Friday, April 9, 2010

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah 5770: Apples and Fundamentalism

(Originally delivered on April 3, 2010.)

Not too long ago, I was in the supermarket produce section, and I spotted something that I had never seen before: An O-U sticker on an apple. And frankly, I was shocked. Up until that day, I had assumed that all fruits and vegetables were OK, kashrut-wise. That is, all of the issues concerning those of us who keep kashrut had no comment on produce. It was open territory. Apples, zucchini, quinces, kumquats - all good. No worries. (Yes, I'd heard some rumblings about insects in broccoli and raspberries, but I was not particularly bothered by this, not having actually seen these bugs myself.)

But this hekhsher on the apple knocked me off balance. Why on earth would a fruit need a hekhsher? Now I could talk about here the details regarding fruit coatings, or insects, or the politics of kashrut-certifying agencies. But what troubles me more than those items is this: fundamentalism.

I think the OU on that apple demonstrates that there is a certain corner of the Jewish world that wants all of their decisions made for them by an increasingly right-leaning rabbinate, one that continually seeks out stringencies. This is the world that thinks that everything must be "glatt," as if this means "more kosher." It does not, and, to be sure, Ashkenazi tradition does not require kosher meat to be glatt (meaning that the lungs of the animal have been checked for lesions).

Despite this, Judaism does not lend itself well to fundamentalism. In a broad sense, Judaism is actually anti-fundamentalist. Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, I was asked a provocative question in my Sunday-morning Mishnah class. We are studying Massekhet Ta'anit, which is a tractate primarily about what our ancestors did when it did not rain in Israel during the winter months. The rains were, of course, essential to agricultural success and therefore the availability of food for the rest of the year. Jews in the time of the Mishnah (i.e. 1800 years ago, more or less) had all sorts of customs for bringing on the rain: fasting, not wearing leather shoes or bathing, blowing the shofar, sprinkling ashes on the Temple president's head, etc.)

We were studying a certain Mishnah that indicated that when rain did not fall in a particular city, but did fall in the surroundings, the people outside the city would fast, but not blow the shofar. And yet, Rabbi Akiva said exactly the opposite - that the suburbanites would blow the shofar, but not fast, to bring on the rain.

So here's the question:
Why, if the Mishnah is the oral law, which was ostensibly handed down to God on Mt. Sinai, are there disagreements like this? How can it be that one set of rabbis heard one tradition from their teachers, who got it from Moses, and Rabbi Akiva heard exactly the opposite? Shouldn’t the word of God, handed down from generation to generation, be perfect and not disagree with itself? And, given that the Mishnah is the first reporting of the Oral Law and therefore closest to the Sinaitic experience, should it not be the least likely textual source to feature disagreement?

Great question!

Now if I were a fundamentalist, I would say that nothing in the Torah or the Talmud is contradictory. That is, everything makes perfect sense, as it was dictated by God to Moses, and anything that looks like it might appear contradictory is simply human failure to adequately understand the God-given complexity of the text. Human flesh is fallible; God is perfect, and any failure to interpret God's perfectly-revealed word must be our error.

But I am a Conservative rabbi, so my response to this is the following: look at how wonderful and resilient our tradition is! We can tolerate exactly opposing opinions.

This is, I think, one of Judaism’s great strengths – that is, that there are multiple approaches, and they can all be valid at the same time. The Torah is fixed, it is true (or at least it has been for the last, let’s say, 1200 years or so, since the Tiberian Masoretes published their exacting manuscripts. But there are, according to the rabbinic maxim, “shiv’im panim latorah,” that is, there are 70 faces to the Torah. Within each verse there are many layers of meaning. It calls to mind a fairly well-known midrash:

Moses is transported into the classroom of R. Akiva (the same R. Akiva appearing in our mishnah). He hears Akiva aggressively interpreting the Torah, reading some meaning into every jot and tittle in the text. Moses is very surprised, because he has never heard any of this stuff. A student raises his hand, and asks, “Where did you learn this?” R. Akiva replies, this was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, whereupon Moses felt much better.

There might have been one story on Mt. Sinai that Moshe was aware of as he was receiving the Law from God. But as the generations passed, new ideas, which were inherent in the text, have been revealed. These "previously unknown" traditions were so well-hidden among the letters of the Torah that Moses himself was unaware of them.

Now maybe that is the case, or maybe later generations of scholars created new traditions (and new faces to the Torah) that were NOT indeed handed down with the Torah on Mt. Sinai, to serve their needs in their times. But regardless, the multiplicity of opinions and customs and rules is something that makes our faith unique.

Furthermore, this diversity of thought and action is what makes Judaism and fundamentalism incompatible. What, indeed, are the fundamentals? In most places that you find a general principle, there is for sure going to be an exception.

Another example: some of us have been taught that women are, traditionally speaking, exempt from all positive, time-bound mitzvot, save lighting Shabbat candles, making hallah, and going to the miqveh. But women are obligated to birkat hamazon, and daily prayer, and observing Shabbat, and a number of other things (if you want to learn more about this, come to the class that R. Stecker and I are teaching in a few weeks on Women and the Mitzvot). When some very fervent people make rules, they like to ignore (or at least play down) the exceptions, and even the multiplicity of opinions, claiming that there is only path to God.

But we in the Conservative movement think differently. Our very roots are in a school of thought that emerged in the middle of the 19th century, essentially what was at the time the right wing of Reform, the so-called "Positive, historical" movement. "Positive" because it affirmed the validity of Jewish law today (unlike Reform) and "historical" because it acknowledged the development of Jewish practice over time (unlike Orthodoxy, which essentially believes that all of contemporary halakhah was handed down on Mt. Sinai, down to the last hekhshered apple.)

What makes our approach different? Well, we do not think that there is only one path, or only one right way. We recognize the diversity of Jewish practice, belief, and values.

But that also makes our world, the universe of progressive Jewry that the Conservative movement inhabits, seem that much more problematic. I think that there is something in human nature that wants to know the RIGHT way of doing things, and all the more so in today's world of infinite choices and soundbite-sized analysis. The easiest thing to do is to become a fundamentalist, to abdicate your personal choice entirely. That way, everything always makes sense. There is only one side to the issue. There is only ONE face to the Torah, and all other faces are not only invalid, but potentially dangerous.

So I (as a Conservative rabbi) might not tell you that there is only one right way to observe Shabbat, for example. But on the other hand, I will never advocate for opting out of Shabbat observance entirely. There is a middle ground between fundamentalism and relativism, and I think that Conservative Judaism strikes a proper balance - we do not fear individual choice, considering the long history of Judaism and the likes of Rabbi Akiva and his successors, nor do we shy away from religious observance in the traditional mode. This is what makes us both positive and historical; this is what makes us Conservative.

I am very happy that some of our teenagers were here with us today, and I am very much looking forward to working with them next year in the Youth House. Frankly, I wish that we did not have to set aside one Shabbat per year for Youth House participation, and that we had teenage members of our community, whether they belong to the Youth House or not, coming to participate with us every single Shabbat morning (and evening, and afternoon) of the year. I understand that this requires a cultural change, and that is not something that comes easily.

I am concerned that many of our young people conclude their Jewish education or involvement at age 13, and therefore never have the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the richness, the depth, and the usefulness of Judaism and Jewish learning. The fundamentalist voices in the Jewish world continue to grow louder, and I worry that our children will not be equipped the proper tools to when they encounter smiling, welcoming zealots in the future.

We here in this room are the true inheritors of the Sinaitic tradition; we are the real Jews; do not let anybody tell you differently. I want our young people to know this and be the proud inheritors of the positive, historical tradition. And my guess is that many of you do as well.

So we can either get caught up in whether or not an apple is kosher, or why you can't buy actual mustard that is kosher for Passover, or lament the lack of less-expensive kosher but non-glatt meat, or we can dedicate ourselves to understanding a complex tradition that encompasses not only details of ritual observance, but also guidelines for living ethically, for personal and business relationships that include a spark of the Divine, and for taking care of each other, our community, and those around us in need.

This is the real Judaism, the non-fundamentalist tradition stretching back to, well, to Mt. Sinai. And this is what we should be teaching our children and grandchildren.

Rethinking Everything

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, April 15, 2010.)

My crocuses appeared and subsided a few weeks ago, followed quickly by the tulips, and as I watch the lilies beginning their annual ascent from the earth, I am reminded that spring has kicked off in earnest. The egg and karpas sat innocently enough on my seder plate, speaking of spring: renewal, fertility, and change. After settling back into our hametz-ish routine, the question becomes, "Now what?"

A good holiday should not only inspire reflection in the moment, but should stay with you for some time after. Pesah is a good holiday, and all of the items that have been bubbling away in the remote corners of my mind all winter are now coming to the fore, not only dislodged by Pesah preparations, but aided and abetted by an article I spotted in last week's issue of The Jewish Week. An excerpt from Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities was featured on the front page. (Some of us heard Rabbi Kaunfer, a classmate of mine from the Jewish Theological Seminary, speak here at Temple Israel last spring about this new model of Jewish involvement.)

I read the excerpt, and it seemed to me so jaw-droppingly on-target that I immediately ran to my computer and ordered the book. Rabbi Kaunfer holds that while the institutionalized Jewish world has been disproportionately obsessed with assimilation and intermarriage, the real issue in American Judaism is disengagement -- that is, that most Jews have not been given the tools with which to truly grapple with the very relevant issues that Jewish literature embraces, and therefore they do not try. The Talmud is filled with wisdom that obtains today just as it did in the fifth century; why do most synagogues (including ours) put virtually all of their educational energy into teaching the purely mechanical aspects of putting on a bar/bat mitzvah show, when we could be teaching our children to think like Jews? Birthright Israel might inspire some young adults regarding Israel and Jewish life, but when they return, they lack options for seriously pursuing the study of Hebrew, say, or wrestling with the likes of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. We have been sold a bill of goods, says Rabbi Kaunfer, a watered-down palette of offerings that are, at best, uninspirational. People want meaning and substance, but there are few Jewish outlets providing these, particularly outside of Orthodoxy.

This argument resonates with me quite heavily. In today's world of infinite options, what is the appeal in belonging to a synagogue that roughly 80% us appear in only when absolutely necessary? And how many more years of long, meaningless services will that 80% endure before just giving up entirely? Roughly half of American Jewry has given up on institutions already. These institutions should be working hard to give Jews the tools they need to find meaning in Jewish tradition. Otherwise, the engagement gap will just continue to grow.

Rabbi Kaunfer suggests some ways of facilitating re-engagement; you can surely find them online if you are curious. But the big picture is that we should be re-envisioning all that we do here at Temple Israel. Project Re-Imagine focused on the Religious School, and made some changes that were largely inside the box. We need to think bigger, and much farther beyond what we have always done, and this applies not only to our children's education but to worship, membership, social action, home rituals, and all of the other features of Jewish life.

Spring is the season of renewal. Perhaps this spring we might take to heart the stunningly fresh words from the book of Lamentations that we sing every time we put the Torah away: Hadesh yameinu kekedem (Renew our days as of old). Rabbi Kaunfer concludes with the following challenge: "Our task now is to imagine a world in which every Jew has the potential to take hold of the gift of Jewish heritage. Imagining that world is the first step to building it." Let's take him up on that challenge.