See This

I’m tempted to do no more than link to an article, because it’s almost a case of res ipsa loquitur–the thing speaking for itself. But I think it’s important to talk about this issue a little more: making your own Haggadah.

The prompt for this post? This article at Tablet Magazine. (The link will open in a new window.)

Take a close look at that Haggadah. What do you see in its language?

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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.

Member Poaching Part 4: So What Now?

Since first posting about this issue, I’ve discussed some of the problems I see in the American Jewish scene regarding engagement, leadership, membership, education, community models, and the like. Of course, it’s easy to pick nits without actually suggesting solutions.

So here are the ideas I’ve been thinking about.

And of course, hackneyed though this point may be, there is no silver bullet.

Jewish Education

Starting with Jewish education, the current model that exists outside much of non-Orthodox Judaism does not work. For too many children, and for too many families, the supplementary school model (which is what “Hebrew School” is called in more formal educational circles) is a drudgery of grueling sessions learning to make out Hebrew letters and vowels and maybe learning some prayers in order to perform well during a bar or bat mitzvah.

Unless Hebrew just really speaks to a child’s soul, that’s not going to create Jewish engagement.

What will? While I like the idea of social action/community service as a way to shake up the traditional model of education toward bar or bat mitzvah, that isn’t distinctly Jewish. Plenty of high schools require volunteer experience before students can graduate.

So I think it will have to be a mix: social action will have to be tied to sources of Jewish provenance that make sense for the children, the congregations they belong to, and the children’s and parents’ values. And that means bar/bat mitzvah education will be more time-intensive for educators. But it will also be more meaningful and have a better chance of creating meaningful connections between bnai mitzvah and their Jewish identities.

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.”

That education will also, for many, focus much less on “learning Hebrew.” I’m not sure that’s as big a problem as we might think, because let’s face it–what supplementary school kids learn now doesn’t exactly match up to really learning Hebrew.

Jewish Organizations

Jewish organizations will also have to change. I think Prof. Wolfson has written a bit that starts down this road in his Relational Judaism, but I don’t think he goes far enough or is willing to really rethink Jewish organizations enough.

Prof. Wolfson is right that Jewish organizations need to do better at reaching out to new potential members. But that’s not really enough–that’s just doing better at marketing. Jewish organizations–synagogue, educational agencies, social service agencies generally–will need to figure out what Jews want and how to deliver on those desires.

The modern Jewish community will, gradually, begin to look like the rest of the American population. We will have more diversity. Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

Jewish community organizations will fail if they do not begin to figure out how to deal with special needs children. They will fail if they do not figure out how to genuinely welcome interfaith families.

There are no easy paths to these ends. In fact, these will not be ends. Improvement is a process, not a product, and successful improvement will be the result of continuous feedback loops between organizations and community constituents.

Improvement will also be a result of recognizing that stakeholders in the community will not only want to contribute money, but time. Many of Jewish organizations aren’t prepared to handle the DIY ethic shared by so many younger members of the American Jewish world. That, too, will have to change unless Jewish community groups want to alienate large portions of the next generation of Jewish leaders.

The Synagogue

The synagogue will also need to change. I’ve already let on in this series that I think the high-cost, centralized rabbinic model is flawed in many communities, and that we will need to make more training and ordination options available to willing clergy.

But I also think we may see increased decentralization of synagogue-like groups–e.g., havurot–that may benefit from sharing educational work. There are even some larger synagogues that do this–the Indianapolis Jewish community is a somewhat impaired version of this.

Belief

This may be the toughest nut to crack–not because of where I think the typical American Jew sits on the ideological spectrum, but because of what people are willing to admit to in public.

The American Jewish community is interestingly reticent about saying what it thinks. Dissent is muted on a number of issues: Israeli politics, American foreign policy, American domestic policy, and statements of faith. To grow–to be able to encompass the broad range of Jewish viewpoints–we will need to create a more open environment for dialogue.

In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

This last point is where I think we need vocal smaller movements. In particular, I think we need a vocal, growing Humanistic Jewish movement to push the edges of the debate.

Unfortunately, I think is where those of us in the Humanistic Jewish world will have the greatest difficulty, because what we do–the songs we sing and the language we use–is often very unlike what Jews in the rest of the Jewish world do. We will need to work hard to bridge that gap.

I think it can be done–but we’re going to have to work at it.

I’m ready. Are you?

Yom Kippur – Say What You Mean

One of the things that, when I was in a more “mainstream” movement Jewish setting, frustrated me was the language of prayer. What I mean by that is the translations in most of the “liberal” are also themselves quite, erm, liberal vis-a-vis the original Hebrew; once I actually learned Hebrew, the highly artistic-ish English translations of say, Siddur Sim Shalom became very, very suspect because they are really not accurate.

Last night, I thought I would take a look at the (it’s the old one from 1972) Conservative mahzor on my bookcase (prosaically titled “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” in English, and Mahzor L’Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) to see if I could find anything interesting/inspiring/appropriate for setting a course on thoughts for Yom Kippur. After taking a quick spin though the Kol Nidre prayer and not really finding great inspiration there (it is, after all, a preemptive mulligan on vows for the coming year–nice, legal stuff), I went to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Boy, did I find something. But, as is so often the case, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It was something way, way better.

After setting forth Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19 in Hebrew with a pretty decent English translation on the opposite page, we get this gem (my translation from the Hebrew):

Master of the Universe, Merciful and Forgiving Father whose right hand is extended to accept those who return, I have conducted myself according to the will of my inclination toward evil; I have rejected the good and chosen the bad. And not only have I not sanctified my limbs, but I have also made them unclean.

I will admit, it’s a rough translation, not great in the details and not artfully done (it’s early and my son is running around jabbering about VeggieTales). It is, however, something the Conservative mahzor is not; basically literal. The English on the facing page of the mahzor doesn’t even attempt a literal translation, instead including paraphrases like “Is there a person anywhere altogether righteous…? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation,” and “The struggle is ceaseless, the choice is ours.” (Mazhor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 347)

The next few paragraphs all begin the same way: “barata bi”–“You [God] have created in me” various characteristics–a mind and heart to contemplate the good and to discern holy things, eyes that can see the universe’s beauty, etc. Several of them conclude similarly, too: “oi li ki”–woe unto me, for “I have followed my eyes and made them impure,” or “I have made my ears too impure to hear words of prayer.”

The English? “I have been created with eyes” or “ears” or “a mind,” but always passive, deemphasizing the clearly active voice of the underlying Hebrew. And the conclusion does not include the “woe unto me,” but rather says, “Often I squander God’s gift and look without seeing,” or “hear without listening.” (p. 347)

The problem–and it’s like this throughout the mahzor–is that the English is gussied up, sanitized a bit, and presented as if what we’re saying in Hebrew is what we’re saying in English. (Yes, it’s the older mahzor. Guess what? The Conservative movement’s approach hasn’t really changed much on translation over the last few decades.)

It is not. And if you care about the integrity of public liturgy–whether you want to call it prayer, shared ritual, or something else–that’s a problem. It’s a problem that the mainstream liberal Jewish movements don’t really deal with well, because they live in a strange world where the “sancta” of Judaism (Mordechai Kaplan’s terms) are largely preserved and retained in use, put into the mouth of the average congregant (or at least recited on her or his behalf), and yet are clearly not what the leadership of those movements understand their members as willing to affirm or have affirmed for them.

Yet on the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance quadruples (or more!), those most important of days in the calendar, shouldn’t we say what we mean? And for those of us who will or have taken leadership roles, shouldn’t we provide our fellow Jews with the ability to say what they mean?

This is a hard thing, without question, because it presents us with a challenge: how much do we preserve? What do we set aside? How do we do so in a way that respects a wide range of beliefs? And how do we do so for ourselves?

I think the place to start is by acting for ourselves. And so that is what I plan to do this year. As we move through the calendar, I will try to use or craft language that reflects what I actually think.

I recognize that this will be a challenge for me. It already has been, and we’re not through Yom Kippur yet. I still find awkward–because they are unfamiliar–the blessings for Shabbat and Havdalah that are in the Society for Humanistic Judaism materials. But I can’t in good conscience recite the traditional blessings, because I don’t believe in a god that directly created the universe or acts in history; and that is so regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic I find the traditional texts.

I am comforted, however, by a reminder that this isn’t the first time I have had to adjust to the new. In that timely way they have, Tablet Magazine published an article this week, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year.” It reminded me that I learned to play guitar awkwardly, at first, but became more natural over time. So, too, with Hebrew (and I’m still learning there). So, too, with the traditional prayers I know so well.

So, too, will this be. And it will be an adventure.

I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully, you will have or have had an easy fast, if you fasted. I wish my Jewish readers all the best in the coming year. (To my non-Jewish readers, too, but you’re likely not so preoccupied by Yom Kippur.)

And now, here in Indianapolis, the sky is a clear blue, the temperature is wonderful, and after this morning, we will be headed out to be in the world a bit to cap off the High Holidays.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah.