A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

A Convenient Jew

I don’t do politics here, but I do worry about Jewish identity here. I put that disclaimer in

A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

Shmura Matzo – Creative Commons Licensed Image

because I’m going to talk about a political person, but not a political issue.

I encountered someone’s opinion on Bernie Sanders’s perceived authenticity as a Jew that, frankly, has me uncomfortable–not for its political content, but for its take on what it means to be Jewish.

On a Facebook post on a friend’s wall, a friend of this friend said that Sanders always seemed to be a “convenient Jew.”

This critique, for some reason, just struck home with me. I mean, it’s a logical fallacy wrapped in a larger one: whether he was or was not correct isn’t affected by the sort of Jew he is (that’s the “big” logical fallacy–an ad hominem argument), but there’s also the suggestion that Sanders isn’t Jewish enough (that’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It’s that second one–that maybe Sanders isn’t Jewish enough–that struck me.

What exactly does that mean?

I think, picking away at the paint on the statement, what we’re really talking about is something like this: Sanders’s statements on Israel (the comment was in response to an article on Sanders’s statements on fatalities in Gaza) aren’t…something (?) or something enough (?)…and so Sanders’s Jewishness is a thing that’s convenient to trot out when it serves his purposes, but otherwise is not important to him.

That definition makes it so that Jewish identity’s primary arbiter is not the sum of one’s attachments and actions. It’s…something else. A demand that a Jew in public life be loud and proud about her or his identity? I’m not sure.

But ignoring the whole person’s attachments and actions with respect to Jewish life is a problem.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has long held to the following definition:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

See http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/who-is/

If you meet this? You’re good with me. And we ought to be opening the gates wide, mindful that it will soon be Passover: “All who are hungry ― come and eat. All who lack ― come celebrate Passover.”

All the rest is commentary.

And if this makes me an INconvenient Jew? Well, I’m good with that, too.

(Also: I’ll mod the living beeswax out of your political comments on this post. I’m not having a political discussion here. To paraphrase Lesley Gore (also Jewish!), it’s my bloggy and I’ll mod if I want to.)

Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

Continue reading

The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

Continue reading

On Second Thought

I said here (in a comment to the repost of Rabbi Adar’s blog post responding to my prior post, which in turn was a response to a post of hers) that there is no real dispute between Rabbi Adar and myself over sacrifice vs. trade-off.

Upon reflection, I think that’s not entirely true, but not for the reasons either of us discussed in our posts (which I think sort of turned into an example of “things rabbis do in Talmud and midrash”).

The difference on our positions stems from a in baseline set of conclusions about what’s actually happening in Jewish tradition. If you ever wondered, “Why not just be Reform, Humanist Jew in Indianapolis?,” well…you’re about to get part of the answer.

Continue reading

Jewish? Want a Saturday wedding? Find a Humanistic Jew.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi, has a post explaining why it’s so difficult for Jews to get married on a Saturday. She gives three basic reasons:

  • Tradition: weddings are, in part, about tradition, and traditionally this is a sacrifice Jews have made. The tradition reason is a sort of emanation from two other reasons:
  • Shabbat: halakhically, Shabbat and a number of other Jewish holidays are off-limits for weddings, and the special nature of Shabbat and its biblical bases in particular militate toward leaving Shabbat as a day without weddings,etc.; and
  • Rabbis: most rabbis will not officiate on Shabbat, because Shabbat is the preeminent Jewish day of the week, rabbis care deeply about Jewish tradition, and rabbis have erected boundaries to permit their own observance of the holiday.
"Mazel Tov! wedding" by Brian Johnson - originally posted to Flickr as Mazel Tov!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg#/media/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg

“Mazel Tov! wedding” by Brian Johnson – originally posted to Flickr as Mazel Tov!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg#/media/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg

So, what can you do if you want a Jewish wedding on a Saturday? You can try to find a Reform (or maybe a Reconstructionist) rabbi who will officiate. You can wait until very late on Saturday night to get married (in Indiana this week, Shabbat on traditional reckoning ends at a little after 9 p.m.). You can have a Jewish officiant who is not an ordained rabbi perform the ceremony, and build Jewish elements in.

Or…

You can find a Humanistic Jewish rabbi or madrikh/madrikha. A madrikh/madrikha is a secular Jewish leader who has completed rigorous coursework and has been ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, but not one who has completed the full rabbinical program; many madrikhim lead or teach in Humanistic Jewish communities, and others lead or teach in other secular Jewish communities. (The Jewish Renewal movement, through its ALEPH Institute, also ordains pararabbinic leaders).

Humanistic Jews are committed to Jewish culture and identity, but we are more flexible when it comes to what can or can’t happen on Shabbat. Why? Because of how we value tradition and the role of the Jewish people in defining, refining, and remaking tradition:

For Humanistic Jews, Shabbat is a time of joy, a celebration of our connections to Judaism and to family, friends, and community. It is an affirmation of our Jewish identity, an expression of solidarity with the Jewish People. It is a chance to relax from the busy week, a space for self-exploration and discovery.

(This is from a fuller discussion of Humanistic Judaism and Shabbat here.)

Jews today routinely share families with non-Jewish members; a Sunday wedding may be difficult for non-Jewish relatives to attend, and connecting with family is one crucial function of weddings.

Humanistic Jewish rabbis and madrikhim will perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews. They will perform same-sex marriages. They will happily co-officiate with other clergy. Traditional Jewish elements can and are worked in in consultation with the marrying couple so that the ceremony reflects that couple’s interaction with and identity within Jewish life.

As a student rabbi, I have done almost all of the above–in one ceremony–though the couple in that case was not a same-sex couple. On a Saturday afternoon, so the couple could celebrate with their non-Jewish friends and family.

To be clear, all of this is a question of relative values, and of how one understands and interacts with Jewish traditions. As a Humanistic Jew, I recognize that all of Jewish tradition is the product of the Jewish people, and that we have the authority to remake it. This is one way that Humanistic Jews remake the tradition in light of the needs and demands of modern times.

And what’s more necessary in our world today than love?

Need a Saturday wedding? There’s a rabbi for that.

One Additional Thought on Schooling

I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.

Continue reading

Touching the third rail of American Jewish life

Well, here I go.

There are not a lot of “safe spaces” in American Jewish life to talk about Israel. If that seems like a ridiculous statement, I invite you to take a look at what’s happening at Hillel.

If there is any single facet of my time as a student–at all education levels–that most cemented my Jewish identity, it was my (initially grudging) involvement in Hillel programs at my undergraduate school–including AIPAC programming that I happily participated in. And so it pains me to see this article, and others, about what’s going on at Hillels and other Jewish student organizations with respect to talking about Israel.

Continue reading

How Conservative Judaism Lost Everyone Else

Michah Gottlieb, a professor at NYU, has an article on the Forward’s website titled, “How Conservative Judaism Lost Me.” In it, he discusses how his commitment to what he thought were the Conservative movement’s principles–devotion to halakhah with a more modern and secular-scholarly approach to issues–led him to leave the Conservative fold.

He argues that it was exactly people like him that the Conservative movement should have been courting as new leaders, but it failed to do so, and thus lost people to modern Orthodoxy.

I suppose there is something to this in the sense of leadership and purpose. But I’m not persuaded that this problem is really what caused the diminution of the Conservative movement from its prior place as the largest of the modern American movements.

I understand Gottlieb’s frustration (and it’s nice to see a fellow IU Bloomington alum do good), but JTS (the flagship seminary for the Conservative movement) had long been described as a group of Orthodox faculty teaching Conservative rabbis who would be spiritual leaders for Reform congregants. People like Gottlieb–and, at one point, me–haven’t really been the Conservative movement’s major problem over the last twenty years.

I understand how this could seem to be the case to Gottlieb. He mentions coming of age at a time when the ordination of women was the big controversy roiling the Conservative movement, and it’s easy to see a kind of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” thing happening: Conservative Judaism compromised halakhically on this issue, lost members and scholars to either the Union for Traditional Judaism (which was initially kind of Conservative Judaism without womens’ ordination) or the OU, and decline followed.

I don’t think the numbers necessarily bear that out, however. When you look at the Pew survey results, you would have expected Modern Orthodox Judaism to have grown proportionally, and it hasn’t.

I think, instead, what likely happened is that some people fell away from Reform affiliation and refugees from an adrift Conservative movement backfilled the ranks. Other Conservative Jews likely left affiliation altogether, and some–but a more limited number–likely took Gottlieb’s path. (His contention that his path is the more common one is not based on broad evidence, but rather is anecdotal and particular to what is possible in areas like New York. There’s nothing like what Gottlieb has here in Indianapolis, where the Orthodox synagogues have pushed farther to the right and alienated the folks who had come over from the Conservative movement in the past.)

I think Gottlieb’s article is important because, while I disagree with his conclusions about how the Conservative movement should have gone about retaining its place, I do agree with his observation about the movement itself–that it is ideologically adrift. Unfortunately, so is much of American Judaism.

That said, I don’t think that the Conservative movement’s new emphasis–expressed by one rabbi as Kadsheinu B’mitzvotekha (sanctify us with your commandments)–is going to appeal to anyone outside its present ranks and perhaps some on the conservative edges of Reform and the liberal edges of the Orthodox world. What It may do, however, is staunch the flow and preserve some kind of “middle,” which Gottlieb argues is important for the continued vitality of American Jewish life.

And even the new approach advanced by the United Synagogue is a bit schizoid. Kadsheinu b’mitzvotekha–but also be more welcoming to the non-Jewish family of Jewish members.

I suspect the bigger problem for the Conservative movement is that the membership of the Reform movement is starting to look more like most Conservative Jews, while retaining enough of a liberal edge to keep some–but not all–of its present membership profile. Meanwhile, Conservative rabbis talk enough like Orthodox rabbis to alienate liberal members while more conservative members will dislike the influx of LGB(T?) clergy and more favorable treatment of non-Jewish spouses.

All of this bodes ill for the continued vitality of JTS and the American Jewish University, which grew in response to the movement’s growth but will now inevitably shrink. This is particularly sad, I think, for JTS, which has in the past produced some very important scholarship and very important scholars. (Not that–as Gottlieb observes–this justifies its continued approach. And I find that realization especially disappointing because I’ve personally benefited from studying with some of its alumni.)

And all of this is wrapped up in the general lack of mission and direction. For example, the JTA article on the United Synagogue 100th anniversary convention shows that there is still navel-gazing on whether independent and alternative minyanim are harmful to synagogues–focused on the institution, not the needs of Jews themselves.

The question all movements should be asking–at the movement level, and within individual congregations–is, “What are we about?” After that, we can figure out where we are and where we should go. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement’s eternal compromise position likely puts it in the worst place of the large modern movements; it’s got a big hole to dig out of.