Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What does it mean to be 'really' Jewish?

This article in Ha'aretz struck a real chord with me, as it's a question I spend a lot of time thinking about. Why is it that we concede authenticity to the visibly orthodox (i.e. chasidic Jews)? What does it say about our own sense of integrity as liberal Jews that, so often, we hold some idealized frum up as the 'real' Jew, or we exert all kinds of energy tearing that image down as if to cast the Shomer Mitzvot individual as some kind of religious Neanderthal?

This question came up again at Torah study this past week, even. What is 'mainstream' Judaism? The Judaism experienced in synagogues, JCCs, and other places of affiliation, or in marathons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", pictures from Maccabi games on Facebook, and the Adam Sandler Hanukah song? Or does it even need defining?

So, I ask you: what does it mean to be authentically Jewish? Does it have to do with affiliation? With personal practice? Is it an ethical, cultural, or ethnic thing? Is it undefinable? Post your responses here (or leave a response when this gets posted as a note to my facebook)!

In the meantime, a happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah and Human Rights

Rabbis For Human Rights (of which I am a member) is promoting tonight and tomorrow as 'Human Rights Shabbat', coinciding with the beginning of Chanukah. While CBE is not directly participating this year (didn't have time to get the word out), it's a good time for us to remember that human rights are a significant part of this holiday. We talk about the jug of oil, of Mattathias and Judah's revolt, of the restoration of the Temple, but the Hasmonean revolt (which this holiday celebrates) was very much about Human Rights as our ancient worthies understood them; rights which we as Jews have fought for, trumpeted and celebrated for over a thousand years.

So as we settle in for a night of Adam Sandler songs, gifts, candle lighting, fried foods (and maybe even going to services, *cough cough*), let's take some time to remember the real miracle this holiday celebrates: that all of us, created in God's image, may be free to live with security and liberty.

Want to make your own Chanukah more Human Rights oriented or are looking for some Shabbat Table Talk? Check out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Or use this prayer for Human rights by Rabbi Brant Rosen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

How do we disagree?

So the following status update was posted on a friend's Facebook:

Can't we all just get along and WRESTLE? 1: to contend by grappling with and striving to trip or throw an opponent down or off balance, 2 to combat an opposing tendency or force, 3 to engage in or as if in a violent or determined struggle...

A perfect quote for this week's parasha, parashat Vayishlach. This is the famous scene wherein Jacob wrestles with some ambiguous someone (himself? an Angel? Esau? God? The text leaves the question open) and receives a blessing and a new name: Yisrael, one who struggles with God or if you prefer (and Arthur Waskow does): Godwrestler.

In my sermon tonight (should be updated by the end of the weekend), I'm going to talk about this idea of Sacred Struggle, and how critical it is for the health of a synagogue. Here's an excerpt:

And if there is a place where we should be able to have this experience, it is in the synagogue. This is a place where we feel and experience deeply, where we are at our most empowered and at our most vulnerable, a place that we want to stand up for certain values even as we want it to fulfill our every need. This cannot be a place where opinions, no matter how heated, no matter how divergent, are minimized. Every person’s voice matters in synagogue; not just the board member’s or the rabbi’s or the teacher’s, but everyone’s. We are all equal ‘stakeholders’, if you will. No one who truly cares and has the congregation’s health at his or her heart should feel that it was better to sit on disagreements until they fester, and find themselves leaving the synagogue or ‘causing trouble’, complaining about minor points that don’t speak to the real issue at hand, the one that’s burning inside. We cannot allow ourselves to be doctrinaire, to minimize and exclude opposition, or disallow innovation and growth. At the same time, this does not mean the synagogue exists to always affirm every request, regardless of how it relates to the community’s mission or sense of self; at some point a synagogue exists to respond to the needs of many, not only the few or the one, and no matter how reasonable or thoughtful the argument, sometimes the synagogue—with regret and love—cannot answer in the affirmative. Real community allows for dissonance—or if you prefer, polyphony—for the full variety of voices to be heard, joined together, in all our messy, divergent glory, somehow motivating all of us to take ownership, to encourage creativity that we may work together to strengthen the synagogue. So long as we see our challenges as belonging to someone else and we remove ourselves—our allow us to be removed— from the process, we will never grow as individuals or a community, and we will deny each other the blessing that could make us more committed, more inclusive, more thoughtful Jews.

I know, however, that confrontation and conflict are hard , both to do well and to do at all. No one wants to confront the rabbi, or to express concerns or comments, until the steam builds up to such a point that the confrontation becomes, shall we say, explosive.

Now, please understand, I'm not itching for a fight every week. Rather, I want people to feel comfortable enough to engage in meaningful conversation here--with me, other members of the leadership, with each other--without feeling either that they have to win at all costs nor that they are going to lose no matter what. I want people to have the opportunity to be transformed and blessed by the experience just as Jacob was. Of course, that takes hard work. It takes conviction but also a sense of the sacred in the other, a desire for learning as much as (if not more than) a desire for winning. A love of the individual and of the community. My hope is, when conflicts arise, we'll be able to approach them as Jacob is able to approach them: as an opportunity for blessing and growth.