The Kotel has a remarkable hold on people. I remember my first visit there, and not knowing at all what to feel. Or, I should say, I knew that I wanted to feel emotionally moved, but I couldn’t muster any raw emotions. I faked crying, because it seemed like the right thing to do. I walked up to it, touched it, prayed a little, then returned to my group.
On my dozens of visits to the Kotel, I still marvel at its beauty and am impressed by its historical significance. I love teaching students about the ancient Temple and the beauty of the Herodian architecture. But… for the most part, it’s just a wall to me. There’s a part of me, buried deep next to that part of me that still enjoys watching Sesame Street, that still wants to have a more deeply emotional experience. But at the end of the day… it’s just a wall.
Unless you believe that the Kotel itself holds some mystical or religious power, then the wall is ultimately a symbol. It’s a powerful and important one, but a symbol at that. Even if you desire to see the Temple rebuilt, the collection of bricks currently being fought over is still symbolic.
Unless you believe that there is some divinity imbued in a retaining wall built by “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis,” then all of the conversations about the Kotel are ultimately about human matters. They are directed upwards to God, and have to do with how we conduct ourselves in matters of holiness, but they are, at the end of the day, about us.
This understanding seems to be missing from all of the self-congratulating and triumphalism taking place in the wake of the recent agreement on an enhanced non-Orthodox prayer space at the Kotel.
A wall is a wall – whether you pray at the northern edge or the southern edge, you’re standing in front of the same bricks. So we’re not actually talking about the wall itself. We’re talking about what it represents. What this discussion is really about is the symbolism of having a presence (or non-presence) at the Kotel.
In that light, I must admit that I am flummoxed by all of the celebrating taking place within progressive Jewish movements. I count no less than six triumphant emails from various arms of the Reform Movement, and dozens of Facebook posts celebrating victory.
What victory? The new plan is a symbolic step backwards that creates a new separate-but-equal status. Orthodox women who want to pray according to their understanding of halakhah, or who want to read from a sefer Torah, or wear T’fillin in a non-egalitarian setting are out of luck.
What triumph? The new plan relegates non-Orthodox Jewish prayer to a small parcel of space, on a far corner, out of sight, and out of mind of the “real” Kotel. It is the symbolic back of the bus.
But course, separate-but-equal is not equal. This is not an issue that can be swept to the outer edges of an archaeological park.
Jews have experience sustaining themselves when forced into a ghetto and when forcibly exiled. Those who are going to Robinson’s Arch are allowing themselves to be willingly exiled from a sacred site Jews have yearned for centuries. And they are using a trick from the religious-imagination playbook to put a pleasant spin on it: they are already calling the new space “the Kotel” just as Jews call their own table, after the destruction of the Temple, “mini-tabernacle” or mishkan me’at. In that place of exile, they will long for some future redemption that, to my mind, is far more significant than a spot for prayer: having freedom from Orthodox hegemony in the areas of marriage, divorce and conversion.
Anshell Pfeffer, In a scathing critique of any claims of success, comments in Haaretz on how “ridiculous” the shouts of victory and triumph are in the name of religious pluralism and egalitarianism:
Even if Reform Jews get a small corner at the foot of the outer walls of Herod’s Temple, that they can share with all the other non-orthodox Jews, their status within the Israeli establishment will not have improved… [The agreement] is a complete capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox establishment and acceptance of the fact that the most fanatical stream of modern Judaism continues to rule Israel, and the Jewish world’s most revered sites, without having to see women performing their own prayers, with a sefer torah. That is the bottom line. The fundamentalists have won.
The bottom line, indeed. For the Orthodox hegemony of the Kotel, nothing has changed. Orthodox prayer remains the standard at the site that – in the eyes of Israelis and Jews – will always remain the symbolically “true” Kotel. And the upstart Jewish women who wanted to pray joyously with the Torah, Tallit, and Tefillin are once again relegated into oblivion.
At the site symbolic of our long exile, another group of pious Jews has once again been exiled.
Some thoughts on the universalist and particularist philosophies of the Haggadah, from a paper I wrote last year. You can read the entire paper here, with its comparative study of three different Haggadot (Orthodox, Reform and Israeli).
While Jewish communities and individual Jews have long understood themselves in context of their place in the wider societies in which they have lived (the Talmud recounts, for example, a number of rules regarding how Jews should conduct themselves while under Roman rule), for most of its history Judaism has been a largely particularistic tradition, chiefly concerned with its own ongoing narrative and how Jews should behave qua Jews. As much as the Talmud understands Judaism to exist within a larger universe, it also establishes a hierarchy of values vis à vis internal Jewish responsibility:
A member of one’s household takes precedence over everyone else. The poor of one’s household take precedence over the poor of one’s city. And the poor of one’s own city take precedence over the poor of other cities. 
Rabbi David Ellenson comments that this Talmudic passage “bespeaks the primacy our tradition assigns the Jewish covenantal community in the Jewish hierarchy of values.” 
It was not until modernity that consciousnesses emerged within Judaism seeking to understand how Jews should behave and understand their heritage with a more universalistic outlook. Of particular note is how these new traditions played themselves out literarily, as Jewish philosophers and religious leaders attempted to articulate a new Jewish religious identity that wasn’t primarily inward-looking. Leopold Zunz – founder of the Wissenschaft des Judentums – argued that this philosophical character of Jewish literature can only be described paradoxically: simultaneously concerned with Jewish identity and Jewish otherness; of “particularism and universalism.” 
There is no text that straddles the boundary between particularism and universalism more acutely than the Pesach Haggadah’s retelling of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks posits that “the story of Pesach is intensely particularistic… yet no story has had greater impact on the political development of the West… [it] has been the West’s most influential source-book of liberty.” 
Andreas Gotzman and Christian Wiese point to the inevitability of this tension in arguing that it is necessary for a style of literature that simultaneously reflects on its own particularities, as well as its historical and cultural relationship with surrounding peoples.” 
Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, in his commentary on the Haggadah, notes that it is sometimes viewed as telling the story of the birth of a specific nation and people, while at other times, viewed as a “universalistic political statement, an affirmation that tyranny will be overcome in all places and at all times.”  In this textual interplay, the Haggadah makes use of biblical themes highly amenable to universalistic interpretations: freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and responsibility.
That said, while individual Haggadot are free to interpret and express these themes in their own universalistic ways, the Haggadah’s traditional paradigm remains largely particularistic to a specifically Jewish narrative.
The Haggadah’s role in the textual debate between Jewish universalism and particularism should not be understated. Thanks to the ease of modern publishing, one can find a plethora of Haggadot that emphasize and de-emphasize these ideological poles. To be sure, in 2014, Israeli journalist Mira Sucharov penned an article in Ha’aretz prior to Pesach asking Israelis the pointed question: “Are you a particularist Jew or a universalist one?” 
Each Haggadah – in dialogue with its own sitz im leben – puts forth a different paradigm of the Exodus narrative, applying varying degrees of particularism and universalism.
In 2002, at the age of 18, I visited Walt Disney World for the first time. My sister was 15, and waiting until this point in our lives to make the trek to Orlando was a supremely wise decision on my parents’ part, as it removed a lot of the stress that accompanies visiting the home of the world’s most famous mouse. No screaming children begging to go on every ride; no crying at not being able to decide what to do next (well, almost no crying); this was to be a fun and pretty smooth vacation.
Today, 13 years later, Walt Disney World has just finished a billion-dollar, half-decade process of innovation and invention which has radically redefined what it means to experience the Most Magical Place on Earth. With the introduction of the MagicBand, a new user electronic wristband that augments visits through the park, Disney has not just manufactured a new piece of technology, they have manufactured a new philosophy.
Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved… You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please…
[The Magic Band] change[s] almost every detail of the meticulously plotted choreography that rules Disney World itself…
Instead of telling your kid that you’ll try to meet Elsa or ride It’s a Small World… you get to be the hero, promising a ride or a meet-and-greet up front. Then you can be freer to experience the park more broadly. You’re freed to take advantage of more rides. There is an elegant business logic here. By getting people exploring beyond the park’s top attractions, overall use of the park goes up. People spend less time in line.They’re doing more, which means they’re spending more and remembering more.
The old philosophy of a guest at Disney World might be summed up in the question: “What do I do next?” Which ride do I go on? What do I want to eat? What souvenir am I going to purchase? Anyone who has been to Disney World knows that while exciting, this has the potential to be incredibly overwhelming. Instead of a question, Disney’s new philosophy – as represented by the MagicBand – seems to be more akin to an emphatic declaration of awe, punctuated at the end by an interrobang: “This is what I am doing!?” The subtext of this interrobang being “WOW!”
THE DILEMMA OF CHOICE
A key element in Disney’s thought-process has been an understanding of the myriad ways that our world has very quickly been transformed into one with endless new choices and endless entertainment options. Tom Staggs, Chief Operating Officer of the Walt Disney Company observes that the theme park has “a strange dilemma that echoes the dilemmas we face in our digital lives… Walt Disney World is vast. There’s more to do than you could do in a month. That choice is overwhelming.”
Unless you are particularly fickle, the ability to make choices is usually thought of as a pretty good thing. So Disney’s philosophical reduction of choice might seem somewhat counterintuitive. But in doing so, they have created new and richer opportunities to experience the depth of Disney World.
Judaism should be doing the same thing. For those invested in bringing people into the wonderful world of Jewish thought, ritual, and community, we should avoid the temptation to present an overwhelming kingdom of choices. We should instead work to reduce the barriers to having more meaningful experiences (excessive choice being a prime example).
There’s a cognitive science to this – something Disney has embraced and turned into practice. Remove choice (with careful intention), and you actually increase depth of experience. Akin to what Disney has done, we can get people to explore Judaism beyond the top attractions (the High Holidays), we can have people spending less time in parking lots (literally), and more time doing; more time remembering.
WE ARE NOT COMMANDED (EXCEPT WHEN WE WANT TO BE)
The centrality of autonomy, choice, and agency are often espoused as the defining hallmarks of Reform Judaism. While at one point in recent history, there were a number of other characteristics that defined Reform Judaism as absolutely distinct from other Jewish religious movements (gender egalitarianism, use of musical instruments, patrilineality, welcoming of different sexual orientations), these distinctions have largely blurred amongst contemporary liberal/progressive Jewish philosophies. What remains is an almost rigid insistence on the place of choice in the life of Reform Jews as the essential religious component of being a Reform Jew.
But do other Jews not also have the capacity for choice? Of course! What is distinct about Reform Judaism it is not the simple idea of choice in determining one’s religious practices (which every human being is entitled to, even according to the most stringent Jewish teachings), but the theological belief that God does not command us to do anything. Instead, in Reform Judaism, human autonomy is raised up as the most significant factor in defining one’s religious practices.
Reform Judaism has a troubled relationship with the implications of choice. Each Jew is allowed to personally choose which commandments are relevant, but the notion of commandedness is not entirely expunged. Sometimes, when the circumstances merit it, the idea of commandedness sneaks in:
The ancient command “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, justice shall you seek!” constantly reverberates in our ears. It has become deeply embedded in the Reform Jewish psyche.
Appearing on the Union for Reform Judaism’s website (bold emphasis my own), this is an example of how commandedness is often evoked, when attached to issues of social justice. Yet a similar understanding of commandedness has not become deeply embedded the Reform Jewish psyche when it comes to matters of study, worship, or ritual practice. It seems that commandedness only applies to things which a liberal-minded person was already predisposed to do.
This raises all sorts of theological quandaries. When Reform Jews recite blessings to God, uttering the words “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu…” (who has sanctified us with His commandments, commanding us to…), do they actually believe, for example, that God commands the study of Torah, or the wearing of tzitzit? If so, does that not cause cognitive dissonance with identifying as a Reform Jew? If not, is that not theologically disingenuous?
FREE WILL vs. AUTONOMY
I don’t believe that most of the million or so people who call themselves Reform Jews are troubled by this, as I don’t believe most actually think that much about the theological implications of choice and commandedness. I think that if and when most Reform Jews speak of choice, what they are really talking about is a sense of free will (which is easy to understand), rather than a sense of theological autonomy (which is much more difficult to grasp).
In this case,free will simply describes the human condition and our cognitive ability to make choices (which every Jew has). Autonomy, on the other hand, is the capacity of an individual to make an un-coerced decision. Un-coerced, here, meaning un-coerced by none other than God. How audacious! It is unfortunate that the language of coercion is negative, but it is still apt. Put in a more positive light, I would make the case that a Jew who makes a religious choice out of a sense of obligation to God most certainly acts from a place of free will, but views their choices as defined by and in relationship to something larger than themselves. This is not autonomous choice.
But this, too, is a very human idea! When a parent makes choices for their family, they do not do so absent a sense of responsibility and obligation to their family members. Would a parent ever describe the loving care of their children as autonomous? We can see ourselves in relationship with God in the same way – able to make choices freely, but not absent an understanding of wider implications.
From my perspective, these ideas of responsibility and relationship are frequently neutered in Reform Judaism in the name of an almost stubborn defence of free will as ideologically central. A few years ago, Rabbi Leon Morris called attention to this absurdity, noting that “trying to build a movement on the basis of this term is like trying to build a nation around the assertion that ‘it’s a free country.’ Of course, we would say, but there is so much more that follows.”
That sense of “so much more that follows” is what comes with the obligations of relationship. And that is what is so often missing from Reform Jewish thought and practice. The language of obligation that often accompanies ideas of social justice and tikkun olam is nice, but unless you believe that God commands it, there is nothing explicitly Jewish about saying that we are obligated to protect the planet earth. On the other hand, there is something explicitly Jewish about saying that we are obligated to wear tzitzit and tefillin.
Of course, neither of these senses of obligation are mutually exclusive, which is precisely why both appear together throughout Jewish thought. Together being the operative word – we can maintain a commitment to the prophetic ideals of human responsibility to one another without casting away our obligation to God’s commandments. Indeed, both inform one another. There is no reason why Prophet and Priest cannot walk hand-in-hand.
“YOU DON’T LEAVE ME NO CHOICE”
Bluntly assessing the consequences of Reform Judaism’s focus on choice, Rabbi Morris argues that:
A disproportionate emphasis on personal choice has ‘dumbed down’ our movement. While sometimes marketed as ‘informed choice,’ this rarely has meant more than learning a snippet of a classic text about a particular issue rather than the kind of immersion and wholesale commitment that ongoing learning requires.
While autonomy was once a compelling and revolutionary vision of what Judaism could be for people, it was bolstered by the simultaneous avant-garde social changes within Judaism that Reform was precipitating. But those social changes are now mostly widely-accepted social mores, so what we’re left with is a rather empty notion of free will. This is hardly revolutionary and hardly compelling.
This has also led to an enormous gap between the stated religious philosophies of the Reform Movement, and the common practices of the laity. As I’ve recently written, this presents some fairly significant challenges to maintaining personal and communal integrity.
The solution? Follow Disney’s innovative wisdom and get rid of (or at least tone down) the philosophy of choice. In creating the MagicBand, Disney removed significant elements of choice from the equation of a visit to Disney World. They did this, because they understood what is known as the paradox of choice: “You make people happier not by giving them more options but by stripping away as many as you can. The ability to plan and personalize has given way to spontaneity. And that feeling of ease, and whatever flows from it, just might make you more apt to come back.”
In mitigating the anxiety that comes from endless choices, Disney has crafted a new experience that allows for experiencing more moments of fun and excitement with significantly less barriers. People think less and do more. What is fun and excitement for Disney is religious meaning and significance for Judaism. Rabbi Morris, presciently writing in 2011, articulates Disney’s same idea, yet in Jewish terms:
Any forward-looking religious movement must come to terms with the fact that the religious communities experiencing the most growth and the greatest dynamism today are those that make real demands upon its members…
Personal choice may sound as though it is predicated on a high level of knowledge to be able to make such decisions. But the impetus for learning is greatest when one feels claimed by what one studies, and when there is a degree of engagement that joins the hand with the heart.
BIND IT AS A SIGN UPON YOUR HAND
A visitor to Disney World can now wear a MagicBand around their hand, carrying that impetus directly on their body. Of course, free will still exists for the Disney World guest, and they are enabled (indeed, empowered) to make suitable choices according to their interests. But with the overwhelming sense of choice toned down, guests are having richer experiences, exploring more beyond the top-hits, spending less time in lines, doing more, and remembering more. And Disney has the data to prove it.
If only there were some magical, innovative, Jewish device we could strap on to our wrists that would remind us of the same ideas, and provide the impetus for similar experiences within Judaism…
Does any single group or philosophy own the rights to this label?
Is it a monolithic concept – i.e. can you open up a book and see the definition of “traditional” Judaism?
Did anything come before “traditional” Judaism? What came after it? Where is it located in the world?
What larger forces might have impacted upon “traditional” Judaism to give rise to these other approaches?
Does the term “traditional” imply that there is “untraditional” Judaism?
What is “untraditional Judaism”?
If you call yourself something other than “traditional” Judaism, how does that empower you – i.e. what can you now do with that label that you couldn’t before?
There is an article making the rounds through part of the (online) Jewish world right now, penned by Rabbi Larry Milder of Congregation Beth Emek, a Reform synagogue in Northern California. In I’m Very Reform, Rabbi Milder argues against the conception of Reform Judaism as a watered-down version of what he labels “traditional approaches to Judaism.” He makes the case for a Reform Jewish practice that includes “a commitment to consider [Jewish] duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.” As I consider myself a fairly progressive Jew (though not Reform – see below), I appreciate Rabbi Milder’s desire to inject some more depth into progressive Jewish religiosity.
Many people shared the article, and I continued to see it pop up in my Facebook feed again and again. I had the occasion to read and reread Rabbi Milder’s words, and I began to see a problem bubbling to the surface. His writing was prompted as a lament against those who say to him “Rabbi, I grew up very Reform,” which is supposedly meant to indicate the level of their religious observance, i.e. that they “don’t do much that’s Jewish.”
This is a frustrating trope; one that is challenging when you consider the breadth of observance and depth of thought within the Reform Movement. Rabbi Milder rightly goes on to argue that the label “Reform” does not carry with it any stated level of observance (or non-observance, for that matter), ergo it is disingenuous to equate it with a non-serious approach to Judaism. That said, his entire subsequent argument rests on whether or not you understand “Reform” to be a prescriptive or a descriptive term.
PRESCRIPTIVE OR DESCRIPTIVE?
It seems to me that Rabbi Milder understands “Reform” to be a prescriptive term, as he notes that subscribing to this ideology and adopting its label entails a certain level of obligation. He defines this as follows:
“To be a Reform Jew is to approach Judaism seriously, to believe that being Jewish means being obligated. Reform Judaism is not a license to abandon one’s Jewish duties; it is a commitment to consider those duties with sincerity and to live Judaism with integrity.
If we understand “Reform” to be prescriptive, then Rabbi Milder is absolutely correct. His understanding of kashrut, Shabbat observance, Torah study, is a decidedly serious model for a deep and engaging approach to Jewish life, and he is right to be flummoxed by those who use the term “Reform” to mean “don’t do much Jewish.” His approach is an aspirational understanding of what Judaism can mean to people in 2015.
The challenge for us is that it is just that – aspirational – i.e. not reflective of the current reality. Aspiring to be more than what we are is essential to the human condition. The idea is also a valuable and important part of how Judaism understands itself in relationship to the world. But aspiration, while it looks beyond current realities, should not be detached from reality, particularly if it blinds us from confronting real challenges about our condition, and opportunities for growth.
Rabbi Milder’s emphatic defence of his own Reform Jewish practice unfortunately ignores the reality of Jewish life for the majority of self-defined Reform Jews today. The truth – as evidenced ad nauseam in the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews and its abundant commentary – is that for most of those who today identify as “Reform” (at least in the United States), Rabbi Milder’s definition of Jewish practice holds little semblance.
If we understand “Reform” to be more descriptive than prescriptive, then we begin to see the inherent challenges facing the Movement today. The reality is that most Reform Jews do not keep kosher, are not defining what they do from Friday to Saturday evening as Shabbat observance, and are not engaged in ongoing Torah study. To be sure, Rabbi Milder himself notes that he hears statements equating Reform with non-practice “all the time.” Is there not a serious dissonance if the majority of Reform Jews are not upholding the very values and behaviours that Rabbi Milder and the Movement define as Reform?
The fact that vast numbers of people use the term “Reform” to indicate the (lower) level of their Jewish ritual observance, and the Pew Survey’s corroboration, points to an important sociological trend that should not be ignored. Whether or not we particularly care for how people define (indeed self-define) “Reform,” should be a separate issue from discussing if that definition has truth.
This issue is reflective of wider gaps between laity and leadership, and is certainly not a phenomenon unique to the Reform Movement. But it is one that we cannot attempt to wash over, simply by encouraging people to consider themselves as Reform, even if their practice does not accurately reflect the supposedly prescriptive definition.
We should confront the reality head-on: for the majority of Reform Jews, at least according to the metrics which Rabbi Milder has established, identifying as “Reform” does indeed equal a lower degree of ritual observance. And if that is a reality with which we are uncomfortable, we should not isolate ourselves into a bubble by saying “no no no, that’s not what Reform Judaism is really about,” instead, we should work to change the reality. This is where aspiration comes into play.
Do we want those who identity as Reform Jews to see themselves as more than instead of less than? Do we want them to engage in more serious Jewish practice? Do we want to aspire to be more than what we currently are? Do we want to envision a world where “Reform” isn’t a minimalist descriptive label, but an aspirational prescription for seriousness and depth?
If so, we need to confront another challenge, one that underlies Rabbi Milder’s arguments, and one that comes to light when considering the role that aspiration plays in Jewish life.
The standard to which Rabbi Milder measures his practice throughout his writing is an unidentified “traditional approach” to Judaism. I’d like to know to which “tradition” this refers. Is it traditional Ashkenazi Orthodoxy? Is it traditional Sephardi Judaism? Is it traditional American Judaism? Is it traditional Canadian Judaism? Unfortunately, it remains undefined, aside from a reference to halakha, so we are left to assume that “traditional” refers to some vague notion of Orthodox Judaism, which, by virtue of being “traditional,” is seen as more authentic.
Rabbi Milder refers to “traditional definitions” of Shabbat, “traditional Jewish prayers,” and “traditional prohibitions” of kashrut, and that his own “Reform” practices do not follow these “traditions.” But whose traditions are they? Do they not belong to all Jews? Are they not ours, too?! By labeling these “Reform” practices as “not something else” and judging them against the “traditional,” we give weight to an external (presumably Orthodox) standard. But all Jews own and have access to our tradition!
I believe this idea is encountered far too often by too many Jews: that Orthodox Judaism is the metric by which all other expressions of Judaism should be measured. Moreover, I believe that this idea is flawed and unattractive to most Jews searching for depth and meaning in their lives. People crave authenticity, and to sell ourselves as detached from our own tradition neuters this authenticity.
To be sure, there is no singular “traditional” Judaism. The assumption that there is remains one of the most challenge assumptions that progressive Jews face – case in point, note how Israel’s adoption of an official state version of Judaism leads to disengagement and disenfranchisement from Jewish life.
I ultimately question the need for most Jewish labels. What energy does the label “Reform” provide us when held against the label “traditional”? Are these labels even opposites? Why choose one over the other? If we are going to label our Judaism, shouldn’t the label add something rather than limit it?
No one label, group, or movement can claim to be the sole proprietors of Jewish tradition. Tradition is something which we have all inherited, and must wrestle with on a daily basis if we are to be the practitioners of a serious Judaism of integrity (Rabbi Milder’s own stated goal).
Suggesting that contemporary Shabbat, Kashrut, Torah study, and other Jewish practices are less “traditional” removes from them a sense of authenticity and relevancy to most Reform Jews – which is precisely why these Reform Jews continue to define themselves as less-than. Less than whom? Less than the Orthodox who we are holding up as the de facto owners of “traditional” Judaism!
If we want Reform Jews to see themselves as more-than instead of less-than; if we want Reform laity to aspire to greater depth of Jewish living, if we want Jews to aspire to great seriousness and meaning in their lives, then we must all take full ownership of our tradition. It belongs to all Jews, everywhere.
A full-disclosure point: I have strong ties to the Reform Movement. My family joined a Reform synagogue in the Toronto suburbs when I was 8, and I went on to be strongly involved in Reform youth movements through university. Upon graduation, I worked for the Union for Reform Judaism, and am currently pursuing ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Do I consider myself a Reform Jew? No, I don’t think so. Can’t I just be Jewish?
I appreciate the sense of daily devotion required by a focus on close reading of Judaism’s classical texts. Inherent in the idea of text study is the notion that there is always something new to be learned; always some new grain of wisdom, or hint at a larger principle to be learned; there is always an opportunity to learn something new about the world.
What a beautiful gift we have been given, almost magical: the texts remain the same, yet the meaning grows and changes with us as we grow and change. Our own understanding transforms over time, yet the texts remain eternal.
It seems to me, then, that we should not treat our texts merely as books of wisdom to be pulled down off of the shelves when we need a juicy quote; that isn’t honouring their sacredness. Instead, we should be concerned with them on a daily basis, and should encourage this approach among those who we teach and guide.
In my own prayer practice, I am guided by the idea that we are meant to study six individual Torah episodes each and every day, with the understanding that they can have a positive influence on our daily behaviour and direct our intention throughout the day: Y’tziat Mitzrayim (to remove the bonds of slavery from all), Amalek (to always be on guard against evil), Ma’amad Har Sinai (to make Torah a part of daily life), Ma’aseh Eigel HaZahav (to beware of heresy), Korach (to prevent ego from overcoming), and Shabbat (to welcome the holiness of Shabbat each week). Indeed, the very exhortation to recall each of these episodes appears within our shacharit service, indicating the strong relationship between daily prayer, daily study, and our actions each day.
I believe that great spiritual meaning can be found in the close and daily study of text – almost bordering on prayerful moments. In that light, I am on guard to make sure to that my study of text does not merely become academic; that my study is always imbued with a reverence for the holiness within the text, and how my study can shape and affect my daily behavior.
“The infinite exists. It is there. If the infinite had no me, the me would be its limit; it would not be the infinite; in other words, it would not be. But it is. Then it has a me. This me of the infinite is God.” – Victor Hugo
A compilation, of sorts, of thoughts on the nature of God that I have had over the past decade…
Somewhere around ten years ago, I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between a young child and their mother. While I cannot remember the exact circumstances of the encounter – where we were, what time of day it was, whether the child was a boy or girl, or even why I was eavesdropping on a seemingly private conversation – I remember exactly what the child said, verbatim: “Mommy, is infinity bigger than God, or is God bigger than infinity?”
The quiet, inquisitive wisdom of this child – no older than four – blew me out of the water. As someone who grapples with questions about the nature of God, and also with my inability to comprehend the most basic elements of mathematics, I found the child’s question to be one that cut to the core of my own theological ponderings.
The question itself has long resonated within me in the context of a separate moment of learning I had, courtesy of Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. Vising my shul to lead a study session, she presented this idea: “Thinking about God is like thinking about infinity; you can do it, but it really hurts sometimes.”
I remember being younger and trying to think of infinity and actually getting cramps in my head. It still happens. The same happens when I think about the creation of the universe. Or the size of the universe. But especially when I think about God. I find it particularly comforting that even in Judaism where we have a plethora of ways to describe God, sometimes we need to stop and remember that God is bigger than us. Much bigger. So big, that at times, we can’t even think properly. It’s humbling.
Does an individual Jew have to believe in God to be a part of Judaism? I don’t think so. I believe that practicing Judaism demands recognition of the fact that you’re part of a culture with a narrative that has God as a central player, part of a people that have had a love affair with God for thousands of years. The narrative of this relationship is probably the central theme in the culture of this people.
Being a people means identifying with a shared memory and narrative and having responsibility for its future, its renaissance, its well being. That’s what Jews are. It’s like asking “Can a Frenchman be French without being Catholic?” Of course he can, but he has to understand that being French was built on the Catholic tradition.
We are taught that a Jew—never mind how he sins, even in the sin of apostasy—always remains a Jew. Jewish culture is not based on the individual Jew’s relationship to God, but rather on his relationship to his community and the community’s relationship to God: We pray in the plural. We need a minyan.
One of the most notable biblical converts to Judaism, Ruth, arranges four words to describe her conversion, roughly translated as: “Your people are my people, and your God is my God.” The order is not accidental. Membership in the people is the necessary condition for being a Jew (I don’t know if it’s sufficient), while saying, “your God is my God,” is not a requirement.
I grew up in a home that was very much a secular home, where I often heard statements such as “I’m not sure there is a God, I’m not sure we were even in Egypt, but I’m sure He took us out of there.” In one Midrash relating to a verse in Jeremiah, rabbis quote God as saying, “Wouldst that they left Me, but not my teachings.” God is an integral part of my life, but I understand that’s not the case for all Jews. Would I regard David Ben-Gurion as a good Jew? Most decidedly yes. Was God an integral part of his life? I don’t think so.
Is God an integral part of my life? Yes! Is God an integral part of the life of progressive Jews? I hope so! A friend once shared another mathematical assessment of God’s place in contemporary Jewish life: “Faith is not math… we’re not building what the early Reformers were. It’s not all about rationality. Everything doesn’t have to equal out.”
I find it oddly beautiful that the intangible and indescribable – irrationality and infinity – can be solid building blocks of faith. Just I may have a hard time conceiving of infinity, I understand it to nevertheless be one of the building blocks of math. Try telling a mathematician that at some point, the numbers have to end.
And just as I may have a hard time conceiving of God’s presence, I understand and acknowledge that God is an ever-present part of Judaism. Judaism isn’t mathematical. It’s not always about logic and equal sums. It’s not about proofs and equations. Belief in God isn’t about what’s on the other side of an equal sign.
In her teaching, Rabbi Goldstein went on: “It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.” Perhaps the mathematician would respond: “It’s very hard for me to think of infinity. But it’s even harder for me to think of a world where the numbers stop.”
I may have failed math, but I do understand this equation. For me, God is what is on the other side of infinity.
A great shot of my Zaidy, RCAF Squadron Leader Jack Cahan with his five grandkids from Remembrance Day, 2012
Watching the Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa, I was struck by the beautiful poetry of our Governor General’s words:
Freedom without peace is agony,
and peace without freedom is slavery,
and we will tolerate neither.
This is the truth we owe our dead.
Governor General David Johnston
In few words, he expresses deep truth. Freedom and peace must walk hand-in-hand. We cannot be satisfied with a world where one is absent or removed for the sake of the other, for such a world destroys the meaning of both. Freedom absent peace is neither free nor peaceful. The two are true partners.
Speaking with my grandfather (a retired RCAF Squadron Leader) later today, I let him know how proud and moved I was by his own words at a ceremony marking the day:
Reflecting on his remarks, I was warmed by the words he had to share with me: it is comforting and important to know that this message is heard; that it is absorbed; that it internalized; that it is shared.
So as I observed my own solemn moment while watching the moment of silence during the ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, I was struck by an odd realization: A silent tribute is not what we should want. We should raise up our voices, shouting to the world: “We have not forgotten! We shall not forget! We will tell these stories with all of our might. We will share them with our children, that they might tell them for time eternal!” In that way, we shall ensure a peaceful freedom, and a free peace.
Of course, the moment of silent is an important symbolic measure. And it is almost always coupled with strong words of memory and memorial. But it cannot end there. Both silent reflection and active participation must go hand-in-hand, just like peace and freedom.
Later in his speech, Governor General Johnston quoted Rabbi Dow Marmur – father of my own teacher Rabbi Michael Marmur – speaking about the importance of memory to our identity as Canadians:
Without memory, there can be neither continuity nor identity.
Like Johnston and my grandfather, Rabbi Marmur himself recognizes the importance of embracing multiple values in pursuit of our goals. Moments of silent reflection are a part of our identity as Canadians when it comes to Remembrance Day, but these moments must also be matched by action to ensure continuity. It is our commitment to memory that plays a key role in uniting these values.
To say “we shall remember,” or “never again,” means not only to reflect, but also to engage and look forwards. It is an impassioned charge we say to ourselves, so that we may involve ourselves in a national project. Without a national memory, we risk forgetting ourselves.
On this day, and always, I must also reflect on how proud beyond words I am for my Zaidy and his exemplary model of service to Canada. His commitment to the Royal Canadian Air Force and to the Jewish War Veterans of Canada teaches what it means to place oneself in service of that which is greater than us all – our people and our values. He is a model of living a life dedicated fully to such service, and my family is so lucky to have him as our living patriarch.
Yesterday, writing about the Jian Ghomeshi fiasco, I was still wrestling with how to respond. Was this a matter where the idea of innocent until proven guilty applied? Was this a matter of maintaining a balanced perspective in the face of he-said, she-said accusations? Was it a matter of discovering where there burden of proof lay? Here’s where I settled yesterday, a mere 24 hours ago:
I will not pass judgement on Jian nor on the women who are accusing him. Without evidence or more substantial information, nobody should enter this unfortunate game of he-said, she-said.
Thinking that this was an issue demanding a fair and non-judgemental response until more information arrived, I tried to strike an ever-so Canadian tone: “I will not pass judgement…”
I also wondered what the Jewish response to a situation like this should be. How does my tradition teach us to respond when we want to honour the rights of all people to be treated fairly in the face of serious accusations? How do we respond when all we have to base our judgement on are the words of others?
There is a Jewish paradigm for what is taking place now in the streets of Canada and the tubes of the internet – a biblical perspective on a contemporary Canadian situation involving an Iranian. Fancy that. Here’s what the Torah says about such accusations:
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be establishment. (D’varim 19:15)
The Torah is concerned with ensuring that people do not level false accusations against another in order to spite them. Jewish law requires multiple witnesses to ensure fairness in judgement. To be sure, Jian Ghomeshi himself originally hinted at such a motive – that this was just a matter of a woman with a grudge to bear falsely accusing him.
But that was when there was one witness. Now there are eight.
Given the preponderance of evidence emerging against Jian Ghomeshi (you must read the Toronto Star’s full expose), it is now outright impossible to maintain a balanced perspective. The scales of justice have tipped against Jian. At the mouth of eight witnesses, this matter has been established.
And this is still hard for some to believe. We want to believe that something like this didn’t happen. Our brains literally have a hard time coming around to this truth. In this matter, I’ve been guided by the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who teaches us:
“Truth is not something we discover at one time. That is how things are for God, but not for us. For Judaism, truth – as understood and internalized by humanity – is a developmental process.” To Heal a Fractured World p. 156
This may be true on a very meta-level. I think we can be forgiven for not being able to perceive the entire truth of this affair all at once. To be sure, we are still discovering new truths about this matter.
But eight women should not have had to wait painfully in the dark for years for this matter to have been brought to light. These horrible truths should not have taken twelve years to distill so a quest for justice could emerge. Of course, it is a matter that should not have even taken place in the first place!
This sad, sad affair only illustrates that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that allows for horrific crimes to be committed, and then remain hidden in the dark, unpunished. Yes, we should maintain a commitment to innocent until proven guilty, but we cannot be blinded from seeing indicators of guilt. We should be balanced and fair in our judgement, but we cannot malign or question the motivation of those leveling accusations only on the grounds that “Jian is a trustworthy figure.”
Unknowingly, I myself have been a part of this system. I want to thank friends for challenging me and pushing me to reevaluate my perspective on this tragic story. I wonder – is the Court of Public Opinion strong enough to not only level justice in this affair, but to change a flawed system itself, to create a more just and righteous world?
Surely, Canada is better than this. Surely, Canadians are better than this.
One of the reasons, I think, that the imbroglio with Jian Ghomeshi is simultaneously so captivating and so shocking is that it involves the CBC. Somehow, this beloved and yet not-so beloved institution has become a synecdoche for our Canadian-ness. The CBC is was Hockey Night in Canada. The CBC is Peter Mansbridge. The CBC is Rick Mercer. the CBC is the Royal Canadian Air Farce. The CBC is balanced and (mostly) unsensationalized news reporting. The CBC is Fred Penner. The CBC is CanCon. The CBC is the antithesis of American-style media.
The CBC is not just a media behemoth. It is more than television studios and radio stations. It is a cultural institution that represents Canada’s values and aspirations. In a country infamous for it’s dearth of national identity, the CBC is one of the things with which we identify. It is a part of us. So when a trusted public CBC figure is accused of acting in a way that betrays these values and aspirations, it’s difficult to divorce the person from the institution and its values, and it’s hard to not feel a sense of personal attachment.
Consider: would we be reacting the same way to the allegations against Ghomeshi if he wasn’t a CBC figure? If he worked for, say, Sun Media, would we be so perplexed? The values we ascribe to the institution conflate with the being, and we’re left quite puzzled, thinking, “This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t add up.”
On Sunday night, when Jian posted his now infamous revelation to Facebook, I – like many – was shocked. “This can’t be!” I thought. “Shame on the CBC,” I thought. In the dim light of a Brooklyn pub, I read and reread Jian’s words. I – like many – shared Jian’s status on my own Facebook wall, taking my own snide jab at the CBC: “The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Jian Ghomeshi is a national treasure and this is a shocking and abysmal act on the part of the CBC.”
My own first inclination – like that of many others – was to implicitly assume that the allegations could not be true. And not because they don’t deserve to be vigourously investigated (they do), but because somehow an attack on Jian is an attack on something Canadian itself, and such an attack spurs an immediate, gut reaction to defend our values. Consider my own words: “Jian Ghomeshi is a national treasure.” As if being a national treasure is a logical and appropriate defence against allegations of sexual abuse.
And then on Monday came the Toronto Star’s release of the details behind the story.
I went back to Jian’s words. I read the thoughts of others. I was chastised on Facebook for my gut reaction. Mea culpa. I did more thinking, expanded my thoughts. What had once appeared to be an issue of wrongful dismissal was in fact a larger issue of trust, sexual consent, abuse of power, and on whom the burden of proof lays.
Many people (including myself) are struggling with finding the most appropriate way respond to such an event, when the person involved was renowned in many ways for his sensitivity and humanity, and cultivated those values at the institution for which he worked. Just open the pages of any Canadian daily today, and you will witness how much of a lightning rod this story has become.
The doors of the Court of Public Opinion have been swung wide open. This private affair is now public, and for the members of the public who are drawn into it, there’s an understandable desire for justice. But who is deserving of justice is a matter for others to investigate and to decide. I am troubled by those who rush to assume that Ghomeshi is guilty when their is still no official evidence or case against him, just as much as I am concerned by those who assume that four women would individually concoct these allegations. I will not pass judgement on Jian nor on the women who are accusing him. Without evidence or more substantial information, nobody should enter this unfortunate game of he-said, she-said.
I’m with Margaret Wente on this one: “What a shabby, crummy story. No one wins. Everybody loses. I’m sorry for them all, and for us.”
It’s been a while. Time to shave the stubble off of the blog’s beard and contribute some substance. In doing some research on articulating my own philosophy of Jewish Education, I dug up some articles I had saved, and rediscovered a few gems. Here’s a sneak-peak at a paper I’m working on for a Jewish Education class at school:
It is no longer radical to assert that the North American Jewish milieu is at the tail end of a transition away from a world where clearly segmented Movements defined beliefs and behaviors, and people identified with them writ-large. Leaving behind a world where Jewish education came with an adjective attached to it (e.g. Reform Jewish education, Orthodox Jewish education, etc.), we now find ourselves in a world – an ecosystem – where families and students seek out teachers whose approach to Jewish life aligns with their own questions, in the quest for personal meaning making. This shift is most visible in the progressive end of the Jewish spectrum, but has also crept into the more liberal edges of Orthodoxy.
Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, eloquently describes this paradigm shift:
Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.
It is against this backdrop that Jewish education is evolving away from pedagogies which sought to answer the “outer” question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the “inner” question, “Why be Jewish?”
I find myself sitting between these two poles – believing that a rich and robust answer to the question “Why be Jewish?” is absolutely critical for engaging the vast majority of Jews today. That said, I am confident in and inspired by the strength of our millennia-old heritage which holds that Judaism is an active religion, that one must also know what to do as a Jew, and that is an Educator’s responsibility to impart this knowledge. To be sure, I believe that this has emerged as the primary challenge for Jewish leaders of our age: to discern how to get people close enough to us to see that what we offer them as human beings and as Jews is worthwhile.
I agree with Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann’s approach to this challenge, which envisions Jewish education at its best as an endeavor which, “inspire[s] and equip[s] us to achieve the deepest aspirations of Judaism… [and] enhance[s] people’s engagement with the world by providing Jewish resources that enrich and encourage creating thinking and doing.”
The Janusian thinking at the heart of Lehmann’s vision reflects my own of an ecosystem of Jewish education that does not reject those things once held as incongruous: we must inspire and equip – arming learners with spiritual meaning and practical knowhow. We must have an engagement with the wider world and within our own Jewish milieu – not substituting universal liberal values for intrinsic Jewish ideals, but holding up both together. We must enrich and encourage – not simply meeting people where they are, but encouraging them to aspire to greater heights. And we must ultimately think and do – embodying the Torah’s principle of na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will listen/understand. (Exodus 24:7).