Monday, June 18, 2012

Shelach L'cha - Go Forth for Yourself, in celebration of finishing my PhD, delivered 6/16/2012

By the end of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach L’cha, the fate of this generation of Israelites is sealed:

כי כל האנשים הראים את כבדי ואת אתתי אשר במצרים ובמדבר.... לא יראוה.

All of those who witnessed my glory and my signs performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, ….they won’t see the land promised to their ancestors – none of them, save for Caleb and Joshua will enter Canaan. (Num. 14:22-23, 30)

This is a pretty steep punishment! After all these folks have been through: slavery at the hand of the Egyptians, witnessing the fright the various plagues brought to their former home and their neighbors, the circuitous and difficult journey out of Egypt through the Reed Sea and into the wilderness of Zin, and the assignment of pre-determined duties in this new, uncertain, and entirely temporary home. And now, they are being told, after all of this – after all of this -- they won’t get to see this promised land of milk and honey that has been held out as a carrot throughout their journey thus far. It will remain promised to their children, but not to them.

The reason for the punishment most often cited is the community’s lack of faith in God. Twelve spies are sent out to scout this promised land. Two, Caleb and Joshua, return optimistic and refortified in their ability to move forward. The remaining ten return dismayed by the apparent strength of those dwelling in this new land and work to instill doubt among the masses. “They are so much stronger than us,” they report back. Taking advantage of the flexibility of the classical Hebrew, the Talumdic sage Rav Hanina (b. Papa) argues that the 10 spies weren’t solely reporting back that the people there were stronger than the Israelites, rather, the failure was that they deemed this foreign people to be stronger than God.

According to Rashi, the opening imperative sh’lach l’cha highlights the very act of sending the spies as an expression of faithlessness. The text doesn’t simply say sh’lach anashim, send men. Rather, the biblical author uses the idiomatic shelach l’cha, understood as “send forth,’ but that translates literally as, “Send for yourself” – the implication being “Do it for yourself, not for me.” As far as Rashi is concerned, God has already made it clear that this promised land is good; there is no need to investigate it further. The impulse to do so is entirely human not at all divinely mandated.

If, however, the punishment of being denied entrance into the promised land was solely a result of doubting God’s promises and power, then, it seems to me, that the punishment would have come immediately after the spies were sent. That was the moment when the Israelites’ doubt is first evident. Even Rashi admits in his interpretation of this passage that God was ultimately okay with the sending of the spies. God may not have been pleased with the doubt in God it represented, but in Rashi’s imagination, God doesn’t interfere at this point in order to provide the community a chance to trust in itself as well as in God.

Change is hard. New ventures are scary. It is far easier to stay put, or even return to the past – as rough as that past may have been, than to chart a course forward into the unknown. This is where the ten and the broader community who succumbed to the negative and discouraging reports of the ten failed. The failure was the utter lack of trust they had in themselves. When faced with the nephilim, foreigners they viewed as giants, they can be expected to report “we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” (Num 13:33) But, the assumption that follows, וכן היינו בעיניהם, "so we must have been in their eyes,” is just that – an assumption, and one based on fear of the unknown at best. As the midrash asks, how could these ten men possibly know how they appeared to the Canaanites?

Pursuing a doctoral degree can feel at times like a journey through the midbar towards a held out promised land. They journey requires a significant amount of study, both in the classroom and out. It requires an eagerness to research a topic that no one else has found interesting enough or had time enough yet to explore. It requires an interest in writing – a lot of writing -- and revising. The most important requirement, however, has nothing to do with knowledge or the mastering of a subject manner. The most important requirement is a willingness to be open to another’s opinion and to remain persistent in the face of doubt and weariness. Those of us who finish aren’t any brighter than the others, but we are, perhaps, better able to model Caleb and Joshua in terms of how we face our nephilim. And, we have something Caleb and Joshua didn’t have: the support of a community behind them, trusting their vision.

That’s the challenge in facing any new venture, isn’t it? How we approach our nephilim -- those obstacles that appear so giant that they feel insurmountable - and garner support for our goals. Whether it’s making the courageous decision to commit to learning the aleph-bet for the first time as an adult (well-done Melissa!) or whether deciding to dig into the task of pursuing a formal academic degree -- regardless, in order to succeed we must first trust in ourselves. We must trust that we can succeed; and perhaps even more importantly, we must trust that we can survive setbacks and even failure. Only then can we have any chance of moving forward to that place of promise. Only then, with any luck, can we also trust in the transcendent and uncontrollable force in the world we name God.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Naso et Rosh: Lifting up Liberal Judaism in Israel, delivered June 2, 2012

Change can be very difficult! But sometimes, it is absolutely vital to progress!

In 2005, IRAC – Israel’s Religious Action Center (and counterpart to our own Religious Action Center in DC) began its push for the recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Specifically, IRAC submitted a petition on behalf of Kibbutz Gezer’s congregation Birkat Shalom and its rabbi, Miri Gold demanding equal funding from the government as is provided to Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Let me remind you that Israel does not benefit from the separation of Church and State to which we are so accustomed here in the United States, and in many ways, Israel is thus less democracy than theocracy. The Religious Service Ministry has historically financed the salaries of Orthodox rabbis who lead and serve in Israel, a benefit that has never been extended to non-Orthodox rabbis and their liberal communities -- that is until this week.

On Tuesday, after more than seven years of effort, a small but significant and quite substantial change has been made to this system. For the first time, the term “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community” has been recognized by the Israeli government paving the way for the funding of non-Orthodox rabbis such as Miri Gold and 14 other non-Orthodox rabbis, and for – hopefully in time – the recognition and validation of Liberal Judaism more broadly within Israel.

Still, there is still much progress to be made before naso et rosh, everyone is lifted up to be counted:

1. This decision is limited to regional councils and farming communities – it does not extend into the major cities of Israel.

2. Those listed under this new “rabbi of non-Orthodox community” title have no authority over religious and halakhic matters. A couple of practical outcomes of this limitation: A Reform or Conservative Jew still cannot legally marry outside of Orthodox law. They must either travel abroad for a civil ceremony or be married by the Orthodox establishment in order to be legally recognized as wed within Israel. And, still, all conversions conducted within Israel must have Orthodox supervision in order to be valid. Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law remains the law of Israel.

3. And, finally, and perhaps most troubling in the overt message it sends: financing for this new legal category of non-Orthodox Rabbis will come not from the Religious Services Ministry but rather from the Culture and Sports Ministry. Liberal Judaism is being pointed categorized as Tarbut, cultural, not religious.

Despite these limitations to this step forward in “naso et rosh”, of lifting up the status of liberal Judaism in Israel, this small change is paramount and necessary for forwarding religious freedom and pluralism in Israel. The rift between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel is deep. There are those for whom this recognition presents great challenge. The current Religious Services Minister, a Shas party member, for example, has threatened to resign immediately if he is forced to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis. Recognition of Liberal Judaism – both Reform and Conservative – is viewed by him and those who share his views as a lethal threat to Jewish life. Such a position in my opinion grows solely out of fear and closed mindedness.

Jewish life in ancient Jerusalem was not nearly as monolithic as the Orthodox challenge us to believe. The rigidity and singular vision of the religious right is a modern phenomenon, a reaction to what is viewed as an intrusion instead of a welcome addition. Too often in our history, ‘modernity’ has been made the fall guy for assimilation, and yet in every single generation of Jews dating back as early as the biblical period, syncretism – the modeling and absorbing of outside cultural elements (contemporary elements) into our own – has been present, and it has often worked to revitalized Judaism. Where would we be, for instance, without the writings of Maimonides, a figure who was greatly impacted by the ‘modern’ culture of his time? Where would we be without the system of ta’amim – the vowels and cantillation that bring Torah to life for Jews of every denomination throughout the world that weren’t formally added to the biblical text until the 10th century? The Masorites who finalized this system, and those who preceded them, were impacted by the then new academic trends of the mid- medieval period. Even today’s Haredim who claim to be preserving authentic Jewish life are modeling, even in their dress code, 18th century Eastern Europe. How is that any more authentic than our modeling today’s sensibilities? 

Israel’s first, but bold step in formally recognizing Liberal Judaism in Israel today is a critical step towards restoring Israel as a truly representative center of Jewish life. I’m envious of my daughter, Ande, who, even if she is oblivious to the daily news during her travels, can look back and say she was in Israel when this momentous decision was made! Continued progress, of course, is needed and can work only to strengthen Jewish life both within and without the State of Israel. Ken y’hi ratzon b’yameinu …may it happen in our day! And – kol ha-kavod to those progressive leaders working to make it so!