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When Is A Jew – Rosh Hashanah

September 09, 2010

In the late 1970s, leaders of Reform synagogues and the Union for Reform Judaism – the former Union of American Hebrew Congregations – were exploring ways to establish Reform Jewish day schools throughout the United States because research has consistently shown that the best ways to strengthen Jewish identity in children and young adults is through enrollment in Jewish day schools, as well as participation in synagogue youth programs, attendance at Jewish summer camps, and the experience of being in Israel. At national conventions in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, seminars called ‘Strengthening Jewish life in America’ were offered as the Reform Movement considered how it might launch Jewish day schools under its umbrella.

The costs and benefits were discussed and debated at length, as were efforts to define the balance between secular studies and Torah text-Hebrew language study; how the meaning of God and covenant, Israel, Jewish history, mitzvot and ethics would be taught; and how students would learn to appreciate the meaning and significance of Reform Jewish perspectives. It was anticipated that the Reform Jewish day school movement would gain traction in Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, as well as Haifa and Toronto, and it has…but only to a limited degree. By 2002, there were 19 Reform Jewish day schools with 6,000 students enrolled. It was surprising to find St. Louis in the mix, and also surprising that Chicago and Philadelphia are not. However much can be said about the value of the education that students in Reform Jewish day schools are receiving, the fact is that it remains a big-city phenomenon with declining numbers that never received much traction in smaller towns.

This is because there were significant differences between leaders who lived in cities with major Jewish populations and those who came from towns with smaller populations. Jewish leaders in large population centers were supportive of the idea, but the response from Jewish leaders in medium size cities or small towns in the Midwest, or the Deep South in particular, were resistant to it. They argued that Jewish day school education would be too insular. They believed it to be counterproductive to their children’s need to be part of the communities in which they lived. They felt that taking children out of public schools would have a negative impact on socialization with their peers of different religions and would likely lead to their children being viewed as “different from” rather than “part of.” Resentment was voiced by many synagogue leaders from small cities in America who felt that metropolitan Jewish leaders were preaching to them about the benefits of something that they felt was inimical to what they themselves believed to be in the best interests of their children: the need to foster social relationships with their peers of other faiths through daily contact in classrooms, clubs, sports and social events.

I was reminded about philosophic differences in the Jewish world, often defined by geography, as I followed the proposed Rotem Conversion Bill as it made its way through committee deliberations and onto the floor of the Knesset in Jerusalem. The Bill is authored by David Rotem, Knesset member and its Yisrael Beitenu – Israel is Our Home – Party, whose electoral base is fortified by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of those immigrants, some 300,000 in number, are not considered Jewish because their halachic standing is in doubt. In the eyes of Israel’s political leaders and the Orthodox rabbinate, there is an urgent need to have them formally convert to Judaism because if they are unable to marry or be buried within the Jewish tradition, the result might be a sense of alienation on the part of their children and yet another schism within Israeli society. Under the proposed Rotem Bill, conversion would be under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and would extend the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate through local chief rabbis in cities throughout Israel. This is the august religious body – I apologize for the sin of sarcasm on Yom Kippur – that prevails upon Israeli police officers to arrest women who are davening at the Western Wall in organized prayer groups because, in the eyes of the fervent Orthodox, they are “politicizing prayer.” In the small prayer area allotted to them at the Western Wall, women have been subjected to vile language by the hahredim, who have occasionally thrown chairs at them. Leaders of “Women of the Wall,” founded in 1988, have been arrested for holding Torah Scrolls! The Chief Rabbinate is in league with the worst elements of religious fundamentalism, and in fact encourages it.

The Bill was to have received its second of three readings on the floor of the Knesset on July 21st – ironically, the day after Tisha b’Av – the date that mourns the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. It is a day that our tradition says was hastened by sinat ahm, hatred for one’s own People through malevolent words and deeds. It was the price paid for unrelenting internal warfare. The reading of the Rotem Conversion Bill was tabled in the face of pressure from leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in America who came to Israel to give pluralism a lifeline in the face of the Orthodox full-court press. Israel’s Progressive and Masorti religious movements – counterparts of our Reform and Conservative movements – petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter, and their withdrawal of the petition was the compromise that led to the cancellation of the second reading.

The third reading would have been this coming October 21st, at which point the matter would have been voted upon, but a ‘cooling off period’ is now in place until January 1st. In the interim, the government, the Chief Rabbinate, and leaders of Diaspora Jewry will see if they can develop a plan that will allow Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel to create a program of study that leads to conversion under the same tent. The inability to resolve this has been profound, and so too the danger this has posed to religious pluralism in Israel, but the fact is that no matter how much American Jewish leaders and religious non-traditional Jews in America champion religious pluralism, it does not resonate very much with Israelis.

Even the most secular of Israelis feel themselves to be immersed in Jewishness. The soil upon which they walk is the wellspring of Jewish history, the land of priests/cohanim and prophets. The best guidebook to the land, the Torah, links them through narrative and liturgy to our ancestors. Hebrew is their national language. Even if they infrequently pray, enter synagogues or observe minor festivals, they still consider themselves to be more Jewish than those of us in the Diaspora. Despite their resentment that the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the IDF, and are heavily subsidized by the government to study in yeshivahs instead of working, they defer to the Orthodox with this refrain: “I do not want to be Orthodox, but if I were ever to be ‘religious,’ I would be Orthodox because that is the only authentic form of Judaism.” So while we are opposed to religious fundamentalism, most Israelis are thoroughly indifferent to the notion of religious pluralism.

This may change in time, and not for the better, given that the stranglehold the Orthodox have on the government is increasing. Long gone are the days in Israel when the ultra-Orthodox community was concerned about “protecting what we have” to their now vehement chant, “The future is ours!” The hahredim are in a very aggressive posture to determine what the future of the Jewish State will be, and a critical question is whether American Jews will continue to identify with a Jewish State that is in increasing discord with our religious practices.

The historic question that fuels this fire is, “Who is a Jew?” The traditional response has been, “Someone whose mother is Jewish and anyone who converts to the Jewish faith.” In 1983, our Reform Movement added a third variable: if the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is raised in a Jewish home, receives a Jewish education in religious school classes with his or her peers, celebrates holy days – the High Holy Days as well as Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Hanukkah, Passover and Shavuot…easy enough to do as part of a synagogue community – and self-identifies as a Jew, then we affirm that he or she has earned the right to say, “I am Jewish.” Yet for far too long, religious non-traditional Jews have taken their cues from what Orthodox Jews do. It is as if the Orthodox have the seal of kashrut on our identity! I cannot begin to tell you how many times people have said to me, “I don’t light Shabbat candles because I’m not traditional. I don’t treat the Shabbat differently from the other days of the week because I’m not Orthodox.” They define their Jewish identity on the basis of what Orthodox Jews do, and it creates a negative identity! The refrain becomes, “I am a Reform Jew because I do not do this and I do not do that.” What norishkeit or shtu’yote is this? Affirm, don’t disclaim! Claim your Jewish identity on the basis of what you believe and do!

The critical question for us, as religious or spiritual non-traditional Jews, is “When is a Jew?” The “when” is important because expressing our ‘Jewish selves’ must be more often than response to crisis. When crisis occurs, denominational labels drop off. At those times we do not ask, “Are you Orthodox, or Reform, or Conservative, or Reconstructionist?” but rather, “What can I do?” In the absence of crisis, there are numerous ways to engage our “Jewish selves” on personal, frequent and meaningful levels.

Start with Shabbat, the day of rest. It is our weekly ‘stress reducer’ and you don’t have to go on eBay to get it! When Ronit Sugar reads from the Torah on Yom Kippur morning, she will say these words: Kee karove ay’lecha ha’davar m’ode b’feecha oo’vil’vavcha la’ahsahto – “It is very near you: in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it!” Feel it, say it, do it! It’s the Nike ad from Biblical times. You ‘become’ Shabbat. You integrate it into your being. You allow for possibilities. Alright, so you drive on Shabbat, you go to a ballgame or a movie, you use the phone, you cook, and yet part of that day – because you treat it differently from other days – you see yourself differently. You receive Shabbat as a gift. You slow things down and reacquaint yourself with what really matters: not calendars and deadlines, but people and lifelines. You disengage from much of what claims your time, mind and energy during the week. We often think of Shabbat as the day when one cannot do a lot of things – that’s the fallback to the model of Orthodox practice, to which we don’t adhere anyhow – but instead of thinking of it as a day defined by limitations, think of it as a day filled with possibilities: what you might do differently, creatively and lovingly.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great theologian and philosopher whose prose sometimes reads like poetry, wrote, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Shabbat is about freedom: it enables us to liberate ourselves one day a week from the constant shackles of calendar, commerce, text messages, Blackberry and e-mail, and toward conversation that leads us back to community. In Heschel’s words, “To enter the holiness of the day, [one] must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness…Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”

This is what I do on Shabbat: I pray – big surprise, right? I would prefer to pray with more of you, more often, because when we are together it reinforces our sense of community. When we hear our voices join together in words and songs, we are elevated. Here is what else I do: I do not read e-mails or send e-mails. And this is also what I do: every Shabbat, I call my family and friends who live in distant zip codes. It is my weekly gift to myself. I call to reconnect. Every week. As we age, we know that some calls are going to be made or received for reasons that break our hearts. I want to stay ahead of that curve. On Shabbat, I do not use the Internet. I use the phone. I hear the voices of people for whom I care.

I also read Torah on Shabbat. When I say Torah, I mean the wisdom literature that is the Five Books of Moses, and when I say, “I read Torah,” I mean that I delve into the Torah to discover something new about myself! The words in Mishkan T’filah, our weekday and Shabbat prayer book, and the words in the Torah do not change, but we do! Each of us brings a different ‘self’ to words, verses, story lines and prayers when we unroll the scroll or open the page, and staying close to Torah and prayer is a way of measuring the changes and meaning of our lives.

Shabbat is a very special day of the week, but what about the other days? We need to re-engage our ‘Jewish selves’ then as well! When you sit down to eat, say the motzi: express gratitude that you have food to eat! We take for granted that when we open our cupboards, refrigerators or freezers, we will find food to prep, heat or serve. It is incumbent upon us to give thanks! I say the motzi in acknowledgement of blessings that surround me. Doing so frames the moment for me. It also slows the moment down. I pause before I pounce. It is such a brief blessing: ten Hebrew words. How long does it take to recite them? But it’s not about time, it’s about intentionality. Think about yourself in relation to the planet and your environment. Think about what you eat and what you refrain from eating in the name of health and for the sake of ‘environmental kashrut.’ What food do you refuse to eat because of how it is grown, sprayed and harvested, or because factory farming and extreme caging are unsavory? Are certain fish ‘off the scale’ of your preferred list of meals because they are being eradicated from the planet in such staggering numbers by fishing fleets and environmental disasters that we already mourn their passing? Are people who work the land treated ethically? To say the motzi has the potential of making us more aware of both blessings and responsibilities.

Say the motzi before you eat, wherever you are: at home, on the road, or in a restaurant. Say it out loud, which is different from saying it loudly. Or whisper it. If you are with other people at home, hold hands as you say it. Connect with each other. When your meal concludes, say an equally brief blessing – nine words – to express gratitude for many kinds of sustenance: for the food you ate and the company you enjoyed. Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, Ha’zahn et ha’kol – “Blessed are You, Eternal one of the universe, Who provides all manner of sustenance.” When I’m at a restaurant, I always commence a meal with the motzi, but how did I usually conclude the meal? By asking for the check! I began with a ritual and I ended with reimbursement. So now I say ha’zahn et ha’kol: “Thank You, God, for this time, this respite, this joyful interlude, and the gift of so many kinds of sustenance.”

Many of us travel, some with more frequency than others, to meetings and conferences, and more happily on vacations. The t’filaht ha’derech prayer is traditionally recited when one has advanced half a mile from a starting point, and it asks God to “enable us to reach our desired destination in health, gladness and peace…Rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush and bandits along the way…Grant us peace, kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us.” I say the prayer when I embark on a trip – I have copies of it in my Study for you – and I alter it a bit to express the hope that I not impede anyone from continuing their journey in happiness and health. When you take the train to New York, or drive to Washington, or fly to wherever you are going, say the t’filaht ha’derech, the ‘prayer for the road,’ to sensitize yourself to who and what surrounds you, and to do whatever you can to make everyone’s journey safe and pleasant.

Here is something else you can do. Put a book of Jewish wisdom on your desk at work and on your nightstand at home. Any one of these books: Jewish Wisdom {by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin}; Pebbles of Wisdom {by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz}; The Ethical and Inspirational Teachings of the Talmud {compiled in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Yaakov Ibn Chaviv}. Read one or two pages a day. Read about God, soul, Torah, what it means to be Jewish, what makes someone a mensch, communal responsibility, love, children, suffering, afterlife, prayer, justice, and hope. A page or two a day, like taking vitamins for your soul. I guarantee that if you maintain this routine, it will make a difference in your life! This is the new HMO plan: “Holin’s Meaningful Opportunities” for you to consider.

One of our challenges is to find a connection between what is going on that is important in your life and what is Jewish. If I ask you, “What do you ‘do Jewish’?” you might say, “I light Shabbat candles; study Torah; attend Shabbat services; prepare for the Seder; study for my adult Bat or Bar Mitzvah; enroll in a Continuing Jewish Education class; participate on a committee at our synagogue; chair an event at our congregation; sing in our choir.” If I ask you, “What is going on that is important in your life?” you might respond, “I recently took my son or daughter to college to commence freshman year; I put my parent in a nursing home; we celebrated our fortieth anniversary; I start chemotherapy treatment in two weeks; I just found out that I’m pregnant.” How can we acknowledge those moments through words and actions that have the imprint of tradition or ritual innovation?

As summer is about to end and our children prepare to enter college, or return to college, our synagogue acknowledges that time in his or her life, and yours, at a service the first Friday in August. Parents stand with their children in front of the ark to speak to them privately and then bless them with the words of the priestly benediction or words that they create in recognition of this significant time in the family’s life. When you celebrate a special birthday or anniversary, our synagogue marks the event by inviting you to bless the Shabbat candles, carry the Torah, lead us in an aliyah, recite the Kiddush, read from the prayer book, or offer a creative writing to express the power of the moment. If you are about to have surgery, or have recently returned home from a hospital, we say prayers for your strength and health at a Shabbat service or at our healing services. If you are expecting a child, you might set aside an unlit candle as the promise of ‘yet to be’ next to the candles that you light and bless on Shabbat, and when your son or daughter is born, the following Shabbat light that additional candle, now aglow with gratitude. We celebrate rituals and we create rituals.

We have been given a very precious gift, and whether we are born into it or choose it, we are one-and-the-same in that we are always ‘choosing Jews.’ We choose when and how to celebrate and engage our faith. In amended words of our Yom Kippur Torah reading: “I have set before you the blessing and the verse. Choose wisely, that you and your descendants may celebrate your faith every day.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin