On Sunday evening our Bronfman fellows group concluded a day of touring the Old City of Jerusalem with dinner and conversation at the home of Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber. I had eaten at Prof. Sperber’s house once before, years ago, and had suggested this dinner during our faculty planning retreat in March. The visit immediately became a highlight of the trip.

As we sat at the Western Wall plaza and prepared to leave, I told the fellows about Prof. Sperber’s career as a philologist, scholar of Roman Palestine, and author of the eight-volume classic Minhagei Yisrael, “Customs of Israel.” I told them that he was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor for cultural and intellectual achievements, at the rather young age of 52. But most of all, I told them that as they imagined who they were meeting and where they were meeting him, to think of the character from the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore. Like the Hogwarts headmaster, Prof. Sperber speaks with an English accent, exudes wisdom, maintains encyclopedic knowledge, and lives in a dynamic relationship with the past.

It was this last point, Prof. Sperber’s relationship with history, that ultimately made the greatest impression on everyone. Prof. Sperber began his remarks by talking about how he got into researching and teaching ancient Judaism in the first place. He said that his aim was to help his students (and his readers) appreciate that the characters of the Talmud were real people: they carried money, they wore clothing, they prepared food, they went to the bathroom, they slept and woke up and went about their day. And so his scholarly mission has been to bring to life the words of ancient texts by discovering the objects and practices they refer to.

But this is just the most well-known piece of the remarkably integrated persona of Prof. Sperber. Touring his library, one is struck by not only the number and eclecticism of the volumes, but most of all the interweaving of antique objects from bygone centuries: medieval spindles (yes, multiple) in one corner, ancient lamps in another. Over here maps from the early modern period, and over there the framed certificate of Prof. Sperber’s Israel Prize. Like the fictional Dumbledore’s office, there are nooks and crannies, knowledge tucked away in every corner. And after ascending a spiral staircase, you climb out through a hole in the wall and onto a magnificently simple balcony overlooking the entire Old City, with a clear view of the Temple Mount. It is a breathtaking place.

Prof. Sperber’s remarks to our group on Sunday night ultimately centered around his philosophy of halakha, which he argues must be dynamic. In contrast to the Haredi philosophy most famously espoused by Rabbi Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) of hadash assur min haTorah–that which is new is prohibited by the Torah–Prof. Sperber pointed to the dictum of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: hayashan yitchadesh, v’ha-chadash yitkadesh: The old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified. This approach leads him, like Rav Kook, to call for maximum leniency within halakhic boundaries, in such areas as the heter mechira (sale of the land of Israel to enable agriculture during the sabbatical year) and increased roles for women in traditional prayer services among communities that seek such expansion.

What I had failed to appreciate previously is that all these elements of Prof. Sperber’s life–his academic work, his library, his philosophy and halakhic positions–are of a piece. Prof. Sperber has a truly dynamic relationship with history. He does not see it as something that lives separate and apart from him. Rather he lives in it. His library is a living museum; his halakha is a living halakha, trapped neither by the stultifying historicism that characterizes the Conservative movement to his left, nor the ossifying resistance to the present of the Haredism to his right. Prof. Sperber’s life, academic work, and philosophy of halakha are all manifestations of the same impulse: the courage, wisdom, and grace of a man who is fully at home in the world–past, present and future.

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A couple of articles from the January 1 issue of the Forward, written by friends, caught my attention over Shabbat. The first is this piece by Ethan Tucker that uses the recent British court ruling on the definition of Jewish peoplehood to explore the dueling tensions within Jewish life of what it means to be Jewish: is it fundamentally what we might refer to as an ethnic identification, or is it more religious in nature? Ethan reminds us that the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the introduction of the possibility of an identity for Jews separate from a Jewish identity, had profound and lasting reverberations for the rest of Jewish history: “Hellenistic culture cleaved religion from ethnicity and allowed anyone born anywhere to enter into a Greek way of life. This shift plunged Jews into an identity crisis from which we have never fully recovered. Are we a people? A religion? Some combination of both?”

Closely paraphrasing my own views on the subject, Ethan argues that it has to be both, that we cannot let go of the lived rhythms of the people, nor the reflective ideas of the faith:

Judaism as a religion benefits from Jewish peoplehood and the sense of warmth, belonging and unconditional love and commitment that come with it. At the same time, simply distilling Jewishness down to a content-free ethnic categorization determined by one’s mother threatens to trivialize and marginalize any sense of Jewish purpose and mission. Only a concept of Judaism that sees a religious mission embedded within an ethnic group — albeit with the possibility of both entry and exit at the margins — can do justice to the richness of Jewish history.

Now that the British court case is decided, Jews, as an ancient people and faith, must even more urgently return to a basic question: Do we share a future as a result of our common ethnic past, or is our common past irrelevant if we don’t share a religious vision for the future?

Ethan captures a major tension within Jewish life today and insists, as I do, that we cannot exist without it. Jewish identity cannot be reduced to biology or genetics–in fact, these things are immaterial as far as Jewishness goes. But one also cannot be Jewish simply because one is compelled by the ideas of Jewish life. You have to make an existential commitment, you have to join the community. Unfortunately, in our world, we have few if any analogous terms, so this can be a difficult thing for people to grasp. Ethan does a good job of making it clear.

The other piece in the Forward is this one by Jay Michaelson, about the myth of authenticity in Jewish life. Jay argues that authenticity is an historically-constructed idea, something that never truly existed.

Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters. “It’s not, of course, that we want to be the shtetl Jews of Anatevka,” he writes, “only that we continue to see them as the ‘real’ ones, and the rest of us, well, as a kind of hybridization, or adaptation. Thus there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.” Progressive Jews need to believe in themselves more, and Orthodoxy has to make sure it has a soul and isn’t simply rote performance. In sum:

“Meaningful authenticity isn’t about an old religious form or a Yiddish pun… It’s when a religious, literary or cultural form — old, new or alt-neu — speaks to the depths of what it is to be human.

“If a guitar-playing, meditating female rabbi resonates more with the souls of her followers than does a nigun-singing, Talmud-learning male one, she is the more authentic spiritual leader. If ecstatic prayer speaks to and from the spirit more than a supposedly consistent rationalism, then it, too, is more authentic, notwithstanding the howls of the secularist. Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters.”

This is good stuff, and I certainly believe it. But here’s what I fear: Most people simply don’t approach life with this level of sophistication. Jay rightly insists that this is more than an issue of simple individual preference. It should involve real discernment and soul-searching to arrive at a point of “carefully considered internal coherence.” I totally agree. But I don’t think that we live now, or have ever lived, in a culture in which all the people reading a column like this are capable of this kind of intellectual-spiritual heavy lifting. Despite the fact that most Jews are college-educated (or, more likely, because they are college-educated), they aren’t going to do this work, either because they don’t know how or won’t make the time. It’s much easier living with an ossified authenticity.

That, to me, is the true challenge for thoughtful progressive Judaism today. Yes, there are havura communities that have successfully raised a generation of committed, thoughtful, liberal Jews. But they are far from the norm. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has grown and seems poised to continue to do so, the economic crisis notwithstanding.

At the end of the day, the biggest thing one loses in stepping out of the Orthodox community is the ability to speak in terms of hiyyuv, obligation. Even if many Orthodox Jews don’t follow through on their obligations, they nonetheless submit to the sense of obligation, and can sustain an entire discourse and worldview around it–one which is accessible by the amcha and the elite alike. Progressive Judaism, for my money anyway, hasn’t yet shown me what a large self-sustaining community of non-hiyyuv-oriented people looks like. Perhaps that’s what it needs to have the self-confidence that comes when you tell yourself you’re authentic.

I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to eat a foot-long Subway sandwich for lunch just now. But there I was at the shiny new kosher Subway restaurant in Skokie, along with what seemed like the rest of the kosher-keeping community of Chicagoland. I’m told the line before we arrived was around a 2-hour wait; I only waited about 30 minutes. Still, who ever heard of waiting 30 minutes for a Subway sub?

Jews, it would seem. I think of the way people drool about the idea of kosher KFC or McDonald’s when they describe their trips to the Holy Land. When we went to Israel in April, my kids only wanted to eat at kosher Burger King. We went three times in two weeks. I remember when kosher Krispy Kreme opened in New York, or the when the kosher Dunkin Donuts in Skokie lost its kosher status a few years ago. (The secretary at the Chicago Rabbinical Council said I was about the 1000th caller to inquire about it when I phoned that afternoon.)

What is it about kosher chain restaurants that inspires such excitement? It represents a phenomenal inversion: that which is available to everyone is suddenly available to traditional Jews. Not all the food, mind you–there are no dairy items on the menu at kosher Subway, just as there are no cheeseburgers at kosher Burger King. It’s really not the food; it’s the packaging, the ambiance, the feeling that we’re able to have our cake (or our sub) and eat it too. The sentiment seems to be something like, “Look at me, I can keep kosher, wear a kippah, even chap a mincha minyan (pray the afternoon prayer service with 10 men) in a restaurant with the same logo and menu and napkins as all of you out there.” The taste doesn’t really matter; it’s the havaya, the experience, the sense of belonging to the larger culture.

As a kid I remember the many birthday parties I went to where I couldn’t eat the Oreo cookies. This became a major maker of my identity: I was that kosher-keeping kid who couldn’t eat Oreos. And then, when I was in college, they became kosher. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. On the one hand I wanted to eat the Oreos, to reciprocate the embrace of the culture at large. But I also wanted to resist it. What would happen if everything suddenly became kosher, if we no longer had these markers of our identity?

These questions are deeply present, though muted perhaps, at Thanksgiving time. Thanksgiving (unlike Halloween, which I wrote about a few weeks ago) has achieved the status of a true civic religious holiday in America. Everyone has access to it, everyone can make dinner for family and celebrate reasons to be thankful. Jews have had differences of opinion over the years about whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s fair to say that most everyone from the Modern Orthodox to the left observes the holiday. Thanksgiving, like kosher Subway, offers us the opportunity to participate in the culture at large while conforming to our own laws and observances.

The question raised around many Jewish tables at Thanksgiving is, Do we sing Shir Hamaalot (Psalm 126) before the grace after meals? We recite this optimistic psalm on holidays in place of the more lamenting Psalm 137, which is normally recited. Thanksgiving may be a holiday, but is it a Jewish holiday? That is the question behind the question. Most Orthodox Jews would not go so far. Their ritual lives are willing to incorporate that which can be incorporated without changing the legalities of observance.

We all want to be included, to have the same freedom and options that everyone else has. At the same time, as the upcoming holiday of Hannukah will remind us, sometimes identity needs to be defined in opposition to a dominant culture.

Oreos, anyone?

I spent the past two days at a conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

A short history of the IRF (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you know this already): Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel started this group a couple of years ago. Among other things, Rabbi Weiss was driven by the absence of a professional organization for musmachim (ordainees) of his rabbinic school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Rabbi Angel had become fed up with the politics governing the mainstream orthodox rabbinate’s approaches to handling conversions. Both of them wanted to create a forum where orthodox rabbis could genuinely express themselves, learn together, and support one another. Over 120 rabbis are now members of the IRF.

This meeting marked a watershed on a few levels. First, Rabbis Weiss and Angel formally stepped back. A new board of directors and slate of officers were elected, with a new generation of rabbis represented.

Second, the members present reached a pretty clear consensus that this organization will include women who have done the advanced learning in Jewish law requisite of rabbis, and who are functioning in clerical roles like rabbis. Without taking a stand on whether women can or should be ordained as rabbis per se, there was general agreement among those assembled that women who are doing what orthodox rabbis do should be welcome as full members of this organization. A membership committee will work out the specific details of a membership policy by next summer.

Third, the IRF adopted a policy on conversions. The main points of the policy are that the autonomy of the local rabbi is to be respected, that conversions performed by a halakhic beit din (rabbinic court) may not be retroactively annulled, and that IRF members will perform conversions in an open and generous spirit. A special committee for conversion matters (va’ad l’inyanei giyur) consisting of both scholars and practicing rabbis has been established to give guidance to IRF members and to ensure the integrity of the conversions they perform.

All of this was the business of the meeting, and all of it is historically significant in and of itself. I went to this conference partly because I wanted to be able to say I was there when these things happened.

But equally as significant, in my mind, was the tone and character of the gathering. As Rabbi Weiss pointed out, it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where these difficult questions could be discussed with such openness. (It goes without saying it is impossible to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where women were present and in which they will soon be eligible for membership.) It is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where ideas like ecology and sustainability would be themes and values. And it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where fifty rabbis would be dancing to a musical Hallel led by a guitar-strumming colleague.

It’s not perfect, it has work to do. But as I said to my colleague Rachel Kohl-Feingold when Reb Avi led us in singing and dancing after approval of the new board of directors, this was why a lot of us went to the yeshiva we did. This is why a lot of us became rabbis, to be able to bring about a more compassionate, open, and spiritual orthodoxy. We made some history in the past couple of days, and it makes me proud.

 

The Forward arrives late out here in the hinterlands, so I only just received last week’s issue in the mail. In its pages is a nice piece from Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, who takes on Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm’s prediction of the demise of Reform and Conservative Jewry. Sarna does not address the challenges those movements face. Instead, he turns his sights on Orthodoxy itself, and attacks the triumphalist tone of Lamm’s remarks. He mentions five challenges in particular: Orthodoxy’s high dropout rate; its lack of leadership; its brain drain to Israel; continuing divisions over how far to engage modernity; and the financial crisis, which has acutely affected ortho institutions. Then he offers a zinger of a last line: “In the world of religion, smugness and self-assurance are usually risky. As Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Mainline Protestant denominations have discovered, success in the present provides no guarantees for the future. If anything, saying Kaddish for other religious movements has often been the first sign of a movement’s own impending decline.”

My family is somewhere in this mix, though we experience the challenges of Orthodoxy in ways different from most M.O. Jews, who live in large communities of other M.O. Jews. Right now we mostly feel it in terms of education. Our kids go to a community day school, which poses its own unique challenges, both in an out of school. (In: How do you explain to your kids that, although in school they may include the Matriarchs in the Amidah prayer, in our Orthodox synagogue we don’t? Out: What do you do about Shabbat observance when one of your child’s best friends doesn’t celebrate Shabbat with the same restrictions on behavior that we do? As Jonah once said when he was about 3 years old and we were walking to shul on Shabbos: ‘Abba, are all the people driving today Christians?’)

Of course, if we sent our kids to an Orthodox school, we’d have to do hashlama, compensatory education, on the other side. We’d have to expose them to religious pluralism. We would want them to know Jews of other backgrounds. (And this of course begs the question of public school. It’s a problem to me if all my kids’ friends are Jews.)

In my heart of hearts I either know or hope that something new is coming, some way of being both deeply engaged with the Jewish textual and legal tradition, that habituates its children to the bodily behaviors–in motion and speech–that Orthodoxy does so well (how to say the prayers, how to shake the lulav, how to shukel), and also taking the best of modernity: thinking for oneself, gender equality, openness to languages and cultures, an at-homeness with the world. I live my life hoping, and working, for the day after all these denominational labels lose their weight, and a new Jewish consensus will emerge.

It struck me as wonderful timing that while the Modern Orthodox world is abuzz with the news of Sara Hurwitz’s impending non-ordination as a rabbi, Tova Hartman, a founder of the Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, is here at Northwestern for a guest lectureship. She spoke to a group of students at Hillel last night, and will deliver a public lecture this evening.

As Dr. Hartman (she prefers to be called Tova) pointed out, the big change of Shira Hadasha had much less to do with women getting called up to the Torah or participating in other ways in an Orthodox prayer service, than in opening the process of decision-making to women and men in an Orthodox environment. From a textual standpoint, the greatest innovation in the last hundred years in terms of women’s place in Judaism has been the opening of high-level scholarship to them, which was completely forbidden before the twentieth century, and even now remains off-limits within Haredi communities.

Yet we don’t tend to focus on that. Our lines of division–between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between Haredi/Centrist and Modern Ortho–all seem to revolve around how much women are visible or invisible within the synagogue. And this is probably  because, as Tova put it last night, the synagogue is where most people live the bulk of their religious lives–even in Orthodox circles. Even though every denomination of Judaism makes serious ethical claims that apply throughout the day, week, and year; even though every denomination of Judaism makes demands on family and home life; even though every denomination of Judaism advocates for text study–despite all of this, the synagogue remains the defining space for religious identity. And so, while women’s access to Torah learning is the real revolution within Orthodox Judaism, the big fights are over the symbols of access in the synagogue: aliyot, leading services, counting in the minyan, serving as president, and serving as the rabbi.

For me, the decision to be Orthodox was not one I made because of my views on gender egalitarianism. If that were my criterion, I probably would have gone to a different rabbinic school. What Orthodoxy inspires me with is its devotion to the rigorous study and application of Jewish law, and its preservation of the value of talmud Torah keneged kulam: Torah study outweighs all other pursuits. I saw how hard my friends at more liberal schools had to work to get the intensive kind of text education I wanted, and that was really what pushed me into my Orthodox commitment. That came at a price with regard to my views on gender, but it was a price I was willing to pay.

One of the ironies of Tova Hartman’s talk last night, to me anyway, was the fact that for her, the creation of Shira Hadasha is in some profound ways an aesthetic exercise. Because there is no professional associated with the shul, and thus no one’s livelihood is on the line, and because there are a gazillion other Orthodox prayer options in her neighborhood of Jerusalem, she feels perfectly fine letting attacks against Shira Hadasha’s Orthodox bona fides go unanswered. Like me, she believes that this is one path, and she’s not prescribing it for everyone. Yet here in America, people’s livelihoods are on the line: Plenty of people already make spurious and ignorant comments about YCT graduates, to the detriment of the ability of some of the job prospects of some of my fellow musmachim. Those within the YCT community who are pressuring Rabbi Weiss not to call Sara a Rabbi are right that their livelihoods may well be affected. (Never mind, btw, that many of these same people were willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of workers in Postville for another moral/halakhic crusade.)

The irony comes in the comment of my teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, that I’m fond of quoting. In trying to convince me to make aliyah, Levi said, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.” In other words, because the Zionist project involves putting your body to work and your life on the line for the sake of your Jewish identity, it transforms Jewishness into a meaningful non-aesthetic category. Yet in this case, it is the reverse: the Diaspora makes aesthetic concerns charged with urgency, at least when you’re a Jewish professional.

Perhaps it’s time to be thinking about aliyah again.