Monday, December 15, 2008

For The Times They Are A Changin’

I got a great compliment from my daughter a few days ago. She said that I was more technologically savvy than most other Rabbis. I write blogs, I have a website, I can navigate the web and I understand social networking and messaging. Most of the time, my daughter, the soon to be Rabbi, thinks that I don’t understand what Jews today want so I am happy when she admits that there are things that I do right in my rabbinate.

Most of our discussions focus on young, professional Jews and their needs and why the usual synagogue experience just doesn’t cut it. I have to admit that she is usually right. She is a “member” of Kehillat Hadar, the “independent” minyan here in New York City. She shares with me the concerns of its leadership core and how they are seeking out new answers to the issues that the Minyan encounters. There can be hundreds of young Jews at Shabbat Services in the basement of the church in which they meet.

I am member of Anshe Chesed. It is the home of several minyanim, each with its own flavor and style. And yet, Hadar is not part of their constellation, and the members of each minyan at Anshe Chesed are not attracting the same demographic. Shabbat at Anshe Chesed is dynamic and participatory. Still it is not enough to attract the Jewish Young Professionals that frequent Hadar. I know that young Jewish professionals are not the entire Jewish community. There are many different age and denominational groups in Judaism, but there is a sense in the larger community that without the young Jews, the institutions will have a limited lifespan.

So my colleagues, some older, some younger, bemoan the fact that synagogues are not what they used to be. Cantors are struggling with ritual music. Sisterhood and Men’s Clubs can’t seem to attract new leadership. Synagogue boards are aging and young people are not yet ready to take on the challenge of running and fundraising for a congregation. Clearly there is a major transformation in synagogue life that is taking place, and Rabbis, Cantors and Synagogue Leadership ignore it at their own peril.

It is not that there was no warning about the changes. Demographics were the first indication that things were going to be different soon. Young Jews were marrying later, ten years later, and having children ten years later. They were not moving to the suburbs but were staying in urban downtown apartments so they could be near work and the nightlife.

Star and Synagogue 2000/3000 started ten years ago to experiment with different models of congregational life and few paid any attention. Even today, I know colleagues who see the good things that have come from their work, but insist that “It could never work here.”
My friend and colleague Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria, VA once admonished Rabbis who were bemoaning the fact that their synagogues were not the kind of places they would want to join if they were free to join a synagogue. He told them that if they were unhappy with their congregation then they needed to make the changes necessary to make it the kind of place where they would be proud to pray. Many have not heeded his advice.

I have written about Conservative congregations who are struggling with the question of whether or not to have instrumental music at Shabbat Services. It is the wrong question. The real issue is not whether or not to have instruments but the kind of music they are playing. If the music is right, it will not matter whether or not there are instruments. Unfortunately the music remains the same and even older Jews find themselves less interested in services.

I was in a discussion with a friend the other day about the big three auto makers who need a loan from the Federal Government but it is looking like they will not get it all. They have been behind the curve for so many years that so many people would rather they fail and start the entire auto industry over again. Even with all the people who would be out of work, it would be better for them to fail than to have people keep working at jobs that are doomed to the dustbin of history. My friend noted that the lesson here is not just for the auto industry. It is a story that we need to be aware of in the Jewish community as well. The “big three” sell cars nobody wants; we are selling a faith that people need but packaging it, Pro Israel, fight anti-Semitism, we are all responsible for each other, we need to stand together, etc., with slogans that just don’t cut it anymore for young Jews. There is a major change going on in Jewish life and if we Rabbis can’t change, if the community can’t change, then we will fade into history.

At least the car companies took surveys to see what the coveted young demographic wanted in a car. We may think that many of the newer models are ugly and strange, but that is what sells to the people they are targeting. We are still targeting our congregations to married couples with children. We fail when it comes to younger singles and married without children. We also fail when it comes to intermarried couples, single Jews by choice, divorced families, blended families, single seniors and anyone with a Jewish education beyond Hebrew School.

Many congregations were formed by founders who worked hard for many years to get the synagogue right where they wanted it and then they froze it in place as they aged. It is upsetting, I know, to wake up one morning and find that the music you love, the music you grew up with, the music that drove your parents crazy and the music where you memorized every lyric and guitar chord, now being played on the “oldies station”. What ‘s the matter with kids today that they don’t appreciate “good music” anymore? “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? What’s the matter with kids today?” (That is a quote from a musical that is so outdated it is not even a candidate for a revival).

We Rabbis and lay leadership know what we need to do. We need to face the frontier that is before us and mold our congregations for the age and territory that lie ahead. First and foremost on the list is social action programming. We trained our children to fill their lives with social action and community service. Now they are in the workforce and are still looking for ways to make a difference in the world. Don’t expect young Jews to come to administrative meetings, house committee meetings, preschool or religious school parent meetings. They want to make a difference in their lives and if our congregations are not ready to make a difference, they will go where there are Jews who are out there making the world a better place.

Second are changes to worship. Forget pews and facing the front. Try movable chairs set where those in the congregation can see other worshipers. These graduates of day schools and Ramah know nusach but they want different melodies. Carlbach tunes work because it is the same melody over and over, so it is easy to learn. It ends with La-la-la so one can sing and not know Hebrew. It is often upbeat in tempo but can be slow and spiritual. Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman have been doing this for years as well as some lesser known songwriters. A Cantor today needs to be a bit of a composer, and the service need not be the same every week, it need not be led by the same people every week and should reflect what is going on in the wider world. The time a service begins or ends less relevant. It only needs to be engaging to those who come .

Beyond this there are many other changes that need to be made. Forget websites that open up to a picture of a building. Home pages should have pictures of people having fun. Websites must be updated weekly and have up to the minute information. It should be possible to sign up for a program and even pay for it online. You can mail notices to seniors, but young people want their messages by email. Don’t even bother with a monthly bulletin in print. Adult Education classes should be recorded and placed as podcasts on the website, for those who missed, in a timely fashion. Even better, video the class and post it as a webcast. Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators need to use blogs and the web to stay in touch and teach modern Jews. Event pictures and video should be posted on the web within days if not hours. And why not have a section of the synagogue website for members only?

How many congregations have free “wifi” in the lobby or in a meeting room so waiting parents can use their laptops while they wait for children in lessons? How many synagogues serve good coffee? And we wonder why our members are at the local coffee shop and not in shul? Ron Wolfson and the Synagogue 3000 team keep asking us why it is so hard for newcomers to find their way around an unfamiliar synagogue. Where are our greeters? Where are our nametags so our members can learn one another’s names? Where is the signage that will help visitors find their way to the sanctuary and the restroom? Do we even mark the front door and the office door for those unfamiliar or do we make them walk around the building looking for the entrance? Do we greet people at the door or do we wait until they find the sanctuary before someone says “hello”?

Do congregants share information online through a listserv? Is there a social network group so they can see which friends will be attending a program this week. Do we tell our congregation what we will be offering or do we talk to our congregants about what they need and help them organize the right group around that need?

Jews today have choices, not just the young Jews, but all Jews. We offer something with meaning and purpose to fill a life that can be so empty at times. With all the internet connections, people are lonely and want to fill their time with something that is not vapid entertainment (vapid entertainment has its uses, but nobody wants to spend all day there. Jews today want to know how Israel treats its Arab citizens and Israel’s gay/lesbian community as well. They want to know if Kosher food is more than killed properly, but maintains high moral standards. They are willing to give their money to causes that are really making the world a better place, and they will give their hands and feet to such causes as well. Do our synagogues have Habitat for Humanity work days? Do we go out and serve the hungry? Do we staff homeless shelters? Have we changed our communal light bulbs to compact fluorescents? Do we recycle at the synagogue? Does the leftover food go to the hungry? Where does the Jewish community stand in relation to Burma, Darfur, the war in the DRC and Iran? Do we send volunteers to read to children, to mentor at risk kids and help teachers in the classrooms? Are our celebrations filled with excess or is there a mitzvah project that gives it meaning beyond the walls of our community?
Have we gotten the message?
It is as old as Bob Dylan:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

The times indeed are a-changin’

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Going to the Chapel

Lisa Miller, who writes about religion for Newsweek magazine, wrote the cover story for the Dec. 15, 2008 magazine. If you would like to read the article yourself, you can find it by clicking on this link:

Let me put my biases on the table right up front. I used to write for student newspapers in high school and college. I seriously contemplated a career in journalism but got my “call” to be a rabbi and to the surprise of no one but myself, I was ordained as Rabbi and not hired as a reporter. I discovered in my writing days that religion is very hard for a journalist to cover. A reporter wants to know the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of a story. Religion just does not fit into those categories. I was very happy to see that Newsweek has a regular religion column, yet it is still pretty impossible to write a meaningful article on religion since it tends to sound like a sermon or a church bulletin rather than part of a real religious discussion between believers.
That being said, Ms. Miller tries to give a take on the gay marriage question by stating that, while religious conservatives use the Bible to claim that gay marriage is not permitted by the Bible, that actually the Bible can be used to make the claim that it supports gay marriage more than it opposes it. I think that she has a good concept, but her supporting arguments just don’t do the job she wants.

Most of her case is built on the fact that marriage in the Bible is a complicated institution, due to polygamy, surrogate mothering and the Christian Bible’s preference for staying unmarried and forbidding divorce. Gay marriage is just not mentioned. She also makes the claims that all the passages that support a ban on homosexual behavior, Genesis chapter one and Leviticus, chapters 19 and 20, are not problems because the Bible was not handed down by God; the command to have children does not take into account modern reproductive techniques; and, she asks, who follows the details listed in Leviticus anymore when it comes to haircuts and blood sacrifices? Therefore, why follow the prohibitions calling homosexuality an “abomination”?
She is of course absolutely right, but her arguments just miss the point. She is talking to those who don’t really believe in the message of the Bible anymore and for them, it really doesn’t matter what the Bible says. They just try and do what they think is “right” without depending on the Bible to help them in their search.

But for believers, who feel that no matter who wrote the Bible, it is still a divine document that has a profound message to people today, they will not have anything to do with the arguments she puts forward.

So let me help her a little.

As far as the Jewish Bible is concerned, there are plenty of married people in the Bible, but no mention at all as to what the rules of marriage are or should be. The only wedding we really have is Jacob’s and we learn that it lasted seven days and the bride wore a veil. It is not much to go on. Lots of people “take a wife” but the Bible never tells us how they did it. Ms. Miller is also correct that in the United States, marriage is a two part process. “Marriage in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two.” The civil part is easier to discuss. In this country, civil marriage is not really about love and devotion, even though we try and put this into the ceremony. A civil marriage license is about a financial union (what I call the "seamy underbelly" of marriage); it is about who will be responsible for the family debts and from what moment they will be eligible for the advantages of marriage. Ms. Miller writes, “As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights and inheritance.” These are not small benefits. Can we really blame gay couples for wanting to have these “civil rights” for their relationships as do the heterosexual couples in this country? To deny gay couples these rights seems to be just another form of bigotry, not really different than racial, sexual or religious bigotry that tries to exclude from society those we just don’t like. [It reminds me of a poem, THE HANGMAN by Maurice Ogden]. We can quibble about the name of the relationship, “marriage”, “partnerships” , “companionship”, “relationship”, but we fool ourselves if we deny health insurance, tax relief, child visitation and inheritance rights to those who are in a committed relationship but just not one that is heterosexual and we think that we are not prejudiced.

As for religious arguments, there are none that could not be refuted by some other believer. That is the nature of religion, that there are multiple paths to God and we find our way through a mixture of personal seeking and tradition received from our ancestors. No two people have exactly the same mix and those who are more conservative /traditional in their faith, will never find the way to allow homosexuality and gay relationships in their faith community. That is our reality. It is also what makes gay marriage/partnerships possible in this country.

We live in a nation that allows all faiths to practice without government intrusion. As long as civilly, gay men and women have the same rights as heterosexual couples, then any faith can impose on their faithful the rules of the community as they interpret them. We already know that some faiths are more open to gay relationships and are willing to bless these unions with appropriate rites. Those that don’t are free to practice alongside those who do. The GLBTQ communities will vote with their feet where they will choose to practice their faith. Communities that don’t welcome them will have to go on without them. Those that don’t provide for the spiritual needs of the gay community will find themselves poorer for excluding them. I can’t fault any denomination that holds a genuine theological problem with homosexuality, but I also can’t blame homosexuals who will prefer to have their spiritual needs met elsewhere. Gay couples should also be free to find a faith community that will welcome them and who will serve their spiritual needs. If there is no faith community that meets those needs or if they don’t have unfulfilled spiritual needs, there should be a civil ceremony to mark the creation of a partnership (or whatever one would like to call it); civil authorities should issue such a license and a proper procedure as to how to end it if the committed relationship fails.

What I can never condone is any faith community, or any civil community, that tries to make its own personal or theological preferences the only choice in our society. Leviticus is a big issue to the traditionalists in our society. Marriage is a sacred institution in some faith communities. There are some who feel that homosexuality is not a way to live a life of the spirit. These people have to have the respect and the understanding of those who disagree with them. But we need to adjust our laws and civil society so that we don’t leave anyone unprotected by law and disadvantaged because of prejudice. Let there be gay marriage/partnerships/committed relationships. And let these couples have the rights and responsibilities that go with it. This is a big country and we need to make room for everyone.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Welcome to My Nightmare

I have never been to Mumbai. I don’t know the landmarks of the city, the sights to see or the places that make the city unique. I had no interest in visiting Mumbai and while there is a Jewish community in India that is ancient and interesting, I never put India on my list of places I would like to visit. Acts of terror do not make me want to travel there nor does it discourage my visiting. I have never varied my travel plans based on a terrorist attack. I don’t believe that a small band of crazy people should prevent me from altering my plans. There have been terror attacks in Israel and England and I have traveled to both places. I now live in a city that was the site of a horrendous terror attack. To be honest, I fear more the random criminal acts that come with living in a large city than a planned terror attack.
All of this does not change my feelings for the people of Mumbai and my heart extends to all those from all over the world who have lost their loved ones in this terrible act of murder. Muslims and Hindus have attacked each other in India before but every citizen of that country understands that this time was different, so different that the Muslim community in India, the second largest Muslim community in the world, has indicated that they will not provide religious burial space for the terrorists who were killed by Indian security forces. The community has said that Islam is a religion of peace, and these killers violated that religious tenet so dramatically, that they do not deserve sacred burial space.
The Jewish Community was one of the targets of the attack. Five Jews were killed in the invasion of the Chabad House. They were not hostages. They were murdered as the terrorists entered the door. Only the quick thinking and bravery of a nanny saved the infant son of the Rabbi from certain death. Even children were not exempt from the killing.
Habad is not part of the old Jewish community of India. They are relatively newcomers to the small Jewish Community. They serve mostly the needs of visitors to Mumbai offering Jews a place to daven, kosher meals and some Jewish services. Over the years I have had my differences with Chabad, but those differences were not ones deserving death. That Jews were singled out and were killed is a great tragedy. And it is a tragedy that will now take its place in the long sordid list of all those who died because they were Jews. In the early hours of the attack, it was thought that the terrorists were targeting British, American and Jewish residents. It turns out that they killed everyone who crossed their path. But the Jews were targeted. They did not just find Jews in the street, they went looking for the Chabad house to kill the Jews who were inside.
Why does it always have to be open season on Jews? What is it that Jews do that is so radically different from the rest of society that our people have been sorted out for special killing? There is no logical or theological reason for such killing. It seems to be a baseline when it comes to bigotry. Kill the Jews and see if anyone notices or cares. Our people seem to be the canary in the coal mine, for if someone can get away with killing Jews, they will move on to killing other “undesirable” people. It is a situation that makes us Jews paranoid that any little thing that a Jew does wrong will ignite a pogrom, senseless killings and murder of women and children.
As a people, we are not so different from everyone else in society. We have our sinners and saints. We have geniuses and drunks. We have Nobel Prize winners and gangsters. We have our religious Jews and atheists. We are no different than any other people, only that we have a unique system of law and morality that at times sets us apart from those who have neither. Is it our Torah, our Laws or our morality that makes us so often the target of hatred and violence? Is it some curse that we live with? I don’t buy any of that. For too long people in Europe and around the world thought that Jews were vulnerable and unprotected. We could be killed without consequences. Today we are defended by the civilized world and by our own state of Israel. How long will it take before the hatred and bigotry will disappear?
What remains dangerous is the possibility that we might become as angry and bigoted as those who seek our harm. That would be a terrible mistake. We have an obligation to defend ourselves against Muslim extremism and fundamentalism. We need to address directly the implications of Wahhabism, the strict form of Sunni Islam taught in Saudi Arabia and the extreme form or Shia Islam that is being exported by Iran. But Islam is much bigger than these denominations and the largest Islamic nations are not in the Middle East but in Asia. We need to reach out to those who do not support extremism and discover the theology that both our faiths share.
Our world is far from perfect. There remains in this world too much hunger and poverty. There are too many people that are left behind when economies boom; and too much greed and corruption that keep those out of power, out of power. I do not blame those left behind for rising up in anger and seeking to change the odds that seem to be stacked against them. India and Pakistan are slowly moving to resolve the differences between them both in the political realm and in the religious realm. But those who would kill innocent men women and children must not have their concerns addressed until they are ready to give up their arms. Terror must not be rewarded in any way or form. And we who are not terrorists need to work harder at changing the conditions and policies that breed terror.
This is the only true path to peace.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What I Am Is What I Am. Are You What You Are - Or What? (edie brickell)

Last night, the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, hosted a lecture by one of my teachers, Rabbi Neil Gillman on the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Doing Jewish Philosophy”. Near the end of the lecture he noted that Conservative Judaism does not have a philosophy as does the other movements at the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. When he took questions, I asked him, “In your opinion, why doesn’t Conservative Judaism have a philosophy?” Rabbi Gillman replied that he thinks there are a number of reasons. First, we are a pluralistic movement and there are a wide number of philosophies that are included in our movement; and second, when we tried to spell out a philosophy in the now seemingly forgotten book, Emet v’Emunah, after years of discussion, it came out like a menu rather than a single philosophy.

I immediately recalled another book, by one of my other philosophy teachers, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, who wrote about Conservative Judaism and noted that there were at least four different groups within our movement with four different approaches to Jewish Philosophy. They ranged from traditional to Reconstructionist tendencies. Given these assessments, it is a wonder that our movement has not ruptured and fragmented as most movements seem to be doing these days. Young Jews can’t seem to understand what motivates their parents to join Conservative Synagogues and we see them starting their own “minyanim” that operate in a very different style. Rabbis in our movement argue all the time over the issue of whether we follow Halacha or not. Lay leadership of Conservative congregations is begging Rabbis to just tell them what they need to do to be good Jews and all they get is a menu of options. Canadian congregations and communities in Israel don’t think that Conservatives in the United States are traditional enough. Conservative Jews in the United States don’t seem to care what the Canadian or Israeli communities think of them.

So, who are we? What is it that binds us together as a movement? What do we Conservative Jews believe?

As usual, I believe we are looking for faith in all the wrong places. As Rabbi Gillman said, you can ask that question to a Reform or Orthodox Jew and get a coherent, definite answer because they are on the polar ends of the Jewish spectrum. Our movement is in a large grey area that lies between them and thus it defies the kind of definition that comes with the certainty that lies at the ends of a spectrum.

As Conservative Jews, we believe that certainty is the enemy and that questions are the lifeblood of our movement, even if they don’t always have definitive answers.

As Conservative Jews we believe that God is unknowable and beyond our understanding but we feel the divine presence in both the secular and religious aspects of our life.

As Conservative Jews we believe that God is found in the struggle between tradition as received and the world as we experience it.

As Conservative Jews we believe that a good Jew is judged first of all in the way we treat our fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike.

As Conservative Jews we believe that we can grow in our observance and that until the day we die, we can still be struggling to understand the best way for us to live a spiritual life. But our uncertainty does not make us bad Jews.

As Conservative Jews we believe that science informs our understanding of scripture and ritual but the importance of both is not found in scientific accuracy, rather in the moral and ethical lessons that each have to teach us, lessons that are beyond the purview of science.

As Conservative Jews we are always learning about the philosophy, history and legal tradition of Judaism in the constant search for a better understanding of the meaning of our life and the life of all humanity

As Conservative Jews we believe that Jewish Law, Halacha, needs to be understood in a historical context and while it is primary to our faith, it is not the only consideration we have to weigh in our quest to live a faithful Jewish life.

As Conservative Jews we weigh carefully the needs of the community and our individual needs, understanding, as Hillel taught, If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am for myself alone, what am I, and if not now, when?

As Conservative Jews we allow that not everyone believes as we do and that does not make them bad Jews; it makes them interesting if we can learn from them something that will inform our own beliefs and practices.

As Conservative Jews we believe in the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and we are committed to improving civic and religious life there as we work to secure Israel’s future.

As Conservative Jews we don’t know what will happen after we die, but we believe that what we do here in this world will have an impact in how we will experience whatever may come next.

As Conservative Jews we understand that a Messianic Age, an age in which good will triumph over evil and life will triumph over death, will only come if we will work for it through the actions we perform every day.

Maybe everyone will not agree with me on every point above, but that is nature of our movement, to weigh, discuss (civilly) and always to grow.

Friday, November 14, 2008


So what does Conservative Judaism stand for? We take positions on egalitarianism, on Shabbat and on Gay Marriage, and then we change our minds. The practices of one congregation do not match the practices of another. We use instruments on Shabbat and we don’t use instruments. We use electricity on Shabbat and we don’t use electricity. We publish papers that take both sides of an issue and don’t tell our members what to do! Every Rabbi has his or her own agenda and do we really ever act as a movement?
The issue to me is not whether or not we are a Movement but are we acting in a way that is consistent with being Jewish? Can we still call ourselves Jews if we are so confused about what is required of a Jew and how we relate to Jewish Law? The Jews, who call themselves Orthodox, think that we Conservatives have severed any connection to Jewish Law. The Jews, who call themselves Reform, think that we attach ourselves unnecessarily to Jewish Law. Even inside our own ranks, we argue if we have lived up to the legal standards that are the foundation of Halacha (the “LAW” or the “way”, the entire corpus of Jewish law). I think that we get confused because we forget the essence of what Judaism is all about and why the law is important.
Judaism is a legal religion. It is more like Islam than Christianity since Christianity sought to disconnect from the Law from early times. Islam has the Koran and we have Torah. There is a rich legal tradition that guides Jews in all that they do, a legal tradition that is over 3000 years old. [I should note that Judaism is different from the “religion of Ancient Israel, in that we do not have a central sanctuary, a high priest who oversees a sacrificial cult and annual pilgrimages to that shrine. Judaism began when the first Temple was destroyed and we had to learn to live without it. The second Temple was built but the changes made in the time of the destruction only grew and changed so that when the second Temple was destroyed, Israelite religion died but the Judaism, that was not dependant on the service there, continues to this very day.]
It also seems to me that the Sages in ancient times, who knew that they were breaking with ancient religious traditions, understood that a faith that cannot change, cannot survive. The Torah was not enough to tell Jews what to do and so they began to find ways to expand and enrich Judaism with larger and larger circles of law. Over the ages these circles have expanded and have shrunk to deal with the issues of their age. Those who claim an unbroken chain of Law from then to now often forget that there are links missing and that there are many strands to the chains that come down to us. Conservative Judaism is born of the Historical school in Europe that taught Jews that we can learn law from the study of how our ancestors approached some of the same problems we encounter today. If we understand what they did and why they did it, we can also learn about how we should act today. Historically, Rabbis have approached the law in many different ways in order to find the solutions to difficult and sticky problems in each day and age. The Rabbis of every country and century looked to the primary and fundamental principles of Judaism and adjusted the Law to meet the new issues without compromising the fundamentals. These fundamentals include: a stubborn insistence that there is one God; that any form of idolatry is evil; justice is an imperative; saving a life is more important than almost anything; trust God; learn proper behavior from the Torah and from how God acts in the world. These are some of the values that form the foundation of our faith. We have tried to codify these ideals in Halacha.
We get into trouble when we get so fixated on the Law and we forget what supports it. It is very important that there is a Law that speaks to people and tells them what is expected from them in terms of their attention and behavior. But it is also important that we not let that same Law use its logic to defy the values that underlie it. From time to time we need to remember that the Law must give way to the values, lest the Law itself become the god. We don’t like to make wholesale changes in the Law. It makes things difficult for those who take it seriously. But we do have to make changes from time to time, not only to make things stricter to prevent legal violations, but to make the Law a living entity that people will follow even if they don’t have to. It does not mean we can do whatever we want, but it does mean that we work to keep it true to its values.
I always look at Halacha as a square; each corner stands for an important consideration. One corner is for the tradition that we have received from our ancestors. The second corner is for the modern problems that we need to address. The third corner is for the needs of individuals, and the fourth corner is for the needs of the community. The lines that connect them are elastic. When we have a problem in any one area, it stretches the square out of shape. Rabbis must then examine the concerns of the other three corners to see how we can return the square to its proper form; what else must give way or adjust to meet the needs of the other corners. All are important and we need to find a way to get it all in balance again.
This means that while well trained modern Rabbis can and do argue the law in our Movement’s “Law and Standards Committee”, we have to understand that there are different ways of bringing everything into balance again and still be true to our values. We also understand that what may work in a general situation, may not be the best answer in various communities around the world who live with different realities. Local Rabbis also need to weigh in on what may work.
This makes our lives a bit harder. We have to learn. We have to consider the reasons why one Rabbi rules one way and why another rules differently. We have to see if we are still being true to our fundamental values. It means we can have tradition and we can have change. It is what keeps us alive as a religion and keeps our faith fresh in every generation.
Perhaps it is as our President-Elect, Barak Obama says, “It is a change we can believe in.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Fought the Law and the Law Won.

First of all, I hope you vote on Election Day. The only excuse possible is that you already voted early by absentee ballot or in early voting. It is a mitzvah to vote for the candidate of your choice.

Whenever election time comes around there is always talk of the separation of Church and State. It is one of the fundamentals of our Bill of Rights, is incorporated in the very first amendment to the Constitution and is the subject of much heat by those who are passionate about it one way or the other. Some feel that religious sensibilities would be good to inject into government and others want there to be a complete wall separating the two, a wall that can never be broken.

Those who know me understand that whenever there is a choice between one way or the other, I go for a different path. The impasse between the pro and con sides in this debate over Church and State is due to the intransience on both sides. Each only sees what they want to see and perhaps they don’t understand why the amendment is written as it was.

First of all, I believe that, the founders of this nation were religious men. They may have had issues with the denominations and the formal church as it existed in their day, but they believed in God and they prayed to that God. They had no doubt that their experiment in democracy was blessed by the Divine. They were not trying to eliminate religion from the state, only to temper the role of religion in the political system.

Rabbis are often asked to recite invocations before city council and state legislative sessions. Even Congress opens their sessions with invocations. Many of my colleagues do not like to perform these invocations citing their belief that it violates the Church/State barrier. The invocation needs to be nondenominational since the people present represent many different faiths. Some clergy get this right; others seem not to be able to pray without invoking the name of Jesus, no matter how offensive such a prayer might be to those present.

I never turn down an opportunity to offer an invocation at a government event.

While I feel that it is important that government does not pass laws establishing one religion or making life difficult for another, I also feel that religion has something to say to government. It is not about whether this or that law should be passed, but that there is a need to note that while Congress can say if an action is legal or not legal, only religion is in a place to say if an action is right or wrong. This is why I oppose religions lobbying for passage of laws that promote their world view, but insist that religions speak out about laws that go against their understanding of right and wrong.

Let me take one controversial law: Roe vs. Wade and the right for a woman to have an abortion. In this country, it is legal for a woman to have an abortion. It is her legal right. But it does not make it the right thing to do. The implications for the mother and the fetus are very disturbing. I personally don’t like abortions but Judaism understands that sometimes they are needed. What I teach, therefore, is that abortion may be legal, but is not to be considered a form of birth control. It is my duty to teach that women should not get into a situation where an abortion may be needed. It is my duty to teach men and women the responsibilities that come with sexual activities. Abortion may be legal, but it is not good. It is only a last resort solution to the most dire of circumstances.

In business, there is a similar situation. It is not possible to pass legislation to cover every possibility that a person can think up to defraud a neighbor or a client. Therefore we religious leaders have a responsibility to teach ethical behavior and insist that, while the law may allow certain types of business dealings, these still may not be the right thing to do. Keeping the law is never enough. One has to go beyond the letter of the law to do what is right. The story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach teaches this lesson. He bought a donkey and when his students brought it home, they discovered, hidden in the bridle, an expensive pearl. They had bought the bridle and the donkey so, by law, the pearl belonged to the Rabbi, but he returned it to the seller since clearly the price of the donkey did not include the price of the pearl. He was not required to do it, but he did it anyway and received a blessing from the seller for his honesty and ethical behavior. No matter what business laws are passed, we have a religious obligation to go beyond the law.

We think of government with three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. But there is fourth “branch” of government, religion, which must speak to what the other three are doing. Our founding fathers could not imagine a world where faith and religion did not speak to issues of right and wrong. That is the holy work that religious people and clergy perform. Not making laws, but living by a standard that goes beyond what a law can do. Laws are needed to protect us from ourselves. As the Talmud, in Mishnah Avot, 3:2 noted, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would eat each other alive.” But government without religious sensibilities can never fully govern the lives of its citizens. Segregation was legal until religious leaders taught that it was not right. Quotas were legal until religious people demanded that they end. All the laws of Congress could not stop discrimination until religious leaders instilled in their congregations the idea that all of us are created in the image of God.

Religion needs government to equally represent the needs of the people. Government needs religion to teach what the law can’t teach: that we all must live to a higher standard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

I will not vote in November.

I have already voted. I sent in my absentee ballot a couple of weeks ago. In my mind, voting is one of the most important things a person can do. I don’t care how long I have to stand in line or how many pieces of identification are required; I have voted in almost every election since I have been old enough to vote. I would like to say I have never missed one but there have been special elections that somehow escaped my notice. I research the candidates and try to make the best decision possible.

This presidential election has had some interesting twists to it. The dive in the economy helped change the tone from that of just one negative ad after another to some real talking about priorities and issues. We finally got an issue that got us beyond the name calling and got us voters to take a look and ask ourselves if we trust this candidate or that candidate to get us out of this mess we are in.

In the Jewish community, it should come as no surprise that there are Jews who back the Democratic candidate Barak Obama and those who back the Republican candidate, John McCain. Each side is as passionate as the other about who would make the best President of the United States. The days in which Jews all voted in a block are long gone. It is a wonder that we can even talk about the “Jewish vote” any more as something different than any other group. We have soccer moms, hockey moms, NASCAR dads, seniors, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Communists, Socialist, East Coast Liberals and Midwestern Conservatives. We have our own religious right and our secular left. The only things I can say about the Jewish vote is that we vote.

People talk about Israel as a concern for the Jewish vote. But again, we are all over the map when it comes to Israel. I don’t think that there are too many Jews who are looking to dissolve the Jewish state, but we certainly don’t agree on how Israel should conduct her domestic or foreign policies and how the United States should or should not deal with Israel as a matter of our own foreign policy. Should Israel negotiate with the PLO? With Hamas? With Hezbollah? Should we divide Jerusalem, give back the West Bank, exchange prisoners to get back Israeli kidnapped soldiers? Who should be negotiating with the Palestinians? What should or should not be on the table? Israelis themselves are split on these issues and the Jewish community in the United States is also split.

There are many who say that Jews should vote for their interests in the United States, and not look at foreign policy to Israel as a lone issue. There are many issues in this country that we have strong opinions about. We discuss in our communities issues like health care, the war in Iraq, taxes and governmental regulations. We are worried about sending our kids to college and if we can afford to keep our homes and if we will be laid off in the months ahead.

If Judaism has any issue with the current campaigns, it is in the area of personal attacks. That people disagree on issues is to be expected, but Judaism insists that we treat each other with respect at all times, even at the end of a very long and difficult election season. A campaign that criticizes the plans of an opponent should not be criticized because that is what this season is all about, what plan do we think is best for this country in the years ahead. If a criticism is followed by a different idea, then we should listen and be aware of the differences. It is another matter when there are personal attacks about things that happened long ago as if they have any bearing on where we are today. Everyone grows and changes and not one of us lives our life without some regrets about our past. Destroying the character of someone else is a serious sin. The politicians tell me that this kind of negative campaigning is what moves people to vote. If this is so, then we need to give the entire country lessons in civic and civil responsibility. If our government is locked up most of the time, it is because everyone is so angry with the way we talk to and about each other and have forgotten that compromise and negotiation are how things are supposed to get done. Forget about whether or not we should be sitting down and talking to our enemies, we need to remember that we need to sit down and negotiate with lawmakers from the other party. This is hard to do in our culture of screaming at each other the most hurtful names we can find.

I have seen people I respect repeat the most derogatory slanders that they have seen but not substantiated over the internet. I have seen good people worry about nonsense that is being passed around as true. The media regularly scolds the candidates and their parties for telling lies and stretching the truth in campaign materials. There is no reason to be passing on such dirt. Even if we get it from a reliable source we should not be repeating it to others. This is very wrong. If we want to convince a friend, a family member or a neighbor to vote for our candidate, then we should speak of policies and platforms. We are guilty of Lashon HaRa, evil speech, if we pass on to others the personal attacks even if we get them from a reliable source. It applies not only to the campaign, but in every aspect of our lives. Sending out slanderous emails to defame someone else is a sin. There is no other word for it. A popular actress in S. Korea committed suicide because of the hateful false things that were being said about her on the internet. That they are written is bad; if we pass it on, we are guilty.

I don’t advise any of the campaigns but let me leave with this one piece of advice. We may not be responsible for all the hate that is out there. But we know, first hand, the dangers of hate speech and ugly rumors. I hope that we will have the sense and the wisdom to know what to do when they arrive in our inbox – we should just press “delete”.

And we will be making the world a better place, one conversation at a time.