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
Books

Something for Everyone: Rabbi Richard Levy’s Songs Ascending

“To ask something of God is to praise the Holy One, for it demonstrates the worshiper’s belief that God has the power to grant the prayer”  —  Songs Ascending

The title, Songs Ascending, plays on the idea that prayer is ever upwards, from the human to the Divine. But, as stated in the quote, the Divine responds; humans have God’s ear, so to speak. Coming from a man who marched alongside Heschel and MLK Jr. on the streets of Selma, this commentary offers one vision of prophetic Judaism played out through the words of the Psalmists (or “poets” as Rabbi Levy calls them). In the acknowledgments he notes that this work was a very personal endeavor, and one can see this reflected throughout. Reading this commentary feels as if you were studying with Rabbi Levy and gaining his personal insights and words of wisdom.

The layout of the commentary is as follows: Volume One covers Psalms 1-72 and Volume Two covers Psalms 73-150. Each chapter of the Psalms is treated separately, with the English translation to the right of the Hebrew text. Following text and translation is a verse by verse commentary, after which comes a section titled “spiritual applications.”

Songs of Ascending is set apart from traditional commentaries in two main ways. First and foremost, one notes that the “spiritual application” portion is not something found in most commentaries, much less in a Jewish commentary (e.g. the JPS Torah Commentary series). This section reads almost like a daily devotional, something foreign to most Jews; devotionals have long been relegated to the realm of Christianity. Yet, Rabbi Levy adroitly demonstrates that this need not be the case—the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms in particular offer much for those who yearn for spiritual growth. He proves that “work before the ark” need not be saved for the High Holy Days. In fact, Songs Ascending seems to suggest that such efforts should not be a once-a-year occasion. Noting the tradition of P’sukei D’zimrah (singing select psalms during the morning Shacharit service), the inclusion of other psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service and yet another set in Hallel, Levy explains how the book of Psalms has much to offer us. This spiritual work is not for our own benefit alone, but can bring us in tune with how we act as responsible humans and Jews in society. For example, the “spiritual application” for Psalm 72 calls to task our commitment to social justice and our responsibility to create just leadership in the world.

The commentary also differs in its explication. Many commentaries focus on ancient Near Eastern texts as a means of unlocking difficult passages. For example, Psalm 29 (the psalm for Shabbat), is understood by traditional commentaries to be about the theatrics of the storm god Ba’al as he reveals himself to the world in a theophany of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. Rabbi Levy, on the other hand, begins with the biblical text and then looks to Jewish tradition for illumination. He notes where other biblical passages unlock the meaning of a Psalm, and concentrates on what the Hebrew means in context. Attention is given to 1) exploring the various shorashim (verbal roots) and what they mean and 2) the literary aspects of the poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, and parallelisms. Consider the commentary for Psalm 29. Verse 1 notes the alliteration and assonance in kavod vaoz, stating that the English “resplendence” and “strength” were chosen to mirror the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. Verse 6 draws the reader’s attention to the fact that “Sirion” is another name for Mt. Hermon (Deut 3:9). Finally, unlike other commentaries, sometimes editorial liberties are taken to make the text comprehensible to the contemporary audience: “The words we have added [in verse 6] are an attempt to make the image more vivid to the reader who may have no idea what Sirion and Hermon refer to . . .” (p. 106).

With its clear and engaging English translation, the insightful commentary, and thought provoking spiritual applications, Songs Ascending offers something for everyone, from lay person, to rabbi, to biblical scholar alike. And for that, I give it a “two thumbs up,” or as we say in Hebrew: kol hakavod!

Kristine Henriksen Garroway was appointed Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in 2011 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, CA.

Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Categories
Books Israel

Engaging with Israel on your own Terms

As The Fragile Dialogue explores, Israel has quickly become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish Community. There are those who remain curious and committed, wanting to remain connected in some meaningful way. There are those who have effected a divorce, asserting Israel has no place in their lives. And there are those who are ambivalent, filled with questions, not sure what they think and feel. Many would consider the last two categories a failure in cultivating a passionate connection to Israel. I disagree. It seems to me that any conversation about Israel that engages people in open, honest exploration of issues and expression of questions and concerns is an educational success.

Our inability to articulate a compelling vision for Israel education may lie in our unwillingness to accept the inherent ambiguity in our stance toward Israel. Rather than embrace this ambiguity, we seek to harmonize and instrumentalize Israel so that it fits with the not-so-hidden curriculum of American Jewish education, which is, in essence, how to function as an American Jew. Inasmuch as Israel education can be used as a way to reinforce American Jewish identity, it is viewed as a positive. This has resulted in a “mythic” representation of Israel that, as Jonathan Sarna pointed out, has, “for well over a century . . . revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.” Jewish education has reinforced this idealization of Israel to a great extent so that Israel can remain consistent with American conceptions of “Zion as it ought to be.” This means that we keep Israel at a distance through episodic and rather superficial encounters. We teach old conceptions and old narratives about Israel, because they are “safe” and because we don’t know what else to do. Indeed, it seems that a tacit assumption is made that only by first cultivating an uncritical “love of Israel” can we hope to engage American Jews at all.

To be sure, approaches that cultivate love can be effective for some. For increasing numbers, however, such approaches lead to dissonance, alienation, anger, and outright rejection, especially when they come to realize the mythic vision of Israel they were taught is vastly different from the much more complicated and often distressing reality. And, teaching only the “lovable” parts leaves our learners with, at best, a superficial understanding of why Israel is or could be significant in American Jewish life.

I want to propose that we accept the fact that being ambivalent about Israel is a productive educational goal. This may be unsettling for some, but it is far from a novel idea. Almost a century ago, the great Hebrew poet and writer Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that “the phenomenon of dualism in our psyche [is] a fundamental characteristic of the Jewish people.” This dualism is not a black-and-white choice between opposing forces, but rather a formative tension that allows for productive negotiation and growth. This kind of dualism is woven throughout Jewish life, belief, and practice, with manifold tensions between Zion and Sinai, sacred and profane, Israel and Diaspora, exile and redemption, religion and peoplehood, blessing and curse. Bialik claimed that the desire both to expand from the center and to contract toward it is what has kept Judaism and the Jewish people a dynamic and thriving civilization. “Because the people did not tie its fate to one of these and because they remained in equal power, the rule of this dualism in our group character has survived to this day.”

Translating a “nuanced understanding of Israel” into educational practice is a multilayered process that could start even with how the geography of Israel is taught. What maps are displayed on the walls? Do they mark the Green Line? Do we teach only about Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, or do we also include units on Kfar Kana, Um el Fahm, and Sakhnin? Do we focus only on the kibbutzim of the north or also teach that 50 percent of the population of the Galilee is Muslim, Christian, or Druze? When we plan a mifgash (encounter) with Israelis, whether virtual or real, do we include meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel or only Jews? Does our investigation of social justice initiatives in Israel extend only to issues of religious pluralism that pertain directly to Reform Jews, or do we also study about educational and/or social justice organizations that are striving to attain a shared citizenship across religious, ethnic, and political differences?

These are just a few of the questions worth considering when thinking about developing an intentionally ambivalent educational approach to teaching Israel. Embracing this ambivalence does not preclude me, however, from starting with the chutzpadik claim that Israel is integral to Jewish life wherever it is lived. That sets a boundary that is clear but also flexible. For me, Israel is a key dimension of what it means to be a Jew. Like the Psalmist, I believe that forgetting Israel can be likened to losing the use of a limb. One can still live without one’s right hand, but the loss is an attenuation, a diminishment, far from desirable. But, this chutzpah is tempered with a lot of humility. Understanding Israel as integral but not central allows for and even endorses a range of different personal commitments and connections. Israel as integral means that there is no one right way or one right level of intensity to be connected. Just as with every other aspect of Jewish life, Israel education can provide individuals with the resources and experiences to become informed and then make their own choices as to the nature and extent of their involvement. Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and Shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience. Just as educators strive to help Jews find meaning in God, Torah, and Shabbat and cultivate the motivation, knowledge, or skills that enable them to be develop their own set of practices, so should they work to help Jews engage with Israel, each on their own terms, yet as part of the collective Jewish project.

What this means is that we must accept that our communities can and need to welcome a wide range of views, understandings, feelings, and actions about Israel. This seems all the more pressing and essential today in order to build thriving Jewish life and to sustain a relationship with and connection to Israel. It means having faith and hope in the Jewish people, that expressing our differences will help us to listen more carefully to each other with open hearts, knowing that the choices we make build us up, enrich us, and allow Jewish life to continue to thrive in a multiplicity of ways.

Rabbi Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available to pre-order from CCAR Press.

Categories
Books

Honoring Tradition, Embracing Modernity

I could not have known, when I first began working at Congregation Rodeph Sholom as a second-year rabbinic student, just how much my experiences there would shape the many years after – even up until today.

Initially, I taught fourth grade – but we quickly all agreed that this was, perhaps, not my forte. The next year, I began working with high school students, a much better fit, and was later asked to start to reimagine the Introduction to Judaism and Conversion experiences for our adult students.

Each of these moments along the way allowed me to work with the inimitable Jo Kay. A teacher above all else, she was my guide as I gently dipped my first toes into conversations with people who wanted, more than anything, to learn about what it meant to be a Jew. Jo’s early lesson plans, hours-long conversations, and advice about how to teach to the learning styles of my students are all gifts I still hold dear. Her encouragement (along with that of the clergy at the synagogue) to create a real, foundational process for conversion and learning at the synagogue also introduced me to the hunger our students had for significant opportunities to learn in a deliberate and thoughtful way. They wanted to learn experientially, philosophically, spiritually – and were clear that they also wanted text.

Many of my students over the years – and yours, too, I imagine – had primarily known academic learning. This was their model for how to “know” something. Only after months of being together did they acknowledge that the “doing” was as much a part of the “knowing” as the reading and studying.

But the reading, I also came to learn, cannot be underestimated.

Eventually I was directed to Dru Greenwood at the (then) UAHC, one of the great heroes of our Reform Movement when it came to reaching out, bringing in, and teaching and learning along the way. Dru introduced me to the many books at our disposal as teachers of Introduction To Judaism.

Back then, in the late 1990s, we had a good library from which to choose, but to some extent, we still had to piece together a syllabus– a bit from this book, a bit from that. The gift of the first edition of the UAHC’s Introduction To Judaism Sourcebook with its parallel teacher’s guide was, for lack of a better phrase, a Godsend, allowing those of us who were teaching to gather many resources all in one place.

But time marches on, and books change hands. With a shift of ownership of the material from URJ Press, our Introduction to Judaism Sourcebooks were taken off the shelf. The loss of our old book was difficult – teachers had to fall back to the piecemeal practice they had not needed for quite some time

After having spent so much time reading and learning with my students, and in a new role with the URJ myself, I was privileged to learn once again. Rabbi Hara Person and I had breakfast one day, and together, we lamented the loss of our old book. It turned out that, while at the URJ we had been talking about a new kind of book, similar conversations were being had over at the CCAR. We realized that this was a real opportunity.

The basis for a new book – for new students – would be a trove of outstanding clergy resources that already exist in the CCAR Press paired with the on-the-ground knowledge shared by many of our Introduction to Judaism class coordinators and teachers throughout the URJ. The hope of a new resource, one that could now include so many of our newer texts, combined with corollary references to text from TaNaKH and rabbinic writing, was a very exciting prospect.

It became clear that the book could align with one of the new Introduction to Judaism Course Outlines the URJ was creating, giving teachers even more resources to use while still employing the same methods we’d been taught over the years. This book, edited by Rabbi Beth Lieberman, would allow us to teach to the style of our learners who wanted the experiential, the philosophical, and the spiritual. It would enable us to teach the learners who don’t know what to ask, as well as those who think they have no more to learn.

In the end, a new book was created – and it even has a new name. We at the URJ and CCAR Press are thrilled to introduce Honoring Tradition, Embracing Modernity: A Reader for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism Course. Designed for use with the Union for Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism classes, this sourcebook is for readers who seek to deepen their knowledge of Judaism’s wisdom, practices, beliefs, customs, people, and history.

This was such an exciting project of which to be a part. The relatively few suggestions our team at the URJ made at each step along the way pointed even more strongly to the strength of the team at the CCAR.

Having worked on this project, it now feels as though months of work and discussion, thought and arguments for the sake of heaven, learning, shifting, and being excited about new discoveries, have all culminated in a wonderful new part of our community being introduced for the very first time. It may seem earnest or dramatic to say that this new book and its introduction feels like welcoming a new Jew into our community – but that is indeed exactly how it feels.


Rabbi Leora Kaye is the director of program for the Union for Reform Judaism.  

Leora was privileged to work with URJ colleagues April Baskin (URJ Vice President of Audacious Hospitality)  and Frieda Hershman Huberman (URJ Manager of Introduction To Judaism) on  the creation of Honoring Tradition, Embracing Modernity.

Categories
Books spirituality

Approaching the Days of Awe: Turnings and Returnings

A blessing—in Hebrew, b’rakhah—is a special kind of utterance that can turn a moment into an event. Blessings intensify life by increasing our awareness of the present even while awakening our connections to the past. In the increasingly chaotic social and political climates in which we live, blessings can root us in the teachings of our tradition, and these teachings can help us recognize and remember the sacred in our everyday lives.

As a poet, I have long been drawn to the power—the lyric intensity—of the Hebrew b’rakhah. I began writing blessings of my own, however, because I was extremely uncomfortable with the heavily patriarchal image of God in the traditional prayers. When, almost four decades ago, I found myself standing silently in synagogue every week, unable to pray to the Lord-God-King of the traditional liturgy, I knew it was time for a change. And so it began. I sought to write new blessings that would speak not only to my own vision, needs, and concerns, but to those of individuals seeking greater meaning through our tradition. I wanted to provide a resource for the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, the first edition of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival was published. I had written the book especially (though not exclusively) for Jews who felt shut out of the tradition, alienated by liturgy that had failed to adapt to changing times. But although I had known there was a need for more inclusive language when I began writing my liturgy, I was surprised by the initial breadth and the enthusiastic tone of the reception to the book’s publication. It wasn’t just progressive Jews who wrote to thank me for the blessings, telling me they were using the book in their homes and chavurot; I received letters from Jews of every denomination. I was humbled to learn that The Book of Blessings had begun to open doors that had been closed to so many for so long.

Today the CCAR Press is issuing a 20th-anniversary edition of the book. My hope is that this new edition will return us to the conversation that began two decades ago with the publication of the first edition, and that it will carry the conversation forward, opening it to a new generation. Like the first edition, the new edition of The Book of Blessings is for Jews of all denominations, as well as unaffiliated Jews, progressive Jews, humanists, and self-identified secular Jews. It is for all who are dissatisfied or frustrated with the prayers of our ancestors as well as for those who want to build upon the traditional prayers.

At this time of year, it is the particular aim of The Book of Blessings to help us turn inward and outward at once—inward to the truths of the self and outward toward the whole of humanity. This to-and-fro movement—turnings and returnings, from self-examination to making amends with others—is at the heart of the High Holidays. I have written a companion book to The Book of Blessings, which focuses specifically on these themes: The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the High Holiday Season. It is my hope that, taken together, these volumes will enrich our experience of the upcoming Days of Awe, guiding us to a fuller and more vibrant awareness of our participation in the Greater Whole of Creation.

Marcia Falk received her PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Stanford and did postdoctoral work in Bible and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of several highly acclaimed books, including The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival; The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season; The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible; The Spectacular Difference: Selected Poems of Zelda; With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman; and three books of her own poetry, This Year in Jerusalem, It Is July in Virginia, and My Son Likes Weather. Marcia is also a painter and life member of the Art Students League of New York.

Categories
Books

Who Is Wise? One Who Learns From All.

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available to order!

The opening words of the Torah are iconic, and they mark the start of an iconic narrative, namely the Torah’s account of how God created our world. Centuries later, these words continue to carry power and resonate broadly. However, those first six days, presented twice in Genesis, tell of much more than the beginning of day and night, skies and seas, animals of earth and air; they provide us with a touchstone to return to once and again over the course of our lives. When we dare to investigate the intricacies of the Creation text we come to see not only ourselves, but the imperatives with which we live as Jews: to care for the natural universe, to take responsibility for ourselves and those around us, to lift up the Sabbath as a holy day, and to always remember our ever-profound origins.

We might also argue that never before have there been greater misgivings regarding Creation. At a time when considerable skepticism is aimed at religious institutions and tradition at large, the early chapters of Genesis are easily cast aside as antiquated, even irrelevant. And yet, even when placed beside the realities of scientific discovery and evolution, those chapters remind us in the most succinct fashion of precisely what is so ennobling regarding religion and religious life: ritual, poetry, coexistence, tradition, and the underlying belief so many of us carry in a benevolent Creator manifest in our daily lives. It is true that if the Creation story is going to withstand the test of time, it is not only because of its literary prowess and magnitude, but because it consistently renews our commitment to faith itself.

In an age of dire pace and frenzied obsession with technology, holding fast to our beginnings matters greatly, for us and our children. Rather than fixate forever on what’s next, and whose social media status garners greatest attention, Creation has us consider who we are at our most fundamental. They are verses to which we are meant to pay attention.

Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, a new publication from CCAR Press, started as a mere idea three years ago.  It has now become a very exciting reality.  When I proposed a book that would explore the great range of thought around the Torah’s Creation stories, I never imagined the far-reaching scope achieved by the nearly fifty essays.  Indeed, included in this collection are the diverse perspectives of awe-inspiring colleagues and teachers, each of whom have wrestled with Creation in their own right.  The end result is an anthology that captures the layers and complexities of Creation in new and fascinating ways.  At the start of this project I believed, and still believe, that we honor Creation most when we allow ourselves to see it in the most complicated light, rather than rushing to simplified, easy readings.

The book’s contributors challenge many of the common conceptions around Creation. They urge readers to see Creation not only as a story about how God formed our world in six days, but what it means to have faith, what it means to be a Jewish parent, what it means to care for the environment, what it means to protect the most vulnerable among us, what it means to think deeply about gender and sexuality, and what it means to observe Shabbat.

I am proud to align myself with a community that allows for and encourages diversity of thought.  To include authors that span the ideological spectrum within one anthology, sometimes in near total opposition to one another, speaks to the adage from the Mishnah: “Who is wise?  One who learns from all.” Perhaps one of the great victories of this book, therefore, is that it reminds us to learn from those not altogether like ourselves.

Rabbi Benjamin David serves Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, New Jersey.  Rabbi David is also the Editor of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available to order.

Categories
Books

Male and Female God Created Them: The Everyday Life of the Creation Myth in Israeli Society

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

“So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female.”  (Genesis 1:27)

Every society for which there are records has its version of a Creation myth. These myths serve as important allegories and help the society tell its own story. They present a microcosm of society, of the way men and women relate to one another, and of the place of humans in the world of nature. It is essential that we understand the values projected in creation myths in order to transform power imbalances.

While Jewish tradition has several Creation stories, I will focus on the ways in which the Creation story in Genesis 2 establishes the patriarchal order of our Jewish history. Plants could not grow because man was not there to till the ground, which is why God created the mist to water the earth, and man to cultivate it. Following the creation of the garden, plants, and rivers, God guides man around the Garden of Eden and instructs him on cultivating and keeping the earth.  God then creates all the animals to help man and save man from being alone. Man sees and names them and finds no help through them.  So, God creates woman from man’s rib. According to this story, man has an essential role in Creation, designated to him by God. The entire plant and animal kingdom is dependent on man, while woman is created to support man’s welfare.

After eating from the Tree of All Knowledge, Adam and Eve become aware of duality (which had been not present before) and man and woman realize they’re different. God and man then come into conflict, as they, too, are different. In that conflict, woman (paired with nature) is the cause of the first sin. Knowledge therefore comes not only out of the realization of good and evil, but also out of the differences between male and female.

This paradigm led to the establishment of a Jewish society in which women could exist and function only in relation to their fathers, husbands, sons, or brothers. The paradigm has also led to the evolution of two separate sets of rules within our halachic systems, excluding women from all religious leadership roles, from major events within the Jewish community, and from the close and intimate disciplines of religious practice that are related to time and season.

This duality echoes another element of the Creation story, which is the connection between women and knowledge. In the story of Creation, the “basic” state of man is one of ignorance. He is commanded to refrain from eating from the fruits of the Tree of All Knowledge (Gen. 2:16–17). The only limitation placed on man is the restriction of knowledge. Woman (being tricked by the snake) tempts man to eat from the fruit, committing the first sin, and shattering his divine-intended ignorance.

In Israeli society today, religious and political rhetoric perpetuate this particularly misogynistic reading of sin, knowledge, and gender roles. Since 1999, there have been repeated demands made by members of the ultra-Orthodox leadership (the fastest growing community in Israel, averaging 6.9 children per family) to segregate men and women in the public sphere in Israel. These demands, following a decade of work by the Israel Religious Action Center, are now, thankfully, being rejected by the Israeli government. Beyond their lobbying, ultra-Orthodoxy’s social structures prevent adults from leaving the closed society through a gender-segregated school system that deprives boys of the educational tools that would enable them to sustain themselves and lead lives outside the ultra-Orthodox world.  Through the political pressure of ultra-Orthodox parties, the Israeli government sponsors such schools that in essence teach only traditional Jewish studies. Since the late 1990s, in order to support their growing society, ultra-Orthodox women have been leading a quiet revolution. They are lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. They are more educated and are earning more money than ever before.

We in Israel therefore find ourselves living with the Creation metaphor as an everyday reality: Man in a primal state, connected to God, and woman holding the forbidden fruit of knowledge, thus threatening the innocence of man. This ongoing reenactment of the Creation story is a major threat to the future of Israel. Twenty-seven percent of Israeli boys in first grade study in a public educational system that ostensibly sentences them to a life of poverty and binds them to the ultra- Orthodox community. As we continue to lead the legal and political struggle to improve the education of ultra-Orthodox boys, we need to both recognize the elements of our tradition that provide support for the current situation, as well as utilize the various traditional responses to support knowledge, education, and gender equality.

Rabbi Noa Sattath is the a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Rabbi Noa Sattath is also the Director of Israel Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement in Israel. She is charged with leading the staff of the organization, developing and implementing social change strategies in the fields of separation of religion and state, women’s rights, and the struggle against racism. 

Categories
Books

The Animal Kingdom

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

In all of Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein—the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the egg—is the most seemingly eccentric and confusing. To the enterprising mind, however, this supposedly ethical dilemma of shiluach hakein underlies the divine enterprise that the Creation story presents to humanity.

On that point, the fifth day of Creation presents the Jewish people with an overarching moral quandary. As we will discern, the universe would not be complete without the diversity of the fauna that roams upon the lands. The totality of Torah articulates a myriad of responsibilities that humans have for animals. These responsibilities are intertwined with opportunities for the cultivation of Jewish values. Perhaps the premier mechanism to cultivate reverence for the wondrous multiplicity of Creation is to avoid eating God’s creatures altogether.

Indeed, vegetarianism/veganism—and Jewish awareness toward the overarching umbrella of animal welfare—is the most dynamic and growing trend in the American Jewish community and has been for the past few decades. Yet, the biblical text presents us with a conundrum. In the latter part of the Creation story, humans are told they “shall hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This seems to be in contradiction to the human obligation to emulate God’s ways and be “good to all” (Psalm 145:9). How could the consumption of God’s creatures be commensurate with the duty to uphold mercy?

The biblical history of animal consumption experienced three distinct eras. In the Garden of Eden humans did not consume animals. After the Great Deluge[1] and construction of the ark, God perceived the violent nature of humans and thus permitted meat consumption as a concession so they would channel their violent nature to kill animals instead of people. Finally, we come to learn that after meat was only permitted as a sacrifice to God, it later became permitted as a more regular staple of diets outside of sacrificial worship. These three eras mark the progression of an admittedly supernal ideal and evolution of a certain religious pragmatism. Are we now in a fourth era, and in the position to consider the well-being and rights of animals as comparable to the basic rights that humans are privileged to hold?

Following this reasoning, a midrash explains that Moses was chosen as the leader and prophet for the Jewish people because of his consideration for animals.[2] It is not only the prophets and kings of Israel who are so often portrayed as compassionate shepherds; this is also a popular way of personifying God: “The Eternal is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). This value is also reflected in one of the best-known instances of animal protection in the Talmud: That we may not eat until we have fed our animals (BT B’rachot 40a).

The Torah states, “When…you say: ‘I shall eat some meat,’ for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish” (Deuteronomy 12:20). A commentary in the Talmud goes even further, interpreting the verse from Deuteronomy to mean that “a person should not eat meat unless they have a special craving for it” (BT Chulin 84a).

Throughout the millennia, Jews have yearned to return to the Garden of Eden. The Creation story is not the story of the Jews, but of every creature that God found worthy to exist. By being compassionate to animals, we not only fulfill the mandate of the Torah, but we regain our humanity. In fact, the great sages of the Talmud consider mercy and compassion to be essential characteristics of being Jewish (BT Beitzah 32b). Choosing not to eat meat for ethical reasons has the power to imprint the values of mercy and compassion deep within our souls. From the lowliest microbe to the most complex being, all gain life from the same holy source.

When we arrive at the insight that the world was not created for us alone[3]—that the mother bird and her egg are precious to God— and that we are not entitled to consume whatever we wish, we reach a powerful Torah ideal, one that may be the most spiritual ideal of all. We share this beautiful world with a remarkable diversity of life. We are only one aspect of this biosphere.  And when we respect it for what it is, we venerate that which brought it forth from the far reaches of time and space.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Rabbi Yanklowitz is also the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

[1] Also known as the Flood, seen later in Genesis 6–9.

[2] Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2.

[3] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:13.

 

Categories
Books

Music and The Punctuation of Time

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

This is the story of a fourth day. From the mystery emerge years, seasons, nights and days, all with their own series of markers and movements in the sky. These patterns are the foundation upon which we build our lives. And because of the innate capacity for patterns to quickly progress from lovely routine to painfully boring rut, it is in reference to time, and specifically Shabbat, the seventh day, that we first engage with the word “holy” (kadosh) in Tanach. In order to make and take meaning from the random events of our lives, to vary the endless patterns, we must somehow mark one moment from the next, and also connect one moment to the next, in a way that makes sense over seasons, over years, over generations.

Music and time are inexorably intertwined.  Music that we see on a page is only a hard-copy representation of something that cannot exist without the passage of time. Music must move forward within the context of the passage of time, as must the planets and stars in their revolutions in the sky. The single notes, much like single stars, mean nothing unless connected to others.

The power of a single melody can send one hurtling back in time, and allow us to take others along. That’s the real meaning of the word “commemoration”: remembering together.  With a single melody, I can be transported, along with innumerable others, to another space and energy and emotional state. In this way, music helps us to both awaken to and immerse ourselves in special set times of celebration and commemoration, as well as to the k’doshim b’chol yom, the holiness inherent in every moment of every day. 

In their book Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mystical Reflections on Jewish Prayer, Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen remind us that there were two splittings of seas in Tanach.[1] The Sea of Reeds story is one that we know quite well. Few, if any of us remember this second miraculous occurrence of Israelites crossing a sea on dry land, when “Adonai your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Adonai your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which God dried up before us until we crossed” (Joshua 4:23).[2]

Rabbis Kushner and Polen share with us, from the teachings of Itturei Torah,[3] that the reason that one story is paramount in our people’s faith formation and the other has fallen by the wayside is because of song. And when we sing Mi Chamocha we are taken back, each time, to when we emerged from slavery to freedom.

The presence of music and the ways in which it moves our spirits has the ability to change us, as well as whatever comes after.  It connects us to our deeper selves, gives us insight into our past, and reaffirms our commitment to action. It causes us to reflect on our connection to each other, as well as our deep emotions in the face of art and beauty and song. All of these blessings that music brings somehow coalesce in the function of music in our ritual lives.

All faith and secular cultures mark the passage of time with ritual. Can you imagine an important Jewish ritual or holiday celebration without music? Although they vary according to region and origin, the specific modes and melodies used at different times of the year have helped Jews over the centuries to celebrate the patterns of their lives. Our music connects us not only to our present-day communities, but to Jewish communities across the millennia. As older melodies are, over time, replaced by more contemporary sounds, we also merge our unique stories of the past with the story of the communities in which we presently live.

By paralleling and making us mindful of time—its patterns as well as its passage—music allows us to go far beyond the spoken word. By adorning and providing  context  for the  ways in which we travel under the  sun, moon,  and stars created  on the  fourth  day of Creation, music has the power  to open  our hearts  to that  which is “within  our reach, but beyond  our grasp,” according  to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[4] Music connects us to any human who has ever looked to the patterns in the skies and celebrated with instrument, rhythm, and voice; it allows us to reach upward and inward, simultaneously touching our individual souls, our shared stories, and our stars.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Cantor Dreskin also serves as Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR in New York. Ellen travels extensively to congregations around the country as a scholar-in-residence, and has taught for many years on the faculty of URJ Summer Kallot, Hava Nashira, and the URJ Kutz Camp Leadership Academy.  

 

[1] Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mys- tical Reflections on Jewish Prayer (Woodstock,  VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004),

[2] Adapted from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publica- tion Society, 1999), 464.

[3] A. Chayn, Itturei Torah, ed. Aaron Jacob Greenberg  ( Jerusalem: Yavneh, 1987),

3:124.

[4] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Vocation of the Cantor (New York: American Con- ference of Cantors, 1966).

Categories
Books

The Third Day and Our Oceans

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press.  

We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.

We are told that we hold sway over the animals. When God creates humankind, God grants dominion over the “fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

We are told that we may do what we like with the plants.  “These are yours to eat,” God says on the sixth day (Genesis 1:29).

Later, this relationship between human beings and vegetation is modified with the additional command l’ovdah ulshomrah, translated literally as “to work it and keep it,” and commonly known today as “to till and tend” (Genesis 2:15). Humankind is intended to take care of and partake in all animals and all plants.

Day three of the Creation story has two components. Before God established plants, God first collected the chaotic waters of the earth and designated these as “seas,” an area differentiated from “dry ground” (Genesis 1:9–10). The creation of each is concluded with a repetition of the central trope of Creation, “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:10).

These two acts of creation on one day create two parallel tracks for God’s contract with humankind as a partner in Creation. We are told that we hold sway over the animals. We are told that we may do what we like with the plants.

We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.

And yet, humankind has ruled over the seas. We have disrupted the boundary lines distinguishing sea from land. Whole populations will be displaced. Cities and states will be pulled underwater as the sea becomes entangled with dry ground. Further, rising sea levels are causing drinking water contamination and disruptions in agriculture, coastal plant life, and wildlife populations. In impacting the seas, we have also adversely affected life on dry land for humans, animals, and plants.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sea levels have risen approximately seven inches globally since 1900. Our industrial output of greenhouse gases has initiated global climate change and sea-level rise; we have failed to stay within the means of our God-given responsibilities. Climate change caused by human activity presents problems of an immense global scale with potentially infinite disruptive power. Rising global atmospheric temperatures in turn cause sea-level rise, disrupt ecosystems, limit crop viability, and lead to drought and extreme weather events. Many of our current international security and poverty crises can be traced back to these adverse climate change impacts.

These challenges have hopeful and plausible remedies. We can mitigate sea-level rise by investing in and advocating for the production and dissemination of clean energy technologies. Unlike clean energy’s fossil fuel counterparts, the mechanisms for extraction (solar panels and windmills) are not disruptive. While we cannot turn back the clock on climate change, it is within our power to ensure that the current impacts of sea-level rise are not dramatically worsened as we continue to use nonrenewable sources. We need only shift from greenhouse-gas-producing technologies to renewable energy in order to minimize our negative impact on the oceans.

On day three of Genesis, we read, “Let the waters beneath the sky be collected in one place, so that the dry ground may be seen!”—and so it was. And God called the dry ground Earth, and called the collected waters Seas. And…God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:9–10).  As Jews, we can look at this passage, in both its description of separation and, later, our absence of active human obligation, to make the case for a Jewish response to climate change through renewable energy. By living up to our responsibilities on land, we can restore our seas. We can give back to them their autonomy as a space distinct from the dry ground. We must not hold sway over the seas.

We are at a crossroads in human history where we have gained rule over nature and have the responsibility and capacity to surrender that power. We have scientific evidence that we have created a problem. We have the global willpower to make the change. We are not told that we hold sway over the sea. We are told that God saw how it was. Now, we just need our energy industry and our policy-makers to catch up.

Liya Rechtman is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Ms. Rechtman is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar and Amherst College Graduate Fellow at Harvard Divinity School as a candidate for a Masters of Theological Studies with a concentration in religion, ethics, and politics. She previously served a consultant for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and co-chair of the Washington Inter-religious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group.