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,