Sunday, 13 April 2014

10 Tips for "Surviving" The Seders

  1. Do Song Parodies
  2. Autographs: each guests signs the inside cover of their haggadah. That way, you have an ongoing record of who shared the holiday with you in past years. It’s also fun to see who used your haggadah before you.
  3. Have each guest bring a different haggadah and offer insights from “their” haggadah.
  4. Fond Memories: Go around the table and share your fondest memory of Passover as a kid.
  5. Assign parts to each guest (e.g. 4 questions, 4 chldren) and tell them to come prepared with a song, a skit, a question, an activity for that section.
  6. Ask interesting questions throughout. Examples: If you were a film director and could hire any actors you wanted, who would you have star as Moses, Miriam, Pharaoh? If you could invite anyone in the world to this Seder, who would you invite and why?
  7. Iron Chef charoset: have each guest bring a different ethnic charoset and have a “contest.”
  8. “New” Seder plates: what would today’s symbols of slavery be and who are the oppressed? Example: chocolate, coffee, etc.
  9. Do Torah study at “Arami oved avi.”
  10. Don’t use a haggadah at all- write up the “rubrics” and improvise!
WITH KIDS
  1. Personalized Mats: Use large, white poster board or construction paper to create place mats decorated with Passover games and age-appropriate questions. 
  2. A maze (children can use their fingers to trace their way from slavery to freedom).
  3. Matzah Man, and other silly stuff: Draw a blank square and say it’s a piece of matzah. Or give each kid a square of matza. See if the child can imagine ten, twenty or thirty different ideas as to what the square could become. Matzah Man? A matza house? etc.
  4. Purchase some dollar store “prizes” for kids. When they ask a good question (which is the point!), they get a prize.
  5. Build “tents in the desert” out of sheets etc and let the kids climb in, have time out, come back in. Stock the tents with toys and even sand to play in!
  6. Paper bag drama: Gather together various household items (a tennis ball, a sponge, a timer, a remote control, a sock, a light bulb, a bar of soap, etc.) together into a bag.  At various points during the seder, invite someone to pull an item out and offer an explanation of how the item fits into the Passover story!
  7. Passover “mad libs”
  8. Passover “taboo”- make cards with Passover themes (e.g Pharoah, charoset) and the person has to describe them without using hint words (e.g. leader, apples) while others guess what they are.
  9. Have kids walk around and “wash” everyone’s hands at Urchatz.
  10. Afikomen: have the kids hide it and adults have to find it!!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

This Ain't Your Father's Reform

A few Shabbatot ago I prayed at a Baptist-style tent-revival Amen-Halleluyah neo-Hasidic Jewish service. Yes, that was Biennial Shabbat and although I was prepared for the spirit of it based on my years at NFTY, I wasn’t quite prepared for the spiritual of it.

I grew up in the Reform movement, through Eisner Camp and youth group. But something shifted in me while in university and I felt myself move slowly away. Maybe it was going to Brandeis and meeting all those deeply committed Conservative and Orthodox students, while my Reform friends drifted away and stopped coming to services, stopped celebrating Shabbat. Maybe it was the year in Israel where I studied in yeshiva and went to the Wall regularly and davenned in traditional circles. Or maybe it was the memory of my Confirmation class when my teacher said “Kashrut was for health in those days. Nowadays its outdated and dumb. No Reform Jew needs to practice it.” Or the day of Confirmation itself when the Rabbi flatly refused to let a classmate wear a kipa. (We were rebellious in those days. As the strains of “God is in His Holy Temple” began on the organ, each one of us—girls included, which was still unheard of— drew a kipa out of our robe pocket and put it on as we marched down the aisle.) Our parents sent us to URJ camps – what was then UAHC– but the Rabbis made fun of our new-found passion for Judaism by telling us we were bordering on “Conservative.” The youth group joyfully did Havdala before our movie nights but the presidents of our congregations refused to add Havdala before a Saturday night social for families, saying it was “too religious.” The Reform I grew up with was, quite frankly, more concerned with not looking Orthodox than with teaching me any positive value of being Reform. 

I tried being Orthodox for awhile, but my feminism got in the way. I tried being Reconstructionist but my strong supernatural concept of God got in the way. I tried Jewish Renewal but I fall asleep in meditation and I’d rather shuckle than do yoga. I never toyed with being Conservative because my need for consistency got in the way. I just couldn’t grasp hold of a positive, joyful, traditional and spiritual Judaism within any of the movements and I wandered around for many years looking for home.

This past Biennial helped me find it. First, they sang O Canada and put up a Canadian flag which opened my now-Canadian heart. Then they said we could sit for Shema if thats our custom— a custom I’ve practiced for 20 years and one that I instituted at my synagogue— which publicly valued and normatized that choice. Then the gathering of tzitzit on my tallit, something I’ve done silently and privately all these years. Then asking mourners to rise separately, something I longed to do at a Biennial many years ago when I was in the year of mourning myself. Ok, it was also the clapping and dancing and 13 Torah reading tables and Bibliodrama along with a silent Amidah. My traditional side was finally recognized. My spiritual side was finally satiated.

I came to Biennial with trepidation, as it was not universally accepted in my new synagogue for us to be Reform affiliated. Many members doubted this idea and many still identify with the Conservative movement. They did not feel moved during the application process no matter how I preached the vision of Reform and it’s “best practices.” They fear the Reform they remember as being churchy and sterile. They fear the Reform they remember of lack of kipot and lack of Hebrew. Traditional Canadians, they honestly worry about flying the flag of Reform in a community where Conservative still is the norm. I knew the workshops and plenaries would be fine. I knew the call to tikkun olam would be loud and clear. I knew the speakers would be powerful. But would the davenning be davenning, or would it be “services”?  Would “we rise and recite the watchword of our faith?” Would we sit for the standing prayer? Would we drone on in responsive readings? The chair of our Leadership Team came with me, with some degree of doubt. I couldn’t quite explain how far the Reform movement had come for him. He had to see it with his own two eyes. His response? “This is awesome. Next Biennial our whole Team should come.”

This ain’t my father’s Reform. It can finally be mine.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


Moving the Kotel


I recently led a special delegation of 16 Rabbis from across North and South America to be with Women of the Wall (WoW) on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, and to meet with Knesset members, lobbyists, and the WoW Board. Two days after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of (WoW) at the Kotel with over 600 women—and with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and cursing that they normally endure monthly—Avigdor Lieberman donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal at the Kotel. I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years these pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tefillin and Torah, and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two but not the third. But Lieberman can swagger right up to the front and be sure he will be welcome.

In previous months, busloads of yeshiva girls have been encouraged to jeer, intimidate, and by sheer numbers, push WoW out of the Wall itself into the plaza. We were determined not to let that happen so on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, we arrived an hour early to “stake out” a portion of the women’s section. At the last minute the Bnei Akiva Rabbis called off the buses. The few 15 year olds who came stood defiantly, yelling and finger-waving at women the age of their mothers with a rudeness I still cannot believe. We tried to be dignified as we sang to their taunts. Soon WoW participants swelled and filled most of the section, and 20 female police officers made a line of protection around us.

I cannot fully describe the sound of 600 women singing with fervour. From the men’s side—unusually sparse that day—a microphone drowned out our voices. But just as we began the Shema, the microphone suddenly went silent. We were stunned to find out that the police had cut the electricity, allowing us to proceed without having to engage in a prayer-shouting match.

Unafraid for the first time to don tefillin or tallitot at the Kotel, we held up 6 empty Torah mantles, symbolizing our desire and our inability to read from a Sefer Torah, since a new order from the Rabbi of the Wall gave him ultimate authority over who gets to bring in a Torah scroll. 

The most moving moment for me was holding our tallitot over our heads in a “group” aliyah. If you have ever witnessed the the priestly blessing done on holidays with hundreds of black-and-white tallitot covering the men, imagine instead tallitot of all colours, silk and lace and rainbow. Words cannot fully do justice to the sight. We were “priests” for the first time in our lives.

I understand those for whom the Western stones are the only stones which have the weight of tradition. In my dreams, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured, and valued. But that Kotel does not exist, and for me the Western stones have been sullied since their “liberation” in 1967. 

Women of the Wall now face a critical crossroad. Some believe that if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer with tallitot will one day be welcome there. Others know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime the right of tallit and tefillin hang on a thin thread. This group, represented by the Board of WoW, has agreed to move the monthly service to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you stand above fallen Herodian stones which share the same antiquity as the Western ones, minus the visual optics of being “The” Wall; without the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967. Until the government builds a beautiful, appropriate and equal southern site, WoW will continue to fight for space and dignity in the women’s section. But if WoW’s demands are met— including one entrance for all, visible and equal choice between 3 sections (men’s, women’s, mixed), equal funding for all 3 sections, equal State recognition for all 3 sections, and authority over the new section to co-ed advisors from all denominations— WoW can have a Rosh Chodesh service with mechitzah at the southern stones of the Western Wall and all of us will be able to pray without harassment.

Which do we want more: to get what we want, or for the Haredim to not get what they want?

Women of the Wall aren’t moving from the Kotel. They are moving the Kotel  itself. Women of the Wall may go down in history as having reinvented the Kotel. The same imagination that allowed us to envision a woman in a tallit when we had never seen one, a woman leading prayers when we had never heard one, and a woman Rabbi when we had never met one will get us there. While these Southern stones may not be the stones we remember, they will be the stones our grandchildren remember. This will finally be a truly pluralistic Kotel for a truly pluralistic people.


When all the WoW demands are met,  the new Kotel will be ready and those stones will gain a deep sacredness just like the others. We will, to be sure, miss the old Kotel, like immigrants miss the old country.  And while Avigdor Lieberman may still be welcome at the old Kotel, but I will finally be welcome at the new one.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Cult of BusyRabbi Elyse GoldsteinDay One Rosh Hashana


Earlier this year I received a document via email—maybe some of you did too— entitled How To Succeed at Work. Here is its advice:
  1. Always walk with a document in your hands: People with documents in their hands look like hardworking employees heading for important meetings. People with newspapers in their hands look like they are going to the washroom.
    2. Use the computer a lot. When you get caught by the boss just claim you're teaching yourself to use new software.
    3. If your voice mailbox has a limit on the number of messages it can hold, make sure you reach that limit often, even if you have to call yourself. "Sorry, this mailbox is full" is a sure sign that you are in high demand.
    4. Have a Messy Desk: Build large piles of documents around your workspace. If you know someone is coming to your cubicle, bury the document you'll need halfway down in an existing stack and rummage for it when they arrives.
    5. Appear To Be Working at crazy times: Send important emails at unearthly hours (like half past midnite, 6.30am, etc.) and especially on public holidays. (But NOT on Jewish holidays!)
    6. Creative Sighing For Effect: Sigh loudly when there are many people around, giving the impression that you are under serious pressure.
I don’t know about you, but I am guilty as charged. And I would add a number 7: whenever anyone asks you how you are, do not answer “fine.” Never answer “great!” Answer, “BUSY. Very busy. Extremely busy. Buried. Swamped. Yup, I’m really...busy.” 

Author Scott Berkun coined the phrase “The cult of busy.” He writes, “When I was younger I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and always I just thought they must have really important things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t...This is the cult of busy.”

We have all been duped into joining the cult of busy. We are its leaders, its preachers, even its messiahs. And like most cults, we have been initiated through lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and repetitions of meaningless mantras over and over again.

But like most cults, it is attractive and fulfilling in its own way. In Tom Krieder’s article in the New York Times, The Busy Trap, the article that generated a lot of surveys and news articles and reports on busyness, he writes: If you live... in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are... It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

It’s true, we’re proud of how little time we have for our families, our hobbies, our communities. Busy is a competitive sport- who has less time, me or you? Jews used to love competing for who has the most trouble- “you think you got tsuris??” But now busyness proves our worth, our productivity, our sense of our place in the world.


There really are two kinds of busy, though. Retired people will boast about how busy they are: doing ceramics, visiting grandkids, travelling. They seem so happy in their busyness, because they are busy doing what they want to. Because they are able to finally reprioritize and make time for what’s important. They are positively busy instead of positively busy.

But for many of us, our busyness is a drug, and we use it dangerously. We overprogramme on purpose. We stretch ourselves to prove something. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we will admit that often we use our excessively hectic schedules to escape ourselves. To escape the one thing we strive to cope with over these holy days: our inner life, our minds, and our spirits.

Gabor Mate writes in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease or the nagging mental stupor we call boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending “alone time” with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioural addictions are also
responses to this terror of the void… Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states.”

We are addicted to busy, I fear, to keep ourselves from the demands of our quiet inner selves. Thus, like any addict, we crave also the paraphernalia and technological tools which help us keep the busy high. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with technology, with using iphones and blackberries and facebook. I do, and I think they are all valuable tools, and I wish more peope of my generation would be less afraid to use them. But it’s weird—instead of using technology to save us time so we can do other things—talk to our kids, take a yoga class, come to services, visit a friend, walk in the park, you name it—we just use our newly freed up time to use more technology, to make another call, to send another email, to post another status update.  We use the time-saving power of technology to save us time to use more technology!

Do we have a wish to avoid inactivity at all costs lest we be left alone with our minds unoccupied for a moment? Left alone with time for self-doubt, regrets, realizations, perhaps resolutions, reconciliations?

In his book on ADHD Scattered Minds, Mate goes even deeper on this theme and writes, "...there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds. Terrified of my mind, I had always dreaded to spend a moment alone with it. There always had to be a book in my pocket as an emergency kit in case I was ever trapped waiting anywhere, even for one minute, be it a bank lineup or supermarket checkout counter..."

Twitchiness ensues when we are left outside the distraction loop. We scramble for something to read. We search another website. No one just sits. We become bored in nano seconds. We are, as a nation, the first world of disquiet.  We are constantly looking for that 'drug' in the form of anything that will take us away from us because we are perpetually scared and discomforted by the reality that we are indeed - alone.

Alone.  Frightening word.  Alone.  Do you ever suddenly become aware as you are going about your day alone in your house or driving your car that you are a person - alone. Watch yourself at that moment. It becomes creepy for us. We immediately try to forget ourselves. We fill the quiet of alone with white noise so we have no aloneness to lead ultimately to a discovery of the self. 

In the cult of busy, running around like chickens without a head leaves us without heads that can reflect, analyze, and face demons.

In the cult of busy, arriving late and leaving early to meetings is a sign that we must be significant and needed, instead of facing the frail and limited human beings we all are.

In the cult of busy, there is no time to face the uncomfortable pain that life sometimes and inevitably visits upon us. 

In the cult of busy, we never have time to face ourselves. There is no time for teshuva, for repentance, for the discipline that religion demands.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has coined the term “homo accelerandus.” He writes, “This is what we have become. This creature has a great many encounters, but does not really experience anything... He has a great many contacts but no relationships, since he is unable to linger because he is always ‘in a hurry’…Homo Accelerandus has everything but lacks the one essential to enjoy that everything: time.”

Interestingly, Homo Accelerandus usually lives a middle class life. Let me point out that this is definitely a “first world problem.” Again, Krieder writes, “Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

The middle class cult of busy has been called the “Yuppie kvetch” by Jordan Weissman, associate editor of The Atlantic. He writes, ...All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life's necessities in order to free up more time for life's pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid. Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference... You can't pay somebody to sleep for you. You can't pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame... If you're rich, it's time that's scarce. If you're poor, it's money that's scarce.” 

We who generally have enough to make our rent and buy some groceries say “time is money.” But if time is money, we are going broke.
When we value someone’s worth as a human being on how much they can squeeze into a day, what value do we place on someone who cannot physically or mentally do that? What value do we place on people who attempt to do enough to keep up with everyone else, but fail? What judgements do our cult leaders place on those who work less than 80 hour weeks because they physically or mentally cannot, or spiritually will not?
In the cult of busy we don’t have time to volunteer or do gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, or give tzedakah, or give the time and effort it takes to create the kind of humane society we once were. We don’t have the time to lift up the fallen, or heal the sick, or free the captive, or clothe the naked or do any of the other things our Yom Kippur haftarah will command we do because we are Jews.

Nearly 30 years a study was conducted at Princeton University, designed to figure out the conditions under which good people would do good. Two psychologists asked a group of theology students to walk to another building on campus to give a short speech. Meanwhile, the psychologists had arranged for an actor to be stationed on the path between the two buildings, slumped over, coughing and obviously in bad shape. The two experimenters had led half the students to believe they were late for their speaking appointment, and half that they had ample time.

Only 10 percent of those led to believe they were running late stopped to help. Of those told that they had plenty of time, 60 percent stopped to help.

It takes time to stop and help.

The cult of busy is keeping us from building the kind of community we all really crave. It’s keeping us from making the difference we all want so badly to make.

As a Rabbi, I know the cult of busy is winning in the Jewish community because so few of us allow ourselves the luxury of Shabbat, the one time we are commanded to take time.

To be frank, I’m just perplexed about that. Why don’t more of us take a day off a week to remind ourselves that we aren’t machines? To be “unbusy” without self-blame? To not produce anything without guilt? Just what is it we are striving to do in those few 24 hours? 

I’m just really perplexed because so many people over the last few weeks have told me they meant to check out City Shul all year long, but they were so busy this whole year. Now if you tell me you you don’t believe in G-d- I get it! You don’t like to pray- I get it! You don’t like services-well, I’m a little hurt but I get it! But if you’re too busy to create the community you joined because you wanted to create the kind of community you would join- I just don’t get it.

Now let me hasten to add that I am not advocating an Orthodox Shabbat. Drive in a car, turn on and off the lights. Go to a farmer’s market, bike to the beach. Yes I am a Rabbi and you heard me correctly. I’m simply advocating lowering the “shlep” factor of our lives one day a week. 

There’s a group of secular folks, not all of whom are Jewish, who have created something called The Sabbath Manifesto.The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is a day-spa for the mind. 

A day of unplugging without tweeting about our unplugged experience.
A day of no distractions from outside to distract us from our insides. 
One day a week we can stop answering the question “how are you” with the word “busy.”

One day a week to detach our sense of inner worth and self-esteem from the frequency and amount of our online activities. To be still without having to go to an ashram for a stillness retreat. 

There’s a scene in the film Beyond the Clouds where an archaeologist hires some tribesmen to lead him to an site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” 

That’s the kind of living the cult of busy promotes. The kind of living in which we move so fast our souls have no time to catch up, on purpose: so we don’t have to face them.

We need to be willing to teach ourselves this year to unlove our stress and unlove our busyness. 

We joined this cult and we can exit it ourselves today. In the midrash on tomorrow’s Torah portion Isaac goes willingly up the mountain to his own sacrifice and even fastens the cords himself. As Abraham is about to slay his son upon the altar, an angel of God calls out to him twice, but he doesn’t hear him the first time—so in a rush is he to get it done. So unwilling to hear the voice of his inner angel that he has to be called a second time, lest he automatically slaughter his son while he is “busy” fulfilling what he believes to be a Divine command. The midrash even uses the word “zarez” to describe Abarham- frenetically rushing.

Thats why we need to stop and hear the shofar, just like Abraham needed to stop to see the ram. The shofar shatters the altar of busy we have erected. I know when our member Peter blows the shofar today we will experience a moment like no other; a moment of absolute stillness and full attention during which the cult of busy will have no sway over us, will hold no attraction, and will exercise no power. The shofar is the sound of blowing away the need for pinging sounds to make us feel called. The shofar is the sound of our beating hearts when we slow down and ignore the distractions that are keeping us from hearing it. The shofar is the sound of being busy just being, because, as the great Bob Dylan sang, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.” 

This year, lets be busy being born.

Shana Tova



Monday, 15 July 2013

Why I’m Not Fasting this Tisha b'Av

Tonight at sundown the Jewish people will be marking a day of national tragedy- the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Those destructions also marked the end of the priesthood and the sacrificial system. The end of the “unity” of a people with one national shrine, one national ritual, one national way of worshipping.

All during my teenage years I fasted on Tisha b'Av because it fell during summer camp, and the UAHC Eisner camp always had us doing some meaningful role-play or activity as if we were there, right there as the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Later at Kutz Camp I helped create those melodramas and watched as the kids would cry and turn Tisha b'Av into a Holocaust Remembrance Day because the destruction of the Temple was ancient history to them, but their grandparents still could talk about the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

During Rabbinic school I fasted, frankly, to be holier-than-thou, more religious than my already right-leaning classmates.

As a young Rabbi I fasted to be a role model of a Reform Jew who took Jewish history seriously.

But I don’t fast anymore.

Why am I not fasting? Aren’t I sad about all that loss?

I’m not fasting because the oldest symbol of that so-called “unity”—the Western Wall—is a battleground for religious pluralism, and I imagine that if the Cohanim were still around they would be on the side of the Haredim, not on the side of those women who, like me, want to be full participating Jews with tallit and a Torah. I’m not fasting because I’m afraid of what it would look like for women if we rebuilt the Temple.

And I’m not fasting because ultimately the destruction of the Temple lent way for the democratization of Judaism, wresting power and authority out of the hands of an elite and then corrupt priesthood and placing it in the hands of scholars and then Rabbis who represent the people. Eventually, in our day, all Jews have the authority to be their own priests, to hold holiness in their own hands, to read their own Psalms as they ascend the stairs of their synagogue, to lead their own prayers, and even to make their own halachic decisions. I celebrate that democratization. It doesn’t make me sad, even though my husband and sons are Cohanim and would, in the time of the Messiah, be those powerful priests again. (And I’d get to eat from their terumah as the wife of a priest. As a vegetarian, it doesn’t appeal to me.) I don’t mourn the loss of a hierarchical, inherited caste of priests—I would, however, mourn the loss of democracy.

In a way, the very existence of the Rabbis and the Talmud undermined the Temple. To rebuild the Temple would undermine the existence of an interpretive Judaism. The Pharisees won in the end, interpretation over the fixed, hegemonic ritual of the Saduccees.

And I’m not fasting because I believe we are already living in the third period, in the time of the sovereign nation of Israel, and though the Temple doesn’t exist anymore, Israel certainly does. I am a Zionist. I don’t mourn the loss of our sovereignty, because we finally got it back. I feel blessed to live in the era of the “flowering of the seeds of our redemption.” With all it’s faults, still, Israel is the living reality of a people who couldn’t have imagined it in 68 CE—but I don’t have to dream it or long for it, because it’s as real as my right hand.

To be sure, there are Jewish groups who “re-imagine” Tisha b'Av. It becomes about the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust or about personal loss, or a day of brokenness and sadness. That’s the way we modern Jews try and make sense of a fast day that doesn’t speak to those who do not feel they are “in exile.” Jewish history has plenty of trauma and we can certainly use a day to remember that. But if Tisha b'Av can only be about mourning the loss of the Temple, it won’t speak at all to me. From the ashes of the Temple rose the phoenix of Rabbinic Judaism, and that’s the Judaism I now celebrate, the Judaism that survived.

Now I won’t be going out to a fancy restaurant. I’m not going to put down anyone who is fasting. I won’t make a luxurious meal. But I will be spending the day reflecting on how to build a Judaism based on pluralistic, democratic values; a Judaism strong enough to survive into the future without needing one “unified” way of being Jewish.

While we are mourning the destruction of a mythical “unity” we are blinded to the reality of destructive narratives in both Israel and the Diaspora today. A corrupt male priesthood still exists in the form of a Chief Rabbinate. Social castes still abound. The destruction of the Temple should be a metaphor for the destruction of all that really divides us. Now, without a Temple burning, those destructive forces are turning inward.

There is a midrash in Avot deRebbe Natan (4:5) about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai walking in Jerusalem with his student Rabbi Yehoshua. They see the ruins of the Temple and Rabbi Yehoshua says “Woe to us, that this place where the sins of Israel were atoned for is destroyed.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai answers, “My son, do not fear. We have another atonement which replaces it: gemilut hasadim, deeds of lovingkindness.”


The Rabbis in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Yoma 1:1) say the Temple was destroyed because people loved money and hated each other. If we were really sad about the destruction of the Temple, we’d be living differently today. We’d be living with abundant gemilut hasadim. Otherwise the empty stomachs tomorrow will be, I fear, like when I was a teenager in summer camp: just for show.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Who Will Be The Next Gunther Plaut?

I, like most of the rest of the Jewish world, was deeply saddened to read of the passing of Rabbi Gunther Plaut. 

Having been the Assistant Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple from 1983-86 I had the privilege of working closely with him. Although my immediate “senior Rabbi” was Rabbi Dow Marmur (another great name in the Rabbinate, in my opinion), Rabbi Plaut took an immediate liking to me and a vested interest in my success. In those days I was the only female Rabbi in the whole country and I think it piqued Rabbi Plaut’s imagination to see if I would be very “different” from the male Rabbis at Holy Blossom. I remember him stopping by my office in my first week and asking if I needed advice or help on my introductory sermon; I think he was shocked and equally delighted when I told him that I wanted to succeed or fail on my own two feet for that first time. After that, I felt comfortable going to him with any question at all, and I was always in amazement when he could quote a midrash or Talmudic verse perfectly from memory.

Watching him “work the crowd” was amazing. He truly loved Jews but he wanted them to be better Jews, and he was willing to take the consequences of unpopular and high standards. He pushed, he cajoled; he loved his fellow Jews, but he demanded of them too. He didn’t mind not pleasing all the people all the time—he cared more about being true to Jewish values. He truly relished being a Rabbi, but he had little patience for foolish, or territorial, or ignorant Rabbis. He held his fellow Reform Rabbis to a very high bar and was often the voice of the “loyal opposition” to Reform policies he doubted would advance the cause of the entire Jewish people. 

He didn’t just preach tikkun olam, he lived it. He had no tolerance for racism, sexism, or homophobia. In 1998, upon the publication of my first book on feminist analysis of Torah text, he told me that had he known “then” what he knew “now” about women’s voices and feminist approaches to text, he would have been much more sensitive and attuned when writing his famous Torah commentary. He admitted that his great commentary, which everyone accepted as authoritative, was lacking in a feminist perspecxtive. He was at that time 85 years old, and even though he came from a totally different era with a much different mindset, he was completely prepared to learn something new from and about women in the Rabbinate. And he made no excuses for his passion for social justice. He was prepared to go to the highest levels of government to make justice flow down like mighty waters. He was a formidable force to be reckoned with even among formidable forces.

As I was deciding whether or not to go to Rabbinical school in the late 70’s, I looked around me at the Reform role models I had and was often disappointed. I saw learned Rabbis who didn’t touch people’s hearts, and sincere charismatic Rabbis who didn’t know text. I saw Rabbis marching for civil rights who didn’t live in a spiritual way and New Age Kabbalah Rabbis who only cared about their own souls. I wondered where I would belong as a more traditional, text-oriented Rabbi. I  started to follow Rabbi Plaut’s writings and teachings, and I saw in him what I most believed a Reform Rabbi could and should be.

So when the opportunity to serve at Holy Blossom came, I jumped at the chance to be close to a real Rabbi’s Rabbi; a scholar who cared about the world outside his books and an activist who could quote the Rambam off by heart. 

Now the question must be asked: who will be the next Rabbi Plaut? Who in the Reform movement has the greatness, the learning and scholarship, the burning passion for justice, the respect of almost every other Rabbi of not only our own denomination but the others as well; the ability to move mountains and government officials and simple Jews toward betterment? Who will be the Rabbi’s Rabbi, the one we can all look up to and hope to emulate and follow and learn from? There are great names, to be sure, but many if not most of them are also older and will be gone in my lifetime. Who of a younger generation in the Reform movement has that greatness? Not popularity. Not the most “likes” on facebook or the most clever blog. Not only sermons that make it into the Huffington Post but deep Torah teachings that change lives. Not fame or well-reviewed books or NY Times op-eds but profundity, authority, clarity? Please share with me your thoughts and the names you would consider “giants” who can stand in the shadow Gunther Plaut cast.

The Jewish world is poorer by far, and I for one am blessed by having had a glimpse of a true Reform Jewish giant. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

How Facebook Will Save the Jewish People OR: Why I Learned to Stop Kvetching About It and Embrace It Within Limits.

I am a new convert. I am a "facebook by choice" user. I am going to learn twitter next week. I have started this blog. What the heck happened to me?

For many years I sarcastically dismissed social media. And everything I hated about it is still true: it can be a colossal time-waster, inane, narcissistic, prying, all-encompassing. I am still not interested in hearing who else you are friends with, where you went grocery shopping, or how many times you played Words With Friends. But everything else about it is also true: it connects people across the miles, it creates an eclectic community of friends of friends, it allows for sharing of big ideas, it fosters intellectual conversation across neighbourhoods, it brings you links to articles you might never read otherwise, it often makes you think about things you aren’t currently thinking about. But whatever its pros and cons, it is the medium of our age; it isn’t going away anytime soon and those of us who refuse to learn it are going to be left in the dust.

We boomers often feel frustrated and left out as our kids so easily navigate social media. It is their mother tongue. We are like immigrants who don’t speak the language, so instead of admitting that, and going to sign up for an SMSL (Social Media as a Second Language) class, we gather in little clumps and tsk-tsk the youngins’ who speak it so fluently. We mock them and it makes us feel better that we “just don’t get it.” We are like old world grandparents who are proud that their kids are part of the new culture but refuse to really be part of it themselves, making excuses, “it’s too late”. We frown, we criticize, but secretly we look over their shoulders and wonder if we aren’t missing all the fun.

The problem is especially evident in the Jewish community. Jewish organizations are often late adopters; we wait and see what the newest trend is and then, when it isn’t new anymore, we tentatively put a toe in and try it. Often it’s just too late for whatever trend we have just decided is worthwhile, anyway. I remember when synagogues reasoned that they didn’t need a website; after all, they had a newsletter, a phone chain, a secretary. Then in fear of being left behind, and  in a “we are too late!” panic, many Jewish organizations finally threw together a website with lots of Jewish stars and menorahs, and hoped for the best. And what got jazzed up in a slick new digital package? The same old programming.

Organizations didn’t take the time or allocate the resources to truly understand how this new media could be used, so these initial attempts were often poorly designed static brochures which didn’t take advantage of the many features online communication offers. Not only that, but not believing that an online presence was a critical part of their modus operandi, synagogues and Jewish organizations chose volunteer hobbyists instead of professional designers. Online presence seemed to be a last priority, so no one was trained to keep it up to date or add useful content. Within months, no one wanted to use the website, only confirming the naysayers who predicted that the whole project would be a waste of time and money. 

Today it is almost unheard of for a synagogue to not have a website or use email. Now we are quicker to jump on the bandwagon and make Facebook pages for ourselves. But too many of us substitute a cool new social media branding for great new ideas, deep connections, interactive learning and discussions, weaving a web of thought and action, and content worth posting. And twitter too! I don’t think I’ll be the first, but I’ll sure be tweeting Torah study and not trivia.

All this could become a full time job; the Rabbi as social media maven. There are Rabbis who have thousands of “likes” on their Facebook pages. But we need not approach this new language with fear; it is only a language and as such, it is a tool. Remember, Maimonides said all language is metaphor. So is Facebook. It’s a metaphor for the interconnectivity, interactivity, intertextuality, and intercommunal dialogue we could have if we weren’t so darn afraid of the “f” word.