Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

January 11, 2014
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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

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Online Conversion, Revisited

January 1, 2014

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Back in May, I wrote a blog post entitled Can I Convert to Judaism Online?  I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and today I am ready to share some new thoughts.

I am enthusiastic about conversion to Judaism.  I became a Jew as an adult, and it has been a challenging and rewarding path.

I am an old hand in online communities. My brother gave me a 300 baud modem for my 30th birthday in 1985, and I’ve been online ever since. I’ve seen some of the best and the worst the online world can do in terms of community. I’ve learned and taught online.

Online resources are a mixed bag for conversion to Judaism.  There is a wealth of information available online, and some of it is very good. Some of it is quite awful. A story to illustrate what a bad source of info can do for you:  My Hebrew name is Ruth. I originally chose that name because I read “somewhere” that all female converts to Judaism had to take the name Ruth. When my rabbi asked me what name I had chosen, I said “Ruth” because I thought it was some kind of a test. He said “Good choice!” and put my new name on the shtar (document) of conversion. It was months before I found out that I had had a choice. I’m fond of my name, now, but I wish I’d asked more questions!

Judaism is a communal religion. Ever since the beginning, Judaism has been a practice of a living community. Abraham and Sarah were the first community of Jews, but it was not long before they were surrounded by a community. Genesis 12:5 says that they set out “with all the souls they made in Haran.” Traditionally we understand that phrase to mean that Abraham and Sarah welcomed others to their way of life.

I learned how to behave as a Jew from spending time with other Jews. I ate at the home of fellow Jews, celebrated holidays with them, copied them when I didn’t know what to do, asked questions, prayed with a minyan, studied in classes with Jews, asked more questions, and found my way to an ever-evolving practice of my own. It doesn’t happen privately or in a vacuum: I did this, and continue to do this in community with other Jews. 

Important Jewish activity takes place with a minyan present, a quorum of ten Jews. They don’t have to be rabbis, they don’t have to be anything but adult official Jews, but we don’t say Kaddish, we don’t say Barechu, we don’t read Torah without those other nine Jews.

This is my great objection to conversion that happens purely online: a person may work with a rabbi, they may have a reading list and a to-do list, and they may even travel to meet the rabbi from time to time, but if they are not growing up Jewishly in a community with other Jews, they’re missing out on an essential part of the process: they aren’t spending actual time with actual Jews.

We are called “a stiff-necked people” and we’re all that and more. There’s a running joke about the guy who loves Judaism but can’t stand Jews. As someone told me after my conversion: “The good news is: you’ll never be alone again. The bad news is: you’ll never be alone again.”

There are rabbis online who will sign you up for a class or three, give you a reading list, and work with you for a conversion. Depending on that rabbi’s credentials, it may or may not be a valid conversion (more on that in a future post.) But my point here is: if you want even a minimally good conversion process, you need not only a rabbi, not only a beit din, not only a mikveh — you need a real Jewish community.

A real Jewish community has wonderful people, annoying people, breath-takingly smart people, staggeringly stupid people, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, crackpots, menschen, and that’s just the short list. You’re going to love some, and others you will duck when you see them coming. And that is part of being a Jew, being part of a big, unmanageable tradition with saints like Abraham Joshua Heschel and embarrassments like Bernie Madoff.

If your heart is tugging you towards Judaism, don’t settle for an “online conversion.” Call your local synagogues, and find a rabbi and a community with whom to explore Judaism. If there is no local synagogue, then ask yourself if you, like Abraham, need to “get out of your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and into the land which [God] will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

If it is meant to be, then a Jewish community is waiting for you.


Choosing Synagogue Membership

December 22, 2013
A synagogue is not just a building.

A synagogue is not just a building.

I have to be honest about my bias on this topic.  One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.

Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:

1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance.  I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.

2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.

3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.

4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.

5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.

6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.

7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.

8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.

Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:

1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.

2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.

3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.

4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.

5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.

Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.


The Jewish Consumer

December 21, 2013

If you are Jewish and not a member of a congregation it can be difficult to navigate milestones in Jewish life. I’m starting a new category of blog entry for such occasions, and I am going to make at least one post weekly on “Jewish Consumer” topics.

I will confess right up front to some mixed feelings about this. It seems very odd and borderline inappropriate to talk about “consumerism” and Judaism, but I am asked often enough about these matters that I think it is worth doing.

I have a rather strong bias, and I’m going to deal with it in my first post, “Choosing Synagogue Membership.”


Update: Welcoming New Habits

December 9, 2013
Assembling the Shelves

Assembling the Shelves

I took the leap into my new home with two projects in mind:

1. Radical Hospitality – I’m going to “do Jewish” here regularly and often, with many different people. That includes Shabbat afternoon hang-outs, Shabbat dinners, and other celebrations or ordinary times.

2. Asking for and accepting help – My body doesn’t allow me to play the Lone Ranger anymore, doing everything for myself. I tried dealing with that by isolating a lot, and the result was that I lived in a half-moved-into apartment for five years. Now I’m going to do it differently: asking for help, accepting help, being gracious and when I can, combining that with being Jewishly hospitable.

Hospitality, so far, has begun with a bang. I think I’ve had more guests in my house in the past 12 days than I had in the previous 3 years. Most of it was holiday related, and not at all routine, but I am not a hermit anymore. This is good. Also, I’m enjoying it. I like having people over. I like doing Jewish with old and new friends.

Asking for and accepting help has also been a success, but that one is really giving me a spiritual workout. Two of my students and one other friend were here Saturday night, assembling bookshelves for me. I am so grateful to them – my back and knees won’t permit me to do any of the stuff they were doing – but oh my goodness, I am uncomfortable watching people do things for me! The alternative, though, is (1) do without or (2) hire people. For years now I have worked with a combination of those two, and frankly it was not life-enhancing, especially since after a while of muddling through, I didn’t want to have anyone in, friend or hired, because of the clutter.  So I am faced with a choice: learn to accept the goodness of others, or be isolated.

So last night I accepted the generosity of three people who did not owe me anything, and it didn’t kill me. No one is going to hold it over my head, or take it out somehow later. It’s OK. And I look forward to giving back with things I have to give: Jewish learning, food, warmth, and so on. I am not “less” for needing their help, nor am I in some sort of mysterious trouble for accepting it.

Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: “All Jews are responsible for one another.” I have always taken that as a challenge to look for others that I can help. Being on the giving side has become easy for me. Being on the receiving side is a new lesson to learn.


Chanukat HaBayit

December 1, 2013
Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

Lighting the Menorahs at the End of the Housewarming

I’m feeling tired and happy. A lot of work came to fruition in the past few days.

First, I came very close to my goal of posting to this blog every day for the month of November, despite the move, despite everything. I missed one day near the beginning, but otherwise, good.  I think the alternative was letting it lie fallow while I went crazy with everything else.

Second, we had the housewarming, the first Shabbat Afternoon Open House. The whole neighborhood was here, and a lot of students, friends, family. Our “Abraham’s tent” with four sides open wide is launched. I’ll continue blogging what I learn about doing Judaism with friends, teaching the process of keeping a hospitable Jewish home.

What did I learn yesterday? That not everything has to be perfect. There were a number of things that were not picture perfect, but that was OK. People had a good time. The neighbors had a chance to compare notes on Linda and me, on the house, and to update each other on all the news. My students know how to find me now, and they are looking forward to classes here at the house. My friends were here with love and support.

We finished the day with havdalah (hahv-dah-LAH) and menorah lighting, very appropriate. Chanukah means “Dedication” – it’s a memorial of the rededication of the Temple long ago – and yesterday was a celebration and dedication of our new home.

Welcome!


7 Facts about Bar/Bat Mitzvah

November 24, 2013

English: Jerusalem, Bar Mitzvah at the Western...

Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seven facts about bar and bat mitzvah:

  • A Jewish man is bar mitzvah when he passes his 13th birthday, whether he has a ceremony or not.
  • A Jewish woman is bat mitzvah at 12 years, 6 months, or at 13, depending on the custom of her community.
  • The plural of bar mitzvah is bney mitzvah
  • Jews of this age are responsible to know right from wrong, and to be responsible for their duties as a Jew.
  • The customs surrounding bnei mitzvah celebrations differ from community to community.
  • Preparation and study for a bar mitzvah begin years ahead of the actual date.
  • Some adults who did not have the opportunity to celebrate their bnei mitzvah as 13-year-olds study for a similar celebration later: these are commonly called adult bnei mitzvah.

Some resources if you have more questions about this tradition:

 

 

 


The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 2

November 18, 2013

I read a great blog post on PunkTorah.org last week on the issue of Jewish legitimacy. Rabbi Patrick Aleph held an event at OneShul in Atlanta where they wrestled with the idea of Jewish legitimacy, and it emerged that each individual felt that he or she lacked legitimacy relative to “everyone else.” Rabbi Aleph concluded:

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This was the point at which the lightbulb went on over my head; I have become a rather stubborn cuss when it comes to my legitimacy as a Jew, but I’ve struggled with legitimacy and disability. Now I see that they are the same issue: it’s the old “I’m not worthy” thing, the fear of being called out as a fraud.

I feel legitimate as a Jew, even though I am aware that there are Jews in the world who would disagree. I am not disturbed by that, because when the question comes up, my mind immediately produces evidence of my legitimacy: I think of the rabbi who oversaw my conversion, and certainly I see him as legitimate! I have studied Hebrew, lived in Israel, observed countless mitzvot. I feel legitimate as a Jew, because I am part of a Jewish community. I get feedback from fellow Jews that I’m the real deal enough of the time that I can  discount the ones who don’t agree.

But there was a time when I looked desperately for legitimacy, when I was just learning how to be a Jew. I remember longing to wear a kippah [skullcap] but being afraid I was presuming (and the joke of that is, you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one.) Then my study partner clapped one on my head one day, and voilá! A little piece of legitimacy fell into place. It was only by logging time and experience in owning my Jewishness – and by feeling the acceptance of my Jewish study partner –  that I was able to rest easy with that small piece.

A supervisor at one of my internships in rabbinical school asked me about my conversion and then indicated that he didn’t recognize it. I went back to my school and asked for guidance. My teachers there bristled to my defense. They saw me as legitimate and saw him as an outsider who was looking a gift horse in the mouth. Their response said to me, “Yes, you’re the real deal. Now act like it.”

Legitimacy comes from a sense of belonging, and of security in community, and we get that from the feedback we receive (verbal and nonverbal) from others in the community.  My students who are just beginning Jewish paths need to “do Jewish” day and night, spending as much time in the Jewish community as they can. They need reassurance and support, not just from their rabbi, not just from their teacher, but from other “regular” Jews that they are becoming one of us. They need to hear about it when they do something well, whether it is saying a blessing or helping to set up chairs.

And for me, I need to accept the fact of being a person with disabilities, and continue to build relationships with other people who identify as disabled. My dear friend and study partner in school is deaf, and she was the first to say to me, look, ask for the accommodations you need! Initially I was not sure about this, but her reassurance that she saw me as having legitimate needs helped me to ask for things I needed. Later, another colleague whose disability I recognized as “real” asked me why on earth I didn’t have a handicap placard for the car, when I obviously needed one – and she was right, and I finally accepted it from my doctor.

There will always be critics. But why pay any attention to the jerk at Home Depot who sees me on my scooter and says I wouldn’t need it if I lost 50 lbs? Why am I giving him so much authority? Why give some busybody self-appointed expert the authority to shame me? Because the words are his, but the shame is mine. I can accept it, or I can reject it. It’s just that rejecting shame requires resources: I have to own my situation, and know that my community sees me a particular way to have the gumption say “phooey” to the ignoramus.

The enemy is shame. The cure is community – loving, supportive community, that knows the importance of nurturing the newbies and the shaken.

Hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Part 3 tomorrow.


“You want to be Jewish and you live WHERE?” An Internet Mystery

November 14, 2013
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the gre...

Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the great synagogue of Aleppo. Jewish life in Syria came to an end in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state.  One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism. 

All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.

On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.

Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris.  How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!

This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.

As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.


A Bad Memory, and a Question

November 10, 2013
100% Jewish

100% Jewish

A memory came back to me today.

I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!)  I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it.  I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.

I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”

My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.

I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.

I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.

When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.

Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are.  But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”

And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?

How would the world be different if we treated every  human being that way?


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