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

Posts tagged ‘identity’

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.

Many ways of being Jewish: the danger of co-optation.

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?

Don’t curb your enthusiasm.

It is not a secret that the Jewish population is getting smaller and older. Much has been written on this subject and we all agree that we need to grow and we need it now. Some have even suggested we should lift the traditional ban of actively seeking converts. By this thesis, one should not only not make things impossibly difficult for candidates to conversion (we all know some contexts where this attitude is overdone ad absurdum) but rather go as far as to encourage people to explore our faith. But let’s leave this controversial subject for a future post.

Going back to the growth of Judaism, we can pinpoint many different causes of the demographic decline. For some rabbis, intermarriage is the big monster that is eating us alive. In my opinion, the trees maybe hiding the forest in this case. See, I grew up in a country whose language and culture are clearly receding. Many thinkers blame immigration and cultural intermarriage, as if the Catalan “purity” were watering down. Catalan speakers marry Spaniards and the whole family chooses Spanish as their home language, since it is always easier to favor the culture of a majority. However, it is evident that in some areas of Catalonia “culturally-mixed” families fare better than in others. A mixed family in Palma or Alacant is more prone to abandon the Catalan language in favor of Spanish than, let’s say, a family in the Garrotxa, just because in that area Catalan is more alive and enjoys better social prestige. Now back to Judaism: in a social context where Judaism is less alive, an intermarried family will be more prone to “go with the majority” and educate the kids as Christians. The culprit here is not intermarriage, but the weakening of Jewish identification. All in all, I think that it’s about lack of enthusiasm for Judaism.

As many of you know, I’m a hazzan with a bunch of part-time jobs. One of them is as a church organist. Two weeks ago I was sitting at my organ and listening to a visiting pastor. His sermon was about the church’s need to proselytize –what they call “the Great Commission”– and make disciples. His argument was simple: imagine your life without a personal relationship with Jay-Cee. How voided of meaning, joyless, purpose-deprived would it be? Now think of your relatives, friends, and coworkers who do not have that. Doesn’t it move you to action?

Allow me the somewhat-risky exercise of bringing the pastor’s argument to Judaism. Imagine your routine, your whole world without Judaism, without its ethics, life-cycle rituals, yummy food, music, and crazy idiosyncrasy. Imagine going through the week without the anticipation of Shabbat and without its rest, or going through the year without the excitement of the holidays. No shivah to comfort you, no seder to prepare for, no Purim frolic, no apples and honey for a sweet New Year. Chances are a considerable number of your Jewish relatives, friends and acquaintances have a life like that. You can’t miss what you don’t know.

Some rabbis and cantors get rather angry with the so-called Kol Nidre Jews. I just find them difficult to understand. Why on earth would you choose to come to shul only once a year, and pick the day that has more fasting, impossibly-long services, and weirder rituals? (Admit it: legally declaring vows invalid and the whole avodah service have some rather peculiar tinges). It is as if they wanted a confirmation that religion is this strange, foreign, depressive thing they witness once a year. To me, the worse part is that people choose to look at their entire Jewish heritage through the prism of a “sad” penitential commemoration. Ask some non-practicing Jews: they may have no idea what Shavuot is about, but they know most details of death and mourning rituals. Why live in “Kol Nidre mode” all your life?

Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, probably the most beautiful holiday of our calendar. Talking about the exuberance of these celebration, the sages said “he who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Ha-Shoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 1:5). It is also the ultimate time to engage in an important mitzvah, hakhnasat orkhim, inviting people to share a meal with you. This Sukkot, make your love and enthusiasm for Judaism something contagious. Show the beauty and richness of Jewish life to those who still don’t know it, Jewish or not. Show your disaffected Jewish friends that there is so much more than fasting and long piyyutim. Show your non-Jewish friends that the external aspects of Judaism they know (all those prohibitions and picturesque attire) are nothing but a small detail in the whole dazzling picture. Let us all spend our whole year in Sukkot mode.

Welcome to my blog

I really appreciate you dropping by! I decided to start this blog in order to open a dialogue about issues concerning everything Jewish music. In particular, I want to focus on three main subjects, which of course are interrelated:

  • Jewish Music: its history, development, variety, and future. I am very interested on how music and musical memories contribute to the formation of our Jewish identity. In fact, this can be extrapolated to all other collective identities: we live  in a world where we do not only live in two civilizations –as Mordecai Kaplan claimed– but in a multifaceted, complex combination of civilizations and societal ascription that configure us as individuals.
  • Jewish Identity: factors that are (re)shaping the Jewish identity. What is the future of this identity in a changing world.
  • New Technologies: nothing like modern technology has changed the way we deal with music nowadays. It has shaped the way we listen to music, the way we have access to it, the amount of music available; how it is distributed, popularized, and published; how it is created and composed; how we share it within any given human group. New technologies have also reshaped how Judaism –and particularly its music– faces the future.
The title of this blog, Gershayim – גרשיים, has several meanings. It designates a typographical mark in the Hebrew language that serves to indeicate an abbreviation, an acronym, a number, the name of a letter, or even an acrostic (some people call it chikchak, go figure…). To me, this is a metaphor of modernity, the multiple meanings of simplicity. Furthermore, a gershayim is also one of the trop marks we use for Bible cantillation. It is a musical sign in itself, an embellishment formed by ascending and descending notes. Gershayim represents where writing, language, and music meet; where profane and sacred touch.