Posts Tagged 'URJ'

Revolutionary Growth

It was a real pleasure attending the URJ Bienial last week. While I am not quite ready to make aliyah to Reform Judaism, I have to admit that I am taken by Rabbi Rick Jacob’s ideal of audacious hospitality.  The Reform community is strong and under Rabbi Jacob’s direction they are moving in a great direction. It was exciting seeing over five thousand people unapologetically  together taking on the Jewish future. Being there I got a sense that they all understand their collective mission to manifest the welcoming tent of Avraham and Sarah. One of the most impressive aspects of Rabbi Jacob’s leadership has been his marshaling of serious resources behind the Campaign for Jewish Youth. One of the main agenda items taken up by this campaign has been Rabbi Bradley Solmsen’s B’nai Mitzah Revolution. At the Biennial I got to learn more about the revolution. They shared some of the innovations they are taking nationally in terms of refitting this coming of age ceremony for the 21st Century family. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to check out this website.

I was thinking about this revolution when looking at Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. The Levite child is saved from the river by Batya, Pharoah’s Daughter. She gets his biological mother to nurse him. After this we read:

And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out to his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. ( Exodus 2:10-11)

On this, Rashi points out the redundancy of saying that he grew up twice. The simple meaning is that the first growth was Moses being weened and the second is his coming of age. Interesting enough that is not the answer that Rashi brings. Instead he quotes the midrash:

Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai said the first mention of growth is in terms of his physical stature and the second mention of growth is in terms of attainment of rank as Pharaoh appointed him over his household. ( Tanchuma Yashan Va’eira 17)

For Rashi, this growing up happens later in life. According to Rashi, Moses comes of age in growing physically and later comes of age with his responsibilities. It is clear to me that today, more than ever, our children are not grown up when they become a bar or bat mitzvah. While I truly appreciate the need to rethink what is B’nai Mitvah, might we just say that becoming 12 or 13 is not the right time? While we might claim that our children are physically grown in some ways, they are clearly not yet the age of being responsible or having achieved any rank. This ritual cannot carry the burden of a Jewish future. ( I encourage you to read another post on this topic.) Thinking about this imagination of Moses taking over Pharaoh’s household, might I suggest another revolution?

What would it look like for us to have a Wedding Revolution? A few months ago I responded to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, who was pushing the Conservative community to rethink their stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I wanted to share. Rabbi Cosgrove’s sentiment was echoed in Rabbi Jacob’s call for audacious hospitality. Why marginalize people who want join our community? Let’s get them in the door through the coming of age ceremony of getting married and then worry about converting or not converting.

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

So here is the revolutionary idea. Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts in order to get married? I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  But this new mandate would deal with the sexism and the experience that anyone is being excluded. It is just the part of the new wedding ceremony. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment? Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency and in turn its own revolution.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. The part I most enjoyed about Rabbi Jacob’s keynote address was his articulating that Reform is not less authentic then Chabad or any other form of Jewish life. I would assume that every branch of Jewish life will have their own assumptions about defining an authentic conversion, but why not recreate the new wedding/conversion to conform to these values regardless of gender or lineage. And do not claim that it is too hard. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and making a Jewish household is worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance. Blind to their gender or lineage they would go through this process. Surely getting married is a more logical time to claim that someone is ” grown up” and ready to attain the rank as co-head of a household.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative and Reform Judaism also presents Orthodox Jews a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy a  humra – religious stringency, that will benefit the the entire Jewish community. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs. Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Audacious hospitality deserves more audacious revolutions.

Muscular Judaism

In the Gemara Brachot we learn of a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) which seems to be based on Eikev, this week’s Torah portion (Berachot 35b). In this we find the second passage of the Sh’ma. There we read:

And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. ( Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

Rashbi says a person should learn Torah the entire day and somehow that person will find a way to support himself and his family. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and maintains that a person should combine Torah with derech eretz- the way of the world. In this context that means balancing learning and working to earn a living.

In another place in the Gemara we learn the story of when the Rashbi spoke out against the Roman government and their brazen devotion to their own physical needs (Shabbat 33 ). Out of fear of being killed by the Romans he and his son went to hide in the Bet Midrash, but they feared being caught so they escaped to a cave. There they lived on water and the fruit from a miraculous carob tree. By day they covered themselves in dirt and learned. When it came time to pray they would get out and put on their clothing. If you came in the middle of the day you would see two people learning submerged up to their heads. Or rather you would see the realization of the Rashbi’s ideal. He and his son had escaped to be living their disembodied existence learning Torah. In juxtaposition, Rabbi Yishmael claims that we need to balance our lives between our heads, hearts, and hands.

This disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rashbi seems still to be unresolved today. It is not just manifest in the division between the Haredi Kollel society and the rest of the Jewish community. This disagreement can be seen in the very nature of Rabbinic Judaism itself. How much of what we call authentic Jewish living is itself lived with our bodies? For most Jews today even prayer, which was the one thing that the Rashbi needed to put his clothing on for, has become a disembodied gender-less experience. The Zionist had a clear response to this disembodied rabbinic Jewish life, but moving to Israel is clearly not the answer of Jewish continuity for all Jews or even for all Israelis for that matter. So what would Rabbi Yishmael’s response be in the 21st Century?

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro North Carolina. There I had the pleasure of seeing Rabbis and Jewish educators training and playing with the campers. In these moments I saw Judaism take the field and become relevant in their lives. I have no doubt that this will have a long-term impact on the campers, but I am also curious to see if it has long-term impact on Judaism itself. Besides being a great sports camp serving the Reform Jewish community, 6 Points is emerging as a laboratory exploring the deeper meaning of muscular Judaism. In a profound way they are the students of Rabbi Yishmael.


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