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I’ve discussed before my thinking about rabbinical education: too expensive, and sometimes too removed from the needs of a community and ordinary Jews.

In the “Orthodox” world, too, there appears to be some interesting recognition of this problem, and there are attempts to address it. has one such thing, a Mastery in Halakhah and Semicha program, which focuses on the halakhic issues that surround day-to-day challenges of Orthodox Jewish life from a halakhic perspective: kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc., even some discussion of the basics of financial laws in halakhah.

I’m not endorsing the courses (or, for that matter); I haven’t taken any of them, and have no plans to do so. (I’m busy enough as it is, and it’s not as though I’m an ideological fellow traveler.) But it’s an interesting program by all appearances, can end with some form of semicha (it’s called “Orach Chaim” semicha), and is (until the semicha year) co-educational.

So, in its way, I think this is an encouraging thing–assuming rigor (and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be, under the circumstances), it may be an interesting model for training rabbis going forward.

I recognize that in the liberal Jewish world, we’re a bit more credential-minded, in a way; we look for accredited college educations, academically rigorous graduate degrees, etc., along with ordination. But it may be time–particularly given the needs of Jewish communities still reeling from the effects of reduced membership and financial contribution after the 2008 financial crisis–to consider something different.

Because make no mistake: communities are already moving in that direction.

Procedural vs. declarative Judaism

If you don’t listen to the New Books Network podcasts, you are really missing out. Get thee to thy preferred podcast app and subscribe!

One of my favorites from the network (and I subscribe to a bunch of these) is the New Books in Big Ideas podcast. The most recent of these is a conversation with A. David Redish, author of The Mind within the Brain, which discusses the various kinds of memory and cognition, decision-making processes, and the problems that may arise with all these.

During the podcast, he and the host, Marshall Poe, discussed procedural vs. deliberative (also known as declarative) cognition and how these affect decision-making processes and human behavior generally. Prof. Redish mentioned that you learn to do new things–basketball was the example, but there are others–through a process that initially engages the deliberative/declarative systems but then moves toward ingraining those things into the procedural systems of the mind.

It was a fascinating discussion, especially because I really have very little background in psychology. (Come on–I went to grad school for religion, law school, and worked in IT. Something had to give! I also know very little about art, for what it’s worth.) And it got me to thinking about what my misgivings and comfort levels are with traditional prayer in a less traditional Jewish context, and why halakhic observance (or heck, remembering that I don’t actually want to eat very much meat) is so difficult for newcomers.

One of the tricks of procedural memory/cognition is that it engages the dopamine feed into our brains, which is why athletes talk about disengaging your conscious thinking and talk about being “in the zone.” My experience with the traditional prayer services is like this–I can get “in the zone” where I’m executing (in a technical manner) and feel really comfortable. But that doesn’t happen when I stop and read the words.

Actually, it does–but it engages the “in the zone” feeling for reading and translating Hebrew, rather than the “in the zone” feeling for reciting the prayers. The problem, of course, is that when I’m in the Hebrew zone, I remember that I don’t actually agree with the contents of the prayers. And I think this explains why I and others sometimes feel uncomfortable with the different liturgical approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism. (In my rabbinical school class a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chalom explained this as we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–people don’t actually agree often with the content of the prayers, but they refuse to allow change.)

This actually has me feeling pretty optimistic about my own ability to adjust out of the unease I feel with some of the liturgical challenges of Humanistic Judaism. Eventually, I realize, I’ll “get there.” The challenge will be making myself practice differently until what is deliberative becomes procedural.

I think many of us approach Judaism this way generally. “Why do we do it this way?” “We’re used to it.” “That’s absurd, don’t you think?” “Sure, but it’s how we do it!”

That covers a wide range of issues; in the liberal Jewish movements, we all “know” that many of the biblical texts aren’t literally true. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe (a Conservative rabbi) got in some trouble at a Passover seder when he said something like, “The Exodus didn’t really happen,” and was upbraided not because the audience disagreed, but because they just didn’t want to hear it in context–like that’s dirty laundry we ignore in public.

So the challenge for many of us will be, in the future, shaking up that procedural memory. Seems like it will be an interesting challenge.

Things that make you go, “Hmmm…”

I’d say that I’m sure we all remember the C & C Music Factory song, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm.”

Then, I remember the guy in my office who is less than a decade younger than I am, but who wouldn’t remember the song. So that analogy is out.

Anyway, having been on the web almost as long as the web has been publicly available (serious about this–I remember the days before Netscape and even Mosaic, though I’m guessing I’ve now lost, like, everyone), I never have stopped being amazed by how easy the internet makes due diligence, and how little it still happens.

I’m speaking, of course, about links and follows on blogs like this one.

Recently, one of the posts on this blog (I won’t say which) was linked to by someone (I won’t say who) who I’m 100% positive would not share the ideas expressed in that post. I’m really, really sure about this; you’ll just have to take my word for it.

How did this happen? I think some of the authoring tools that WordPress makes so conveniently accessible are the culprits here. Specifically, as you author a post, you get lots of related content that comes up underneath the editor for your posts. It bases its suggestions on the content of your post. (If you write a WordPress blog, you know what I mean, unless you’ve never used anything other than the iPad/iPhone app to do this. I won’t even go into how abysmal I find that whole thing.) (Also, it’s suggesting right now that I add some links to blogs about monetary policy, because one of them recently talked about the Federal Reserve using a reference to the same song I talked about at the beginning of this post. Which shows how the whole click-without-linking thing can happen.)

So, I think the person in question here was writing a post that addressed a similar topic, was adding links, and clicked the selection for one of my posts.

But I can’t imagine this person would have linked to my post had said individual actually read what I wrote; I’m inferring this from the content of the linking post and the other links the individual selected, all of which were in the same vein as the linking post. And none of those were in the same vein as my post. My post was running the other way from those posts and links, with its hair on fire, zombies following in its wake, and using parkour to surmount obstacles. (Well, not really–humanist here, no zombies, and the closest I’ve ever come to parkour is watching Schmidt on “The New Girl,” but you get the picture.)

Anyway, as a favor to your readers, it’s probably a pretty good idea to look before you leap–because many readers won’t do that themselves, and might not come back if you provide a link that is…unexpected. I promise my readers that I will (and have, and do) practice what I preach on that point.

In any case, it’s bath time in these parts for a certain kiddo, so here I am, signing off. Have a good week!


What is religion?

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, who blogs as The Atheist Rabbi, has a new post responding to an article by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Reform movement.

I have very little to add to Rabbi Falick’s specific critique, so before you read what I have to say, tze ul’mad (go and study) what Rabbi Falick says. Go ahead–I made that link give you another window so you won’t lose your place.

You’re back? Okay.

Rabbi Falick makes the point that as Jewish humanists, we don’t reject religion–rather, we reject the confirmability and necessity of a vertical dimension to a separate divine being. Some humanists are atheists. Some are agnostic (don’t know) or ignostic (don’t think the question is relevant). Those answers all tend to lead to the same conclusion.

What is important is that the question of the existence of a divine being has, for us, no normative consequences. That does not mean that we reject normative principles–ethics are important, and independent ethical inquiry is even more important for humanists than for non-humanists because we don’t accept divine command-theory accounts of ethics and morality.

Religion is not only about the vertical connection of individuals to a divine other; it needn’t be about that at all, in fact. Spirituality is also not about that kind of connection. We are “vertically” connected to the entire universe beyond ourselves and other humans. We appreciate the glory and beauty of all that is, in all its varieties. We recognize the role of natural processes in the world and marvel at their power and complexity.

We don’t impute into them or derive proofs from them of the existence of a separate divinity. But we organize communities around appreciation of them, and we recognize their power and our power to shape and live within them. We believe in and appreciate the importance of our own role in that broader order.

As Jewish humanists, we look to the entire spectrum of Jewish life to help us infuse all this with greater meaning. We look–very often first–at Jewish texts, practices, and principles in forming observances.

All of this is religion. It is also all faith. It is all spirituality writ large. And it is participation in cultural and ethnic life.

What it is not is theism.

The sky is falling, or, The Forward looks backward

Prolonging our collective misery, The Forward (kind of late to the game, no?) published an editorial on its website decrying the results of the Pew study.

Among The Forward’s worries?

The survey shows, conclusively, that intermarried families are less connected to Jewish life in myriad ways, have fewer children and are less likely to raise those children as Jews. It may offend liberal sensibilities to say that this is a problem, but this is a problem. It’s a problem for anyone who believes in a distinctive American Judaism that is egalitarian, tolerant and engages with the modern world.

It continues:

The Pew survey shows a remarkable dilution of Jewish identity, where “having a good sense of humor” is more than twice as essential to those surveyed as “observing Jewish law.” Among Jews of no religion — a growing cohort — only 10% said that “being part of a Jewish community” was essential to them.

Where is the good news in these numbers? Jewish identity is being reimagined, and in some select, creative hubs, that is happening in extraordinary and exciting ways. But elsewhere, this identity is being diluted beyond recognition and sustainability.

Okay, look. Intermarriage presents a challenge to Jewish continuity. But decrying the results of intermarriage along with much of the rest of the Jewish establishment, then complaining that the disengagement of intermarried families from Judaism is harmful to Judaism is not exactly a helpful stance to take. To then complain that you don’t recognize where Judaism is going makes you look like a darned fuddy-duddy–especially if you worry that egalitarianism and social action will suffer from the reduction of Jewish engagement and, specifically, population (which is really what The Forward is concerned about–that fewer Jews that practice what The Forward’s editorial board appears willing to call Judaism.)

Over at Failed Messiah, there’s commentary on the existential crisis of the Conservative Movement at its 100th anniversary. The author notes that young Jews are “less tribal.” I think that’s exactly right. And that’s an important insight into what’s wrong with The Forward’s response to the Pew survey, which is among the less rational responses I’ve showcased on this blog. (I’ve been selective. I know there’s a lot of hair-pulling going on out there.)

If you want younger, less tribal Jews to remain Jewishly connected, you’re going to have to be less tribal and less critical of intermarriage and its results. Complaining, as The Forward does, that intermarriage results in the dilution of Judaism–in any sense–blames those you want to retain.

Just. Bloody. Stop. It. Already. IT IS NOT HELPING.

Should (non-Orthodox) rabbis perform intermarriages? YES!–because when you refuse to do the wedding, guess who’s never going to come back? And because you can’t talk about egalitarianism and acceptance and then refuse to engage in the corresponding behavior. Even modern Orthodox rabbis like Joseph Telushkin have come to recognize the problems with the swat-away of couples who seek intermarriage (though I imagine he’s not in the business of performing such ceremonies).

And your pulpit talks, dear rabbis, should not decry intermarriage. There are intermarried families in your pews. Don’t shame those who come to you–they won’t be back. (This is among the reasons that those of us associated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism are expressly NOT against intermarriage–and also because we recognize that the Jewish people have grown over time through marriages between Jews and non-Jews. As a rabbinical student, I was asked about this during the admissions process. Guess what my answer was?)

When you shame those who are intermarried or considering it, you sound like The Forward. And The Forward is now looking backward.

And now, a brief intermission from our regularly scheduled program

Okay, let’s take a break from the Pew study, Jewish identity, etc. Well, a little break, anyway.

(Rummages in closet, grabs the “Autism dad” soapbox, drags it to the public square)

So, now I’m going to put on the Autism dad hat. I’m not going to make requests for expanded healthcare availability, more public school funding for services, etc. We’re just going to be people here for a bit.

An article today on is titled, “I MIssed the Autism Early Intervention Boat & That Might Have Been a Good Thing.” In it, the author, Dana Meijler, talks about her daughter’s Autism diagnosis at age five–past the threshold for “critical” early intervention.

Meijler has, among other things, this to say:

Our social worker, who was there to help us, told us to slow down and take a breath. Yes, therapy is important, but what was just as important was letting our daughter be herself. While therapy could help our daughter immensely, she would always have autism and would probably never be completely free of its symptoms. What was most important, she said, was that our daughter felt accepted and that we focus our energies on supporting who she is and encouraging her to take those scary steps outside of her own world.

I can’t emphasize how dead-on I think Meijler’s social worker was. We have tried, since our son’s diagnosis at age two (WAY inside the early intervention period), not to make Autism the defining feature of his life. Or, a different way of saying it, we just treat him as he is. In some respects, while we had early intervention services of some kinds (I was in school for much of this period, so we didn’t have insurance to cover treatment), we really were in a situation similar to Meijler’s. We just couldn’t do anything much about the diagnosis beyond developmental preschool until I was out of school, working, and insured.

More importantly, we don’t treat our son’s Autism as though it is a disease. It’s part of who he is, but it’s not who he is. We recognize that it affects how we live our lives, engage in social and business activities, and the like; that’s all unavoidable. But we treat Autism as just part of his personality; it creates certain triggers, requires certain treatments, but we still (try to) get him to do homework, wipe his hands with a napkin, sit politely in a restaurant, etc. We aren’t always successful; we may have less success at this than other parents do, but no one has a perfect child.

So he needs help with daily activities; who doesn’t? He’s a bright, funny kid with a memory like a steel trap. That’s good enough for us. If only others were able to be at ease, too.

Oh, and if only he would stay in his own bed at night, too. We’re still working on that one; I think he may have bruised my kidney with a swift shot from his knee at around 5 a.m. this morning.

(Puts the Autism dad soapbox away.)

And now, back to our regular programming.

Don’t stop thinkin’ about tomorrow

This article, on, has an interesting premise: the Pew survey (there it is again!) shows that most American Jews–even those that believe in God–are basically not observant, but nevertheless proudly identify as Jewish. The author, Joshua Ratner, suggests that it’s always kind of been like this, and maybe we should embrace that by focusing more on training a cadre of leaders and less on the kinds of outreach programming that has, so far, not been all that successful in getting the “Jew on the street” seriously attendant to Judaism as a religious life-system.

On the one hand, I sort of agree with this, because it’s true of many other groups–the interests of the group are often best advanced by leaders as opposed to trying to bring the whole group into a leadership role for itself. There are many reasons for this.

On the other hand, I worry that Ratner gives up a bit too easily because his focus is on Jewish religion (which he likely means as belief in and service of the divine). He, as other authors, sort of nod at the “cultural Jew”–Ratner actually says, “whatever that means.” If we’re getting people to engage–whether they engage in a theistic or non-theistic version of Judaism–we’re doing part of the job of being Jewish leaders and helping to perpetuate Jewish identity and Judaism in all its forms.

No, I don’t think you’ll drag people into Judaism as religion (as defined above). But you’ll get people into Judaism writ large–and that’s a good thing.

Plasticine prayers

So, I mentioned at some point on the blog that I’m a rabbinical student here. The current rabbinical seminar centers on the Jewish calendar, holidays, liturgy, etc. Among the items discussed last week was Shalom Auslander’s short story, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremey.” In it, the protagonist creates two golems using instructions in Kabbalah for Dummies, and chaos ensues. Interspersed throughout the story are excerpts (translated into English) from various traditional Jewish prayers, with “Epstein” (the protagonist in the story) taking the place of the name of God.

It’s a hoot, though not for the religiously faint of heart (that’s true for a lot of Auslander’s writing). We used it in class as a way of leveraging into thinking about what prayers say and what, as Humanistic Jews, we should say in liturgical texts, because integrity of thought and speech is central to the movement’s self-definition.

This, plus reading for the next class session, brought me back around to thinking about the language of liturgy. I’m still unsure about how I think we should approach dealing with traditional texts and melodies from a humanistic perspective. One thing I liked seeing was a few texts from HJ services that recognized past practice and prayer, then turned to what we now say. But I’m a history buff (ask Mrs. Secular Jew in Indy about that), so that would appeal to me. And, of course, you can’t stick a “this is what we used to say” prefix onto everything–it’s not as though the reasons for the musaf service in traditional practice are persuasive for a humanistic Jew. (Heck, it’s not even persuasive for plenty of folks in the Conservative movement!)

Nevertheless, after seeing a number of HJ liturgical texts, I still think I would like to see a bit more in the way of adopting traditional forms into HJ liturgical practice. I’m not sure what that would look like–I actually rather like the adaptation of Shalom Aleichem that I’ve seen in HJ texts–but I’m sure I’ll continue to ponder this as time goes on and as I have more reason to communicate with other Jews about what I’m up to.

Yes, it’s good for the Jews

Over at Kveller, Alina Adams asks whether she should feel guilty about her children receiving scholarships and financial aid for their various Jewish and non-Jewish educational activities. Observing that she doesn’t hesitate to say that her children receive such aid in exchange for her work, and that such aid is received as a result of her and her spouse’s decision to change jobs to be with their children, she asks whether 1) she should feel guilty, and 2) whether what her children receive as a result of her decisions is good for the Jews.

Should she feel guilty? I don’t know; I don’t think so. These are extremely personal decisions, and it’s difficult to know what the results of those will be in each case. But beyond that trite little observation, I think we need to acknowledge that those who give do so without a guarantee–unless they ask for it–that the money will be used only for those whom the donors believe merit the aid. And those donors often wish they could do what people like Adams are doing, but for whatever reasons did/do not feel free to do so. So, I’m not convinced guilt is a good thing here.

Is it good for the Jews? Yes. Every Jewish child will be raised differently. If this is what the author’s children need to develop a Jewish identity and simultaneously have active and involved parents, then I think we have the answer to that question.

This is not to say that there is no free-rider problem associated with such aid. But that problem is alleviated by the work-study arrangements Adams discusses, and by the knowledge that it’s still uncommon (not unheard-of, of course, but not happening 50% of the time) for people to opt out of higher incomes unless circumstances dictate it. (For example: parents of children with disabilities routinely earn less than parents of children without disabilities, and that’s out of necessity in many cases. But that’s a story for a different day.)

In any case, I understand the impulse to feel guilty–but I tend to think it show that Adams made her decisions for good reasons, and that the aid is appropriately (in her case) taken.

Dox populi

Vox populi vox dei – “the voice of the people is the voice of god.”

Unfortunately, the way we study Judaism hasn’t quite caught onto that. Or at least, so it appears from this article on The Forward’s website. To make a long story short: a conference at Tel Aviv University that discussed global Jewish practice largely disregarded Jewish practice among half of the world’s Jews–those here in the U.S.

From the author’s report, it sounds like the conference was very focused on “Old World” practice. And she takes the conference–and academic Jewish studies–to task for this.

I’m not sure that this assessment is completely true–I’ve been exposed to many scholars, at least here in the United States, that focus on the American Jewish experience. And, historically speaking, there’s a lot more water under the historical bridge in “Old World” Judaism than in American Judaism.

But to the extent it is true, I wonder to how much it has to do with a selection bias that exists in some respects among scholars of Jewish studies. Many–most?–come to Jewish studies as a discipline because they are already sufficiently engaged in Jewish religious life that there is a bias toward acceptance of traditional sources of religious authority. But as the recent Pew study (there it is again!) confirmed, American Jews don’t largely accept, for practical purposes, those sources of authority as binding upon their spiritual lives.

So I wonder if there’s a sort of impedance mismatch between what scholars are interested in and predisposed to study on the one hand, and what America’s Jews are doing and thinking on the other. And this is troubling if you’re concerned about continued Jewish engagement, because the results of scholarship (as much as we might want to draw on it to develop Jewish identity) may not engage the concerns of the “Jew on the street.”

Perhaps scholarship needs to remember that “vox populi vox dei” principle–or, perhaps we should recalibrate to examine “dox populi”: the belief of the people. Full stop.