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

Sectarians of all kinds

 

First of all, my excuses for this time of silence. I had a very busy Spring: finished my PhD, left my teaching job, and got a full time job in the Washington DC area, which of course implies an impossible commute, since my family and my other two part-time jobs are in PA! I always intend to write regularly, but sometimes it is quite challenging. In any case, I thank you for your patience and for asking me what was going on. And as I always like to start my posts with an anecdote, here it goes.

A couple of weeks ago I was surfing the net and found an interesting site that deals with Sephardic Judaism and contemporary Iberian communities. I am not going to add a link to their page for reasons you will soon understand. They offered their own study materials in Hebrew, Portuguese and Spanish, so I thought it would be interesting to check what they were doing, since I believe that study is the long forgotten mitzvah. I was a little surprised to see that all materials were password protected and that one needed to request access by email. The reason? Apparently their study materials have been “maliciously misused” by “some people and organizations,” so they had to protect everything and reserve the access strictly to those “really interested on Torah study.”   I thought it was quite bizarre but, perhaps moved by my endless curiosity and love for limud, I dropped them an email nevertheless. The answer took more than a week and it was even more surprising: before giving me a password they needed to know the name of my synagogue –the small Reconstructionist synagogue where I work and daven–, a description of its weekly programs, URL, and the name of my rabbi. Quite annoyed, I reluctantlycomplied and sent that information. Their answer took barely a few hours and it was cold as stone: “we are against anybody who wants to ‘reconstruct’ the Torah. Your access is denied.” Even if you think that all non-Orthodox are recalcitrant heretics in need of teshuvah –I thought– how in the world did you come to the idea that the best way of facilitating this teshuvah is barring these heretics’ access to Torah study? Human nature never ceases to surprise me.

Like many other animals, we humans are gregarious. Take your typical high school and see how kids have this imperious need to identify with a group, to which they keep an almost blind fidelity.  In a way, our brains are wired for tribalism and, unfortunately, for sectarianism. Humans are seduced by sects, and I am not necessarily talking about your good old spooky brain-washing, booklet-selling cults. We just seem to need to affiliate with close, dogmatic groups that make us feel secure, safe, and on the winning side of the match.

However, time and maturity, for most of us, brings moderation. One day your teenager grows out of his obsessions and discovers it is quite alright not to wear whatever the fashion is, or to listen to un-cool but interesting music. I think this coming of age has a parallel in most people’s increasing unease with Jewish denominational affiliation. It was just to be expected that, in a post-modern society where identities are very fluid and affiliations are multiple, the need of, and delimitation between, Jewish denominations is probably becoming a thing of the past.

The story of Jewish sects is as ancient as our faith. The reader is encouraged not to buy into the Orthodox view that, before the advent of Reform, Judaism was this idilical alle briden group of harmonious coreligionists. Far from true, our history is full of miss-encounters between pharisees and sadduccees, rabanites and karaites, maimonideans and traditionalists, hasidim and mitnagdim, etc., not to mention the eternal rivalry between people who follow different minhagim. What happen in the 20th century is that some of these denominations and sects reached a higher degree of institutionalization, and managed to create their own seminaries, yeshivot and synagogue federations. Now, are these structures still valid in the second decade of the 21st century? I think the pulse of the street is telling us otherwise.

No doubt, I am persuaded that one of the biggest factors for decreasing affiliation is the fact that Jews got used to having services for free. Why support a synagogue if after all you only need it for your wedding day, funeral and –just maybe– to listen to a decent Kol Nidre once a year. However, another factor that few people seem to have in mind is the increasing difficulty to identify with the global of a denomination, with its organizational culture, beliefs, and decisions. We may identify with some of the ideology of a denomination, but it is really hard not to be very critical of the realization of these postulates.

If I can make a parallel, Judaism has no “party discipline”: we do not feel compelled to support the “vote” of our denominations, nor is our dissension a sine-qua-non like it happens in some political arenas. Furthermore, we have no real dogmas, which makes very difficult to define who is in, and who is out, who is normative and who is heretic. And yet, human nature gets on our way and we still have a tendency to act sectarian. The well-known Orthodox trend to deny legitimacy to everybody else (progressive rabbis, other interpretations of Torah, Jewish identity of some people) is a blatant example, but none of us is totally exempt of this sin. We are happy when the Other comes to our terrain: some are happy to see Conservative kids done talit katan, some are happy to see Reform shuls use more Hebrew, some rejoice when seeing any timid apertures toward women rights in Orthodox milieus, etc. Some get really excited when most of the incoming students at RRC on a particular year are not Reconstructionists but Renewalists.  It is like we are so convinced of our ways that we rejoice whenever the Other gets closer to what we consider the true spirit of Judaism.

Maybe we should stop and reconsider if we aren’t all like those Sephardic folks of my anecdote, if we are not basking in our own groupthink and isolationism. Perhaps we’ll discover that our lack of critical thinking may be one of the factors that is keeping many Jews from affiliation. In my own case, I found it more and more difficult to label myself as belonging to an univocal denomination. What is more, I don’t see the purpose or the benefit of it. I was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement and feel a strong identification with some of its core ideas about Torah, the Divine, retribution, etc. And yet, I’ll never understand or accept the movements lack of definition on hot topics, its negative to the integration of cantors into their rabbinical association, its lack of vision regarding international expansion, or the (willing?) ambiguity of its “trademark” (how many of you can pinpoint the main differences between Reconstructionism, Reform and the Renewal movement?). And since there is no Reconstructionist cantorial association, I do belong the the Conservative Cantors Assembly. I feel identified, again, with some of its core postulates, but do I agree with all of their realizations?

Why so many new congregations and independent minianim choose to be post-denominational? And yet, those shuls which choose to belong are often difficult to label: Conservadox, Reconstructinewal, Reform-but-Traditional, etc. Why should a Jew living in the second decade of the third millennium wear labels created a century ago? I think that maturity is bringing us moderation, and that we are regaining the ability of thinking outside of our denominational box. Here may lay the key of our future.

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!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

If this crisis has taught us something, I think is has been that Jewish organizations in general are in an urgent need of reinventing themselves. I have already written here about what I perceive to be a disconnect between Jewish institutions and the real Jewish community and its needs. Federations and JCC’s, for instance, seem to be programming activities that obeyed to the needs of the Jews of previous generations, who were not allowed to join gyms and social clubs, for instance. Today, instead of changing or eliminating those outdated activities, they go crazy trying to raise money to keep the machine running. In this new post I would want to reflect on the future denominational placement offices.

For those of you not acquainted with them, I’ll tell you that every Jewish movement –including some trans-denominational clergy associations– have placement offices of their own so that they can connect their rabbis or cantors seeking a job with the congregations that belong to that movement or with those shuls that –after paying a fee– decide to list with that office. Placement offices have rules for the congregations, particularly regarding the contract details. They also have rules for the clergy: rabbis or cantors that belong to that association are not allowed to contact synagogues directly but through the office; they cannot apply for congregational jobs outside of the office’s list; they can only be officially looking for jobs after telling their current synagogue that they want to leave, etc.

Of course these rules were formulated for a particular “echo-system” where there was a balance between clergy persons looking for jobs and congregations that were hiring. However, new factors have changed this landscape. As the Jewish population is getting older and smaller, fewer synagogues can afford to hire full-time rabbis. Some of these shuls struggle to keep their doors open, and many cannot afford membership in the denomination, so they become non-affiliated. Other shuls are mere lay-led chavurot and will not hire a religious leader. Bigger synagogues that in the past had a rabbi and a cantor now need to reduce staff and they just hire a rabbi. Finally, who needs to pay a fee to placement office when any shul can advertise a rabbinical job online for free or at a very low cost? On the clergy’s side things are changing too: today there are a number of non-denominational rabbinical and cantorial schools whose graduates are not subject to any of these rules and restrictions. In the case of cantors, there is a proliferation of the so-called cantorial soloists: anybody who can play some guitar and lead a service can fill cantorial positions, and they often do it for a lower salary or even as volunteers. The rabbinical and cantorial schools of all movements are graduating more people that needed. Some schools try to derive new graduates to non-congregational positions such as chaplancy, teaching or social activism, even if the salaries in these positions are so low that make very difficult to pay-off the student loans.

Although some placement offices may be aware and concerned for these changing circumstances, many others seem to prefer to dwell in the golden past. Their job –they tell you– is not to recruit new synagogues looking for rabbis and cantors, but to put both parties in touch and to oversee the process. We may be failing to see that in the current market situation, the hiring process often happens out of circuit and with no supervision. And yet, what are placement offices doing to enlarge their listings? In a world where congregations can list whenever they please, with so many independent seminaries and private ordinations, and even with non-denominational label becoming an added value, how are we going to maintain denominational placement offices?

Again, I don’t have an easy solution but I think that if we do not talk about the elephant in the room then the necessary brain-storming to solve the situation just can’t happen. If there will still be denominational placement offices in the future, they will have to learn to reinvent themselves. For one, we may have to acknowledge that monopolistic practices are a thing of the past. On the other hand, offices have to invest on staff that will bring about a more aggressive and effective marketing to increase the number of participating synagogues. One of the keys for “selling their product” would be rethinking what makes the denomination, movement or association unique. What can they offer their “clients” that they will not get elsewhere? Yes, there are many rabbis and cantors, but are they all from accredited schools? All rabbis have some sort of smicha, all cantors know some nusach, but have they received a solid pastoral training? What is the added value of having a Reconstructionist cantor or rabbi? What makes us unique?

Not so long ago I watched a Youtube video featuring a religious service.  It was a multitudinous celebration of the festival of sukkot. There were hundreds of smiling faces happily singing and clapping to some Jewish tune of Hasidic inspiration. Some of them wore kippot and flied Israeli flags. Everything very Jewish at first sight… except for a number of banners with crosses and the name “Jesus” written in bright colored letters. Of course I was not surprised: this kind of celebrations are no news to me. I was rather amazed and intrigued at my own first reaction of rebuke. Those people where not pretending to be Jewish, but rather using our symbols for their purpose, assigning them a very different and almost opposite meaning. I felt co-opted.

Co-optation is almost synonymous with appropriation. It designates the action of taking or assuming something for your own use. It often points to a tactic by which an opponent is neutralized by absorption. Sociologists talk about co-optation when a minority is taken over and assimilated to the established main culture. As Jews, it is normal for us to feel uneasy when we perceive that we are object of cultural co-optation. I think that this is an important factor of our visceral reaction to the so-called messianic Jews, people who celebrate the external aspects of our culture only to appropriate these symbols with the firm intention of “perfecting” us so we can finally cease to exist as a minority and be part of their cultural and religious collective. Co-optation is even more aggressive when a majority is not so open to diversity, when they think that their culture is superior or better than yours. This is exactly what we have done to Native Americans and Pennsylvania-dutch speakers, or what Spain does to Catalans. Reverting this path to assimilation is not impossible but you will need a critical mass and an enormous determination.

However, co-optation happens also among us, sometimes inadvertently, and it is more difficult to detect.  It is bad enough when people co-opt our identity, but it’s really bad when we accept this appropriation without questioning. It dawned on me on my first week working at a Jewish day school. Conservative Jews constitute the majority of students now but there is an  important contingent of Orthodox faculty and students. A couple of non-Orthodox kids asked me: “Cantor Frau, are you religious?” This was kind of shocking to me: how can a Jewish clergy person be non-religious? It took me a minute to realize that, in their minds, the kids reserved the term “religious” for Orthodox Jews. Yes, I wear a kippah, speak Hebrew with the kids and some see me leading services and leyning, but my long hair and colorful shirts are not frum, not “religious.” This use of the term “religious” to mean Orthodox most probably started with the Orthodox kids, but was quickly adopted and endorsed by the rest of Jews, children and adults equally.

Why is this relevant and why should we care? By accepting the Orthodox co-optation of the word “religious” you are tacitly admitting that only people from this denomination are really religious. The rest of us are fake, inauthentic, not real Jews. Should I had accepted my students calling me non-religious, I would have reaffirmed the idea that their own Judaism, what they see at their progressive shul, is not good enough, not authentic. I will never be able to change the Orthodox kids’ lingo, but at least I will teach all of them that calling a committed progressive Jew “non-religious” is indeed insulting.

This prejudice is everywhere and most of us are liable of buying into this co-optation. A couple of days ago I was reading a post on Facebook that contained a link to a video by FrumSatire, an Orthodox stand-up comedian to whose videos I confess to be subscribed. It made fun of some absurd misconceptions of  “our non-Jewish/secular friends” regarding kosher food. Do you see the problem? FrumSatire and a number of his viewers put non-Jews and secular Jews (that’s anybody who is not frum according to their definition) on the same level, assuming we don’t know a thing about kashrut and that we don’t care either. See, all these committed progressive Jews you know who are shomrei shabbat and keep kosher… they do not really count.

In my opinion, a good part of the Orthodox animadversion for other Jews comes from lack of first-hand knowledge of who we are. Unfortunately, we are all too quick to take stereotypes on face value and assume way too much. Last week a young lady was telling me how she met a person at the JCC and they started dating. Pretty soon she was horrified to discover that her new partner was “one of these Jewish lefties,” label she used to classify non-Orthodox Jews.  After a while she discovered that the differences between them were less than she thought. What is more, while remaining Orthodox she begun to enjoy exploring those “lefty things” that, far from being a secular trap to lead people astray, were spiritually enriching.

Next time you try to use “religious” to mean “Orthodox” –or next time you hear somebody doing it– think twice and take action. Yesh yoter mi derekh echad li-hiyot Yehudi. This well-known bumper sticker should be engraved in our minds: there is more than one way of being Jewish. We often feel like throwing this phrase on the face of those who do not consider our Judaism as valid. But how about stepping to the other side? How do you feel about Jews from other groups and denominations? Do you frown at Orthodox or Reform Jews? Do you consider Renewal or Reconstructionist Jews inauthentic? How do you feel about queer Jews? And about black or Asian Jews? And about Jews by choice?

I scribbled this post right after Yom Kippur but then I told myself that all this talk about death was just not too coherent with the happy Sukkot season we were about to enter. Today, when we approach the end of the Tishri frenzy, some shocking and very sad news brought the subject back to my mind: two days ago my graduate-school friend Cantor Jason Goldberg passed away of a sudden heart attack at age 34. May his memory be a blessing.

 

While leading Yom Kippur services this year, I was meditating on what I call the Kippur reenactment of death. This is a very strange holiday, with ancient and a little obscure rituals. If you think about it, the whole idea of Kippur is to play dead. Many of the details prescribed by the ritual correspond to a metaphoric death: like the deceased, on Yom Kippur we wear a white kittel and no leather shoes. All of our attire is white, the color of purity and that of shrouds. Just like the dead, we don’t eat, drink or have sex, all actions that define the quotidian of living beings. We are, in a way, like the angels of Service, spending the whole day in prayer and praise to Ha-Shem.

 

It is not by chance that this day is also named yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, because that is what we actually enact. Think of U-netane Tokef and its words: this day is full of awe and terrible, a time to come in front of the divine presence. The Book is opened and our destiny is now sealed: who will live and who will die, how exactly will the dead perish, who shall prosper and who shall not. A mighty shofar is blasted, but only a still small voice comes out, calling us to teshuvah. At that time of the day, I can’t avoid thinking of those who are aged or sick. I wonder how many will not be here next year for Kippur. It hurts to imagine that Jason may have had a similar thought when he sung that same dirge-like melody some weeks ago, with his limpid tenor voice, for what would be the last time of his life. Death –and even more when it is untimely and sudden– always falls on us with the cold shine of a knife.

 

One of the strangest aspects of the High Holidays, and particularly of Kippur, is the ritual prostration. Jews do not ordinarily kneel or prostrate when praying but we have this one time when we do. It is a humbling and deeply spiritual experience that –unlike some people think– it is not reserved to clergy. Next year, give it a try and you’ll tell me! I read somewhere that the prostration in itself is another reenactment of death: instead of falling flat at once, we slowly bow down, kneel and move to a full prostration. We are slowly breaking down and dying, falling back to mother earth’s womb. However, we are in front of the King, who has the power to raise the death, so lifne Melekh we suddenly raise back to life, like the earth revives in its cycle of seasons.

 

I am not an anthropologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of prostration are in fact reenactments of death. Bowing down and prostrating to the sun is probably the oldest form of human worship, as if our ancestors where telling the sun: “ we acknowledge that you are very powerful, that you give life to the plants and that you even can burn us to death if left in the desert for some time; see? just one stare from you and we drop dead!” Since the tribal king –as later the pharaoh– was often a personification of the sun, it comes as no surprise that the ancients begun to bow down to him as well. Many ancient religions –and even modern Islam– have fasts that last only as long as there is daylight. Somehow, maybe they “play dead” so that the solar god don’t see them “alive and eating”.

 

Wherever we look in the Yom Kippur machzor, there are constant reminders of the metaphoric death. There is a Yizkor service, probably the central one in the year. We have a long recitation about Jewish martyrs in history –modernly including those of the Shoah– with very graphic details of their death. A number of times we repeat piyyutim like be-yom din. Finally, there are a number of confessions: remember that the vidui is not only something we recite several times on Yom Kippur but also the prayer we are supposed to say at the time of our death. This text not only permeates the viduim of the Avodah service, but also many other places such as the end of Neilah.

 

And yet, Yom Kippur is a reenactment of death so that we can enjoy another year of life. No matter how we feel, life goes on. By “playing dead” in a way we try to conjure death once again. At the end of Neilah the mighty shofar blasts loud and clear, a sharp contrast with the shofar described in U-netane Tokef, and we respond with relief and with joy, already making plans to celebrate it in Jerusalem, next year. May we all indeed be there to celebrate.