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

Posts tagged ‘future of Judaism’

Keep the Mitzvah in Bar Mitzvah

There are subjects one cannot afford to write about right away, things that need some time and reflection, cooling down, perhaps a change of circumstances like not having a pulpit anymore. So there you go, let’s talk about bene mitzvah (that’s the plural of bar / bat mitzvah), the quintessential rite of passage we all love to hate.

On my way to work, and given the season, I pass in front of a neighbor’s yard, scarcely decorated for the holidays, where a lawn sign reminds passers-by that it is time to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To me Christmas is overwhelming: the crowds going crazy at the malls, season’s songs pumping from loudspeakers since shortly after Halloween, and the overall commercialization of the event. I imagine that if Jesus’ birth were central to my faith, this pageant of consumerism would be almost insulting. My neighbor’s message is clear: celebrating Christmas is all good and well if you believe, but do not take away the real meaning of the holiday.

I believe we have done pretty much the same with bene mitzvah (from now on, BM), a name that means “sons or daughters of the precept.” We have just taken the mitzvah away and made it all about sons and daughters, introducing in it a serious devirtualization. This rite of passage –rather new in our cultural history– marks the moment where Jews are considered adults, and thus responsible for the observance of the commandments, a new status they mark by getting the honor of being called to the Torah and counted for minyan for the first time, an action often accompanied by another adulthood responsibility, leading the prayers. Therefore, let’s ask ourselves what should BM be and what have they become instead.

1. BMs are not passive sacraments. In spite of the common usage, the passive participle barmitzvaed does not exist. Kids reach the age of BM or celebrate their BM, but the ritual is not sacramental, that is, not an hocus-pocus that makes you Jewish. What is more, it will happen anyway, at age 13, ready or not, ceremony or not: you will be an adult in Jewish terms. You may skip your birthday cake the day you turn 18, but you will still be an adult and have the right to vote.

2. BMs are a community celebration, not a family affair. The congregation receives a new member with full rights by giving him or her a role in the service. Instead, it has become a day where families exert full pressure on ritual committees imposing their demands, and everybody accepts it thinking that it’s a “family function” and not a kehilah function. I have seen parents requesting that for their BM the whole congregation should use a children’s siddur, or that all aliyot should be given to family members, or that they want a minchah BM so that only family and friends attend and the kid doesn’t feel intimidated. So much for a kehilah affair.

3. BMs are a beginning of a life of learning and mitzvot, not a graduation from Judaism. Let’s face it: as soon as the last of their kids is “barmitzvaed” most families leave the synagogue. Parents can’t wait for Hebrew school obligations to finish and they shamelessly verbalize it. What is worse, rabbis, cantors and ritual committees buy into it without sounding the alarm. After all, the kid will come back when they have children of their own in order to repeat the circle of non-sense.

4. BMs are a challenge to make kids competent and proud of their achievement, not a watered down version for show off. Some kids are really prepared and take it seriously, but for most of them it is all about memorizing 3 Torah verses without understanding a word, and reading a transliterated haftarah in a Hebrew so poorly pronounced that no Hebrew speaker can follow. But G-d forbid we dare to delay their BM: the magic rite has to happen at the right time. And who will ask the parents to go through another year of the agony of participating in Jewish life? By the way, unless you consistently pronounce Ashkenazi Hebrew, please try to pronounce it “haf-tah-RAH,” less people go around thinking they learned their Torah and their half-Torah.

5. BMs should be meaningful, not superficial. This should be obvious, until you encounter frivolities like a shopping themed bat mitzvah, with the bimah adorned with huge palm trees in giant shopping paper bags, and parents’ speeches praising the kid’s high fashion taste and complaining about shopping sprees on their American Express. Yes, this was the main message, and no, I am not making this out.

6. BMs should be culturally reaffirming and deeply Jewish. It is all right to borrow from other cultures: Jews have done it successfully throughout history. Even some Christian weddings borrow from us and use a flower-adorned huppah. However we should know what are we borrowing and why. This is the case of beginning the BM banquet by lighting 6 or 7 candles, a ritual borrowed from Hispanic quinceañera celebrations You call your family and friends by turns to light a candle in memory of a deceased relative or for celebration. The problem is that you just became obligated by the mitzvot and the first thing you do is to transgress Shabbat by inviting people –including your hazzan– to make a fire on Shabbat. Yes it is cute. Now, can it wait until sundown?

7. A BM should be an opportunity for non-practicing Jews to experience vibrant Judaism, not to overtake and kidnap the service. This can be a great family opportunity to learn: anybody can learn aliyot, compose poems, learn how to raise the scroll, etc. This should be carefully planned. Do not assume people know what they are supposed to do (remember they often left the synagogue as soon as they turned 13!). Otherwise you end up with your cousin looking totally puzzled when asked to open the ark, as if it were the first time he sees an ark in his whole life. Later he will probably greet the rabbi and make excuses such as that he belongs to another Jewish denomination and that’s why he didn’t know what to do. By the way, disaffected relatives are an interesting phenomenon in itself. How can you tell a non-Jew from a disaffected BM relative? The non-Jew wears kippah and stands and sits with the congregation out of respect. The disaffected relative sits there with a blank stare, not opening the siddur or reading in English, looking at the rabbi in the eye as if saying: “I don’t buy into this and I will let you know with my attitude.”

8. BMs should be reaffirmations of identity, not insurances of identity. We do not extend tribal certificates, and yet people will argue that they are indeed Jewish because they were “batmitzvaed and all” or tell you they are very bad Jews because they even didn’t “get barmitzvaed.” In our days, progressive parents would rather skip circumcision than BM. And yet, BM is not sacramental, nor magically imbues the person with Jewish identity. Rather, it makes kids stand in the crowd and proclaim their Jewishness, even in spite of being part of mixed families. We should focus on this reaffirmation of identity.

9. Most kids are not operatic singers. They are there to act as shelihe tzibur. The rest of us is not there to admire their often cracking voice, but to participate in the prayers he or she is leading. Why should we stop saying the Shema so that we can hear a kid mumble through it?

10. A BM is not about kids, it’s about newly minted adults being welcomed to the kehilah. We should be moving on from pediatric Judaism. In fact, it is time to evaluate what pediatric Judaism has brought us: BM mills, school-centered versus mitzvah and limud-centered synagogues, dumbing down and loss of richness. A good example of it is using Shabbat morning melodies all the time, from Friday night to Yom Kippur, just “because that’s what kids learn at Hebrew school.” There are plenty of examples more, such as sanitized divre torah; model seders as the only seder the family will attend this year; school Sukkot parties as the only Sukkot; the total disappearance of Shavuot simply because it falls outside of Hebrew school calendar, etc.

11. Finally, BM celebrations should be socially mindful and not wasteful. What is the value we are teaching the youngsters when a BM becomes a crazy mini wedding? Welcoming a kid to the community and celebrating it should be an equalizing event, not a display of the economic cliff between the haves and the have-nots. Let us plan real mitzvah projects that teach kids and adults that we live in a broken world but that we can do a lot to fix it. Placing a couple of empty boxes at the entry of the synagogue so that other people can bring cans of food, or spending two afternoons at the animal shelter playing with puppies may give the kid a check-out of a mitzvah project, but will hardly teach her anything about responsibility towards humanity

As a maturity rite of passage, it is perfectly ok to delay a BM. Some of the best BM I have seen are celebrations involving adults and older children. So let’s bring the mitzvah back where it belongs.

Threatened by Jewish Tacos: Identity and Fragmentation

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In many other occasions I have compared the dynamics of Jewish American identity with that of minority cultures in Europe. Being of Catalan origin and having dealt with this kind of situations a good part of my life, I can’t avoid discovering in Jewish identity the unequivocal trends of endangered  cultures I witnessed and studied in my own country of origin, as a sociolinguist amateur of sorts. Just last week, a good friend of mine sent me an interesting article about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, knowing my deep affection for this community. My friend’s reflection on the subject was a true eye-opener: he hoped that this NPR segment would become viral so that “finally people get to see and understand that not all Jews look like Tevye.” He also remarked that the author of the beautiful pictures admitted that what he witnessed did not fit the Jewish narrative of his life. “When did our Jewish life-narrative get so small?” asked my friend.

My conviction is that in the measure that people reduce their Jewish identity to a series of cultural stereotypes, they narrow down the collective identity to just a tiny segment of it. The main reason why Hispanic, black and Asian Jews,  do not “fit in” in some people’s idea of Jewish identity is because they break the comfort of their own identitarian schema. And this can happen only because, once divested  from its core essentials (such any connection to Judaism, for instance), their Jewish identity is fragmentary and folklorized, not unlike the Catalan identity I grew up with in Mallorca. To me, it is an eloquent trend that does not reveal a dynamic, alive culture, but one that is in deep crisis and whose survival is endangered.

In past postings I talked about the self-deprecating, stereotypical image of Jews in the American media, and about the use of swearwords as the only remnants of Yiddish language. At a certain stage in the process of minorization of a culture, individuals begin to consider it as something heart-warming, sweet, small and frankly goofy. That’s the way we are, our essence. We can even be proud of our heritage, but we can’t see why anybody else not born in our culture would ever want to embrace it. A painful majority of Mallorcans would speak Catalan at home –a sweet, beloved, hybridized version of if, full of “cozy” swearwords– and even preserve some traditional dances to show to the tourists, but would frown at the idea of a Catalan book on quantum mechanics or any other manifestation of high culture. And they would certainly frown at the idea of a non-Mallorcan trying to learn their language. In fact, they would not help this person learn, but rather always switch to Spanish or English as soon as the outsider tries to articulate a phrase in Catalan. For them, Catalan culture is something dear, even a source of pride, but essentially useless and clearly lower than all other surrounding, modern cultures. I am pretty sure we could find the same patterns of behavior in Native American collectives: the native culture is a source of pride, can even be shown to tourists, but it is not to be adopted by outsiders and can never compete as equal with the modern, western cultures of the world.

What defines the identity of your average secular Jew in America? A vague memory of Old World stories, some Yiddish expressions here and there, a taste for bagels and kugel, perhaps. Nothing alive, vibrant, that they want to share with their neighbors. When the average Josh encounters Jews by choice, Sephardic Jews, or New Mexican cryptos, he can’t recognize them as members of the same tribe. Moreover, he may occasionally feel that his cozy identity is endangered by these alterities. I heard many stories of non-white Jews feeling questioned, even rejected in our JCCs and shuls, sometimes in the name of outdated religious rules, but more often for the lack of a warm, welcoming crowd. I dare to adventure that part of the current obsession with mixed marriages and assimilation is coming from the upsetting conviction that in the not so distant future, average Josh will no longer recognize the folks at the shul where he “was barmitzaed” (note the passive) and never cared to join. Mainstream American identity is so strong and dynamic that it can assimilate millions of immigrants every decade; Mallorcan identity (and American Jewish identity for that matter) tends to see itself as so irrelevant that the assimilation of outsiders constitutes a direct thread to its very existence.

Another thing we can learn from the situation in Catalonia is that minorized cultures seem to have a tragical trend towards fundamentalist visions of the self and to the fragmentation of the collective.  Colonial metropolis often use fragmentation as a tool of political and cultural assimilation of the colonies. In the Valencia region, the tactics have been successful: against any scientific definitions and against the academic community, the government not only convinced the population that their dialect was in fact a language different from Catalan, but also created a legal and institutional framework (which included an extemporaneous Academy of the “Valencian” language) in order to consummate the fragmentation. Why? Because it is is easier to make a language disappear when it is perceived to have only a couple million speakers instead of being part of a bigger, stronger culture. Today in America, a minority of us insists on calling themselves Torah Jews, thus implying that they are in and the rest of us are out. We all know how the Orthodox world is turning to the right, and how questioning of other denominations’ conversions is reaching absurd levels (oh no! what if your grandma’s conversion was Reform?). Does it happen because of a misunderstood, zealous fidelity to Yahadut, or rather because we humans seem to love being “the real thing,” the pure remnant always on the defense from the perfidious outsider? Readers can reach their own conclusions.

We can choose to mourn the seamlessly unified people we never where, or we can embrace our diversity and move on. I think that the cornerstone of Jewish survival in America resides in consciously planned efforts aimed towards regaining cultural dynamism. For some people, Jewish engagement will come through Judaism as a spiritual practice, in its many forms. For some others, engagement will come through literature and the arts, from the emergence and popularization of a new Jewish American culture proud of its past, but definitely grounded in our times, fearless and innovative.

Dancing with werewolfs: Jewish identity struggle.

No matter where I go, in my many and diverse communities, I find plenty of Jews exploring alternative spiritual paths, but quite often estranged from their own Jewishness. Sometimes I wonder why people’s spiritual quest necessarily leads  them to other venues; why their search for community hardly ever drives them to seek Jewish community.

Much has been written about this trend. It is obvious than one of the main factors of this estrangement is that for many years the established Jewish community did not offer space for these people’s interests nor for the kind of spirituality they are seeking. And yet, now that any individual can easily find a niche for her or his spiritual practice within the Jewish world, why don’t they come en masse to join and embrace all these new possibilities?

The answers to this question are many, but today I want to focus on something that is not often considered: the fact that a number of secular Jews have “folklorized” their identity, reduced it to the merely anecdotical. For years sociology and sociolinguistics have described the process of assimilation and dilution of minority cultures. I happen to be born in one of them, the Catalan nation, a biographic accident that often helps me draw parallels with the Jewish community. Contemporary Mallorcans in their vast majority are anything but a proud nation, not only because Catalonia is colonized and divided by fictitious borders, but also because they lack what I would call national awareness. That does not mean they do not have a Mallorcan identity, but this identity is folklorized, reduced to some foods they like, phrases and proverbs in the Catalan language, and to an otherwise incomprehensible taste for Mallorcan swearing words, often used even by people who never learned –and has no intention to learn– the Catalan language. There are a good number of self-deprecating Mallorcan stand-up comedians that enjoy great popularity by using and abusing these stereotypes. At the same time, other Catalan cultural manifestations like literature and the arts –both traditional and contemporary– are frown upon and perceived as goofy, provincial and uncool. This new Mallorcan identity is quite comfortable, in the sense that it does not demand any commitment, neither is core to a person’s values or vision of the reality. It is not necessarily informed by a deep self-hate, but it is certainly lacking of any pride in the cultural identity itself. Furthermore, sociology proves that this only is a stage towards the final assimilation of the minority culture into the mainstream.

Can you see any parallels with today’s American Jewish culture? I am sure that we all know fellows for which being Jewish translates mainly on the way they eat and talk. They enjoy bagels and matzah ball soup; they even sprinkle their English with plenty of words borrowed from Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino –languages they do not know and have no intention of learning. What is worse, they perceive that being Jewish is something nice, sweet, but kind of goofy, funny, uncool. Their relationship with their Jewish identity is often humorous and self-deprecating.

The media feed American Jews with an abundance of equally self-deprecating icons, of characters that pride in the details and stereotypes of being Jewish, but don’t seem to take Jewish identity seriously. To an untrained eye, these cultural products may seem a normalization of the Jewish presence in mainstream America. However, rather than celebrating Jewish culture, they often reinforce its “uncoolness.” I am persuaded that this self-deprecation is not but a mild form of self-hate of equally devastating consequences. Unlike in the past, these TV scripts are not the work of anti-Semitic writers. They come from within our own ranks.

Two popular TV characters come to mind: Josh, the werewolf of Being Human, and Howard, one of the eccentric scientists of the Big Bang Theory. From the first episode it is clear that Josh Levinson is Jewish and wears a magen David. He is also characterized with Jewish stereotypes. He is nerdy, socially awkward, goofy, short and not as attractive or Aiden the vampire; he is insecure, obsessive and a little paranoid. Unlike Aiden, he is the epitome of everything uncool, a fact often stated by the other vampires, who treat Josh the werewolf, quite literally, as a doggie. Aiden’s vampirism is sexy and controlled, Josh’s lycanthropy is unruly and shameful. Josh’s Jewish identity is peripheral to the plot, but it is important enough to appear both in the British and the American version of the show. Other characters of the show have defined ethnic backgrounds, but these are never explored or hyper-characterized: Suren is a girl of Mongol origin who knows the “torture traditions” of her warrior ancestors, but no allusion is ever made to her Asian identity; Sally Malik has an Arab name, but she could equally be Hispanic, Greek or mixed: her ethnicity is irrelevant and does not define the character like Jewishness defines Josh’s.

In the case of the Big Bang Theory, Howard is unequivocally Jewish, and so is his loud, strident and unsophisticated mother. Short and goofy, Howard often makes fun of his Jewish identity, complains that the price of pork makes it harder and harder to be a bad Jew, dates a Catholic only to bother his mom, only goes to synagogue on Kippur –the only time of the year he is not available to play role games– and celebrates Hanukkah, a holiday depicted as funky and lacking the pizzazz of Christmas. Of the group of guys, he is the only one that still lives with his mother and has never finished his doctoral degree. Both Josh the werewolf and Howard the nerd are sweet, goofy, lovable characters who are somehow conflicted with a Jewish identity that is portrayed as profoundly uncool, marginal and folklorized, something not worth taking seriously, an accident, if not a nuisance.

Compare this to the unequivocal and unapologetic Italian-American identity of the family depicted in Everybody loves Raymond. Their names and the food they eat are clearly Italian, they hang out at Nemo’s pizzeria, they go on vacations to Italy. Rob, a third generation American, speaks a rudimentary Italian but is able to get by well enough to date an Italian girl that speaks no English. Here the roles are inverted: despite the dysfunctional vis comica of the Barone’s, they are the norm. What is more interesting: it is them against the world. Their relationship with the majority culture is proud and self-asserting. Anglo-Saxons are here represented by Debra’s parents and they are depicted as snob, richer, sophisticate but vain and hypocritical, people who smile all the time but hide their true emotions. In case you are unfamiliar with these characteristics, all these are stereotypes of Anglo-Saxons you may hear anytime from the mouth of many Hispanic, Greek or Italian Americans. Unlike the Jewish characters’ identity, the Barone’s Italian identity is anything but accessory and self-deprecating.

Five centuries of political persecution had not been able to erase Mallorca’s Catalan national identity. However, the folklorization of this identity is succeeding to do it. Identity is not something inherent and immutable, monolithic and life-long stable, something based in our feelings, some sort of a fixed quality that resides in the individual and never changes. Way too often we see our Jewishness as a birthright, something we can never loose no matter how far from the Jewish community we step aside. In fact, I believe that socialization is inherent of Jewish identity. It is about what Jews do and how they interact and connect. That is why tradition has emphasized minyan and kehilah. Socialization is also a good predictor of Jewish engagement: how many of our relatives and friends are Jewish definitely shapes our own Jewish identity. If one doesn’t live as a Jew, once ceases to be one. I am not suggesting that people forcefully need to practice Judaism no matter what they think. I am suggesting that people should build a more assertive, unapologetic, rich and fulfilling Jewish identity. The American Jewish community should try to find means of reclaiming a healthy, self-aware Jewish identity, both secular and religious. One can only hope that we will react on time, and not keep struggling with our Jewishness as if dancing with werewolfs.

Sects in the city: the strange lure of sectarianism

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!”

 

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.

Nice work if you can get it: on placement offices.

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?