Monthly Archives: October 2013

Oaks and Maples

The old oaks in the neighborhood have all shed their leaves.  As if in silent agreement, seemingly in one night, and the next morning walking the dog the leaves were all on the ground being blown by the wind.  Perhaps the oaks were ready for winter, or they are proactive, or they figured ‘why wait when facing the inevitable?’  Whatever the reason, however the process works (the Great Oak said ‘OK, boys, let ’em go!’), it was startling.  Who (or what) rushes time, reels the future in faster and faster, not wanting to or willing to wait for what must come.

The maples take a more reserved and measured approach.  Their leaves remain on the branches slowly turning to deeps reds and oranges.  There is the occasional loner who decides to strike out on her own, testing the air and releasing gently into the unknown.  But overall the maples are resisting, holding on to summer or at least to fall, waiting, procrastinating, reluctant to move forward into shorter days and colder nights.

I imagine a silent argument.  The oaks, looking across the street at the maples, scoffing at their colorful optimism.  Give it up, they might say, welcome the cold, the years is turning, the dark is rising.  The maples reply:  why rush?  Stay a few more days, feel the mid-day sun.  You are too serious, you oaks!  So quick to leave behind what was, good memories, the slow pace of summer and the crisp air of fall.  Wait another day and we will call to you tomorrow.

Of course people are like that as well.  Some of us savers, wanting to hold on to what we know we will one day lose.  Others of us are looking for an opportunity to let go of the past and move ahead to what waits around the bend.  Somewhere in between is the prudent course, but the oaks and maples will have none of it.

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A Personal God

Yes and no.  Is that cheating?  Having my cake and eating it too?  In shul yesterday morning I spoke about the issue of השגחת פרטית, the idea that God watches over our individual lives, determining what happens with us on a day to day basis.  I personally do not believe this.  Why would God be so interested in Schwartz that God notices when I do or do not do something, that God takes a ‘personal’ vested interest in my life, that God decides I will pass the intersection just 8 seconds before an accident happens?  I can’t quite get myself there.

But even more challenging for me is this:  if it works for positive things, philosophically it also has to work for negative things.  That is to say, if you believe God made sure that you were saved from being in the accident, you must also believe that God ignored the people that were not spared.  Are we willing to say that about the Holocaust, for example?  That some people in the camps had God’s attention, and so were spared, while others, for whatever reason, didn’t and were killed?  That is not a God that I can believe in.

My problem, however, is this:  I do believe that we can feel God’s presence in a personal way, that when we are blessed, we can sense God’s ‘hand’ in that blessing.  Yesterday morning I spoke to a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary.  One of the things I said to them was that they have been truly blessed in the time that they have shared.  After services a congregant challenged me – Rabbi, what you said to the couple contradicted what you said in your sermon!

OK, OK, you might be right.  But then again, maybe not.  The question in my mind would be this – can we sense God’s presence without believing that God is controlling, deciding, granting or taking away, involved with the minutia of our lives?  I think we can.  God as a source of strength.  God as a source of inspiration or wisdom.  God as a reminder to be grateful, that most of what comes to us in life is not earned.  This God doesn’t save or spare, grant success or doom us to failure.  Instead, this God does something much more difficult.  This God reminds us of our humanity. 


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A Pig Makes the Minyan (or Strange Stories from the Rabbinical Frontier)

You just can’t make this stuff up.  It was an evening shiva minyan in someone’s home.  The family had had a difficult loss, and it was a crowded house, filled with well wishers, friends, folks hoping to offer some small sense of comfort to a grieving family.  I arrived to conduct the minyan, and within a few minutes things were underway.  We davened in the living room area, and there were so many people that almost everyone was standing.

As I was leading the service I saw something in my peripheral vision moving through the crowd, down at the floor level. Without even thinking about it I assumed it was a dog.  This is not an uncommon creature to find walking around in a shiva house – if the dog behaves, and is comfortable with people in the house, let him or her make their way about, meeting and greeting as only dogs can.  (And by the way, for a future post, dogs do bring great comfort to families and to individuals during difficult times.) 

But in the back of my mind I somehow knew things were not as they seemed. Maybe it was the way the animal moved, or the brief glimpse I had caught of its fur.  As it came towards me I looked down, and there at my feet was a small pig, probably about 15 pounds or so, white with a few brown spots, waving its head back and forth and snuffling with its snout.  It seemed perfectly at ease, and curious as well, happy to be ‘in the mix’ and to have a new experience to occupy its attention.  It gave me a wry look, as if to say ‘get the service started, rabbi!’ and then it shuffled away into the crowd.  

After the minyan the pig’s owner approached me, holding the animal which was comfortably snuggled in her arms.  ‘I hope he didn’t startle you,’ she said.  Well, what rabbi worth his or her salt would admit to being startled by a pig?  But what was I going to say?  ‘Oh no, I’ve seen plenty of pigs in shiva houses?’  There was only one proper response, and it came to me in a sudden flash of insight.  ‘He’s kinda’ cute,’ I said.  I carefully but politely patted the pig on the head.  He looked at me out of one eye and I wondered what he was thinking.  Probably this:  how odd to have a rabbi in my home.


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Time to Have Some Babies

When I began rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in the early 90s I was blessed to have as a teacher Rabbi Elliot Dorff.  Elliot is well known in the Conservative Movement for his wisdom, knowledge, and general menschlekite.  Perhaps less well known is that he is an inveterate match-maker, and for lack of a better term, ‘baby encourager.’  Let me explain.

First of all, for the students who were not married, Elliot was constantly urging them to find a partner to settle down with.  But that was only step one of the equation.  Step two, once settled, begin to have babies ASAP, and repeat as often as possible.  Of course Elliot didn’t say it in exactly those words, but his point was clear:  we need more Jews in the world, and if we don’t make them, who will?

At the time I confess I thought it was a bit odd that he was so concerned with our reproductive activities, but looking back now, some 18 years later (has it really been that long?!) I see he was in fact prescient.  One of the over looked factors in the recent Pew Study results is how low the birth rate is in the liberal Jewish community.  Current estimates show a birth rate below 2, with some figures as low as 1.1 (that is number of children per couple).  This is not even close to replacement levels, so while our Orthodox brothers and sisters are watching their community grow in population, we are watching ours shrink.  

This is an issue that cannot be addressed by changes in institutional Jewish life.  That is to say, a change in service style or length, a new understanding of who is a Jew, a new policy for welcoming people into the shul, a new initiative at the Federation – none of that will have an impact on the birth rate in our community.

What to do?  I think maybe it is time to take Rabbi Dorff’s approach.  Community leaders should talk about this.  We need to encourage young couples to have children, and not just one.  Two is better, three even better than two.  Four?  What could be bad?  Perhaps if we are having this conversation as publicly as possible there will be couples out there wondering about whether to have another child, and they might be encouraged.

Of course the caveat to this?  How expensive it is to live a Jewish life.  No question these two issues are connected, and both need to be included in communal discussions.  Remember, in Israel there are significant subsidies for families with multiple children, and we all know finances play a significant role in family decision making.  Whatever the case, it is undeniable that the liberal Jewish community needs to figure out a way to increase its birth rate.  It will be good for the Jews!  And, as a bonus, Elliot Dorff will have an even bigger smile on his face.


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Shadows and Sun

My old friend. I miss you. Just wanted you to know (as if you didn’t) that it was a lovely night. Not that it wasn’t bittersweet – it was. But there was joy. Real joy. And laughter that came from the heart.
The kids are beautiful. Your son so much like you! A blur of activity and loving the energy. We were all proud but he barely knew. One day he will remember. And the little one! She laughed and danced, so graceful and beautiful, sun on a bright spring morning.
We did our best. Talked and toasted, told the old stories, drank a bit, felt the years. We took pleasure and comfort in each other’s company. But we needed you there. With one of your great lines, your deep chuckle and incredible zest for life. It is diminished, not as bright, but it lives on. In family and friends and spirit and silence. In shadows and sun.

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A Few More Thoughts About Conservative Judaism (Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes – turn and face the strain)

The last post about the Conservative Movement and halachah generated hundreds of hits and a variety of comments.  Following are some thoughts about specific changes that we might consider making:

1.  We need to shorten services.  A three hour Shabbat morning service is simply too long.  The truth is, most of our rabbis don’t like to be in services for that long!  Congregants simply vote with their feet – they show up 30-45 minutes late, and arrange their shul time so they are sitting in the pews for an hour to an hour and a half max.  How can we do it?  Eliminating musaf would save us significant time right away.  Do we really need to say another amidah?  Less radically, the preliminary parts of the service can be significantly curtailed.  Target time?  I would say 90 minutes.

2. Consider the Torah service.  The Torah is read (in Hebrew), then the haftara is read (in Hebrew).  The vast majority of folks attending the service do not understand Hebrew, and many of them struggle to read it.  Yet we ask them to sit for a solid 30-40 minutes listening to Hebrew being read out loud.  This just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Perhaps some of the Torah and haftara material should be read in English.  Some shuls contextualize the reading with a running commentary (although this can lengthen the service!).  Maybe we can use visual aids – photos/drawings/texts that can be shown on a large screen, like many of the churches do these days.  Imagine while the akeida (binding of Isaac story) is being read that classic paintings of that story are being shown on a large screen above the reader. Like it or not we are a screen oriented culture today – more and more  that is the way we interact (interface) with information.  And only more so for younger people.

3.  Hebrew school.  We need to have a serious, Movement wide discussion about after school Hebrew school.  In my community the Reform congregations have moved to one day a week.  This puts pressure on us in an era when families are so often looking for the easiest (least disruptive) way of giving their children a Jewish education.  One less day a week schlepping to shul makes a difference.  But if we move to one day a week, our kids will know even less, their Hebrew skills will be even more rudimentary, and they will have even less access to the services we currently run in our sanctuaries.  We are in a situation right now where we are not successfully training the children in our own Hebrew schools to participate in the services we run in our own sanctuaries.  This is a fundamental structural flaw.  There are some fabulously talented educators in our Movement.  Help!

3.  Status issues.  Who is a Jew?  Who can marry whom, when can a rabbi officiate, who can come up to the bimah?  At the USCJ convention Rabbi Eddie Feinstein spoke movingly about members of his congregation who are not fully Jewish, but active participants in Jewish life and raising Jewish children.  Lets make a more formal place for them at the table.  I’ve had three requests in the last 2 weeks to officiate at interfaith weddings, and I know each time I say ‘no,’ as nicely as I say it, that couple is hurt and turned off to Conservative Judaism.  In an age where the distinctions between ‘Conservative,’ ‘Reform,’ and ‘Reconstructionist,’ are rapidly breaking down, we are at a significant disadvantage in terms of welcoming people who are going to pitch their tent in the liberal Jewish community.  They will simply go down the street to our Reform colleagues, or leave institutional Judaism entirely.  

4.  The list can go on and on.  What bar/bat mitzvah means, how dues are paid, etc, etc.  And these are the ‘details,’ the nitty gritty.  Even more importantly there are ‘meta’ questions the Movement needs to address.  How do we define ourselves?  What compelling arguments can we make for Conservative Judaism?  Why might someone want to be part of a Conservative community, as opposed to Reform?  In a world where we constantly use the phrase ‘value added’ these are the million dollar questions.


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A New Direction for Conservative Judaism ( or Breaking Up (with Halachah) is Hard to Do)

     There is a slowly but surely growing sense in synagogue circles that organized Jewish life, especially ‘shul life,’ is rapidly changing, and that the classic synagogue structure that we’ve known for the last 75 years or so will be a very different animal by the end of the next decade.  My sense is this will have a dramatic impact on how we ‘do’ synagogue – what it means to have a bar or bat mitzvah, what it means to attend Hebrew school, what it means to affiliate, to pay dues, to attend services – all of this is changing.  But what is also changing is what it means to be associated with a particular ‘movement.’  And as synagogues are talking about what they should be in the near future and how they should change, so too with the various movements, across the spectrum.

     In the Conservative Movement this has generated some interesting conversations.  What we know is that nationally the movement has been shrinking over the last 25 years.  Fewer and fewer Jews who want to pitch their tent in the liberal Jewish community now do so in a Conservative congregation.  And so the movement has been talking about who we should be, how we should define ourselves, and even what we should be called.  There have been new publications that are also, in one way or another, intended to influence this conversation (a new siddur, a new humash, a new mahzor, a new description of the ‘ideal’ Conservative life).  To this point, there has not been anything like a consensus among the movement’s leadership as to how we should answer these questions.  If anything, there has been a bit of a retreat as institutions and individuals embrace older models and tried and true definitions that kept the movement afloat for almost a hundred years.

     The recent publication of a book that is intended to summarize what the movement is and how it expects its members to live is an example of this phenomenon.  Entitled ‘The Observant Life, the Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews,’  this lengthy tome is an impressive collection of extended articles and essays from some of the leading scholars produced by the movement.  Each article (organized by topic) is filled with information and in depth Jewish legal analysis.  Virtually every area of Jewish life is addressed, from the celebration of holy days to study to kashrut and on and on.  One can not help but be impressed by the erudition of the authors and the breadth and depth of the articles.  In many ways the book reads more like a code of law than anything else, almost an update to the classic reference code written for the movement by Isaac Klein, ‘A Guide for Jewish Religious Practice’ (first published some 30 years ago).

     My challenge with the book is its title.  Or more specifically, the book’s subtitle, ‘the Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews.’  For what wisdom will the vast majority of contemporary, liberal, non-observant Jews find in a book that is largely a compendium of Jewish law, a book about how to live an observant life?  And I fear the answer to that question is very little.  Not because Jewish law can’t have meaning, and not because the traditional halachic structure doesn’t have a kind of wisdom, but because most of the members of our synagogues do not find meaning and or wisdom in Jewish law and they do not live observant lives, at least in the traditional sense.    

     The truth is there is a growing gap between how the movement understands itself and what it actually is.  People join Conservative shuls today because they grew up there, or they like the rabbi, or the cantor, or the pre-school, or they have friends that belong.  But very few – I would guess less than %10 – join Conservative synagogues because they want to be part of a halachically observant community.  I had the opportunity to be in Israel over the summer with congregants, and we spent Shabbat in Jerusalem.  Shabbat morning we went to services at Moreshet Israel, where Rabbi Frank gave a long sermon reprising his views on what the movement should strive for, primarily more observance and a greater commitment to halachah.  In one extended section of his remarks he used the word halachah over and over again.  Two of my congregants were sitting in front of me.  I leaned forward and asked them if they knew what halachah is, and they both shook their heads ‘no.’

     The point is these people are not the exception – they are the rule!  And whether this is a failure of the movement or not is beside the point.  These are our members.  They prefer a more traditional shul, with more Hebrew in the service (although many of them cannot read Hebrew well, if at all), where Shabbat and kashrut are observed.  They find meaning in Jewish life and experience, they see the world through a Jewish lens, they believe in classic Jewish values like tikkun olam and tzedakah.  They are enormously proud to be Jewish, and they want to have Jewish children and grandchildren.  But halachah – the traditional observance of Jewish law in every area of life – is not part of their world view.  Why then, when asked to describe the movement, do we so commonly say ‘it is halachic?’  Isn’t there something more we can say?  Isn’t there a book we can write about the wisdom of Conservative Judaism for contemporary Jews that our laity could read and find real meaning in?

     Some of that book would be about the desire in our congregations for top quality adult education.  Some of it would describe inventive social action programs, hands on opportunities for young and old to make the world a better place.  Some of it might be about the importance of prayer as a tool for self growth and reflection, or the valiant struggle of the women at the wall.  Some of it might be about an idea like Heksher Tzedek, or the use of mikveh for spiritual healing and cleansing.  Or creative Hebrew school education initiatives.  I imagine that the professional and lay leaders of our movement could think of many other things to add to this list. And I do believe it is time for us, as a movement, to write that book.


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