Why I Chose Reform Judaism

Image: The logos of Hebrew Union College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism, the three institutions that organize the Reform movement in the USA.

I chose Reform Judaism when I chose to become Jewish. I did it over my inclination to “more tradition” and the talk I heard from Jews about Orthodoxy being “more authentic.”

At the time (1995), I chose Reform because I was out as a lesbian and I had no intention of lying or hiding something so basic about myself. Reform welcomed me as I was. For the Conservative Movement at the time and for Orthodoxy, my orientation was at least a problem if not a deal-breaker, depending on the rabbi.

Initially, I was sad that more traditionalist movements were not available to me. But by the time I applied to Hebrew Union College to study for the rabbinate, I was adamant about being a Reform Jew. Someone asked me if I had considered “upgrading” my conversion, since I kept kosher and was ritually observant. I said “no” because by then I had a strong sense of Reform Judaism as my home base within the Jewish People.

After ten years of service and study as a rabbi,  I can be more articulate: Reform is traditional in the sense that it hews closely to the creative spirit and adaptive genius of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the great rabbis of early rabbinic Judaism. Those rabbis built a form of Judaism that could survive two millennia of persecution. Reform continues to build a Judaism that can thrive in modernity and into the future.

Does the Reform Movement make mistakes? All the time. So did the early rabbis – witness Rabbi Akiva’s declaration that Shimon ben Kosevah was the Messiah. Akiva gave him the sobriquet “bar Kokhba,” the name by which his disastrous attempt at a revolt is remembered. That revolt (132-135 CE) resulted in our long exile from the land of Israel.

Reform Judaism valued me as a giyoret [female candidate for conversion] because it has a commitment to the idea that all human beings are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. If there were no Reform Judaism, would we have families sitting together in shul? Women rabbis? Women congregational presidents? LGBTQ Jews living their lives without lies and closets? We’ll never know, because the Reform movement pioneered those innovations.

There are other issues where the jury is still out. Intermarriage rates are high in the United States. Beginning with in 1978 with Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, then president of what we now call the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ,) our movement has reached out to embrace intermarried couples and their children, hoping to maintain the connection with them. We’ve had mixed results. Personally I know children of intermarriage who proudly identify as Jewish, but I am also aware of the number of families whose children identify as “both” or “nothing,” categories that most Jews understand to mean “gone forever from our community.” We are still struggling with that set of challenges.

As I see it, each tradition within Jewish tradition has a role to play in moving us forward in history. It would also be foolish to toss the “baby” of our tradition with the “bathwater” of superstition. It would also be foolish not to engage with the world as it is, in the present. But it is not possible to do all of those things at once. For every Jew, there’s a community somewhere that will feel like the right fit.  With our communities, each of us help to bring Judaism to the next generation, to the future.

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Book Review: “Judaisms”

Image: Cover, Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper is a wonderful exploration of the Jewish world as it exists today.

The organization of the book is a radical departure from the average “Intro to Judaism” text. The book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities.

The author arranges Jewish topics into themes such as “Sinais,” “Zions,” “Diasporas,” “Genocides,” and “Futures.” He takes an interdisciplinary approach, consulting theological, sociological, historical and literary resources to examine Jewish life in terms of each theme.

Looking at this book as a rabbi, I am challenged and fascinated. Where I have been trained to look to traditional rabbinic literature for insight (and let’s face it, for rules) Dr. Hahn Tapper gets right at the questions that bother my students most by using a multiplicity of disciplines to examine Jewish reality on the ground. This approach is important because the last 50 years have brought enormous changes to Judaism. The intermarriage rate is nearly 70% in some communities. The status of women has shifted dramatically in liberal Judaism: women serve as rabbis and as rabbinical school professors and deans. LGBTQ Jews are challenging old norms while reexamining traditional texts for new insights.

The title, “Judaisms” may give some pause. Personally I find it refreshing to acknowledge that while we can all say the Shema we may understand it quite differently, and live out those understandings in different ways. We have a common history, with smaller communal side-trips, and both the common history and the local variations are authentic. Too often we frame these differences as a test of authenticity and then use them to bully one another.  We may all observations of difference a game of “I’m Jewier than you,” an ugly little pastime that does not serve our communities well.

I like this book so much that I’m adding it to my list of recommended texts, and considering it as an additional text for my Introduction to Judaism classes next year. It is substantial but not heavy reading, as it was written to be a text for an undergraduate-level college Introduction to Judaism course. The illustrations are beautiful and plentiful. It comes with online resources as well, provided via the University of California Press website.

Dr. Hahn Tapper is  the Mae and Benjamin Swig Associate Professor in Jewish Studies, and the Founder and Director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.

Sick and Tired

Image:  Four withered roses in a vase without water. (pixabay)

I feel sick at heart this Tisha B’Av.

The Jewish community is horribly divided. We are divided in many ways, and we poke many fingers at one another, scolding.

Some Haredim see the Kotel as their synagogue. From their point of view, whatever they need to do to maintain the sanctity of that place as they define sanctity is justified.

Some other Jews believe that the Kotel belongs to all Jews everywhere and because the Haredim have said and done ugly things, whatever they say about the Haredim is justified.

Some Jews believe the State of Israel is a supreme value and any threat to it is an existential threat, so whatever happens in its defense is justified.

Some Jews believe that the State of Israel has committed crimes in its defense, and that whatever they need to do or say to other Jews to protest is justified.

Some Jews talk about “the Orthodox” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews talk about “the Reform” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews act as if Jews of color don’t even exist.

Some Jews think other Jews don’t “look Jewish enough.”

Some Jews say Jews who became Jewish as adults aren’t really Jews.

 

I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS.

I am probably also guilty of some of it.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b

 

 

 

 

What is Minhag?

Image: A dark blue kippah on an open prayer book. (ESchwartz/pixabay)

A beginner asked me recently, “What is minhag? I know, I know, you are going to say “custom!”

She was right – I was going to say, “Custom,” and feel like I’d answered the question. After some conversation, I think I have a better idea what she was after – and I suspect she isn’t the only person out there with that question.

The proper name for it is minhag hamakom – the custom of the place. It is an element we must consider in Jewish decisionmaking, because it carries both official and unofficial weight.

In a nutshell, minhag is sum of all the things that are accepted in your Jewish community but are not necessarily required in every other Jewish community. For instance, it is the minhag in some places for adults to make Saturday morning kiddush over a liquor such as slivovitz (plum brandy.) In other congregations, if you brought out a bottle of slivovitz for kiddush, they’d look at you and say firmly, “We make kiddush over wine or grape juice only.” What they are saying is, “We don’t have that minhag here. Put that bottle away, we don’t care if it is ok according to halakhah!” [Jewish law]

Minhag can change over time. For instance, there was a time when if a man wore a head covering in a Reform synagogue, he would be assumed to be a visitor from a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. Nowadays in most Reform synagogues, many men (and women) wear kippot, but in most Reform synagogues one isn’t strictly required.

In an Orthodox congregation, if a man walks in without a kippah, he will be handed a kipa. Now, if you researched it, you would find that a head covering is actually not required by halakhah. It is, however, a nearly universal custom – minhag – in Orthodox and Conservative communities.

Our tradition recognizes that custom is an important part of communal identity. Therefore, we are taught to give weight to minhag in making decisions. If I visit a synagogue, I will make an effort to find out ahead of time what customs they have about dress and behavior. I will pray softly, so that my prayers blend in even if I do something differently. After one or two visits, I’ll have the drill down – but until then, I will try to be easy on myself about it.

How do you find out about minhag? As in the example above, if you have a specific question, by all means ask! And as for other things, don’t stress too much over it. If you notice some item of dress or behavior and begin wondering if your difference is OK, ask. If someone lets you know (I hope gently) that a behavior is expected or even required, don’t take it personally – it’s just minhag. If they were at a different shul, they’d be the ones who stuck out.

When in doubt, ask a rabbi. Every congregation has a few people who mistake their own opinions for the “Law from Sinai.” Those individuals are very sure of their answers, but they may be misinformed.

If someone seems rude or mean about the way they address it, that’s their problem. I assure you that God doesn’t mind. Let this be your mantra:

God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

You’re good: you’re doing your best. And whatever it is, you can do it differently in future. And there will be evening, and morning, and you’ll be the only one still worrying about it.

 

 

Talking About Converts

Image: Several people gossip about distressed woman. (Andrey Popov/shutterstock)

I am open about the fact that I was not born Jewish. That is a deliberate choice on my part. I have made the decision to be open about my background because I find it helpful to my work.

I worry that my openness may mislead readers into thinking that it’s OK to talk about converts. You can talk about conversion all you want. You can talk about yourself all you want. But if you talk about someone else’s conversion, you are violating an important tradition.

Jewish tradition is very clear that we are NOT to talk about other people in general. We are especially not supposed to mention the fact that a person is a convert to them or to anyone else. They can talk about their history, if they choose, but we must not mention it without their permission. We should get their permission each time we talk about them to someone else.

We are also commanded not to listen to anyone else who breaks this rule: no listening to gossip about who’s a convert. No speculating, either.

We can’t ask about how a person became Jewish, no matter how curious we are, or how friendly we feel. Our intention doesn’t matter – our behavior does.

Why this tradition? As with many commandments, it’s there because our inclination as human beings is to be curious and gossipy. It is human to notice differences and exclude people on account of them. Torah calls us to do better, and it gives us rules (commandments, mitzvot) that help us be better people that we’d otherwise be.

Beside the obvious, walking up to someone and asking, “Are you a convert?” there are subtler things we should avoid.

  • Don’t assume that a person with browner skin than yours is a convert to Judaism. They might be a descendant of Maimonides or Solomon.
  • Don’t assume that the person walking down the hall at synagogue with Asian features is a convert.
  • Don’t assume that someone with ben Avraham v’Sarah after his Hebrew name is a convert. Guys named Abraham have been known to marry a Sarah and have kids.
  • Don’t assume that Jim O’Malley is a convert to Judaism. His Hebrew name might be Nachum ben Moshe v’Shirah.
  • Don’t assume that if someone has a funny accent, they must be a convert.
  • Don’t assume that if someone is a convert, they did it to “marry in.” Some of us become Jewish because it is our heart’s desire.
  • Don’t assume that if someone converted in connection with a marriage, that it was insincere. Falling in love with a Jew might have been the first step towards falling in love with Judaism.
  • Don’t assume that if a woman is a convert, she did it to find a Jewish husband.
  • Don’t assume that a convert is any more or less observant than you are.
  • Don’t assume that a convert likes telling their story again and again.

Whether you became Jewish in the waters of your mother’s womb or in the waters of the mikveh it is painful to be separated from the Jewish People, especially if a fellow Jew is doing the separating.

Don’t gossip about someone’s Jewish history; it is hurtful.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn. – Hillel the Elder, Shabbat 31a