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.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Haredi Protests: Time to Get Mad

I imagine Bloggers have spent the past few nights bent over a thesaurus trying to find synonyms for "outrageous",  "offensive" "despicable" and "over the line" plus a hundred other ways to say horrible, to describe last Saturday night's Haredi demonstration. Men and even children dressed in Holocaust-image striped pajamas and yellow stars gathered to protest what they perceive to be anti-Haredi actions by the Israeli government—the same government which has continually bent over backwards to placate Haredi insistence on not only strict gender separation but also a new fanaticism about seeing any woman at all in public advertising (even Hilary Clinton, who to some might be a "babe" but is, after all, a state politician. The White House justifiably protested Haredi tampering when they cut her photo out of an official White House news release.)

Never mind that Israel's first prime minister Ben Gurion made concessions to a small minority years ago. He'd be rolling over in his grave to see where it led. He was convinced the surviving ultra-Orthodox relic would be extinct soon. They are now ten percent and demographics suggest they will soon be a quarter of the Israeli population. They have become radicalized and politicized to a point of no return. They are angry that the Jerusalem municipality refused their request for gender-separated sidewalks during Sukkot. (Note: the gender separated buses have become a public outcry at last. In a weak compromise the government made them "voluntary" but that is now being challenged even by Haredi women and by various groups of women riding the front of such buses in protest. Thank the goddess.) They are angry that there are photos of real, live women in advertisements on public buses and bus shelters. (Note: In Jerusalem you will not see any women in lingerie, underwear, or immodestly posed in any of those ads.) They are angry that there are any restaurants open on Shabbat in Jerusalem at all. But most of all, they are angry at the success and strength of a modern Zionist country that, in their opinion, doesn't have the right to be at all until the Messiah comes. As long as a strong Zionist, Jewish Israel exists, their belief in the Messiah coming is called into question.

This last Holocaust-mimicry protest finally made the general Israeli public angry, too. Very angry. Angry that their city of Jerusalem is being turned into a poor, welfare city where many of its residents live in 18th century Poland and demand that they do, too. And really angry that demands on the state are being made by groups who do not support the state or its army. And it's about time Israelis who live as good, tax-paying, army-going citizens get really, really angry about this.  Instead of garnering sympathy for themselves, this group of Haredim have exposed themselves for what they really are: a marginal, fringe, radical group who distort the good name of Jews and Judaism everywhere. The group who dressed in Holocaust garments last week should be excommunicated—by their own Rabbis, not ours— as a real statement of repentance for their disrespect for the dead. No more platitudes coming from their official spokesmen. No more excuses.

It's also about time we liberal Jews got mad, too. It's about time we stopped romanticizing the Chasidim as if they were all Tevyes singing To Life, L'Chayim. It's about time we liberal Jews stopped financially supporting such groups no matter how much "good" they also do. It's about time we liberal Jews took ourselves seriously and stopped claiming "they" are authentic, "they" will keep Judaism alive. Is this the Judaism you want kept alive?

If not, it's time to get mad. Here are my suggestions:
1. The Knesset should pass a bill—as soon as possible—making it illegal to misuse Holocaust imagery as an insult to the memory of the dead and of the survivors still alive. Throw those who do so into jail immediately, or better yet, deport them. Let them protest in Holocaust garments in Williamsburg or Monsey, or Gaza, under Hamas.
2. Offer an attractive financial subsidy to any anti-Zionist Haredi group who will move themselves as a group out of Israel, so they no longer have to suffer living under a Zionist regime. Any Jewish philanthropist willing to do so will be strengthening Zionism.
3. All Jews should, as of today, monitor their financial contributions to communal chests and ask if one cent goes to any anti-Zionist Haredi school, yeshiva or institution anywhere in the world, even in your own town. If it does, stop your contribution and be sure you can direct it elsewhere.
4. Start giving generously to liberal Jewish causes in Israel, all of whom are fighting the good fight to keep Israel in the 21st century and to stop it from being "Talibanized." Example: make a donation to IRAC, Israel Religious Action Centre, which is doing amazing work on religious pluralism and democracy, and tell them it is specifically to be used for their work in fighting for religious rights.

It is simply unthinkable that a society as strong as Israel should be cow-towed anymore by a fringe group of quasi-citizens who use bullying, spiritual threats, and misappropriation of their own people's most painful memories to gain power and control over a country whose legally elected government they don't even recognize.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

A Reform—And Personal— Paradigm Shift

I last went to the Biennial Convention of the Union for Reform Judaism twenty years ago. A very large and professional conference, sometimes having as many as four or five thousand people, it is meant for congregational leaders and congregational clergy from the 900 North American Reform synagogues to come together to learn, share best practices, pray together, hear top-notch speakers, and recharge. I haven’t gone because first of all, I wasn’t serving a congregation except for once a year on the High Holy days, and second, I felt a personal distance and even alienation from the heavy use of English in services, the emphasis on social action over religious study, and the lack of “Torah talk” in what I judged to be a religiously weak leadership.

Well, this is not your father’s Reform Judaism anymore, that’s for sure. I walked around the recent Biennial with my jaw dropped much of the time. Services were conducted mostly in Hebrew, and everyone pronounced every word correctly. The music was awe inspiring, soulful tunes which matched the depth of the words they were accompanying. Serious Jews discussed serious topics. There were several minyanim to choose from every morning. Each evening the whole convention came together in deep and heartfelt prayer, and Shabbat was mystical and magical as 5,000 Reform Jews studied Torah with scholars. It was the first time in a long time I felt that Reform Jews were taking themselves seriously, without looking over their shoulders and always wondering what “they” (the Conservative, the Orthodox, whomever) were thinking of “us.” It felt like a paradigm shift.
However, so many people are unaware of these changes and new models. Reform Judaism has gotten a bad rap, especially in “conservative” Toronto. Accused of being “church-like” and worse by people who may not have stepped foot in a Reform synagogue for years— or ever, for that matter—many people still labour under false assumptions: that Reform regularly celebrated Shabbat on Sunday (only a small handful of Reform temples actually did that in the 1890’s and later that was dropped); that services are all in English (not true at all); that all Reform temples have choirs and organs (not true, though many use musical instruments to enhance their Shabbat services); that anything goes (not true; Reform Judaism has clear standards and expectations). How much do people know about today’s “new” Reform Judaism?

They do know know which shuls they wouldn’t be caught dead in. The problem is Jews who have practiced no Judaism at all since they were children or since their children were children, often say “Well, I guess I'm Reform.” Such “Reform Jews” who practice virtually nothing erroneously believe that all it takes to be a good Reform Jew is to be a good person. I often remind such folks that anyone who is a good person is not necessarily Jewish; and anyone who is Jewish is not necessarily a good person. It’s false to say Reform Judaism has no expectations on you other than being nice and helping old people across the street.  You can do that by being a Boy Scout. 

To my mind, a small revolution has occurred in the Reform movement and I witnessed it at the Biennial. There I saw Reform Jews asking the question, “how can we make a spiritually alive Reform Judaism, a Reform Judaism not famous for its lack of structure and standards but known for its high level of commitment and its deep appreciation for people’s religious needs?” 

Now I know “post-denominational” and “transdenominational” and “non-denominational” are the slogans of our age. I think we have much to criticize each movement for; and much to hope for in a community that strives to transcend these boundaries. But it’s time to pack away those tired stereotypes (and it wouldn’t hurt if we packed away all our denominational stereotypes) and all those unfounded assumptions (the stuff that often makes us feel like we are mavens but proves us to be ignoramuses). We should try and judge the movements—all of them—by their best adherents, not by their worst, by their paradigm shifts and not by old jokes, hearsay, and information from a decade ago, and be open to the possibility that each of them, with all their weaknesses, has grown and changed, has something to teach us, and something to offer in our complicated Jewish world.