What follows is a series of thoughts that would normally probably not appear side-by-side. However, one of the greatest values I found at the Wexner institutes was the juxtaposition of topics and people in such a way to generate new and engaging thoughts. Although this post can't possibly reflect all that I learned at the Institute, it'll serve as a good start.
Let's get the ball rolling with an announcement: I will be officiating at my brother Josh's wedding.
I was honored and touched that he asked me before I left for Israel, but I had to think about whether I would accept the honor for about a month. My reservations focused mostly on my extreme lack of knowledge and my uncertainty about the "appropriateness" of my overstepping the bounds of my student-hood and serving in the capacity of a religious leader. At the Institute, I spoke to a rabbinical student at JTS who had recently officiated at his sister's wedding, and in talking to him, I came to realize that I wouldn't be serving so much as a rabbi as a brother in this capacity. In addition, at the Institute I heard several mentions of non-rabbis performing at wedding ceremonies, and I learned that traditionally, weddings have never needed a rabbi. On top of that, this ceremony isn't going to be a traditional Jewish wedding, so my rabbi-hood (or lack thereof) really shouldn't play into it. There's still the bit about my lack of knowledge, but the Wexner Fellow I spoke to shared with me the process of reflection he went through with his sister and her fiance, and I took heart from hearing about someone else going through a similar process. And, of course, I've promised to begin my studies immediately in order to be able to help Josh and Sheri create the most meaningful ceremony we can, and as such, I have a meeting with a rabbi at HUC about this very topic tomorrow afternoon!
Not everything I took away from the Institute was so personal, but I did engage in a number of internal reflections. For example, I spent much of the week being acutely aware of my status as a Reform Jew. Growing up, there were only Reform and Conservative Jews, and what that mostly meant to me was that a few students in my Sunday School class would have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at the Temple while the rest would have their ceremonies at the Synagogue (in longer and, in my opinion, more boring services). When I immersed myself in the study of Judaism and religion at UVA, I relished in wading through the world of theological and historical Judaism ... but practically speaking, Jewish life was basically Reform, Conservative, or "Cultural." As I increased my involvement in Hillel, I became more "broad" in my thinking (while remaining Reform in my practice), and largely I focused on engaging the "Cultural" Jews in "Cultural" ways. At City Year, my Jewish experience was largely either virtually secular youth programming or deep, significant text study with my chevruta partner, Josh. Once I entered HUC, I was once again dropped into a world of Reform ... but a world that seemed to be surrounded by orthodoxy.
That's a hasty and broad portrayal of the views of Judaism throughout my life, but a common theme that I recall is a two-group system. In Roanoke, it was Reform/Conservative; in Hillel, it was Engaged/Cultural (not fair, I know, but that's how I felt a lot of the time); in Washington, it was spiritual/secular; and in Jerusalem, it's been Reform/Orthodox. During most of those periods, including a lot of my time here at HUC, I'd been more practically aware of what Reform isn't rather than what it is (though since a stimulating conversation with Jessica's parents in Toronto, I've had thoughts of "positive Reform identity" simmering on the back burner). However, that was different at the institute.
As I struggled to remember who was from what program, I also strived to learn from what perspectives my fellow Fellows were approaching various topics. And in juxtaposition with them (and in delayed response to a conversation I had with Ari, one of the Fellows in my class, in Jerusalem before the institute), I began to identify very strongly with the Reform movement. Now, don't get me wrong: I've always (or at least often) felt "very Reform," and I've always been a supporter of most if not all of the Union for Reform Judaism's policies and platforms. I've thought about what it means to be Reform, and I've had opportunities to explore in small ways the differences between Reform Judaism and other movements. But when I was sitting in a circle with 18 non-Reform Jews (and 1 HUC classmate), all of whom were people from whom I wanted to learn, I felt that I stood out as Reform. Since many Jews identify as post- or non-denominational though still "progressive," I believe most of the views about liberal Judaism are represented by Reform Jews. And there I was, at least in self-perception, the walking label of liberal Judaism.
And I didn't feel at all uncomfortable with this. On the contrary, I was proud to be representing my movement in this atmosphere of dialogue and progress. The particularism of that pride waned over the week, but I never entirely lost the feeling of being one of the Reform Jews, especially as I sat at the HUC table that was convened for one of the meals to talk about HUC things.
So, what did that do for my Reform identity? As we proceed, I'll write more about pluralism and my thoughts and interactions with different streams of Judaism; in conjunction with my exploration of other perspectives, I by default continued to define my own position. I talked last post about reading the Pittsburg Platform of 1885 and how I felt a certain identity with my movement in ways I hadn't felt before. On the other hand, the bonds I made with rabbinic students at JTS and American Jewish University, Yeshiva University, Hebrew College, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and students in other programs as well extended my communal identity and made my Reform more inclusive. I'm not entirely sure what all this means yet, but I hope that by the time I become a "real" rabbi in the Reform movement, I'll have a much better idea of how I feel about being a member of this specific community in relation, conjunction, and cooperation with members of other specific communities.
Now, of course, I say "specific communities," but I'm also talking about a larger "Jewish community," and in a major way, our institute about Jewish Family was dealing with the question "What is a Jewish Community?" Some corollary questions that came up in conversation were "Who is a Jew?" and "Why does it matter?"
Here's what I would say before the institute: No one can determine someone else's identity. If I identify as Jewish, no one has the authority to tell me that I'm not. (The same goes for gender, sexual orientation, and other classifications as well.) However, my ability to be a part of a community, by definition, requires the cooperation of other members of that community. So, a person says to me, "I believe that Christ is the messiah, I go to church every Sunday, my family doesn't identify as Jewish, and I have no intention of participating in Jewish life. However, my mother was Jewish, so I identify as Jewish as well." I can't tell that person that she's not Jewish, but I can inform her that (A) there are Jews out there who will (erringly, in my opinion) tell her flatly that she's not Jewish and (B) were she to seek acceptance as a member of the Jewish Community, she would not be successful. End of story (especially since extreme hypotheticals rarely reflect reality).
Now, I still largely believe that one's identity is one's own and that participation in a community is communal; however, I have a better appreciation for alternate points of view, and that appreciation came about through a series of discussions that touched on some of the following topics.
Let's move out of the realm of hypothetical and into the realm of actual. In Israel, a Jew can immigrate and become a citizen of the country; they are considered Jewish if at least one grandparent was Jewish. This Judaism is determined by documentation such as birth, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, marriage, or death certificates or affirmation by a rabbi. However, to get married in Israel, one must have an official Orthodox wedding. Official Orthodox weddings cannot happen between the following couples:
- Kohen/divorcee, child of non-Jewish father, offspring of non-recognized marriage, a widow who performed chalitza, a widow who converted
Let's say Lev, a Jew, marries Elizabeth, who has a Conservative conversion, and they have a daughter, Sarah. Sarah has two Jewish grandparents (Avi's parents) and therefore successfully makes aliyah. Now, she wants to marry Tomer, an Israeli Jew, and they're willing to have an Orthodox ceremony in Israel (instead of flying to Crete or someplace and coming back for a non-binding wedding ceremony in Israel). So, they go to apply for a marriage license.
When asked to supply affirmation of her Jewishness, Sarah may be asked to produce documentation that her mother is Jewish (which is the traditional halachic/legal definition of Jewishness). Although Sarah was "Jewish enough" to make aliyah under the Law of Return, her mother's conversion certificate isn't sufficient to grant her status as a Jew in the eyes of the rabbinic courts, despite having lived her entire life as a Jew. Now, she and Tomer cannot get married in the State of Israel unless Sarah undergoes an orthodox conversion or they leave the country and receive a foreign marriage license that will be retroactively recognized by the state.
In this instance, Sarah's Judaism is being defined for her and it has real legal implications on her life. I don't know to what degree situations like Sarah's would be enforced in Israel, but conversion, marriage, and divorce are hot topic issues in Israel as there is no separation between religion and state here.
So, getting back to our original question, what right does the rabbinic court have to tell Sarah that she is or isn't Jewish? If they were to follow my philosophy, they'd say, "Okay, so you're not orthodox; we wouldn't recommend trying to fit in to an orthodox community. However, since you identify as Jewish, that's good enough for us. Have a happy marriage!" Although I'm a fan of the separation of religious and legal matters, if Israel is determined to erase that boundary, I believe that they should have a more pluralistic/accepting approach to Judaism. Take the most liberal definitions of Judaism, the ones that include the most Jews and therefore strengthen most of the "Jewish community," and implement them on a broad scale.
A modern orthodox Fellow with whom I was discussing this topic more or less agrees with that assessment (and actually brought it up as a recommendation in our conversation). However, he pushed me to consider further examples where relying on someone's self-identity as Jewish (or on a community's inclusion of someone as a Jewish) may not be so simple. Some complicating examples:
Let's say I'm working with a Jewish non-profit organization that distributes grants to smaller Jewish organizations. An independent chavurah (prayer group) in my city has jointly participated in the Save Darfur campaign of a local synagogue and, inspired, is starting its own grassroots movement. Using college connections, this chavurah is going to undergo a relay bike-a-thon across the entire state and post interviews with state residents about the Darfur situation on YouTube. This chavurah is asking my non-profit for a start-up grant to buy bicycles and a digital recorder.
Background: the chavurah meets once monthly and doesn't include Hebrew in their meetings. They largely follow the Quaker meeting style of sitting in silence and combine it with yoga and meditations. Each meeting, a different member gives a short ethical "sermon," which is followed by discussion at a coffee shop over lunch. The founding members of the chavurah identify as Jewish, and several of their Jewish friends attend. However, a majority of the participants in the monthly meeting do not identify as Jewish.
Now, let's say that I and my colleagues really like the program idea and want to give the group money. However, our charter insists that we support only Jewish programs in order to create solidarity and strengthen support within Jewish communities. So the question is: Is the chavurah a Jewish group?
Let's say we deny them funds because they're not a Jewish group. Are we then stipulating methods of prayer as a definition of Jewishness? Or simply a majority of participants? Would an interfaith-friendly Humanistic congregation face the same fate?
Let's say we grant them funds, agreeing that they are a Jewish group. Are we then affirming that Jewish identity is good enough to be a Jewish group? "Jewish" ethics? Would a Messianic Jewish congregation be accorded the same status?
Here's a second example.
Let's say I'm a rabbi with a Reform congregation. A couple with a 12-year-old son approaches me to say they'd like their son to have a Bar Mitzvah in the sanctuary. The wife and husband don't pay dues to the Temple, they haven't participated in a Jewish event as long as I've been around, and the son hasn't received a religious education. Both parents and the son identify as Jewish; however, none are willing to commit to religious education for the son. They all feel that it's important to mark the son's 13th birthday, to commemorate his ascent into adulthood in the Jewish community (that, who knows?, he may someday participate in), but the demands on the son's time are too great for him to learn a Torah portion and read the prayers. What do I do?
They all identify as Jewish, they've expressed at least a theoretical future interest in Jewish communal life, and they are looking to me to help them commemorate what they feel to be a significant Jewish moment in an otherwise non-Jewish lifestyle.
Let's say I tell them that a true Jewish adult values learning, and therefore the son should make time for his studies. What does that say about the parents' Jewish identities?
Let's say I tell them that, since they haven't needed the Jewish community until now, they should have their own private Bar Mitzvah and continue to live a life of private Judaism. Does that mean I don't want to welcome them into my community?
Let's say I grant the request and offer blessings and commemoration from the bima. Does that send a message to the rest of the congregation that I don't value Jewish education?
The underlying question in these two scenarios is: What is the basis of inclusion in a Jewish community? Is it Jewish identity, singular or popular? Is it monetary contribution? Attendance of services/events? Adherence to tradition? Participation in education? Following a code of ethics?
Prior to the Wexner institute, my answers to these questions would be pretty broad. Largely, inclusion in a Jewish community is experiential. I feel something different about interacting with Jews than non-Jews - there's something special there for me. Perhaps I'd have to apply the same gut reaction to the examples above. Do I connect to the individuals involved as Jews? And are they also seeking inclusion in my Jewish community?
After the Wexner institute, I don't think I have any more specific answers, but I do have in my toolbox a helpful concept: Family. Jews are a family. According to our story, we all descend from Abraham. According to history, Judaism descends from a group of people that achieved a certain amount of national success and identity in Canaan and maintained that identity for thousands of years across the entire globe.
Just like a human-relations family, you can't pick who's related to you. I may not like my cousin (hypothetical here), but I "have" to love him because he's in my family. Just because I disagree with many orthodox points of view doesn't mean I can reject them entirely - we're all still members of this family. Members of a family fight, and they also support one another. They celebrate with each other even if they disagree, and sometimes they get irrationally angry when they wouldn't feel that way with someone outside of the family. The members of my family, like it or not, are related to me, and I have an inescapable bond with them for better or for worse.
And this idea is quite novel to me and really very deep. As pointed out to us by Rabbi Greenberg, this notion of Jewish family isn't just an existential reality but is the method of redemption established by God. God creates the world, and all is good. Then, things start to go wrong as soon as a family is created. Things get worse, and God destroys the world. God makes a covenant with Noah and says, "Okay, I get it, the world's not perfect. Just please try to adhere to some basic rules." Still things continue to go wrong, so God, instead of relying on a covenant with the entire world, turns to one family: Abraham's. God's covenant with Abraham is a unique outlook on the world that says that the instrument of salvation is not through obedience or divine intervention or transcendence or scientific progress but rather through family relationships. As Abraham's family grows, its struggles and developments will create something new and holy in the world. Sometimes it will be beautiful, and sometimes it will be murderous. But in the end, it will be bound by love, and in emulation of that binding love of the Children of Abraham, the world will be able to see past the things that separate people and recognize our responsibility of automatic devotion to one another as Children of Adam.
Of course, this outlook (like all outlooks) has a certain number of complications to it. A major one that was brought up in my conversations at the institute is that of universalism vs. particularism. That is, do I believe that there is something unique and holy about the Jewish family from which the rest of the world would do good to learn? My answer, as always, is complex and unstable.
On the one hand, I believe in a universal good. If one were to sum up ethics in a single statement, it could be, "Do not violate." However, to understand that sentence in all its myriad particulars is a daunting task, and a system by means of which people can order their lives ethically can be extremely helpful. Thus, I believe that the words of Torah are, existentially, holy and through studying them in community, one can touch truth in such a way that one's behavior is shaped in an ethical direction. The Jewish family has produced, protected, and championed a tradition of ethical action and evolution.
However, there are traditional Jewish texts that scream immorality, and I believe it's important to follow our instincts in interpreting the original statement of "Do not violate" in our search for a meaningful interpretation of Torah. For example, in this week's Torah portion (Re'eh), we read:
If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’, ... you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness (Deuteronomy 13: 6, 8-11).
Now, of course, the Jewish notion of idolatry is complex and ultimate, but whether we're talking about enticement away from recognizing God's singularity, encouraging conversion away from Judaism, propagandizing into nationalism, or preaching of immorality, I nevertheless believe that "show them no pity or compassion ... your own hand shall be the first to execute [your own son or daughter]" must be interpreted in a non-literal way because the literal translation absolutely transgresses the precept of "Do not violate."
But how do I know that it transgresses that precept if traditional Jewish texts aren't telling me? Well, the easy answer is that Jewish texts are telling me, and I surely could find Jewish texts to support my view. This becomes particularly evident with rabbis who want to give a sermon on a particular topic and go researching texts that will support their view. But, look more basically: How did the original authors of those Jewish texts (assuming they're identifiable) come up with the interpretations that they did? I could be wrong, but my assumption is that they were acting according to basic moral principles that guide our everyday life.
So, back to the question: What's so great about the Jewish family? The answer: I don't know. Perhaps it's merely historical/factual: In history, the Jews have done a lot of good things and continue to do a lot of good things, so we must have gotten something right. Of course, I also believe that not just the Jews but also the Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. also got a lot right. Perhaps what we've got, though, is a practical approach to peace:
Family. Christianity is focused on God as an instrument of salvation. Judaism is focused on our family. A universalizing of the Jewish message could therefore read: Cherish the human family, despite our differences, and we'll be able to love one another like the Jews do. Maybe it's not a perfectly thought-out conclusion, but I think it's pretty good. The model of family is an excellent paradigm of human interrelations, and our ability to recognize one another as true family members is essential to being able to spread peace throughout the world.
Easy, right? Maybe in thought but certainly not in practice. And the Jewish family still hasn't gotten it totally right. Jews continue to fight, disagree, and be separated from one another. We often talk about Jewish communities since agreeing about the Jewish Community is too difficult. This Wexner institute enormously helped me out personally in this field by getting me to challenge myself and my notions of pluralism. By trying to see "Judaism" through the eyes of a Jew of a different perspective, my own view was broadened.
To me, halacha (Jewish law) is not the literal word of God since to me, God is not a conscious actor in the world and therefore couldn't have told us, in language, what to do. I do believe that words of God exist but are more broad that halacha allows. We read in Genesis, "God said let there be light, and there was light." That is, everything in the world is a Word of God. In Hebrew, דבר means both "thing" and "word." They're the same. So claiming that the Talmud is the Word of God and that the New Testament or I am not is too exclusionary.
However, after conversations at Wexner, I can further shade my understanding. Just because halacha does not represent the entire corpus of God's words does not mean that they aren't holy. I believe that those who adhere to them should be concerned with constant re-examination in the light of ethical review (see the Conservative movement), but I can't say that living by halacha is not a good starting point.
And therefore, I allow that for many, Judaism is not just thought-based but also action-based. To many Orthodox Jews, Judaism does imply a necessary set of ethical and theological standards, but one must also act in a certain way to be Jewish. (For the purposes of this conversation, let's assume that an Orthodox Jew is defining herself and not trying to determine someone else's level of Jewish commitment or peoplehood.) Thus, if I'm Orthodox, believing in God and keeping kosher are identical.
This leads me to thoughts I've been having about pluralism. Generally, I have thought of pluralism as being a worldview - to be pluralistic is to accept that what I believe is true without making a judgement one way or another on whether what you believe is true (and leaving room for both of us to be right even if we're in contradiction). However, I now recognize another dimension of pluralism, at least within the context of Judaism: Pluralism of practice.
It was my experience at Hillel that, whenever we wanted to plan something "religious" for the entire community, we'd survey the most observant students and make sure that everything adhered to their standards. Over the years, I became somewhat frustrated by never being able to express the strong Reform identity that I mentioned way back at the beginning of this post. "Why can't we be pluralistic about this?" I'd wonder. "Why always be monolithic in our practical approach?"
Fast forward to the Wexner institute, where pluralism is the name of the game (though never actually mentioned officially). I found that the programs and dialogues were very pluralistic and sought to address challenges of building a welcoming and broad Jewish community. In talking with an Orthodox Fellow, I realized that this was a form of the same process I had experienced at Hillel but in the opposite direction.
Pluralism of practice leans to the right; pluralism of thought leans to the left.
At the institute, was that there wasn't an attempt to achieve pluralism of practice. Services were all separated, the food was strictly kosher, and we didn't have the institute over Shabbat. All practical considerations were handled deftly and in advance so that we could get to the meat of the pluralistic discussion.
However, the essentially practical elements of Judaism were excluded from our institute.
On the one hand, I loved the conversations, and I know that they were mind-stretching to us all, the most observant among us more than most. Yet, I feel a certain sense of guilt at having had everything "my way." In a sense, I was very at ease talking about interfaith marriages, homosexuality, conversions, and rational religion, but there were others who were forced into silence on these issues. If we were in an Orthodox service, perhaps I, too, would be forced into silence, and I would better have been able to appreciate the perspective of some of my fellow Fellows.
I'm not sure what this means for my life other than that I have a more nuanced appreciation for the practical challenges of pluralism. I will definitely keep this thought alive, though, and I may seek to address it at a future institute.
As is obvious, I learned a tremendous amount at the institute, and I deeply appreciated the opportunity to engage in serious critical thinking. Perhaps more than anything else, I learned so much about orthodox Judaism, orthodox outlooks on pluralism, challenges in the modern orthodox world, etc. To be honest, it was exactly what I needed. Yes, stories about the "Modesty Squad" still set my blood aboil, but I love my orthodox friends as family, and I hope that one day I can relate even to ultra-orthodox Jews in such a way that, though I disagree with them, I also love them (and vice versa). The Wexner institute, though imperfect, was a small-scale model of positive pluralistic thinking that hopefully will be translated into action. I very much look forward to future institutes and, moreso, to building a stronger Jewish family that reaches out to all of our fellow Children of Adam.