Posts Tagged 'Open Orthodoxy'

Generous Orthodoxy: Revisiting Welcoming LGBT on Yom Kippur

As an Orthodox Jewish in preparation for Yom Kippur I pause to take stock of who I am individually and who we are collectively. Am I doing everything I should be doing to make this world a better place? A couple of years ago I was is in a similarly reflective mode when I got to thinking about our tradition of reading a list of sexual prohibitions  in the Yom Kippur afternoon service (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I still do not have an answer to this question, I feel that silence on this issue is its own sin. At that time I wrote a letter to my children if they are gay with 8 promises. What has happened since that time?

While there have been some efforts to be more welcoming to LGBT members of our Jewish community, advancement is really slow going at best. While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do towards making it safe to be an LGBT member of our community, this year I got to thinking beyond just our community. There have been horrible set-backs in society at large. Bigotry, hate, and even violence toward LGBT people world-wide is a real problem. I would be fool hearty to think that this passage in Leviticus is the cause to this hatred and bigotry. People tend to fear what they do not understand. Nonetheless as an Orthodox Jew I feel that I have a responsibility to relieve this suffering and not to contribute toward it. We are the People of the Book, we have to take responsibility for how we share that story. The day of Yom Kippur itself atones for our sins between us and God. We still need to do the work of healing the wounds of sins between us and other people.

I was thinking about this recently I was listening to Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. In this podcast Gladwell shared the powerful story of Chester Wenger, a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who chose to confront his own church over a question of deepest principle. As pastor in one of the most traditional of religious communities he made the hard choice to officiate at the marriage ceremony of his gay son. Gladwell argues that this is a case of what theologian Hans Frei called Generous Orthodoxy. This paradox of Generous Orthodoxy seems resonant with my ideals of Open Orthodoxy. Wenger offers us a master class in the art of deeply respectful, openhearted, and religiously important dissent.

I will be thinking about this idea of Generous Orthodoxy this Yom Kippur when saying the Unetanneh Tokef prayer. There we say:

Teshuva– Repentance,

Tefilah – Prayer,

and Tzedaka– Charity

will annul the severe decree.

How will we confront our own day of Judgement before God? We will strive to do Teshuva.  It is clear that we all have work to do to make sure we are the best people we can be. On Yom Kippur we will do plenty of Tefilah. There is much to be said for recognizing that we do not have all of the answers. We come together to seek out support from each other and Beyond to make meaning in our lives. And we will give Tzedaka– charity. Wait- I will not being carrying my wallet. Will any of us give charity on the day of Yom Kippur? Might I suggest that on the day of Yom Kippur the charity we are being asked to give is not monetary. Maybe we are being asked to be generous in our orthodoxy itself. So yes I will read the passage from Leviticus, but I will also stand in judgement saying the Unetanneh Tokef. Saying these works I will try to be offer up my wholehearted understanding of orthodoxy. If I need to risk my own sense of self to ensure that everyone feel safe and welcome so be it. Maybe if I could just be a little bit more like Chester Wenger my severe decree against me will be annulled.

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Spiral in History: Bread and Toldot

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Esav’s sale of the birthright to Yaakov for lentil stew. there we read:

And Yaakov gave Esav bread and a stew of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esav despised the birthright. ( Genesis 25:34)

It foreshadows how Yaakov stole the blessing from Esav by giving a wonderful lunch to Yitzhak. It is notable in both situations that Esav and Yitzhak asked for stew and deer and in both cases Yaakov served it with bread. While you might say that most cultures ancient and modern serve meals with bread, it is noteworthy that the text mentions it.

This image of this bread seems to come back with the sale of Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite.  As Yosef is in the pit he brothers sit around to determine what to do with him. There we read:

And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.( Genesis 37:25)

To Yaakov’s pain and suffering they tell him that Yosef was killed and they sell him into slavery. Ultimately this saves the brothers from famine. But it does not take long for Yaakov’s descendants to become slaves in Egypt. Eventually with the help of God and Moshe they leave Egypt.  In Passover we celebrate a yearly holiday without bread to remember our redemption from slavery and the rest of the use of bread in our history. History has a bitter-sweet spiral. What can we learn from this?

I was thinking about it this week when I reading this insightful article by Professor Jonathan Sarna on the whole ordeal with the RCA over women’s ordination.  He points out the irony of the RCA being excluded and now excluding others from Orthodoxy. Time will tell if the RCA made a good choice to draw a line or will this moment be the beginning of the end of their stronghold on Orthodoxy in America. Simply I do not think we can go on telling Orthodox female leadership that they do not have a seat at the table or to just eat cake.  As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Fence on The Roof- 50 Years Since Fiddler

It has been 50 years since the production the Fiddler on the Roof. Til this day it stands as a unique artistic phenomena  explaining the old world Jew to the contemporary American audience. In her great article on the subject Professor Ruth R. Wisse brilliantly explores some of the challenges presented in the theatrical and film adaptations of Tevye and his Daughters (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. Like others Professor Wisse thinks they went too far in rewriting  Tevye to make him more accommodating  to the new world. While this might be true, the idea of adaptation itself was part and parcel of the original conception of the character of Tevye. How will the simple old world Jew make his way in the emerging complex new world?

These issues are themselves explored in renaming the work as the Fiddler on the Roof. The title stems from  Marc Chagall surreal paintings of Eastern European Jewish life which often including a fiddler.

   

In the play Tevye says:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyousness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. While life beyond Anatevka might be much more pleasant and simple, it seems that here America in relative security we are struggling to keep our tradition.

I remember when I was little I was climbing on the roof of the garage. My mother came yelling,”If you fall off there and break your leg I will smack you”. I was thinking about this and Dr. Wisse’s great article when reading Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:8

Obviously their architecture was different at that time and they actually used their roofs, but still I have to ask, who would be stupid enough to go on a roof? Well, the Torah wanted us to take precautions even for the person who might end up on the roof. How might we preserve this sacred balance as we try to maintain our tradition in the 21st century?

This makes me reflect on the first teaching in the Perkey Avot. There we learn, ” Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” ( Avot 1:1) If we are “cautious in judgment”  and work in the service of universal justice and not just “what is good for the Jews”, we will not have to worry about continuity. Simply put we will have “many pupils”. When we have many pupils will have many different interpretations. While this is exciting it might ultimately erode our sense of having one community to marshal a more just world. To this ends we need to build a fence. I realize that everyone will have different notions of what these limits are, but we can all agree we need them. With theses fences in place each of us needs to find our own way to become that Fiddler on the Roof.

Revelation and Sustaining Our Community

When I was a Hillel Rabbi I had the fortune of helping a bunch of students apply to Rabbinical school. In my time on campus students went to almost all of the major schools. It is interesting to reflect that in one way or another each school’s application asked the potential student his/her perspective on Shavuot. OK, not the holiday, but his/her perspective on Revelation. This seemed to be based on an assumption that asking the applicant this epistemological question would clarify if the school was a good match.  With maybe one exception I would say that all of these students did not approach their interest in the Rabbinate in these terms. Rather, each one was drawn to the Rabbinate because s/he believed that becoming a Rabbi would help him/her make change in the Jewish community and contribute to the larger world. The idea of religious movement really came in as an afterthought to this broader vision. It seemed in almost all of the cases that this narrow idea of a specific movement was solely the trappings of the schools and not particularly relevant the student.

I was thinking about this when I started to read the beginning of  Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years thou shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. ( Leviticus 25: 1-4)

In this portion we learn about the laws of Shmita. In this cycle the land is left to lie fallow on the 7th year and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Rashi asks an insightful question, ” Why are we talking about the matter of Shmita at Sinai?” Which is to say that the entire Torah is given at Sinai, why is this Torah portion outlining an ancient technique of creating a sustainable agriculture introduced as the laws that God “spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai”? It seems strange to single this law out. And maybe even more strange in that the Torah was given in Diaspora and this law was only going to be applicable in the Land of Israel.

When I think about these students I realize that many of them have already becomes or are about to become my peers. We were all drawn to the Rabbinate to create a more meaningful and sustainable Jewish community. I hope that all of us are contributing to the world in meaningful ways. But I am still worried. In the name of sharpening our skills, how has Rabbinical education dulled our initial visions to help the world? Has the lens of movement clouded our capacity to see the larger Jewish community and larger world?

In this sense I want to ask Rashi’s question in reverse. Why are we talking about the matter of Sinai when we are learning about Shmita? Do our understanding of what did or did not happen at Sinai really matter when it comes to making this world a better place? To what degree are the different understandings of Revelation or different movements of Jewish life still  relevant? So yes, I have fallen into the same trap of movement.  I call myself an Orthodox Rabbi.  But when asked what I am I will say that I am an Open Orthodox Rabbi.  And to a great degree I am still waiting to meet more Open Reform, Open Conservative, Open Reconstuctionist, Open Haredi, and Open Humanist colleagues. Repairing our fractured community scarred by a history of fighting movements might feel like moving mountains, but I hope it will make our community more sustainable.

On Open Leadership

Recently I was reading the second book by Charlene Li. Her first book Groundswell made- well – a groundswell in helping many people understand the use of social technologies. Her second book is called “ Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead“. Openness requires more — not less — rigor and effort than being in control. Li includes suggestions that will help an organization determine an “open strategy”, weigh the benefits against the risk, and have a clear understanding of the implications of being open.

While there are many who mocked it, in reading this book I realized how prescient Yeshivat Chovevei Torah was in coining “Open Orthodoxy“. While this sub-brand of Orthodoxy has nothing to do with technology, it does aim to speak to the culture of the 21st century.  Our culture today is manifest in the emergent technologies of social media. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah strives to walk Li’s line of being open, transparent, and authentic. Obviously we have stumbled along the way, but all great organizations need to risk failure if they are truly striving for excellence.

Being Open Orthodox does not mean being more lax in observance of Halakha, it means being more rigorous in opening that process to more people. If we hope to live in a world in which Judaism speaks to Jews we will need to re-imagine Rabbinic control of information and wisdom. We need to explore new ways of thinking about how we can empower more Jews to make choices that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish. This will not happen by controlling the message, but by developing a nuanced openness strategy.  I am proud to be a graduate of YCT and an Open Orthodox Rabbi.


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