Friday, January 28, 2011

Civilized Warfare?

I'm trying to do a bit of research for a congregant about the Jewish approach to Peacemaking. Along the way, I came across a great quote, by Rabbi J. David Bleich:

Renunciation of chemical and biological warfare, and humane treatment for prisoners of war… are certainly marks of civilized peoples, but on a more fundamental level such matters are little different from a convention requiring cannibals to eat with knives and forks. “Civilized warfare” is inherently a self-contradiction.

Nuff said!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Simple truths

Recently, I was forwarded an article about Dr. Martin Luther King, hatred, gun control, kindness, and so on. It was a heartfelt piece which said a lot of what I've tried to say several times recently: that hatred is a destructive force in our world. That, whatever you think about any given issue, it's rarely, if ever, helpful to talk about it with vitriol and nastiness:

"Joy comes in the morning," lets certainly hope so. We need hope right now, and not a hope which is falsely propped up by platitudes and declarations, but a hope that is anchored in the knowledge that we can't continue to operate with business as usual, we can't continue to speak hatred without impunity; can't continue to think violence will go away without us doing something about it; can't continue to wish things were different but not be willing to make the necessary changes, accept the necessary sacrifices and be willing to admit that certain things just can't be tolerated any longer. "Joy comes in the morning," but not without a night of hard work, a night of serious soul-searching, a night of tears and anguish that leads us to the realization that the joy we seek, the solace we need, the hope we crave will not be handed to us by God on a silver platter. It is up to us, with the support and love of our Creator, to help bring that joy. That is the work of being human, that is destiny of our existence, that is the challenge we all face. And now, more than ever, face it we must.

As I said in a recent post, even if you believe that there is absolutely no connection between the heated rhetoric of our society and the terrible violence in Tucson the other week, I still maintain that that rhetoric is awful for our society. Even if the killer was not the least bit influenced by what he heard in the media, do we benefit, in any way, from vilifying our opponents and, whether meant literally or not, calling for violence against them?

But, this recent article made me think about another issue which has been on my mind quite a bit. As I tried to think about what I might write in response to this article, in this blog, I was having trouble thinking of anything, mainly because it feels like I've said it all before, and it's all kind of trite anyway. I mean, how may times can one person say, “please be nice to each other”? How many different ways can I say, “violence is bad,” before I start to sound like vapid fool? But, even if it's redundant, even if it's trite, even if it's nothing more than an overused cliché, does that make it any less true?

I've recently been reading, “Everything is God” by Jay Michaelson. It's an exploration of “non-dual Judaism,” something which I expect to be writing and thinking about quite a bit in the near future. I can't exactly recommend the book, because despite some brilliant insights in it, it's written pretty obtusely, and I don't think that anyone who doesn't already know something about non-dual Judaism could get much out of it. But, there are some brilliant insights. One, which struck a chord with me, was his admission that it can be unsettling to find that the greatest truths in your life can be reduced to a bumper sticker.

Who wants to study, think, explore, question, and learn for years and years, only to find that the greatest spiritual truths are often the ones that kindergarten kids can tell us? Or that we can find inside of a fortune cookie? It's a bit embarrassing, to say the least.

But, it may be true. There are some great, important truths that you have to be intellectually sophisticated to understand. But, there are at least as many great, important truths that everyone knows. Even if we forget them, we know them. But, for whatever reason, we do forget them, and that's why it's important to talk about them.

One of my favorite teachings from Jewish tradition comes from the introduction to a book called, “Messillat Yesharim.” It is, in essence, a guidebook to moral, spiritual living. In it, the author states that everything in this book is already known to you. There are no new truths, no new revelations to be found within. Simply reminders of things that we all know, but constantly forget. And that, the author says, is quite enough. Because, that's the trick to spiritual living - remembering what we all know to be true.

Hatred is bad. Violence is bad. Trite as hell. Truer than that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Beth Am welcomes Anat Hoffman!

A special message for members of Congregation Beth Am:

As you may know, this upcoming Shabbat is Sisterhood Shabbat. We are very lucky that Friday night a representative from the national movement, Andrea Cannon, will be addressing our congregation, as our honored guest.

However, I especially wanted to make sure that you knew about our other guest this weekend. We are incredibly lucky, and honored, to welcome Anat Hoffman to Congregation Beth Am on Saturday. Ms. Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is a founding member of Women Of The Wall, an organization dedicated to women's religious equality in Israel. Recently, she defied an unjust law in Israel, which prohibited women from reading the Torah by the Western Wall, and her arrest was captured on video, and broadcast around the world. This incident, in addition to the brave work she has done over the years, has vaulted her to the front of the women's movement in Israel, and it's not an exaggeration to say that she may be becoming that movement’s Rosa Parks.

We are incredibly fortunate to have her with us this weekend, and it is a special, maybe once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to spend time with her on Saturday morning. So please join us for breakfast at 8:30, study at 9:00, and worship at 10:30, as we celebrate Shabbat with this extraordinary woman.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Aaron Kraselsky

I think I've written before about Aaron Kraselsky. Aaron is the oldest member of Congregation Beth Am - he'll be celebrating his 98th birthday on February 1st. When I first came here, about 3 1/2 years ago, Aaron was already quite frail (but, not as frail as you might expect!). Since that time, he's suffered a number of ailments, including poor circulation which led to a leg amputation, and then to another, just a few months ago.

Last week, Aaron came down with Pneumonia, and wound up in the hospital for a week or so. Yesterday, he got released to the nursing home which has become his home for the past couple of years, and probably will be for the rest of his time on Earth. I spent some time with him today and, probably due to his recent illness, which really took a toll on him, he was talking more than he usually would about the end of his life. He doesn't want or expect it to be imminent (he really wants to make 100, he told me), but he knows that he only has so much time left, and that, most importantly, it's out of his control.

But, what struck me today is what strikes me every time I visit him (and, frankly, what makes me look forward to those visits, which aren't frequent enough): his enormous, unfailing, sincere happiness. Every time I visit him - every single time, without fail - his main topic of conversation is his happiness. How lucky he's been in life. How full his life has been. How blessed he's been.

When I first met him, he was having trouble getting around his house, but he just wanted to tell me about how many good things he's had in life.

When I visited him while he was waiting to have his leg cut off, he said, "Well, my life has been wonderful. If losing this leg lets me live a bit longer, then it's worth it."

When I visited him while he was waiting to have his second leg cut off, he said the exact same thing.

Happiness. Blessing. Luck. It might get monotonous, if it wasn't so wonderful to listen to.

Like many of us, I can find plenty of things to complain about. And, I have my days when complain I will. But, on whole, I have far more to be thankful for. And, if someone in Aaron's condition can stay so singularly focussed on what's good in his life, then how can I do any less? How can any of us?

Towards the end of the Torah, Moses tells us that God has given us life and death; blessing and curse. Our job? To choose blessing. To choose life. The choice is ours.

L'chayim - to life!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is Peace the ultimate goal in Israel?

The title of this blog entry might surprise a few people. It seems a ridiculous question: is peace the ultimate goal in Israel? Of course peace is the ultimate goal in Israel! How could it not be?

The question is prompted by an excellent article by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Gordis is one of my favorite writers about Israel, because he represents, to me, an extremely rational approach to the conflict. He is, ultimately, peaceloving, but he's also unwilling to ignore reality, even when he finds it uncomfortable, or inconvenient.

In this article, Gordis criticizes the political left in Israel, and outside of Israel, as pursuing peace at the expense of realism. Nobody likes the occupation, he says, but simply saying, “end the occupation,” doesn't really accomplish anything. It's not as simple as that:

[Prof. Benny Morris] claims that the Palestinians are no closer to accepting a division of the land than they were in 1948. Therefore, Morris claims, the two-state solution is essentially dead.

If you have an enemy who is refusing to budge on even the most basic issues of the conflict (such as your own right to exist), and who, according to polls, sees peace negotiations as simply one step along the way towards a greater victory, then simple, nice sounding statements like, “let's just make peace,” don't really mean anything. Shaking hands with someone who's carrying a knife behind their back isn't the wisest, or safest, thing to do! And, maybe more importantly, sticking to simplistic, unrealistic hopes prevents us from engaging in more serious, potentially useful conversations:

Our presence on the West Bank may be necessary, or it may be foolhardy; about that, reasonable minds can and do differ. But the notion that our presence on the West Bank is the prime impediment to peace is sheer myopia.

That is why it is so important that the peace camp, despairing of a country that it believes no longer cares about peace, reads Morris carefully. Because once it does, as my friend’s reply demonstrates, it can start asking the questions that truly matter, and it can become the kind of opposition that Israel desperately needs.


How do we educate a generation of young people to knowIn that they have enemies, without having them become racists? How do we acknowledge the very serious threats to Zionism even among Israeli Jews, without abandoning the freedom of expression that is at the core of Western liberal democracies? Can we remain both Jewish and democratic, without abandoning the moral principles that the free world considers sacred?

Most people who talk about the peace process in Israel implicitly (or sometimes, I guess, explicitly) frame it as all or nothing game. Either we make peace, or we have failed. Continuing the current situation, or anything close to it, is untenable. It is destructive to Israel, immoral, and so on. But, as terrible as this is to say, the truth may be that managing the current situation is the best that we can do. It may be that, at least for now, true peace is not a possibility.

And, if that's true, it means that we have to recalibrate our definition of “success.” We have to find ways to consider ourselves successful, even if there is still ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

We need American Jewish push back that understands that Israel is not fundamentally about peace (as desirable as peace obviously is), but rather, about the flourishing of Jewish culture and the creation of a new Jewish sense of self in which Jews are those who determine their own destiny.

We need Zionist critics who understand that Israel is about Jews making terribly difficult decisions as Jews, in dialogue with the Jewish and Western traditions.

No one in their right mind doesn't want peace. And the majority of the Jewish world (according to some polls, the vast majority) would happily agree to a Palestinian state tomorrow, if they can be assured that it would give Israel the peace it's always wanted. For what it's worth, you can count me among them. But, simple logic will tell you that there must be some situations in which peace isn't impossible. And, if we are indeed in one of them, at least for now, then closing our eyes and pretending otherwise isn't going to do anyone any good.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Heated rhetoric - near misses are close enough

I've been watching/reading/listening to a lot of the back-and-forth in the wake of the recent shootings in Arizona. And, I've been trying to clarify what I think about the whole thing, and trying to see if I thought I had anything useful to add to the conversation. For at least right now, I'm going to avoid the “is there more hateful/dangerous rhetoric coming from the right or the left?” discussion, and instead, just talk about hateful/dangerous rhetoric, and its effects.

Let me, if I may, use a metaphor I've been working on.

Let's pretend that you're a smoker. You go to the doctor, and s/he runs some tests on you, and tells you that you've got some spots on your lungs which look a lot like cancer. Panic stricken, you get some further tests done, wait a week or so, which feels like a month or two, probably, and then you get your results back. It turns out that, thank God, you don't have cancer. You can breath again. You've been spared. There was no connection, whatsoever, between what the first doctor saw in your test results, and your smoking.

Wouldn't this be, nonetheless, a wonderful time to think about quitting smoking?

Even if smoking didn't give you cancer, this time, it's pretty clear that smoking is a dangerous thing to do. You're really better off if you quit. The false positive might just be the impetus that you need to finally kick the habit. The fact that it was a false positive doesn't change that. Nor does it change the fact that, in the future, there is a very real chance that the positive won't be false.

Everyone seems so focused on whether or not this particular atrocity was committed because of the violent rhetoric so prevalent in our public discourse. But, even if there was no connection between all that vitriol and this terrible attack, doesn't it seem clear that we'd be better off without the vitriol? Even if this crazy man wasn't motivated by what he saw and heard on TV and radio, is it so far-fetched to think that someone will be?

In Judaism, our public confessions are always done in the plural. “We have sinned.” “We have transgressed.” “Forgive us.” Why do we confess together, when it's obvious that most of these sins are done by individuals? One answer which I've long loved (and long forgotten the source for) is that the point of these confessions is not to assign blame, but rather to get us all motivated to try to fix the problem. Together. Sure, it may be possible, even fair, to say that you are more responsible for this particular act than I am. But, so what? Rather than that discussion, wouldn't it be better to have the discussion which follows the question, "What can we do, together, to make it better?”

Is there any way in which our world is better for being filled with people who spew hatred and violent rhetoric? Is there any way in which it would be worse if we all did our part to tone it down, a little bit?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, nothing focusses the attention like a near miss. If that's what this was, then who cares? Let's get down to work.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Israel, Conversion and Orthodoxy - a quick take

I was asked to write a post for another blog, and I have no idea if it's what they're looking for, so I don't know if it will go up. So, I thought I'd just post it here, too. It's a bit more strident than I might usually be - I don't know if that's because of the topic, my mood or the speed with which I wrote it. But, hopefully it's interesting, too...


As you may have heard by now, a new agreement has been reached on the controversial conversion bill which has been capturing many headlines in Israel. Actually, no substantial agreement has really been reached; everyone's just agreed to stop the legal proceedings, and try some dialogue, instead. But, that's not a bad start.


There's a lot to be said about this, and if I really get going, I'll probably never stop. So, let me just try and keep this simple, and make one point. As a Reform Rabbi, I don't really expect the Orthodox to accept my conversions. I don't really expect the Orthodox to accept my form of Judaism as valid. I understand that part of orthodoxy is, very often, not accepting other visions. That's true of all orthodoxies—not just Jewish orthodoxy. Don't get me wrong—I certainly don't accept that there is only one way to be Jewish. I'm not Orthodox, in any sense of that word! But, if someone else wants to be orthodox, in the most exclusionary sense, that's not my problem. They have the right to be “as orthodox,” and as non-pluralistic as they want to be.


But, Israel isn't Orthodox. Israel is Jewish. It's the homeland of the Jewish people. All of them. It's my homeland, too. And I won't accept anyone trying to institutionalize, in any form, or in any legal code, that their version of Judaism is better, or more official, or more correct, than mine.


Your synagogue is your synagogue. If you want to keep me out, then that's your right. But Israel is not your country. It's ours. You don't have to like me, you don't have to approve of me. But you don't have a right to keep me out, or tell me that my version of Judaism isn't legal there.


Reform Judaism is Torah-true Judaism. The fact you disagree with that, doesn't make it any less true. And it’s time to stop using the Israeli legal system to make a point that most of the Jewish world doesn't believe, anyway.



Bullfighting and theology - really!

Here is a strange “when worlds collide” moment for you.

I'm doing a tiny bit of research about bullfighting. It's a long story, but basically I'm trying to look for some way to help a bar mitzvah boy find some meaning in the ritual slaying of animals. But, that's not really important, right now.

What is important is an article I found on the web, about bullfighting. Some interviewer, of whom I've never heard, is interviewing some bullfighting expert, of whom I've also never heard, not surprisingly. The interviewer asked the expert to explain the “meaning” of bullfighting. The response was, to me, utterly fascinating:

The meaning of bullfighting is open to interpretation (as long as the bull is strong and the bullfighter knows what he is doing). The spectator has flashes of intuition that come about from the sheer emotionality of the event. These small flashes open the door to seeing different meanings, to nuances, to another sensibility. Later, from intuition, we usually try to create theories. But the theory is never true. It is just a possibility that we verbalize, just one interpretation that expands our comprehension. There is no “one truth”. It’s more like a dream: we have small images and feelings, but as we try to articulate them, they become foggy or disappear. Bullfighting is an ephemeral art and its meaning is also fleeting. Theories attempt to rationalize it and hold on to a meaning, but the truth of it always escapes us.

I'm not interested in bullfighting itself (I don't think anyone will be surprised to find out that I'm not, exactly, in favor of it). But this idea, that the “meaning” of bullfighting is inherently slippery is one which I've encountered before. You have an experience, and then when you're done, you try to put that experience into words. But, the description of that experience is always, inherently, and wildly, inadequate. There is absolutely no chance that the description can accurately capture the experience itself.

This is exactly how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes theology. People have an experience of the numinous, and then when they're done, they try to put into words. It would be a tragic mistake to think that those words were the experience itself, but that's exactly what we do. We take the descriptions of holiness, and pretend that they are Holiness, themselves.

Heschel refers to “Depth Theology,"  which is the practice of trying to get close to God (more or less).  “TTheheology” is the description of those moments. Thinking that a theological statement can accurately capture the reality of God, in any sense, is exactly the same mistake as thinking that a love poem can accurately capture the experience of being in love.

No one thinks that love poems are being in love. Why do we persist in believing that our theological theories are God?

A Shabbat Manifesto

Shabbat is a bit of a strange animal, when it comes to Reform Judaism. Shabbat is, traditionally, one of the absolute cornerstones of Judaism. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate its importance. To the Rabbis of old, and to many, many Jews today, ignoring Shabbat is seen as a symbol (and an act) of denial of God's sovereignty, and even God's very existence. Non-Shabbat observance is, basically, apostasy and idolatry. Observing Shabbat is seen as so powerful that it's talked about as one of the ways to bring about the Messiah. For thousands of year, Judaism without Shabbat was an impossibility; the two were completely intertwined.

But, it's long been difficult for Reform Jews to figure out what, exactly, Shabbat means to them and how, or even if, we were going to honor Shabbat. There are theological troubles, to be sure - it's easy to say that we have to observe Shabbat, because God created us, and therefore God has the right to tell us how to act (that was always one of the philosophical underpinnings of Shabbat, and it also explains why non observance is such a big deal - it's either saying that "God didn't create us" or that "God creating us doesn't mean that God's in charge of us"). But, if we don't believe in a literal, Creator God, then the reasons for observing Shabbat start to get fuzzier. I can tell you that "you can't go to the mall on Shabbat," but it's an empty statement. Absent some all-powerful, literal God to back up that statement, it doesn't carry any weight.

Without that imperative, it's been much harder to give people a reason to really engage in Shabbat. There is so much happening in our lives, and much of it, frankly, takes place on Saturday. Why should I give up shopping, or a baseball game, or whatever else I want to do? Why should I, instead, go to synagogue? I mean, if I like synagogue, then I have the right to go. But, there are so many other things I would rather do. Why not do them?

Normally, Shabbat is seen primarily through this lens - things I am not not allowed to do. I can't drive. I can't turn on lights. I can't watch TV. I remember growing up hearing stories about Orthodox Jews (with the subtext being, "crazy, extreme, backwards thinking Orthodox Jews") who would pre-tear their toilet paper before Shabbat, because tearing was a violation of the laws of the day. 

Again, if there really is a God, watching my every move ("...making a list, checking it twice..."), and if that God is going to punish me for violating those laws, or reward me for observing them, then it becomes clear why I'd do them. Observing Shabbat is important, in part, for the same reason that not shoplifting is important - they keep me out of trouble with the authorities (or, with the Authority). But, what if I don't believe in that kind of God?

All of this is a (much longer than I expected) intro to a little website I was recently pointed towards called Sabbath Manifesto. It's not a new idea, but it's nice implementation of it. It tries to frame Shabbat, rather than as a list of things we can't do, or as a theological proposition, as a set of 10 Principles* to help us have a weekly day of slowing down, unplugging and rest. They are fairly simple:

  1. Avoid Technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

* I have a rant in here somewhere about the need to frame every list in Jewish life around the number 10. I know that there were 10 Commandments (actually, I don't know that, but that's another story), but can't we, sometimes, have 8 or 12 principles?

There's definitely some stuff missing here. Glaringly, there is nothing in this list, or in the description of the site, that talks about holiness. Rest - yes. Sanctity - not so much. If we don't at least try to direct our rest towards something greater than ourselves, then we're turning Shabbat into something a bit solopsistic. A bit, dare I say, idolatrous. So, I'm not going to say that this manifesto is all that we need.

But, it's not a bad start. 

One day a week to slow down. To focus on these 10 principles, rather than on the myriad claims that the world places on us, the other 6 days. Doesn't sound too bad.

"More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews." -- Ahad HaAm

Thursday, January 6, 2011

See - even in the blogosphere there are thoughtful people, sincere apologies and reasoned disagreement

As almost anyone who might be reading this knows, I am a pretty big baseball fan. In addition to just loving the game, I also love baseball writing, and reading a few baseball blogs has become a great time-waster pastime of mine. Well, if you follow baseball at all, you know that steroids are a big topic, and there's a whole lot of controversy out there about them - not so much "do they belong in the sport?" but more of "what do we do about users?" Well, even more specifically, "Do we let steroid users into the Hall of Fame? What about suspected users?"
The debate is getting pretty heated (baseball fans, and writers, are nothing if not passionate). Some people feel that it's a fools errand to try to sort out who used, how much they benefitted, etc., and therefore we should, more or less, drop the whole thing. Some people think that those people are burying their heads in the sand, and condoning cheating. Some people feel that those people are histrionic and unreasonable, and in some cases involved in a McCarthy-esque witch-hunt. It's all getting rather dramatic.
Now, one of the things I hate most about the Internet is the tendency it engenders towards nastiness. The anonymity, coupled with the speed of it all (it's so easy to fire off an angry missive before you even have time to think about it), coupled* with the difficulty in reading tone, which leads to more angry responses...well, it's a perfect storm for mean spirited, over-the-top screeds. Even some of the writers whom I love have been guilty of it (for instance, the blogger to whom I'm about to refer has, in the same post, I believe, accused anti-Steroid people of being McCarthyists while also reminding everyone that, really, the Hall of Fame is just a museum and, in the end, not that important. Those two things are, if not contradictory, somewhat in opposition, but it's easy to forget that when you're churning out posts!).
* I know - after two things, it's really not "coupled" anymore. Sue me.
So, that blogger I just mentioned - Craig Calcaterra - was recently referred to, by another blogger, Jeff Pearlman, as having minions. Calcaterra took some (mostly) good natured shots at this, pointing out that having "minions" generally implies "being evil."
Well, Pearlman responded, and frankly, I want to find a way to use his response in a lesson some day. Rather than defend what he said, or attack Calcaterra, he simply apologises:
[My new blogging software is acting up; pardon me if the formatting is weird]
I don’t know Craig, I’ve never met Craig and, until a few days ago, I never even heard of Craig. But his recent criticisms irked me, so I fired back. Why? Because of an impulsive and immature need to defend. So childish. So stupid.
This is not who I want to be. I write because I love writing and I love reporting. I love digging into a subject, then digging into a subject about that subject, then digging even more. Books complete me in a way magazine stories or newspaper columns or (certainly) blog posts never have. They are what I love to do, and if you choose to judge me as a journalist, I can only hope those are the barometers.
I hate much of what’s going on out there—the 140-word top-of-the-brain spewage of Twitter; the blog-for-the-sake-of-saying-something blog post; the eagerness to point out the mistakes committed by others; the sheer loudness of it all. I don’t want to be loud, and—in many respects—the recent Jeff Bagwell posts I wrote (the ones that were slammed by so many) were stuffed with more screaming than intellectual discourse (I believe, strongly, in my takes. But the writing was [expletive deleted]). This stuff becomes addictive, however, and before you know it you’re insulting someone because he dared insult you. It’s second grade all over again.
So, first, I want to apologize to Craig.
He doesn't explain what he did with "I was so passionate that I let my emotions get in the way," which is one of the ways in which we often apologize without really apologizing - I mean, who can blame us for being passionate, right? It's like when a job interviewer asks what your weaknesses are and you say, "I sometimes work too hard." None of that here. Just a simple: I got caught up in the junk, and I let myself be dragged down into it. I shouldn't have. But, then it gets even better (for me):
I don’t agree with many of Craig’s points, especially on PED. But his passion is clear in his work, and that’s invaluable.
If there is a running theme on this blog, and in my Rabbinate, sure it's this: the other guy is probably right, too. Even if you disagree with someone, their thoughts, their opinions, usually have merit. Arguments are rarely about right vs. wrong but, more often, about different views with different merits. I've probably said exactly this before, but how much more pleasant and, ultimately, how much more interesting would our world be if we started our responses not with, "You're an idiot," but rather with, "That's interesting, but on the other hand..."?
As the Talmud teaches us: elu v'elu devarim elohim chayim...these and these are the words of the Living God. Ultimate truth is never simple or simplistic. It's rarely linear and absolute. It's probably never fully contained in straightforward statements.
A moment of honest teshuva (repentance) and open-mindedness. All in a baseball blog. What a great thing the Internet is, huh?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Role of a Rabbi

I came across an article recently about the proper role for a Rabbi. I was going to forward it to one of my Rabbinic e-lists, but I then realized a couple of things:

  1. I really want to get back to blogging more (and doing other writing, too)
  2. It might be more interesting to hear what y'all think, instead of a bunch of Rabbis.

So, here goes...


You may know of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - he wrote Kosher Sex, and he got Rabbi-famous (which is very different from real famous - he's about as famous as a Rabbi can get, and getting on Oprah is his fame peak. Not bad for an ordinary guy, but clearly not the same as being really famous. But, I digress). He wrote an article in Huffington Post about the role which Rabbis are supposed to have, and the role they actually do have:

Welcome to a generation where rabbis have been defanged and declawed. The days of the rabbi as a weighty moral conscience are behind us now. The rabbi as irritant has been replaced with rabbi as ego-massager. The rabbi's the with-it guy with whom you watch the ball game. Yep, that's one swell guy, our rabbi.

Ah, you say, the Jewish community is sinking into an ever-deeper pit of material consumption and over-the-top bar mitzvahs? Fear not. The rabbi knows where his bread is buttered. He's not going to anger the board by admonishing the congregation about a life bereft of Jewish values.

Rabbi Shmuley goes to say that, in his opinion, this willing de-fanging is the reason that Rabbis don't actually hold much sway in the Jewish world:

Go to any of the major Jewish conferences like AIPAC or the General Assembly (GA) and you'll see the rabbis rolled out to say the blessing on the bread. They are seldom, if ever, consulted on issues of activism or policy. Birthright Israel was dreamed up by two businessmen rather than even one rabbi.

So, we've really got two issues here. On the one hand, you've got the "Rabbis are letting themselves be neutered" argument. Then, you've got the "therefore, no one listens to them." I think there's a lot of validity to both. Start with the first: it's pretty clear that many people, and many synagogues, expect their Rabbis to be more about comfort than about challenge (one classic definition of a Rabbi (or, probably many other people) is that s/he is supposed to "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." We're very good at one, less so at the other). Every Rabbi is willing to take a stand, but I think that our bar for when to take one has gotten awfully high. That's, in some ways, a good thing. But, not all.

Let's imagine that I decided, based on my learning, that Judaism called us to be in favor of restrictions on abortion (Judaism would clearly never forbid a full ban, but that's besides the point; this is all hypothetical). I now believe that Judaism does not "allow" a person to be fully pro-choice. Would I dare to say so in a Bulletin article? In a sermon? On the High Holy Days? I'm not sure - I'd like to think so, but who wouldn't? Would I be willing, as Rabbi Shmuley suggests, complain publicly about extravagant weddings and b'nei mitzvah? If not, am I really living up to my title? 

And, what if I did? What would your reaction be (if you're already pro-life, just reverse the example, obviously). Would you complain to me? To the board? Would you even think about changing your attitude, because a Rabbi said you should? One of my favorite quotes about Rabbis comes from Rabbi Israel Salanter: A Rabbi who they don't want to run out of town isn't a Rabbi; a Rabbi who lets himself be run out of town isn't a man. Sounds good. Do I live up to it*?

* I'm REALLY not looking for affirmation, here. Please don't comment with any, "But Rabbi, you did X, Y and Z." This isn't really about me; it's about the Rabbinate, and about Congregations, and about Jews (it probably applies to other religions, too, but I know even less about them).

As for item #2 - I think it's too simplistic. I think that this de-fanging might be one real factor in the lower status of Rabbis in the Jewish world. I think it's clearly not the only one. 

For either of these - tell me what you think. Do you want a Rabbi (priest/imam/guru/teacher/whatever) to really challenge you, and even protest you? Do you really want it, or does that just sound good? Would you accept it?