Friday, October 25, 2013

Can Rabbi Art Green Save Judaism?

A few weeks ago, a study was released by the Pew Research Center, and it offered all sorts of bad news about the Jewish world. And, it also spawned a seemingly endless stream of reaction from that same Jewish world. Some see it as a sign of impending disaster. Some see it as a technically flawed study*. Some see it as a potentially interesting data point, but nothing all that new, actually.

* I can't find the link right now, but the argument was, basically, that Pew compared current data to a 10-year-old study that used extremely different methodology. Therefore, any downward trend that it claims to find is extremely suspect.

Rabbi Arthur Green had a slightly different reaction, and it will surprise no one who knows me that I find it compelling. For those who don't know, for years, and with increasing intensity in the past few years, Rabbi Green has been constructing a fairly radical vision of Judaism. It's one which I find intensely compelling and which, quite frankly, has become the single largest piece of my own religious foundation. So, I'm clearly biased when I read his reaction to Pew. But, the upshot is that he thinks that his vision of Judaism might be the answer to the challenge posed by the report.

Rabbi Green's theology, and the Judaism which flows from it, is doggedly rationalist, and it's intensely Universalist. And, Green believes that it offers a version of Judaism which could potentially speak to the millions of Jews who find that a more classic theology, and religion, no longer fits them. Essentially, he's claiming that it's no surprise that university educated Jews who are fully integrated into the Modern world aren't impressed with Judaism which is based in a supernatural God, exclusivist claims to the truth and so on. If we can just offer them something which is spiritually compelling, while at the same time 100% consonant with the world around them, maybe they'll come back.

I deeply, deeply hope that he's right. I'll admit that I doubt he is–at least to the degree to which we might really hope. Even Green admits that his new theology isn't going to completely reverse the seeming flood of Jews who are leaving Judaism. Personally, I wonder if his theology/Religion would even appeal to enough people to significantly impact the Jewish world. I'd like to think it might, but that seems incredibly optimistic.

But, ultimately, I base my religious belief and practice not on what I think will be most popular, or most effective in drawing in the masses. I base my religious belief and practice on what I find to be true and holy. And, I don't think I've ever come across anything that feels more true and holy than the God which Green describes with such passion and clarity.

Whatever you think about its potential impact on the wider Jewish world, Green's article is worth reading if only because it offers a wonderful synopsis of his outlook:
Mystical religion by its very nature shifts the focus of attention away from the positive/historical and inward toward the devotional/experiential. The question is not: “Do you believe that God created the world, and when?” but rather “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” We are not concerned with “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?” The “events” of Israel’s sacred narrative are read here as myth rather than history, but their voice is made more powerful rather than less as they call forth deep personal engagement and commitment. The God of this religion is not the commanding Other who rules over history, but rather the still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight. This sort of new mystical or Neo-Hasidic piety turns toward the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence itself as an object of wonder and devotion. It finds the miraculous in daily life and tends to focus its religious energy on the building and celebration of human community.
It's interesting —I was recently talking to a colleague who describes himself as completely rational, and followed that up by saying that the mere mention of anything "mystical" shuts him right down. "Mystical," to him, equals "non-rational." That certainly isn't a minority view. To most people, "mystical" means wacky New Age spirituality. Well, I'm fairly proud (arrogant?) of my own rationalist credentials, and I can't find a single thing that Art Green says which doesn't pass muster for me, in terms of his rationality. For me, Green describes a God and a Judaism which are deeply, profoundly powerful, and which challenge, but never ask me to deny, my mind.

I don't know that Green's Radical Judaism, or his radical Judaism, can really change the world, or even the Jewish world. But, it's had a heck of an impact on mine.

Check out the article, and tell me if you agree.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rabbis Optional

A congregation in northern Israel just finished a year of living without a rabbi (not voluntarily, it seems). They were committed to holding services every Shabbat, as they had always done, and so they came together as a congregation, and as a community, and figured out how to do so. What they discovered is that although it was certainly challenging, and not always ideal, there were some real benefits to being forced into this:
Some members admitted that at the beginning, they felt unsure as to whether we would succeed, but at the end of the year, we overwhelmingly felt proud that we had pulled together to sustain our congregation. Our new reality had the positive effect of encouraging our multicultural and multilingual members to further integrate in order to overcome some of the differences between us. Without a rabbi, we discovered unknown talents and the hidden potential of many members who came forth willingly to contribute. Our ritual committee chairperson revealed that to her delight, she never received a negative response when she asked someone to give a drasha (discussion of the weekly Torah portion) or lead services. Moreover, some of the members who were not comfortable conducting services, stepped up their efforts in other areas for the well being of the congregation
Look--I don't want to oversell this (it would be bad for me, career-wise), but I think that every congregation would benefit from realizing that a Rabbi is, fundamentally, superfluous. Don't get me wrong; a Rabbi isn't useless*. A good Rabbi (or Cantor) will know how to lead a service well, and will have a body of teaching that will help to make for good sermons--that sort of thing. But, none of that is out of the reach of an average layperson. The majority of congregants at Beth Am (or, most synagogues' congregants), given the proper motivation, maybe a smidgen of guidance and a working Internet connection can construct a pretty darn good sermon, if asked to do so. I'd probably be better than most of them at giving one weekly, because I've got the experience and the knowledge base. But, that's very different from having some esoteric, magical ability that just isn't available to the run of the mill Jew.

* well, hopefully. I guess it depends on the Rabbi.

And, that's the real point. Rabbis (and Cantors) can bring an awful lot to the table. But, nothing that they bring is inherently, intrinsically tied to their being ordained. At my Ordination, no one sprinkled Magic Rabbi Dust ™on my head. I walked off the bimah pretty much the same person as I was when I walked on.

The most important time to remember this is not with sermons so much, as it is with prayers. Some people seem to think that, because I'm a Rabbi, my prayers have special power, special potency. That a prayer offered by me, or a name read for Mi Sheberach (the prayer for healing) or Kaddish (the prayer for mourners) is special in a way which that same prayer or name, if read by a congregant, is not. Believe me--I have no special access to God*. My prayers are in no way more likely to be heard or answered**. To insist otherwise is, I firmly believe, to misunderstand the nature of Rabbis, prayer, and God.

* Your Honor, I submit exhibit a, the 2013 New York Yankees' season.

** Your Honor, I submit exhibit b, the 2013 New York Giants' season.

One of my childhood Rabbis, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z"l) was often asked, before a wedding, bar mitzvah or similar event, to offer a special prayer for good weather. "I'm sorry," he would always reply. "I'm in sales, not management."

When it comes to prayer, and to sermons, and to just about everything that goes on in a synagogue, there may be someone who is more comfortable with you. There may be someone who is more knowledgable than you. Maybe more skilled than you.

But there is never anyone who is more powerful than you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Be Careful With Your Language

One of our synagogues college students is off studying in China, and she made a mistake in a paper of hers that reminded me of a favorite story from Rabbinical School. Whenever I think of the story, I can't stop smiling or giggling, so I figured it must be worth a share…

First, with apologies (this really was meant to be a lighthearted post!) I have to give a tiny bit of history of the Hebrew language. For almost a couple of thousand years, leading up to the 19th century, Hebrew was a dead language — it was used for study and prayer, but it wasn't spoken as a primary language. When Zionism began to take root, and it looked like Jews might start thinking of themselves as a nation again, a brilliant, but apparently pretty eccentric guy named Eliezer Ben Yehuda decided to revive the language. And, part of doing that was to invent new Hebrew words for terms which hadn't existed back when Hebrew was commonly used. For instance, Hebrew had no word for "electricity," so Ben Yehuda used a biblical word that probably referred to an ember ("heshmal"). Many of his new words stuck; many didn't. Languages are funny that way.

Okay — linguistic history lesson over.

During our first year of Rabbinical School, our studies were heavy on Hebrew instruction, so we did a lot of essay writing and such. One of my classmates wrote an essay about how much he loved archaeology. Not just him — his whole family loved archaeology. They loved going to archaeological sites together. They had done archaeology in the field, as a family. And, naturally, he was beyond excited to be in Israel, which is home to so much unbelievable archaeology. He couldn't wait to explore the archeology here.

One small problem: he was using the classic Ben Yehuda dictionary which, as I said, contained words which Ben Yehuda coined, but had never really taken root. For example, the word for "archaeology" which he had wanted to be used in Modern Hebrew (hashpanut) was based on the root for "uncovering." But, that didn't work out. In the end, Hebrew just uses archeologica. 

But, luckily, hashpanut  did find use in another context. It's the Modern Hebrew word for "striptease."

Yeah. We had a hard time getting the class back to order that day...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tzedakah on the Street

A couple of months ago, one of our members subbed for me at Friday night services, including giving the D'var Torah. In it, he use one of my favorite quotes, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to blog about the quote, and the idea, for a while. Well, it took another while to get to, but…

First, the quote:
Rabbi Chaim of Sanz (d. 1786) said: "The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud."
I've heard that argument from countless people, as have we all, I suspect. "I won't give to anyone on the street — many of them are earning $60,000 a year." Or, "They're just going to go and use that money for booze. Why should I give it to them?" There are plenty of variations, but they all amount to the same thing: my charity might be wasted, and therefore I won't give it.

There's plenty about that attitude which I don't like.

First of all, whether or not it's intended as such, it feels cruel to me. To look at someone who is begging on the street and to assume that they are faking poverty, or just looking to satisfy some unwholesome craving feels like a way of looking away. Of pretending that the poverty that we see isn't really there. When I see someone on the street begging for money, I try (and, I don't always succeed) to think about what it must have been like the first time they had to panhandle. How bad do things have to be before any of us would be willing to swallow our pride, make up a cardboard sign and stand holding a cup out? How awful is it to stand there, watching people in nice cars aggressively avoid making eye contact with you? Or, sometimes I'm sure, yelling insults and accusations at you? How much worse is it that, eventually, it must start to all feel normal?

If I take the time to wonder about those things, it gets awfully hard to feel angry and cynical towards them.

I also think it's important to remember that, while it's great to give to organized charities, there's something very important about giving to individuals--the human contact. That contact--looking into the eye of, and speaking to, the recipient, is a powerful moment, for both him or her, and for me. I'll never forget the time that I finally stopped and talked with the young woman who regularly set up camp, leaning up against a metal fence, along my walk from the subway to Rabbinical School. I had given to her plenty of times, but once I sat with her and asked her how she got here. I asked her if I could get her anything, and her answer was that she was dying to have a bacon double cheeseburger, fries and Sprite from the Wendy's across the street (I don't think I had ever wondered how brutal it must be to sit there, cold and hungry, watching people gorge themselves on fat and caffeine). I remember how slowly she ate when I brought her the food, and how she set aside half for her boyfriend who was off looking for work, or maybe just better begging.

And I remember how, when I finally got up to go, she thanked me for the food, but more than that she said, for treating her like a human being. No one had done that in a long time, she told me.

Are there people who are feigning poverty, just to make an easy dollar? Sure. I'll bet there are. Are there people who will take my money and head the the liquor store, or their dealer? Most probably. But, are there people who are starving, scared, desperate, alone, hot, cold, sick dirty, and tired of being ignored or disdained by people who are oblivious to how lucky they are? Yeah. There are a lot of them.

I really hope I can help one. I'm more than willing to risk wasting a few bucks to do so.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

#$%& You, God

So, is it ever okay to swear at God?

I'm not sure I've ever really considered that question before. Is it okay, when praying, to use curse words? Is it acceptable to direct those curse words at God? I came across these questions in an article entitled, "Who Says It's Wrong to Mix Swears and Prayers?" A little warning — there are (not surprisingly!) some swear words in that article, so if you're easily offended by such things, you probably don't want to click through*. I have to admit — it's an interesting way to think about prayer.

* Although, an article which can reference medieval religious practice and the filthiest song from the wonderfully filthy play "The Book of Mormon" is always going to get a thumbs-up from me.

The article is mostly from a Christian point of view, and so it's a very different framework from Jewish prayer, and it's very different from my understanding of Jewish prayer, which has nothing to do with literal supplication. The people referred to in the article, though, seem a bit more literal:
One kind of response suggested that swearing would personally offend the Lord if TemplarKnight1 happened to run into him (“think about it this way, if Jesus were standing right in front of you, then would you curse?”), while another spoke of more enduring consequences: “Once I learned that there is much swearing and blasphemy in Hell… I realized I needed to stop.”
These responses seem to assume a very literal framework for prayer — God and the saints are living personalities who can be offended by something that we say. Now, you don't have to have an extremely non-literalist theology like mine to see that there are some problems with this kind of thinking. There's something a little bit strange about the idea of an all powerful God being offended, at all. That seems like an awfully human emotion, doesn't it?

For someone like me, who believes that there isn't a God who is "out there," as some Being with an existence separate and distinct from my own, it's even more of a non sequitur. If God is the sum total of all interconnected being, as any non-dualist will tell you God is, then God can't get offended by anything. God isn't a Being with personality. So, the question of whether or not it's ever okay to swear during prayer, or to swear at God, becomes somewhat more subtle.

The more I learn about prayer*, the more it seems to me that what prayer really is, is an opening of the heart. It's an attempt to connect with the thoughts and feelings that we hold deep inside of ourselves. It's an attempt to express whatever it is that we most deeply need to express. Joy, doubt, pain, thankfulness, peace, anger--all of it. And, if that's true, then why wouldn't swearing, at least some of the time, be appropriate?

*And, a lot of what I've learned about prayer of late is from the book Making Prayer Real

The author of the article seems to agree:
Given that it is neither novel nor all that funny, it might be more interesting to consider profanity in prayer as the product of genuine religious concern.
I suppose you could argue that, ideally, there were always better ways to express ourselves then with curses*. Swears become a shortcut to express what we aren't able, or aren't willing to take the time, to express with more exacting, less profane speech. But, as much as religion tries to move us towards an ideal, it also must deal with the real, and for most of us, shouting out a swear is, at times, a more honest expression of our anger, fear or frustration than anything else we might be able to get out at that moment.

* I've always loved the line from "Malcolm X" in which his mentor-to-be tells Malcolm [probably misquote here], "A man only curses when he can't express what's on his mind."

Just now, I suddenly started thinking about two families I know who have sons battling cancer. One seems to be doing well and is, God willing, going to win his fight. One is not. If any of those four parents takes a moment and talks to God about what their son is going through, would anyone deny the reality, the immediacy of them screaming, "F@#$ You, God!" until their throats were sore? That "prayer" would win highest marks for honesty, in every sense of that word. That says a lot about its quality as a prayer, don't you think?
To curse God, or otherwise to transgress boundaries of propriety within the framework of religious communication, is to approach a conclusion about prayer at odds with the usual understanding that it is primarily an act of comfort or devotion.
Prayer can be an act of comfort or devotion. But, that's just one kind of prayer. One mode of prayer. Sometimes, screaming from the depths of your despair at God, or at Whomever, can be prayer, as well. And, if you need to lace that prayer with some surprisingly salty language? I am pretty sure that God won't be offended. In fact,  I'm pretty sure that God knew that you needed to swear, before even you did.

Isn't that who God is?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

I Don't (Think I) Care About the Pew Study

There's been a lot of Facebook/twitter/etc traffic among rabbis regarding the just-released survey of American Judaism, conducted by the Pew Research organization. There's lots of data which can cause stress to anyone involved in the Jewish world. It's always possible to tell lots of different, even contradictory stories from any large data set, but it seems pretty clear that these numbers aren't great news for the Jewish world. Affiliation is down. Identification is down. Commitment to practice is down. The overall numbers for Reform Judaism are up, but that's probably deceptive; one observer commented that "Reform" is often the default answer when you ask a nonobservant, uninvolved Jew about their affiliation. Assuming that's true (and I suspect it is, at least largely) then it falsely inflates our numbers, as well as offering a pretty damning critique about how Reform Judaism is viewed in the wider world. We've always fought against the perception that we are, fundamentally, minimalist Judaism. It seems that to many, that's exactly what we are.

And so there's already been a bit of handwringing about what were going to do — how we can adjust to this new reality, what we have to change, and on what we have to focus. But, you can count me as one of those who hasn't been too worried about what I've seen.

First of all, this isn't news. The numbers might be a bit worse than some of us suspected, but the general trend has been obvious and known for many, many years. Organized Religion, and especially Religious Institutions, are in trouble. There are many reasons for this, of course; one of the biggest is a larger societal trend (and those are always difficult, if not impossible, to oppose) — the tendency of "Millennial's" to not join or identify with groups or organizations. This current crop of 20 and 30 somethings are much more willing to go to a good event or program which interest them than they are to pay dues to organization in order to become an ongoing member. But, whatever the reason, everybody I know in the Jewish world has been talking about this decline for years; I'll admit to being a bit perplexed as to why some people are reacting with near panic to this latest round of confirmation.

But, there's another reason that I'm not taking this research too seriously. Basically, whether we are gaining members or losing, or holding steady, our mission, as a Religious Institution, remains the same: to create a vibrant, engaging, relevant Judaism that will capture people's imaginations, and inspire them to lead holy lives.

Of course we have to think about which formats and strategies are most effective in this day and age. Of course we have to adjust our institutional expectations (and budgets!) as demographics and participation trends change. But, we've made the mistake before of defining our success by numbers — post-Holocaust, a lot of the Jewish world was focused primarily on "Jewish Continuity," which meant that we had to ensure that Jews stayed Jews. But, we get so focused on keeping Jews "in the fold," that we forgot to make sure there was something worth staying for. When all of your programming is focused on "you have to stay Jewish," then you've created a Judaism which has nothing to offer outside of a name tag. Why be part of the club whose only goal is to ensure the continuity of the club?

I believe in a Judaism which is based on a transcendently powerful, rational theology. I believe in a Judaism which finds expression in spiritual pursuits, and in working tirelessly to right the injustices of our world (which is, in its own way, a spiritual pursuit, of course). I know that I am a distinctly imperfect example and leader of this Judaism--I'm not claiming that I don't have work to do or anything to learn about how to go about it. But, ultimately, my Jewish life, and my professional Jewish life will be driven by this vision, not by numbers.

I believe that, if properly presented, this vision will draw people in. People will want to know how to believe in a God with knee-rattling awe while not surrendering one iota of their rationality. People will be inspired to learn how this theology calls them to help others, and to speak out for those who are in desperate need. People will be moved, and challenged, and threatened, and uplifted by practices which draw our attention to this One before Whom we stand. And, if they don't, then I'm just going to keep doing what I do, because I believe in it.

There's a Midrash (Rabbinic story) about Abraham, on his way to sacrifice his son Isaac, at God's behest. Satan shows up and tries to talk Abe out of it. "Don't you realize that Isaac is the only Jew left in the world? You're too old to have any more kids, and so if you kill Isaac, then Judaism ends right here, right now. Don't do it!" Abe's response? "I don't care. It's not up to me to ensure the future of Judaism. My job is to do what God commands me."

Our job is to search. To search for God. To search for meaning. To search for the way--the way that we must act in response to that God that we find. I think that, if we do that honestly, people will want to be a part of it. And, if not, then at least I know that I'm doing my best to do what God wants me to do. I'm doing my best to make our world a holier place.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Seeing Good, Making Holy

Looking for something else in Pinchas Peli's Shabbat Shalom, I stumbled across a teaching I had marked long ago and forgotten about. Even though we're past the week of Parashat Bereishit, a little teaching about the story of Creation is never a bad thing, so...

When God creates the world, we keep reading that "God saw that it was good." But, when God creates Shabbat, we are told that "God made Shabbat holy."

Peli teaches that this distinction is deliberate. The world, as it is, is good. Once it's created, it's good. We can appreciate it, or not, but it will always be good.

But, holy? Holy is different. Holy is something which has to be created. And, not just once, by God, but over and over again, by us, in partnership with God.

When Judaism Is Evil

This morning, I was sent this article, tagged as "devastating." There's a word, yet to be invented, which means "more devastating than words can adequately capture," and that's a better word for it. The article is about adults who have left the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community and, as a result, are denied contact with their children.
The particulars of her situation were unusually sad: She was allowed to see her children only once a month, under supervision of a family member who remained within the community where she grew up. She was not allowed to take her children out of the Hasidic enclave where they live. The visits were frequently canceled; the children had weddings and bar mitzvahs and other events to attend, and she could always visit with them next month, she was told. She felt humiliated when they began to call her by her first name, Devorah. She wanted them to keep calling her “Mommy,” but “Mommy” was a title given to somebody else—the Hasidic woman her ex-husband married.
The subject of the article, Devorah, committed suicide last Friday. I can only assume that there was no single, simple reason for that tragedy, but I also have no doubt that the ongoing trauma of not seeing her children was a major, if not the major force behind Devorah's struggle. The author of the article went through a similar struggle with his children and, luckily, made it through. But, he has seen first hand what Devorah endured, and he describes it in heartbreaking fashion.

I'm in one of those moods this morning that makes it hard to read this with any kind of equanimity. I can't help but wonder, only briefly, what it would be like to go through this kind of living hell. I say "only briefly" because, frankly, the briefest of thoughts about it are too awful to bear, and I quickly move on to other thoughts. Mainly, thoughts of disgust.

Fanaticism is evil. It is. I don't use that word lightly, and I'll admit to not having given this a huge amount of thought (I suppose that there could be some forms of fanaticism which, even if not good, would fall short of "evil"), but I'm still willing to lead with that thought: fanaticism is evil. It distorts reality, and it distorts people's views, and it pushes them to do horrible, indefensible things. When one thing is the only thing that matters, then anything, anything at all, is permitted in the name of that One Thing. More than permitted, even--it becomes required. Commanded, in the language of our religion.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter at all what you are fanatical about. If you are truly fanatical, then you're in trouble. Religious fanaticism, nationalist fanaticism, political fanaticism, racial fanaticism--you can go on and on. There are many ways to be fanatical, but in the end, they're all very much the same. They are the elevating of one thing to the status of One Thing. And, that's idolatry. And, that's evil.

For a few months now, a group of about a dozen of us have been meeting weekly to study Rabbi Art Green's Radical Judaism. It's an exposition of Green's decidedly anti-fundamentalist theology. And, yesterday, we read a section which discussed what it really means to claim that all human beings are created betzelem elohim--in God's image. All human beings; not just Jews. The Torah is clear about that much. Ultimately, that means that Judaism, a particular way to be a human being, must be judged by its ability to lead us towards a greater sense of universal humanity:
Once we have a basic principle, or even a set of basic principles, we have a standard by which to evaluate all other rules and practices, teachings and theological ideas. Does this particular practice lead us closer to seeing the divine in every person? Might this interpretation of a Torah verse be an obstacle toward doing so?… Any Judaism that veers from the ongoing work of helping us allow every human being to become and be seen as God's image in the fullest way possible is a distortion of Judaism.
Be committed. Be devout. Be religious. But, when you start thinking that your religion, or your cause, is so ultimately, perfectly important that it gives you the right to demonize a parent to his or her children, or to treat a person with whom you disagree, and who practices or believes differently from you, as less than a full human being, then you are no longer practicing religion. You are practicing fanaticism and idolatry, and dressing them up in religious clothing.

May Devorah's memory be a blessing.