Posts Tagged ‘American Judaism’

The Big Tent

            Making predictions can be a tricky business.  Often what seems to be obvious today, turns out to be foolish.  Allow me to share a few predictions from the early 20th century about some key inventions.

The first, written by Bruce Bliven, is about the impact of that new fangled rage in 1922 called radio.  “There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly worldwide concerts…universities will be combined into one super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloosa…instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world…the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo.”  Sounds a little bit about what some say today about the internet.

The next prediction was written in 1921 by James Quirk of Photoplay Magazine about movies, “We talk of the worth, the service, the entertaining power, the community value…the educational influence, the civilizing and commercial possibilities of the motion picture.  And everyone has, singularly enough, neglected to mention its rarest and subtlest beauty: ‘Silence.’”

Or my favorite prediction in 1936 by Rex Lambert in “The Listener,” “Television won’t matter in your lifetime or mine.”

Sometimes the predictions NOT made are more noteworthy.  Who, for example, would have predicted that the New York Mets would win the World Series in 1969 after finishing dead last the first 7 years of their existence?  Who would have predicted the US hockey team would beat the Russians in the 1980 Olympics?  Who would have predicted that Barry Goldwater’s social views would be too liberal for today’s Republican party?  Who would have predicted that a B grade movie actor, whose most notable co-star was a chimpanzee, would become one of the country’s most popular presidents?   And who would have predicted that this full blooded Yankee from Philadelphia would be giving his 13th Kol Nidrei sermon to ya’ll tonight in Tallahassee?

Yup, predictions in general are tricky enough.  They are probably outright foolish to attempt about Jews – who are notoriously not predictable.  But that is what I will attempt tonight.  The Jewish world is changing rapidly, my friends.  I am part of two national groups of rabbis that are looking at and discussing the changes.  I would like to share with you what we are observing – and a best guess of where we might be heading.

Let’s begin with a quiz.  I will describe the profile of a Jew.  You are to consider if they are best described by the label Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.

The first person grew up in the URJ camping system.  He was a NFTY song leader, teaches religious school and wears a kippah when at services.  The second person, a woman, always wears a tallit and kippah during services.  When she is at services not on Shabbat or a holiday she puts on tefillin to pray.  The third person keeps kosher, grew up attending a Conservative shul and drives to services on Shabbat.  She does not wear a kippah or tallit during services.  The fourth person was raised orthodox, puts on tefillin every day and keeps kosher.  He has no problem attending any kind of shul, however, finding something to enjoy in whatever synagogue he is praying.  The fifth person keeps almost none of the traditional mitzvoth, rarely attends services, but is an ardent and vocal supporter of Israel, he actively promotes and participates in events about Israel.  What do all of these profiles have in common?  Every one describes a person who participates in some way in the Temple Israel community.

Yes, our congregation has all of these profiles as well as many more.  We have the children or grandchildren of rabbis of all streams.  We have interfaith couples.  We have entire families who have converted to Judaism.  We have same sex couples.  We have single parents.  We have those who believe fervently in God and those who think such belief is just superstition.  We have southern Jews who grew up in a classical Reform environment, not knowing a word of Hebrew and Israelis who are fluent in Hebrew.  We have Jews who rejected Judaism when young; but who have made their way back to us.  We have non-Jews who are on the path of seeking Judaism.  Temple Israel is a big tent, in which a panoply of people reside, all of whom feel some kind of connection to Judaism.  This is our present.

Having this myriad of people connected to our congregation creates questions about definitions and about appropriate boundaries.  Who is counted as a Jew and who is not?   What is appropriate participation for the non-Jews among us in synagogue life, in ritual life?  How are we supposed to define membership?  What are differences between Jews by birth and Jews by choice?  Who is an insider and who an outsider?  What is it that actually makes someone a Jew anyway?  Our natural inclination would be to think this complicated mix of population is due to the modern pluralistic America in which we live.  To a certain extent that is true.  However, I would like to share with you some teachings by the 13th century rabbi, Maimonides, which demonstrate how the diversity of issues we now face has been around for a long time.  I also think that Maimonides’ solutions are instructive as to how to handle some of our boundary issues today.

Generally, we think of Judaism as being a religion about action, about deeds.  Typically, when comparing Judaism to Christianity we teach that Christianity stresses creed; that is faith or belief, while Judaism stresses deed.  Orthodoxy interprets those deeds to be fulfillment of the 613 mitzvoth – the strict following of Jewish law.  Contemporary progressive Judaism acknowledges the importance of halachah, but places forceful emphasis on the ethical components of the law.  Thus we have the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice.  The Conservative movement, which has always viewed itself as true to halachah, ends up embracing all of the ethical decisions of the Reform movement, but uses intellectual devices that allow them to modify Jewish law.  An example of this is the recent acceptance of gay and lesbian rabbis and same sex marriage.  Orthodoxy completely rejects the gymnastics the Conservative movement plays with halachah and sees no essential difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism.  The point of all of this is that whatever the stream of Judaism; we see a primacy of deeds over faith.

Maimonides ends up turning this on its head.  As part of his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin, Maimonides lays out his 13 basic principles.  Many of you know these through the song Yigdal – which is a summary of his 13 principles put to music.  In introducing his 13 principles, Maimonides defines those who are part of the community of Israel as those who accept these principles – with particular emphasis on the belief in God who is non-corporeal (ein lo d’moot haguf, v’eino guf).  In his masterpiece philosophical work, “The Guide for the Perplexed,” he reiterates this even more by teaching that belief in true ideas about God is more important than any particular law or deed.  To put into plain terms – you are still Jewish if you eat shrimp, as long as you believe God exists and has no physical form.  He expands upon this by teaching that the language of the Torah is metaphorical in terms of its descriptions of God, and teaches very little that is true about God’s essence.  It is no wonder that just a few years after his death, some Jews were burning copies of  “The Guide for the Perplexed” in protest over its contents.

Do not get me wrong.  Maimonides himself was a strict, Torah observing Jew.  He believed in the worth of all of the mitzvoth, even the non-rational ones, as a means of disciplining the Jew to be able to eschew the material world and focus upon developing the intellect, thus a true relationship with God.  However, while many rabbis taught that to violate even one commandment was to place someone outside the boundaries of Judaism (in Hebrew called a meshumad); Maimonides taught that violating a particular law only places the person outside the boundaries with regards to that law, but NOT outside the boundaries of the people of Israel.  Even the person who commits idolatry, while due the punishment proscribed for him, is NOT cut off from the people of Israel.  How then does one fall outside the Jewish boundaries?  By rejecting Judaism in a time of persecution, a person cuts him or her self off from the Jewish people.  Again we cycle back to belief.  If a person publically rejects Jewish belief in a time of difficulty for Jews, they have then failed on two counts.  They have rejected true beliefs about God and they have rejected their people.

There is more.  If a person publically rejects everything, all of Oral Torah, they become outside of the Jewish boundaries, yet this is only for one generation.  The children can always be brought back.  Even if the parents stop being Jewish the children can, in Maimonides view, always be rescued.

Maimonides is considered by many to be the greatest Jewish thinker of the last 2,000 years.  I hope you can see his relevance for us.  We have no universal conformity over proper practice.  Every Jew seems to create their own personal version of Jewish ritual life.  Those versions range from complete non-practice to strict adherence to the letter of Oral and Written Torah.  Take as an example, the dietary laws.  Some keep full kosher.  Some keep it at home but not when eating out.  Some restrain from eating the Biblically prohibited foods but do not worry about the method of slaughter.  Some, stressing the ethical principles of kashrut, observe it by being vegetarian. Yet all of these are still considered Jews as long as they do not reject something central about Judaism.  For Maimonides, that something central is true ideas about the nature of God.

In my 12 plus years in Tallahassee I have completed somewhere between 70 to 80 conversions.  The common denominators for these people are as follows:  they reject the idea that God could have the corporeal presence represented by classical Christian theology.  They feel that our actions are a more significant religious expression than professing faith.  I would guess these are the common denominators for almost everyone feeling some kind of connection to this congregation – Jewish or not.  We can debate the details, the importance of ritual versus ethical mitzvoth, how much Hebrew should be in a service, how important is Israel to maintaining healthy Jewish life.  But I would bet that close to 100% (for there is never unanimity among Jews) of you agree with those who are seeking Judaism.

However, communities need rules.  Communities need guidelines.  Communities need boundaries – or else chaos ensues.  The difficulty is how to set boundaries of participation in various aspects of synagogue and community life.  We have many in our community who are not technically Jewish yet they “lean” Jewish or feel that this is the community that bests fits their religious purpose.  Some are on a path to become Jewish.  Some are just interested in Judaism but not conversion.  Some are in interfaith relationships and while liking Judaism, are not inclined to convert for any number of reasons.  How do we set boundaries for them?

Here again some teachings by Maimonides are useful.

He addressed issues regarding the Karaite community.  The Karaites were an outgrowth of Judaism (they considered themselves Jewish) that accepts the Hebrew Bible as the only authoritative word of God.  They rejected all of the oral law, Talmud, Mishnah, and all of the rabbinic rulings.  They believed in a strict reading of and adherence to the Torah text.  Relations between the Karaites and the rest of the Jewish world were quite bitter, even violent, for a number of centuries.  In some ways the Karaites were seen as worse than Christians.

While we should absolutely NOT accept their beliefs when contrary to rabbinic Judaism, Maimonides taught that the Karaites were worthy of respect.   However, when those beliefs coincided, there should be as much cooperation as possible.  For example, mohels should circumcise their children.  We should help bury their dead and comfort them in their time of mourning.  You cannot count a Karaite as part of a minyan – because their own beliefs reject the concept of a minyan.  Maimonides saw Karaite belief and practice as bad, but looked for some positives on which to build a relationship, and that began with a belief in one non corporeal God.

I find Maimonides teachings to be useful in creating common sense boundaries within our own community.  As an example, someone who has not formally accepted Judaism should not recite the blessing over the Torah.  The Hebrew words are very Jewish centric in a spiritual as well as an ethnic way.  They assert that Jews have a chosen place in God’s world that is lived by acceptance of Torah.  Someone who has not formally accepted Judaism cannot say those words with integrity.  However, in all ways that do not cross that theological boundary, everyone in our community should celebrate together, rejoice together, and when appropriate mourn together.  There are many rituals that do not depend on a certain theology in which anyone can participate.  Examples are the lifting and dressing of the Torah.

So far I have spoken a lot about those who are close to the edge of the Jewish boundary in terms of how to include them.  Now I turn to the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are extremely committed Jews, especially among the generation in its twenties.  These are the Jews who will really shape whatever future the American Jewish community has.  Their engagement in Jewish life is critical, if the institutions that have been the backbone of the Jewish world – synagogues and Federations – are going to have any kind of future.  This generation is responsible for an interesting movement that I believe can teach us all a few lessons.

The period from the late 1990’s until now has seen the creation of a large number of independent minyanim.  These are semi-formal groups who meet for Jewish services.  They have been started by young Jews who are very committed Jewishly, yet disaffected by the synagogue institution.  Here is a rundown of the characteristics of these minyanim compiled by Dr. Larry Hoffman of HUC and his organization, Synagogue 3000, in cooperation with Mechon Hadar.

1)   They believe they are providing experiences and activities not available in conventional congregations.

2)   Their origins are due to either a single entrepreneurial individual (often a rabbi) or a small core of highly educated and motivated individuals.

3)   They are doing away with conventional means of membership, or “citizenship” and finding new ways to make ritual and halachic decisions.

4)   They stress “authentic” spiritual and educational experiences, giving high priority to fluency in traditional liturgy and finding expressions of deeper meaning in the prayer experience.

5)   Participants are less tied to the 20th century ethnic narratives of the foundation of Israel and the Holocaust experience and more tied to the master Jewish narratives of the Exodus and the covenant at Sinai.

6)   As such, the Holocaust and founding of Israel are history, not memory.

7)   These communities are open to musical and interpretive innovation but prefer traditional liturgical forms – which means a lot of Hebrew is used.

8)   Almost none own space.  Communication is completely through internet and social media.

9)   They use more God language and encourage participants to bring their faith in God into their secular worlds, along with stressing living Jewish values in a non-Jewish world.

10)                  They tend to be ritually traditional while socially and politically liberal.  Even the most ritually traditional are completely egalitarian.

11)                  Participants, while often raised in a specific movement, are less likely to identify with a particular movement.  They are not interested in denomination, but in authentic, deep, Jewish experiences.

Of course these minyanim are located primarily in large cities containing a critical mass of young Jews with a high level of Jewish education and commitment.  Yet, it would be wrong to dismiss them as big city anomalies.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a co-founder of one of the first of these minyanim, Hadar in New York, has written a book, “Empowered Judaism,” focusing on what the minyanim can teach us about building spiritually vibrant Jewish communities.   One of his most important points is that these minyanim do not have to be seen as competition to normative synagogues.  He understands that today, 30 is the new 20.  Adults in their 20’s are far less likely to settle into permanent careers than just a couple of decades ago.  They are far less likely to marry, have children and enter a routine that would lead to synagogue participation.  The participants in today’s minyanim eventually WILL settle into careers, family life and have children – just later than prior generations.  They will move to towns such as Tallahassee.  These engaged, motivated young Jews can provide the backbone for future Jewish life.  As long as we can be a place of authentic Jewish experiences, grounded in an understanding of Jewish law and tradition, that provides Jewish prayer and learning on a level beyond the superficial, we can engage these emergent young Jews.  This is no small task for sure!

The Union for Reform Judaism is made up of about 850 congregations.  It has a powerfully entrenched set of institutions, with many people vested in their continuation.  Our camping system, youth programs, and Israel programs have all been models of success from which others have learned.  Hebrew Union College has tremendous potential as center of Jewish learning and spirituality.  Yet all of this, including our own congregation, will not survive unless we understand the new world of emergent Jews and adapt.

The first adaptation is to discard our own brand of ideological rigidity.  We rightly accuse much of the Orthodox world of this.  But Reform Jews have developed their own kind of “orthodoxy,” when they say “Reform congregations would not do (fill in the blank),” or try to cling to a conception of the movement as it was 30 or 40 years ago.  We should probably start by realizing the very brand “Reform” has lost its power, along with the brands of “Conservative” and “Reconstructionist.”  Here is the interesting paradox.  Movement affiliation for our congregation is still very important.  We need the resources of a national organization of progressive Jews to help train and motivate our youth.  We need to be part of an organization that fosters progressive Jewish thinking as opposed to theological rigidity.  At the same time we need to realize that actual movement affiliation becomes more meaningless for individual Jews every year.   People are seeking community.  People are seeking a meaningful Judaism.  Jews are NOT seeking a movement.

That means the second adaptation is to not settle for a Judaism of the lowest common denominator.  Yes, as progressive Jews in America we will never be bound by halachah in the same manner as the Orthodox.  But, Jewish law has to be part of the equation in making community decisions.  Our adult programs need to be filled with meaningful Jewish content.  We have to be vigorous in our understanding and teaching of Torah as a living, breathing organism, that younger Jews are hungering to learn and find application in their lives.  Our goal has to be a continuous improvement of general Jewish literacy – which means Hebrew, the range of Jewish theology, and an expanding knowledge of Jewish law and traditions in making personal religious choices.  Our religious school must always strive to increase the quality of Jewish understanding in our students.  As a progressive congregation we cannot and will not dictate personal religious practice.  But, we must be sure to provide the means for all Jews to make choices out of knowledge, and not just let them press the “opt out” button because of ignorance.

At the same time, we must NOT make those at the borders of Judaism, whether they are not yet Jewish, or because they are Jews who choose a less traditional path; we must not make them feel there is no home here.  They must be firmly inside our tent.  This is the hardest challenge we face – to be a place where serious Judaism can take place – yet give space to non-traditional Jews and even those in our community who, while they have affinity for Judaism, are not Jewish.

All of this must start with me.  Let me state right now that wherever you are on the Jewish spectrum – at the border but not Jewish all the way to very observant – I cherish your presence in this congregation.  Whatever your personal Jewish choices, your being here makes us a better, stronger community.  If I have ever made anyone feel outside of the tent, then I deeply apologize.

Because we are, we must be the big tent.  We must be that place where all can sit together, have serious discussions yes – have serious disagreements – yes, but all sit together and live together, learn together, celebrate together, mourn together, create a special Jewish community together.  The key word of all of this? Together, in Hebrew, beyachad, literally as one.

Psalm 133 is short, only 3 verses long.  I bet almost all of you know the first line – Hinei ma tov u’mana’im shevet achim gam yachad.  “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.”  But I also like the 3rd and last verse, “There God ordained blessing and everlasting life.”

May all of us find joy in building and occupying our big tent together.   May we enjoy sitting as brothers and sisters – together.  May we find blessing in creating a place of everlasting life for our community – our Jewish community, beyachad, together.  Kein yehi ratzon!

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