Apr 28, 2011
The Saddest Day of All
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
When Passover comes, the two newest sacred days of the Jewish calendar are not far behind: Yom HaShoah v'HaG'vurah and Yom HaAtzmaut. Without positing a causal link between them, these two days commemorate the two most significant events in modern Jewish history and the polar opposites that they represent. Yom HaShoah signifies the worst tragedy we have ever experienced, that which brought the Jewish People as close to extinction as we have ever been. Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the great triumph of our return to our national home, the phoenix –like resurrection of the Jewish People from the ashes of near destruction.
To my mind, Yom HaShoah is the saddest and most tragic day of the Jewish year. Nothing even remotely like it ever occurred before. The systematic destruction of six million individuals, one third of our people, the elimination of a great center of Jewish life and learning, it is beyond imagining. Each year I listen to the reading of Megillat HaShoah, a liturgical retelling of the events of the Shoah that was written by Avigdor Shinan under the auspices of a special committee of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Schechter Institute. It is chanted aloud in synagogues throughout the world, and I contemplate an event that I cannot begin to comprehend. I ask myself questions about it and I read many excellent books that describe aspects of it, and I still cannot grasp fully what happened and why. That human beings could do what the Germans and others under their leadership did is almost inconceivable. We know that there is an evil inclination in all of us, but this goes beyond the meaning even of 'evil.' And that it was the work of a nation that was highly cultured and had contributed to humanity some of the greatest works of literature and music and philosophy is beyond understanding. As Abraham Heschel remarked, his problem was not so much where was God, but where was man.
It is clear that many things contributed to the rise of Nazism's plan to rid the world, once and for all,of the Jewish People. Among them was Europe's long history of anti-Semitism, which was at least as strong in France as it was in Germany. Another was the built in anti-Jewish teachings of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. The accusation of Jews as killers of God taught in every Church and religious school had its effect. But at least the Church had a teaching that Jews should be kept in misery but should be kept alive to show what happens to those who reject the son of God. Nazism taught that they should be denied life. As a matter of fact it taught that Jews were not human, they were a kind of vermin that should be eradicated just as you would kill rats. If there is anything that we can learn from the Shoah it is that is it forbidden to categorize human beings as inferior beings, or that any group is superior to any other.
I am also appalled when I hear people – Jews or non-Jews – using the term Nazi to describe anyone or any actions. To hear Israeli policemen castigated as Nazis, as we do all too often, is beyond the pale. To call anyone a Hitler is to show a lack of sensitivity and a lack of understanding as to what Hitler stood for. The Shoah was no less than the coldly calculated industrial plan of how to use technology to eliminate an entire people, to create death camps, to purposely deprive human beings of the status of being human and reduce them to ashes, one by one, until no Jew would remain alive. It desecrates the memory of the Six Million and denigrates their tragedy for anyone to use the Shoah in any political way or to promote any particular agenda, left or right, religious or secular. Let it be a day of remembrance and mourning, of tribute to those who suffered, those who perished and those who offered help and comfort. Let it be a time when we reaffirm the value of all human life and our right to live proudly as Jews, equal members of the human race.
Apr 27, 2011
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
It is precisely in the intense moments of disagreement that love is tested.
Parashat Acharei Mot begins amidst the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who brought uninvited incense-offerings upon the dedication of the Tabernacle and were themselves devoured by a "fire from God" (Lev. 10:2). With barely a blink, Aaron is now commanded to prepare for the Yom Kippur ritual (Lev. 16), including an incense offering, similar to (and in the exact location of) his son's deaths.
If we are brave enough to enter this excruciating moment, not as detached readers, but as living participants in the narrative, what does this sequence of events do to us? What must it have been like for Aaron, who is, during the Yom Kippur ritual (called the Avodah), our emmisary to God. On this holiest of days, and in the holiest of places, Aaron (the holiest person) enters a moment of the deepest vulnerability for the entire People Israel, let alone for a grieving father. What if something went wrong? And how could he be expected to get it right?
The second of the two Torah Portions for this Shabbat might contain a counterpoint to the burden of the first.
The command "Kedoshim Tihiyu, Be Holy (Lev. 19:2)" has been variously translated as "be distinct (Rashi)", or "be intense (Rabbi Yitz Greenberg)," but what is textually true regardless is the end of the verse, "Ki Kadosh Ani/For I [God] am holy."
To be Kadosh is to be like God. What does this mean? It is clearly impossible for a person to be God, and yet the verse seems to make that very demand. Amplify the challenge through the unfathomable emotions within Aaron in this moment and the question becomes exponentially demanding. Is an encounter with God, an intentional act of resemblance, even desirable in this moment, in a moment of serious pain?
Following this most difficult of questions, we encounter the hardest of the laws enumerated as the recipe for being/becoming Kadosh:
"You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Correct your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai. (Lev. 19:17-18)"
This is one of the rare occaisions when the Torah legislates emotion. It's not only that I may not act hatefully – I am forbidden from even silent hatred. Additionally, the very next pathway to holiness is one wich defies successful execution: correcting someone else. When is the last time you were corrected by someone else? How did it feel? When was the last time you corrected someone else and it was well-received? How many of us choose to avoid the encounter altogether, given the discomfort of confrontation? As the rabbis of the Talmud observed:
Rabbi Tarfon said, "I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this generation that can accept criticism." Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria responded, "I doubt if there is anyone in this generation that knows how to give criticism." (TB Arachin 16b).
Successful criticism is both near-impossible, and also a mitzvah. Avoidance in the face of tension is not a holy choice.
Perhaps there is a connection between the imperatives to correct and to not hate. If you truly love someone, you feel connected to them. If I witness a dear friend making (what I consider to be) a mistake, what does it mean when I remain silent? I would therefore be willing to let the mistake impact his life, the community, the world, while I remain uninvolved because it's easier. Then I might begin to feel anger and resentment towards him in my heart, violating both the beginning and the end of the verse. Consequently, the following verse might begin to become true as well. Festering resentment in my heart might lead me to lash out in (misplaced) retribution – all because I failed, as the verses end, to "love my fellow-person as myself."
Loving someone means being willing to encounter them without controlling them. Being in love opens me, makes me vulnerable, to criticism, to being encountered and responded to.
If my goal is to be alone, I can afford to ignore these instructions. But through the healthy relationships that demand the occasional sharing of loving criticism, relationships are most real. It takes serious strength to be such a community – bound by the commitment to each other, by the shared aspiration of holiness. It is also the best recipe for family – unconditional love despite (and especially during) passionate dispute.
Aaron's experience is simply incomprehensible. How, in a moment of excrutiating vulnerability, did he manage to even show up? How could he stand to encounter God, to hold an incense pan? How could he hold the conflicting emotions of sadness, anger, duty, love and faith in his heart? We will never know the answers to these questions, and may we never experience anything near as traumatic.
In our individual and communal pursuits of holiness, though, let us never imagine that remaining calm and untouched is the goal. It is unnerving to look someone in the eyes, especially during a moment in which there is a weighty disagreement that divides one person from another. But it is also precisely in that most intense of moments, the unbearable and visceral connection one person can share with another, that alone-ness is vanquished, that community is born.
It is, perhaps, precisely in that moment that we encounter God most directly: in the eyes of another, and through loving enough to be powerful parts of each other's lives.
May we be blessed to experience the demanding vitality of such Jewish communities wherever we are.
tabletmag.com: "Supply & Demands: The major movements of American Judaism require congregations to follow their rules when hiring clergy."
Apr 24, 2011
This is our Movement. This is our Moment.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
This past month, I was asked to join a panel on the Future of Conservative Judaism at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Las Vegas. My remarks were meant for my colleagues in the room. It turns out that what happens in Vegas doesn't actually stay there, and my remarks have found their way to numerous newspapers. What the newspaper quotations failed to report was the sadness that accompanied my remarks. I was raised in a family deeply involved in a Conservative synagogue. I met my wife in USY; I found my identity and calling at Ramah; I learned Torah in the institutions of this Movement. I am alarmed at its condition. I hoped that my remarks might bring some movement toward remedy and repair. I still have that hope.
We are in big trouble.
There is no demographic that offers optimism for the Conservative Movement's future. Not one. Read Steven Cohen's studies. He gives us seven years to live.
Consider: The United Synagogue has shrunk from a peak of 900 congregations to a current affiliation of 660 congregations. The majority of United Synagogue affiliated congregations have a membership under 200 families, and more than half of them are in serious financial difficulty. USY has shrunk by a third. Look at the RA Placement list: We are graduating bright, committed rabbis, but we have few jobs to offer them. As a movement, we are older than Reform and Orthodoxy, and growing older still. Yes, we have done a remarkable job educating our children in Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps. But we have failed to attract them back to our communities. Instead, they find their spiritual home in Orthodox circles, or they form non-denominational minyanim. They want nothing to do with us.
We are in big trouble.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Perhaps denominational Judaism is obsolete and we're better off without the institutional baggage of national organizations. When my budget chairman asks me, what do we get for all the money we send to United Synagogue? – I hear this question. I believe that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. It is lived, and practiced, and cultivated, and celebrated in community. And community needs the structure of institutions to thrive. Institutions, no matter how robust they appear, are fragile. Once torn down and destroyed, they are very difficult to replace or rebuild. That's why I volunteered, as part of the Hayom Coalition, to work on a strategic plan for United Synagogue. I have never been a fan of the USCJ. But to lose our national congregational structure would be a terrible blow to Conservative Judaism in North America.
Why are we facing this situation? Let's consider three possibilities.
1. Big Ideas. Religious movements fail when their ideas fail. Does Conservative Judaism have big ideas? Yes. In fact, its ideas are so big that everyone else in the Jewish community wants them. The Reform Movement's move toward tradition -- its discovery that spirituality without a language of mitzvah, of normative obligation, leads to narcissism – Reform Judaism is sounding an awful lot like us. Modern Orthodoxy's move to embrace Bat Mitzvah, to advocate women's Torah study and women's minyanim, and now the introduction of the ordination of women as Orthodox "Rabbah" – Modern Orthodoxy is sounding like us. This is not triumphalism. It is a recognition that the core ideas of Conservative Judaism speaks to the condition of the contemporary Jew.
So why isn't it speaking to our Jews?
Rabbis tend to be philosophical idealists. We believe in ideas. And so we are tempted to believe that somewhere out there is an idea – or a way of articulating an idea – that will bring Jews home to the synagogue and to Jewish living. Philosophical idealism, these days, comes wrapped in the language of marketing. There is talk of "messaging" and "branding" or "re-branding" our Movement. My friend, David Wolpe urges us to articulate a message that can fit on a bumper-sticker. Chabad champions "Torah True Judaism." Wolpe offers "The Judaism of Relationship." Others argue that we need to change our name. "Conservative" connotes exactly the opposite of what we'd like to project.
They're all right. But it is not sufficient. No new name or no new slogan is going to revive our Movement. And the danger of worshipping at the altar of marketing is that younger Jews, raised in a media-saturated universe, are wary of anything that seems contrived to sell. They seek authenticity above all else. And authenticity is defined as that which cannot be marketed.
We do need new ideas. We do need a clear message. But we need something more.
2. Big Personalities. Religion is intensely personal. At the heart of great religious movements we find great personalities. This is what astonishes me: How can a movement led by a soul as gifted as Arnie Eisen be failing? How can a movement that produces David Wolpe and Jeremy Kalmonefsky, Brad Artson and Danny Nevins, Elliot Dorff and Neil Gillman, how can we be failing? It's impossible.
Unless we recognize a third possibility.
3. Organization. When I started working on the problem of rebuilding United Synagogue, it struck me that the institutions of the Conservative Movement were incredibly dysfunctional. And then I came to realize something. They're not dysfunctional. They were designed this way.
The architect of the Conservative Movement was Solomon Schechter. Schechter loved American democracy. So he set up the institutions of the Conservative Movement to replicate the checks and balances of American democracy. The Seminary, United Synagogue, the RA were intentionally set at odds with each other so that no one could gain power over the others. Add in Womens League, the Mens Clubs, the other professional associations, altogether about 17 national organizations that represent Conservative Judaism in North America, and what do you get? You get leaders but no leadership.
We have a camping movement and a youth movement….but they don't talk to one another. And neither one talks with the people who run our day schools. Who in turn don't ever talk to the people who consult or lead supplementary religious schools. And no one talks to those who lead synagogues.
Leaders, but no leadership.
Our Seminaries prepare rabbis and cantors to lead congregations. And we have the two most brilliant scholars of congregational life in America – Jack Wertheimer and Ron Wolfson. Both Jack and Ron tried to build institutes devoted to researching synagogues and training a new generation of congregational leadership for our movement. And both failed to find support. So they gave up and took their efforts elsewhere.
Leaders, but no leadership.
We have no one who is responsible to visit Ramah camps each summer and our Solomon Schechter schools to recruit and inspire our best kids to take up leadership in our movement. We have great leaders – Julie Schoenfeld, Steve Wernick, and Arnold Eisen. But the structure of our so-called movement does not allow them to lead.
Even if we embrace David Wolpe's proposal to articulate a clear, concise message, who would be its advocate? Even if we had a message, we have no messenger.
Perhaps Schechter's structure of institutions worked in the early 20th Century. It's killing us now. I submit to you that the organizational chaos of the Conservative Movement threatens our future. And until we fix it, nothing else will save us.
So if Solomon Schechter so loved American democracy, let us do something quintessentially American: Let us call a Constitutional Convention of the Conservative Movement. Bring together the leaders of all the organizations, and rebuild the movement. Bring together our leaders to create the possibility of leadership. We will have a powerful message only when our institutions coordinate and cooperate in delivering that message.
We can continue to worry, or complain, to scorn the people who brought us to this precipice. Or we can kill the messenger and pretend it's not real. Or we can act.
This is our movement. This is our moment. We will either fix it or we will bury it. We will either integrate or disintegrate.
Apr 22, 2011
The Seder table is an altar, filled with symbols at once strange and familiar. Miriam and Elijah suddenly co-exist, a relic of animal sacrifice nudges a very modern orange. Shmura matza, carefully packaged in styrofoam, skirts the orbit of a soy-based baby formula, itself a test of Pesach-kashrut boundaries. Where are the lines drawn? Seder is a child-centered moment, and yet we begin when it's already dark. Adults struggle to evoke questions instead of answering them. We wonder if we are as wise as our children as we grapple with our own abilities to ask holy questions.
Do we see children as separate from ourselves, granting them the right to stand out or blend in - as they choose? Can we sing with purity? With pride? What is different about this night? Are we the same when the Seder is complete? (And is completion a holy goal?)
Is the Seder a performance, or is it an immersive ritual - or is it both? "The problem," as Rabbi Daniel Greyber quotes the great Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel z"l as having said, "is whether we obey or whether we merely play with the word of God (Shefa Journal 5766, p. 52)." Are we empowered to do both?
Can we open our doors to a day when God will be a source of Love and not wrath? Do we say "Next Year in Jerusalem" with yearning? Are we willing to see ourselves as both having emerged from and subjected to the constricting pain of Egypt? Do we permit ourselves discomfort? Is birth something we're willing to re-experience Are we willing to give of our souls, of our means, to build a sacred home our ancestors never dreamed possible? Can meaningful renewal occur any other way?
Can we continue asking these questions the day after Seder?