Categories
Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Mourning the 100,000 Americans Who Have Died of COVID-19

Together with Americans of all faiths, we mourn the 100,000+ people who have died of Covid-19. We share in the grief and sorrow of this unimaginable and still-growing milestone, as well as all the losses to Covid-19 around the world. We join with our Reform Movement partners and faith communities of all denominations around the country in calling on our communities to include a moment of remembrance in our upcoming worship services. The full statement about the weekend of prayer can be read here, along with a call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance  on Monday, June 1st, at noon local time to pause and remember all those who have died.

We offer these beautiful words, written by Alden Solovy, for your use at Shabbat services, interfaith gatherings, or a special Yizkor service.

One-by-One: A Prayer as the COVID Death Toll Mounts

By Alden Solovy

God of consolation,
Surely you count in heaven,
Just as we count here on earth,
In shock and in sorrow,
The souls sent back to You,
One-by-one,
The dead from the COVID pandemic,
As the ones become tens,
The tens become hundreds,
The hundreds become thousands,
The thousands become ten-thousands
And then hundred-thousands,
Each soul, a heartbreak,
Each soul, a life denied.

God of wisdom,
Surely in the halls of divine justice
You are assembling the courts,
Calling witnesses to testify,
To proclaim
The compassion of some
And the callousness of others
As we’ve struggled to cope.
The souls taken too soon,
Whose funerals were lonely,
Who didn’t need to die,
Who died alone,
Will tell their stories
When You judge
Our triumphs
And our failures
In these hours of need.

God of healing,
Put an end to this pandemic,
And all illness and disease.
Bless those who stand in service to humanity.
Bless those who grieve.
Bless the dead,
So that their souls are bound up in the bond of life eternal.
And grant those still afflicted
With disease or trauma
A completed and lasting healing,
One-by-one,
Until suffering ceases,
And we can stop counting the dead,
In heaven
And on earth.


© 2020 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. Reproduced with permission.

Categories
News Reform Judaism Responsa

Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

During the unprecedented need to quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR Respona Committee has responded to questions about technology and creating virtual minyans during this crisis and created this guidance. Additional Reform responsa can be found here, and the CCAR Statement on the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.

5780.2: Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency

Question:

May we rely on technology to create a virtual minyan in a time of crisis when we cannot gather in our synagogues?  If so, what are the criteria for constituting a valid virtual minyan?  How does one recite Kaddish in a virtual minyan?  At what point do we know it is appropriate to discontinue the virtual minyan and return to a physical minyan?  (submitted by numerous CCAR members)

Answer:

Although we have a recent decision[1] that rejects the virtual minyan, we are now in an emergency situation.  In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.[2]  People will certainly “go astray” by turning to all sorts of sources of comfort if we do not ensure that the kehillah kedosha, the holy community, can continue to function. 

The minyan and participation “outside” the minyan:  The essence of the minyan is the reciprocity of the social contract – the shared obligation that binds all ten individuals to one another, transforming them from a number of individuals into a community, a virtual bet Yisrael.  The halakha translated that conceptual essence into a physical one by mapping it onto a space, requiring the members of a minyan to be in one room together.[3]  The majority view in the halakha is that the individuals who constitute the minyan must be in one room, though some authorities hold that it is sufficient for them to be able to see each other, thus including, e.g., the individual who is visible through the window of the synagogue. 

            Now, however, we are in a situation where people may not gather in one room.  Therefore, for the duration of this emergency, we permit the convening of a minyan by means of interactive technology, i.e., technology that enables all members of the minyan to see and hear each other.  Two widely used examples of this type of technology are Zoom (available as a smartphone app) and Microsoft Teams.  In essence, therefore, we are requiring the use of Zoom or Teams – or any app with the same capabilities that may appear on the market now – to constitute a virtual minyan.  (As always, and especially in this time of economic distress, we presume our congregations and all of our people will adhere to all intellectual property and copyright laws as they obtain software.)

            As long as there are ten people connected in an interactive manner, any number of additional people may also be “present” passively, via live streaming.  In accordance with the precedent of 5772.1,[4] we do not count these individuals in the minyan.  In our current context, the obstacle to counting the livestream viewer in the minyan is that s/he cannot be seen or heard, and therefore cannot be an equal participant in the minyan’s underlying social contract.  Additionally, there is no way for the service leader to know how many people, if any, are watching a live stream, and therefore no way of knowing whether a minyan is “present” in the absence of ten interconnected members. 

            We affirm that one who is viewing a livestream should still respond to all the prayers; this is considered the same as having recited them.[5]  The same is true for the livestream viewer who recites the words of the Mourners’ Kaddish along with the service leader.[6] 

            The CCAR plenum has never taken a stand on whether a minyan is required for public prayer, but its importance has been a given for most Reform rabbis and their congregations.  In a 1936 responsum, Jacob Mann advised that “every attempt should be made to have a full minyan,” but allowed congregations to rely on the Palestinian custom of fixing a minyan at six or seven.”[7] Many small congregations rely on this responsum.  Some congregations of varying sizes disregard the minyan completely.  We are not saying now that every Reform congregation must adhere to the requirement of a minyan of ten, but we encourage it, even in small congregations, as a way of bringing the community together.[8] 

Torah reading:  All parts of the service can be conducted in a virtual minyan with the obvious exception of actually reading from the Torah scroll.  As a further hora’at sha’ah, it is sufficient to read from a printed text without any aliyot.  However, this is still a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Torah study and requires a b’rakhah (although all authorities agree that if one has earlier said la’asok be-divrei Torah, this requirement is merely for the honor of the community[9]).  Under these present circumstances, we suggest reverting to the practice set forth in the Mishnah:[10] The first reader recites the blessing before the reading, and the last reader recites the blessing after the reading.  An alternative practice, for those who do not want to use the Torah blessings for anything other than reading from the scroll, is to recite la’asok b’divrei Torah before reading from the printed text.  Either way, we also strongly encourage including serious Torah study in addition to the reading.

The duration of these temporary procedures:  Finally, at some point in the future, we know that this health crisis will end.  When the authorities stop restricting attendance at public functions, this hora’at sha’ah should be set aside.  People should return to the synagogue and the practice of interactive virtual minyanim should cease. We realize that some people may be fearful, but we rely on experts in these matters. “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[11]  Nevertheless, individuals in the most vulnerable populations (especially the elderly with pre-existing medical conditions) may benefit from live streaming.  In these circumstances, the precedent of our earlier responsum, 5772.1, offers sufficient guidance. 

Joan S. Friedman, CCAR Responsa Chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] 5772.1 A Minyan Via the Internet, https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet, accessed 15 March 2020.
[2] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4.
[3] Pesaḥim. 85b; Yad H. Tefillah 8:7; Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:13.
[4] We note also the supporting precedent of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, OḤ 55:15:2001: Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, https://www.rabbinicalas sembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/ReisnerInternetMinyan.pdf, accessed 15 March 2020.
[5] Shulḥan Arukh OḤ 55:20.
[6] CJLS OḤ 55:15:2001.
[7] American Reform Responsa #3: Less Than a Minyan of Ten at Services.
[8] On the history of the minyan in Reform Judaism and its importance, see “The Minyan” in Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (NY: UAHC Press, 2000), 19-22.
[9] Magen Avraham 139:15.
[10] Megillah 4:1.
[11] Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, vol. 2,5759.10: Compulsory Immunization.

Categories
inclusivity LGBT Prayer Reform Judaism shabbat

The Updated Gender Language of CCAR Shabbat Table Cards Makes Room at the Table for Everyone

In 2018, my first year as the editor of CCAR Press, we published an innocent looking, laminated table card for Friday nights. Thanks to Rabbi Dan Medwin, the card was almost finished when I joined the project, except for the pictures, the folding (if you do not understand how to fold and unfold it, follow the page numbers!) and two pieces: Praise for a Partner and Praise for a Child. Those two little pieces became the first two pieces I wrote for the CCAR and, in a way, for you. While writing those pieces, I made two decisions: I replaced the traditional praise for a Woman of Valor with the Praise for a Partner; and I merged two separate blessings for sons and daughters into one blessing, In Praise of a Child, including both the traditional male and female role models. 

Creating the cards marked the beginning of my work as editor of CCAR Press, but their publication was embedded in a conversation that began a long time before I sat down at my desk. For years, the CCAR has been engaged is conversation around gender in the rabbinate and in Reform Judaism, as seen in the use of “mi beit” in Mishkan T’filah, creative gendering of wedding blessings in Beyond Breaking the Glass and in L’chol Z’man V’eit, new Reform life-cycle certificates with gender-free options, etc. Since 2017, the CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate has addressed the reality of life in the rabbinate as experienced by women rabbis, and in 2018, the CCAR updated the guidelines for all submissions to CCAR Press to include non-binary language both for ourselves and for God.

This year, with the upcoming publication of Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Rabbi Denise L. Eger, the CCAR is continuing to open its sanctuaries not only in acceptance, but also in celebration and gratitude, for the many LGBTQ voices, both of congregants and rabbis, that have made our Movement into what it is today. These voices will continue to guide us toward a deeply inclusive and holistic experience of our community and all of God’s aspects. At the end of the year, we are expecting the publication of Supplements 2020 to L’chol Z’man V’eit: For Sacred Moments/The CCAR Life-Cycle Guide (or, as you might also call it, “The Rabbi’s Manual”), which includes individual prayers and complete rituals mindful of the different identities and life choices we embody together. 

Jewish expectations are high and overarching, and they get reiterated again and again: in the words of the traditional Woman of Valor; in the Blessing for Children on Friday Nights; and in the form of Torah, Chuppah, and G’milut Chassadim at central moments of our lives. These liturgical texts make up a powerful framework to be measured against: to be smart, to be successful, to be learned; to be happily married, to have kids, to be a caring and supportive member of your family; to be a generous, active, and righteous part of both the Jewish and global community. Our expectations are high and their height is stressful. 

There are many different kinds of feminism. Some feminists focus on the protection, enhanced visibility, and full empowerment of cis-women. Others are engaged in questioning those very categories. For yet others, a feminist reading of society might lead to radical changes in their theology, politics, identity, and occupation. Some feminists make space for non-binary language; others speak and write about the pain high societal expectations so often cause for everyone.

The CCAR table cards do not lower expectations drastically: The partner described still fully embodies our Jewish values of ethics, productivity, wisdom, generosity, and care. Built out of traditional phrases that can easily be sung to traditional tunes, the Praise for a Partner still describes an ideal partner, and the gender-inclusive Blessing for Children is neither non-binary nor does it provide less-than-idealistic role models to the youngest of our family members.

It is all the more important, then, that we hold in our thoughts some guiding principles while our lips speak these renderings of traditional liturgy:

  • In the words of liturgist Marcia Falk: We bless our children for who they are right now—and for who they will become (Marcia Lee Falk, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, The Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival (New York: CCAR Press, 2017), p. 124–125). 
  • We bless our partners for all they are to us—and all they will become. 
  • It is our full acceptance and love for all this is that make Shabbat into a piece of the world-to-come (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 57b)—our knowledge that whoever we are right now might not be perfect, but it is good (enough) for this very moment.
  • Finding the balance between our acceptance and love of ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit and our openness and readiness to change is part of our often winding journeys: as adults, children, partners, parents, siblings, colleagues, bosses, and assistants.  

Because what we want, ultimately, is to create spaces that are filled with Shabbat, food, and blessings—for everyone present. For absolutely everyone. 

Categories
Reform Judaism Social Justice

Begin to Confront Discomfort and Uncomfortable Truths By Asking One Question: ‘Are You OK?’

Dear Rabbis,

I am very grateful to Rabbi Hara Person for offering me space on the Ravblog to share a few words with you. She suggested, with Biennial behind us, that I write about something that I would want the rabbis to know in the aftermath. While that list is long, I appreciate your consideration as I begin here.

As many of you know, my Biennial experience was an exercise in racism; both the constant experiencing of it and then speaking about it in the moment quite publicly at my Shabbat afternoon session, which was a first for me.

I thank each of you who took the time to write to me to after I shared my experiences both in the room at my presentation, and then on Facebook. The outpouring of support from the rabbinic community and the community at large following Biennial touched me deeply.

I am thrilled to see that there seems to be a great deal of time and energy being focused on how we can be more welcoming, both as individuals and in our Jewish spaces. It is a conversation that I have longed to have for three decades, and I believe that our ever beautifully more diverse community will only thrive if we continue to keep this effort at the top of the agenda.

“To be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.”

What I find that we are not yet talking about, however, is what happens after someone has been left feeling marginalized or dehumanized by our community. Even as someone who has experienced this for most of my life, I had not really considered it myself until after Biennial and I started to received messages from people.

The messages came, literally, in volume. Outrage. Disbelief. Confusion. Sadness. Anger. And now that I’ve found some quiet time and space to process things, I have found myself struck by what was not said. Or, more accurately, what was not asked.

Are you OK? What can I do for you?

I can count quite literally on one hand the number of people—friends, strangers and clergy alike—who asked if I was OK. Or if I needed support following Biennial. And that really surprised me. Had I, God forbid, been in an accident, people would have come bearing flowers or chocolate chip coffee cake. They would have asked if I’m OK. And what they can do to support me while I heal.

But was there no coffee cake on offer amidst the outrage and sadness. And, really, I could have used some.

It is often said that people do not ask questions that they do not already know the answer to. But I have come to learn that, many times, people do not ask questions that they know have an uncomfortable answer.

In my case, we all know that the answer is no. I was not OK after Biennial. We who are dehumanized for our race, religion, sexual orientation, or abilities are never OK when attacked. On my book tour, I tell people that it feels like my heart has been broadsided by a truck moving 75 miles per hour each time that I meet racism and intolerance. That I am never sure if my heart will start beating again. When I will be able to breathe again. And it is always a hit and run, where the offender slams into me and keeps moving. Without care or apology.

When it comes to speaking uncomfortable truths, I find that I am an exception rather than the rule. I am finally at a place where I am very comfortable speaking out when an incident takes place. And I am quite comfortable saying that I was not OK. But it has taken decades of therapy and very hard work to become this version of me. For many years, I choked on my silence, put on a brave face, and pretended that I was OK. And there are many—too many—who still remain silent, simply because we don’t find that there is really an open-ness to discussing it.

Until we are at a place where each person is greeted with the same warm communal embrace, I believe that it is important that we also consider proactively how to respond in the aftermath. To be asked, “Are you OK?” “What can I do for you?” is a critical place to begin because these questions say that we do not have to carry the pain alone.

And to be given a safe space to give an honest answer allows us to be seen and heard and to speak the painful truth that can be so difficult to voice.

I acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable ones for all of us. People who love me dearly did not ask if I was OK after Biennial. Some could not bear to even acknowledge what took place, including people who saw it for themselves. But I believe that sharing the truth of all of this a big part of how we begin to make sure that it does not continue.

As our rabbis, leaders and teachers, I encourage you to consider both the before and the after. We welcome the outrage, sadness, anger and sermons. But, please. Ask if we are OK. Ask if we need support. It matters so much more than you know.

B’ahava v’shalom,

Marra Gad

Marra B. Gad is a Los Angeles-based author and independent film and television producer. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University. Her memoir, Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, was published by Agate Bolden in November 2019.

Photo credit: Bobby Quillard

Categories
Ethics Reform Judaism Responsa shabbat

New Responsum: Collecting for Tzedakah in the Synagogue on Shabbat

The CCAR is pleased to present this Responsum on collecting money for tzedakah in the synagogue on Shabbat (5780.1), the newest addition to our historic collection of  questions and answers about Jewish living. 

Question: The question has arisen in our congregation as to whether it is permissible to collect money for tzedakah on Shabbat. I am aware of a few congregations who do announce the tzedakah cause for the week and have ushers accept donations on the way out of services, without pressure of course.  I am well aware of the prohibition of carrying money and engaging in commercial activities on Shabbat in the halacha. But, as Reform Jews, we pay little heed to most of these rules. Also, we have no reservations about other traditional prohibitions, e.g. driving on Shabbat, turning on electric lights, cooking food, etc. Most Reform Jews carry money in their wallets and purses on Shabbat without the sense that they are violating the Shabbat. No doubt, many also engage in other activities that are not traditionally permissible. These activities, I realize, are considered violations of Shabbat, whether the practices are widespread or not. However, it seems to me that tzedakah may fall into a different category for us. After all, the individual who gives tzedakah is not benefitting in any material way. Given Reform Judaism’s deeply held convictions about the importance of tzedakah, could this mitzvah override the traditional prohibition in the view of our movement?


– Rabbi Michael Sternfield, Bradenton, FL

Answer: As we have seen, not using money – even for the most worthy of purposes – was a distinguishing feature of Shabbat observance, whose symbolic significance only grew over time.  Our evolving Shabbat observance, in a Reform context, has digressed from that consensus by recognizing a limited number of ways in which using money may enhance an individual’s Shabbat, by deepening their experience of it as a day of spiritual renewal, e.g., paying admission to a museum.  But in that case, the use of money is an incidental means to a central purpose of Shabbat.  It is not intended to grant unrestricted approval for spending money on Shabbat.  Indeed, our Reform precedents are unanimous in insisting that giving tzedakah is a financial transaction that should not be done on Shabbat, however praiseworthy it is to link it to Shabbat.  (By way of analogy, we might consider the Conservative movement’s decision to allow driving to synagogue.  That takkanah was made to enable Jews to attend public worship on Shabbat when 1950s suburbanization meant that synagogues were increasingly not within walking distance.  It did not give Conservative Jews blanket permission to grab keys and a full tank of gas to go out and “see the USA in their Chevrolet” on Shabbat.)

It is one thing to allow an individual to make a personal decision to use money as an incidental means to enhance their Shabbat renewal.  It is quite another to declare that the mitzvah of giving tzedakah – a commercial transaction – is so important that we may, or that we should, make it a regular, i.e., essential, part of our Shabbat observance.  We would be making a  fundamental alteration in the character of Shabbat.  If we are to do that, there must be a compelling reason to do so, a matter of overriding necessity.  We do not see any such  compelling reason or overriding necessity in the question before us.

As we have seen, our tradition has long accepted that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss communal affairs, including deciding tzedakah allocations (but not actually disbursing the funds), on Shabbat, and making pledges to give tzedakah.  Nothing is stopping the congregation from including a formal tzedakah appeal in the Shabbat service.  But why is it so crucial for the actual funds to be collected then?  And how are they to be collected?  Are the ushers passing a plate for cash, as in churches?  Handing out pens for people to write checks?  Carrying around credit card readers?  Encouraging congregants to take out their smart phones and make a donation via PayPal?  How can this be done as part of a Friday night (or Saturday morning) synagogue service without fundamentally altering the character of Shabbat in a way that destroys its sanctity?

We especially do not see a compelling reason, given that a congregation can still take advantage of the larger Shabbat attendance – as did our ancestors – without actually collecting money on Shabbat.  We therefore recommend the following solution to the matter.

Our congregations tend to hold services at the same hour on Friday nights throughout the year, regardless of when the sun actually sets.  For many Reform Jews, the start of the service is for all intents and purposes the start of Shabbat, when they feel that the Sabbath has come upon us ritually, emotionally, and intellectually.  Given that established practice, we suggest that you collect tzedakah before candle lighting and the beginning of worship.  In this way, carrying out the mitzvah of giving tzedakah immediately before entering into Shabbat heightens people’s awareness of the transition from ḥol to kodesh, and the difference between the two.  We note the existing custom of putting coins in a pushke (tzedakah box) before lighting the Shabbat candles, which is mentioned in our Reform guides; just as we have brought candle lighting into the synagogue, why not bring the pre-Shabbat tzedakah contribution as well?

(One of our committee members offers an additional pragmatic solution:  Add PayPal and other donation links to the synagogue webpage, and in the weekly Shabbat brochure, remind the kahal to donate to whatever tzedakah you choose for that week’s support.)

We believe very strongly that the synagogue, as the central public institution of Jewish life, embodies our covenant community, and therefore it must be the exemplar of Jewish life.  The standards we set for it may well differ from what we countenance on an individual level.  This is particularly true in a Reform context  precisely because we allow a great deal of latitude to individuals to determine their own Shabbat observance.  In essence, therefore, it falls upon the synagogue to provide an appropriate model.  As a movement we have made great strides since the 1960s in teaching our people how to observe Shabbat; bringing financial transactions into the synagogue on Shabbat would constitute an enormous step backward.

However, even if you do make a formal tzedakah collection your last weekday act before beginning Shabbat, we have additional reservations if it is done as a public activity.  Collecting money when the congregation is assembled for the service can make people uncomfortable for any one of several reasons: perhaps they did not bring money with them; perhaps they do not use money on Shabbat; or perhaps the appeal is for a cause they prefer not to support.  It can be very uncomfortable to refrain from giving in the presence of others.  It can also be awkward for guests and non-members:  We do not want people to feel that we are soliciting them when they enter the community to explore Judaism, check out our congregation, or attend a friend or family member’s simchah.  We therefore advise you to think carefully about how to do this, so that no one is embarrassed.

In addition, though we have not based our response on this consideration, we cannot discount the issue of ḥukkot ha-goy (imitating Gentile practices).  In our society, where Christianity is still the dominant religious tradition, collecting tzedakah during the Shabbat service cannot help but resonate with echoes of passing the collection plate in church.  Our concern is not merely the imitative element, but also the implicit lesson.  In calling to mind the dominant cultural paradigm of “charity,” it will teach a very un-Jewish lesson, that tzedakah is charity, i.e., something one does voluntarily, out of the goodness of one’s heart, rather than a mitzvah, a religious obligation, as Mishkan Moeid points out (see above).

Summary:

  1. The essence of Shabbat, in our tradition, is to be a holy day of rest and spiritual renewal, marked by cessation from labor and weekday occupations. Over centuries of Jewish life, refraining from the use of money – the ultimate transactional substance, and the essence of commercial activity – has been a key signifier of the distinction between kodesh and ḥol. This has been true in the Reform context despite our implicit rejection of rabbinic notions of melakhahsh’vut, and muktzeh.
  2. Giving tzedakah is a financial transaction. Despite its stated importance in Reform Judaism, adding it to the mitzvot that ought to be performed on Shabbat would be a fundamental redefinition of Shabbat, and therefore should not be done unless there is an overriding need and compelling reason to do so.
  3. We find no overriding need and compelling reason to approve of giving tzedakah on Shabbat, since the sho’el’s stated purpose can be met in another way, even on erev Shabbat.

Read the complete responsum, including the classical halakhah and Reform precedents here, and find the CCAR’s collection of Reform responsa here. And to learn more about Jewish perspectives on money, read The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, published by CCAR Press.

The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

A New Year’s Message From CCAR Chief Executive, Hara Person: Looking Ahead Into 2020

Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the CCAR, reflects on her first six months as Chief Executive, her vision for the organization as 2020 begins, and her gratitude for the community of Reform rabbis.


Dear Rabbis,

Six months ago, I stepped in my new role as CCAR Chief Executive. It’s been quite a ride so far. I’ve had to transition from a specialist in Jewish publications, organizational strategy, and communications into a generalist in all things Reform rabbi. This has meant learning to stretch in new ways. Many of you have generously shared your wisdom and experience with me as I undertake this process of learning, and I am so grateful.

I am spending a good part of this first year in my role traveling with the intention of connecting with as many of you as possible. It is both a joy and a privilege to learn about your triumphs and your challenges, and to hear what brings you the greatest meaning in your rabbinate. I thank you for sharing yourselves with me—both the good and the sometimes painful.  I look forward to meeting and connecting with even more of you as I continue traveling.

As we step into 2020, I’m excited to see the third and last year of the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate reach its conclusion, and to then embed those findings, recommendations, and suggestions in the ongoing work of the CCAR in meaningful ways. We will also begin to implement the work of another important task force, that on Retirees and Successors. We have also begun a process of thinking about how the CCAR can evolve as our membership continues to diversify, with an ever greater percentage of our members serving in a wide range of roles throughout the Jewish world. And all of this is just a small part of what we’re busy with at CCAR; there are webinars and in-person meetings in development, new publications, other committees, task forces and commissions, trips being planned, and, of course, CCAR Convention 2020 in Baltimore, March 22–25.

One of the things about the CCAR that makes me so proud is the ways in which you are there for each other. For some of you, that means serving on committees or task forces or commissions that make the CCAR a stronger organization, for some that means contributing to our publications and helping us be the teachers and leaders of Reform Judaism, for some that is helping us find the resources we need to best support our mission, and for some that means being each other’s rabbis in moments of crisis. For so many of you, sadly for too many of you, this means finding meaningful ways to come together at this time of increased antisemitism. However it is that you participate in helping the CCAR achieve our highest aspirations, I am moved by your commitment, and I thank you for your gift of self.

I hope that I will see you in Baltimore as we gather to enter the next era of the CCAR. It will be a time for us to come together to learn, to study, and to teach. But even more, it will be a time for us to draw succor from being with other Reform rabbis, no matter the type of rabbinate, to celebrate together, to share together, and to gain strength from one another as we face the challenges of today.  

Sincerely,

Hara E. Person

Chief Executive, CCAR

Categories
Reform Judaism

What is the Future of Religion?

At a recent TV interview in Westborough, MA, I was asked: “What is the future of religion”? I do not know what prompted this question but, I guess, the interviewer thought that, as a Rabbi, I would have a special insight on this subject at a time when religion is under attack in many quarters: Attendance at religious services is down, many religious leaders have been accused of sexual misconduct, and quite a few synagogues and churches in the Boston area have either closed or have recently combined their activities with others. On the other hand, religious fundamentalism keeps getting stronger and more rigid. Recently, I was looking for a particular channel on TV when I came across a Christian program during which the minister was making assumptions about Judaism that were totally biased and factually wrong. I was about to call the station but then I changed my mind knowing that it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation with a religious fanatic.

Not too long ago, I came across a list of statistics which shows that, in America today, 20% of the population is not affiliated, but 68% still believe in God and 37% call themselves simply spiritual, whatever that means.

I maintain that religion will survive, simply because it deals with ultimate values that we need them in our daily life. However, I would urge that it be based on reason and rationality. Being a Jew, I would argue that the Judaism of the present and of the future has to be 1) based on the best scientific information we have; 2) that it must be progressive, answering the existential questions of our time, and, 3)  that it needs to be inclusive, reflecting the different experiences of Jews around the world, in particular remembering that there are a variety of valid Jewish concepts of God, and different religious traditions and rituals (e.g., Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic).

Religion has to be believable, and not based on unproven assumptions, for, if it is, people will not take it seriously and simply ignore it. I take religion seriously but not literally, and am comfortable to say that, for example, many of our classical religious texts (like the Hebrew Bible or the New-Testament, and, less so, the Quran), were completed much later, and that most of these texts were “attributed” to, and not “written by” their “authors.” I also maintain that these texts represent the thinking of their own time, and that new ideas were developed by Jews throughout history. For example, Maimonides was an Aristotelian; Kabbalah mysticism formally originated in the 13th cent. Southern France, and Erich Fromm was a humanist. Today, religion must struggle with our present existential questions using new perspectives.

I am a religious naturalist, following the teachings of Kaplan, Gittelsohn, and Spinoza. I am convinced that Scriptures emerged after a long period of oral transmission, and reflect the thinking of their own time; that miracles do not exist, and if something unusual occurs, it is because we still do not know how the world really operates; that prayers are not answered but reflect our expectations and hopes; that Mitzvot (commanded deeds) must be carried out, not because of the presumed reward in the world-to-come that does not exist, but because it is the right thing to do now; and that after death the only thing that remains of us are our name and actions.

I can live with these assertions and am comfortable with them. What about you?


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA.

Categories
Books Reform Judaism

Embracing Reform Judaism: Behind the Scenes of A Life of Meaning

My dream of editing a book on Reform Judaism for the CCAR Press began germinating in college. Late one evening, I wandered into the Judaica section of the library and came across a volume called Reform Judaism: A Historical Perspective, edited by Joseph L. Blau. (I still remember that books dealing with Reform Judaism were numbered 296 by the Dewey Decimal System.) This volume presented a collection of essays originally published in the yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and archived eighty years’ worth of material most indicative of Reform concerns over that time span.

Compiling material for A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path was a very different task than the one that Blau undertook. We knew that we wanted something broader than a collection that focused on specific issues within our Movement, and we knew that we wanted the volume to address the more existential questions concerning our community at large. Ultimately, we wanted A Life of Meaning to present original works on a spectrum of important topics—something that would both reflect who we are and what we believe today. Perhaps even more importantly, however, we needed to make sure that A Life of Meaning would provide Reform Jews a door into the discussion of what our religion means in today’s world.

I knew that this could not be a single-authored volume; what we envisioned required multiple perspectives on what Judaism means and how this meaning is expressed. Such a volume calls for viewpoints diverse enough to speak to the varying beliefs, practices, and experiences of as many individuals and organizations of the Reform Movement as possible. The challenge was to create a manuscript that simultaneously embodied this diversity while carving a clear path into the heart of what it means to be a Reform Jew, not just for those looking in from the outside, but for every Reform Jew who, at heart, feels any uncertainty about what it means to identify as Reform. We wanted a text that would help them enter into Reform Jewish thought not as an academic discipline, but as a set of core concepts that contribute to making a life of meaning, both for the individual and, perhaps even more importantly, for the members of the Reform community.

Little by little, we began collecting tentative essay topics and titles, then longer descriptions of what each essay might look like and, finally, the essays themselves. The number of authors with whom I was in touch started to expand exponentially, and the diversity within the Reform Movement became even more strikingly clear. I was amazed at the distinct attitudes, approaches, and beliefs of each author in this collection, and was even more amazed by their dramatically varied lifestyles. Despite their differences, however, the congregations and communities to which they belonged or which they led always had much in common.

Putting together a volume of this sort is, as the saying goes, a little bit inspiration and a lot of perspiration—the completed volume is very much a testimony to the many thoughtful and talented people constituting the American Reform Movement today. Contemporary American life just does not fit into the theoretical categories that religious-studies scholars and others have theorized about and expected to find. But our goal is not to prove theoreticians right or wrong; it is to create texts that can serve both as source material for greater knowledge and as sources of spiritual inspiration. We wanted to create a volume to be read, not just by individuals, but by study groups and entire communities. We wanted to create a text that would stand as a living source of discussion and dialogue, promoting Reform Judaism among, first and foremost, those most likely to embrace it.

While it is enormously gratifying to put the project to rest and to see the finished product, it is hard to accept that the many correspondences and discussions involved in creating this book have come to an end. Our hope, of course, is that the published book—whether in print or eBook—will take on a life of its own as a wellspring of discourse that will not only continue to inform, but to transform, our understanding of what it means to embrace Reform Judaism in the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan currently serves Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, Alabama.  He is also the Editor of CCAR Press’s A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path.

 

Categories
Reform Judaism spirituality

Rabbi, I Don’t Need Religion to Be a Good Person

I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.

Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.

Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.

I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi. 

Categories
chaplains General CCAR Healing Rabbis Reform Judaism

On the Eve of Thanksgiving, Further Post-Election Reflections

On this eve of Thanksgiving, I am reflecting deeply and with profound movement of spirit and heart upon two weeks of listening, processing and holding the feelings raised by the election. In my role with the CCAR, it was a tremendous privilege to help organize the call we offered to our members and to share in the leadership of that call with our insightful, skilled and heart-open colleague, Ellen Lewis. All that Ellen taught us that day has remained present to me in the passage of these weeks and has helped immensely. To summarize a couple of key points, Ellen reminded us to be attentive to the truth of our own feelings and to remember that those feelings can inform how we act but need not control our actions. She invited us to self-care and compassion, and to hold close the knowledge that, in times of heighted feelings (particularly anger, fear and anxiety), we are all prone – and this includes those we serve – to acting out and displacement. I know those teachings will have proven helpful to those who were on the call (or who availed themselves of the recording as found at on the CCAR member’s site) as they have to me.

Upon reflection, I have a couple of additional thoughts to offer, particularly to those who have been in pain over the results. First, I have felt and noticed heard people speak of feelings that resemble those of mourning. And I would caution us against buying too fully into that metaphor. As many of us know from pastoral work, when someone is gravely – even life-threateningly ill – it is not uncommon for people to slip into anticipatory grief. It is almost as though the psyche is saying, “If I just experience the anger or the sadness now, maybe I won’t fall into despair when the inevitable death happens.” And it is a dangerous place to go. Chevre, the patient(s), our own souls and the soul of our country are gravely wounded, but the wounds have not yet proven fatal nor even been pronounced mortal. As was the case after 9/11, certain ideas we had about how things were may well have died two weeks ago, or at least been seriously altered. But we are here, as is the nation. We need to avoid falling into the anticipatory grief which will prevent us from doing whatever is to be our tikkun in responding to the wounds.

And one piece of the tikkun – in the framework of Rebbe Nachman’s teaching, especially on this eve of Thanksgiving, we can be looking for the od m’at (see Psalm 37) – the little place where evil/despair/rage do not hold sway, and from that little place “azamra l’Elohai b’odi” (Psalm 146) sing our way into inviting abundance back into the world – abundance of love, of hope and of commitment to justice. On this Thanksgiving, may the little place sing to each of us and help us inch our way toward healing and sacred purpose. And then, back to the work.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter is CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness