Tag Archives: Orthodox Judaism

Limiting God

There has been a bit of an uproar (maybe more than a bit) in the worldwide Jewish community over the Netanyahu administration’s recent decision to freeze plans to establish a mixed prayer space near the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem.  Liberal Jewish groups have long argued that the sacred site belongs to all Jews, not just those from the Orthodox world, and so should be open to various styles of worship, to include men and women praying together, and women leading prayer and reading from the Torah.  A year and a half ago it seemed as if this long held goal was about be realized when an agreement was hammered out between Netanyahu’s government and  various Jewish groups.  Suspiciously (although perhaps not surprisingly) the agreement was never put into action, with various and sundry excuses offered as to why things were taking so long.  Then last week the announcement was made – the idea was being ‘shelved.’

Netanyahu could care less about the Wall as religious artifact and sacred site.  If anything, it signifies to him the sovereignty of the state.  But he is beholden to the Orthodox members of his governing coalition, and so, pressed to mollify them, he is allowing the Kotel to essentially be held hostage.  This political dynamic has been extensively analyzed over the last few days, and a quick Google search will turn up any number of articles describing it.

So I would like to focus for a moment on another issue, namely that by suggesting there is only one way to ‘do the Kotel’ the Orthodox community is in fact limiting God.  Essentially what they are saying is this:  God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the cosmic Creator of the entire universe, and yet God is also (you’ll please excuse the anthropomorphism) small minded.  That in all of God’s vast power and knowledge God can only accept one narrow path of human behavior in terms of being worshipped.

This is irrational.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  God, in all of God’s vast power, can only accept one way of worship?  Instead, doesn’t it make God greater to understand that God can accept many ways of worship?  That there are a variety of pathways that will ultimately lead to God?  Some are Jewish, some are not.  Even within Judaism, there are multiple pathways.  And if we stop to think about it, wouldn’t we imagine that God is ‘big’ enough to accept them all?

It is true, to a certain extent, and maybe even entirely, that God is inscrutable.  I don’t pretend to know God’s will, and I struggle to understand what God demands of me, of my actions,  of my day to day life.  But I do know that the God I am in relationship with is מי שאמר והיה העולם – the One Who spoke and the world came into being.  A vast force of power and mystery, open to all seekers.  From the 145th Psalm:  “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God in truth.”

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Joseph and the Virtues of Assimilation

Common wisdom has long held that assimilation grows stronger with each passing generation.  As an example, in my own family on my dad’s side, my Bubbe and Zaide were born in eastern Europe.  They grew up speaking Yiddish, lived in neighborhoods here in Baltimore where only Jews lived, had friendships only with Jews, kept kosher, as much as possible kept Shabbat, and were much more eastern-European-Jewish in terms of their culture and identity than they were American.  My dad – next generation – went to City College High.  He ran track there, became a passionate Orioles and Colts fan, went to college – the first in his family to do so.  He knew Hebrew – still does – because he went to a Zionist camp growing up and went to Hebrew high school 3 days a week.  But his identity was more American, his cultural comfort level was Sinatra and Broadway, not Yiddish theater.  He and my mother had no hesitation in terms of moving to a community in upstate New York where there were very few Jews, let alone Jewish neighborhoods to live in – something my Bubbe and Zaide found inconceivable.

Then you have my sister and my brother and me.  Certainly we knew we were Jewish growing up, we went to Hebrew school, my brother and I had b’nai mitzvah, all three of us continued our Jewish education into high school with confirmation.  On RH and YK we went to shul, occasionally had Shabbat dinner at home.  But we were secular Jews, and culturally we were entirely American.  Most of our friends were not Jewish.  My brother and I played varsity soccer, the only Jews on the team, my sister danced in the local dance company, again, as far as I remember the only Jew.   Judaism was a part of our identity, but growing up by no means was it the biggest or most important part.  And that is by and large the way we see it work in today’s Jewish community as well.  Each generation a little bit less intensely Jewish, a little bit more American.

Now you might expect that a rabbi finds a trend like that to be disturbing, and there is no question that increasing assimilation generation by generation creates very difficult challenges for those of us who work in the synagogue world and who care about Jewish life and community.  That being said, this morning I want to argue that assimilation is not only acceptable, but that it is actually necessary for the survival of Jewish community and possibly for the survival of Judaism itself.

Consider with me for a moment the three main characters in the book of Genesis – they are?  Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.  I am skipping over Isaac because the truth is he is a relatively minor character in the Genesis narratives.  And as important as the matriarchs are, the primary focus is on those three.  Lets start with Abraham.  He is the idealist, fiercely devoted to serving God, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his son in God’s service.  His relationship with God is the most important thing in his life, the one thing that defines him more than anything else.  He is generation number one.

Jacob, his grandson, is in a very different place with his religious life and identity.  He is the ‘God wrestler’, a person who struggles with faith and its importance in his life, not always sure of God’s attention or protection.  Jacob doesn’t entirely assimilate – his ethnic and religious identity is too strongly ingrained.  But he has serious doubts, and he does not wait around for God to take care of him.  Instead he uses his own intellect and cunning, his own strength and determination to navigate the challenges of his life.  Jacob believes if he doesn’t do it no one will do it for him – not even God.

Then we arrive at the next generation – Jacob’s son Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson.  And what do we find with Joseph?  He is by far the most assimilated character in the entire Torah.  Joseph has fully and completely integrated into Egyptian life and culture.  He has taken an Egyptian name, he has married an Egyptian woman, he works in the Egyptian government.  He has become so completely and thoroughly Egyptian that in this morning’s Torah portion, after multiple interactions with his own brothers, he finally has to actually say to them – “Hey!  Wake up!  This person you’ve been talking to now off and on for months – face to face, close up – its me!  Its Joseph!”  As it says in this morning’s portion – אני יוסף אחיכם – I am Joseph your brother!!

But as assimilated as Joseph is – as Egyptian as he has become – it is he who assures the future of the Jewish people.  Joseph is the one who brings his brothers and father to Egypt, enabling them to survive the famine.  It is Joseph who honors his father by making sure he is buried in the land of Israel.  And interestingly enough, it is Joseph who makes sure to bring his children, who must be even more Egyptian than he is, to Jacob for a blessing and a last encounter with the great patriarch of early Jewish life.

Now I don’t know if anyone reads the Forward any more.  I still take a glance through it when it comes out if I have the time.  This week there was an article that described current demographic trends in the Jewish community, and showed that the overall percentage of Jews who are Orthodox is rapidly growing.  If you take the Jewish community and divide it into three age ranges – 56 and older, 28-45, and 17 and younger, this is what you see:  Jews 56 and older %5 are Orthodox – that is it!  In the 28-45 age range that percentage grows significantly – %15 of Jews between the ages of 28-45 are Orthodox.  But then you get to 17 and younger and the number grows even more dramatically – %27 in that age range are Orthodox!

You might look at those numbers and think ‘this is good for the Jews,’ because the community will more and more be made up of Orthodox Jews, who are observant, knowledgable and devoted to their faith.  Those Jews should be able to transmit a sense of the importance of Judaism and the tradition to their children and grandchildren, and ensure a process of continuity for the Jewish people for generations to come.  Good for the Jews, right?

But I think there is also a potential problem in that growing percentage of Orthodox Jews, namely this:  in the Orthodox community you don’t have any Josephs.  You don’t have people who are fully assimilated and integrated into American life and culture.  And I would argue that for the Jewish community to be safe and sound and successful, we  need to have some Josephs out there.  We need people who know they are Jewish, but who are comfortable and fully integrated in the secular world.  We need people who have non-Jewish friends and business contacts.  We need people who feel just as comfortable in the non-Jewish world as they do in the Jewish world.  We need Jews involved in government, the sciences, the arts, the media, the entertainment world.  And by and large those Jews are not going to come from the Orthodox community, which if anything is becoming more insular, and more distant and cut off from the secular world.

So do we need to worry about assimilation?  We do – it IS growing, and it does present us with greater and greater challenges in terms of maintaining our identity and traditions and the continuity of our faith.  And the increase in the Orthodox population will help to address those challenges.  But we should also remember that assimilation should be celebrated, that it is symbol of the Jewish community’s success, and that without it we would simply not be where we are today.  May we continue from strength to strength for generations to come –

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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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Strangers in a Strange Land

What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.

The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.

Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.

Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.

Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.

Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.

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Gordis Redux – Whither Conservative Judaism?

      Rabbi Danny Gordis’ recent article Requiem for the Conservative Movement, an analysis/reflection on the results of the Pew Study vis a vis Conservative Judaism, created a veritable firestorm of staunch defenses of the Movement from its leaders, thinkers, and rabbis.  In a follow up piece from last week, Gordis responds to the responders, or as he calls them, his ‘interlocutors.’  In the course of a lengthy article (almost twice the length of his original piece) he does his best to answer his critics, and also attempts to reinforce some of the ideas from his original ‘requiem.’  There are two fundamental flaws in his argument, but also one essential truth.  First the  flaws.

     The first comes from Gordis’ misunderstanding of what he calls ‘aspirational’ Judaism.  By this he means the challenge that a faith tradition should present to its members to live more engaged and meaningful lives.  A religion should be demanding, not acquiescing;  it should expect its members to grow in soul (a David Wolpe phrase), not remain on a level spiritual plane.  All of this is true, and you would be hard pressed to find any religious leader from any faith tradition that would disagree.  Gordis’ mistake is that he takes the idea of aspirational religious life and he connects it to halachah, Jewish law.  These ideas may be connected at times, but they do not need to be, and a faith tradition can be highly aspirational while having very little interest in a legalistic approach to religious life.  I would argue that Conservative Judaism is highly aspirational.  It encourages its members to study more, to come to services more, even to observe more seriously, and most importantly to use classic Jewish values like the importance of giving charity and the idea that all humans are created in the image of God as guiding values.  But to believe that the Movement’s less stringent views of driving on Shabbat and eating out in a restaurant have had a negative impact on the Jews in the pews is simply misguided.  The fact is the vast majority of Conservative Jews don’t even have these issues on their radar screens, so how can they ever be ‘aspirational’ for people?

     The second flaw in Gordis’ thinking comes from the title of his rejoinder, ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’  This is what he describes as the gap between where a person is and where they feel they should be.  He understands Orthodox Judaism as the movement most invested in the idea of cognitive dissonance, and believes that is one of the reasons why Orthdoxy is growing while Conservative Judaism is shrinking.  Knowing some of what goes on in the mainstream Orthodox community these days it seems to me as if the opposite is true.  Most Orthodox rabbis, and many Orthodox Jews, are not at all comfortable with ‘cognitive dissonance.’  Instead, as Orthodoxy’s lean to the right continues, it is less and less comfortable with ideas, values, and narratives that do not reflect the strictest definition of how one should practice and even what one should think.  Gordis imagines, I guess, that many within Orthodoxy today are mini-Soloveitchiks, ready and able to keep in their minds the tension between Orthodox dogma and modern thought.  The truth is there are a handful pockets where this kind of dynamic exists today, but YU is no longer one of them.  They are few and far between, and the fact that rabbis ordained at such places as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah have trouble being recognized as rabbis in many Orthodox communities is all you need to know.  For all of the Orthodox community’s passion, and its many strengths, cognitive dissonance is simply not its forte.  

     Which brings me to the one essential truth in Gordis’ new argument.  He writes that in all of the responses to his initial ‘eulogy’ of the Conservative Movement, there were defenses of what Conservative Judaism is and has been, but there were not suggestions as to what it should be.  I am afraid that by and large he is correct.  The defenses of the Movement have been intelligently and in some cases passionately stated.  They have acknowledged, with complete intellectual integrity, the Movement’s flaws while trumpeting its success, of which there are many.  But there is not a sense, as you read through the responses, that anyone has a clear idea of what should be done and of how we should change.  The status quo may be high quality, but if so it is a high quality product in which fewer and fewer Jews are choosing to invest.  Perhaps it is time to try to get a sense of why that is the case, and in so doing to begin a conversation about what we can change to make a difference in the years to come, not holding on and fading away, but growing and glowing brighter.

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