Posts Tagged 'Pluralism'

Cut Ourselves: Re’eh and an Argument for Competition

The continuity conversation seems to occupy most of the communal conversations. Be it the Jewish communal servant or the volunteer, we often sound like conspiracy theorists looking for the magic bullet that will save our community. In fact there is not ever going to be one solution. If we hope to make it into the 22nd Century a nation we will need a wide array of different approached to ensure our collective vitality.

I was thinking about this where reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

The plain meaning of this prohibition is tattooing our bodies because this represents our holiness to God. On this Rashi comments:

You shall neither cut yourselves: Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out. ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 14:1)

Rashi emphasizes the issue of imitating our neighbors with these tattoos. In the Talmud we see a completely different read on these prohibition. There we learn:

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse “you shall not cut yourselves”, which means do not form separate groups. (Yebamot 13b)

It is not about cutting our corporeal bodies, but rather dividing our national corporation. What is the fear of cutting the people of Israel into different groups?

In our era we have seen a wonderful proliferation of different expressions of Jewish life. While this might give cause for a sense of hope, still others like Reish Lakish  fear that we are losing a sense of a common Jewish life. While I too have that fear, I know collectively we will be better off continuing to differentiate creating many niche forms of Jewish life. While this will put certain stress on our resources it will foster a healthy competition for the nature of Jewish life. This regression to Reish Lakish’s point of view makes Judaism stale and not relevant (see suburban big top synagogue) and gives rise to the corruption and being ineffective (see the Rabanut in Israel). In our era it might be that cutting in different competing units itself is what makes us as a collective so holy.



The Greatest: Ali and a Strong Pluralism

Considered to be the greatest sports picture in the 20th Century, I have not been able to get this image of Muhammad Ali out of my head since he passed away last week.

Neil Leifer’s photograph captures the 23 -year-old heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over the 34-year-old Sonny Liston. Ali had snatched the title from Liston 15 months earlier. One minute and 44 second into the first round, Ali hit Liston in the chin putting Liston down on the mat. In this iconic image Ali is screaming, “Get up and fight, sucker!”

This picture captures the image pf the spirit of a true competitor and gives us some insight into the life of a great athlete. In his life Ali was the consummate fighter. Fighting in the ring, fighting the draft, fighting racism, and fighting Parkinson’s. As President Roosevelt talked about in his famous 1910 Man in the Arena speech, even Ali failed he failed valiantly while ” daring greatly”.

In addition to all of this, this image of Ali standing over Liston has also come to symbolize my commitment to pluralism. I am not talking about the weak  sauce modern pluralism of “I am OK Your OK”. Just telling everyone “You Be You”  runs the risk of cultivating cold and dispassionate society in which no one cares about each other. I am talking about a strong pluralism in which there is actual mutuality and a sense of family while at the same time making room for deviance, diversity, and real differences. My commitment to pluralism is not despite my Orthodoxy , but because of it. As an Orthodox Jew by definition I think that my life choices are right. So what is my commitment to pluralism?

Living a life committed to Halacha is the greatest, but we are only our best when our competitors are at their best.  In my pluralism I want everyone to get up and fight. I sincerely hope that everyone else feels the same way. Together we need to make sure that everyone is at their best, only then will be mean something to win the title.

On One Kedusha

Not to limit either, but traditional Judaism tends to spend much more of their resources toward keeping the ritual elements of our religious practice holy while turning a blind eye to the greater needs of global poverty and justice. In a similar way, liberal Judaism has tended to skip the ritualism and instead stress how we might create a just planet. I was thinking about this when reading through  Kedoshim, this week’s Torah Portion. There  we learn that holiness is realized through certain behaviors. The examples given here are keeping Shabbat, being in awe of one’s father and mother, not worshiping idols, giving charity, being honest, and the paying of wages on time. The Torah does not give us two lists for how to achieve Kedusha, holiness, in our lives. There is one integrated list. We all need to strive to do our part to make sure that the collective Jewish people are achieving our goal of a sustainable global contribution.

If there is nothing else that I have tried to convey in my past 10 years as a Rabbi, it is that just as there is really only one unified understanding of Kedusha, there is one Jewish people. Here in the messy middle of pluralism we get tangled up in all of the complexities of what we really think of Holiness. Yes, it some times hurts, but we never have to hide who we are. We are all asked to bring our whole selves to the conversation of Holiness. It is my belief that we will only be holy as a collective when each of us are given the room to be whole.

Wake Up Call

As a regular Shul-goer there is part of me that gets a little annoyed when the synagogue needs to open up their accordion-walls for all of the three-time-a-year Jews.  I could claim that my annoyance is due to the fact that I like my space, but there is clearly something else afoot. I am not proud of the fact, but seeing that it is so close to Yom Kippor I can at the least start working on this my admitting that the feeling is real. My fellow parishioners have not done anything wrong, the issue is clearly my own.

I was thinking of this recently when I had the pleasure of meeting with Eitan Tako the new Central Shaliach , emissary, for the Habonim Dror Youth Movement. Habonim has seven camps around North America. And while they are a small in terms of numbers, they are mighty. You might think there is little for an Orthodox Rabbi to talk about with a secular socialist Zionist movement, but when we get together we can just go on for hours. When I met Eitan for the first time I asked him the origin of his last name. As the story goes one of his ancestors was a Shamash in the synagogue in Iraq and he used to go around to wake people up for shacharit and Slichot by knocking on people’s doors and windows. Knocking on door In Arabic is “tako el baab“. So his ancestor was the village door knocker  and Eitan’s last name is Tako.

Sitting with Eitan I wanted to share an important story in my life, the story of Weiss Shendor. And as the story goes:

In the midst of the Holocaust, a brilliant Torah Scholar, Ha-Rav Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal (who had been an anti-Zionist but changed his opinion during the Holocaust), delivered a Dvar Torah in Slovakia when he returned there during some stage of his hiding from the Nazis. He was responding to the Ultra-Orthodox view against returning to Eretz Yisrael because of the secular nature of Zionism. He said: What can we say, how can we speak and how can we justify ourselves? God has found the sin of your servant.
I will tell you a story: In a small town there was a Shamash of a Shul who died, leaving behind a widow. The people of the community thought about how they could provide her with some financial support, for at that time there was no pension for widows. Perhaps it would be possible to allow her to continue the work of her late husband. On the other hand – it is not proper for a woman to serve as the Shamash of a Shul. Eventually it was decided that she would carry out those activities that could be performed outside of the synagogue, while the tasks of the Shamash during prayer times would be filled by the worshippers themselves, on a voluntary basis. Thus the woman would be able to continue earning the salary that her husband had received.
It came time for “Selichot,” and as part of her job the woman had to get up and go about from house to house in the village, waking the people for Selichot. She took the special “Selichot Klopper” in her hand and headed for the most distant house in the village – the home of Weiss Shendor. When she knocked on the door, Weiss Shendor awoke, alarmed at the disturbance at such an unusual hour. When he opened the door and saw the wife of the Shamash, he asked what she wanted. She explained that as part of her duties she had to go from house to house, waking everyone for Selichot. When Weiss Shendor heard this, he tried to persuade her that it was not seemly for a woman to go about outside so early in the morning, in such cold and wet weather, and that it would be better if he did the job in her stead. The woman accepted the offer and handed him the “Selichot Klopper,” and Weiss Shendor set off to wake up the people.
Upon knocking at the first house he was asked to identify himself. He answered, “I am Weiss Shendor, and I have taken it upon myself to wake up the people for Selichot.” The house owner was incensed. “Weiss Shendor? A pork-eater like you isn’t going to wake me for Selichot!” With that he slammed the door and went back to sleep.
He went off to the second house and again came the question, “Who is it?” Again he gave the same reply, and again the same response: “Weiss Shendor? A Shabbat desecrator like you will not come and wake me for Selichot!” Again a door was slammed in his face. The same thing happened at the next house: “A swindler and gambler like you will not wake me for Selichot!” – and so on, at every house throughout the entire village. The wake-up round ended with nothing more to show for itself than a trail of scorn and disdain. Not a single person got up for Selichot.
When the congregation was gathered for the morning davening, the Rabbi asked: “What happened this year – no one came to the Shul for Selichot?” The people started justifying themselves and explaining that it was all Weiss Shendor’s fault. He was a shady character who was notorious throughout the village. Because it was he who had come to awaken them for Selichot, each of them had refused to come.
“Fools!” responded the Rabbi. “It’s true that Weiss Shendor is guilty of everything that you’ve accused him, but at this time he was waking you for Selichot. He wasn’t doing any of the bad things that he’s known for. So why didn’t you get up?”

Here Rav Teichtal burst into tears and shouted: It’s true that the Zionists desecrate Shabbat and so forth, but it was they who awakened the Nation and shouted: “Get out of the rubble, the non-Jews hate us, there is no place for us, except in Eretz Yisrael” – and we didn’t listen!
(This version is quoted from Rav Aviner and based on the testimony of Mordechai Rosenfeld, who was present during Rav Teichtal’s talk, as recorded in Be-Sheva, vol. 163, 3 Tishrei 5766).

Retelling this story to Eitan Tako of Habonim I found myself thinking, I need to wake up. I know that these three-time-a-year Jews are also coming to wake me up. I need to work past any judgement I have, actually get up out of bed, and figure out what I am supposed to do.  We all have something unique to contribute to the world to make it a better place this coming year. I wish all of Klal Yisrael a Gmar Chatima Tova.

*For another reference to profound Torah of Rabbi Teichtal see A Joyous Mother of Children: Gilad Shalit

Cornerstone Excitement

Two weeks ago at this time I was at Capital Camps in Pennsylvania. I go there twice a year on a trip for the Cornerstone Fellowship. I am really excited about Cornerstone this year. While it could be the record number of camps participating in our largest seminar yet or the number of campers whose lives will be enriched their Cornerstone role models back at camp this summer, neither is the reason. In every respect, Cornerstone is committed to role modeling. That is not limited to the work that we hope the Fellows do in the summer or even the May seminar. Role modeling is also critical to our winter planning seminar.

We do not just hire staff and tell them to do a job; we bring them up to the site to train them and run through what we are looking to see in May. And we are not just doing that, we take time away to have them model sessions with their peers and get feedback from each other. In the words of Jonah Canner, one of our returning Cornerstone faculty members:

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, as an experiential educator, to have opportunities to play the role of participant in workshops and activities that are similar in nature to the ones that I am often the facilitator of. It lets me see other facilitator’s styles, remember what it is like to be facilitated, and step outside of my own creative process, to learn from and provide feedback to my peers. Perhaps most importantly it reminds to not over think things, to not be too complicated. It reminds me that in experiential education; most of the heavy lifting is done by the participants. As a facilitator my job is to frame the experience in context and reflection. My job is to create a safe place where the participants can trust me, trust each other, and trust themselves. My job is to bring them in and then get out of the way. (from Jonah’s blog)

At the core we are doing something unique at Cornerstone. Every year we are exploring what it means to be enriched by Jewish pluralism. Cornerstone is not about the small reading of pluralism, meaning orchestrating everyone playing together nicely in the sandbox. Cornerstone aspires to motivate Jewish cultural change at camp by inspiring and empowering fellows and liaisons to develop and implement experiential programming for campers and staff that speaks to the diversity of Jewish life while embracing a variety of learning styles and modes of expression. This starts with the faculty loving being part of a community that celebrates diversity and is enriched by excellence. I left our winter retreat inspired by all of the ways to be and express what it might mean to be Jewish. I am confident that when the Cornerstone Fellows arrive in May they will follow our lead and want to bring their best forward.

-As posted on the Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog

Standing This Day

At the beginning of this week’s double portion, Nitzavim- VeYelech, we read:

9 You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, 10 your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water… 13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath;   14 but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.  (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

If it happened at all, revelation happened thousands of years ago at Sinai. What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to embrace the special relationship with each other and the holy Other at that moment of Revelation.

We at the Foundation for Jewish Camp are ideologically pluralistic. We celebrate that we all experienced that moment differently but still enjoy the notion that we were all there. This memory itself fosters Jewish unity and empowers individuals to increased Jewish knowledge on their own terms. The diversity of camps we work with speaks to the diversity of needs of the families in our community. While each camp thinks it is completely unique, when they meet a camp person from another camp they realize how much they actually have in common. From the camp director to first time camper, from the maintenance staff to the veteran counselor, every summer we are blessed to reconvene these holy Jewish communities at camp. Even if geographically they are all over North America and ideologically they are all doing their part in building the larger Jewish community. But why limit it to just those days of summer?

It seems fitting on this Shabbat, in which we recall being together at Sinai, we think about the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Last year the Global Day of Jewish Learning was conceived to mark the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental translation on the Talmud. The inaugural event was a huge success reaching every corner of the Jewish world with 600 events in 400 communities in 48 countries. If you are interested in reconnecting to this moment when we were all together at Sinai think about getting your camp community together during the off season to hold or join a Global Day of Jewish Learning event on November 13th. Check out their website and be in touch with us if we can help.

– As seen on Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog


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