social status -- that it would have been
demeaning for Joseph to eat with his staff members. But I don't think
this necessarily has to be the case.

I think rather that Joseph has to eat by himself because he
exemplifies the existential dilemma of the first Diaspora Jew. Joseph
was of course born in the Land of Israel but wound up living in Egypt
where he attained fame, fortune, and power. And so he is different
than his brothers, who are not immigrants but merely visitors. But he
is also different than the other Egyptians because he is a Hebrew.
Presumably, he keeps kosher and needs different food, different
utensils, and so on. Just as he is somewhat alienated from his
fellow-Hebrews because of his status as Egyptian nobility, he is
somewhat alienated from the other Egyptian nobles because of his
Hebrew origins and especially his religious practices.

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis and will soon begin the
Book of Exodus. We will read of a new king of Egypt "who knew not
Joseph." There is a difference between the derivative power of Joseph
and the sovereign power of Jews living in their own land. The stranger
and sojourner always lives at the sufferance of others, and what is
given can be taken away. Are we American Jews Joseph? I think not, but
nevertheless this is a cautionary tale of the difference between
Diaspora and sovereignty.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Is Chanukah?

What is Chanukah?

Interestingly enough, the Gemara in Tractate Shabbat introduces its discussion of the historical background of Chanukah by asking precisely that question. It seems odd; one could assume that the meaning of Chanukah was well known. But in fact, the Gemara's discussion of Chanukah demonstrates that what Chanukah means for one generation is not necessarily what it means for another. The Gemara's discussion almost entirely ignores the Maccabees defeat of the Seleucid Empire and focuses instead on the miracle of the oil.

Prof. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote about the meaning of religious ritual in his seminal work "Rethinking Modern Judaism." Professor Eisen described certain of our religious observances as "regular performances which lend performers the conviction that they are carrying on the essence of their ancestor's faith and practice even while they alter both belief and observance to suit their new circumstances." Or in less academic prose, we convince ourselves that we are doing precisely what previous generations of Jews did, even while we modify both the practice and the significance we ascribe to it. That is why for Israeli Jews, Chanukah is about the Maccabees and their restoration of Jewish national independence, while for American Jews, Chanukah is about freedom of religion.

A classic example can be found in the Chanukah song which in Hebrew is called "Mi Yimallel". The first verse is "mi yimallel g'vurot yisrael, otan mi yimneh?" which means "who can recount the heroic acts of Israel, who can count them?" The verse is based on a Psalm verse which might be familiar to you as it is part of Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals; Ps. 106:2 -- "mi yimallel g'vurot adonai?" "who can recount the heroic acts of God?"

Do you see what has happened here? A verse from Psalms which talks about God's saving powers has been transformed into a secular Zionist paean to Jewish heroism. This is perfectly in keeping with the Zionist ethos which emphasizes, not reliance on God but rather reliance on our own actions.

So the psalm verse has been transformed once by its emended inclusion in a secular Zionist Chanukah song. But coming to America it has been transformed again because in English the song begins "Who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" The emphasis is not on the heroic acts of God nor those of Israel, but rather on "the things that befell us." This is in accordance with what the great historian Salo Baron called the "lachrymose theory of Jewish history" which sees Judaism primarily as a series of tragedies and oppressions perpetrated against the Jews by others.

Every generation and every Jewish community creates its own meaning. What is the meaning of Chanukah that we will create? What legacy will we leave to future generations?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Deconstructing the Controversial Israeli "Come Home" Videos

The hot topic of the week within the Jewish world is an ad campaign by the Israeli government designed to convince Israelis living in the United States to come home. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg was probably the first one to publicize the campaign widely in this post. I posted something I wrote a couple of years ago about a similar campaign here and it is by far my most-widely read blog post as a number of people have linked to it from their blogs or their Facebook pages. Yesterday the Jewish Federations of North America communicated their distress to the Israeli government.

I don't want to rehash all the points I made in yesterday's blog post but let's take a look at the videos and the message they are trying to communicate.

The first one deals with Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for those who have fallen in Israel's wars. It is set in New York, and a couple is coming into their apartment. The young woman seems sad and her boyfriend puzzled. The dialogue between the couple is in English so I don't need to translate. She sits down in front of a computer and from what she is seeing, it's clear that tonight is Yom HaZikaron. The voice-over says in Hebrew: "They will always remain Israelis. Their spouses will not always understand what that means. Help them come home."

The factual assumptions in this ad are not wrong. If you are in Israel Yom HaZikaron is a major event. The radio plays sad music and the TV stations present documentaries about Israel's wars. Restaurants and cafes are closed. In the morning a siren sounds throughout the country and everyone stops what they are doing and stands at attention. In the United States, Yom HaZikaron is barely noted and in cities where a Yom HaZikaron event is even held, almost all of those in attendance are Israelis.

It should be noted that Yom HaZikaron is the day before Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli independence day. In many parts of the US, Yom HaAtzmaut has become a movable feast and independence day celebrations are often held on the nearest Sunday rather than on the actual day. Yom Hazikaron becomes an appendage and the independence day celebration will start with a five or ten minute symbolic observance before the falafel is served. (The inevitable serving of falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut would strike Israelis as strange. No true Israeli eats falafel on Yom HaAtzmaut. On Yom HaAtzmaut, all true Israelis eat בשר על האש.)

As an Israeli colleague noted in a discussion of this ad which took place on Ravnet (the e-mail listserv for Conservative rabbis), it is ridiculous to think that you can raise Israeli children in America. A child who grows up in the US with one Israeli parent and one American Jewish parent is going to be an American Jew, not an Israeli. That's a simple statement of sociological fact. The Israeli government is going to see this as a bad thing, the American Jewish community is not going to get particularly worked up about it. The ad may be problematic to us because we have been raised to believe that identity is a matter of choice, but that's a question of perspective and I already addressed that yesterday.

The second video is much more problematic. An Israeli couple, living in the States, has their young daughter in their laps. They are Skyping with Grandma and Grandpa (Savta and Saba) in Israel. The entire conversation is in Hebrew. It's snowing in the States; behind Grandma and Grandpa, a Chanukah menora is lit. Grandma asks the little girl, in Hebrew, if she knows what holiday today is and she responds, in English, "Christmas!". The parents and the grandparents exchange worried glances, and the voice-over says in Hebrew: "they will always remain Israelis. Their children won't. Help them come home."

Here the problem is the conflation of "Israeliness" and "Jewishness." The assumption that American Jews don't really "get" Yom HaZikaron and that children of Israelis who grow up here won't really "get" it either, is probably not wrong. U.S.-raised children of Israelis won't be culturally Israeli but the ad here implies that they won't be Jews, either. Obviously, assimilation is a problem in America but the implied assumption that American Jews celebrate Christmas rather than Chanukah is off-target and offensive. If the creators of this ad really believe that, then they really are clueless about American Jewry and we have a big problem.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Protestant Jews and Catholic Jews -- why Israelis and American Jews Don't Understand Each Other

A new blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg (with whom I almost always agree) called attention to a current campaign to get Israelis living in the United States to return home. You can read the Goldberg blog post here.

A couple of years ago I gave a sermon addressing a somewhat similar campaign and used it is a starting point for a discussion of the differences in Jewish identity between Israeli Jews and American Jews. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

  Some years ago, during the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, a gunman broke into the home of one of the few Jewish families in Belfast. He proceeded to ask the inhabitants of the home whether they were Protestant or Catholic. They of course did not know whether the gunman was Protestant and would kill them if they said they were Catholic, or if the gunman was Catholic and would kill them if they said they were Protestant. So they decided that the safest course of action was probably just to tell the truth and say they were Jewish.

    The gunman seemed stumped, but not for long. "OK," he said, "but are you Protestant Jews or Catholic Jews?"

    I used to think that joke was kind of silly, but in the last couple of weeks I am beginning to think that there are indeed Protestant Jews and Catholic Jews.

   Project Masa is an Israeli-government funded project which works in conjunction with birthright Israel to connect young Diaspora Jews to Israel and presumably through that, to Judaism. Birthright brings Jews 25 and under to Israel for a free ten day trip; those who want to come back for a longer period, from three months to a year, are offered support and volunteer placement through Masa.

     At the beginning of September, a TV commercial for Masa ran a few times on Israeli television, sparked a crisis  between Israeli and American Jewish leaders and merited coverage on CNN and in the British newspaperThe Guardian, among others. Since it's a holiday I can't actually show you the commercial, but I'll describe it to you. The first thing you see -- in sepia tones -- is a railroad bridge with a train running underneath it. Taped to the bridge's guardrail is a poster with a picture of a young man and it says LOST -- Joel Fine. There is mournful music in the background. Then the commercial cuts to another lost poster taped to a wall. LOST -- Nathan Jacobs. Then several more such posters, in various locations, most in English but one in Russian and one in French. Then the commercial cuts to a subway station with a train running through it. More posters and a voice-over in Hebrew which says "more than 50 percent of young Diaspora Jews assimilate and are lost to us. Do you know a young Jew from abroad? Call Project Masa, and together we will strengthen his ties to Israel. Project Masa -- a year in Israel, a life-long love."

    Thanks to Youtube, of course, you need not be in Israel to watch Israeli commercials, and I will send the link out so you can see it yourself after the holiday.  When I saw the commercial with the mournful music and the flyers, I thought of Manhattan in the days and week after 9/11. For JJ Goldberg, editor of the weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward, the images of trains reminded him of the Holocaust.

    And so American Jews -- and some Israelis who are more familiar than most with the Diaspora -- protested to Project Masa that the commercial was inappropriate and offensive. At first Masa officials defended the ad as aimed at Israelis, not Diaspora Jews. They pointed out, correctly, that roughly a third of Jews in the United States have relatives in Israel with whom they are in contact (many more no doubt have relatives that they don't know or with whom they have lost contact), and the purpose of the ad, after all, was to get Israelis to recruit their Diaspora relatives for Masa. Eventually, however, the advertisement was taken off the air and replaced with one touting the virtues of Project Masa in strengthening the ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews.

    What I found most interesting was the utter bafflement of the Israelis who put together the ad campaign. But I think I understand the reason for their bafflement. Yes, for those of us with ties to New York the "Lost" posters reminded us of 9/11 -- and that was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the commercial began running in early September, when the tragic events of eight years ago were already on people's minds. I don't think the commercial was intended to stir thoughts of 9/11 or of the Holocaust, but that is what it did.

    But there is something deeper at work here than just unintentionally offensive imagery. This commercial and the responses to it exposed a fault line between Israel and Diaspora Jews, one that is deep and growing.  What this controversy reveals, I think, is that American and Israeli Jews see the fundamental nature of Jewish identity in radically different ways.

    What does it mean to say, as the Masa commercial does, that fifty percent of Diaspora Jews "assimilate" and are "lost to us?" How does one measure assimilation? The commercial makes several assumptions, all of them questionable. First, that assimilation is something which can be defined and measured. Second, that it is an either/or situation -- a particular person can be defined and quantified as "assimilated and lost to us" or not. And third, that several months or a year in Israel are able to prevent assimilation, however defined.
    A young Jerusalem Post reporter named Haviv Rettig Gur, who covers the Jewish world for that English-language Israeli newspaper, wrote an excellent analysis of the whole debacle. I am proud and at the same time a bit astonished to tell you that I knew Haviv when he was in pre-school in Israel. Both of his parents are American-born but made aliyah with their entire families in their late teens. Both his parents had American elementary and high school educations but then served in the Israeli army and went to the Hebrew University. When Haviv and his brothers were pre-teens and teens, the family spent several years in the United States while their father, now Rabbi Edward Rettig, went to rabbinical school and then briefly worked as a rabbi in this country. Today, Rabbi Rettig is a Jerusalem-based expert on American Jewry for the American Jewish Committee, while his wife, Haviv's mother Martha, works as an Israeli tour guide. This is by way of saying that both father and son are among the very few who are capable of understanding American Jewry as American Jews but also understanding Israel as Israelis.

    His analysis was entitled "Masa is clueless, but is not alone." And in it, he helped me to understand that the joke with which I began this sermon has some reality behind it. There really are Catholic Jews and Protestant Jews. American Jews are mostly Protestant, while Israeli Jews are mostly Catholic -- or even Muslim.

    Haviv writes that "Israelis are a product of their heritage and experience. The vast majority of Israelis hail from countries untouched by the Protestant Reformation and the identity-shifting aspects of modernity. In both Eastern Europe and the Muslim world, religious identities are fundamentally collective and couched in familial terms. Meanwhile, for 60 years incessant wars and hostile borders have added an element of collective fate to that Middle Eastern and East European structure of identifying." In other words, for Israelis being Jewish is not a choice, it is an immutable fact. It is about the family, the tribe, the collective that one belongs to because one is born into it. 

    "American Jews, too," he writes, "are products of their broader environment. Like their surrounding culture, they are radically individualistic, believing that the source of authentic identity, of religious authority and of life decisions, lies within the individual. Where Israelis are profoundly Eastern in the overarching structure of their Jewishness, Americans understand identity in radically individualistic and essentially American ways."

    There is an old joke that says there are two types of people in the world; those who say there are two types of people in the world, and those who do not. But what Haviv is saying -- and I think he is right -- is that for Israelis as a rule there are indeed two types of people in the world; "us" and "them". They tend to see identity mostly as innate, given, fixed, and collective. This is because most Israelis have roots tracing back to Muslim, Orthodox Christian, or Catholic countries which see identity in this way. You are born into a tribe and you identify with that tribe. To do anything else is an act of betrayal.

    The American Jewish view of identity is radically different. Frankly, it has more to do with the fact that we are Americans than that we are Jews. In America, and in other countries shaped by the Protestant reformation, identity is not a given, it is chosen. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, just over 40 percent of Americans currently belong to a different religious group than the one in which they were raised. Slightly under half -- 47% -- are members of the religion in which they were raised and never left it, while about 10% of Americans left their birth religion for another one but then came back to the group in which they are raised. 

    What I have said about religion-changing in America simply describes a situation, it takes no position for or against. But I think it is fair to say that most Americans believe that it is everyone's right to choose their own religion -- not just legally, but morally as well. So it is not just the questionable images in the commercial which are problematic. As Haviv writes in the Jerusalem Post: "For Americans, it is hard to hear the campaign (which the Masa ad was for) as anything more than a denial of individual autonomy and personal authenticity. The core assumptions behind the campaign seem, in an American cultural context, appalling."

    It is this American cultural context which makes us Protestant Jews while Israelis are Catholic Jews. But it is not just for Jews that this dichotomy exists. American Catholics, as strange as it may sound, are in this sense Protestant Catholics. The Catholic hierarchy is in constant conflict with Catholic universities, because the hierarchy wants to make sure that theology professors don't teach heresy, while the universities believe in academic freedom. The hierarchy doesn't want condoms available on campus, but the dormitory directors and student health center do. Notre Dame University gave an honorary degree this past spring to President Obama, despite his pro-choice beliefs. The majority of American bishops signed a statement asking Notre Dame to rescind the invitation, and the bishop of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located boycotted the commencement ceremony, but the university went ahead with its plans. All available data is that Catholics have abortions at the same rate or higher as non-Catholics, and they use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics. Less than five percent of American Catholics under thirty agree with their church's official teaching on birth control. 
    While this is often referred to as a split between "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics, I don't think this is really the case. I think rather that the Pope -- and most bishops that he or his predecessor appointed -- believe it is enough to simply lay down the law and the people should follow. But that is just not the American way. We may, in the end, choose to do as our clergy would like us to -- but we insist that is our choice whether to do so or not.

    The roots of this "rugged individualism" are Protestant. Before the Protestant Reformation, the authority for religious practice was as much the tradition of the Church as it was the Bible. For Catholic theologians, the Bible is "the Church's book" and is understood in the context of its history of interpretation. Or to put it more simply, the Bible means what the Church says the Bible means. Sound familiar? To a knowledgeable Jew, it should. The interpretations differ, of course, but the insistence that it is the community which determines the meaning of Scripture is very similar in both Judaism and Catholicism.

    But Luther and his followers sought to strip away what they considered man-made accretions. They wanted to get back to "sola Scriptura" -- the Bible alone. The meaning of Scripture was no longer determined by the community but by the individual and his or her personal, subjective religious experience. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different Protestant denominations, because there are endless disagreements over points of scriptural interpretation. And thus, for example, in Reno Nevada, down the street from the Conservative synagogue, a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church are right across the street from each other.

    Protestants in America can afford this kind of fragmentation, perhaps, since there are over 150 million of them. Nobody is worried that the American Protestant community will cease to exist because of assimilation, and nobody is saying that it's no longer economically viable to have several Protestant churches of different denominations in the same town or county. The same is not true of the American Jewish community.

    Birthright Israel and its siblings like Project Masa are one response to the fears that the American Jewish community is crumbling before our eyes. The thought is that by offering a free trip to Israel for any Jewish young person under 25 who hasn't already been to Israel on a peer educational program -- the tide of assimilation can be reversed. 

    These programs are relatively new, and it is not yet possible to measure their long term effects. Anecdotally, it does seem that birthright participants come back from Israel more connected to their Jewishness. Haviv writes in the Post: "What is it about Israel that makes young Americans, who are utterly and proudly American and sometimes only conditionally Jewish, react so positively? Americans, too, are befuddled by this gap. Americans fund and encourage their children to go to Israel by the hundreds of thousands, but rarely consider clearly and rationally why a mere ten days in a foreign country can so affect the identity and lifelong affiliation of an ordinary 19-year-old.
    Here's a theory: Israeli society has a profoundly different and deeply moving way of defining the very notion of Jewishness. . . It is that organic, rooted nationhood, a radically different notion of what it means to be a Jew from anything Americans have ever experienced, that so impresses young American Jews, and makes programs such as Masa and birthright Israel transformative experiences for Americans. The vast majority do not become Israeli or adopt Israeli identity structures, but do seem to come away with a more complex Jewishness; an understanding that there are aspects and layers to Jewish affiliation which they had not experienced before."

    The question is how we translate this "more complex Jewishness" to the American scene. It's not an easy task, and if it is to be accomplished at all, it won't be through attempts to define who is "lost" and who is "found", who is "in" and who is "out." And it won't be accomplished by Israelis mobilizing to "save" their "lost" American brethren  as they did for the Ethiopian and years before the Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish communities. 

    The solution to the "crisis of Jewish continuity" won't come only from Israel, and it surely won't come from defining the majority of American Jews as "lost" to their people. As Haviv writes: "Speak to the Americans, whose existential crisis is indeed assimilation, but who understand this as a call to fashion new worlds of personal meaning and individualistic affiliation, and you'll find real anger at the callous Israeli attempt to define who is "lost" and who is "found." 

    The real solution to the crisis of continuity, I believe, will be achieved in a synthesis of the "American" and "Israeli", or, if you will, Protestant and Catholic notions of identity. In today's world, Jewishness is not something that is taken for granted just because you were born into a Jewish family. Yes, Judaism may be our "birthright" but we stubbornly insist it is our choice whether or not to claim it. But ultimately, while we insist on our right to fashion our own identity, what we most lack in American society is a sense of community. This Israel provides in abundance, but very few American Jews will choose to live in Israel, even as we care deeply about her.

   The source of Jewish connection in the fragmented society in which we live is the community. I go to shul because someone else is saying kaddish, and they can't do so without a minyan. I go to shul because my friends expect to see me. I have a kosher home so that other people will be comfortable eating there or attending my simcha. I come to synagogue programs that don’t necessarily interest me so much, so that they will be successful. Our challenge is not to convince more Jews that God wants them to live a certain way. Our challenge is not to denigrate those Jews who make different choices than we do about how they are "assimilated" and "lost." Our challenge is to show more Jews the joy of our tradition and the meaning they can find by participating in our community.

    In an address to Rabbinical Assembly Convention in 2000, Chancellor Eisen – at the time a professor at Stanford and a lay leader of his Conservative synagogue – said: “Our shared life together -- the meaning we hold and are held by inside a framework of palpable community -- is all we need in order to face the future with confidence. And this we have. All of us encounter people fairly often who sap our energies by painting incredibly bleak pictures of what awaits us in that future. We resist their gloomy forecasts, in large part, thanks to the counterexperiences of encounters with Jews of all ages newly excited by their Judaism and alert to its transformative possibilities. Such people, young or not so young, constitute a human spiritual resource of immense importance and potential. We best draw forth that potential, I think, if we approach them with transcendent meaning unavailable elsewhere, translated without loss of authenticity into the language in which they speak and work and dream -- and offer them this meaning inside a community which need not be preached or exhorted because it is palpably experienced.
If we do so, we have nothing to fear from the unpredictable challenges that undoubtedly will beset us in coming decades, and we will have the added comfort of doing what Jews in any generation are meant to be doing. The work and the reward will be more than sufficient.”
    What will enable us, then, to build a stronger and more vibrant community? The idea that Judaism represents an opportunity to bring us closer to each other – and through being closer to each other, we become closer to God as well. Our obligations to each other are no less sacred than our obligations to God; and in discovering our connection to each other, we discover our connection to God and to our people. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A dialogue with Christians about Israel

In 2005 I was invited to give the Hal Lustig Memorial Lecture at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. That year, the lecture was actually a dialogue between a Presbyterian minister and me in the wake of some controversial resolutions passed by the Presbyterian Church, USA. This is what I said that evening:

Presented at the Center for Christian-Jewish Under-standing of Sacred Heart University (, Fairfield, CT, May 3, 2005.
My task today is to try and explain to you, from my perspective as a rabbi, how I view the Land and State of Israel through the lens of my religious life and convictions. I want to begin with a disclaimer or perhaps
a warning. I spend quite a bit of my life presenting a Jewish perspective to non-Jewish and mixed groups,
and I always tell them one thing. If a speaker begins
a sentence with "the Jewish perspective on X issue is"
the rest of the statement is a lie. There is no one Jewish position on anything, as anyone who knows any actual Jews can tell you, including on the consistency of matzoh balls, which I like quite dense but my wife thinks should be as fluffy as possible. And yet, we get along.

And so please understand that I do not represent "the Jewish point of view" tonight. I represent only myself, a Conservative rabbi who has spent the last four years at a center very much similar to the CCJU, but soon to move to this very state to become once again the rabbi of a synagogue. So my perspective will be my own, but
I will try and represent the broad spectrum of thought within the larger Jewish community.

The first thing one needs to realize in discussing these questions is that both Israel and the American Jewish communities are incredibly diverse. Israel is a democracy and there is a wide spectrum of opinions on most of the crucial issues of war and peace. All of these various positions will find their supporters within the American Jewish community. What unites most everyone, though, is a vigorous commitment to the security and well-being of the State of Israel. Jews who are not so committed are marginal within the community and have virtually no constituency or credibility.
For rabbis, Jewish educators and other Jewish leaders, you should understand that Israel is a living reality for most of us. While only about one in five American Jews has ever visited Israel, the percentage is virtually one hundred percent for rabbis and other Jewish professionals. Most of us have studied for at least one year in Israel and all of the rabbinical seminaries and most Jewish education and communal service graduate programs now require their students to spend a year or more there. I myself spent both an undergraduate and
a rabbinical school year there, and lived there for two more years immediately following ordination. Most of
us have friends in Israel and visit quite frequently, so there is an existential connection to Israel. It's not just another "issue" we read about in the newspapers. There is tremendous "cross-fertilization" between Israel and the American Jewish communities. American Jews, especially the communal leaders, read Israeli books and periodicals, watch Israeli movies and listen to Israeli music. We eat Israeli food and bring Israelis over to serve as teachers and camp counselors. We also send our youngsters to experience Israel; the post high school "year in Israel" is a rite of passage in the Orthodox community and many non-Orthodox teens spend an Israel year as well. Israel is also seen, rightly or wrongly, as the "magic potion" for enhancing Jewish identity, and programs like "birthright israel" will provide a free ten-day trip to Israel for any Jewish college student who has not already been there.

So at least for the most Jewishly-involved among us, Israel is a very real part of our lives. But our commitment to Israel is not just sociological, it is theological. Throughout the ages, Jews have turned in prayer towards Zion. The Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service which is repeated thrice-daily, says "may our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy." Both the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur service, perhaps the two most widely-attended Jewish rituals, end with a climactic "next year in Jerusalem." According to the Talmud, Ketubot 110b, a husband can force his wife to go live in the Land of Israel, or vice-versa, and if the spouse refuses, she can be divorced against her will and suffer a financial penalty. The passage continues: "One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a village where mostly Gentiles live. No one should live outside the land, even in a city where mostly Jews live. For anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is like a person who has a God and anyone who lives outside the Land is like a person who does not have a God, as it is written, 'to give you the Land of Canaan so that I can be your God' (Lev. 25:37)." While these statements may certainly be understood as hyperbole, they do indicate the tremendous theological importance which Judaism has always placed on the unique sanctity of the Land of Israel.
Judaism is a religion of covenant and an important part of that covenant is the promise of the Land. The cycle of the Jewish year is based on the growing season in
the Land of Israel, and as someone who did a seminary internship in the Southern Hemisphere, there is a real cognitive dissonance celebrating
Sukkot (a fall harvest festival) in Australia where it is spring. There are three pillars of the Jewish covenant: the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel. You cannot pull one of these pillars out without collapsing the whole structure. Early Reform Judaism attempted to do just that and relatively quickly reversed course; today's Reform Judaism is as deeply committed to the cause of Zion as the rest of the Jewish community.
This connection to a specific piece of land is the Jewish "scandal of particularity" and Christians often find it unintelligible, bizarre or even bordering on idolatrous. And perhaps from a Christian perspective it is bizarre; if God is everywhere, how can Jews claim that God is somehow more present in this specific piece of territory? But Christians make a similarly scandalous and bizarre claim. If God is in every person, how can Christians claim that God is somehow more present in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps this is an area where each community ought to suspend its judgments of the other community’s core beliefs.
I have spoken so far of the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel but what of the State of Israel? Here I think that there is more theological diversity and it is
a complicated subject. I want to take seriously the warnings of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and writer Amos Oz about the danger of identifying
any political state with the will of God. At the same time, I think it is appropriate for those of us who believe that God works in history and through history to express
our belief that the return of Jews to our land, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, has theological significance. Yet we have to also remember that the Bible warns us that our sovereignty has to be consistent with God's demands for justice. Serious Jews know this, and we spend more time agonizing over it than you might think.

As important as the theological attachment to the State of Israel is for Jewishly-sophisticated Jews, the existential attachment is stronger and more widespread. As I said earlier, there is tremendous disagreement within Israel and within world Jewry about the various policy issues facing the State of Israel. As Amos Oz notes, "Zionism" is a surname and there are many first names: Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so on. What unites them all is a commitment that after two thousand years of powerlessness, we're not running anymore. There has to be a piece of territory on this earth which is under Jewish control. In an unredeemed world, powerlessness is a sin.
Having said that, I want to acknowledge that the moral use of power is the preeminent ethical question facing Jews today. This is not a simple task, trying to balance Israel's legitimate need for security with the Palestinians’ legitimate need for a homeland. But I want to humbly suggest that most Israelis and most American Jews are more attuned to the complexity of these issues than the PCUSA wants to give us credit for. There is certainly room for critique of Israel's use of power. Being critical of specific Israeli policies does not make one an anti-Semite, or many rabbis and other Jewish leaders would have to be considered as such. But the criticisms need to be balanced and aimed at curtailing abuses, not undermining the very existence and security of the State of Israel. Talk of divestment raises the specter of apartheid South Africa, and the South Africa divestment movement, in which I participated, was not about curtailing abuses. It was about dismantling a fundamentally evil system.
What concerns most of us about these resolutions is that they are one-sided. Only companies operating in Israel are mentioned as possible candidates for divestment. One of the resolutions refers to the "cycle of escalating violence -- carried out by both Palestinians and Israelis -- which is rooted in Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories." There is no acknowledgment that Israel offered to return 95% or more of the territories in 2000. While that offer may have been inadequate in Palestinian eyes, there was no counter-offer put on the table. The Palestinian response was terrorism and suicide bombings, not diplomacy. The resolutions condemn violence on both sides in a pro forma way, but they in essence blame Israel for the "cycle of violence" and call for punitive measures against Israel only.
It strikes me upon reading and re-reading these resolutions that there is a combination of both arrogance and naiveté coming out of the PCUSA bureaucracy in Louisville. The PCUSA's opposition to Israel's security barrier is a case in point. Now, I think that there are very valid concerns over the route of this barrier -- concerns shared by many Israelis and no less than the Israeli Supreme Court, which has ordered the barrier re-routed in places to lessen its negative impact on Palestinian civilians. But the PCUSA overture does not call for re-routing the barrier; it calls for its construction to be halted. The General Assembly Council says the need is to "build bridges of peace, not walls of separation." And the PCUSA staffer responsible for implementing these overtures wrote in the Christian Century this past February, in response to a critique from another Presbyterian leader, that "The solution is not about everyone being 'a little disappointed.' It is about choosing life over death for all parties involved. That does not come with giving 'a little bit here and a little bit there.' It comes, in Christian parlance, with both parties taking up their 'cross' and offering themselves to their 'enemies' in the 'restraint, humility and respect' for which Barbara Wheeler so aptly appeals." With all due respect, this kind of language may make Presbyterians feel virtuous that they have spoken out for peace and justice, but it is not likely to motivate Jews to take
their concerns seriously. I think that in fact we need both bridges and walls. In the long term, Jews and
Arabs will of course have to figure out how they can live together. In the short term, it would be enough if they stopped killing each other; and if the separation barrier can help achieve that goal -- which it has -- I am all for it.

I want to close by sharing a story I heard some months ago from Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Danny grew up in Baltimore, where I heard him speak back in October, and we actually worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Danny and his family now live in Israel.
There is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, or spouse go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay
in the synagogue during
Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.
A couple of years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then all the wars came, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."
My friends, that is a theological statement. For us, the State of Israel is a miracle. You do not have to agree with that assessment, but unless you understand it and take it seriously, Jews are going to react with anger and defensiveness and it is going to be very hard for us to have any kind of a civil dialogue. Hopefully we can move past this period of anger and rancor and talk and work together as the friends we usually are.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Separation of Church and State Should Mean Separation of Religious and Civil Marriage

Rabbis who work in areas where there are large numbers of retirees (Florida and Arizona in particular) are often faced with the following scenario: a widow and a widower have fallen in love and would like to get married. They may already be living together, but if they get married one or the other of the couple will lose survivor’s benefits, pension, health insurance, and so on. The combined Social Security they will get as a married couple is less than they get as two single people. It is financially disadvantageous to them to get married, but just living together without getting married doesn’t feel right. Will the rabbi be so kind as to conduct a Jewish wedding ceremony for them without them getting a civil marriage license?

Some rabbis will do this, perhaps, and some won’t. But the Rabbinical Assembly, our professional association of Conservative rabbis, strictly forbids its members to do so.

In Minnesota, clergy of many congregations have announced that they will no longer sign civil marriage licenses. The reason? In Minnesota, same sex marriage is not legal, and these clergy members feel that it should be. As a protest against “marriage inequality,” they will not sign marriage licenses for straight couples until they can do so for gay couples.

Here in Connecticut, same sex marriage is legal. But if a same sex couple were to ask me to officiate at their wedding, I would be in a quandary. The official position of Conservative Judaism supports same sex “commitment ceremonies” but cautions that they are not kiddushin, halachic marriage. Rabbis who conduct commitment ceremonies should avoid using the trappings of kiddushin so that it’s clear that what is going on is not halachic marriage. But is it possible for me to perform a wedding that is legally valid in Connecticut but not halachically valid? Frankly, for Conservative rabbis, life was simpler in Connecticut when the state recognized same-sex civil partnership but not “marriage.”

When my brother and I were both living in Washington, DC, one of his best friends asked me to officiate at his wedding. Neither the friend nor his fiance were Jewish. Neither one of them belonged to a religious community but they wanted something a bit more spiritual than being married by a Justice of the Peace. I agreed to perform their wedding, but when I sat down with them to do an intake interview I decided to back out. It turns out that the father of the bride was Jewish. While she did not consider herself Jewish, and by the halachic standards of the Conservative movement she was not Jewish, I decided that this looked a little bit too much like an intermarriage. And since I knew then that it was strictly forbidden for a Conservative rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage, I decided “better safe than sorry.” I am glad I did, because I did not know at the time that another policy of the Conservative movement prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at the marriage of two Gentiles.

If faced with the same request today, even if there were not a policy in place that forbade it, I am pretty sure I would tell the couple “no.” I am increasingly uncomfortable with the role of government functionary which officiating at weddings creates.

Rhode Island’s new governor announced in his inaugural address his desire to see same-sex marriage legalized in that state, just as it is legal here in Connecticut and in all the other New England states except Maine. The Roman Catholic bishop in that state, who was in the headlines some months ago with his criticism of then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s support for abortion rights, denounced Gov. Chafee’s speech in sharp terms. Like many other Christians, he believes that marriage was ordained by God to be between a man and a woman.

I am not unsympathetic to his perspective. As I wrote above, my own understanding of kiddushin is that it is a relationship which can only exist between one Jewish man and one Jewish woman. The difference is that as a Jew, I recognize that I am a member of a minority group. I do not ask or need state support for my particular moral or ritual perspectives. I have no problem with Bishop Tobin being critical of same-sex marriage, teaching his flock that it is wrong, telling the priests who report to him that they are not to officiate at such ceremonies. But the state is not obligated to conduct itself according to Catholic teaching, any more than the state should ban the sale of pork or require stores to close on Shabbat. That is a matter for each religious community and each individual conscience.

Religious people should not expect the state to reinforce their specific religious beliefs. But neither should the state expect religious people to ignore their own religious beliefs. When a clergy member serves a dual role, as marriage officiant for both the religious community and the state, these lines get blurred. On occasion, when I have been faced with telling a couple that I cannot perform their wedding, they have reacted with anger. “Who are you to tell us we can’t get married?” Of course, I am not really telling them they can’t get married, I am simply telling them that I personally cannot be the officiant. But since as a rabbi the state has given me the authority to make a marriage civilly valid, it is easy to see why the couple reacts as they do.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the famous Lemon v. Kurtzman decision on Church-State issues. In this ruling, the Court decided that a government action is only constitutional if it meets the following three criteria:
1.) It must have a secular purpose;
2.) It must not have the primary effect of either promoting or inhibiting religion;
3.) It must not foster an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

Of course, the Supreme Court also considers history in making its decisions. Cases dealing with government chaplaincies have often noted that, despite the prima facie impression that having government-salaried clergy violates the Constitution, the fact is that the very same Congress which passed the Bill of Rights also had a paid chaplain. Clearly, clergy of all denominations have been registering marriages with the government for a long time, and I doubt that any court is going to rule that this practice is suddenly unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the consensus in American society about what is or is not a proper marriage, who should marry whom, and so on, is quickly unraveling. Rather than having marriage as another battlefront in our society’s culture wars, I think both religion and state would benefit by separating civil and religious marriage. Let every couple that wants government recognition register their partnership at City Hall. And let every clergy person or religious community conduct whatever weddings they consider to be in accordance with their conscience, without government interference or oversight.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!