‘Twas the Night before Class

September 14, 2014
Circle of Chairs

“Circle of Chairs” by Chris Campbell

I’m up late tonight, because I can’t sleep.

I’m too excited about tomorrow: the new cycle of Intro classes starts promptly at 10:10 tomorrow, when I meet a new roomful of strangers. Over the next eight months we’ll get to know one another very well as we wade through Jewish holidays, Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish texts, Jewish history, and a bunch of other topics. More than anything, I’ll try to equip them for living in Jewish community.

Some were born Jewish, but never got a Jewish education. That can generate a lot of shame, but it really isn’t their fault. I love seeing them realize what they know, and what they can learn.

Some are considering conversion to Judaism. I’ll try to equip them for this journey. They need not just facts and “how to” directions, but some clues about the context of American Judaism today, and their own Northern California Jewish community. They need some help in navigating this new Jewish world they seek to enter.

Some are there because they love someone Jewish. They want to understand the language and crack the codes. If I can help with that, their families will be stronger and Judaism will be the better for it.

Some will say they there because it’s Sunday morning, their kids are in Religious School, and someone (their rabbi?) suggested they take the class while they’re waiting. Later in the year I may (or may not) find out what they are hoping to get from the class.

Some will be shy. Some will be full of questions. Some will want to talk all the time, and others will be loathe to talk at all. Some will be easy to love, and some will challenge me to find the tzelem Elohim [image of God] in them.

I have my bag packed, my handouts at the ready. I really need to get some sleep.


Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?

April 29, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zFrank asked: “In the messianic era when mashiakh is here will all the sacrifice be… thanksgiving offerings?”

Before I can answer that, I need to write little bit about Jews and “the Messiah,” or in Hebrew, mashiakh.

There is no explicit mention in the Torah (Five Books of Moses) of a mashiakh. The term appears first in the books of the Prophets as mashiakh ben David, anointed son of David, referring to a king of Israel. Kings of Israel were not “crowned,” instead they had oil poured on their heads (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Later in the prophets, we have more detailed descriptions of a future mashiakh and what this person will be and do:

  1. He will be a descendant of King David.
  2. He will be a political and military ruler over the land of Israel, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. He will gather the Jews in Israel (the ingathering of the exiles.)
  4. He will lead them to full observance of Torah.
  5. He will bring peace to the whole world.

Exactly how those things will be accomplished, or when this person will arrive, is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several individuals have been declared, or declared themselves, mashiakh. Two of the most famous led the Jewish nation to disaster: Simon bar Kokhba and Shabbatai Zvi, Such “false messiahs” have been attractive to the Jewish people during periods when our situation was particularly difficult.

“What about Jesus?” Christians might ask. He met only the first of the five criteria above. He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but did not have a political/military rule over Israel, did not bring Diaspora Jews back to the land, did not restore full observance of Torah, and while the world was under the so-called Pax Romana at the time, subjugation of the world under the fist of Rome is not “the lion and the lamb” lying down peacefully together. For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.

Sometimes people confuse the word mashiakh with a similar-sounding Hebrew word, moshiah, meaning “savior.” While the words may sound alike to the ear of an English speaker, they are not even related: mashiakh is from a root mem-shin-chet, which means “to smear or anoint.” Moshiah is derived from the root yud-shin-ayin, which means “to save.” The word mashiakh denotes an anointed king, not a savior.

As scholar Stanley Rosenbaum wrote in 1982, not all Jews, in the past or present, are waiting for a mashiakh. For some of us, it is enough to live a life of Torah in the present and leave the future in God’s hands.

Today, Reform Jews do not expect the coming of a literal mashiakh. Some look forward to a messianic age in which the world will be perfected; the concept is still evolving in Reform circles.

However, in some circles of Orthodoxy, notably the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Israeli religious Zionists, the concept of mashiakh has seen increasing interest in recent years. One teaching that circulates is that once the mashiakh reigns the only sacrifices that will be offered in the Temple will be sacrifices of thanksgiving, since there will be no more sin (Zephaniah 3:13.) For more information about Chabad concepts on this matter, check out this article.

Personally, I am guided by the words of the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said:  “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” In other words, there are important mitzvot (sacred duties) to do in this world, some of them rather ordinary and possibly boring. While the thought of mashiakh is very exciting, it is important not to allow it to distract us from the ordinary business of living Torah to the fullest.

 

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved.


What Kind of Jew are You?

March 25, 2014

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?


Measuring Intermarriage

March 18, 2014
Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

Bruce A. Phillips, Ph.D.

Jewish population data is periodically in the news, and discussions of it always seem to generate more heat than light. The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 and more recently, the Pew Research Center Portrait of Jewish Americans set off a great deal of hand-wringing about the future of Judaism in America, because to some analysts they seemed to suggest that the intermarriage rate is high and climbing, and that the sky is falling in general.

Rabbis care about this stuff because our job (we see it as more than a job, it is our sacred task) is to see to it that Judaism is passed, intact, to the next generation and the generations that will come after.Certainly we don’t all agree on what “intact” means, but we care very deeply about the future.

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in a room with many of my favorite colleagues while Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles offered us some insights on Pew and NJPS. He is a demographer and sociologist, which means that he understands how the surveys were done, the limitations of the data and methodology, and the implications of the studies. Better yet, while he worked on NJPS and consulted on the Pew Study, he is neither fundraising nor selling anything. One reason I mistrust the “analyses” I read in much of the Jewish press is that often the analysts are also dependent on a certain level of anxiety to keep the grant money and donations flowing to their organizations.

If you are interested in reading some of what he had to say, I live-tweeted the presentation. Go to Twitter and search for hashtag #IntermarriageData to find it. [Any errors in the tweets are solely my responsibility.]

I learned some interesting things.

First of all, I learned that NJPS and Pew count “Jewish marriages” in the present at the time of the survey. That means that marriages that began in 1950 are lumped in with marriages that began in 2012. The studies do not account for marriages that have since ended in divorce or death. They do not distinguish between marriages between people of exclusively Jewish ancestry and marriages between people with non-Jewish ancestors.  The bottom line is that both NJPS and Pew actually minimize the increase in the rate of intermarriage. It’s more complicated than that, though: using Dr. Phillips’ data, it seems that among people in Jewish families with no history of intermarriage there is no increase in the intermarriage rate. Among people in Jewish families with a history of intermarriage, the rate of intermarriage is increasing quite quickly.

Dr. Phillips also pointed out that while one can see that as bad news, actually there has been an important change that skews things somewhat. In the past, Jews who married “out” often ceased identifying as Jews at all. Nowadays, intermarried Jews usually continue identifying as Jewish.

He identified four types of Jewish interfaith couples:

  • Jewish (21% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish but not strongly affiliated elsewhere. 44% of them raise children as Jews.
  • Dual (45% of IF couples)- One spouse is Jewish and engaged, other spouse non-Jewish and strongly engaged with their faith tradition. 16% raise children as Jews.
  • Secular (15% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish secular, the other Christian (or other) secular, neither engaged with faith tradition. 2% raise children as Jews.
  • Christian (19% of IF couples) – One spouse is Jewish but unengaged, the other spouse is Christian and engaged with Christianity. 5% raise children as Jews.

He concluded by pointing out that neither NJPS nor Pew researchers spoke with the non-Jewish partners in these couples.

At that point, Dawn Kepler of Building Jewish Bridges continued the presentation. She and Dr. Phillips have been doing a study interviewing adult children of intermarriage, and are ready to present some preliminary information from their study. My notes from that part of the presentation are scrambled, so I’m not going to try to present that material here. It’s very exciting stuff, and if you are a professional interested in hearing about it, get in touch with Ms. Kepler or with Dr. Phillips: they rock.

What does all this mean to me? My professional interest has long been the Jew at the margin of the community. My personal experience has been that with a little support and education, they don’t have to stay at the margin and indeed, some choose to engage with Jewish community and/or synagogue life.

Dr. Phillips offers a framework for thinking about the various needs of IF families. It helps me, as a Jewish professional, to listen more effectively to individuals and couples I serve. He said today that it is a fact that the majority of Jewish kids growing up now and in the future will be of mixed ancestry. Right now a lot of the Jewish establishment still speaks of interfaith families as if they are on the periphery. If Judaism is to thrive, interfaith families won’t be on the periphery: they’ll be a big part of Judaism going forward.

For me, as a professional, one take-away is that I need to quit thinking of Outreach work as “on the margins” – it isn’t. What we have called “Outreach” is right at the heart of the future of Judaism.

 

 


Who are You Calling Shiksa?

February 13, 2014

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.


Jewish & Christian?

January 13, 2014
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - What happened here?

Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – What happened here?

Lately I’ve been asked a lot about Judaism and Christianity – specifically, is it possible to be both Jewish and Christian?

And I know there are people who assert that they are, indeed, both, or who say they are raising children as both.

Here’s my difficulty with that: For a Christian, Jesus of Nazareth is God, and he’s alive. For a Jew, he is not God, and he’s dead.

It’s called “Christian” because in that way of understanding the world, Jesus is (present tense) the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one of God, the ultimate revelation of God, and he is, in fact, God.

In the Jewish way of understanding the world, Jesus was a rabbi who was executed by the Romans. There is only One God, and that God is completely, utterly Other: not human, never has been human. There are some Jews who do not believe in any kind of personal God; they identify as Humanistic Jews or secular Jews.

When you have people in a family with different beliefs, it can be complicated. I have relatives, whom I love, for whom Jesus is the Christ. I have relatives who think belief in God is basically fairytales. We love one another, and we deal with one another kindly and with respect. My son does not say to me, “Mom, you sell fairytales for a living” even though I am aware that from his point of view, that’s what I do. My Christian relatives do not say to me, “You are going to Hell,” even though I suspect some of them fear that’s where I’m headed. And I do not preach at them, either.   We coexist with love and occasional amusement.  I like to think that God finds us amusing, too.

If you are considering raising a child as both Jewish and Christian, I would like you to think about a question you may very well get from a child:  Is Jesus alive, or dead? God or not?

This isn’t about Christmas trees. It isn’t about bacon or bagels. There are many varieties of Christian, and many varieties of Jews, but when we say “there’s no real difference” that’s simply not true.

Image: Copyright All rights reserved by AAAPOE and 1China1 Photos at flickr


The Jews of Christmas

December 25, 2013

My neighbor’s yard is amazing.

Christmas is here, in a very odd year. Chanukah’s so last month – no confusing the two!

And many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that all of them are off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food (that’s what’s open, right?)

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because that’s the thing all of us can agree upon: there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world today.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

Amen.

 

On March 31, 2014, I and a lot of other rabbis are going to participate in Shave for the Brave, our way of fighting pain in the new year. If you would like to participate in raising funds for pediatric cancer research, CLICK THIS LINK and help us! Even the smallest donations will combine to make a big difference in the lives of young cancer patients and their families with better and more effective treatments.


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