Friday, March 20, 2020

The Coronavirus Tabernacle

        Two weeks ago, while absorbing Chile’s summertime sunshine, I came across a friend’s Instagram post. Smelling fresh flowers, he mentioned this Hebrew month's motto, “When Adar comes, joy increases.” Now, on the 24th of Adar, I sit in my living room in Massachusetts uncertain and unamused. During the day, Torah represents my sole company. However, this week's portion and the entirety of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat, offer immense insight for the coronavirus crisis. The Israelites create something of nothing, transitioning from an enslaved people into a holy community. In doing so, they establish a roadmap to make the most of apparent desolation.

         For the next several weeks, our rapid and constant consumption and growth needs to come to a standstill. We do not know what to make of this unfamiliar moment, but Exodus also represents a crisis of identity. At the Sea of Reeds, we stare back at what we always knew with little idea of what came next. Miriam elects to circumvent her worries, leaning into song and dance. Soon enough, this jubilee tampers into anxiety and confusion, and the Israelites construct an idol in doubt of God’s benevolence and strength. It appears that at Sinai, the Israelites cede their delight and faith for suspicion and fear.

       Nonetheless, through their mistakes, the Israelites internalize that God offers a covenant and guidance. They also discover that the fulfillment of this promise – beauty and happiness – comes from life’s inhabitants playing an active role. God never lowers the ceiling to the heavens. Rather, the Israelites learn to reach toward them. In this week’s culminating portion, they collaborate in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The resources for this project come not from God but “among you.” The Israelites bring their finest treasures – 29 talents of gold, 100 talents of silver, copper, linens, oils, stones, and acacia wood. They choose to advance God’s creation, combining their resources to make something exquisite.

       Midrash says that every Jew’s guardian angel stood present at Sinai (Shabbat 146a), so according to our mystic tradition, all of us retained the lessons there. When Adar started, many expected the changing of seasons, the holiday of Purim, new romance, or whatever it may have been to facilitate an increase in pleasure. Suddenly, our expectations encountered cancellations, mandatory isolation, fear, and doubt. In contrast, even now our families, friendships, technology and diverse cultures remain. We hold onto the tools to make something of nothing. At Sinai, each person God endowed with skill excelled in ability to complete their task. As we remain in this month of glee, each of us ought to adopt a similar approach. With wit, intellect, creative talent, and empathy, we will cultivate joy, reenacting our triumph of liberation. The future will look different than the society from which we came, but we may take the gifts among us to construct a space for something beautiful, something holy. We are now the builders of the Coronavirus Tabernacle.

       Of note, the Israelites construct their Tabernacle and accept God’s promise only after colossally muddling their first weeks of redemption. Egoism and desire for short-term satisfaction push them to ignore the prospect of ongoing prosperity for all. In response, God demands that they wander in the wilderness, reckoning their individual and collective responsibilities. Once again, we find ourselves caught between needs of the self and the common welfare. No one makes it out of this crisis unless we bind our fates together, ironically through isolation, yet this moment exposes the widespread insecurity around access to housing, food, and high quality healthcare of our time. In the desert, the Israelites’ children emerge ready to inhabit a new land together, accepting a framework of common decency. Devoid of our usual motivators and distractions, we possess the time and space to revisit our principles. Before returning to a more fulfilling place, we may ask “During the time of the virus and henceforth, who deserves to live in good health, safety, and dignity?”

         The events of Exodus transform the Israelites from rebels who escaped an ancient superpower into a people ready to work together toward holiness. They create beauty in a barren landscape, and overtime, they form a society based on ethics. This moment seems bleak, but it represents an opportunity to look beyond short-sighted, self-benefiting impulses. Remembering what it was like at Sinai, we confront a physical and emotional wilderness. In this moment, we opt into joy and justice. For such an occasion, I can only say what we proclaim when concluding any book of Torah, “Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik!” (Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!”)

Saturday, November 04, 2017

When Abraham and God Negotiate

In this week’s Torah portion, two negotiations occur. First, God and Abraham debate the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Second, Abraham and Abimelech, king of the southern region of Gerar, reconcile the ruler’s transgressions. After Abraham misguides the king to think of Sarah as his sister rather than his wife, the king conjugally pursues her, accidentally laying with a married woman. In the first vigent, God wants to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the wicked people dwelling in them. On the contrary, Abraham raises doubts about God’s generalization of this population, asking if God would spare but five kind people in the city if they were found. God views five as too few, so Abraham starts again with sparing forty kind people, then thirty, haggling with God all the way to ten. God sends angels to search the cities prior to their destruction, ultimately only saving Lot and his family in respect of them being Abraham’s kin. In contrast, Abraham responds to the sister-wife controversy by acknowledging his errors, apologizing to Abimelech and exonerating the king’s name before God. The gentlemen settle the dispute in recognition of Abraham’s mistakes and the king’s fear of God.
Assuming human authorship of the book of Genesis begs the question of how these narratives find space in this holy book and about the significance of their juxtaposition. If God ultimately decides to obliterate Sodom and Gomorrah, why does the author feature Abraham questioning God’s choices? Perhaps, this writer deliberately casts doubt on God’s will. After all, God promises to Noah never to destroy the Earth again about ten chapters prior to these events. In both ancient and modern contexts, this story fails to match our understanding of God, justice, and repentance. While God is omnipotent, God chooses to guide humans toward righteousness rather than dismiss them as beyond repair. In today’s world, many cities teem with wicked people who abuse one another and who manipulate systemic inequities to further rupture the world and taint the work of creation. However, God in 2017, in most mainstream Judeo-Christian contexts, opts to not intervene directly in these affairs, especially not with an action as drastic as comprehensive destruction.
The second negotiation, thereby, serves as a challenge and a correction of the former negotiation and outcome. While the author chooses not to categorize God’s actions with Sodom and Gomorrah as outrightly immoral, the writer juxtaposes this choice on which Abraham casts doubts with a very different type of reconciliation. Abraham wrongs Abimelech, and while this portion concludes with the binding of Isaac, the pinnacle symbol of Abraham’s faithfulness and servitude to God, the sister-wife narrative portrays Abraham as a flawed human being. In his failing, though, Abraham acknowledges his follies, and he ultimately resolves the dilemma by appealing to God’s good and forgiving will. By starting with Sodom and Gomorrah but continuing with the sister-wife conflict, the author admits that God’s actions in the former story are doubtable. Reading these stories together provokes thought whether God’s initial punishment was too harsh, too near-sighted, or plainly unfair and wrong.
As Abraham indicates, God’s mistake may lie in scapegoating and destroying an entire city of people where even five pious, gentle souls may dwell. Conversely, focusing on a minority that wreaks havoc among a cluster of well-intentioned people equally prejudices and devalues the whole population.  In addition, this biased framework of thought lays at the crux of what those with power and authority have debated in our political age. Some people with immense influence classify the people of the Arab World and Latin America as a modern incarnation of the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah, using extreme examples to generate an opinion about their merit. Just as easily, though, one could examine parts of the legacy of white, Judeo-Christian supremacy - the Crusades, enslavement, the era of Jim Crow, Japanese internment - and call us equally deranged or violent, misshaping or expansively extrapolating the reality and actions of many of us and our ancestors.

The Torah portion concludes with a powerful symbol. Abraham lays with his servant, Hagar, and they bare Ishmael, which means literally  in Hebrew “God listens.” God, Abraham, and Sarah value Isaac in the story more than they value Ishmael, yet Hagar and her infant are not rejected as lacking worth.  Ishmael, though impure from the perspective of this story, wanders with his mother, eventually, in accordance with God’s will, developing into another numerous and blessed people. We, as humans made in the image of God, err too. Perhaps, we also fail to see and “listen” to those around us, jumping to call for one another’s destruction or denied right of entry too soon.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Sukkah of Our Hearts

Leviticus 23:34 commands, “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be the Feast of Booths to God” The Feast of Booths (Chag haSukkot) follows Yom Kippur each year, ushering the autumn harvest and instilling in the Jewish people gratitude and humility. Traditionally, communities convene to build a sukkah, a loose structure open enough to see the stars and full moon in which the community shares meals and dwells for seven days. This experience represents a spiritual connection to our ancestors who built temporary shelters in the wilderness, and at the festival’s end, we return to our homes more aware of the privilege of permanent shelter that we enjoy. However, as we feast in our pretend, dilapidated huts, we fail to meet this holiday’s calling in our modern era. At a time when immense housing disparities exist, Sukkot extends beyond appreciation and humility; it must teach us to empathize, connect, and act with our neighbors and fellow citizens.
The new Sukkot experience recognizes the limits of Jewish privilege. Jews, on the whole, have been granted access to opportunities to create wealth in the US. Prior to the 1950’s, restrictive housing deeds and redlining of cities and suburbs limited where Jewish American families settled, the extent of home ownership, and the quality of Jewish homes. In two generations, though, much of the Jewish population migrated from crowded, economically diverse urban centers to beacons of privilege. This disconnect undermines Jewish compassion around the modern day sukkah. In Washington, DC, those who live in Bethesda, Rockville, or northwest DC may understand the city’s issues regarding affordable housing, but until we go beyond our traditional neighborhoods, we perpetuate an “us-them” paradigm, unable to comprehend how the quality of home environments impacts our daily lives.
Two summers ago, I organized with tenants at Brookland Manor, a Section 8 housing complex in northeast DC. On its face, Brookland Manor appears in disrepair, and developers would lead one to believe that crime and drugs permeate every segment of this community.  Until I broke bread with one of the tenants in her apartment, I did not understand the full scope of the living experience at the site. With her grandson by her side, she described the process of displacement and astounding resiliency of her and her neighbors. Amidst false eviction notices, disproportionate security enforcement, and negligent property management, the landlords of this site were attempting in any way they could to prompt tenants to cede their rights to remain in a building as long as they pay rent and abide by a lease. Once all the tenants move, the property can easily be converted into more profitable real estate. On the contrary, this woman described the property’s value in terms of the communal support among neighbors who raised families aside one another. I shared life with this woman; we were no longer “us-them”, just us. Touting the importance of intersectional dialogue is important, but this holiday calls upon us to seize the new year into our hands, leaping toward action.   
Like most anyone, I enjoy meals under the stars and amidst the autumn breeze during Sukkot. My experience at Brookland Manor, though, taught me that to genuinely establish humility, appreciation, and empathy around the abundance of our harvest, we must connect to our neighbors with fewer resources and less power. The holiday teaches us about the fragility of our privileges; this year’s harvest, we have enough food and shelter, but in years past, we overcame obstacles to survive. Now, with our collective social and economic power, we must construct a sukkah between our hearts.
The sukkah of the heart is much like the sukkah in the synagogue courtyard. It is delicate, but through a process of self-education, listening, relationship building, and cultural awareness, we establish a stable foundation. It requires more than one person to build; we cannot fulfill this holiday’s modern calling without leaving our zones of comfort, joining an organization that works on these issues and building power that crosses lines of neighborhood and class. In order to make the sukkah of hearts withstanding to rain and wind, we must understand how each part intersects, for as we understand the fragility of someone else’s housing situation, we develop a broader sense of how this ties to the amalgamation of race, class, policing, and access to education, wealth, and childcare. Yet, the sukkah between hearts, when adequately established, allows us to peer at bright stars among the night - blossoming friendships, fruitful alliances, or the shining bursts of hope.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Leadership for a Jewish Future

Results from the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” provide a glimpse of the future of American Jewry, and whereas 42% of Jews associate “having a good sense of humor” with their heritage, 28% feel a connection through “being a part of the Jewish community.”As an aspiring congregational rabbi, these numbers are disheartening, yet they point to a crisis of leadership more than issues within Jewish life. If younger American Jews on the whole view Jewish institutions as unsatisfactory, then established and emerging leaders must rise to the occasion of adapting the Jewish experience. In my time in the rabbinate, I intend to serve my community as a leader through the employment of social constructivism and critical leadership theory, utilizing the Social Change Model of Leadership Development to empower young people.  In facilitating a process of values determination while deconstructing limitations of leadership, Jewish leaders can create a more equitable, more accessible, and more captivating synagogue experience.
To start, social constructivism shifts leadership from an individual who dictates a vision for the community to an individual who facilitates the process by which a community faces itself (Heifetz, 1994, p. 22). In this values-driven approach, I must listen to the community that I join, gaining insight into their assets and desires instead of prescribing a solution. Assuming that I do not serve as an institution’s first rabbi, I will need to understand how a congregation tells its story; among the group members, the leader cultivates a shared narrative, articulating meaning of how a group’s values have changed over time. The largest synagogue in Washington, DC, Washington Hebrew Congregation, for instance, first convened in 1852, growing from a group of 21 German-American men to a congregation of over 2,800 in 2017. In that time, the congregation has hosted multiple presidents and distinguished guests, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nowadays, the congregation finds itself at a new crossroads, and if I were a leader at such a historic institution, I would gather members and Jews throughout the District to talk about how Jewish-Washingtonian life evolved in the last 165 years, deriving a renewed vision and value set from these discussions. The rabbis act as facilitators of this change, exercising reflective listening skills to ensure congregants feel heard.
In many ways, the rabbi embodies Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership style, for the rabbi must address the community’s needs while maintaining a flexible disposition when a discrepancy between perceived values and reality arises.  Often, a group will not agree on its values. Under this epistemology, the leader allows individuals with competing value systems to confront one another, synthesizing their ideas to reach a strategy that reflects both shared desires and the reality at hand. Heifetz wrote, “ as a guide, one considers not only the values that the goal represents, but also the goal's ability to mobilize people to face, rather than avoid, tough realities and conflicts” (Heifetz, 1994, p. 23). In describing intra-synagogue debates, people recall the epithet, “Two Jews? Three opinions!” A talented, adaptive rabbi will recognize these opinions not as diametric but rather as the intersection of Judaism’s different modalities. As a religion, culture, ethnicity, and nation, Judaism embodies myriad beliefs, customs, and traditions, but these multiple dimensions stem from some sense of cohesive identity. Working productively through arguments about synagogue life, the rabbi broadens the discussion to analyze underlying emotions behind disagreements, allowing for a fruitful conversation about how the community actualizes its Jewish values or requires a shift. According to Heifetz, this process drives the community toward an agreeable strategy, which empowers them to work in productive collaboration with one another.
In redefining a narrative of a synagogue experience, though, a rabbi must also be wary of community members traditionally excluded from a given discussion. Critical leadership theory concedes, “The naturalization of the great leader-follower divide means that nonleaders are marginalized and reduced to followers” (Alvesson & Spicer, 2015, p. 16). More traditional leadership schools of thought focus on inborn traits or learned skills, such as strength, wisdom, or charisma to select who determines a community’s direction. In various streams of contemporary institutional Jewish life, certain identities (i.e. age, gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity etc.) and schools of thought (i.e. critical views of Israel) still serve as basis for denial of a person’s validity as a leader, or identity-based needs are dismissed as less essential than what is most pressing to the congregation as a whole. Perhaps, the 32% of young people born after 1980 who said they were Jews of no religion in the Pew report feel excluded by the authoritative confines of traditional Jewish leadership. If ancient, sometimes misogynist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes elitist minhagim (customs) and halacha (Jewish law) fail to relate to the youngest and other marginalized members of a community, a rabbi should cultivate agency amongst these segments of the population. Working with the Dupont Circle Senior Village this semester, my classmates and I did not demand that the Village adapt their needs to our ideal project; we shifted our vision in accordance to their valid self-assessment. Likewise, in response to the general leader-follower schism, Dr. John Dungan suggests, “explicitly acknowledge authority relationships and include content that reduces the likelihood that paternalistic or authority compliance dynamics emerge that can diminish agency” (Dungan, 2017, p. 48).  For the rabbi, this process of deconstructing and reconstructing how the social hierarchy impedes Jewish life functions two-fold; to start, the rabbi must critically examine the norms of leadership within the congregation, and then, observe the way the synagogue exerts power in the larger area.
With young people, accessibility begins at the convergence of the social constructivist and critical epistemologies.  Rather than cast so many Jews as lost beyond Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I would work to incorporate them into a dialogue, convening diverse proponents of the ethnicity/nation/culture/religion to discuss Judaism’s vast diversity and arrive at a sense of where mutual understanding for the future exists. The Social Change Model of Leadership Development incorporates processes for reflecting on the self, the group, and the society, and when applied to the synagogue context, it shows potential to enhance the quality of congregational life, particularly for young people. The model calls for consciousness of self, an awareness of one’s aspirations, values, and relationship to society, culture, spirituality, and family. As a leader, I would want to work with young people to arrive at this consciousness through intentional practice. As described in Leadership for a Better World, “Becoming self-aware and mindful requires conscious intentional action...these practices nearly always include 1.) a practice of reflection, 2.) openness to feedback and 3.) learning about the self through assessment” (Komives & Wagner, 2017, pp. 314-315 ). Coupled with fostering a sense of commitment to the group (in this case, the Jewish people), consciousness of self can bring about individual clarity as well as a drive to manifest one’s value with the group and society at-large. Instead of dismissing these insights as radical or naive, I would encourage collaboration between traditional and newly enfranchised members of the Jewish community. According to this model, collaboration is outlined in the following terms: “If certain individuals feel their perspective has been ignored or values slighted, they need to feel they can say so, and that others in the group will truly listen and empathize with their feelings” (Komives & Wagner, 2017, p. 209). Thus, so much of the rabbinate involves enhancing opportunities for diverse segments of the Jewish population. Particularly, when working with young folks, a particularly idealistic demographic, and Jews, a not particularly agreeable demographic, collaboration creates a framework for shared meaning making without the subjugation of traditionally overlooked voices. Shifting authority from the rabbi to younger congregants and maintaining a space where all opinions are at least heard and respected allows the Jewish people to face internal disputes through a shared dedication to the process, leading to long-term results.
Granted, a synagogue functions differently than a for-profit corporation or a goals-driven advocacy firm. Perhaps, these long-term results manifest as Jews of all ages and identities feeling incorporated in established Jewish life, or these discussions lead to new ways of adapting worship and culture. At the helm of this development, the rabbi or any leader brings together people of different identities and values systems, sharing authority to substantiate inclusive, productive dialogue, and if 42 % of Jews associate their identity with comedy, we can tell a joke or two along the way.

Works Cited

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2015). Critical Perspectives on Leadership (D. V. Day, Ed.).
Oxford Handbooks. Retrieved May 9, 2017.

Dungan, J. P. (2017). Leadership Theory: Cultivating Critical Perspectives. San
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press.

Komives, Susan R., and Wendy Wagner. Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the
Social Change Model of Leadership Development. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2017. Print.

Pew Research Center. (2013, October 1). A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Retrieved May 11,

Friday, April 08, 2016

Healthcare & Health Inc.

Earlier in the week, I called my mother, and when I told her I was experiencing stress due to two large papers and an upcoming exam, she reminded me - in the most Jewish-motherly way possible - to take my B-vitamins. Whenever experience emotional valleys or points of high stress, anxiety, or tension, her answer remains the same; the key to serenity, inner peace, balance, and what have you lies in the B-vitamins. Per usual, my skepticism prevailed that a tablet could suddenly make the forthcoming workload that much easier, but in the last fourteen days, I took my vitamins  three times, a record high since leaving the house.
In this week’s Torah portion, God assigns a medical role to the Levite priesthood. He demands of Aaron and the other priests to examine the skin of the Israelites on occasion. Under several conditions, skin with hair, paleness, redness, or other discoloration deems a person as someone suffering from leprosy and, thereby, unclean In addition, God proclaims women unclean for the first week directly after entering labor and delivering a newborn. The Torah prescribes that these unclean specimens separate themselves from the group until they are “clean”, and they must offer a subsequent sacrifice before the priests to regain a purified status.
This portion prompted thought about God’s right over human bodies.While as a practical matter these laws probably related more to how to survive in close quarters in a time preceding modern medicine, their modern conation asserts God’s authority over the human body in a way that classifies it as pure or impure, clean or unclean. Does an artist have a say in the conditions of his or her pieces after selling the works to a gallery? In particular, the Torah asserts that a female in the midst of one of the most joyous moments of her life, the birth of her own flesh and blood, is impure.
I always pushed back on my mother’s claims about vitamins and supplements. Prior to taking the vitamins, I identified zero major deficits in my physical and mental conditions. The entire industry seemed excessive, going beyond what was necessary for my intact survival. Just last week, I picked up a number for the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in Washington, DC at the Washington Health & Fitness Expo, and among the vendors with the latest creams, apparel, and gadgets for the ultimate “fitness” experience, I questioned the meaning healthfulness. In a similar mindset as reading Parashat Tazria, I asked myself, “Who profits from my state of ‘well-being’? Who sets the rules for when my body is at its most optimal condition” In other words, I refused to allow some vendors to define cleanliness or uncleanliness.
Of course, while reading this post, she is probably already preparing a counterclaim about the “science” behind her advice and the industry as a whole. Granted, modern medicine presents many benefits to the whole of humankind. Manufactured and monetized medicine, on the contrary, directly contradicts how this Torah portion functions in a modern Jewish context. Regardless of the degree of observation, Jews in the twenty-first century do not visit a local rabbi for a leprosy diagnosis or for oversight of a sacrifice to reconcile this condition’s uncleanness. This portion, then, speaks more about collective concern than the literal medical context.
In times of emotional or physical change, we are marked in some way. Our moods, faces, vital signs, and bodies adapt to our health status, and as a community, when we recognize these signs of fluctuation, we can classify disease as a personal or collective matter. Judaism, though, demands that the highest leaders, the ones most closely connected to God’s Holy of Holies, manage these affairs. Transitively, when someone is “marked”, the Torah portion claims that we take note of these conditions, bringing God’s presence into distressed lives. As a community, we do not treat one another by selling prescriptions, referrals, and endless tests that wrack up deductible payments. Rather,  we see one another in a true sense of disarray, and like the Levites’ oversight of the sacrifices, we manage one another’s affairs to return to a more wholesome state. The health and fitness expo so jarringly made apparent the motivations of certain members of the healthcare industry; those vendors wanted to make a profit by the day’s end, constructing problems that did not previously exist in the minds of their customers, or dare I say, prey. Judaism, in a very different way, via this portion about leprosy and about cleanliness, demands that bubbe offer to make matzah ball soup or that we shlepp one another to the doctor.

Well-being is not something that can Jewishly be conceived as pennies, dollars, and dimes. Cleanliness in the community calls Jews together; God’s authority over our bodies exists as our shared responsibility for one another’s condition. Whether or not my mother’s field recognizes the difference between healthCARE and health INC., I recognize that when she so urgently stresses me, as her son, to take my B-vitamins, she is living Jewishly, for that incessant suggestion comes from a place of love, empathy, and hope for her role in my personal reparation. Building off the example of our relationship, we need to reexamine how we take care of one another and ourselves. Before we enter the vast network of this cream or that study, let’s check one another for “signs of leprosy”.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Going Beyond The Wall

            And the women dancing with their timbrels followed Miriam as she sang her song. Even in Judaism’s very distant past, women have played a critical part in making the spiritual experience livelier and more meaningful. This week, an important decision by the Israeli cabinet made it so that spark, that massive contribution, could be brought to Judaism’s Holiest Site. On a literal level, the government decided to create a third egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in addition to the separate men and women’s sections, creating the Kotel’s first gender inclusive, non-binary space. Symbolically, though, the decision could pose a paradigm shift for Israeli politics, breaking ground for pluralism in a Jewish state with religious policy currently set by a dogmatic elite. Then again, the new prayer could have no ripple effect; the Original Women of the Wall, a splinter group of the primary activists involved in this process, cited that the Kotel can not be an open egalitarian space if the whole area remains under Orthodox rather than egalitarian management.
            Pluralistic communities, though, are non-exclusionary by nature. Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of Israeli society is that a shift in policy around religious issues would not impede the Orthodox way of life, yet literalist and hyper-observant, hyper-traditional interpretation of Jewish law via the Israeli government significantly impacts Jewish secular life in Israel. From marriage to the rabbinate to school curriculum, Israeli policy creates an environment where only strict Orthodoxy can survive. When I envision an ideal Israel, one that establishes balance between a Jewish and democratic state, I imagine a country that protects Jewish law and custom while remaining open to the traditions of all Jews and all peoples. It would be a society in which the courts protect not only religious life but also religious freedom.

            Moving forward from this symbolic moment, Jews from around the world must continue to put pressure on a government caught between democracy and theocracy.  The Women of the Wall cited the pressure that American Jews and other large Jewish populations put on the Israeli government as a primary factor in the policy change. Bearing this result in mind, we need to resolve to enhance the pluralistic character of the Israeli state; it will require more than a village to move through the seas to freedom. For every Jew – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or secular, every Arab, every Bedouin, every African refugee, and every person who lives in Israel (and Palestine), we must organize to reach that brighter moment of tolerance and of true protect of Jewish and all human rights. Being a chosen people means using our privileges to bring reparation to a broken world not perpetuate its unequal character.  Only then can we gather our instruments along the Red Sea and rejoice as Miriam once did.

Friday, January 15, 2016

How Meaningless Lives Have the Most Purpose

            Moses Maimonides raises a fair question about this week’s Torah portion in “The Eights Chapters” in his Commentary on the Mishnah. In Parashat Bo’, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, rendering it impossible for Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites with the coming of locusts, darkness, and warning of the death of the first born. With each plague’s occurrence, Pharaoh appears willing to free the Israelites, but God prevents him from choosing to do so, ensuring that the Egyptians will know the futility of their gods and the might of Adonai. Maimonides, though, questions how God could justly punish Pharaoh in the absence of free will. It raises the overall question of our existence, our relationship to suffering, and the overall arbitrary nature of life.
            Now, my thoughts on this matter are still developing. On some days, I find myself bombarded with bursts of existential crises, questioning what it means to be alive and cope with hardship amidst glimpses of joy or long periods of distraction, and although this idea sounds bleak, my process this week has been to imagine how to make the most of a possibly futile life. In this case, we must accept that our existence is limited and that due to this mortal character coupled with our ability to live freely, we will always compete with one another for survival, inadvertently or purposefully causing human suffering. In contrast, dealing with this relationship paradoxically produces what is most special about human existence; life would almost certainly be devoid of purpose unless we exercise our humanity as a response to man-made cruelty, creating music, art, literature, and community. God, in whatever sense – abstract or literal – watches over a most perfect universe, but the way to make this universe most perfect was to constrain it in a way that creates imperfection.
            Every human deals with our swarms of locusts (for college students, like myself, locusts=exams), our periods of darkness, and loss of other human life.  Unlike Pharaoh, though, we exist in a way that allows for choice in the midst of hardship. Why live at all if we are connected in a web of suffering and mortality? The third predominant strand in this web, free will, allows us to react to one another’s actions, as much as it causes them. If life has no quintessential meaning or if suffering is fixed in the universe’s design, then choosing to serve one another creates purpose. Developing communities empowers us to find meaning in a place where meaning may not certainly exist, and Judaism teaches us that we are always continuing the work of creation.  We may not know why we are here, but God does not harden our hearts so that we can accomplish and formulate anything in the midst of this discovery, even among locusts or other adverse conditions.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Our Sect, Our Choice

                At the beginning of the final book of the Torah, God deems the Israelites worthy in their fortieth year of wandering in the desert. Although God's words are somewhat belligerent, this portion speaks of the Israelites growing in unity and righteousness. After many years b’midbar, in the wilderness, the Israelites gain the necessary strength and the appropriate discipline to earn God's support in crossing the Jordan River. Finally bestowing this blessing, God provokes a spiritual change in a people that emerged from slavery, providing the protection and resources for lifelong fulfillment. Likewise, while Reform Jews experience varying levels of comfort in North American society, the majority under the URJ’s umbrella enjoys a comfortable lifestyle very much like the one guaranteed by God for the Israelites in parashat D’varim. More than any other Jewish organization in North America, the URJ possesses significant monetary, political and spiritual influence, yet the potential misuse of this wealth brings Reform Jews to a perilous void of having reached the Promised Land and having yet attained nothing but a desert within themselves.
                In an age of modernization, Reform Judaism was a rebellion against non-compliant traditionalism. For the first time, Judaism spoke to certain non-Hebrew speakers via a growing musical character and supplementary text written in the mother tongue. Like a large tent, Reform Judaism allows all who seek a role among the Jewish people to enter, and in welcoming modernity, Reform Judaism stakes its tent in the realm of public life. Allowing secularism to permeate the walls of synagogues, Reform Jews can have an open-minded debate about how to work religion into a world where it seems increasingly negligible. Rather than parse religion and the ever-changing state of daily life, we incorporate what it means to be essentially Jewish into our humanity, transcending laws and sustaining an individualized Jewish experience.
                In doing so, however, Reform Judaism confronts a history of appropriation and assimilation that all immigrant-groups and their descendants have faced in North America. At the most classical Reform synagogues, services seem to mimic those at cathedrals only a few blocks south.  Where is the line between the temple choir and Christian rock or the commemoration of the birth of Jesus and that of the Maccabee victory against the Greek and Assyrian armies?  We risk adapting Judaism to the point that it becomes a religion of empty buzzwords, and we face the threat of equivocating what it means to be a good Jew versus a simply decent human being. The tent of Reform Judaism may embrace anyone who comes into its midst, but when the tent is so inclusive, does standing for everything really mean that Reform Judaism stands for nothing?
The temple experience and contextual Jewish surrounding can not be about manufacturing thirteen year olds who have undergone the process of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather, it should simultaneously distinguish itself from and entangle itself in the daily, fast-paced rhythm of the present in a way that reflects this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat D’varim, God grants the Israelites permission to accept the covenant of their ancestor and be a chosen people. Instead of rising above all nations as God's shining jewel, we should avoid pretension and entitlement, embracing our unique character while living among the other nations.  Even in D’varim, God speaks of the nations that will be unassailable, such as the descendants of Esau, affirming that they are as entitled to a subset of land as the Israelites.  Thus, in North America and around the world, Reform Jews must recognize their seat of power not as a people selected to rule above or blend with other nations but to call for action upon them.
                Foremost, Reform Judaism requires individual effort. In order to achieve outer peace on Earth, we must learn to be introspective, sorting through difficult emotions. Unlike members of other sects, Reform Jews sift through the Torah’s practices and laws in order to determine which ones are still relevant or useful for the present day. Torah requires intention so that challenging Biblical text forms a practical, individualized ideology. Reform Judaism is a process of evaluation, planning, and self-actualization. Refusing to be Kosher, for instance, is an acceptable practice in Reform Judaism, but the individual who chooses to do so must first and come to understand how the history of dietary laws and how they may be useful to someone else. The greatest enemy of Reform Judaism (and possibly Judaism in general) is laziness. If we do not actively agree or disagree with the Torah’s teachings, then indeed, we are appropriating Judaism for the modern world, but skepticism may be one of progressive Judaism’s most powerful tools. To wield it properly, we must first divulge ourselves in the rich history of the past. We cannot call upon the experience of centuries-ago rabbis for worship but rather personalize every part of the prayer service in whatever language as a source of peace or conflict that leads to the ultimate goal of holy self-actualization.
Reaching God, then, is not grasping for an omnipresent authority but searching for the innermost idealism within each of us, and Reform Judaism, thereby, requires a collectivist mindset. Our monotheism, in this sense, exists in multitudes as every Reform Jew interprets tzedek  (justice) and chesed (kindness) in a personalized context. The amalgamation of these reflections allows for understanding what it means to be a chosen people. The oneness that is at the core of Judaism may not manifest itself as the mighty God on high for many Reform Jews, but we can work together as a movement toward the reclamation of Jewish values and revelation for one another. Across the spectrum and around the world, both religious and non-practicing individuals emphasize peace, love, and friendship. On the contrary, by pairing these values with tangible mechanisms of action or intention, Reform Judaism can disprove the notion that it is as ideological as a children’s program on PBS. Returning to the tent analogy, we welcome any individual who wishes to come into our midst but in doing so, we should warn them that Reform Judaism is contentious and strives for more questions before it reaches conclusive answers. We should challenge our more conservative partners to evaluate a particular stance on Israel and Palestine or income inequality, determining where our dominantly individualized economy and society diverge from our core Jewishness. As I noted earlier, the so-called tent is beautifully staked in public life, and with this position, we can not wallow in the privilege that surrounds so many of us. When reduced to its most fundamental tenets, each individual within a Reform Jewish community is seeking to lessen the gap between the realized and holy selves, and the richness of synagogue life in North America allows Reform Jews to support one another’s endeavors and project this introspection into making a more wholesome society.
                No one said defining or reaching God was easy living. The word “reform” means to take meaningful steps to create change. We are not “Radical Judaism” or “Revolutionary Judaism”, but day by day, we can participate in the work of creation, that is creation of a better self through study and personalized prayer and then a better world via community action and comprehension of one another. The choice is ours as we stand on the brink of promise like the Israelites in parashat D’varim. Perhaps, we can emerge as a reviving, liberal voice for Judaism, proving that people that can still help one another in a world that sinks into nauseating selfishness and diminishing connection.