Fifty Years: Where Are We?

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I don’t pretend to be up to the task of adequately reflecting on the March, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” or the legacy of the event.

So I’ll just ask a question: where are we at?

Member Poaching Item 2: They’re Eating our Lunch

Chabad, I mean. They’re eating our lunch. (No offense intended to Chabad members–it’s a compliment to you, a smack at most of the rest of us.)

Let me explain.

Take a look back at that article that started the series off. Only one of the “start-up” synagogues mentioned is a liberal Jewish congregation. The other two? Chabad.

(“Liberal” here unfortunately means “everything not Orthodox.” Way to cede the debate, everyone. Nice job. But I digress.)

What the heck is going on here? I’ve got some ideas.

Money is certainly part of the issue. The traditional synagogue structure we know (where “traditional” = how it’s been since you’ve been paying attention) is premised upon high overhead costs for members; Chabad doesn’t really do this to people.

But there’s something else going on. Going back through that article, the story of the mother who left the Reform synagogue for one of the Chabad congregations is very telling: she left because the synagogue leadership didn’t care whether she was there or not, and the religious school didn’t teach Hebrew or much that she found meaningful or important as the concerned parent of a Jewish child.

Chabad filled that gap.

Now, if someone really clicks into Chabad in a real, I’m-a-baal-teshuva way, that’s great–it’s where that person probably belongs. But not everyone who goes to Chabad really does fully click in that way; I imagine many or even most don’t really do so in the end, but I don’t know for certain. The problem, of course, is that where we in the “liberal” denominations could be providing many of the things people get from Chabad, we don’t. This is especially problematic in someplace like the U.S., where most religious groups–Jews, Christians of most stripes, etc.–are marked by relatively free movement between communities/churches/synagogues based on not too much more than what fits best for the congregants, who don’t always (fully, sometimes at all) grasp doctrine.

I think there are a few related issues that feed this problem for “liberal” Jewish groups.

One problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by selling ourselves. If your competitors don’t charge simply to allow people to feel like they can show up or look for help, and you do charge, you lose. You lose because you lose the economic value proposition game–why pay more when you think you can pay less?–but more importantly, you lose because you aren’t what you should be: open, welcoming, and trying to help.

Another problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by failing to sell ourselves. I’ve already alluded to this one. By calling ourselves “liberal” Jews, we cede the language game to an unacceptable degree. Why are there halakhically non-observant, “liberal” Jews who donate to observant “Orthodox” causes whose ideologies would otherwise be unacceptable to the donors? In part because we on the “liberal” end have taken up the “conservative” name, incorporated it into a form of “liberal” Judaism (Conservative Movement, anyone?), and ceded “Orthodox” to 20% of the Jewish community in the United States. And in our “liberal” Judaism, we often make it clear that we’re making accommodations to the modern world that allow our members to feel better about non-observance.

So in the marketplace of Jewish ideas, as they come through to the average Jewish family looking for a place in the Jewish community (or who encounter a place in the Jewish community), we have “liberal” Judaism, which packages itself as a compromise, and “Orthodox” (and, especially these days, Chabad) Judaism, which packages itself as simply Judaism. In the latter of these categories, Chabad is the most outgoing and welcoming generally. Who would you, all things being equal, go with?

So what do we in the “liberal” Jewish community do about this? Oh, but if I told you my ideas, you wouldn’t have to come back for the rest of the series!


Related articles from elsewhere


Member Poaching Item 1: Rabbinical Roles

So, here’s the first post in the promised series. (I’ve always wanted to say “First Post!” So here it is. 🙂 )

Some months back, I read an article in The Forward titled Online-Ordained Rabbis Grab Pulpits, that discussed non-traditional alternatives for obtaining rabbinical ordination. I had previously considered rabbinical school shortly after graduating college, but didn’t follow through on it for a variety of reasons.

Traditional rabbinical education, as the article in The Forward lays out, is very expensive: four years of college, plus between four and six years of full-time academic + pastoral care education, frequently amounting to at least a master’s degree-level graduate education and then some. As one of the rabbis in the article describes it, he has a $100,000 wall of diplomas.

And wow, is that a problem. Why?

The article that gave rise to this series (see Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues) details the response of a Long Island Jewish community structure to start-up synagogues, at least one of which has a part-time rabbinical model. That allows for lower dues and pay-as-you-go “services.” That’s a threat to many established Jewish organizations.

It seems to me that it shouldn’t be, if the organizations have the best interests of their constituents–individual Jews–at heart. Not everyone wants or will be well-served by the traditional, $2000-or-so-per-year membership model, and many are driven away by that model. But the model sustains and justifies the long, expensive version of rabbinical education, because the education isn’t affordable for many students unless the salaries at the end are great enough to pay the student loan bills.

It seems to me, and probably many others, that one of the ways to pull apart the dependency of the institutions is to reduce the cost of creating Jewish clergy who, for better or worse in the modern world, are rabbis.

And we can probably do a lot to reduce the cost of the education if we recognize what “rabbi” means for those outside the world of “Orthodox” Judaism.

Certainly, a rabbi is a teacher in most Jewish contexts, traditional or otherwise. And in congregational and other settings (chaplaincy, educational, and likely even administrative), a rabbi is an advisor. But for those who are not “Orthodox,” a rabbi is rarely a halakhic advisor, and is certainly not a halakhic advisor on the level that “Orthodox” Jews require.

So why require the same training? Yet that level of training is often what traditional denominational programs (even Reform seminaries) create, or come very close to. Certainly we need rabbis trained in traditional texts to some degree and in the breadth of Jewish history and thought; but do we need poskim? I’m not sure.

And thinking about the history of rabbis, I’m not sure the part-time model with a less expensive education is actually completely outside the mainstream. Full-time Jewish clergy are a modern, Western invention, and the educational institutions for rabbis match that model. Perhaps it shouldn’t anymore–or perhaps we should at least recognize distinctions.

It’s in this context that the occurrences on Long Island most concern me. The response of the broader Jewish community to the start-up synagogues fails to recognize that we may need more models, and more ways of getting there, to sustain the Jewish community and create environments that don’t only make available, but make attractive, retaining Jewish identity in the ways each Jew is most comfortable doing so.

The Jewish Week’s story about a specific community’s reaction to new models may show that we’ve got a long way to go if communal organizations attempt to stand against those new models; and that’s the tail wagging the dog.

Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues

My wife forwarded along to me a link she found on the Tablet website to an article in the New York Jewish Week about non-traditional synagogue models and the difficulties (read: sh*t-fit) they are causing in the Long Island Jewish community.

There’s just so much to unpack in that one article; many of the issues it raises are ideas I have been thinking about for some time. So, parsing the article will be this blog’s inaugural series! I intend to discuss a few different issues: rabbinical education, the role of rabbis in modern Judaism, the role of the community, the role of the synagogue, affiliation, and religious entrepreneurship.

Stay tuned–we’ll be back with more over the next few days.

A nice reminder that we aren’t our stereotypes

A Facebook friend posted a link to this fabulous article about how Jews mostly aren’t the stereotyped JAP/nebech/Seinfeld’s mom/hasid images we see in the broader culture. I’m posting the link here, because while I’m not on board with hasidism (which is kind of what the blog from whence this came is really about), it’s a good reminder for us all that we aren’t our stereotype. It’s also a nice way for Humanistic Jews to remember and embrace Jewish diversity.

Digital tzitzis, or, break glass in event of emergency

Okay, I’m at once bemused and dismayed.

The folks at RustyBrick, who have developed a number of Jewish-centered smartphone apps, have developed the first Judaism-centered Google Glass app–JewGlass. (That bit’s old news–though I did just look at the site to see all the “screen captures,” which I hadn’t done before.) And I can see how it would be quite handy (if Google Glass wasn’t so, so dweeby looking) as an observant Jew to have an app like this.

Now, if that was all I had to say, I wouldn’t have posted. But that’s not how I roll because, if I liked bowling, I would roll on Shabbos, Donnie.

That there could exist an app whose existence is designed to help you remember/make sure you follow the traditional schedule of prayers, if you’re a human freedom kind of person, almost an absurd extension of the traditional idea that Jewish practice must of necessity suffuse every element of a Jew’s life. I think the problem I have with Google Glass + JewGlass is not that there’s an app that would remind someone of when, e.g., minhah and maariv prayers are coming up, but that we now have a device and an app that don’t merely remind you, but nag you, to submit.

If I want to program a reminder into my iPhone’s calendar? Great. And, I suppose, I can decide not to install JewGlass if I ever take leave of my senses and decide that the thing to do is to stick a goofy-looking computer screen over my eye. But there’s something so…pervasive? invasive?…about a computer actively, without my doing anything, pushing me to remember to davven.

But this actually masks a pretty interesting question, I think: as we put into place more automated aids, are we enabling spirituality? Or are we instead enabling practice? I’m not sure what the answer to that is; I’m just throwing it out into the ether.

Of course, as a humanistic Jew, I don’t follow the schedule. Or the liturgy. And I’m sure JewGlass doesn’t have a humanistic Jewish liturgy loaded as an option.

So, break Glass in case of emergency.

Syllogism or narrative? An ethical choice.

I read a thought-provoking (for me) letter to the editor in the September-October 2013 issue of The Humanist, the bi-monthly magazine from the American Humanist Association. The letter was in response to articles on whether it is ethical for humanists to eat meat; I’ll just repost the paragraph that interested me:

We may celebrate the slaughterhouse cow that runs for its life, but we also celebrate the image of a U.S. soldier carrying an infant pulled from the rubble of a city we’ve bombed. We’re sentimental more often than logical. Our ethics are as much about making ourselves feel like “good” people as anything else, and they inevitably involve compromise with the overwhelming reality of human and animal suffering that blankets this plant. But that’s a very difficult thing for us to be consistently honest about.

(The Humanist Sept. – Oct. 2013, p. 47.)

I think this accesses an important insight, but I’m not sure I share the author’s slightly critical edge.

I appreciate the concern that we’re often not really rational in our ethical judgment. We’re not. But I’m not sure that’s actually a problem.

I’ll use Kant’s treatment of lying as a straw man. (And I’m admitting straight up that it’s a straw man for me. But there’s a decent summary and critical look at the issue here.) Kant’s approach to ethics requires that any moral proposition, to be valid, be such that one would will all individuals to act in conformity with that proposition in all circumstances (remember “the categorical imperative?”). Kant asserts that lying is in all circumstances not in conformity with the categorical imperative, so even when a murder is at the door and you are concealing his intended victim, lying to protect the intended victim by making a false statement concerning the victim’s whereabouts is not, for Kant, ethical.

Yet most people cringe at the notion that dishonesty in this situation is not ethical. But that raises the issue: when it is permissible to lie? And when we make distinctions to allow lying in this situation, how do we know when that distinction wouldn’t permit lying in a more problematic situation?

I’m not convinced we can really fully address ethics rationally and systematically the way Kant would have us do–the results may strike us as repugnant, and it may be excessively difficult to draw lines around the exceptions we might want to create.

Where does this take us? I think, for humanist Jews, we need to look toward something like narrative ethics; often, we can reach the “truth” of a situation through story where we might find it difficult to do so through principled reasoning alone. This approach is consonant with both pieces of humanist Judaism. From a humanist perspective, valuing others means valuing and listening to their stories and learning from them. From a Jewish perspective, in a tradition defined in part by text and shared story, a narrative approach is almost a more natural fit than the systematic approach of the Western ethicist.

Importantly, a narrative approach allows us to recognize the values that lead to decisions that we may or may not agree with, but that often have their own reasoning to allow us to explore ethics further.

So, is it difficult for us to be consistently honest about how fractured our view of morality truly is? Of course, and it is especially so if we focus on forcing our ethics to be strictly rational and to conform to a coherent system. But inconsistency is not a vice if we adjust how we talk about ethics and recognize that our understandings of right and wrong and in and out (and morality is often about who is in or out based upon their conduct) may often be better expressed by exploring our shared stories.

Jewish education, or, frustration incarnate

The school year is starting up (actually, here in Indianapolis it started a couple of weeks ago!) and we’re back to thinking about doing Jewish education for our son.

We’ve got some criteria here:

  1. We’re not members of a synagogue, so synagogue schools are out;
  2. We’re not going to be members of a synagogue as though it’s a fee-for-service model (I don’t really like that model of Jewish life; I don’t think service extortion is the right way to do it); and
  3. We’re not going to avail ourselves of the centralized option in the community because:
  4. Our son is autistic, and the above options wouldn’t work for him anyway.

He’s now nine, so we’re about a year late for starting Hebrew school, but neither of us really have any expertise in doing education for kids, let alone education for a kid with special needs, so we don’t really know where to start in terms of structure. Fortunately, our son’s lead ABA therapist will be helping us, but I worry about what we’ll teach him because it’s so hard to communicate principles and abstract concepts.

In the spirit of being the change you wish to see (that’s how the phrase goes, right?), I’ll likely be figuring out a bit of the special needs educational stuff. But that’s okay–it’s actually important for me to do, for reasons I’ll be revealing in a couple of weeks when some new things start up on my end.

Until then, stay tuned!

New-ish Jewish

I really enjoy reading Tablet. Among their regular features is a weekly column by literary critic Adam Kirsch, who is doing the daf yomi thing and writes stories with interesting insights, etc., from one or another of the dapim he’s read the prior week.

The article posted today discusses a section of tractate Pesahim where the question of when observance of a holiday begins: does it start the prior afternoon, or earlier? It turns to a discussion of the role of custom in determining the start time, and favors a stricter (read, “earlier”) start time where custom dictates as much, and requires that someone carry over the stricter time when they start the day in a place where the stricter custom prevails, but move on to someplace where a less strict custom prevails. (I’m simplifying here, of course.)

In pondering this, Kirsch expresses concern that maybe modern Jews–that is, non-“orthodox” modern Jews–who don’t live according to halakhah are engaging in “defective” Judaism, and notes that the rabbis might point out that schismatic sects who deviated from rabbinic rulings are mostly gone. That is, Kirsch worries that by deviating from the historical “norm,” we are not really building “an original creation with its own integrity” but are instead fatally wounding how we engage in Judaism.

I don’t share his concern. I’ve written here before that I don’t like the term “Orthodox” because it carries with it not merely the implication, but indeed the concession that Jews who do something outside the rabbinic stream are inauthentically Jewish. That term and indeed any approach to Judaism that views rabbinic Judaism as the only authentic form of Judaism, with all others as compromise positions or worse, strike me as inappropriate because they misapprehend what has been happening the whole time: Jews have always defined Judaism, and there has always been a stream of thought–even among the early rabbinic traditions–that has recognized this.

Want to see?

Mishnah Hagigah 1:8: “The laws of Shabbat, the three Festivals (Sukkot, Pesah, Shavuot), and sacrilege are like mountains that hang from a hair, since they have scant scriptural basis but many laws.”

This is pretty self-aware stuff. It’s a recognition that those additional laws came from somewhere. (While this is an isolated example, it’s not the only one. Come on, man–it’s a blog post! Go read the recent translation of Heschel’s Torah min Hashamayim if you want a full analysis.) And it makes the point (along with the sugya Kirsch discusses) that we’ve been making Judaism the whole time.

So, are we compromising on some “true” form of Judaism, as Kirsch worries? No, I don’t think we are. The more we acknowledge that, and the more we put effort into making Judaism–and the less effort we put into fretting that we’re somehow unmaking Judaism in the process–the richer Judaism will be.

We’ve always made Judaism what it is, and we will continue to do so. It’s probably the central insight of much of modern study of Jewish history: when you read the texts for what they show, rather than what they say, you get a very different picture of Judaism. That’s the central insight of Humanist and, before it, Reconstructionist Judaism.

Kirsch’s concern–that the rabbis might respond with “we’re still here, and the others are all gone”–is a valid one. But I think it’s misplaced if we spend our time as modern Jews worried about and measuring ourselves against Judaism-as-it-has-been. Judaism survived in its present forms because it continued to develop. Let’s focus on making Judaism what it will be, and not cede ground to the idea that we aren’t measuring up to what came before. Judaism–in all its forms–will flourish that way.

Corners – a modern midrash

It’s Elul, time for preparing for the new year to come. And you know what that means.

School restarts.

As a child, I remember the beginning of the school year being a time when you picked out your new notebook (Trapper Keeper, anyone?), paper, folders, pens, pencils, backpack, clothes, etc. I remember there being plentiful chalk in the classrooms, erasers to go with the chalk, and never paying a textbook rental fee or having to provide school supplies for use by the entire class.

Times change. Or is it that I grew up in Florida and Indiana has always been different?

In any case, this week and last week I’ve made trips to the big-box office supply stores for school supplies for my son. The schools provide lists with the supplies each child in each grade level is expected to purchase for use in the classroom. Not that these supplies are assigned to that child, in particular–rather, everything seems to go into a pool of supplies that students share, or have assigned to them ad hoc, or something.

This stuff is not negligible in cost, at least, not to me. You can easily drop $80 to $100 in school supplies for materials your child mostly won’t personally consume. It’s not that your kid will be sitting there using the whole pack of dry erase markers, the whole tube of disinfectant wipes, etc., as much as everyone’s kid ends up generating demand and the entirety of the stuff gets wiped out over the school year.

My wife is probably tired of me carping about this.

This year, when I went to buy the supplies, I didn’t really think about the bit where schools rely on parents for basic operational supplies for the classroom. I instead remembered that there would be kids whose parents couldn’t shell out what I was about to spend. And, curiously, that got me thinking about the biblical commandment of peah.

Aerial photo of an irrigation project

Aerial photo of an irrigation project; note the corners…

Peah means, in Hebrew, “corner.” The commandment of peah, located in Leviticus 19:9-10, requires that when harvesting occurs, the corners of the field must be left unharvested so that the poor can gather food from those parts of the fields. The tractate of the Mishnah that sets forth the rabbinic laws on peah (a tractate cleverly named…Peah) opens by elevating the commandment of peah to one that has “no measure,” among such better-known commandments as gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness) and talmud torah (study).

So how did I buy school supplies this year? I didn’t worry so much about how much I bought. So, if the sheet said “three boxes of pencils,” I bought three very large boxes of pencils. If it said, “two packs of Post It notes,” I bought two large packs (actually, I bought the single largest pack I could find–which was definitely more than two large packs of the notes).

In other words–not only did I buy school supplies, I bought the corners of the field. And I think this is one of those areas where humanist Jews can rely on Jewish traditions to animate our own decisions today.

So, when you can, buy the corners, too.