Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Give Turkey to God

You know, there's a really strange, quirky coincidence with Hebrew. The word hodu can mean "Thanks." It's the root of the word Todah, which means "thank you."

But, for reasons I don't know, Hodu also means "Turkey." Which means that Yom Hodu could mean "Turkey Day" or "Thanks Day." Or, a bit more colloquially, "Thanksgiving Day."

Hodu L'Adonai, Ki Tov - Let's give thanks, and Turkey, to God!

Happy Hodu Day to all!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How we doin?

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, was famous for walking around the busy streets of the city and asking anyone he ran into, "So, how am I doin'?" It was a way for him to get some unvarnished feedback (very unvarnished, probably), and stay in touch with those who didn't normally have access to him. He said it was an invaluable part of his time as mayor.

I was just remembering that one of the original purposes of this blog was to solicit feedback from CBA members - to ask "how we doin'?" to those who might not normally feel that they have a way to speak up. In reality, the blog has focused more on general Jewish issues, and less on CBA specific matters, but that doesn't mean that we have to completely give up on that goal! So, to all of the CBA members out there, let me ask you:

How we doin'?

If there is something going on here that you want to chime in about - either to support it, or to make suggestions - then please do! If the Web is good for anything, it's good for freedom of speech, so speak up!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I can be humble, even if I'm right

In this week's Torah portion, Chayei Sara, our patriarch Abraham attempts to buy a plot of land on which to bury his wife, Sarah.  The negotiations between Abraham and Efron the Hittite are given in, what is for the Torah, extreme detail.  Which, as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notices (in the wonderful The Bedside Torah), makes it all the more interesting that Abraham leaves out one very important detail: he has already been promised this land by God.  All of the land of Israel, according to what we read earlier, will belong to Abraham and his heirs, for all time.  Why does Abraham feel the need to negotiate, at all?

Why indeed?  Aren't there people today who claim an exclusive possession of the truth, who insist that their monopoly on morality, or compassion, or divine will, allows them to slander, to slight, to distort, or to oppress?  From the liberal chic to the conservative smug, all over the world self-appointed spokespeople of the “correct” view trumpet their own infallibility and moral superiority.

It's not that Abraham doubts that this land already belongs to him.  He has, after all, been told by God – directly! —that the land is, in fact, his.  But Abraham doesn't confuse a firm belief in the truth with a license to be arrogant, and to impose that truth on others, others who might see the world differently.

Without relinquishing his own convictions, Abraham never abandoned the religious humility that accepts the possibility of being wrong.

Now, if only we can get the rest of Abraham’s descendants to see the world in the same way…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Kosher, Vegeterian, Flexitarian

It's been about a month since I blogged about the ethical implications of eating meat*.  Last week, at the URJ Biennial (the major convention of Reform Judaism), the head of the URJ, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, spoke on this very same topic.  He encouraged Reform Jews to consider giving up, or at least highly reducing their consumption of, red meat (I have no idea why he didn't include other kinds of meat, as well).  There were, however, several parts of his sermon which have been causing some controversy.

* I've since learned a new word: Flexitarian. Someone who isn't vegetarian, but consciously attends to avoid meat, when possible. 

First of all, some have complained that this, and one of his other topics (the use of technology in our synagogue), were unworthy of our attention, given the state of the world, the economy, and the Reform movement.  Perhaps, some say, this was a time for bigger ideas.

Some found it hypocritical that, during a sermon in which he was encouraging us to eat less meat, largely for environmental reasons, he was drinking from a plastic water bottle.  I’ll be honest -- I agree, but can't get too fired up about it.  It's not that big of a deal.

The largest amount of criticism, at least that I've heard, centers around his framing of this issue as “not about kashrut (keeping kosher):”

What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.

In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that "Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine." …

Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.

I think that this was a mistake, on a couple of levels.  First of all, the word “kosher” really just means “fit,” or in this context, “fit to eat.” So, if red meat isn't (equally) fit to eat, then it isn't kosher. Whether not he wanted to say it this way, what Rabbi Yoffie was really doing was expressing a vision of “Reform Kashrut.” I understand why, I think, he didn't want to frame it this way: the debate about what “kosher” and “eco-kosher” and “Reform Kosher” mean is often frustrating, and it's easy to get bogged down in the philosophical discussions, and lose track of the important, practical point he was trying to make -- we really should be eating less red meat.  But, part of me still wishes he was willing to try to reclaim such an important word, and concept, from our tradition.

I think he also made a big mistake in dismissing Reform Jews’ adherence to a more traditional understanding of kashrut as a specific set of dietary laws.  I remember learning one time that something like 50% of all Reform Jews follow some of the laws of kashrut. They may not eat pork, for example, even though they may not be concerned at all about how an animal was slaughtered. Kashrut, even in its more common understanding, simply isn't irrelevant too many Reform Jews.  It's a shame that Rabbi Yoffie didn't acknowledge that, and was even somewhat dismissive of the idea.

As always, I'd love to get comments from anyone reading this.  But, I'm especially interested in hearing from the Reform Jews out there: do you, in any way, keep kosher?  What do you think of the idea of eating less meat as a Jewish practice?