Saturday, December 27, 2008

सिक्स्थ night

It's the day after Christmas, the sixth night of Chanukah, and we are in the Great Smoky Mountains. Specifically, we are at the heated swimming pool of the Willow Brook Lodge where we are staying with the Israeli family we made friends with on our hike to Laurel Falls.
Smoking is prohibited in the rooms and we don't want to take chances lighting our Chanukiah in violation of the house rules, so we have brought it with us to the pool, and, of course, we forgot matches.
I send Itamar to ask the big, tatooed man who is about to step outside to smoke if he can light our shamash, we he does graciously. After his smoke, he returns to watch our foreign ritual. He asks if I can explain what we are doing. Little does he know that he has asked the right guy.
I explain the stories of the Macabees and the debate between Hillel and Shamai about lighting the candles and how we are not allowed to use the light of the candles for any other purpose except to remind us of the time of Chanukah, and the big tatooed man thanks me for sharing our light and introduces his fiance. I guess this is part of the purpose of the ritual; to share our pride and spread our light. And I think we did a good job of it tonight.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What is Jewish Education?

This is a piece I wrote for the newsletter of the Reform congregation where I work.
Happy Chanukah!

It is a basic assumption that Religious School provides a religious education. I spent a lot of time in the halls of academia studying education, and although I don't have all the answers, I know how to formulate the right questions about education. But religion is different.

What do we mean by Jewish education? Mordechai Kaplan viewed Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, which ultimately led him to found the Reconstructionist movement. The Israeli Talmud scholar and biophysicist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, saw Judaism as a path with a set of God-given laws for us to follow. Solel families send their children to our Religious School with their own notions of Judaism and I guess that no two of these are the same. So what does it mean provide a Jewish education? And how do the answers to this question affect all members of Solel?

There is a popular program called "Birthright" that assumes the right of Jews, by virtue of their birth into a Jewish family, to travel to Israel to see the Jewish state up close. Large foundations have established a program to get all young Jews who want to travel to Israel to go for free. The problem with this approach is that it avoids exploring the question of what constitutes a Jewish family, nor does it address whether Jews-by-choice have such a birthright. Neither of these questions would be a problem for Kaplan because the borders of a civilization are not as fixed as those of a genome. Leibowitz, on the other hand, would hew to a halachic definition of Jewish identity.

As I study Leibowitz, I ask myself why I can't simply write him off as a religious fundamentalist. There is something very fundamentalist about the idea that God gave us laws and that we need to follow them absolutely, but there is something to this argument. If we are not Jews because of our unique relationship with God, then why are we Jews?

There are two general answers to this question. Some suggest that we are Jews because the anti-Semites won't let us assimilate completely. They see Judaism as racial (genetic) and therefore inescapable. Others see Judaism as values-based, that we Jews have unique values.

No one should be forced to accept Jewish identity because it cannot be escaped, so many of my educator colleagues view Judaism as a set of "Jewish" values.

At Solel, parents and students sometimes ask why we do what they see as a repetition of the public schools' "character education." This question implies that the values that shape a citizen are synonymous with the values that shape a Jew. And I would agree that this assumption is largely correct. But I would suggest that Judaism is not just about values but also about the path to inculcating those values. That's why Jewish education is so important.

At Solel's Religious School we explore the Reform Jewish path to the values we share with most human beings. As England's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, "no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind." But as Jews, we live our "spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions" through Jewish paths and these require Jewish education.

Coming to Religious School at Solel is not redundant because we are not simply teaching the values that our students learn in public school. At Solel, we teach the Jewish path to these values. It's one thing to appreciate labor and the beautiful world with which we have been blessed, and another to rest on Shabbat to live that appreciation. We don't just reflect on the hardships of our past, we do a Passover seder as if we were slaves in Egypt. And we don't just speak to God from our hearts, we pray-in the language of Torah-prayers that have come to us over generations. This is what religious education at Solel is about, and it is the path that we choose to define us as Jews.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chasing Dreams, Running from Lies

I went to an orthodox shul this Shabbat for a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. The Torah reading started with Genesis 28:10 And Jacob left Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran. During the Dvar Torah, the rabbi asked the famous question, why are we told that he left one place and went to another? He answered himself by quoting Rashi and saying that he followed his dream. This interpretation puzzled me, because I know that Jacob was fleeing from his angry brother Esav who he had just cheated out of his birthright and father’s blessing. It is clear why Jacob was leaving Beer Sheva, but why was Rashi understanding that he was chasing a dream?
My first mistake was taking this rabbi at face value. I went home to find the source of his reference and discovered what Rashi really had to say about the two phrases of this verse. “And Jacob left. Scripture had only to write: “And Jacob went to Haran.” Why did it mention his departure? But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed…and he went to Haran. He left in order to go to Haran. — [From Gen. Rabbah 68:8,]” Chasing a dream was not Rashi’s idea, not even later when he interprets Jacob’s dream of the ladder. But this is not uncommon practice among scholars who at times mistakenly attribute citations to the wrong people.
With no reason, at the time, to question the rabbi about Rashi, I asked him during the luncheon if Rashi was just trying to make Jacob better than his trickery towards his brother let on. I explained that the rabbis in the Talmud do this later when they reinterpret Genesis 33:4 “Esav ran to meet him [Jacob], and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” In my example, which I learned from Rabbi Dov Taylor, with whom I work, the rabbi’s tell us to change a letter in the Hebrew word for kiss to make the meaning “bite,” as if to show that Esav was the evil brother who takes revenge on Jacob.
What I was trying to show is that it is common that even scholars use their position of community leadership to guide in us to read the world as they do. This is a theme I always come back to; that we read and write the world, each of us in our own way. It is an idea that comes from Paolo Freire and Donaldo Mercado, and one at the center of my belief about the world. Each of us has a personal epistemology which guides how we understand things and, thus, how we act in the world.
The rabbi answered me in one of the uglier ways possible. He said that it was clear from scripture that Esav hated his birthright, Genesis 25:33, “And Esau said: 'Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?” which was a bad argument on his part, but I didn’t push him. And then he said that Esav wanted to kill his father and brother, Genesis 27:41, “And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him [Jacob]. And Esau said in his heart: 'Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.” Also a bad argument, for two reasons. Esav never said he wanted to kill his father. If anything, he respected his father wanted to wait for him to die before he would take revenge on Jacob. And he had good reason to be angry at Jacob, even though the peace educator in me says that there is no justification for murder. But the rabbi continued, “Esav was a terrorist and a murderer. We need to call an Arafat by his name.”
Sometimes there are no better words than the colloquial “What the fuck?” Is he crazy? Did I just hear the spiritual leader of a congregation of my people compare Esav to Arafat? But of course I did. The way these guys read and write the world is bizarre and twisted, and I should be glad to not understand them. I just hate that they do it in the name of our tradition.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Here is a funny video about Proposition 8, but I think it is flawed. I don't mind the blasphemy, but they are a bit over zealous and literal about the Bible. They should break out a Talmud before faulting Leviticus. As it says in Deuteronomy, "The Torah is not in heaven," and the rabbi's say that means It's here for us to interpret. The real target of these critiques of scripture should be literalists and fanatics. They are the ones who make a bad name for religion, not religion itself.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die