Sunday, October 14, 2012

Burying the lead in more ways than one

The Conservative movement has been trying to stay relevant to younger Jews, and to be honest, it's hard to tell if it's working. On the one hand the movement seems to understand it needs to have some core principles if it's going to try to stake out a proper position between Orthodoxy and Reform, but on the other hand it seems like it can't decide what those principles are or how they should be realized.

One of the books that highlights this frustrating struggle is the new "Observant Life," written by various members the Rabbinical Assembly. As Jonathan Marks (no big admirer of liberal Judaism) writes, the Observant Life purports to try to show the rich spectrum that is Conservative Judaism today: is aimed, in addition to Conservative Jews, those “in a liberal Orthodox environment and a more traditional Reform environment, and people who are outside the denominational world but are interested in the question of observance. This is also for those interested in the big picture [of how observance] functions when you look at it all at once.” 
...“The Observant Life” is also respectful of, even charmed by, folkways and traditions that are not specifically Orthodox, halachic or Conservative, but meaningful in any case, such as the post-Shabbat Melave Malka, or the custom of men immersing themselves in the mikveh before Shabbat. 
...The book makes it clear that to these more than 30 authors (some writing more than one chapter), halacha is more “than an endless list of rules.” As the book explains, alongside Conservative theology there is always the human dimension, meaning the law doesn’t always have the last word: “The mara d’atra [the synagogue’s rabbi and/or halachic authority], ideally with the support of the lay leadership, will define the halacha of the synagogue by balancing the law with a community’s customs, values and vision.” 
Therefore, intermarried Jews or gays, for example, may be called to the Torah and be welcomed to serve as synagogue leaders (in non-religious “role model” positions), despite their halachic status being still subject to debate, because “very few, if any, synagogues within the Conservative movement require strict halachic observance as a condition for honoring people during worship.” 
Nevertheless, despite these and other liberal opinions, readers may be intrigued to learn from “The Observant Life” that Conservative Judaism can be more conservative than some might think. For example, “no halachic authorities regard abortion as a Jewish woman’s right to exercise at will. … Absent extreme circumstances, abortion is usually forbidden.” 
...The book doesn’t shy away from such complex halachic riddles, even if cases are obscure or esoteric. While many halachic situations are presented as an ideal, there is another ideal, that “rabbinical restrictions are conditioned on the public’s ability to meet their stipulations.” 
Even more of an overriding principal, says Rabbi Cohen, is that halacha and observance are not in one realm while ethics and relationships are in another. Loving God and loving other Jews are of a singular piece, he says, as are ritual laws and the ethical ones. “The Observant Life” draws on both these heavenly and earthly considerations to the extent that it becomes clear that there never really was a boundary between the two.
“To be an observant Jew,” he says, “you need to embrace both.”

That's all well and good, but one of the things Mrs. Yid and I noticed while thumbing through our copy was that in the midst of trying to convince themselves of how halachic they are, the authors of the Observant Life seem to be missing a larger point: I don't object to nitty-gritty, but for me, the book fails to answer some big picture questions like why should one be Jewish, and more to the point, why should one want to live within a halachic framework, much less the Conservative one, specifically. While the concept of trying to create one text to represent the perspective of Conservative Judaism on contemporary issues is nice, ultimately the result winds up feeling unwieldy and rambling rather than relevant. I think the project would have been much improved had the editors taken the book's three sections and instead published a series in three parts: one focusing on Conservative prayer and ritual, one on Conservative approaches towards modern society (such as the secular justice system, commerce, and intellectual property), and the last one on modern Conservative thought involving questions of Jewish identity, specifically focusing on descent, marriage and sexuality. Instead the book comes across as a bloated exercise in minutiae, leaving some of the more immediate questions of the day, such as intermarriage, patrilineal descent and LGBT Jews to get lost in the shuffle alongside whether Jews should be nice to animals (yes), if Messianic Jews count as Jewish (no) and if file sharing is ok (also no). If someone is just dying to find out about the Halacha of Napster, how about putting together an online database/wiki of random responsum? Young Jews in your synagogues have some actual pressing issues that need addressing, and you're dickering around answering questions no one's asked!

As an intermarried Jew with LGBT Jewish friends and patrilineal family members, I have several stakes in this. Not only are young Jews intermarrying at greater numbers than any generation previous, but lots of them are also trying to figure out what this means in terms of their eligibility to be part of a Jewish community. Ditto for many LGBT Jews. Part of the reason clarification on these points would be helpful, as Marks' fellow Jewish Week writer Julie Weiner points out, is because at present the movement's positions seem to be clear as mud:
when it comes to intermarriage, the Conservative movement is ambivalent if not outright schizophrenic. Its rabbis are forbidden even from being guests at interfaith weddings, let alone officiating at them. On the other hand, well aware that most Conservative synagogue members (not to mention the rabbis themselves) have many intermarried friends and family members — and that intermarried families will soon outnumber in-married ones in the larger Jewish community — most Conservative rabbis seek to welcome intermarried couples after the wedding. 
Two books out this year highlight the movement’s split personality: “The Observant Life,” a compendium of “Conservative Jewish wisdom” published in April by the Rabbinical Assembly, and “Intermarriage: Concepts and Strategies for Families and Synagogue Leaders,” to be released later this month by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. 
“The Observant Jewish Life” addresses a range of contemporary topics, each chapter penned by a Conservative rabbi. It is scholarly and just a bit forbidding...When it comes to intermarriage, the book cites a range of opinions; however, it clings to the view that intermarriage should be discouraged, even if it cannot be prevented. 
“Concepts and Strategies,” by contrast, starts from the assumption that, in the words of journalist (and Conservative synagogue member) Jeffrey Goldberg, “The war against intermarriage is over and intermarriage won.” Goldberg is quoted in the book’s preface, by Harvey Braunstein and Stephen Lachter, the founding lay leaders of FJMC’s Keruv [outreach] Initiative. Braunstein and Lachter argue that “our Conservative movement has not moved forward quickly enough and is now faced with a critical need to adapt to the changing world or become irrelevant.” 
In essays written by Conservative rabbis, lay leaders and some voices from outside (although not to the right of) the movement, “Concepts and Strategies” (107 pages) offers suggestions ranging from “shifting the conversation from marrying Jewish to raising Jewish children,” to explicitly welcoming interfaith families on synagogue websites and publications, to offering alternative aufruf ceremonies for interfaith newlyweds and a “non-Jewish gentleman’s drinking club” to enable supportive gentile husbands to bond with the rabbi. 
Meanwhile, the RA’s “The Observant Life”... urges a more cautious tightrope walk. Membership, notes Rabbi Craig T. Scheff (Orangetown Jewish Center in Rockland County) in a chapter on “synagogue life,” should be “restricted to the Jewish spouse,” while at the same time, the non-Jewish spouse should be “welcomed warmly and made to feel like part of the larger synagogue community.” 
Elsewhere in the volume, contributors voice their opposition to intermarriage, while at the same time discouraging people from antagonizing the intermarried. In a chapter on marriage, Rabbi David J. Fine (Temple Israel in Ridgewood, N.J.) writes that “studies have shown conclusively that intermarried couples overwhelmingly do not raise Jewishly committed children,” and notes that “Conservative Judaism endorses the ancient Jewish prohibition of intermarriage.” 
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky (Manhattan’s Ansche Chesed) writes that “we must lovingly invite” interfaith families that maintain a strong commitment to Judaism “into our communities and not ignore them, but their example does not negate the overwhelming evidence that intermarriage correlates with weak Jewish commitment.” 
Rabbi Scheff cites papers and responsa from the 1960s through 1980s forbidding intermarried Jews from leadership roles, key staff positions or “special honors” at synagogue, but notes that in recent years “dissenting views” have been heard. “Today most synagogues value above all other concerns the need and wish to draw all Jews to synagogue life without subjecting an individual’s desire to serve the community to harsh or exclusionary standards,” he writes. 
As for hot-button issues like non-Jewish spouses participating in lifecycle rituals or synagogue newsletters acknowledging intermarriages, Rabbi Scheff writes that Conservative opinion on the former “ranges from absolute permission of such involvement to absolute prohibition,” while practices on the latter “vary from synagogue to synagogue.”
A survey conducted recently by the FJMC confirms the diversity on these hot-button matters — and finds that, in yet another indicator of Conservative ambivalence vis-à-vis intermarriage, even congregations that are inclusive and flexible on ritual matters do not advertise this fact in their newsletters and websites.
...“Almost all of the congregations are more welcoming to the non-Jewish spouse and intermarrieds when it comes to bima choreography than they communicate through their websites,” Rabbi Simon notes in an article (not in the book) about the survey.

What it seems to come down to is that at the end of the day, there is a split between where the Conservative leadership is and where its congregants are. To the rabbis' credit, on a day-to-day basis many of them act as true mensches, welcoming couples and families who may not fit the typical mold and encouraging them to be part of their communities. That should be honored and celebrated. At the same time, however, the fact that the leadership of the movement seems to not want to acknowledge what its synagogues are doing leaves one with the feeling of a cognitive dissonance that seems neither healthy nor desirable. The website issue seems to be a microcosm of the same dilemma: "On the one hand we don't really care if you're gay or intermarried or whatever because we really just want to have more people joining the shul, and if you're a good congregant it doesn't really matter to us. But god forbid we put that on our website because who knows what people might think?" Frankly, I don't think I'd be able to stand belonging to a shul like that. Part of what makes Beth Elderly work for me and Mrs. Yid is that there's never been any pressure on us and people there live out their values of inclusiveness: one of the prominent Young Guard members is intermarried. He's also on the Board. The former President of the shul was intermarried; after 20-plus years of being part of a welcoming, non-judgmental Jewish community, her husband converted. Every time we go to services, we see plenty of faces in the pews that don't look like us. Many of those people converted. Some haven't. All are welcome, and all are valued. This is what it looks like when a Conservative community decides to show its values instead of hiding them because it's worried about pissing someone off.

I'm not sure who the Conservative movement is trying to kid or look good for but it seems like a huge waste of time and energy. Instead of pretending that it's an Orthodox-lite, how about growing a spine and openly proclaiming that, following Conservative principles and the modern-day needs of Conservative Jews, its understanding of halacha has evolved-- just like it has for driving on Shabbat or any other number of issues.

The Conservative movement keeps talking about how it wants to stay relevant and appeal to young people. The way to do that is to address the key issues they care about. The rabbis don't necessarily need to agree with them on every point (after all, not all young Jews-- even on the liberal spectrum-- agree about all of this). But you have to at least show us that you're working on it. Otherwise, all you're really doing is showing us that you're too wrapped up in your own issues and priorities to notice ours.

The bottom line is that while ideologues are wringing their hands over what people to their right might think if they admit that their rabbis welcome intermarried or gay Jews, those same Jews (and their kids!) are feeling tired of the double-speak and the subtle suggestion that they need to stay in the closet. If the movement doesn't get its house in order, there's a good chance some of those wonderful, talented and engaged people will go elsewhere-- either to other shuls, or potentially, no shul at all. Instead of cranking out a phonebook of Conservative halacha, how about focusing on the key points that young people are most concerned with-- and then working on creating a culture of transparency so that individual congregations who are more liberal than others don't feel like they need to hide it?

I'm not perfect; so shoot me

Hope you all had happy holidays. I got sick right after Yom Kippur so I couldn't celebrate everything the way I would have liked to, but Mrs. Yid and I did our best to power on through.

I have a bad habit of getting sick right around the holidays. In previous years it's kept me from fasting. This year I was able to fast and then the next day my immune system took a nose-dive. I blame the new germs from my new job.

Anyway, Mrs. Yid, bless her heart, decided that she was going to make Sukkot happen-- so she went to Home Depot, got some lumber, and built us a sukkah on our new balcony (we promised our building super that we would take it down within a week). And I have to say, it turned out really great.

The funny thing was that this year not only did I get sick, I totally lost my voice. Needless to say, I wasn't in a very ushpizin-y mood. But Mrs. Yid wanted to eat in the sukkah, so I wasn't going to tell her know. Not only did she make us several excellent dinners, she also managed to get through the Hebrew to invite the guests in on various nights! Though my vocal chords were dead, inside I was bursting with Yiddishe-Mama levels of pride.

The shul was hosting a Sukkot party and sleepover that we had both been looking forward to, but I knew there was no way I was going to make it. But I told Mrs. Yid there was no reason she shouldn't go if she wanted to, and again, she stepped up to the plate and went for it! I was happy she didn't let me rain on her parade, and also that she went off and did Jewish stuff without me. I'm glad at least one of us got to shake the lulav.

Now I know some of you may be wondering, what's with this new, positive Friar? Where's his dark heart hiding? Well I will admit I'm trying to do a little better with that. That said, I did notice a Sukkot column from Tzvi that seemed worth mentioning if only for a second:

An Etrog Tree Doesn’t Grow in Brooklyn
If it did it would die. Just the way the Diaspora is destined to die. The etrog tree doesn’t belong in Brooklyn. The climate isn’t right for it. It’s the same with the lulav, hadasim, and aravot.* The four species which we are commanded to take for ourselves on the Festival of Sukkot are indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, just as the Torah is indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, and the Jewish People are indigenous to Eretz Yisrael.  

Tzvi, you really need to get a fact-checker. The issue is not that the etrog is a particularly Zionist citrus but rather that it needs a climate both dry and sunny. There are commercial etrog farms in Arizona and California, as well as Italy and Morocco. Incidentally, up until Mubarak was toppled, the primary source of palm fronds for Sukkot-- both in the US and Israel-- was Egypt. Seems like the four species are sending us some mixed messages.

Apparently Tzvi's editor anticipated that nit-pickers like me exist because he added this to the bottom:

*Editor’s Note: The author’s point is metaphorical and is not intended to mean that factually none of the four minim (species) grow in Brooklyn or outside of Israel. 

Nice catch! Thanks for explaining that Tzvi's only being a metaphorical moron and not an actual one. Boy would my face have been red.

Anyway, Tzvi goes on for a while about how you can only really celebrate Sukkot authentically in Israel-- which I don't necessarily disagree with, except that as usual, his so-called proof is terrible. Namely, that Diaspora Jews are supposedly afraid or embarrassed to actually build their sukkahs in a public place.

This past week in Israel, in whatever direction you looked, chances are you saw a succah booth. On front lawns, in driveways, in parking lots, on restaurant sidewalks, on the terraces of buildings, and on rooftops. In the Diaspora, the opposite is true. Unless you happen to be in one of the 5 or 6 Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods scattered around the globe, chances are you won’t see a succah booth at all. Take a walk from one end of Los Angeles to the other and there won’t be a succah in sight. In Paris and London, you would never know that there is a Jewish Festival about to begin. Diaspora succahs, if they exist, are hidden away on back lawns, or in back alleyways, so that the goyim won’t shoot flaming arrows at them and ignite them in a blaze of smoke. In the villas of wealthy Jews, you might discover a succah inside the house under a pull-back roof, so that the neighbors don’t have to know that Orthodox Jews live inside. That’s the sad state of affairs when you are a secret Jew living amongst the goyim.
Yes, we have many problems in Israel, but we don’t have to hide our succot in the back of our homes. We can proudly construct them in our driveways and front lawns without worrying about vandals or burglars or gentile police. In the Diaspora, a front lawn succah sticks out like the gaudy statues that rich, Beverly-Hills Arabs like to put on their lawns. In Israel, no one takes a second look. Succahs are natural in Israel. They are a part of the landscape. People can dine in them in peace, and sleep comfortably in them all night without the slightest disturbance.

I'm not sure that the primary factor in determining whether people feel proud and secure in their Jewishness is putting crap in their front yard, Tzvi. I knew you're a Hasid, but do we all really have to go the Chabad Menorah route with this? What's wrong with a back yard? I don't have a front or a back yard, but I'd much prefer to do things in the back-- not because I'm afraid, but because I enjoy my privacy. Also, I'm pretty sure that Los Angeles, having its share of Orthodox Jews, also has its share of sukkahs. Just a guess.

In any event, here are some pictures of our shameful sukkah. As you can tell, being Diaspora Jews, we made it extra tiny and camouflaged lest some antisemitic neighbors try to shoot it with flaming arrows (because apparently we moved to ancient Rome when I wasn't paying attention).

We were going for an "American Beauty" theme this year.
Hooray for Chinatown schach!
City Hall can't see us from here, right?
I sure hope this blends in...

If anyone asks, we're just a lot of laundry left out to dry. Also wood.

Good thing everyone in our building is blind, right, Tzvi?
                             Happy Sukkot!