Friday, December 30, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
Tonight we continue our celebration of Chanukah, the festival of lights. But that is not what the word ‘Chanukah means’. Chanukah means ‘dedication’, and it hearkens back to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, defiled by Assyrian Greeks and their allies, restored after too much bloodshed to its former grandeur. One would think this holiday would then fail to speak to us; I don’t know about you but as much as I love barbecue I don’t long for a return to Temple Sacrifice, and the assimilationist tendencies of the Maccabees’ enemies don’t feel so far off to us—the idea of learning all that world has to offer us as opposed to Mattathias’ parochialism. Even the rabbis are happy to give it short shrift: there is no tractate Chanukah in the Talmud, after all; it appears but briefly in Tractate Shabbat, around the question of lighting lights.
And yet, throughout the centuries, this holiday has resonated. Yes, lighting lights in the darkest time of the year is common among all religious traditions, and yes, its proximity to Christmas has given the holiday extra ‘oomph’, let’s not delude ourselves. But for me, there is another element, a spiritual element that goes back to that idea of dedication. While I don’t dedicate myself to a Temple rite that long ago expired, this holiday gives me a chance to think about what I want to rededicate myself to—what I should focus on in my own personal life and my professional life, as a husband, father, friend and rabbi .Fortunately, I had an opportunity to have that reflection on dedication last week, but on steroids. Last week, 15 of us went by car and train down to the Gaylord Convention center, just across the Potomac from Alexandria, to join as many as 6000 other Reform Jews at the Union For Reform Judaism Biennial. This is the time when congregational leaders, clergy, and laypeople gather for singing, learning best practices, schmoozing, networking, and the study of Torah. Oh, and shopping. Some of us had been to previous gatherings, especially the sisterhood folks. I’ve been to eight myself. Others had never been to one, or if they had, it’d been years ago.
This convention was notable for a number of reasons. It was it the largest gathering of the Union ever, with registration fully closed a few weeks before. It was the first time the Biennial was addressed in person by Israel’s deputy prime minister and former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. It was the first time AIPAC was welcomed, along with the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and politically conservative leaders like Representative Eric Cantor and William Kristol. It was the largest gathering of Jewish rockers ever, from Julie Silver and Dan Nichols to Rick Recht, Mattan Klein, Michelle Citrin and Josh Nelson. It was the first convention addressed by a sitting president, Barack Obama, who began by kvetching about the length of the skirts his daughter wears to bar mitzvahs and giving a drash on the Torah portion, and gave a shout-out to NFTY, causing 300 teenagers to go absolutely bonkers. It was a time of transition, as Debbie Friedman was remembered, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, The leader of the Reform movement for 16 years, handed the presidency over to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, formerly senior rabbi of Westchester Reform in Scarsdale New York, a very different but equally passionate and devoted rabbi and community activists.
Most of all, it was the most intense, most engaging and dynamic biennial I have ever been to, and our delegates came home exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time. I asked them to share with me what was, for each of them, the most important thing, or idea, or moment that they took away from their experience.
For some it was the idea that we are part of a larger community, with a voice that should be heard and heard loudly. As the only Progressive synagogue from Malvern PA to Havre De Grace Maryland, and certainly the only voice of Reform in the First State, it can feel a little lonely, and it’s easy to feel like we do what we do in a vacuum. To experience Shabbat with 4700 Jews of all ages, to sing with 4700 other voices, to enjoy Shabbat dinner and song session with 4700 others (and the chicken was just fine thank you) is a powerful moment. And to see our values—of choice, openness, egalitarianism, of a Shabbat that isn’t Orthodox, of a Religious Judaism that is OURS, and not THEIRS (whoever they may be) and only ours sometimes—hailed and trumpeted and celebrated by thousands of others, representing 900 congregations and over a million individuals, filled our hearts with affirmation that Reform has a voice that must be heard.
And it was poignant to see Eric (he’s a classmate of my dad’s, I can call him that) talk about his own children’s spiritual journeys, and about the very real deficits we are facing in our movement, not only financial, as in so many congregations that are suffering from lack of treasure, but the spiritual deficit too many of us feel, unconnected to each other, working ourselves to the bone, over programming our children such that the only relief we feel, as Eric said, is when we finally stagger to sleep, exhausted.
For me, and I know I speak for cantor as well, I came away with a profound feeling that, while what we do here at Beth Emeth is good, it is not yet great. That we are too used to the idea that ‘good enough’ is good enough. That immediate need so often trump opportunities to really focus on our vision of what we could be as a caring congregation, devoted to Tikkun Olam and meaningful Jewish experience. I know I feel that myself more often than I’d like to admit: with so much to do already, so many practical demands on my time that are right here, it’s hard to see past them to what is truly visionary, what encourages us to be the kind of congregation I know we can be. For that, I want to give three examples of things I’m going to be working on with our leadership that I think, I know will lead this congregation to be the place it should be:The first is our school. This is not to fault our wonderful religious school director—I know Myrna’s devotion to this place and rely upon her wisdom daily, and anyone who knows me knows how much I appreciate what she does in this place. Nor is it to fault our devoted teachers, far from it! It is clear that we have the best religious school in the state, if not the region. But we do not do enough to provide our kids—and their families—with Jewish experiences. Oh, we’re excellent at teaching them ABOUT Judaism, but giving them opportunities to connect with deep, resonant Jewish moments in their lives, well, we could do more, and we could do better. Just as you can’t learn to play tennis or drive a car just from reading a book, our children will not learn to live meaningful Jewish lives if we only talk ABOUT the experience. They need to experience it for themselves. If that sounds a little like a pitch for Jewish camp or an Israel trip, you’re right. That’s what makes camp and Israel so successful, and we need to bring more of that here, including more opportunities for our families to experience Shabbat and the holidays, and experience each other: how many of our kids don’t know each other because they go to different schools? We can do more and we can do better.
Another is our Saturday morning experience. Too often we fail to make minyan when there is no bar or bat mitzvah. Too often attendance at Torah study is dependent on who’s teaching. Too often we as a congregation surrender the morning service over to the family of the bar mitzvah, with the best of intentions, and while I think we do the bar mitzvah experience better than almost any other congregation I have seen, with real love and devotion, we can do better. Shabbat morning must no longer be the neglected stepchild to Friday night, nor dependent on ‘shtick’ like one-off programs. We can do more, and we can do better.Finally, our Friday night Shabbat experience. (uh-oh, here it comes!) Where are the children? At home and in bed, with some exceptions. Where is our patience with young families? Where is our willingness to engage, not just with each other, but with the tradition itself? We have taught a generation that they’re only allowed here for family services or some special program “fir de kinderlach”, that worship must either be formal or ‘entertaining’, and unchanging—not only of structure and time and space, but worship that leaves us unchanged. I know I have worn people out with talking about Friday night, with trying different things and trying to meet different needs halfway. I have often despaired, and have heard the accusations that I’m trying to ‘Shir Ami’-ify our congregation, or make it something that it’s not, and before last week I was willing to give up. I was reminded at biennial that to do so, to give up, would be to shirk my duty to this congregation, to you, to myself, to give up on making this congregation’s Shabbat the best it can be, to be truly great. We can do more, and we can do better!More than anything else, we as a congregation need to dream big, we need to think big. I know you have dreams for this congregation. I do too. What are your dreams? Please, share them with me, with the leadership, and don’t think ‘this will never happen here’, or, ‘they won’t listen to me’. I will and we will. If we dream small that is all we are going to be, and I’m not talking about numbers in attendance. Biennial reminded me of the importance of having that vision, of living up to that vision, of sharing that vision with others. I want to hear your dreams, and I want to find ways to make them come alive. We can do more, we can do better.You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about the solutions. That’s on purpose. Oh, I have ideas, and soon enough we’ll talk about them: with our teachers and parents, with our Ritual committee, in forums large and small. I know that many of you have better ideas that will achieve the same things: more engaging Shabbat experiences for all generations, more connection in our religious school, the uplifting of Shabbat morning, and a host of dreams only you can articulate. The practical stuff will come—it will be complicated at times, there will be the gnashing of teeth and shaking of head, and a not a few people will tell me I’m crazy, and some of them to my face. But tonight, in Chanukah, we talk about rededication. I rededicate myself to this Reform Community, this House of Truth, this congregation that I promise you, will shine even brighter, even brighter than it does now. Amen.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
As many of you are now aware, Marsha Lee, our longtime congregant, former member of the board of directors, and devoted friend, was kidnapped near her home, and was found dead later yesterday afternoon. Our hearts and prayers go out to her husband Scotti and their family and circle of friends. Few of us know what they are going through, but as a congregational family, I know we will do whatever we can to support them in this terrible hour. To protect the family’s privacy, please contact Jan Goodman with your loving offers of support and encouragement. The funeral will be held at Congregation Beth on Thursday, December 22 at 1:00. Burial will be at Beth Emeth Memorial Park. A meal of condolence will be held at Congregation Beth Emeth. Shiva will be observed on Thursday, December 22 and Saturday, December 24 at 7:00 PM at 4403 Whittier Rd., Wilmington, DE 19802-1231.
Marsha’s kidnapping took place near our congregational home. We want you to know that we are doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of our congregants while on the premises, and have been assured by officials that there isn’t a greater threat to our community. That being said, please be vigilant in the parking lot as always, and if you feel the need for an escort to your car, ask. We will have Hebrew School on Wednesday, and we will continue with those securities measures that are already in place.
As we prepare to light the Chanukah lights, let us do what we can to drive away the darkness that has fallen on their home. May God bring consolation to Scotti and his family, as we—God’s agents—bring comfort to their grief.
Y’hi Or, let there be light,
Rabbi Yair Robinson and President Jan Rosenfeld Goodman
Monday, December 19, 2011
Friday, December 16, 2011
Barak: Israel won't accept Palestinian state that perpetuates Mideast conflict - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News
"I will not allow politicized, targeted legislation to undermine the value of the supremacy of the law. The only Jewish democratic state in the world must remain exactly that: a Jewish and democratic state!" Barak said."
'via Blog this'
Thursday, December 15, 2011
David Saperstein just said nice things about Eric Cantor, andthe Rep. Cantor said nice things about the Religious Action Center. Cats and Dogs, living together!
EDIT : after calling Reform Judaism part of the moral fabric of America and commending the URJ's commitment to Tikkun Plan, he changed tack to Israel and the middle east. Safer topic to be sure, but it sounded too much like AIPAC boilerplate. Having said that, he did start to make some interesting parallels with Israel support and Tikkun Olam, and hinted at what a conservative Tikkun Olam might look like, but never fully went there. Disappointing...
So as you can tell, I made it in (finally), made it to my consultation with my phenomenal president, got to have dinner with some colleagues, caught up with family and friends, saw the evening Plenary (best line from Theodore Bickel, honored tonight with the first Debbie Friedman Award: that she reminded us that Judaism is OURS, not THEIRS and sometimes ours), and went to a bunch of dessert receptions. I had the particularly joyful-but-awkward experience of catching up with my congregants and then having my former congregants love bomb me (which was delightful, but a little like having your ex-girlfriend meet your wife). I got to hang out with people I almost never see otherwise. And now it's quarter to 1, I am well and truly exhausted, but can't quite bring myself to go to sleep.
What's really amazing is the sense of "Biennial time" as well. I have to remind myself that I'm in Washington (well, just outside), and not in San Francisco or Phoenix (in terms of time change). It's a little (I imagine) like being in a casino: the temperature is always 72, the ambient light is constant, the rooms all look the same. It could be 5pm or 11pm, the energy level is the same and you have to pace yourself carefully.
It's clear that the URJ worked REALLY hard on this conference, and the sheer number of people, even for a biennial, is overwhelming. A the same time, as wonderful as the facilities are, it has the feel of a Potemkin Village (or at least a theme park): the hotel and conference center are like a fake town, surrounded on the outside by an equally artificial city. Like they cut part of Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Old Town Alexandria out and dropped it off here.
OK, starting to get random. Going to bed. Looking forward to dinner with congregants, lunch with my former senior, checking out the exhibit hall, going to some sessions (!) and catching up with more people, watching the waves of wonderful folks wash ashore.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I know I wasn't the first to think of such a thing (if I bothered I could probably find something in a Lawrence Hoffman book that looks pretty similar, as that's what he does), but it in that moment not quite a decade ago, it seemed like madness. MADNESS! This was before the iphone, ipad, Droid, everything-I-need-plus-angry-birds-in-my-pocket, but we could see it was coming.
Of course, it's not madness. This week, the CCAR released Mishkan T'fillah as an ipad app (with more to come for iphone, droid, etc.). Orthodox siddurim have been available on smartphones as apps (along with seforim like the Shulchan Aruch, Maimonides' writings, etc.). More and more congregations (as well as camp, large gatherings, etc.) are emulating the megachurch approach to project the service on a wall, sometimes interactively. More and more synagogues are livestreaming their services. We have seen the future, and it's 'itefilah'.
Part of me thinks this is fantastic. In fact, part of me thinks this doesn't go far enough. It's not enough to have the siddur in my phone for convenience. There should be a social media element to it as well; a way of sharing one's own personal meditations, Twitter-style, while in the moment (this past year's NFTY convention had exactly that; a live Twitter-feed projected along with the liturgy at T'fillah). Certainly to have something like that with seforim to allow for fully engaged social commentary and study, broadening the realm of a study community beyond the self or the four walls or even the need to find a local chevruta and learn, comment, reply to and study with a whole host of folks through Social Media (JPS is starting to experiment with that with their "Tagged Tanakh" ). Why not 'check in' to parts of the liturgy or Torah reading (or a daf yomi, perhaps) Foursquare-style, to signal to friends that you're this far along in your study, in order to encourage others? What about integrated media? You can't make it to services? Don't just 'watch' on the livestream: participate with your itefilah following along, 'synced' with the service you're livestreaming? We have seen the future, and has social media integration.
It sounds exciting--and terrifying. I know of one colleague who loves technology (blogs and tweets, so she's ahead of me) who's bemoaning the distractions that will come from bringing your tablet to services as your siddur. Services getting boring? Don't like the tune? stick your headphones on and tune into a different service! Or just check twitter, the scores, play some tetris etc. And what is there to say about the financial and social stratification: if you don't have a smartphone or tablet, and have to use a prayerbook, does that convey something negative to your fellow worshiper? Does the competition of the parking lot (who's got the better car) now migrate to the sanctuary? Finally, what happens to the sense of praying as a community? We've all seen cartoons lamenting/laughing at youths 'having a conversation'; that is, looking down at their phones and saying nothing to each other. Does this technology bring people together, or push them apart? We have seen the future, and it's...well, kinda lonely.
In Ernest Cline's book Ready Player One, the main character, and indeed all the characters, have escaped a dystopian future world without hope by immersing themselves in a video game world full of pop-culture nostalgia. But at the end, in true 80s movie fashion, the protagonist learns that this escape has led only to a solitary and solipsistic existence, that the world is worth engaging and saving. I marvel at these developments and know that meaningful, engaging Jewish prayer is evolving in directions I couldn't possibly imagine even two years ago, never mind 10. And so long as it's meaningful, engaging, communitarian and prayerful, I welcome our new machine overlords. And if its not, what are these things except new idols demanding are attention?
If you have thoughts on technology (good or bad) I'd love to hear them!
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Why Kiruv Sometimes Fails | Beyond BT - The Baal Teshuva / Baal Teshuvah site for Baalei Teshuva / Baalei Teshuvah and Other Growth Oriented Jews
Monday, December 5, 2011
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Apparently, the Netanyahu government has a new solution to the crisis in Jewish identity: don't marry American Jews! Really, the solution is brilliant in its simplicity, not dissimilar to this solution to child hunger and overpopulation. Except without the humor.
On another note, I just finished David Hartman's The God Who Hates Lies. Such a fantastic and fascinating read, seeing an Orthodox rabbi's own evolution toward egalitarianism and a more liberal acceptance of Jewish identity within the rubric of Halakha, essentially and purposefully proposing a different ethos toward Halakhic engagement. Indeed, one could see this as the Orthodox flipside to Moshe Zemer's (zz'l) own attempt to re-engage Halakha from a liberal/progressive Jewish standpoint. I'll post a more detailed review later this/next week.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Jerusalem & Babylon / Ultra-Orthodox need not protest Israel, they run it - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News
'via Blog this'
Monday, November 14, 2011
We need a new financial model in North American Jewish life."
'via Blog this'
Thursday, November 10, 2011
But I began reflecting on what Jewish tradition might say. In terms of the performance of mitzvot, rabbis list the minimum one needs to do in order to fulfill a mitzvah. For example, when building a sukkah, it needs to be at minimum, tall enough to sit in and fit at least one person (Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayyim 633:1).But of course the goal is to do so much more than the minimum. The goal is to build a structure where one can truly celebrate this wonderful fall festival. Hence, the bare minimum really is never enough.Also there is the principle of tzedek, tzekek tirdof, justice, justice, you shall pursue, (Deuteronomy 16:20). One of the classic interpretations of this phrase is we are obligated to seek out justice and to make sure it is done and applied fairly. Not just to pass it on to others to handle.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
We are turning Iran. And every step we take toward that end, Iran wins.
Every time a bureaucrat in black - ostensibly, ostentatiously, a Rav, a rabbi, a man of greatness – can discriminate against women; every time he can deny them access to holy sites and relegate them to the backs of buses; every time he can prohibit the image of a woman's face in public advertising; every time he can decide when and where and if, as soldiers, as students, as worshippers, they may sing or dance or speak or stand or even be present in Jewish worship, Iran wins.
Every time a well-connected crackpot preacher holds up vital hospital construction, brandishing a voodoo ruling of his alone; every time he abrogates the religious rights of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and even fellow Orthodox Jews, even rabbis; every time he bars Ethiopian or Moroccan schoolgirls from studying with Ashkenazi schoolgirls, Iran wins.
Every time a self-styled pious Jew places an extremist holy man above the law and its commands; every time he desecrates a mosque, every time he destroys Palestinian-owned olive trees; every time he attacks Arabs with rocks; every time he threatens peace activists in their homes; and every time he gets away with it - which is every time - Iran wins.
Every time the cabinet and the Knesset advance anti-democratic bills meant to stifle dissent, suppress the Arabic language, demonize human rights workers, and curb freedoms of expression and the press, Iran wins.I hope he's wrong, I hope there's still time. Because as afraid as I am of a madman with a ticking time-bomb with the names of Israel inscribed upon it, I'm even more afraid of what happens to an Israel that, in pursuit of existential security, undermines its very existence.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Congregation Bene Emeth
November 5, 2011
Abraham: The First Jew?
Rabbi Joshua Garroway, Ph.D.
Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion
I would like to begin my remarks this evening with a somewhat scandalous question. I start in this manner because of my assumption that listeners who are shocked or disturbed by what they first hear from a speaker are more apt to pay attention to what he or she says afterwards. Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, famously, have cashed in on that aspect of human nature in the modern world, but great orators of the past, such as Cicero, and the great rabbinic sermonizers of antiquity, knew it all the same. When people ask: “Did he really just say that?” they tend to keep on listening—and they listen eagerly.
The question meant to shock you is this:
Can a woman be a Jew? That’s right: can a woman be a Jew? I am not asking whether a woman can be a rabbi, a subject of lively debate in certain sectors of the Jewish world. Nor am I asking whether a woman can wear a kippah, or read from the Torah, or count towards a minyan – other legal questions still in play in certain non-liberal Jewish settings. No, I am asking a more basic question: can a woman even be a Jew in the first place?
Now, let me put your minds at ease from the start. The answer is categorically “yes,” a woman can be a Jew. Indeed, there are millions of Jewish women in the world, some of whom are here tonight, and I have no intention of undermining that identity. What I will propose here this evening, however, is that the question—can a woman be a Jew?--is not as ridiculous as one might think. And to it we could add other questions which are equally provocative, and, I would suggest, no more preposterous: Can a person with a Jewish mother, but not a Jewish father, be a Jew? Can a person with a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother, be a Jew? Can a person without a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, that is, a convert, really be a Jew? Can an atheist, even a professed agnostic, really be a Jew? All of these questions, however disturbing or controversial, are, in my opinion, reasonable questions—reasonable enough, at least, that they have been asked and debated by Jews long before I raised them here tonight. The answer to all of them is “yes,” at least in my opinion, but I could name for you at least one
Jew, either presently living or from the past, who would answer “no” to each of these questions because the questions themselves are reasonable.
These questions are reasonable because of the nature of Jewish identity itself. Jewish identity, which is the main focus of my scholarship, is as we all know a notoriously contentious issue—especially in our own day. At present in the state of Israel, for instance, just who qualifies as a Jew, and how the state-endorsed orthodox rabbinate makes those decisions, are matters that affect the lives of many of us in the Reform Movement, not to mention Russian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants, Karaites, Samaritans, and others. As an example, and to let you know that I have a personal stake in the matter, consider my own quirky dilemma: as the son of a mother converted by a rabbi ordained in the Reform movement, in Israel I am not considered a Jew when it comes to marriage, burial, or other religious rights, but I am a Jew insofar as the Law of return is concerned. Am I a really a Jew then? I certainly think so, but others apparently disagree.
And to show that such controversy is not restricted only to the state of Israel, consider the hairs on the back of your own necks—most of you I’m guessing—were I to proclaim publicly that Jews for Jesus, or messianic Jews, are in fact, as they claim, Jews and as such should be admitted to membership in this synagogue, called to the Torah, and so on. Many of us, I imagine, would contest that claim to Jewish identity. Are, then, messianic Jews Jews? In that case, I don’t think so, but they certainly think so and, again, it’s a matter of reasonable controversy.
As a historian of Jewish identity, I can assure you that what is happening today is nothing new. 25 centuries ago, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, “what makes a person a Jew” was a hotly contested matter, as Jews returning from the exile in Babylonia questioned the authenticity of Jews who had remained all the while in Jerusalem. And similar controversies, mutatis mutandis, ensconced Jewish communities 20 centuries ago, 15, 10, and 5 centuries ago, and 5 centuries from today claims to Jewish identity will still be a matter of vigorous contention.
The reason for that never-ending controversy is the simple fact that no single criterion for establishing Jewish identity has ever been established, which has applied to all places and in all times. A survey of Jewish history reveals that there has simply never been a single, necessary, and sufficient trait that eternally separates the Jew from the non-Jew. There is, in other words, no such thing as an essence of Jewishness, no irreducible core that unifies Jews in every time and place.
To demonstrate what I mean when I say that no single trait, no single belief, no single criterion qualifies as the essential attribute of the Jewish people, let us consider the man about whom we read in the Torah portions this time of year, Avraham Avinu, our forefather, Abraham. Often one hears that Abraham was the first Jew. That’s a contentious claim, of course, but for argument’s sake let us assume that Abraham is indeed the first Jew, and thus the Jew par excellence. What I’d like to examine for the next few minutes is just what about Abraham makes him the first Jew. Does he exhibit any characteristics that will be uniformly representative of all Jews who follow him?
In the first place, one might say that Abraham was a Jew because of something he did. What exactly did Abraham do that might have made him the quintessential Jew? Most importantly, Abraham forged a unique, eternal covenant with God, which God sealed into his flesh in the act of circumcision. Indeed, Genesis 17 makes it unmistakably clear that circumcision is the irreducible essence of the covenant between God and Abraham: ytiúyrIB. tazOæ God says to Abraham, rkz ta ~kl lwmh. This is my covenant, all your males shall be circumcised. Later God adds:
“Any uncircumcised male whose flesh is not circumcised will be cut off from his people because he has broken my covenant.” In other words, if you are not a circumcised male, at least according to the 17th chapter of Genesis, then you are not included in the covenant. Now, if inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant with God is what makes one a Jew, one might reasonably conclude that only circumcised men can be considered Jews. Hence, the scandalous question with which we began.
Now, most of us probably assume that it is preposterous to suppose that only circumcised men can be members of the Abrahamic covenant, and in that sense, Jews. Yet, there was at least one author in antiquity who believed just that, that the Abrahamic covenant was limited to circumcised men. The author of Jubilees, a Hebrew work of the second century BCE, insists in that work’s 15th chapter that the Abrahamic covenant is restricted not merely to circumcised men, but to men circumcised on the 8th day of life in accordance with the protocol established by God in Genesis. A boy circumcised just a day late, on the 9th day of life, is barred from the covenant.
Now that’s a rather extreme view, but the author of Jubilees was not alone in antiquity when it came to assuming that circumcision is the indispensable requirement for inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant. The great sages of the Talmud make the same assumption about the covenant. In a famous passage from tractate avodah zarah, the Talmud makes an astonishing claim that reveals just how deeply at least some rabbis fretted over the apparent exclusion of women from the covenant of Abraham. The statement comes amidst a discussion about who may perform a circumcision on an infant boy. According to the great sage, Rabbi Yochanan, any circumcised Jew person may perform the circumcision. Bizarre as it may seem, however, the category of “circumcised Jews” includes Jewish women. Jewish women are classified as k’man d’mehila damya, which is to say, as if circumcised. By dint of her birth, Rabbi Yochanan claims, it is as though a Jewish woman has a circumcised penis.
The same is true, by the way, for Jewish boys with hemophilia. Mercifully, the Talmud forbids circumcising an infant if two older brothers had died from the surgery. Assuming that the younger brother, too, will bleed to death, the boy is permitted to keep his foreskin. But such a foreskinned boy would be excluded from the Abrahamic covenant; so, just as Jewish women, the foreskinned boy is reckoned as though his foreskin is not there. It is all a legal fiction, of course: women don’t have penises, much less circumcised penises; and forskinned hemophiliacs are not circumcised by the looks of it. But the rabbis were compelled by the text in Genesis to conclude that membership in the covenant of Abraham requires a circumcised penis, and unwilling to exclude women and hemophiliacs from that covenant, they simply flouted reality: women and foreskinned men are in fact circumcised, they said, however contrived and ridiculous that assertion may seem. But the legal fiction highlights just how inadequate circumcision is as a definitive marker of Jewish identity. More than half the Jews in the world at any time do not even have penises to be circumcised.
Perhaps, then, what makes Abraham Jewish is not something he did – name
ly, seal a covenant with God in his flesh – but it was rather something Abraham thought or believed. Many of us learned as children what Jewish traditions have said about Abraham’s revolutionary religious intuition. Convinced of the orderliness present in our world, Abraham abandoned belief in the pantheon of Babylonian gods, destroyed his family’s idols, and devoted himself resolutely to God, the only God of the universe. Abraham, in other words, was a monotheist, a believer in a single personal God. So, perhaps we might say that monotheistic belief is the hallmark of Jewish identity?
Here again, however, we would run into difficulty. Were monotheism considered the essential attribute of the Jew, many of our beloved ancient forbears would hardly make the grade. To provide just one of what could be scores of examples, consider King David, perhaps the greatest of all biblical heroes, the king from whose loins many Jews still believe the messiah of Israel will emerge. David could not have been a monotheist inasmuch as several of the psalms he is reputed to have written betray unmistakably polytheistic sentiments.
Those of you hailing from conservative or orthodox backgrounds are no doubt familiar with the 29th Psalm, a psalm attributed to King David, which traditionally is recited on Sabbath mornings when the Torah is returned to the ark. Havu ladoshem benei elim, that psalm begins, “Give praise and strength to Adonai, O children of the gods.” Now, of course, no Jewish prayer book translates the verse thusly. One is more likely to find something like: “Give praise and strength to Adonai, O angelic beings,” or some other euphemistic expression that obscures the patently non-monotheistic sentiment in the Hebrew. Scholars of the Hebrew Bible know full well that this Psalm depicts the God of the Israelites, Adonai, in the same manner that contemporary literature represented the Canaanite god, Ba’al—as the king of the gods, like Zeus, who takes his seat in a heavenly counsel amongst the other gods. That is not monotheism. If monotheism is the standard by which Jewish identity is determined, then the author the 29th psalm, if it is King David himself, would not qualify as a Jew.
Of course, that’s only one side of the problem. Consider the alternative: Jews who believe not in many gods, but in no god at all! There may be some gathered here right now who admit to being agnostics or even atheists. Does that mean they are not Jews? And yet, polytheists and atheists would constitute only a part of the problem were we to make monotheism the defining characteristic of the Jew. There remains the precarious fact that, even among Jews who do believe, or have believed, in a single god, there are nearly as many descriptions of that god as there are Jews. The Jewish mystics, for example, describe God as a complex arrangement of ten discrete, interacting emanations of deity. Alternatively, the great 12th century Spanish philosopher Maimonides described God in Aristotelian terms, as the remote and transcendent mind that “thinks the thought that is itself.” In contrast to that, the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza conceived of god as coterminous with the universe. God, he would say, does not transcend the world; God is the world. And then there’s the 19th century German philosopher, Hermann Cohen, who would say that God is not a discrete being at all, but merely an idea, and idea of moral perfection that guarantees a moral universe. I could go on and
on, of course, choosing Jews from different centuries and from different lands, but such a list would only underscore what is already an obvious point: the monotheism of Abraham cannot be the standard by which Jewish identity is determined, since Jews have believed in many gods, no gods, and every type of single god one can imagine.
Perhaps, then, we need to change gears once more. Maybe it is not anything Abraham did that made him a Jew, or anything he thought that made him a Jew, but simply the fact that he was Abraham, the man through whom God chose to establish a covenanted family, the children of Abraham, the Israelites, the Jews. In other words, perhaps Abraham’s Jewishness was in his DNA, so to speak, a trait that would be passed down to his children, his children’s children, and his children’s children’s children, all the way down to us today, those whom George Washington famously dubbed “the stock of Abraham” when writing to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Perhaps Jewishness is inherited.
Indeed, were one to ask around today, that’s likely to be the standard for Jewishness heard mentioned most frequently: “A person is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish.” Unfortunately, the certitude with which that claim so often is asserted belies an avalanche of historical evidence to the contrary. Just look at Abraham’s own grandchildren. If we suppose that Sarah, as a co-founder of the covenant alongside Abraham, was the first Jewess, then her son Isaac would be a Jew. Fair enough; no problems so far. But Isaac’s wife, Rebekkah, did not have a Jewish mother, which would end the lineage of Jews only one generation after it began. Yet, even if we assume that Rebekkah, for whatever reason, was also a Jew, then her two children, Jacob and Esau, would also be Jews. Yet, Esau is by no estimation a Jew. In fact, he is the progenitor of an entirely different people, the Edomites, who centuries later would become mortal enemies of the Jews. The matrilineal principle fails to account for Jewishness within just two generations of Abraham himself. And, even if we were to say that the principle of inherited identity only kicked in, so to speak, in the third generation, with Jacob’s children, the Israelites, one would invariably be stymied by the fact that, from biblical times down to the rabbis, Jewish identity ran through fathers, not mothers. The matrilineal principle was in fact invented by the rabbis in the first few centuries of the common era, before which time one was deemed Jewish if his father was Jew. Now, of course, the Reform Movement has blended the two, deeming a person a Jew if either his mother or his father is Jewish, provided that he exhibits timely and appropriate acts of identification with the Jewish people. Thus, one cannot say that Jewish identity is in the blood because just whose blood is determinative has changed back and forth over the course of time. And that is not to mention the
many people over the course of history who, though born to a Jewish mother and father, chose to abandon their Jewish identity. Many, many Jews converted to Christianity in 15th century Spain, for example, or 19th century Germany, and yet we do not consider their descendants Jewish. Yet, if Jewish identity is truly in the blood, then converting out of that identity would be impossible. So, too, would converting into the Jewish people, a prospect that would de-legitimate the Jewishness of twenty centuries’ worth of converts to Judaism and their descendants.
The simple fact is that pedigree, like circumcision, like monotheistic belief, cannot suffice as the single criterion that determines Jewishness. There is no such thing as a Jewish essence.
That can be a disheartening proposition. If there is no Jewish essence -- no trait, no belief, no gene, no experience – that makes a Jew a Jew, then what is it that connects us as Jews? What links me as a Jew to you as a Jew, or us as Jews to another community of Jews convening for Shabbat this evening, or us as Jews to other communities of Jews in the past? So often we invoke ideas like l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation, or shalshelet kabbalah, the chain of tradition, or am Yisrael, the people of Israel, in a way that suggests there is some grand uniformity, some essence, that connects all Jews in different times and different places. That idea gives us comfort and strength, a sense of solidarity, of historical meaning, and purpose. From Abraham, to David, to the Maccabees, to the sages, to Rashi, to Herzl, to those who perished at Auschwitz: we are all connected somehow. We are all Jews. And yet, as we have seen, that notion of a Jewish essence, that there is indeed something that links us all together, is quite simply belied by historical evidence.
That is disheartening.
But it’s also encouraging, I think. For while the notion of a Jewish essence may provide a sense of solidarity and purpose, there are consequences to essentialism, consequences that we as progressive Jews appreciate full-well. An essence, by definition, cannot change. Were Jewish identity to have an essence, then we as Jews would lose the capacity to redefine it anew in every generation. Judaism would lose its capacity to change, to adapt, to progress into something that corresponds to the aspirations of new people in new times and new places. The rich variety of Jewish beliefs and expressions exhibited by the figures I mentioned above – Abraham, David, the Maccabees, the sages, Rashi and Herzl; not to mention Maimonides, Hermann Cohen, and Spinoza; or Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews – that collage of Jewish expression, which has no essence, would never have been possible.
Does that mean that we, as Jews, must resign ourselves to the fact that, without an essence, we are not connected l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation, in a shalshelet kabbalah that links us all as am Yisrael, the Jewish people? I would suggest not, and in closing I’d like to leave you with an image that reveals how a people without an essence can nevertheless understand themselves as an intimately connected people linked through time and space.
That image, to which I am indebted to my teacher, professor Michael Meyer, is a rope. Now, I am no rope-maker, but my understanding is that no single thread in a rope is as long as the rope itself. In a 10 foot rope, for example, no single thread is more than 2 or 3 feet long. A 2 foot thread connects to another 2 foot thread, which connects to another two foot thread in a different place, which connects to a three-foot thread, which connects to a one-foot thread, and so on and so forth until all these threads are twisted into a rope ten feet in length. But no single thread is connected to all other threads. Indeed, if the rope were constructed with such an “essential” thread, the rope would be weaker and its integrity compromised. The strength of the rope owes itself to the interconnectedness of all the non-essential threads.
In like manner we might imagine Jewish identity over time. There is no thread that extends from Abraham all the way down to us, a thread encompassing all Jews in all times and in all places. But that does not mean there is no rope extending from Abraham all the way down to us, a rope that includes all Jews in all times and all places, a rope in which different strands of thought, belief, ritual, appearance, ethnicity, and the like, have been twisted together into a single cord, whose singular strength and integrity has enabled it to endure from the time of Abraham until today.