Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon at the link below (begins around 49:30).



I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaim loudly, as Moshe did: “hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.”

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves.

Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

I was engrossed in watching the HBO television series Westworld. It is a window into a not-so-distant dystopian future, where wealthy humans live out their lavish fantasies in a wild-west theme park. The park is populated with lifelike androids who believe that they are human, but in truth, are pre-programmed with elaborately written storylines. They exist solely to meet the desires of the guests. They are slaves who don’t know they’re slaves.

“In one eerie scene, an unconscious [android] who is being repaired wakes up [in our world] … She’s trembling, panicked… with no idea where she is or what’s happening—she’s never seen anything except the [western] frontier set,— and when she stumbles into an empty gray warehouse… Her knees buckle, and she gets hauled away…”[i]

While the sci-fi elements are intriguing, I find Westworld to be at its best when it reflects more on the nature of our own humanity. The programme is ultimately about vulnerable citizens struggling to overcome atrocities and cope with their history. It is about a people who believed to their core that they were in control of their own narrative, who come to grips with the dark reality that others have a different story in mind for them.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves:

The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)

Our ancestors believed themselves to be free and safe – they lived and prospered on the shores of Egypt’s Nile.

How do we know who we are? Another way is by the stories others tell about us:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…” (Ex. 1:8-10)

Our people believed themselves to be one thing: people welcome in a place of safety and prosperity; They came to learn they were something else: Perceived insurgents. Outsiders. Unwelcome. Not the same.

Our rabbis teach that when our text says that Pharaoh didn’t “know” Joseph – אשר לא ידע את יוסף – the Torah isn’t speaking about mere recognition. “The usual rendering, ‘to know,’ hardly does justice to the richness of its meanings.”[ii] This new Pharaoh did not feel an emotional connection to the Israelites. He was ignorant and indifferent. He did not recognize us as bound up in each other’s fate, as his predecessor had. And as a result, suddenly, we became outsiders.

The miraculous stories that followed – as God revealed Torah to us, and as we became a people over 40 years in the desert – all have their start in this existential awakening. To be sure, in a unique phrase, found only once in the entirety of Torah, Pharaoh –  the arch-villain himself – refers to us as “the nation of the descendants of Israel – עם בני ישראל” (Ex. 1:9). Defined by someone else and cast as a foreign nation, we were labelled as different. Once we were together, now we were distinct. Once we were free, now we were slaves.

I wonder: did our people see this coming? Did they anticipate the ascendance of a new Pharaoh who didn’t see them in the same light? Or, like our misfit android from Westworld, was it a sudden realization of other-ness? Our text is silent about this.

But the unfortunate truth is… we don’t have to look far to wonder what it must have felt like.

Writing in The Atlantic in December 2016, Emma Green’s provocative headline calls out to us: “Are Jews white?” She notes that this US presidential election has “reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America.”[iii]

She paints a complex picture of who we are which is at once paradoxical: we are a group that “was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, [that] in the space of two generations, [became] one of the most successful, integrated groups…” And yet at the same time, we are seen today by some as racially impure, “a faux-white race.” A majority of religiously motivated hate-crimes are committed against Jews each year. Still at the same time, we are seen by others as “part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of colour.”

Jews do not fit neatly into typical racial categories, says Green. And while over time, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent became more integrated into American society – a process scholars refer to as “becoming white,” – it wasn’t our skin color that changed, it was status.

What happens when that status is called into question, as it seems to be today?

The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt reminds us that the vast majority of American Jews benefit from white privilege, and yet, yet Jewish identity is shaped by many “exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination… there is this sense of shared struggle … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”

We think we are one thing, but society treats us as though we are something else. It is the paradox of modern Jewish existence.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves. Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

 Throughout our history, a great pendulum has swung between outside forces who sought to tell us who we are, and moments of great creativity where we have asserted for ourselves who we are and what we stand up for. Today, we live at the nexus of those poles, pulled in opposing directions. Emma Green’s question of “Are Jews white?” is not so much a question of skin colour, but of identity and authority: who gets to decide who we are, and how we know who we are?

There are those, like Pharaoh, who want to write our story for us. To tell us who we are and what is our supposed destiny. I do not believe that our response to them should be to adopt an insular approach, closing ourselves off to the rest of the world in the hopes that our problems will just disappear.

Why? Because we are also living in a time of great Jewish resourcefulness, a new golden age of Jewish expression which proclaims loudly what it means to be Jewish. We must continue to discover and to rediscover the beauty of our own uniquely Jewish stories. This is the most profound response to those who would seek to tell us who we are.

As much as the question, “Are Jews white?” is a question of self-awareness, it is also one of empathy, mutual responsibility, and the ability to see beyond ourselves. As Green noted in a follow-up to her essay, “Asking, ‘Are Jews white?,’ is [also] a way of questioning the lack of racial awareness among some American Jews.”[iv]

So this is also a time be aware of those even more vulnerable than us; those whose stories others also seek to impose: undocumented immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ+ community – both Jewish and not, black people generally, along with Jews of color from all communities. And our Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues.

*          *          *

The android in Westworld, who awoke in our world could not at first cope with her destabilizing realization. She collapses on the floor, unable to function. It is only later, once she accepts the truth of her existence, that she begins acting with agency, striving to take control of her own destiny.

The Israelites awoke to the reality that they were no longer the same people; perceived as outsiders.

This is a moment of existential awakening. We find ourselves in a stark reality, unfamiliar to many. Will we collapse onto the floor, unable to function, with the hopes that we will reawaken in a blissfully naïve alternate universe? Or, will we confront this strange, new world head-on, with agency?

I do not suggest that we – like our Israelite ancestors – need to flee our homes in hopes of miraculous salvation. What we must leave behind is the notion that we are free of the oppression of others seeking to define who we are and who we can be. The past year has shown us that we are not yet living in a post-racial or post-ethnic world. Our ability to combat discrimination and oppression requires that we awake to this new world, just as we have done so many times before.

We must bring to this world what we know about ourselves. We know what discrimination looks like. We know it feels like when others would rewrite our stories. The Jewish response must be to do what we have always done: to assert our truths with an even stronger voice, and to help others to raise their own voices.

Perhaps that the secret to why this parasha is called Shemot – names. At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaimed loudly, as Moshe did: hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.



[ii] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, pg. 318



Parashat Ha’azinu: Leonard Cohen, Moses, and the End of it All

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival [1]


Why do human beings write and read poetry?

Why does poetry work?

Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons argues that poetry has a particularly important role today: it teaches us how to write, how to read, and how to understand any text. It gives us a healthy outlet for surging emotions. It can foster trust and empathy, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in reading other forms of literature. [2]

My teacher, Rabbi David Kasher, says: “It’s true, we don’t ‘need’ poetry. We can get by communicating in prose, and take care of the basic functions of human life.” [3] We could just say what we mean, couldn’t we? Save paper. Save time. Just get to the point.

But that would be missing the point of being able to speak and read, wouldn’t it?

Rabbi Kasher goes on: “The fact that we write poetry is a testament to our search for something more. Some kind of hidden beauty, some kind of deeper meaning.”

What is the hidden beauty, the deep meaning in these words:

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival

Your servant here, he has been told

To say it clear, to say it cold

It’s over, it ain’t going any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop

You feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future: It is murder

These words, penned by one of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, are the lyrics to his song, The Future. Cohen is something of a modern-day prophet. It’s not just the heavenly wisdom which pours forth from his poetry and music; wisdom which simultaneously is inspired by our rich textual tradition, and itself inspires others with its ability to peer into the depths of the human soul.

Were it only that, he would still be counted among the greats of music and literature. But more so, it is that he lives his life so remarkably in tune with our spiritual calendar. “I am ready to die,” Cohen confessed this week in a revealing interview where he candidly shared what it means to be approaching the end of his life. It is serendipitous that he shares this the very week when we read of Moses preparing for his own death.

Update: Cohen thankfully now says: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”

“For some odd reason… I have all my marbles, so far… So I am extremely blessed… At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable… The big change is the proximity to death… I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, also, that’s O.K. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.” [4]

In his song, The Future, Cohen ponders some anxious questions that I think must have been going through Moses’ mind, as he readied himself to abdicate his role as leader; as he prepared himself to die. Uncertain about what is to come for his people; apprehensive of how stable things will be.

Our own poet-prophet, Moses, is putting his house in order, this week in parashat Ha’azinu. In his last message to the Israelite, perched on the edges of their Promised Land, Moses crafts a poetic farewell, trying to tie up the strings before ascending to the top of Mount Nebo to die. In fact, his message is also referred to as Shirat Moshe – the song, or poem, of Moses. When you look at the text in a sefer torah, you can see how it is formatted differently, in poetic stanzas.

Moses is told by God to write down this shir – this poem – and to recite it to the Israelites. In it, he recounts the toilsome journey through the desert, and warns Israel not to reject God in the future:

God found Jacob in the land of the wilderness, in an empty howling chaos /

He circled him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.

Like an eagle who awakens his nestlings, gliding down to his young /

So did He spread His wings and take him, carrying him along on His wings.

(Deut. 32:10-11)

Moses could have communicated these ideas in prose – simply saying that God protected Jacob in the desert when times were hard. But then we would miss the fact that Jacob, whose other name is Israel is a metaphor for the Jewish people as a whole. All of us are seen as having a deeply personal relationship with God. We would miss the penetrating imagery of God seeing us as “the pupil of His eye” – always in focus, entering with the light of the universe. We would miss that God is portrayed as a protective eagle, caring for us as the majestic bird cares for its young.

When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure (Deut. 30:45-16)

This is surely an emotional time in Moses’ life, filled with uncertainty. Told by God that he is about to die without entering the land of Israel, his personal mission will remain incomplete. Strings untied; house not fully in order. He must be searching for some of what Andrew Simmons was writing about in The Atlantic: trust, empathy, and certainty that the Israelites have heard all that he has said. This is why our parasha begins with the word Ha’azinu – give ear! Literally, make sure what I am saying is resonating in your ears, because I’m not going to be around much longer; you won’t be hearing my voice anymore.

When Moses is instructed to record and share this poem, The Talmud interprets it to be not simply the words of our parashah this week, but those of the entire Torah[5] The whole Torah itself is a poem! The 19th Century commentator, the Netziv, unpacks what it means to call the entire Torah a poem:

Surely the entire Torah is not written in the language of poetry, he says. Rather, it is that Torah shares two features with poetry: its nature and its richness.

First, Torah has the nature of poetry: it speaks in a fragmented language that demands our active engagement. In a poem, ideas are not fully explained the way they are in prose. Poetry is not literal. We need to discover why one rhyme means this, while another rhyme means that. We have to make notes in the margins. We read Torah the same way: this is the foundation of the millennia-old enterprise of Torah commentary. We turn it over and over again, to piece together the fragments of meaning.

Second, Torah has the richness of poetry, as it is adorned with all kinds of literary artistry, in a way that isn’t done with prose. One who studies an idea expressed in poetic form becomes connected to it on a deeper level than to an idea expressed in prose. The Netziv writes that the illuminating language of the poem and its unique grammar is far sweeter than to one who simply comes to read it quickly and extract the main idea.

This is the way of the whole of the Torah: we go deeper than a surface-level reading, to discover that every word may contain secrets, mysteries, and hidden delights.

When Leonard Cohen writes that he is “the little Jew that wrote the Bible,” of course we are not meant to understand this literally. The delight in hearing him croon these words is in our ability to unpack the mystery behind them – what does he want us to know about his life and his view of the world? How does he understand what it means to be a Jew? How does he see the future? We are given license to share these words – they belong to him, but he has gifted them to us, as so they, too, are our portion.

We sense the secrets hidden inside; ideas that cannot be expressed in everyday language. With each read, with each listen, we uncover more delights.

The same is true for Torah. What does it mean to refer to God as a protective Eagle? Or as a treasure vault? To refer to the Torah as drops of nourishing dew?

This is why the Torah ends poetically; a reminder that all of the Torah should be read and reread, approached with a desire to uncover the layers and discover new unseen delights each time. We can resist the urge to read every word literally, instead bringing a passion to get closer to it, to unpack its mysteries, and to discover its meaning for our lives.

Poetry allows a message to resonate long after the mouth which gave voice to it is no longer with us.

Leonard Cohen shared a snippet of a “sweet little song” that he has been working on, one that he wasn’t sure he would be able to finish before he dies. As he approaches the end of his life’s journey, it seems Cohen is less apprehensive than Moses; his writing less anxious than his previous vision of the future. Like Moses’ journey, and like our own lives, not every loose end might be tied up… but that doesn’t mean we abandon the quest for meaning. The poetry is still there, if we would but listen to it:

Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see

Listen to the hummingbird

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the butterfly

Whose days but number three

Listen to the butterfly

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God

Which doesn’t need to be

Listen to the mind of God

Don’t listen to me.


[1] Leonard Cohen, The Future




[5] Babylonian Talmud: Nedarim 38

Tokho k’Voro: Matching our Insides and Outsides • Yom Kippur 5777

This is my sermon from Yom Kippur 5777 at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY

I had a dream last week. I was walking down a long, dimly lit hallway. As I moved past different open doorways, I noticed a large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall. I passed by the mirror, and glanced into it. What I saw bothered me. I looked into my eyes, at the face in the mirror – and while I sensed that it was my reflection, the face was not mine. It was a startling and haunting feeling – to not recognize my reflection; to look at myself, but not see myself.

I woke up in a panic. I reassured myself that it was just a dream, caught my breath, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I remembered it vividly, and tried to brush aside the memory as an errant nightmare.

You do not need a degree in psychology to suss this one out. It is no surprise that my mind was clearly on this season of introspection; this season when we are meant to look ourselves in the eyes and come face-to-face with who we are.

We all have a vision in our minds of what we look like – our ideal version of ourselves. Studies show that for many, this representative image – this avatar – probably looks to be around 25 years old, at the height of our youth. Wise, and beloved by many, with seemingly limitless abilities.

And then one day, we walk by a mirror, catch a glimpse not of our idealized avatar, but of our real self, and we say: “Who is that?!

Continue reading

My father was a wandering, oppressed, renegade, refugee • Parashat Ki Tavo


D’var Torah I delivered this past Shabbat at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY.

Perhaps you’ve seen a recent humour piece in the New Yorker, entitled, “No, I’m from New York.” If you have ever lived in New York City, or really have even just spent time there, I think that you will appreciate its sardonic depiction of life in the so-called greatest city in the world, through the eyes of an ex-New Yorker who has moved to Los Angeles:

“A two-bedroom house with a front yard and a back yard? Psh. What do you need all that space for? Yoga? I’m from New York. I once paid… five thousand dollars a month to live in the garbage chute of a postwar luxury condominium on First Avenue. It’s important to live in terrible places when you’re young. A postwar! On First Avenue! That’s how you build character. All of this ‘actual house’ business makes you soft… Move back to New York? Come on. I’m from New York. I’m not going back there.”

Like this New Yorker-cum-Los Angelean, I come from another place – born in Toronto, lived in Montreal, before landing in New York, with a pit-stop in Jerusalem along the way.

I have lived in New York City for 8 years, and have come to call that great city home. At the same time, I maintain my Canadian identity with pride. It is an inextricable part of me. And so I am of two worlds – every day, I feel the magnetic tug towards my own true north – a reminder of my identity as one who left home.

To be sure, it is often when we go somewhere away from the place we call home, that we gain a stronger appreciation for the very things that make “home” — “home.”

Sometimes the differences between my two homes are subtle. We Canadians and Americans share a language and many cultural influences. Sometimes the differences are more noticeable, as they are for the garbage-chute-dwelling New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles and discovered the wonder that is a front yard.

I am not the only one to have had such an experience. We are, after all, blessed to live in an age of great mobility. But the experience is mine, and part and parcel of how I see myself. I share it with you this evening not only as an introduction, but because I believe that it is an experience that we all are meant to share.

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On Belief

Earlier this year, in my Medieval Jewish Philosophy class, we were assigned to fashion our own tenets of faith, a la Maimonides. What a daunting and audacious task! Of course, it also included a critical examination of Maimonides’ philosophy, and a consideration of the role of dogma in Jewish life. Here’s a look at what I put together… a fairly accurate portrayal of how I think of Judaism and Jewish life right now.

I started off by wondering what it must have been like for Rambam’s contemporaries to confront his articulated principles of faith. Could one have intellectually overcome the radical formulation of a formalized statement of Jewish belief? Were the articles an accurate reflection of mainstream Jewish beliefs? Would they have spiritual resonance for the masses? Or were they merely dogmatic representations of what was otherwise taken as “fact”?

In my imagination – while the abundance of legal codes and philosophical treatises prove otherwise – Jews of the past are often manifest as unquestioning believers in the reality of God and God’s presence in their lives. While I know this is a romantic fantasy, it is reflective of the depressed status of religious dogma in contemporary liberal civilization.

In today’s world – constructed upon extreme individualism and human domination of the natural world – it is no wonder that some (myself included) look nostalgically to the past with a modicum of historical revisionism as a time when it was easier to believe.

And yet, while the motivation behind and the exact form of belief espoused by Maimonides’ thirteen articles likely do not resonate with most Jews today, the idea of a personal manifesto of belief is not so foreign. Faith – in the sense of unquestioning religious belief – may not be palatable for most people, however the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning are indeed resonant goals. In this milieu, is there, perhaps, a place for a contemporary affirmation of faith?

Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Today, many of the so-called “Jews-of-no-religion” are apprehensive of blanket statements of belief; skeptical of those who attempt to proclaim what is true and absolute. But we also live in a time of great desire for connection beyond the superficial, for spirituality, and to unlock the secrets of the universe. Life in 2015 is simultaneously interconnected like never before, yet remarkably alienating. We have instantaneous access to the entire repository of human knowledge, yet we still have not answered the ultimate questions of the source of our existence or higher purpose. For those who do not believe that human existence is random, this can cause a Sartre-like nausea. Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, describes the impact that this paradigm shift has had on contemporary Jewish life:

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.[1]

It is against this backdrop that non-Orthodox Judaism is evolving away from ideologies that seek to answer the question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the inner question, “Why be Jewish?” So perhaps faith and belief – as inner faculties – are not antithetical to the current zeitgeist.

What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

In truth, the concepts of faith and belief are not dissimilar from the contemporary ideas of vision, aspiration, and responsibility – ideas with great relevance and potential for meaning. Aspiring to something greater is a basic characteristic of humanity – it is what separates us from other living creatures. And what is faith, if not the belief in or desire for something that is not yet realized? What is faith, if not the aspiration for what could be? What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, while an eminent rationalist, was far from Maimonidean in his religiosity. Nonetheless, over a century ago, he presented an understanding of faith that reverberates with Maimonidean philosophy:

“Vision looks inwards and becomes duty. Vision looks outwards and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upwards and becomes faith.”[2]

With this framework in mind, I present my own tenets of faith that represent my understanding of Judaism, and my vision of contemporary progressive Jewish life. Like Rambam and Rabbi Wise, they encompass duty, aspiration, and faith. They are directed inward, with a sense of spirituality and personal obligation; outward, with a sense of fellowship and responsibility to other Jews; and upward, with a sense of being in covenant with God.

1. I believe that God is like infinity. There is very little we can say with certainty about God. Like infinity, it is sometimes difficult for me to think about God, but like a mathematician’s relationship to the integral idea of infinity, it is even more difficult for me to think about a world without God. I am moved by Buber’s notion of the distinction between thinking or talking about God – something that is nearly impossible, and speaking to God – something which we can all do without restriction.

2. I believe that God’s presence can be found anywhere, and as a result – especially given my blessed and privileged place in society – I believe in expressing gratitude to God on a daily basis. I believe that – as one of God’s creations – God has an interest in me. I believe that I matter, and that all humanity matters to God.

3. I believe that a Judaism without God is absent something. But because each person is an individual who experiences the world differently, and the nature of Judaism itself is not monolithic, I believe it is possible to be Jewish and to express oneself in Jewish ways without believing in God, but I believe that this is missing the essence of Judaism.

4. I believe in the particularism and universalism of Judaism. Judaism is not merely one arbitrary option among many to understand the world – it exists for a particular reason, and all of the particular “accoutrements” of Jewish life are how we attempt to understand that particular reason. But the world is not and should not be monolithic; diversity exists for a reason – even Judaism understands this (cf. Tower of Babel). It is on the foundation of our own particular truths that we can share universal understandings and wisdom with the world. As such, Judaism and Jews must also engage in and with the rest of the world.

5. I believe that study is not merely about learning ethics or historical criticism; that the meaning of Judaism is found in a thick, deep, seriously engaged approach to learning and ritual. More does not always equal better, but I am not content with a pediatric approach to Judaism as a gloss on top of western liberal values. Just as we demand rigour, growth, and seriousness in secular studies, so too should we in Judaism.

6. At the same time, Judaism is not just something we do on our own in our heads – I believe that ritual is not merely symbolic, and that Judaism must be “done” to be understood. Judaism is like Shakespeare – you can read it in a book, but you cannot fully understand or appreciate its beauty unless you experience it in action, in a theatre.

7. Shakespeare’s plays have integrity in and of themselves – they might become more palatable, meaningful, or exciting when updated with a contemporary setting (precisely due to their ability to capture the human experience in beautiful poetry and prose), but they also must be understood in context. Likewise, I believe in the holiness and integrity of our texts – whether we believe they were divinely authored, divinely inspired, or human creations. I believe that in trying to understand our textual heritage, we must first get closer to the texts, without trying to force them to get closer to us. We should not begin by pigeonholing the meaning of the texts into our pre-conceived desires. This also means not ignoring or trying to expunge difficult sections of our textual history. Built on this foundation, we can then work to find the contemporary relevance and ongoing meaning of our texts.

8. I believe in the power of language, and that the words we choose should be not arbitrary when speaking to God. We should approach our prayers and study with the same respect, modesty, and honour that we would use in speaking to, writing to, or reading the words of a prime minister, president, or queen. While I believe that God does not selectively listen to the words of only one language, I believe in the importance of learning and using Hebrew. There is little wonder that so many Jews feel a sense of alienation, shame, or confusion when approaching prayer and study. Without an understanding of Hebrew, so much of Judaism is literally foreign, and a wealth of knowledge is out of reach for most Jews. Translation is acceptable, but as as Bialik wrote, it is like kissing through a veil.

9. I believe that an acquaintance with the rich, multi-faceted textures of Judaism will reveal that Judaism is not entirely rational – there are plenty of things we do that are seemingly irreconcilable with modern, rational thought, and a diversity of opinions and understandings of how to apply Judaism to daily life. The Talmud recognizes this, teaching that “Like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jer. 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one Biblical verse convey many explanations” (BT Sanhedrin 34a). There are many contradictions and a pluralism of ideas about the essence of Judaism. That is acceptable, because also…

10. I believe in Klugkeit – the cleverness that lets us gets around these contradictions (both real and perceived). Klugkeit is “the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist… It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane.”[3] As fallible, imperfect beings, we have the ability (indeed the charge) to figure out how to make Judaism work each day.

11. I believe that free will and autonomy are not the same thing. I believe I have free will, and as a citizen of a modern, western country, the freedom to express my will. But I am not fully autonomous. I exist in relationship to God and those around me, and my choices – religious or otherwise – are not made without significant consideration as to their impact on what others expect and demand of me, and what I expect and demand of them.

12. I believe that all Jews are responsible to one another (BT Shevuot 39a). The endgame for me is not one where Jews do whatever makes sense to them at any given time. I am not naïve – I know that Judaism is often fragmented, and that there are Jews who understand their sense of Judaism and Jewishness in ways that are significantly different from how I do. But I do not envision a Jewish world where small pockets of Jews build walls around themselves, defined by their religious or cultural red lines, blind as to how their choices impact others. This paradigm can be thought of through the term “citizenship” – a description of the relationship between individual Jews, between groups of Jews, and between individual Jews and the collective Jewish people. As Edward Hamburg writes:

The term captures the reciprocal nature of this relationship, how it involves having rights and responsibilities that are understood and exercised very differently, with very different degrees of efficacy and intensity, by each of us, just like the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens of conventional polities. When we become Jewish citizens by birth or election, we are presented with the rights to share a collective identity as well as participate in a liturgy, a host of traditions and conventions, a history, and a multitude of stories. How we decide to exercise the rights and accept the associated responsibilities of this legacy determines our position within the kaleidoscopic Jewish world. [4]

This idea is captured close to the very beginning of the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, they say: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ — for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other.” (BT Berakhot 58a)

13. This leads one to Anavut – humility. I believe that we must approach learning, practice, and our relationships with anavut. This is not an abstract value; it has real world implications. Laszlo Bock, the Senior VP of People Operations for Google, aptly teaches that a successful movement requires “the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. Your end goal is what can we do together… Without humility, you are unable to learn.”[5] Predating Google by a millennia and a half, the Talmud implores us to recognize the same idea: “For this reason was man created single… that there should be peace among human beings: one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine” (BT Sanhedrin 37a).


[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel. “Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. October 24, 2013.

[2] Wise, Rabbi Stephen S. Sermons and Addresses. June 11, 1905, 72

[3] Kilov, Tzvi. “Judaism is Crazy, And that’s a Good Thing.” HevriaHsfasf

[4] Hamburg, Edward. “Thoughts on Saying Amen.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. December 12, 2014.

[5] Friedman, Thomas. “How to Get a Job at Google.” New York Times. February 22, 2014.

Exiled, once again

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.

Vanessa L. Ochs, an original member of Women of the Wall, expressing her opposition to the agreement and the triumphalism, has this to say:

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.

Freedom Spoken with a Hebrew Accent: Universalism and Particularism in the Haggadah

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. [1]

Rabbi David Ellenson comments that this Talmudic passage “bespeaks the primacy our tradition assigns the Jewish covenantal community in the Jewish hierarchy of values.” [2]

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.” [3]

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.” [4]

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.” [5]

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.” [6] 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?” [7]

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.

Go ahead and read the rest of the paper here

[1] BT Baba Metzia 71a

[2] Ellenson, David. Universalism and Particularism: Jewish Teachings on Jewish Obligation. Jewish Philanthropy, April, 2014.

[3] Gotzman, Andreas & Wiese, Christian. Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives. Brill, 2007. Pg. 301

[4] Sacks, Jonathan. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah. Continuum International, 2006. Pg. 59

[5] Gotzman & Wiese, 301

[6] Omer-Man, Jonathan. Commentary on the Haggadah. in Conservative Judaism. Vol. XLII, no. 2

[7] Sucharov, Mira. What does your Passover seder say about you? Haaretz: April 7, 2014.

What Reform Judaism can learn about Choice from Disney World

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.


behind-the-scenes Wired article describes the power of the MagicBand (emphasis my own):

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!”


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.


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?


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.


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.



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…



Tradition? Tradition! A response to Rabbi Larry Milder’s “I’m Very Reform”


A few questions I think about often:

  • What is “traditional” 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.


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?