My colleague and friend Rabbi Elyse Frishman, being detained by Israeli Police for wearing a Tallit at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. She is the editor of our Reform Prayer Book, Mishkan T’fillah. This must change!
Following this incident, which occurred just before the last night of Hanukkah 2012, Haartez published an op-ed by Rabbi Frishman recounting her experience. She writes, in part:
We began to move through security. All of us wore our prayer shawls and carried our prayer books. There were rumors: No women permitted to bring prayer books or prayer shawls today! Contrary to rumor, prayer books were permitted – but for the first time, no prayer shawls. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that women could not have prayer shawls today. Security began to confiscate them. Some men walked in with prayer shawls. Most women had theirs removed.
There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a prayer shawl. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”
We gathered quietly at the rear of the Western Wall to pray. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my prayer shawl, but I’m afraid.”
Two police officers walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the prayer shawl.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.”
I’ve had the pleasure participating in Christian-Jewish dialogue my entire career. In particular here in Mobile, Alabama for the last 25 years I have been a part of the oldest continually active lay led Christian-Jewish dialogue in existence in United States. More recently we have started a Trialogue group between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities.
Over the years I’ve learned from the excellent intellectual presentations made by national and international scholars visiting our community. There is one serious problem however: the people who attend dialogue are invariably not the people who most need to attend these programs. The regular attendees are open-minded people from every religious denomination who are generally not convinced of the inerrancy of their respective traditions. They are open to learning about other faiths and ideas. They are a minority of the religious community.
The people who would benefit most by attending these programs rarely set foot in the door of either a church, mosque, or synagogue to hear such a program. Why will they not attend? Invariably they are members of a more fundamentalist denomination of their particular faith group, who simply put, know the truth. They have the religious answers and feel no need whatsoever to hear other people’s opinions about matters for which they are so very sure. When you possess absolute truth why waste your time listening to other people’s misguided opinions?
The people who most need to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the diversity of religion in our great country have no interest whatsoever in doing exactly that. That is the “elephant in the room” of interfaith relations.
One solution might be project oriented. In our diversity we can find unity in projects of service, which might have the possibility of bringing diverse communities together. Joint projects on topics such as under education, homelessness, poverty, and social justice to name only a few, might if carefully orchestrated become grounds for building relations. Relationship and conversation is where we must start, and at present there is little of either between liberal and fundamentalist denominations of any faith group.
Whether dialogue groups around the country have the enthusiasm, energy, and stamina to try to break down these age-old barriers is another story. It would be the true tough work of interfaith relations, but more importantly it would be where the greatest dividends could accrue. It is nice and lovely to talk with like-minded liberal interpreters of all religious traditions but it never crosses the bridge into the untouched world of fundamentalism. Maybe we should try.
Debating what movie to watch Saturday night, I was glad we did not follow A O Scott’s review in the New York Times of Life of Pi. IMBD rated it quite highly so we went with that opinion.
I am certainly thankful we went with the latter. Having studied religion at Berkeley, I found the entire movie a delight of open-minded religious synergism, that I only wished was shared by more people in the world. Unfortunately it is not, and what is more world opinion seems to be only intensifying in the opposite direction toward greater religious ethnocentricity.
See the movie for the delightful play of cinematography and metaphor. It is the story of Pi, who as a boy coming from a Hindu background, finds the god Jesus in a church, and explores Islam. He finds kindness from a Buddhist sailor, as the family embarks on an ill-fated freighter journey with the family’s zoo in tow. They cross the Pacific on a ship fascinatingly called Tsimtsum. Unfortunately Tsimtsum sinks. To many this name would mean nothing, or they would guess it is Japanese, coming from the freighter’s country of origin.
Tsimtsum however comes from the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition popularized in the 16th century. It explains that tradition’s teaching on cosmology: the Infinite One, Ein Sof, at one time filled all, but in an act of self contraction, made room for the world as we know, filled with both good and evil, and free will. It is a nice conception that actually could in some ways be related to modern theories of cosmology such as variants of the big bang. When I saw that name Tsimtsum, I was pleased. The bad news is the ship sinks. The symbolism is delightfully open-ended.
See the movie, and pay attention to the symbols, at least with more detail than the NY Times. If only world religions, and more importantly their often radicalized followers, could learn to reason with the mind of Pi.
I carefully read the “Forum for the Future” on the RJ blog – it was well written and deserves all of our attention. Two messages rang clear throughout all the writings: these devoted young Jewish leaders are not joining congregations; however they are searching long and hard for Jewish community. Clearly they are not finding the community they want within established congregations which are largely designed for an older member. The entrée to membership has most often been the question, how are we going to educate our children, an irrelevant one for most 20 somethings.
Though a singularly focused 20 something with deep commitment to Judaism might want serious Jewish study, he or she is probably not going to be comfortable studying with 50-year-olds and older. There are generational differences.
Each congregation needs to spearhead a chavurah community for the young adults within their midst. Every congregation can proactively do this with larger congregations forming multiple units of these artificial communities. This is exactly what the young people are writing about: searching for community and many of them are finding it within the communities they themselves are creating. It is an idea first popularized in the 1960s and gained strength in the 70s and 80s, but now not so much talked about. Every congregation could reach out like fingers into the community to establish these networks to bring our 20 and 30 somethings together. Synagogues need to be creating these communities as part of our outreach. Exactly what they would do within their various chavurot would be up to each of autonomous group: from a Shabbat dinner together to an afternoon of hiking. The important thing is the Jewish bonds would be created and strengthened, and communities would be built, albeit small ones.
Will these people be members of the congregation? While they are in their 20s and early 30s we should give away a membership to anyone who wants it while they are placed within these chavurot. The model should be similar to what many rock groups do today: they give away their music on the Internet precisely because if they didn’t it would be stolen anyway. They have a backloaded financially viable model through their concerts and the sale of merchandise. Similarly we give everything away to our 20 and 30-year-olds as we involve them in these chavurah faith communities, and develop commitment and loyalty which will evolve as they mature. Later on, if the relationships are strong, as they create families and move through the cycles of life they will support congregations.
Who will pay for all this and who will run it? It doesn’t take all that much to organize a chavurah. I personally have organized many in my career and it only takes a few hours’ time at the initial meeting and the foresight to help pick a few charismatic leaders who are on board with the task. If the group finds common purpose it will sustain itself and flourish.
The chavurah movement is an old idea that needs to be carefully promoted once again by each local synagogue to reach our young people.
Among the many joys of having children is learning what a new generation appreciates. I’ve always been a music lover of all genres. Lately whenever I drive with either of my two medical school student 20 something sons, they enjoy listening to techno on their playlist. The first time I heard it I found it annoying and redundant. The second time I heard it I just found it redundant. Then after listening to it a third time in the car, I began to appreciate the nuances in the structure and certainly the rhythm. Clearly this is great dance music. Though I grew up as a relative purist playing both classical and rock guitar, computer-generated music might one day become dominant.
Why not use techno music liturgically? In many parts of the country, certainly the big cities, this is the favorite genre of music for the 20 and 30 somethings. This is what they’re listening to in the clubs while I am fast asleep. With its trancelike sound it would work particularly well with the mantras of Judaism: the Shema, the Barchu, and naturally repetitive songs like the Oseh shalom. A quick Google of Jewish techno music returns predominantly Orthodox material, a little of Matisyahu, and some poking fun of Judaism. I could not find any Reform Jewish music at the top of the Google list.
We are desperately trying to reach the often lost generation of Judaism: those from teenage years through the 30s. Why not try updating our Reform Jewish playlist to make worship a little more exciting. Cantors, songwriters, and musicians: can you create some liturgical techno? While you’re at it, can you write any new Jewish music at all for the High Holidays? There doesn’t seem to be much in the works and it is needed.
I’ve come to the conclusion we need to change the date of Simchat Torah.
Our Jewish festivals must be re-envisioned as inspirational community gatherings of joyful spiritual Jewish celebration. Every single festival needs to be a time of great community involvement and meaning. To not maximize that possibility is a mistake, which can easily be fixed.
Here are the basics. Though the pilgrimage festivals originally had agrarian roots, we are no longer an agrarian people. Exactly how many Jewish farmers do you know? With all due respect to the kibbutz movement in Israel, and to the fact I have my own garden which I tend to fastidiously, and we have a beautiful Temple garden to inspire our Temple families with the beauty of nature, we are no longer an agrarian society. There was a time when Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth and Shimini Atzeret were all one interconnected holiday celebration tied in with the fall harvest.
Now if you’ve ever spent time picking produce, and I actually have experience working for one week in a kibbutz in Israel picking pears, you know there is great celebration when you are done with the terribly arduous labor. No question concluding the harvest is reason for great celebration. Indeed Succoth was considered the greatest of all celebrations and festivals in the Jewish liturgical calendar, called “The Holiday” – I can certainly understand that having worked 10 hours a day picking pears.
Today in our congregation we have made Succoth an inspirational Festival, not one based on our concluding the harvest, but rather rethought as a time of Thanksgiving for our own personal harvests and the beauty and fragility of our lives in the shadow of God’s goodness. We make it a true Festival: from rock music to great food and fellowship. Similarly Chanukah, though not a biblical Festival, speaks to our people and brings out large crowds for a festive service and dinner. Passover touches the hearts and souls of our members. Shavuot has already been rethought by our early reform leaders and re-created as Shavuot confirmation.
But Simchat Torah is a different, and much later Festival. Its origins only date to the 11th century CE, so in Jewish history it is a new holiday. Furthermore, for many reform congregations it is a celebration of consecration when we formally welcome our young people into the cycle of learning.
Torah and the love of learning are two of Judaism’s greatest values and gifts to the world. This is a very big deal. We need to be celebrating properly, joyously, maximizing our attendance, and letting the world know the beauty and genius of Torah.
Let us move the celebration of Simchat Torah to a date 30 days after the conclusion of Succoth, well separated from the High Holy Day season. Haven’t you heard what they did with Presidents’ Day? We can celebrate the Torah in November by creating a huge family and even community celebration. Five years ago we started an innovative tutoring program to help one of our local public schools by our members regularly reaching out to underachieving children, to help them develop a love of learning. Judaism’s love of Torah, education, and knowledge needs to be shared with the world, and this too can be recognized on Simchat Torah. Truth be told, we must create exciting, and well attended meaningful Jewish holidays. If everyone just came to Temple for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and a Succoth festival, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to return one week later. So solve the problem – let’s move the date – and honor the celebration of Torah and Jewish learning with as many people as possible in a way that it deserves.
The Torah, which contains the first five books of the Bible, is the most realistic of books: every character is described without any white-washing of the facts, in real human terms with warts and all. Despite their blemishes, the Torah is filled with heroes and heroines, many whom we can clearly say are role models for living. Noah is one exception to the long line of biblical leaders.
The rabbis were ambivalent about Noah. By the way in the chronology of the Bible Noah was not Jewish, for Abraham was the first Jew, the first monotheist.
What does Noah do wrong? He is uninvolved in saving his generation. God tells him the Earth is going be destroyed in a flood. Does Noah question God; does Noah do anything at all to save the world? No! He simply does what must be done to save himself and his family.
Does that sound familiar? We simply do what has to be done to save ourselves and we stop right there.
Contrast Noah with Abraham, who fought with God to save even the people of Sodom; and Moses, who repeatedly intervened to save the people of Israel.
It was the world’s lack of involvement that allowed the Holocaust to occur. The sin of silence is still alive today, as it has always been. Uninvolvement is the easy way out, not only for nations and communities, but for each of us. When we stop caring, every institution involved suffers from our religious institutions to the public schools.
The French writer, Albert Camus, tells of a successful lawyer who sees a woman drowning, but does nothing. Years later, he is ruined and he asks himself, “What happened to you one night on the banks of the Seine, you who managed never to risk your life? O, young woman! Throw yourself into the water again, so that I may have a second chance to save us both.”
May we learn from Noah’s failings: involve yourself that your life might make a difference in the time God gives us.