Tag Archives: Judaism

Strangers in a Strange Land part 4

Been a while. We’ve had one of those funeral runs we get at the shul off and on, and I have not had time to read the paper, play my guitar, see my family, or do just about anything else, let alone blog the last week or so. I have a few minutes so thought I would try to squeeze in the promised last piece in the ‘Strangers’ series.

The last issue to address is that of conversion. A month or so ago I posted a blog about the question of conversion to Judaism which was a response to an open letter written by a woman who converted and had studied with Barry Freundel, the disgraced rabbi from the DC area. She wrote about how demeaning the conversion process had been as opposed to warm and welcoming, how difficult and complicated as opposed to simple and straight forward. I suggested in my post that many of her problems would not have occurred had she converted in the liberal Jewish community. Even so, I wrote, we should make conversion even easier. The post was entitled ‘Great Expectations’ and was published October 24.

I was surprised when a couple of weeks ago an Orthodox rabbi named Shmuly Yanklowitz published an Op Ed in the NY Times in which he essentially suggested the same thing. Conversion should be easier, he wrote, not more difficult. Expectations should be reasonable, not impossible to meet. Standards should be relaxed, not made more stringent. Surprisingly there are other wheels in the Orthodox community moving along the same lines.  But at this point they are few and far between.  Much more commonly the conversion process in Orthodoxy has become so exclusive, the standards so impossibly high, that few people in their right mind would try to become Jewish.

Why?  Why did the Orthodox community move in that direction, creating a structure whereby conversion would rarely take place, where candidates would often be rejected, where few would be considered ‘kosher’ enough?  I think one reason is fear of the stranger, a bizarre yet strong sense that one who is ‘other’ – i.e. not born of a Jewish mother – should be prevented from entering the circle.

This is not rational thinking, and it is not good for the Jewish people.  We need an influx of new ideas, new perspectives, new backgrounds.  I  think one of the reasons the Orthodox rabbi was able to be so original in his thought was that he himself is a convert to Judaism.  His ideas are fresh and spot on.  He understands that fear of the stranger is no way to run a religion.  His column is ‘Judaism Must Embrace the Convert.’  It was published in the Times on November 23rd, and is well worth the read.

The truth is we need more people to think like that, and to speak out.  Instead of closing Judaism down and circling the wagons we need to open it up and embrace the differences in each other, in other people, in other communities.  If God wanted us all to be the same we would all look alike, think alike, and worship alike.  I for one am glad we don’t.


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A New Judaism?

An article that appeared in last week’s Sunday NY Times by James Carroll called ‘Jesus and the Modern Man” has me thinking about Judaism’s role in modern life. Carroll argues that the new Pope, with his popular touch, is helping the average Catholic in the pew to regain a sense of the potential power of the Church in his or her life. Carroll sees the Pope as returning his faith to its roots, namely the life of Jesus, with his message of love, hope, and inclusion for all people.

What, then, would be our message? A Jewish message for the soundbite age, Judaism at its essence, ‘standing on one foot?’ Without a Pope figure to direct the Jewish theological enterprise, and without a Jesus figure to create the image of an ideal life driven by ideal values, where do we stand?

One thing we know is that on many levels our problems and the problems of the Church are similar. Dwindling attendance at services. Diminished registration in our religious schools. Fewer people identifying with our faith traditions. At the heart of it all is a malaise of modern life – fewer and fewer people take religion seriously. Religious life is becoming anachronistic, the wives’ tales and superstitions of a previous age, not suited to modern life and modern sensibilities.

What then, will be a Judaism for the modern man? We are seeing early glimmers of an answer to that question. It may be less synagogue based, and more social action and social justice oriented. The emphasis will be on doing good rather than being good. Traditional rituals may fade away (wearing tefilin, for example) while new rituals may become important in people’s lives (baby namings and b’not mitzvah two current notable examples). Prayer may be replaced by meditation. Lectures by walks. Lunch and learns by cooking classes and wine tastings.

The sage Hillel famously took a stab at creating a one line description of Judaism’s essence: what is hateful to you, do not do to others. Not bad, but not sufficient. What about the impulse to challenge the status quo, so central to Judaism’s approach? Or another core tenet, responsibility for caring for the underprivileged? The importance of a day of rest, so the mind and spirit can rejuvenate and grow? Of course the list could go on and on.

Interestingly, these are all values that still speak to us in the modern world. What we need to do is somehow convince people that Judaism’s ancient wisdom can still bring meaning into their modern lives. Prayer can be powerful and life changing! Study of sacred text can deepen your spiritual life! Ritual can ground you and give structure to your days! Of course we don’t have a Pope to deliver that message, or a Jesus figure to galvanize the uninitiated or disenfranchised. The Jewish message for modern man has to come from Jewish leaders – clergy, Jewish professionals, lay leaders as well. Our challenge is that we cannot deliver that message in a soundbite. But a TED talk? Maybe. At least it is a place to start. Just don’t ask me to do it standing on one foot.

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A Member of the Tribe

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/21

     We live in an age of acronyms, and with the new technologies of communication that we are constantly using – email, twitter, FB, texting –  the abbreviations seem to be growing exponentially day by day.  As my children will tell you I am no expert on these matters, and so I am treading a bit into uncharted waters, but I would like to see where you are with these things, so I am going to give you a little quiz.  If you know what the following acronyms mean, raise your hand – and we will work our way up in degree of difficulty – 

     LOL – how many know it?  What does it mean?  TBH?  TBT (throwback Thursday on FB)?  OMG?  (a good one for rabbis to know).  OTD?  And here is a last one for you – MOT – member of the tribe.

     That last acronym, MOT, member of the tribe, I heard from a long time member who was asking me about whether someone was Jewish or not – “is that person,” he said to me, “an MOT?”  This was a few years ago, and when I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, he patiently explained to me the meaning of the term – is the person a member of the tribe – in other words, is the person Jewish or not.

     On the surface it is a little silly sounding, but underneath the surface it is a very interesting way of asking the question.  You are not asking is the person an MOF – member of the faith.  You are using the world tribe, which automatically carries a connotation of ethnicity – that there is not just a religious Jewish identity, there is also an ethnic, tribal Jewish identity, a sense of being connected by family, not only by faith.    

     This sense of Jewish identity comes to us naturally, and it is ancient.  After all, in the Torah, our oldest document, we read about the Shivtei Yisrael, the 12  – tribes – of Israel.  And tribal identity is a central biblical theme.  It is a major question in the Torah as to which tribe gets which territory in ancient Israel, and in fact the territories are named after the tribes.  In the book of Judges, after the Israelites have entered the land, it is clear that tribal identity is much stronger than national identity – the tribes fight with one another, they vie for power, there is constant tension, alliances are formed.  And it is also clear that in biblical times a person was much more connected to their tribal identity, and much more loyal to their tribe, then they were to the Jewish people as a whole.

     Over time that changed, and the national identity became the primary one.  One of the most important moments in that transition is described in this morning’s haftara, from the book of First Samuel.  The first verse of the text sets the stage – the prophet Samuel invites the people up to Gilgal, and there, he says, ונחדש שם המלוכה – we will establish a monarchy.  A king to rule over not a single tribe, but all the tribes together.  And part of the king’s job is to create a sense of national unity and to deemphasize tribal identity.  King David advances this agenda by creating a national capitol, Jerusalem, and centralizing power there, and then his son Solomon furthers that process by constructing what would become THE national symbol, the Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world.  The Temple belonged to all of the tribes equally, and it allowed for the celebration of national holy days like Pesah or Shavuot.

     But tribal identity still remained a part of Jewish life.  That is why even today people can strongly identify as Jews without doing anything religiously Jewish.  That is why the connection between Jews in the diaspora and the land of Israel and Israelis is so strong – that isn’t about religion!  Most Israelis are secular, and the truth is most diaspora Jews are secular as well!  It is about a tribal sense of connection, of being part of one ethnic identity, one large family.  That is also why I get so many emails from people that celebrate things like the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes.  As far as I know Episcopalians and Catholics don’t send emails to each other about how many members of their respective faith traditions have won Nobel Prizes.  But Jews take such pride in the accomplishments of other Jews, and in the same way feel ashamed when a fellow Jews does something terrible – I am sure we all remember the name Bernie Madoff.  And we’ve all done this – you hear about someone in the news who has done something horrible and the first thing you think is ‘oy I hope that person is not Jewish!’  Even today, 3000 years after the people asked for a king, Jewish tribal identity stays strong.

     In fact, I would argue it is growing even stronger.  If the much talked about Pew Study from last year about Jewish identity showed anything, it showed that Jews are more likely today to identify tribally as Jewish rather than religiously.  In fact religious behaviors were at the very bottom of the list in virtually every statistical category in the study – while tribal factors, like shared culture, remembering the Holocaust – and Jewish humor – were towards the top.

     My colleague Rabbi Sid Schwarz from Washington has argued that more and more Jews are dividing up into two categories – there are tribal Jews and covenantal Jews.  Tribal Jews focus on Israel, they go to the AIPAC convention, they may have strong ties to the Federation, they eat bagels and lox, they know what is happening in the Jewish community, they give to Jewish causes, they watch Seinfeld and old reruns of Woody Allen movies, they feel great pride when a Jew wins a Nobel Prize.  But religion is by and large unimportant to them.  They may come for HHD services in the fall, they probably light a menorah during Hanukah and go to a Passover seder, but for the most part they live entirely secular lives.

     Covenantal Jews are exactly the opposite.  They focus on religious life, their Judaism is centered more around a synagogue than it is the Federation or AIPAC, they are personally observant, regular shul attenders, feel a sense of being commanded religiously, perhaps observe Shabbat and keep kosher.  Their concern is more with the covenant between God and Israel than it is with the connection between them and their fellow Jews.

     Of course the truth is in real life people don’t break down into easily identifiable categories.  Much more commonly people are some mix of the above, a certain percentage of their Jewish energy and identity is played out tribally, another percentage plays out covenantally.  What does seem to be true is that the percentages are changing – the importance of tribal identity is clearly growing rapidly, while the sense of covenantal identity is diminishing.  What we have to be careful of is focusing so much on one that we forget about the other.  In some ways it is precisely the interplay between the two that makes Jewish life unique – we are both a faith tradition and an ethnic identity.  That is a dynamic that no acronym can capture – instead it must be lived every day, in all of its complexity – and any person who lives Jewish life that way will without question be an MOT – a full fledged member of the tribe – 


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The Bible’s Liberal Politics

Each year on Christmas Day the New York Times runs a short phrase at the top of its front page, in green lettering:  Its Christmas – Remember the Neediest.  This is a reflection of a traditional religious idea – on days that are set aside to remember and reflect, to be glad and grateful, to be sensitive to the blessings we have in life, we should remember those less fortunate, and in that remembering make sure to do something to help improve their lot in life.

In Judaism this value can be seen in the connection of holiday celebrations and the giving of charity (צדקה).  On Purim and Passover we are expected to give to the needy, and in modern times the High Holy Day period has become one connected to a variety of charitable appeals, from the synagogue’s annual to Israel Bonds and just about everything in between.

This impulse without question goes back to the Bible itself.  In the Hebrew Bible we are warned again and again to care for the marginalized – the orphan, widow, and stranger.  Those who cannot care for themselves, who need some extra help to live a proper and dignified life.  It is ironic that in today’s polarized political climate, with so many conservative groups so closely identifying with the Bible and their understanding of its values, the initial impulse of the text was both progressive and what we would call today ‘liberal.’

Consider the following biblical concepts:  there should be a sliding scale fee for poor people who need to access the sacrificial system in Jerusalem (Leviticus 5);  financial transactions should be legislated and regulated (in terms of charging interest (Exodus 22 and other places) and in terms of the full remission of debt every 50 years (Leviticus 25)); a persons of means is commanded to return an item a poor person gave them as a loan guarantee if the item is essential to that person’s dignity and comfort (Deuteronomy 24); and the list could go on and on.  On the macro level, it is clear that one of the Hebrew Bible’s overarching concerns is the prevention of a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the haves and the have-nots.

As holidays come and go in our various faith traditions, we are reminded in our celebration of those days to not forget the needy.  The Bible would extend that message, for in its hundreds of laws as well as in its central values is a message – the needy should not only be remembered on sacred days, but on every day.

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The Real Hunger Games

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the Hunger Games:  Catching Fire continues to be one of the highest grossing movies of the season, the New York Times this week ran an article about the need that reality show producers feel to continue to ratchet up the stakes of their televised ‘games.’  The Times article reported that while filming a French version of the popular American show Survivor a contestant was killed.  We are still a bit too civilized to show the actual death on air, but for how long?  The sad truth is that the death will raise the show’s ratings, not the opposite.  It seems that the gap between Suzanne Collins’ (author of the Hunger Games trilogy) fictionalized future world where the government uses televised death games to keep a restive population under control and our own present day is not that great after all.  Anybody out there surprised?

And as I type this the NFL, our true modern gladiator sport, is wrapping up its regular season and preparing the country for the playoffs.  In a season where the public eye has turned more and more towards the dangers of the game, how debilitating it is for so many players long term, and the immediate danger of repeat concussions, the public appetite for football has never been higher.  Revenues for the league are expected to top the 25 billion dollar mark this year (yes that is with a ‘b’), and the dark secret is that as we cover our eyes to avoid watching the horrendous collisions on the field we spread our fingers so as not to miss a single big hit.  

As a rabbi working in Baltimore (and a football fan in my own right) I know that the true religion in town takes place in a cathedral filled with 70,000 screaming fans dressed in purple on Sunday afternoons.  But I also know that long ago Judaism eschewed the trial by fire of the arena for battles of the intellect.  In many other ancient cultures the coming of age ritual was of a physical nature – the young man had to survive alone in the wilderness for a period of time, or go on his first hunt.  Judaism transformed the physical trial to a ritual of the mind and spirit, studying sacred text and publicly participating in a communal service.  Note there are no winners and losers – instead, success is predicated on a young person’s willingness to put in the time and effort, by doing so showing him or herself, and the community, that Judaism will be a guiding force in that young person’s life.

Without question one of the reasons the NFL has become so popular is that our children are raised on sports from a young age, many of them from the time they are 3 or 4 years old.  It is no accident that as religion becomes less and less popular, sports becomes a more and more important part of family life.  In conversations I have with parents wrestling with this tension I always remind them of one fundamental fact:  almost without exception their children will not be playing sports in any serious way after they are 20 or so years old;  but they will be Jewish for the rest of their lives.

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Me and My Smartphone

If you spend any time sitting in meetings you’ve seen the following:  ‘x’ number of people sitting around a large table;  about half of them at any given time looking down into their laps, where they hold a smartphone in their hands;  they scan email, sometimes respond to it, send a text or two, probably check their FaceBook page.  They’ll return their attention to the meeting for a bit, and after a few minutes go by, they are back to their phones.  It is compulsive, as if they can’t NOT look at their phones.  I actually once saw a man at a meeting who had his smartphone in the inside pocket of his blazer.  His hand reached for it, then he willfully put his hand back on the table.  A minute or so later his hand was again making its way toward the pocket, but again he put brought it back to the table.  Finally, after another minute, the hand went into the pocket, pulled out the phone, and his eyes were locked on the screen.  Third time is the charm.

This is more than habitual, it is addictive, it is emotional.  We are so wired into technology that we don’t even know it.  It is incredible to think that the very first iPhone came onto the market just under 6 years ago!  From the technology not even existing to our hands literally twitching when not holding our phones, all in such a short period of time.  We all know we are not going back.  But none of us know where we are going.

In a new film called ‘Her’ the director Spike Jonze show us one possible destination.  The movie is about a lonely man who is the early adaptor of a new computer/smartphone operating system.  It is eerily responsive to his needs, seemingly understanding what he wants before he does himself.  The film is being billed as an offbeat love story – man finally meets his basheirt, she just happens to be his phone!

Sound preposterous?  Maybe not so much.  Have you ever been in someone’s car listening to them talk to the GPS?  “Why did you take me this way?!  Didn’t you know there was traffic?”  I was a little spooked myself when I started using the new IOS on my iPhone.  One morning I woke it up to check the weather before walking the dog.  There was a message on the home screen:  ‘The temperature is 38 degrees.  It will take you about 16 minutes to drive to work right now.’  The problem is I never told it where I work!

The point of the new Spike Jonze film isn’t that we are becoming more and more connected to our computers and phones.  The point is that as we become more and more connected to our phones, we become less and less connected to each other.  Why bother to face the challenges of a relationship with a real person, which can be messy, even painful sometimes?  After all if your phone knows you better than any person can, if your phone is attentive only to your needs and has no needs of its own, why would you want people anyway?

Imagine a Betty Ford clinic for phone addicts.  The well to do travel from distant points to recover some sense of autonomy, to figure out a way to just say no and put the phone down.  Sound preposterous?  There was a reason that Blackberry (z”l) phones were called ‘crackberries.’

Of course Judaism has a built in answer – Shabbat.  Take a day out of your week and leave the phone at home.  Preferably in a drawer, out of sight if not out of mind.  It is a zen idea – by disconnecting, you connect to things that are more important.  Family and friends.  Soul and spirit.  Deeper wisdom and a greater God.  Easy to do?  No way, at least not anymore.  We are in too deep.  Hands will be twitching.  But in the end I think it will prove a relief.  Lifting our eyes from our phones more often, we’ll not only see each other better, but the world around us as well.

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