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

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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.

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.

ASPIRATIONS

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.

TRADITION?

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.

TRADITION!

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?

When studying text becomes prayer

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.

God as Infinity

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“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.

Rabbi Avraham Infeld writes about this relationship in a way that captures and directs my own thought process:

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 Silent Tribute Is Not What We Want For Our Memories

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.

On this, the most important of our national holidays, may we be moved to pair our silent reflection with our soaring voices, that we might have both peace and freedom, both continuity and identity.

At the Mouth of Eight Witnesses, the Jian Ghomeshi Matter has been Established

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.

It’s about us: the CBC & Jian Ghomeshi

Jian Ghomeshi

Image © CBC

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.”

Inside and Outside Questions of Jewish Education

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.[1]

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.”[2]

The Janusian thinking[3] 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).

[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel: Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/11NySJJ

[2] Lehmann, Daniel: Toward Creativity: A Theological Goal for Jewish Education. http://bit.ly/1rQ53Nu

[3] Janusian thinking is the capacity to consider and utilize seemingly opposite or contradictory ideas simultaneously. See more at http://www.creativitypost.com/create/janusian_thinking

My Love for my Sister on her Wedding Day

My sister, Emily, was married last week. There was so much love and joy on their special day. Here are my words for Emily and my new brother-in-law, Brett.

Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | www.assafphotography.com

Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | http://www.assafphotography.com

Emily, at your Bat Mitzvah, I think I gave the best speech of anyone in our entire family, when I sang to you my rewritten words to the Ricky Martin masterpiece, Livin La Vida Loca. Rest assured, I will not be reprising that spectacular performance today.

For the gorgeous bride, my beloved little sister, on her wedding day…

Emily, from the perspective of someone on the outside, you and I might appear to be some very interesting siblings. I have heard it said that a sister is the person who is most like you and also the person who is most different from you. Emily, this couldn’t be truer for you and me. When we remember our childhood together, the first thing we think about is almost always the time when at the age of four, you cut your own hair and blamed it on me. I was punished for weeks, and it wasn’t until mom and dad found your hair hidden in the corner of your room that I was found innocent.

It took a long time for us to calm down and get to where we are today. I think perhaps things started getting better when you stopped listening to the Spice Girls and Aqua, and started asking to borrow my Dave Matthews CDs. I’m so thankful for how we’ve grown closer together over the last decade, and how we now look forward to all the times we get to spend with each other. It’s especially a delight for me to appreciate great music together with you. I look forward to us getting to be the awkward older people at concerts. Maybe we’re already those awkward older people.

A little while ago, Brett showed up and started coming along to concerts with us. It’s interesting – I never really wanted a brother (sorry!) It was Emily who always wanted a sister, and she never hesitated to remind me how much she wanted – even how much she would have preferred to have a sister.

But now we find ourselves here today – I am blessed with a sister who is one of my best friends, and now I also get a new brother along with her.

This all started four years ago, when Emily came to me and asked if she and her friends could stay in my New York apartment over New Year’s Eve. Was I worried about four Toronto girls gallivanting around New York and having free reign over my place? Maybe a little. But I said “yes, of course!” and I am so thankful that I did, as it was on that trip to New York that Emily and Brett found each other.

Fast forward to around 18 months ago, when I was in Los Angeles for work. While in meetings all day long, I had turned off my cell phone. In the evening, I turned my phone back on. There were 7 missed calls from Emily, and a one-line text message: call me.

I was worried. Who was sick? What happened?

I rushed back to my hotel room and called Emily, out of breath. Without even letting me say hello, she screamed through the receiver: “I’M ENGAGED! I’M GETTING MARRIED!

While I knew that day was coming, it was such an unexpected surprise and a blessing of wonderful news. I’ve been looking forward to this day ever since then.

Emily – we are much more than just brother and sister. We don’t just share our wonderful parents. You and I share profound joys, difficult times, hilarious stories, inside secrets, a love of good music, blessings, and a friendship that grows stronger as the years go by. I am so blessed to call you my sister and my friend.

Brett, I don’t need to give you any warnings about my little sister, because I am continually impressed with the love and devotion you show to your bride. Today, it is my joy and delight to now get to call you a brother. And Emily, truth be told, I don’t need to give you any advice either, because while you may be my not-so little sister, it’s from you that I learn so much about creating a loving partnership. And I know how much that you and I have learned from having two parents who showed us how to nurture a loving, respectful, caring relationship.

Emily and Brett, separately, you are two special and remarkable people, but together you are complete. Your journey towards each other has overcome great physical distances, but was always one of two immensely close souls. In the immortal words of our mentor, Dave Matthews – “Turns out, not where, but who you’re with that really matters.” For me, I can’t wait for us to be neighbours in New York City, and to be close by as you and Brett start building your life together.

For you both, I wish you a life together where with each new step, with each new verse of your songs together, with every new adventure, you always know how blessed you each are to have someone with you that really matters.

Parashat Va’etchanan: Enduring and Faring Well in Israel

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this Shabbat at Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario.

The great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following words in one of his most famous poems, Tourists:

…Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I must confess that when visiting new places, tourist attractions and cultural sites are not enough for me. I have taken a cue from Amichai’s impassioned charge in his poem. When traveling, I’m not content with the Disney World version of a place. I always feel as though I am missing out on something if I don’t get to peel back the layers of a society and try to understand the people I am seeing all around me. What are their values? What is the dominant public culture? What kind of government is chosen or enforced? How do people relate to each other? 

I’ve often also thought to myself: What would someone visiting Canada think are the guiding principles of our country? Earlier this summer, in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging time spent in Israel, I thought the same question: What would someone visiting Israel right now think are the guiding principles of the country?

As it happens – perhaps unsurprisingly – our own textual tradition has much to say about the guidelines and mores of establishing a functioning society. In the case of our ancestors the Israelites, these rules were remarkably detailed and covered all aspects of daily life. This Shabbat as we read parashat va’etchanan, we again encounter what is the most well known example of these rules – the aseret hadibrot – the Ten Commandments.

Now the idea of a societal legal code was not something new at the time of the Torah’s commandments. Certainly, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were already quite familiar with legal documents, including the idea of protecting such rights as human life, personal property, and familial relations. What was unique about our text – the text that would become the cornerstone of Jewish society and the foundation of much of Western Civilization – is that it framed a legal text in terms of a covenant with God. For us, establishing a moral, legal society is itself an expression of God’s will.

This Shabbat, I want to examine what I think is a unique and often overlooked aspect of our Ten Commandments, and God’s will within it. The fifth commandment reads:

כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכֻן יָמֶיךָ וּלְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

“Honour your father and your mother, as Adonai your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, on the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (D’varim 5:16)

This is the only commandment that specifically includes a justification or added benefit for the performance of the duty – we are to honour our parents, so that we may have a prosperous existence in the Land of Israel.

Now this is peculiar to many – why is this the only mitzvah to have a benefit attached? Aren’t they all fairly important? And why is this the benefit that is included. Why not “Honour your father and your mother so that you may have all your needs met”? or “…so that you may live a safe and healthy life”? Moreover, why is this particular mitzvah the one to receive the benefit? Would it not be more appropriate, perhaps, for this benefit to be included in the commandment more connected to our ritual observance of Shabbat? Or why not attach such a benefit to belief in God’s eternal singularity?

This commandment pushes us to consider: what is relevant about the attached benefit being related to the Land of Israel? This mitzvah beckons us to ask: what is the connection between honouring our parents, and enduring and thriving in the land?

 

I believe that here we find one of the Torah’s most salient examples of what kind of people we are meant to be. In this one commandment, a direct line is drawn between our moral behaviour and our very existence. Our Torah is made up of a very long journey to reach the Promised Land, and here we are told that our time in the Land is dependent upon the performance of one singular mitzvah. Not belief in God; not observance of Shabbat or kashrut; not the Holiness Code’s laws of ritual impurity. Our life in the Land of Israel is indeed predicated upon our fulfillment of this mitzvah – upon our honouring of our parents.

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, the commandment to honour one’s human parents is compared to honoring God, and the Talmud teaches that since there are three partners in the creation of a person (God and two parents), honour showed to parents is the same as honour shown to God. (BT Kiddushin 31)

According to the prophet Malachi, God is the very one who makes this analogy!

“A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 1:6)

But is God really just dangling a carrot in front of our faces with this commandment? Is life in Israel just a form of positive reinforcement to get us to observe mitzvot? I cannot believe this. I believe that we honour our mothers and fathers not in order to receive the reward of the Land of Israel; rather our sustainable existence in the Land of Israel is itself based upon our living a life of honouring. Our existence in Israel is based upon the creation of a just and moral society – one where we give honour to those who gave us life and raised us. As the performance of God’s mitzvot is an attempt to become closer to the Divine holiness, we can only truly thrive in the Land if we are ourselves as holy, as moral, and as just as we possibly may be.

One clue towards this idea is the location of this commandment itself. The first five are often understood as being בין אדם למקום (between a person and God), while the second five are בין אדם לחברו (between one person and another). But this one – the fifth Commandment – can be interpreted as belonging to both groups.

Our parasha this week asks us to consider – What are the guidelines and mores of establishing a thriving society? This remains a struggle for us today as much as it was for our Israelite ancestors. Every day, the modern State of Israel faces innumerable challenges in its efforts to be a moral, just, and hopefully a holy community. If our State of Israel is meant to be one where our people can long endure, where we can fare well, as we are clearly meant to do… it must be a society that continually strives to attain holiness; it must be a place that creates laws and legal codes in an attempt to bring about a more just and righteous existence. It must be a place where honour is given to each other – not merely out of hope for some divine reward, but because this is the path to creating a long enduring community.

I was considering these ideas yesterday while reading a poignant commentary by Israel’s prolific Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Writing about the ease with which Israelis optimistically tell each other “hakol b’seder” (everything is okay), he had this to say about Israel’s current state of affairs in its war against Hamas:

“Everything is not OK when in striking distance of most of our citizens lies a terrorist organization with a charter which calls for our death and with the means and the desire to terrorize half of Israel whenever they so will it. Everything is not OK when our only avenue for defeating them will entail an unacceptable amount of casualties on both sides.

Everything is not OK when the only way we can fight Hamas is at the expense of innocent non-combatants behind whom they take cover. Everything is not OK when the only deterrent at our disposal is to wreak havoc on their society. Everything is not OK when we are forced to impose a blockade, with its horrific humanitarian and economic costs, simply because we want to limit their access to missiles and explosives that will be aimed at our citizens.

The paradox of Israel is that the only way for us to be a Western society is for us to embrace some measure of instability along with “hakol b’seder.” The only way for us to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger. Everything will never be OK. The challenge is what to do when one recognizes this.”

What are we to do? What is Israel to do? In an intriguing twist in the Torah, the earlier reading of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus only includes the line “that you may long endure on the land…” (Shemot 20:12), not yet receiving the idea in Deuteronomy that we “may long endure and fare well on the land.” Apparently there is a difference between mere endurance on one hand, and endurance coupled with faring well on the other.

I think this duality is at the heart of what Rabbi Hartman is writing about. Yes, Israel is blessed with the Iron Dome missile defence system, a powerful army, a strong democracy, and somehow an eternally optimistic people. Despite the dangers of war, we will long endure in the Land.

But can we endure without faring well? At what point do we begin to compromise so much that our endurance comes at the expense of our faring well? The progression of the Torah teaches us that endurance on its own is not good enough; we are meant not only to long endure, but to long endure and fare well.

Rabbi Hartman enjoins us to remember “the only way for [Israel] to be a Jewish society is to embrace our values despite the danger.” I believe for us, in our observance of the violence in Israel and Gaza; in our viewing of local and international media; in our conversations on Facebook and Twitter; it is often far too easy to consider only the danger. Far too often, we are preoccupied only with Israel’s endurance. But hidden just beneath this surface in our parasha this week is the powerful reminder that endurance alone is insufficient. Endurance must be coupled with faring well. Likewise, combating danger on its own is insufficient. We must also be concerned with the perpetual embracing of our values.

The connection between a righteous existence in Israel and honouring ones parents goes one level deeper. What do we mean when we say honour? The Hebrew word כַּבֵּד (ka-bed) comes from the same shoresh (root) as the Hebrew word כַּבֵד (ka-ved), meaning “heavy.” The only difference is a dot in the second letter. Our duty is a heavy one, and we must treat it with the gravity it demands.

Israel – Medinat and Am (State and People) – must remember this. I pray that those making decisions in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv read this week’s parasha and are reminded of the heaviness of this duality. I pray that we, too, do not forget this powerful charge in our relationships with Israel. Yes, we should read and watch the news with a keen eye. We should share commentary and media online. We should dialogue with friends and colleagues. But our goals should not be limited to endurance. This Shabbat, may we now and always direct ourselves towards an existence in which we long endure, and in which we fare well with each other.

Talking about Gaza, Held by the Balls and Throat

Writing before the outbreak of the current war with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli author Ari Shavit had the following to say:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit (pg. 236)

It seems to me that much of the writing and commentary about the current war between Hamas and Israel seems to follow this pattern as well. One group of people make their statements, while the others respond with an oppositional view. We yell back and forth, squeezing each other in a cycle of fruitless argumentation that is only aggravated by the proliferation of the “Share on Facebook” button. I myself, stand guilty as charged.

As such, it is not my goal at this point to add any new political, military, or ethical commentary on the fighting. After nearly a month of physical violence, I have accumulated so much commentary in my head that I fear we will soon reach a critical mass and most will simply choose to tune out the background noise of the rocket fire, the drone strikes, and the exploding booby-trapped schools.

Rather, I wish to note the emerging pattern of commentary that can be found online, in print, and on television new. It seems to me that those who wade into discussions/commentary/yelling about the war largely (almost exclusively) tend to base their arguments on one of five general paradigms. I outline them below, noting the key features, providing examples, and noting how they risk contributing to the downfall of meaningful engagement and understanding. At close, I’ll offer a suggestion of how we might further advance our conversations.

 

1. The “My-Side vs. Your-Side” perspective

Unsurprisingly, this tends to be the most common approach to talking about Gaza/Israel. See all the media coming out of the IDF’s social media outlets, and all those who gratuitously repost everything on Facebook. Ditto for those lambasting Israel at every opportunity on op-ed pages around the world. Ditto for those lumping all Palestinians in with Hamas. We’ve reached the age where 140 characters isn’t enough, you can now follow a war on Instagram.

Those who write from this paradigm are essentially cheerleaders trying to drown out the noise from the opposing team. Unwilling to hear or understand the viewpoint of others, these people troll through the comment sections of website, spewing out tired talking-points and ad-hominem attacks. They thrive in the echo-chambers of Facebook walls, and contribute no real substance to the conversation.

 

2. The “Must be understood in context of the larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” perspective.

See David Grossman’s An Israel Without Illusions and Roger Cohen’s Zionism and its Discontents for two excellent examples of how it is impossible to divorce this current conflict from the wider state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who write from this paradigm attempt to explain the circumstances of this war in Gaza in light of those operations in 2009 and 2012, how the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine fuels the current state of affairs, what Israel’s role is in this context, and how in truth these are not separate stories, but one large story.

It seems to me that while those who write from this paradigm are correct to search for a larger unifying narrative, this approach often minimizes the degree of Hamas’s culpability at the expense of crafting a neater, tidier story-arc. This approach tends to place most focus on the longer story of Israel and the Palestinians, with less focus on the more recent arrival of Hamas on the scene.

 

3. The “Must be understood in context of a more regional geo-political perspective” perspective

See David Brooks’ excellent piece, No War is an Island for an example of this concept. Those who write from this paradigm are not merely content with a localized, Israeli-Palestinian context for explaining this war. Instead, they turn to the wider Middle East, with particular attention paid to divisions within the Sunni-Islam world. Comments are frequently made on the states of relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

This approach is crucial, as it explores over a century of history which plays a vital role in understanding the various nodes of conflict that have emerged. Yet as with the previous paradigm, it seems to me this perspective risks shifting its focus so wide, that it almost completely misses out on the human cost when it comes to civilian deaths in Gaza and impact on civilian life in Israel. When speaking of international Sunni relationships, it is far too easy to lose sight of the individual lives which are touched and lost in this war.

 

4. The “Moral Equivalency” perspective (which itself has two sub-paradigms):

a. The “All death is immoral, and all parties are equally culpable” perspective:

For those with this viewpoint, the only measure of morality (or immorality, as it were) in war is the rising death toll. Death = bad. From this vantage point, no nuance or context is possible, as the value of human life is reduced to a mathematical equation. The war is simplistically reduced to infographics (I’m looking at you, New York Times), and it becomes conviniently “easy” to make arguments without any wider context. “Israel and Hamas are both causing death, ergo Israel & Hamas are equally bad,” goes this argument, and it is easy to feel as though one has made a morally sound comment on the war. However, this perspective ignores its partner…

b. The “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” perspective:

This is also known as the The “Hamas’ intentions are immoral in that they intentionally target civilians, while Israel’s intentions are moral in that they don’t” perspective. Those speaking in this light are right to make a moral distinction between Israel’s and Hamas’s modus operandi, however I find that this viewpoint often becomes a barrier to further conversation. For these interlocutors, it is as if the fact that Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization while Israel is (for now) a (reasonably) liberal democracy exempts Israel from any culpability whatsoever for its actions in war.

This perspective takes a step in the right direction by making a nuanced moral distinction, yet misses the mark by not extending that distinction to the continued actions of Israel and Hamas.

Some of those speaking from this viewpoint also make the poignant argument that many criticizing Israel have been conspicuously morally silent when it comes to other wars in the middle east (cough, cough… Syria). See Chloe Valdary’s punchy piece in Tablet, To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman, which calls out the smug sententiousness of many who have waded into this conflict.

 

5. The “We must dialogue with each other AND try to ask questions to better understand what is going on” perspective

This includes internal conversations amongst Israelis, Zionists, and/or Jews (these are not all the same!), and Palestinians and Arabs (also not the same!); as well as conversations across religious/ethnic/ideological boundaries. Makom is leading the way on the Israel-centric side of this paradigm, with their question-based curriculum exploring ideas of peoplehood, power, and responsibility.

From an educational perspective, this approach is certainly the most worthy, as it encourages critical thinking and nuance in an attempt to engage people in a deeper and less superficial way. That said, as it is a value-based approach, it risks missing out on the historical context and real-world implications of daily life in Gaza and Israel. In truth, it is often more focused on the opinions and egos of the observers, rather than on the realities of the war itself.

 

There is quasi-sixth perspective –  the one which states: “I am sick and tired of the fighting. Why can’t they just get along with each other?” This is also known as the “crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy” perspective. Sometimes those with more hawkish viewpoints will pejoratively call this perspective “naive.” In any event, those holding this viewpoint are largely apathetic to the realities of the war in Gaza and Israel and don’t really have any meaningful engagement in the conversation. They can and should be invited in, however they aren’t contributing to the “noise” out there, and as such there is not much else to say about them here.

 


 

A solution?

I would argue that any writing or conversation about this war which does not begin with an understanding that the stated objectives of Hamas and Israel are on entirely different moral grounds leaves little room for continued conversation. Any conscionable person must acknowledge that Hamas aims first and foremost to murder innocent Jews and Israelis.

That said, the conversation must not stop there. It is not enough to say that Hamas are terrorists and Israel is a democracy. This may be true, but it does not make a cogent argument. We must continue the conversation.

Without an understanding of how this war does not exist in a historical vacuum and must be understood both in light of the two previous Gaza wars/operations, as well as in light of wider regional conflicts, it is challenging to say anything of critical value. We must not ignore larger narratives that continue to play a very real role in unfolding events.

But we must not extend our perspective so far as to lose sight of the very real human element. The conversation must not be limited to a cold geopolitical analysis.

Humans must not be reduced to numbers and infographics. Conversations should include a deeper understanding of the very-real human tolls both in Gaza and in Israel; tolls which manifest themselves in very different ways.

With a balanced understanding of history and humanity, we can honestly begin to consider moral implications. Any argument absent of the previous components heavily risks coming off as moralizing from a standpoint of unfounded superiority. And while it is easy to argue that Hamas and Israel stand on entirely different moral grounds, any commentary which ignores questions of the moral implications of Israel’s actions is also missing a significant component of the story. In our commentaries and conversations, no party should be permitted to act with impunity.

It is woeful and egregious that very little commentary – certainly of the kind that pervades Facebook and Twitter as of late – honours the complexity of this situation. The current state of conversation serves mostly to push most people away from having any meaningful understanding of the events.

Whether by reducing humans to numbers and statistics, or by reducing questions of morality to terrorism vs. democracy, we are not allowing room for real critical knowledge. We are lying by omission.

Anyone who makes the choice to wade into this situation – either from the pulpit of the New York Times; from the echo chambers of Facebook; or from WordPress, that bastion of democratic writing  – bears responsibility for the outcome of their words.

We must choose our words carefully, allowing room for emotion, but not in the absence of context and history. And we must be careful not to choose one history over another. Too often, we are missing an understanding that the topic of our conversations is that of very real human lives.

Absent a more just and honest framework, all we continue to do is grasp each other by the balls and throat, squeezing back and forth in an endless cycle. In our own way, we are contributing to this never-ending tragedy.