Monday, October 27, 2014

A Reform Response to The Shabbos Project, Shabbat Noach 5775, Oct. 25, 2014

We need better marketing.  The Reform movement that is.  Well, Temple Emanuel, too, but this Shabbat, I’m concerned about the broader umbrella of Progresive Judaism.
You may have heard that Jews throughout the world have been called together this Shabbat (Shabbat Noach) to participate in The Shabbos Project.  This Shabbos Project is being marketed as an “international movement to unite all Jews through keeping one Shabbos together.”   Sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it?   Though, isn’t that what we do week after week- observe Shabbat with Jews throughout the world?  It was the Israeli writer and philosopher Ahad Ha-am who first reminded us, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, has Shabbat kept Israel.”   The international construct, if you will, that keeps Jews “together” is already present.  It’s called Shabbat, and it has the potential to unite us.  Indeed, Jews worldwide observe it.
While not so obvious on the Shabbos Project flyers posted throughout our community in places like Starbucks, or in the materials advertising the Baltimore Challah bake that occurred at the JCC as part of the project, this Shabbos Project is far from a pluralistic effort at uniting world Jewry.  It has been organized by a South African outreach organization called Kiruv.   Kiruv’s mission is one of unifying the Jewish people.  Their website states, “Our united efforts, with HaShem’s help, will be the seeds to infuse light, love, and inspiration to all of Am Yisrael.”  What becomes clear when digging a bit deeper specifically into the directions for the Shabbos Projects hosts, however, is that the goal of unifying the Jewish people is only about unifying us according to one narrow definition of what it means to be an observant Jew. 
Hosts are encouraged to “share the beauty of Shabbos by inviting a less-affiliated Jew into your home.”  I’m not sure what they mean by “less-affliated,” but I have a sense they are referring to folks just like me.  Non-Orthodox Jews.  It is striking that nowhere in the marketing materials are denominational terms used, just “Jewish” and “less affiliated.”  There are guidelines, of course, on how to handle “halachik mistakes” made by guests.  Encourage Torah observance, but don’t judge.  Tell your kids not to make any comments regarding lack of knowledge about basic Jewish concepts.  Remind them, your kids that is, that your visitors have never had the privilege of a Yeshiva education.  Oh, and my favorite suggestion, “when bringing female guests to shul, make sure there is a user friendly mechitza”…If the women’s section isn’t inviting, it is “better to encourage them to stay home with the women of the home.  This is particularly important for beginners.”  The website manual states.
I could share more about the instructions for those serving as hosts for this worldwide Shabbos effort, but you get the idea.  It is less about Shabbat ideals, and far more about promulgating a Halachicly narrow, Orthodox definition of Shabbat observance.  It is not at all about true unity, or making the world a better place, or even providing that taste of redemption.  It's about forwarding one idea about how to keep the Sabbath.
As I said, we need better marketing.
How do we – Reform Jews who do observe Shabbat, who live full Jewish lives, even if not halachikly bound ones – how do we respond to this divisive message that their “keeping Shabbat” is better than ours, that their way is God’s preference?  First and foremost, we must never be apologetic regarding the Reform movement’s stance on ritual, our understanding of history or Torah, or our personal level of Jewish observance.   Whether we tear toilet paper or not or use a light switch on Shabbat, should not be held up as a defining measures of our Jewishness, our connection to God, let alone our moral character.  Moreover, we should speak proudly about how we do express our Jewish observance.   We must always speak in the positive: affirm what choices are made and provide explanations that extend beyond mere convenience. 
Despite the concerns I have regarding Kiruv’s Shabbos Project, I hope it motivates us in one very important direction.  Each of us, regarding of our level of observance should take time to consider what makes us Jewish.  Is it simply a matter of our biology? Or, is it our commitment to social justice, the values of tikun olam?  Is it a matter of a faith in a singular God?  Or, is your Judaism defined primarily through historical and cultural connections to the past?   For so many generations, Jewish identity was assigned to us as much by external forces as by individual choice.  That is no longer the case today.   In our modern, some argue post-modern, world, we are not identified as Jewish unless we choose to be.  And, I’d argue, it behooves us to do so, to each be a Jew by choice.  I firmly believe that we must each consciously and proactively identify as Jewish – we must choose it.  In that sense the Shabbos Project has it right: we must choose to opt-in if we expect Jewish life to thrive into the decades and centuries ahead.
My hope – a hope that is at least as passionate as, if not more so, than the one behind Kiruv’s Shabbos Project—is that Progressive, Reform Judaism remains a vibrant, accessible, intellectually engaging, aesthetically beautiful and welcoming place for all Jews to opt-in.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Purple Shabbat: What Makes us Human, Delivered Shabbat Bereshit, 10/18/14

            Central to the biblical creation story, or at least one of the stories preserved in Bereshit, is the Tree of Knowledge.  Smack dab in the middle of the garden grew both the Tree of Life and its companion, the Tree of Knowledge.  It is the latter that comes to define the human condition.   A contraction in the tale stands out and can serve to inform us:  At the start, God makes it clear in his warning to Adam, “you can eat from any tree except this one.  You eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and you die.”
            But, that isn’t what happens is it?  Here the serpent does know better.  Neither Adam nor Eve meet their end from touching or eating this tree’s fruit (at least not immediately or any time soon).   The consequences were, perhaps, far more complicated: their eyes were opened to a reality far beyond the idyllic delights of Eden.  It’s as if a switch clicked on in their brains that made them suddenly aware, suddenly capable of complex thinking and understanding.  The consequences of this awareness brings with it challenge and arguably responsibility (it is knowledge of good and evil), but the very fact that the story was written and preserved in the manner in which it was, included in the Torah, no less, highlights how much we value this awareness, how much we value the ability to comprehend and evaluate, to distinguish between right and wrong.   There is a clear assumption to this story: we wouldn’t give up the so-called “curses” delivered, such as the need to toil and labor throughout our days on earth, if it meant giving up the companion gifts received from the ability to think and evaluate coherently. 
            We value our brains and its functions.   As liturgist Eugene Kohn expressed so well in a poetic work included in the 1948 Liberal British mahzor, Petach Teshuva, and then adapted later by Chaim Stern for our American mahzor, our mind and the way it functions is what distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creations.   After outlining the gifts bestowed on the animal world, Kohn continues:
But upon one species, more than upon the others,
Thou hast lavish Thy gifts;
Upon one species whom Thy creative word called into being
            Among the last
Of species still extant –
The species, [humankind].
Thou gavest him not the fangs and claws of the lion and tiger;
            Thou gavest him not the thick hide of the elephant;
            Or the scaly armor of the alligator;
            To the gazelle, we were slow of foot,
            To the lioness, a weakling,
            And the eagle thought us bound to earth.
            But, Thou gavest us powers greater than all these,
            A skillful hand,
            A probing mind,
            A loving heart,
            A soul aspiring to know and to fulfill its destiny
as governed by [Divine] wisdom.  (p. 368, Petach Teshuva, adapted)

            Whether we are better or not than the rest of the animal kingdom for it, we do value our brain function.  We even have an entire academic discipline, the humanities, that concerns itself with human thought and culture and does so with the analytical and critical processes central to our brains and our human condition.
            Imagine if those processes slowly disappeared: the ability to remember even simple details, the ability to reason through a problem or dilemma, the ability to navigate in familiar surroundings – even in one’s own home, the ability to remember the histories of beloved family and friends, the ability to take care of basic personal needs.   Having tasted knowledge, I can assure you, it wouldn’t be a return to Eden.  And, it isn’t for those suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
            This Shabbat, in our Baltimore community, is Purple Shabbat.  Nothing to do with the Ravens - really, Purple Shabbat marks the Jewish Community’s joining with other faith communities who will mark Purple Sunday tomorrow, in an effort to raise awareness of the work of the Alzheimer’s Association and to provide access to materials and resources for those who are dealing with this disease. 
            The facts are stark.  Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive – currently uncurable -brain disease that, according to the NIH, is the most common cause of dementia in older adults.  It not only impacts the individual suffering from the disease, but it brings with it extraordinary consequences and conditions for caregivers who most often are also immediate family members who are simultaneously dealing with the slow and progressive loss of their loved one.  

            At the same time, there is support and there are resources to help.  One of the primary goals of the Alzheimer’s Association beyond research is to provide support to individuals and families.  Information is available on their website.  Information is also immediately available in our lobby. Take advantage of it.  Share it.