Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Dress codes and why we should reconstruct them

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Admittedly, it would be disingenuous from me to tackle this subject without two big disclaimers. First, I come from a culture where openly commenting on what somebody is wearing is quite a taboo. One does not tell a person that her clothes are out of fashion, or that he is not dressed for the occasion, the reason being that you have no idea of this person’s circumstances. It may well be that he just does not own better clothes; or she could be too poor or too sick to spend time thinking about wardrobe. However, I am also an American. Here clothes make the man and, up to a certain point, I am willing to play with the rules of the game. The second major disclaimer is that those who know me personally will tell you that I am the kind of guy you see wearing Hawaiian shirts and noticeable large earrings to work, or that if we cross paths in the warmer season outside of work, I could be walking down the street in nice linen clothes but barefoot. It is the islander in me, what can I say. Nevertheless, I do know how to dress up in business suit or even in black tie. Knowing how, however, doesn’t mean that I accept it and even less that I like it.

Here you have three anecdotes so that you understand where I come from. First story: I was hired by some Jewish day school where I was supposed to teach music with an emphasis on Hebrew as vehicular language. It is the day before classes, so not a kid to be seen in the building yet. All the teachers are cleaning up classrooms, decorating, and preparing materials. It is a rather dusty environment so I am dressed comfortably, in a tie dye T-shirt and Thai pants. The principal calls me apart and comments on my attire: “That’s a beautiful shirt. Kids would love it… but from Monday on, please dress professionally.” Then she proceeds to inform me about their business casual dress code, which I ostensibly ignored for the rest of the year. Don’t get me wrong, during my tenure there, I was always correctly attired, but I wasn’t up for dressing boringly. Dress shoes and a tie do not make you more professional; they simply make you more conventional, and perhaps less threatening to the status quo. Second story: it happened to a friend but may as well had happen to me. He was invited to a local Pride fundraiser. A very committed activist for trans rights, he happens also to be a creative, rather unconventional fellow, so he arrived to the event wearing a tuxedo but barefoot, as he just never wear shoes. At this LGBTQ event celebrating diversity, mind you, the organizers were narrow-minded enough to deny him admission even after paying an outrageously expensive ticket for his dinner. His being a barefooter did not fit the mold of normalcy they aimed for. It makes one question when did queer identity become framed in such a narrow cage. Third and final anecdote: it is one of my first Shabbats at an unnamed synagogue. I was partnered with the rabbi, I am ordained myself, and yet I was working there as a volunteer, no salary; that is, I am offering for free services that in any other circumstances I would be well paid for. I am wearing dress pants, a nice silk shirt and leather sandals. A shul-lady wearing a sleeveless top looks me from head to toe with disapproval. Then she comments to the president of the synagogue: “I thought sandals for men were not allowed on the bimah.” Something tells me that if we were to abide by traditional tzeniut (and I do not advocate for that at all), a sleeveless woman would be slightly more objectionable than a guy in sandals.

Dress codes are about eliminating uniqueness and individuality. The concept of dress code often raises in us images of a necessary evil. People chose to believe that it is all in the name of professionality; that whenever there is no dress code, chaos and excess ensue; or even that we wouldn’t need dress codes if people were better educated regarding what is appropriate or not. In reality, dress codes are usually repressive and arbitrary rules with a single purpose: uniformizing and even depersonalizing people. The aim of the most strict dress codes (such as the army’s or that of dictatorial regimes) is to kill individuality so that we become a mass of anonymous peons, pieces of a well oiled machine. Furthermore, be it political oppression or company policy, dress codes operate on the assumption that the higher-ups know better and individuals do not know how to act. At its best, they are patronizing if not blatantly oppressive.

Dress codes are heteronormative (or, if you allow me, cisgender-normative). In our times, the general understanding of gender equality has remarkably improved, compared to that of previous generations. Nevertheless, we still have a lot to learn regarding the construction of gender and the full spectrum of gender embodiment. Dress codes are often a heteronormative relique. For instance, think of business casual and gender equality: while males are severely limited to dark suit and tie, women have a wider range of models and colors. If we add queer people and gender-bending individuals to the equation, dress codes force us to wear whatever is “appropriate” to the gender written in our IDs and to its conventions, no matter if it accurately represents who we are. In one of the schools I graduated from people did not wear academic gowns, but gender-specific attire. The unwritten dress code consisted of suits for men and whatever-is-dressy for women. I insisted on wearing a nice, colorful Indian shirt and dress pants. And yet, I was not dressed as a hippy because I am lazy. I was expressing my creativity and my identity as a queer man. In any way I was less elegant or respectful than my female classmates.

In fact, it is my opinion that we should all be as proactive on denouncing this heteronormativity as the boys who wore dresses to school in order to protest an unnecessary and restrictive dress code policy whose aim was avoiding that guys had long hair or earrings.

Dress codes limit creativity and self-expression. If the principal agreed that “the kids would love” my colorful shirts, and if I am supposed to teach them music, art, self-expression, how on earth is it going to help this purpose if I wear anodyne business casual stuff? Would that make me any closer to the young students? Schools and religious institutions are particularly fond of this paradox. We want people to feel connected with Spirit, to daven in a holistic, embodied way, to feel at home in their spiritual community, and yet we expect the clergy (or even the congregants) to dress like they are going to a board meeting. We want kids to fully develop their creativity and explore their artistic site, and yet we tell them open toe shoes and pink hair are a reason to be sent home with a note to their parents.

Dress codes are culturally homogenizing. Western world standards for dress code do not necessarily agree with what is expected in other cultures. Our work environment is diverse and multicultural, but we still think that there is only one way of correctness. Why shouldn’t it be acceptable for an Indian lady to wear an elegant sari to a work conference? What if males of a particular culture dress up by wearing kilts, dishdasha, or a Boukharian kippah? In what ways would you consider this or this to be underdressed for business or academic purposes? Inforcing westernized random dress codes may reveal a lack of sensibility to cultural diversity.

Dress codes are a not a Jewish value. Many of you will not agree with me in this. My idea is that as Jews we value diversity and individual expression. We value chidur, beauty, and art as a form of worship. We value equality, and we are called not to judge anybody by the price tag of their clothes, by the wealth, or by their appearance. We are challenged to treat everybody as equally worthy. It is true that some segments of our community seem rather obsessed with particular attires. I feel often rather concerned when people bring up tzeniut as a set of rules to be enforced, poorly hiding their sexism. Once one of my classmates –a guy who identified as modern Orthodox, and wore kippah and tsitsit– was ranting about tzeniut and how the school should offer advice to “non-observant” female students of what is appropriate to wear to class (of course by “non-observant” he meant “non-observant the exact way I observe”!). While I don’t share his view, I respect this tradition. The problem was that this fellow had a half open shirt and rather short cut-offs. It made me think that there is way too much written about female tzeniut and a lot less about men’s. Modesty in dress, as a value, has nothing to do with the length of your sleeves, but with your self-respect, and your demeanor.

Can we reconstruct a social use of dress code that is diversity affirming and educational? And, in a Jewish context, is it everything about dress codes, about tzeniut norms ultimately negative? Is there anything redeemable, something we can learn from it?  In my opinion, strict, one-size-fits-all norms are a mistake. Instead of norms, we should aim at teaching values. Both in the Jewish community and in broader society, the values we want to sponsor are diversity, self-expression in respect to other people, and positive embodiment. I think there is nothing inherently wrong about celebrating the human body and its beauty. However, there is something alarming at the way we voluntarily sexualize the body, and this is even worse when we objectivize women or when, chas ve-shalom, we sexualize children. If you have ever been to a bar mitzvah where the kid in question wears an alarmingly short skirt and a skimpy dress badly covered by her talit, ‘nuff said.

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Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”

 

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Open for Me the Gates of Justice: Reconstructing Conversion.

the Shulchan Arukh, code of Jewish Law

 

One of the most concerning aspects of the future of Judaism is the undeniable fact that Jewish population is shrinking and getting older. When a Christian church’s membership decreases, they can always evangelize the neighbors or move to another part of town with more potential parishioners. When a shul is dying due to demographic changes, we often do not have these options, since the pool of Jewish residents in an area is usually very limited. This is the fate of synagogues in small town America, particularly in areas that used to be important hubs of business or industry but have since waned. When the newer generations move to bigger cities in search of opportunities, there is very little we can do to keep the shul open. We have lost millions to the Holocaust and to assimilation. We are loosing some thousands more due to demographic factors that are not in our hands.

 

It is my opinion that the future of Judaism demands us to reconstruct our approach to conversion seriously. Granted that it is unquestionably forbidden to force anybody to become a Jew, and that Jews have not been active proselytizers for thousands of years. However, I think that there is a big difference between knocking on somebody’s door Bible in hand (white shirt and tie included) and reaching out to non-Jews who are ready to explore Judaism. Most of the negative traditional attitudes towards candidates to conversion are fruit of the times and circumstances that surrounded the Jewish community in centuries past. According to some of these attitudes, a beit din is supposed to reject candidates up to three times before accepting them to the conversion process. Once accepted, a number of right-wing batei din will make practically impossible for the convert to succeed, demanding from the person a level of observance –always interpreted in the narrowest way possible– that they would never dare to demand from those who are born Jewish. While I am not advocating careless leniency on conversion processes, I think it is time to denounce the lack of humanity, understanding, and derekh erets of many a beit din.

 

Once a person is officially converted it is almost inevitable that s/he will not be universally recognized. For those of you who may not know, in principle Reconstructionists accept conversions effectuated by all other movements (caveat: it is the Reconstructionist congregation and not the rabbi who decides whom to recognize). Reform rabbis recognize all conversions, but Conservative rabbis only accept Orthodox or Conservative conversions. As for Orthodox, they only accept their own, and yet not universally: it is not uncommon for Orthodox rabbis to question batei din from other Orthodox trends. Although generalizations are never fair, I would say that the more insular a denomination is, the less welcoming to conversion candidates. When we talk about Israel, recognition also means the right of immigration, and unfortunately the Orthodox monopoly of legal institutions makes things very difficult for everybody else. If it wasn’t enough with the Israeli chief rabbis anathematizing non-Orthodox conversions, lately they are equally nullifying conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis. What is worse, when the beit din declares that a convert is not such, it creates a human drama that includes this person being denied aliyah, having his or her marriage nullified and his children declared mamzerim.

 

While I don’t think we should accept conversions that skip important steps (namely brit, mikveh, duly constituted beit din, etc.), in my opinion all demands should be reasonable. Even if one is so concerned for the fulfillment of all halakhic minutiae, I still do not see why conversion processes are not being evaluated case-by-case, and why –when there is a serious doubt– the batei din do not deploy all ways and means to “re-convert” expeditiously the person whose conversion is questioned. You are entitled to not consider a conversion valid according to your standards, but it is just not Jewish to leave the person out there and not help her regularize the situation.

 

The more astringent argumentation for the denial of recognition is as follows: according to SA Yoreh De’a 286:12, a convert must have the intention of keeping all commandments at the time of the bet din. Even if s/he doesn’t observe afterward, the conversion is still valid. However, there are rules as for who can act as a judge and witness of a conversion: any public transgressors of commandments are disqualified. And that is where Orthodox operate in the assumption than all non-Orthodox rabbis are by definition public transgressors. Do you see the problem? Nobody is really doing this for the sake of the convert, or even out of love for the Torah, but rather as a political game, because they cannot conceive the possibility of recognizing the authority of a rabbi that doesn’t belong to their denomination.

 

Lately, some other Jewish movements take an apparently more friendly approach to conversion and encourage non-Jews to observe the seven noachide laws. Their argument: why would anybody want to go through the hassle of conversion when they can become one of the benei Noach? Particularly in South America we are witnessing an explosion of websites, groups and even congregations that ascribe themselves to this category. The problem is that the renaissance of this halakhic concept is not exempt of an agenda. Most of what we know about the noachides is codified by Maimonides, who equals a noachide to a ger toshav, a hassid umot ha-olam. The Rambam did not understand this category of people as limited to the physical land of Israel. Anybody who accepts the seven mitzvot is a ger toshav, living among Jews in any of the lands of their dispersion. However, the Rambam says that until the days of the messiah we can only accept a full convert, not a ger toshav (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 10:6). Why does then Chabad –for instance– encourage non-Jews to accept the noachide commandments? Probably because they would have problems with their full conversion. Firstly, if Schnerson was the messiah, we are currently living in the messianic era and there is dispensation to accept noachides. The second reason is Chabad’s theology of the nature of non-Jews who, according to the second chapter of Tanya, have no neshamah: like Jews, they do have an animal soul, but do not possess that “extra” divine soul reserved for Jews. Jews have a spiritual purpose, gentiles a physical one (Likutei Sichot v. 25, p. 49). How can somebody become a Jew, if it is not in the person’s nature? Nobody can get himself a divine soul if he lacks one! Some Orthodox groups even think that teaching Torah to a non-Jew is prohibited, less the person uses it for idolatrous purposes. If you are not outraged, you should.

 

Without advocating careless leniency, and with all respect for our halakhah, I think we should all do teshuvah for making it difficult for potential converts to adopt Judaism fully. People should be well informed, study Judaism in depth and understand the process before being fully accepted as Jews. However, all demands should be reasonable and all care should be given to treat the person with sincere respect and acceptance. It is true that progressive shuls are a lot more welcoming for converts, but not totally exempt of prejudices. We should all do teshuvah for the way we have treated converts when questioning and “marking” them, which is against the halakhah. Think of the many times a person is casually reminded that they are converts, or a rabbi insists they should use ben Avraham avinu when called to the Torah (less somebody would think that his “real” father’s name was Abraham! I’ve seen this even in a few “progressive” synagogues). In the 1990s I was outraged to hear an important leader of liberal Judaism in Europe say that we should put a cap on conversions because too many converts in a shul would have pernicious effects in the congregation’s culture. Even in this day an age, we all have our own baggage of prejudice and insularism. We should particularly question our congregations’ attitudes toward converts of a different race, transgender persons or anybody who looks slightly different than your average American Ashkenazi. Even in the most liberal circles, some are suffering discrimination.

 

Finally, we should question our misconceptions about “proselytism,” and examine what is allowed when making outreach to non-Jews and what is not. According to the Rambam, proselytizing is actually one of the 613 commandments: the Responsa 149 says it is permitted to teach the commandments to non-Jews in order to drawn them close to our religion. In the Rambam’s Sefer ha mitsvot, the third commandment is to love G-d. He states that the way we fulfill this injunction is by sharing the knowledge of G-d with the world and drawing others close to HaShem. Maybe we will not knock on doors but I see no problem on organizing Judaism courses to target potential converts, or on informing mixed families that our clergy is open and willing to explore conversion studies. In the same context, the mitzvah no. 9 is to sanctify the Name of G-d. Its essence, for Maimonides, is to publicize the faith in HaShem without fear of any harm incurred by doing so. The verb used here is lefarsem, to publicize or proclaim. I cannot avoid to relate it to another proclamation, the so-called pirsuma de-nisa. This Aramaic expression, which contains the same root, is the one our rabbis use when talking about the commandment of lighting our chanukias in front of the window, so that we can proclaim and publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. My wish for this season is that we strive to make our Judaism shine out for whomever wants to see its light.

Future of Judaism, again.

These days I have been thinking a lot about the future of Judaism, particularly in the US. It is obvious that we are in transition; we just don’t know to what new models! What is sure is that synagogues, Jewish institutions and even Jewish culture itself will be something radically different in twenty years. We can live in denial or begin to work to adapt ourselves. The blogosphere and other media offer so many interesting opinions on that subject that it is hard to keep track. Just yesterday, I was reading two extremely different online articles.

The first one was Daniel Pipes More about the future of Judaism.”After analyzing recent studies and statistics about the evolution of American Jewish population, Pipes reaches to the conclusion that the future is in the hands of Orthodoxy. Two major factors point out to this trend: they have a higher birth rate –and thus a younger population– and a supposedly stronger vitality that helps combat the general trend towards assimilation. Quoting Norman Lamm, Daniel Pipes thinks that in the future the Reform and Conservative movements will be history, an interesting but failed experiment. We will be back to that mythical time when –as Orthodoxy chooses to believe– there was only “one Judaism.”

The second article is Patrick Aleph’s “How do you approach a future of Judaism.” Aleph’s overview of the current state of the Jewish community is, in my opinion, quite accurate: we are keeping a huge number of anchylosed institutions that are essentially duplicate offers targeting an already over-marketed collective. JCC’s gyms and day-cares try to compete against their non-Jewish counterparts; in any given city you have a Hillel, a Birthright Next, plus the youth programs of the JCC and of each one of synagogues competing for a pool of increasingly disengaged young Jews. For Patrick Aleph the trend towards dual-identities (BuJews, HindJews, etc.), interfaith households, and non-theism is rapidly transforming Jewish life, from our prayer to our pastoral care. Patrick Aleph’s opinion is that the future of Judaism is in humanistic, secular, non-theism.

I am not sure if denominations are soon going to be history, but definitely they have a somber future, Orthodoxy included. Otherwise, we would not have so many Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionewal or “just Traditional” Jews (not to mention the closing of seminaries, increasing number of non-affiliated shuls, etc). Diversity is a sign of our times: if historically there never was a “one Judaism,” today each of us chooses its unique identity that is in constant osmosis and evolution, a well balanced cocktail of Jewish-Catalan-American-Progressive-Queer-Recon-yoga-traditionalism. David Pipes is right to declare that Orthodoxy is growing, but I don’t think this goes beyond mere statistics; I am not sure how much retention there is in this growth, nor do I see any particular signs of vitality. If this was true, Israel –and not America– would be the motor of Jewish culture and renewal, the think-tank of Jewish future. Quite the opposite, wherever Orthodoxy is the majority –like in Israel and in my own country of origin– it is exerting an asphyxiating power and influence in the rest of the Jewish community. There is no innovation, no flexibility, no realistic outreach, little adaptation or concern for contemporary issues, and very little intellectual honesty. Everywhere I look, I see insularity, blatant hostility to potential converts, hijacking of Zionism, and less than ethical political lobbying. We will be a handful but boy, will we be kosherer-than-thou! Religious fundamentalism may be a popular global trend in this day and age, but does it inspire any constructive changes for the future? (Disclaimer: I am talking of cases and places where Orthodox are majority, not of individual Orthodox persons).

We have to think outside the box, reinvent Jewish infrastructures. Carthago delenda est. However, unlike Patrick Aleph, I don’t think theism is our contemporary Carthago. The interest for spirituality is not decreasing at all, although the approach to this spirituality is more individual, less group-oriented

and definitely less institutional and standardized. Our concept of the divine may need updating, and we need to be attuned to all forms of spirituality, theistic or not. However, there is still plenty of space for a theistic spiritual community; we will have to figure out what will this community look like.

I agree that Jewish federations and JCC’s are less and less relevant for most people, and that there is a trend to connect with horizontal groups and minyanim rather than with vertical, institutionalized synagogues. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, more concerns than excitement about this trend. To begin with, there is a danger of atomization: we can create a number of new collectives whose new tradition is so different that it is just not recognizable to the rest of the Jews. At a certain point in history, the Latin spoken in Italy and the one spoken in France became so different that, in fact, they spoke two languages, French and Italian. I am not advocating for a chief rabbinate to decide who is in and who is out –a solution that never made much sense and that now is just anachronic–, but I’m not sure how are we going to hold this together.

My second concern is how much effort and money do we really want to invest in these well-needed new Jewish venues and structures. While I am a strong believer in horizontal communities and equality, I am also concerned that a trend towards independent minyanim may hide an unwillingness to pay for a synagogue membership or for a rabbi/cantor salary. It is great that people take responsibilities, learn to lead services, teach what they know to others; but sometimes we need a better-educated person to help us go the extra mile. A professional clergy can expose the minyan to things they never heard about. An unfortunate example of the opposite is the present state of hazzanut: it is nice that so many people are knowledgeable and feel empowered to present themselves as cantorial soloists. What would a synagogue hire a more-expensive ordained cantor if this volunteer can do it? As a result, so much of our musical tradition is just lost. You may not even know there is a nusach for the holidays, since we all sing Shabbat modes for Shavuot. Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to advocate for an five-minute operatic cantorial recitative. I am more for spirited singing and clapping, but I also deplore the fact that people think there is only one melody for Salm 92.

So here it is: wish I had innovative ideas to expose. I think that the motor for change is our willingness to not take anything for granted. We have been changing and evolving for centuries and this is just another step. Let’s all get involved and excited about it, keeping an open mind and a passionate heart.

Trophies for showing up: on the educational value of effort.

It’s back to school day. While I am hooking the projector to my laptop, one of the kids is telling me something I have heard way too many times in the last two weeks: “I don’t want to play recorder anymore; I’ll be trying viola.” The 4th grader has been playing recorder for less than nine months and he cannot yet tell a G from an A. Nevertheless, he’s got enough: it’s just too boring. While this conversation is taking place, another girl, of Russian origin, has unpacked her violin and started playing, page after page, a rather elaborated concerto with accuracy and gusto. I never taught her that, so I ask how has she improved so much in the short span of three summer months. Apparently, she has been in Russia all summer visiting relatives, and she has taken lessons there. Being of European origin, I confess I had almost forgotten how different the musical education abroad is, even with its many flaws. As a kid I was taught to take my music practice very seriously because the effort pays off. From the age of nine, I took lessons twice a week, practiced daily, and took exams in front of three teachers year after year. There was no money to go around jumping from instrument to instrument: your choice or an instrument implied a certain commitment to it. Yes, it may have been a little too tough, but I’m grateful for all that discipline, which fostered in me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong: there is nothing bad about children trying out instruments and different kinds of sports, nor about making their education a little more playful. My big question is if we –teachers and parents– are actually doing enough to encourage them to persevere on anything, to stick to that recorder another year, and this time actually taking five minutes a day to practice. Of course, no child can be left behind, but should we really stand still or barely move forward out of fear of challenging kids too much? Yes, the education we received was too dry, but perhaps –only perhaps– today we are expected to teach in a way that it’s all games an glitter, no effort and no challenges. Trophies for all, just for showing up, are great for the students’ self-esteem, but are they good for their preparation and maturity?

Almost at the same time this was happening, there was an uproar in my area because the shul where I work –otherwise out of the way, invisible, even ostracized by the bigger congregations in the area– dared to reduce its Hebrew school from twice a week to only once, even if doubling the learning time on that one day. It was a democratic decision based on demographic changes, availability of volunteer teachers, etc. The accusation from the big shuls in town is that this policy is watering down Jewish education and giving unfair advantage to our synagogue, because apparently everybody will flock to the “easy shul.”

In my opinion this statement reveals two big dilemmas. Firstly, people do not seem aware or concerned that Jewish education is already watered down to a rather clear little soup. Concentrating education in a single day will most probably not change a thing. After seven years of twice-a-week Hebrew instruction, an alarmingly high number of children end up learning by heart a haftarah from some transliteration, without understanding a word of what they’re saying. We just seem to love to pretend in front of our friends that the kid is proficient. Secondly, we not only acknowledge but even sanction the fact that many parents have one main goal: the fastest and easiest path to their kids bar/bat mitzvah. Once children are “barmitzvaed” (since, whoever invented this verb, set it in the passive form), they can graduate from Jewish life altogether, maybe to reappear, if lucky enough, for their wedding. As a result, adults go around with a mere varnish of Jewish culture and the concept of G-d of a 13 years-old.

Have we made Jewish education (or music education for that matter) so “nice and friendly” that it just lost its purpose? Have we decided that the best way to avoid boredom and desertion is simply to demand very little effort? These are questions that cannot be solved in a day but require a deep revision of our education systems. Among other things, I think it’s time to de-emphasize the centrality of benei mitzvah rituals, and even to delay them until age 16 or more, so that little Sarah doesn’t just “get barmitsvaed” by some rabbi but consciously chooses to accept on her shoulders the responsibilities, privileges and blessings of an adult member of our people.