Wednesday, July 16, 2008



To bring a conclusion to the backpack saga, I saw a different backpack when I returned to the store; not only did I think it would better fit my needs but it was also significantly cheaper. I got it for 119 NIS (instead of the 270 being asked for the other one). In other good news, it looks like all my undergraduate loans are appropriately in in-school deferment. No more headaches about that for a while!

Now, on to the good stuff. Yesterday we officially began orientation, and I'm very glad that we've finally gotten on the road. I'm so relieved that I didn't decide to come to Jerusalem earlier - being here (alone) for longer than I have been might have driven me stir crazy. But, starting Sunday, we actually get to start learning again, and for this I'm very excited.

Meantime, we've not only been introducing ourselves to one another but also starting to really get a sense for each person's origin on this exciting and terrifying journey. Last night, we started by framing the conversation with two Talmudic stories. Here are non-literal translations of the passages (Bavli, Brachot 30a; Bavli, Brachot 11a):

1. How does one say the Traveler's Prayer? Rabbi Hisda says standing up; Rabbi Sheshet says also while proceeding (i.e., while standing still or while walking ahead). One day, R. Hisda and R. Sheshet were traveling together, and R. Hisda stood still and prayed. R. Sheshet (who was blind) asked his attendant, "What is R. Hisda doing?" He replied, "He is standing and praying." R. Sheshet then said, "Place me in position so that I may also pray; if you can be good, do not be called bad."

2. How does one say the Shema? Rabbi Hillel says: standing, sitting, reclining, walking on the road, or at one's work. Rabbi Shammai says: reclining. Once, Rabbi Ishamel and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah were dining at the same place, and R. Ishmael was reclining while R. Eleazar was standing upright. When the time came for reciting the Shema, R. Eleazar reclined (because R. Ishmael was also reclining), but R. Ishmael stood up (even though he could have said the Shema while reclining). R. Eleazar said to R. Ishmael, "Brother Ishmael, I will tell you a parable. Our conduct is like that of a man to whom people say, 'You have a fine beard,' and he replies, 'Then I will shave it off!' You are acting the same way. While I was standing upright, you were reclining, but when I also reclined, you stood upright!" R. Ishmael replied, "I have acted according to the rule of the House of Hillel, and you have acted according to the rule of the House of Shammai. What's more, I had to act this way lest our students should see us and determine that there is only one way to say the Shema."

So, what do we gain from these stories? While there are certainly any number of aspects we could latch on to with either one of them, our conversation mostly focused on the following: R. Sheshet compromised, while R. Ishmael stood up for his belief.

Now, both R. Sheshet and R. Ishmael can be positive role models. R. Sheshet is open minded about his Jewish experience and thus can include R. Hisda's philosophy in his own. R. Ishmael, even though he is also open minded, chooses to act in a contradictory manner in order to make a pedagogical point. Our discussion last night somewhat focused on how we related to these stories (in addition to the fairly unrelated questions of how we came to be at HUC and what we hope to bring to the HUC community).

In my own opinion, I would, of course, like to take a little from each camp. I am very open-minded with my theology, and I strive to find truth wherever I am able. As such, I not only seek spiritual significance in many forms of Judaism, but I also look for inspiration from other religions as well as secular creations. Thus, even though it is not my practice to wrap tefillin, I may still find it meaningful, and while I may not pray in a church, I may gain significant spiritual insight from being in one. In my personal exploration of faith, therefore, I would readily accept any opportunity to learn from another and add their experiences to my own, for I feel I can only be enriched by such openness.

This perspective needs to be reassessed in two circumstances, however. First, when I pray (deeply and meaningfully), there usually has to be a certain amount of comfort involved. That is, either I am already comfortable with the words and music and intention and placement of the prayer and am able to turn myself over to them, or I am made to feel comfortable with all those things by inspirational prayer leaders (as happened to me when I first went to Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City). Thus, if I'm at a traditional (segregated, all-Hebrew, and with melodies I don't know) service, for example, I might gain insight into my own theological understanding of the universe ... but I won't be able to pray very well.

The other circumstance is the one that R. Ishmael points out: If I am responsible to a community for representing the truths and values of that community, I might need to put aside my personal curiosity and stand up for a particular way of doing things. Thus, let's take two situations: The first is I'm by myself in a Conservative congregation where no one knows me, and the service leader says, "I invite those for whom it is tradition to rise during the Mourner's Kaddish to do so now," I might remain seated in order to have the rare experience of praying the Mourner's Kaddish as a member of that community would. However, if I'm with friends or colleagues in the exact same situation, I would stand up.

Why? It's my tradition, and I'm proud of that, and I want to share that with everyone. Staying seated makes no statement, while standing up says that at least one person here validates the reason that the service leader makes the invitation. (On top of that, I happen to believe that I should rise for the Mourner's Kaddish on a spiritual level, so I'm not just making a point but rather am making a point of following my beliefs.)

To zoom out for a moment, I believe that Reform Judaism needs to take this into account on a large scale. A conversation I had with Jessica's parents many months ago highlighted a perception that I don't feel is uncommon among Reform Jews. That is, many Reform Jews would love to know that it means to be Reform aside from the easy answer of "I'm not Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, etc." There is an answer (that I'm in the process of learning and living), but it (a) is not simple and straightforward and (b) is hard to reify into actual practice. Nevertheless, I believe it's important to take a stand, and I would venture that Reform Judaism should defend to its core the following very simple statement:

One who believes she is a Jew is a Jew.

Then, of course, books are written and classes are taught to consider what this means for conversion, marriage, parentage, childbearing, circumcision, Zionism, kashrut, etc. And then, in standing up for this belief, one can stand up for equal rights for all Jews, both in the eyes of the diasporic communities as well as the Jewish community in Israel. It's very hard to find something firm to stand on when your philosophy is based on pluralism, but affirming Jewish identity in this way is, I believe, far from the norm in Jewish thought, and even this one small sentence would require enormous stamina and courage to support. And I believe the Reform movement is up to such a stance.

Personally, I believe the stance should include an acceptance of inter-faith couples and an uncompromising affirmation of same-sex marriage. I also believe that our focus on strong and positive Jewish identity should be highlighted in our religious education; so many Reform Jews think they're "just" Reform Jews who don't follow the commandments rather than Reform Jews who stand for a positive ideology that promotes justice, compassion, and righteousness.

So, at the end of the day, perhaps my mind is a R. Sheshet and my heart is a R. Ishmael. As orientation continued today and we had the opportunity to take a look at what we're in for, I became optimistic at the possibility that I will be able to explore both personalities within myself. This optimism was born at morning services, which were so beautiful with everyone participating with real spirit and which were capped with the glowing ornament of our cantorial students singing Oseh Shalom as the closing song. The morning service confirmed my long ( l o n g ) hope that I would at last be able to pray in an environment where everyone wants to be there, everyone knows the words, and everyone has enormous potential to grow from each individual service. That I can pray with my classmates is a very good sign, and whatever else may transpire over the next year and over the next five years, I know that we will all be able to meet in the sanctuary in peace.

The optimism continued as we heard from our dean and our head of student life; the faculty of this school really care about us and are devoted to making sure that we get as much out of our year as we possibly can. And finally, during our last conversation of the day, I got the slightest taste of what it will be like in class as we shared our fears and hopes about the coming year and were able to translate the personal stories we had shared yesterday into concrete statements that were being supported and acknowledged by our peers.

I certainly believe that there are students here who are very different from me, but I nonetheless look forward to sharing this experience with them and learning about myself from them, and I hope that I will have the capacity to share myself with them in a similar manner. All in all, I'm looking forward to a strong year: This year in Jerusalem!

PS It occurs to me that this post (and, more than likely, my other as well) is fairly stream-of-consciousness and not at all polished. I'll go ahead and state for the record that I don't expect that to change; therefore, bear that in mind while reading. What I write here may not be my final opinion on something, it may not be the full story as I or others see it or saw it, and it may, frankly, not make very much sense. But I do encourage you to post/email any questions you have, and I hope I won't go too far afield as I'm letting my mind run wild. I will admit: It's rather fun!


Jeff H. said...

Stream of consciousness is great--when, as here, it's a "mighty stream" and impelled by a higher consciousness! ;-)

CBalz said...

Congrats--you've been promoted. Tall, thought-provoking, Hebrew-speaking Ginger extraordinaire number ONE. No rounding out to the ten thousandths. That one's a lot longer than just plain old TG2, so get used to a life of acronyms.

Am missing you but am also thoroughly enjoying your blog. Please know that anything you say can and will be exposed to your future congregation by your first congregant-moi :)