A New Conservative Approach to Conversion and Intermarriage

Crossposted from InterfaithFamily’s Network Blog.

“I am worried that our present policy is internally conflicted and thus strategically self-defeating,” the rabbi said. “The idea of refusing to be present for the wedding and then expecting the couple to feel warmly embraced by the Jewish people strikes me as a policy constructed by someone who doesn’t know the mind of a young couple…. I am not exactly clear on the message the Conservative movement is sending out into the world, and I am not sure if it is a viable policy in the long term.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of NYC's Park Avenue Synagogue

This quote is from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative shul in NYC. He’s not talking about a policy shift within his synagogue or the Conservative movement, but sharing his thoughts on conversion and intermarriage, as reported in the New York Jewish Week (Time To Rethink Conversion Policy).

He likened [the current approach] to joining a gym, noting that a potential gym member is not told first to exercise, get in good shape and then join. Rather, if the person is willing to join, he or she signs up and then the work begins. Moreover, the rabbi added, this logic is not just one of good consumer policy but is consistent with traditional Jewish teaching.

In one of the most famous Talmud stories, the man who wants to learn all of the Torah while standing on one foot is shooed away by Shammai, who has no patience for him, but welcomed by Hillel.

“First, Hillel converts, and then Hillel teaches,” Rabbi Cosgrove said. “First you join and then, once you are a vested member, you figure out what it’s all about.”

In that way, the rabbi suggested that it might be more effective for Conservative rabbis to first accept converts and then teach them.

This would be a huge shift! Compare it to the usual course of action someone follows if converting within Conservative Judaism: a year of study followed by formal conversion (going to the mikveh, and brit milah or brit hadam if the convert is a male).

Imagine if, when an interfaith couple approached a Conservative rabbi to officiate their wedding, the response wasn’t “I can’t officiate, but consider conversion!” or “I can’t officiate, but you’re still welcome to come to synagogue!” but instead was “Welcome! Let’s bring you into the community, celebrate your wedding, and then, as you and your partner establish this next phase of your lives together, let’s make sure Jewish learning is included!”

“My priority is to create Jewish homes, and everything I do is toward that goal,” he said. When a congregant’s adult child comes to him with a non-Jewish partner and wants to get married, he now describes the yearlong conversion program requirement that is a prerequisite to the wedding. Many of them, he says, never come back, choosing a justice of the peace or other [Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal] clergy to marry them.

As Rabbi Cosgrove points out, “love trumps religious affiliation, with the result being that few families are immune from the situation of a child coming home with a non-Jewish partner and wanting to be married in a Jewish ceremony.” So the question becomes: how do rabbis keep up? Do you think Rabbi Cosgrove’s idea to convert the partner who isn’t Jewish so that Conservative rabbis can officiate their weddings and then bring them to study would work? Do you have other ideas?

Attracting Interfaith Families to the Conservative Movement Day Schools

Cross-posted. This was originally posted on the InterfaithFamily Network Blog.

Last week, the Rabbinical Assembly (the rabbis’ guild for the Conservative movement), sent out a press release. Together with representatives from the Schechter Day School Network (the Jewish day schools affiliated with the Conservative denomination), they met in late-October to talk about “outreach to and inclusion of intermarried families.” Great!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at how to attract and include interfaith families in Jewish day schools. We blogged about the AviCHAI foundation’s conversation and I participated in their day of meetings, which brought together teachers, school administrators, other Jewish educators, parents, and community professionals such as myself.

Back to the Rabbinical Assembly’s press release. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the consensus reached in their meetings would likely continue to alienate the families they want to attract and include.

The rabbis expressed their commitment to conversion according to the standards of Conservative Judaism, as the ideal for our keruv (outreach) to these families.

Our studies have shown that having conversion as the focus of the Jewish community’s outreach creates barriers to inclusion and welcome. “Perceived pressure to convert” is ranked as a barrier to expanded connection with Jewish community institutions, such as synagogues and, I’m extrapolating here, day schools. If that pressure is a deterrent from going to Shabbat services, wouldn’t it also be a deterrent from sending kids to day school?

The focus on conversion as the ideal continued, as exemplified by one of the “challenging questions” the group discussed:

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is not yet Jewish to the school?

Before getting to a timeline, let’s take a step back. A great place to start would be using inclusive language. If a child is going to your school, chances are their parents are raising them as Jews. So clarify what you actually mean, but do it in a way that does not further alienate these families. How about,

What is the optimal timeline for conversion after admitting a child who is a patrilineal Jew?

I would, of course, recommend defining such a term on your forms. Make sure to explain why the Conservative movement does not view patrilineal descent as “Jewish,” unlike the Reform movement. (Conservative Judaism determines who they consider to be a Jew through matrilineal descent — a Jew is someone who is born to a Jewish mother, or who has converted to Judaism in a ceremony that meets their requirements.) For these children of patrilineal descent, the assumption is that their parents would want them to convert, that their families need additional support and Jewish education as well. In some cases, sure; we’ve received plenty of feedback from parents over the years, telling us they’d love to learn along with their kids. But for others, the additional resources might not be wanted. (I wonder if all families at the schools are viewed equally: are resources offered to parents who have in-married but who do not practice Judaism at home? What about intermarried families where the mother is Jewish, thus the Conservative movement considers the children Jewish — are they offered resources too?)

As my colleague, Ari Moffic, wrote in February, 2012, you might also consider creating “A Pledge for All of Our Families” for your schools. Her suggested template offers inclusive language that could be inserted in every school’s handbook and/or posted to the school’s website.

It’s great to see that the follow-up activities will include “drafting recommended language for admission applications to the schools.” Hopefully the resources on our site will help with that process.

And when you start looking for professionals to join your focus groups, you know where to find me.

What if Anat Hoffman wasn’t white?

Anat Hoffman, head of both Women of the Wall and the Reform Movement’s action center in Israel, was arrested while saying the Sh’ma with 250 other American Jews from Hadassah. The Reform movement called immediately for an investigation, the Conservative movement called for global Sh’ma flashmobs, and other groups joined the condemnation.  (Jewschool contributor LJCM rightly asks why there aren’t even more, but here I’ll press a parallel observation.) Something is obviously wrong with this abandonment of American Jewry’s pretenses against criticizing the democratically-elected government of the State of Israel.

Tellingly, the head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Garry Skolnick, gave hint to this counter-current in an email blast: “When Protestant groups are pushing for a total reconsideration of all American foreign aid to Israel and Iran is working hard to develop the capacity to go nuclear, we must be thoughtful as to how, and in what forums, we choose to address the very real issues that are of burning concern to us.” He continued, “Yes, Israel must change. But those of us who love her must help her change, not hurt her through our good intentions.”

As one (female) Jewschool contributor quipped, “No one’s got the tits at all in this movement.” But it’s not just “wussing out” on women’s rights as another contributor said, it’s the obvious selective outcry of institutions joining this particular outcry. They’ve been silent on recent offenses equally important — and in a few cases, even more dire. More »

Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.

So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
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Responses to my ‘conversion’: The bizarre, the brazen and the best

Crossposted to davidamwilensky.com

In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'

Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.

Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.

Here’s one of the emails:

I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.

So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.

[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]

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Standardizing gay friendly & egalitarian marriage rituals

The Forward just published Conservatives Grapple With Gay Wedding Rite. In an effort to create a typical news article conflict, it misses the bigger picture. Three Conservative rabbis were tasked to create a standard ritual for gay weddings. They tried to hew as closely as possible to the typical non-egalitarian ceremony with the goal of minimizing the differences between homo and heterosexual marriage rituals. While a valiant goal, many of the top decision makers in the Conservative movement (the other members of the Committee on Jewish Laws & Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly), thought the text didn’t work and asked the drafting group to make more radical changes to the text with the goal of a more egalitarian ritual. The only critique in the article that wasn’t from a Conservative rabbi is a quote from Jay Michaelson. I read a comment of Michaelson on Facebook where he said he was more supportive of this effort than his quote that ended up in the Forward article portrayed.

The draft text and suggested revisions are not publicly available so I can’t directly critique them. Still, we can discuss why this effort matters.

There are some great examples of couples doing intense study to create their own ceremonies. BZ has a great series on this. More and more resources are out there. For example, there is Danya’s Alternatives to Kiddusin.

There are still unnecessary barriers for people who want to use these rituals. Here’s the example from my heterosexual wedding (predating both BZ’s and Danya’s writings). We used a non-standard & more egalitarian Ketubah text. While the text was available, we couldn’t walk into most Judaica stores & buy an beautiful ketubah with this text pre-printed. We wouldn’t have even known this text existed if we didn’t have friends who adapted it for their own wedding. To use the text, we needed to contact the author, a total stranger named Aryeh Cohen, to get an electronic version of the text that the ketubah scribe could lay out and then hand inscribe. Even this modest change to a more egalitarian ketubah text required added effort and additional costs. Our discussions regarding variations on the ceremony didn’t go much beyond rings, who walks around who, and whether the object of value should be a ring or a banana.

While finding a wider range of rituals is slightly easier now, egalitarian hetero or homosexual wedding rituals that are rooted in Jewish history and tradition are still an elite decision for those who decide the extra work is worth it.

Conservative Rabbis and other Conservative leaders have long officiated at weddings using a variety of rituals. Some were performing gay commitment ceremonies or weddings before the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) said it was ok and more have done so afterwards. Still, officiants are all piecing together new ritual based on the work of others and their own research and innovations.

Perhaps someone else will correct me, but I think this is the first attempt by a major Jewish organization to create a single, standardized ritual for homosexual weddings. Standardized ritual can remove barriers. A CJLS approved ketubah text for gay weddings will be pre-printed in beautiful ketobot by more suppliers with non-fancy verisions sitting in more synagogue rabbis’ cabinets. New wedding rituals will be in Rabbis’ manuals next to guidance for other lifecycle events. If the new rituals end up being firmly anchored in Jewish texts and traditions, egalitarian, and flexibly gendered, they will see usage in heterosexual weddings whether or not that was the CJLS intention.

While standardization can sometimes decrease innovation, I think it is the opposite in this case. People who want to innovate wedding rituals will still do that. A new standard text just shifts the starting point, with an easily found and hopefully well documented and researched text.

Rabbis Looking to Speak about Occupy Wall Street

Urgent question:  Anyone out there have a concise statement about Occupy Wall Street that would be a show of solidarity with the protesters.  I need one suitable for a rabbi to read to his/her congregants on Kol Nidre this coming Friday night.  The Collective Statement of the Protesters is a powerful manifesto, but the strong tone of confrontation on a night that stresses self reflection does not feel in the spirit of vidui (confessing sins) and forgiveness.  If a well crafted statement that acknowledges the galvanized efforts of people around the country around the issues of economic justice and corporate responsibility exists, it should find its way to many pulpits this Yom Kippur.

How Welcoming is “Welcoming”?

Cross-posted from the IFF Network Blog.

On Monday, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (of the Conservative/Masorti Movement) posted a video to YouTube explaining the importance of having a welcoming website. Aimed at synagogues, the video was publicized by an email sent out by the FJMC.

What’s interesting about the video (and email) is that it never explicitly states something like, “synagogue websites should say, ‘Our synagogue is welcoming of all families, including interfaith families and families of diverse backgrounds.’”

Instead, it suggests:

Your congregation’s website is your most important tool to attracting today’s Jewish family. Your website’s ‘welcome’ must be obvious. It needs to greet the visitor in a meaningful and sincere way. For example, if you’re welcoming interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families, words like ‘welcome,’ ‘open,’ and ‘diverse’ need to be prominent and obvious.

Buzz words aren’t enough. If you’re welcoming of “interfaith families, children and adults with different ethnic backgrounds, or gay and lesbian families,” say so! Use those descriptive words! The video shows interfaith families (a family standing in front of a Christmas tree and a menorah!) and shows that we should be welcoming to interfaith families (the word “interfaith” on a doormat!), but doesn’t say to use the words on the websites.

It seems like the Conservative Movement wants to be welcoming of interfaith families, but doesn’t think it can outright say so. But it can. And should.

This is a great start. I appreciate that the FJMC is making this effort, and we all know that making changes in synagogues can be a slow and arduous process, but… Let’s just take it a step further.

What do you think? Watch the video and leave a comment:

New website is really into denominational trichotomy

71 panelists? Like the Sanhedrin? Really?

There is a new website (newish–It says it launched in 2010, but it’s not clear exactly when…) called Jewish Values Online, subtitled multi Jewish perspectives on morals and ethics. At JVO, you can do a search for an answer to your question or ask new questions.

Let’s set aside their missing hyphen and the fact that their list of categories goes far beyond morals and ethics. Let’s check out their panel of 71 experts:

First of all, they’re all rabbis. There are no Jewish scholars of any other sort of training, no cantors nor any academics.

Second–and more egregiously–the rabbis are listed as being in one of three categories: Conservative, Orthodox and Reform. There are no Reconstructionist, Renewal or unaffiliated rabbis on the panel of experts.

Aside from the exclusion of Jewish voices that don’t fit into the trichotomy, it may also make some people cling to one panelist’s answer, ignoring other answers because they’re from another denomination.

I took a look at a few questions on the site and found that, in many cases, I would have been unable to determine which rabbis were from which denomination based on the answers they gave.

For instance, check out this question about marijuana and the three answers to it.

Rabbah Redux

http://internationalrabbinicfellowship.org/sites/all/themes/irf/images/irf_logo_home.gif JTA reports that last month, the 140 member International Rabbinic Fellowship narrowly voted down admitting women to its ranks as either full or limited members.

The Dec. 20 vote came after what the president of the organization, Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston, told The Jewish Week was a “wonderfully healthy and passionate discussion.”

This is the liberal orthodox group co-founded by R. Avi Weiss of Riverdale, where Rabbah Sara Hurwitz gained fame. Glad to hear that there was neither a rubber stamp nor a hasty thumbs down, but a vigorous debate.   Judaism always should be both vigours and a debate, a wrestling with God and the law.  In this respect, IRF demonstrates how it is similar to its Conservative cousins- not in that it would consider women as members, but that it would engage in thoughtful debate of the subject.

Open thread: Rabbinical hiring rules by seminaries are “inescapably” illegal

This just in by anti-trust lawyer and professor Barak D. Richman :

The inescapable conclusion is that the [Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly]’s practices are illegal, and have been for a long time. Why have these illegal practices persisted? The history of the Sherman Act reveals that concentrated power can be difficult to dislodge. This inflexibility also reveals a systemic tragedy within Conservatism, whose history includes efforts by centralized powers to resist valuable innovations that spread across America.

Richman said his cursory investigation of Reform, Orthodox and Reconstructionist hiring practices could also be illegal. Discuss.

Rescind the Ban?

Alright, I know I’m kinda behind, as this is last week’s (month’s really) news, but it’s the season of forgiveness, okay?
Over the past month, there’s a been a lot of discussion of intermarriage in the wake (Is that a pun? Sorta) of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. One article that caught my eye is the piece in the Forward last week by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller,urging the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind the ban on Conservative rabbis participating in or attending intermarriages (of Jews to non-Jews anyhow. I don’t think other pairings are found disturbing).

In theory, violating this ban can have a rabbi expelled from the RA, although in practice, as Miller points out, attendance at interfaith weddings has not – as far as I or he or anyone I’ve queried, knows- actually resulted in said expulsion. I can’t say that I agree with Rabbi Miller, although I have mixed feelings about it: since in fact, there is no consequence for for violating the attendance part of the ban, rabbis who need to go because it is their child or a close family member, can actually attend, while preserving other rabbis’ ability to say that ultimately, intermarriage is not something that they are able to celebrate, if that is their bent, and having the movement stand behind them, which given the ostensible principles of the movement, seems reasonable to expect.

Rabbi Miller seems to view the refusal to attend interfaith weddings as tribalism, rather than as a more complex problem. I suppose in the case where the Jewish member of the couple is Jewish in name only, and doens’t view Judaism as important at all, then tribalism might be a fair description, but for a rabbi in the Conservative movement, who at least in theory views Judaism as having a divine component, and Jews (as a people) as having a particular and holy mission, that strikes me as an unfair description.

In some respects, I view this as a variant of the same discussion that happens about the driving tshuvah. Jews on the more observant end may point out that it was a mistake to allow it, as those who were going to drive would drive anyhow, while the tshuvah givies the appearance that driving is okay to everyone else, halachicly speaking (the problem with the tshuvah appears most especially to be two things: 1. the people who wrote it had only the sketchiest idea of the inner workings of an engine, and 2. there was a deliberate stretching of the way halachah works , in honesty, beyond the breaking point: claiming that the spark of the spark plug is a sort of unintended side effect of the driving is sort of like claiming that the heat on a stove is an unintended side effect of cooking the food) while in fact, it isn’t really, and even the tshuvah sort of admits it. Instead the better solution might have been to simply not address the issue, nor castigate those who chose to drive, and welcome them as one would anyone else, simply not taking note of the matter. However, once the tshuvah is published, it’s very difficult – I would say impossible- to reverse it to that situation, since any change away from a complete acceptance then appears to be a rejection of the people who drive.

Am I advocating hypocrisy? I suppose so. I think that in this case Miss Manners would approve (Miss Martin, if you should happen to read Jewschool please feel free to weigh in). Perhaps I can argue that mipnei darkei shalom, hypocrisy might be our best alternative?

Interested in other peoples’ thoughts on this.

Be a fly on the wall at the RA Convention

The Rabbinical Assembly is having their annual convention RIGHT NOW at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. And you can watch the action online as a selection of events are live-streamed (and then archived for future viewing). I am too busy to actually check in on the proceedings, so I can’t guarantee that anything interesting will be happening, but I believe in about an hour they’ll be dedicating the new Conservative Machzor, so maybe some of our liturgy geeks will want to check that out.

Here’s a sample from Sunday’s discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Harold Kushner:


I know they’re not streaming the entire conference, and I’m having a hard time locating a conference schedule, so maybe one of our readers can jump in with suggestions of when to tune in in our comments section.

Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!

A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:

Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.

This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn’t quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.

–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I’ll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Institutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it’s people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don’t mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.

Now I’ll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not.
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Difficult to get employers to pay their workers well – really- what a surprise!

Nathaniel Popper writes in the Forward that the Conservative Movement does not seem to be living up to their push for better wages for workers. I’m not entirely sure what the point of the article is; is it to point out that some congregations (and not just Conservative ones) underpay their workers? Is it say that the whole Magen Tzedek enterprise is hypocritical because not everyone in the movement lives up to it already?

If it’s the first, he’s a little behind – we already knew that; if the second, again, he’s a little behind the curve; I certainly have not backed off from critiquing the Conservative movement in the past – it certainly has plenty to critique, but I’ll have to say, I disagree. I don’t disagree because it’s not true, but because I think he’s missing the point.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs says in the article, “It’s always easier to look slightly outside yourself rather than to look inside… There certainly hasn’t been any large-scale change.”

That’s true – but it’s a little premature to write off the whole project becasue it hasn’t been perfectly realised prior to beginning. Having Magen Tzedek has spurred some shuls to reexamine their own policies towards their own workers; Rabbi Jacobs is part of a movement of many people who turned to rabbinical school not necessarily because they loved to give sermons, but because they were driven to repair the world, and thought that a uniquely Jewish vision could help to do so. Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva is not the end; although it has gotten less press than Magen Tzedek, over time, I think both will be understood as the fulcrum for major change in the Jewish community as a whole.

Of course, there are still people like those quoted in the Forward citing the same tired arguments for why we shouldn’t do the right thing (they could work somewhere else; we’re doing important work that couldn’t get done if we paid our employees more; another variant of the “businesses might have to close and pay nothing at all if you made them provide benefits”…), but having Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva and the Magen Tzedek will help rabbis do their job better – and that job is to teach – to help people become knowledgeable, practicing Jews, and to have a relationship with God – which we achieve through mitzvot which include paying the matzah bakers enough to eat, and the people who clean the shul enough to not have to work two jobs or go on welfare. If we haven’t achieved it yet, well, even Moses couldn’t get Israel to quit worshiping idols. It’s a start and Baruch haShem it’s starting rather than not!

When the Chickens Went on Strike

kapores Although most modern Jews have abandoned the practice of Kapores, in some parts of the community, it is still common. I’m not sure what the Masorti movement thinks it will accomplish by joining with the SPCA -Tel Aviv, ince the parts of the community that are practicing kapores aren’t the parts likely to care what the masorti movement does, but all in all, it can’t hurt.

In the story from which I took this post’s name ( an adapted tale based on the original story by Sholom Aleichem) the author in fact points out that the practice of taking a chicken (male for men, female for women) swinging it over one’s head to “catch” one’s sins, and then slaughtering it, is not exactly halacha ( Jewish law). And while in general one ought not to depend on fiction for accurate portrayals of Jewish law, in this case, it happens to be correct. Not only is “Where is it written?” a good response, but where it is written, the rabbis aren’t too happy with it, considering it (Like many folk customs which have become embedded in Jewish practice) akin to idolatry, or at lest very improper.

And reasonably so, while it might be a midat chesed (act of mercy) to buy a chicken which one will then donate to the poor to eat (although that does raise some questions about how that came about… really? We’re giving our sins to the poor to eat? Hmmm. I hear a sin eater story in here somewhere for those of us familiar with that southern custom), the problems with the ritual as a whole are numerous. For now, let’s set aside the problem of tzaar ba’alei chaim – the requirement not to be cruel to animals (in this case, by packing them in itty bitty crates sitting around in the sun all day until it’s time for them to be grabbed and swung around by the feet) and concentrate on the symbolism of the custom itself.

While there seems to be some kind of yearning for authenticity as played by certain elements of the Jewish community which favor dress styles not native to Israel, but rather early modern Europe, I’ve never been able to fathom why people attach their sentiments to these kinds of customs (including within the community, but without it as well). There’s somehow a sense that it looks or feels more authentic – but how could it be? If Judaism and our peoplehood is based upon our connection to God through God’s commandments, as the Torah tells us, then one couldn’t possibly repent by swinging a chicken around.
I far prefer the formulation of the Talmud (Brachot 17a) (See the bottom of the post) which likens the fat that one loses during a fast to the fat offered as a sacrifice in the times when the Temple stood. That makes far more sense to me.

Most importantly, if w are repenting, we cannot hope to shed our sins elsewhere without the ful act of teshuvah that goes with it. Whether we are speaking of ourselves as individuals, our individual communities, or Israel as a whole, our own sins cannot be displaced by any symbolic act, whether we’re talking about swinging a chicken or saying that the other party involved has done bad things and so they have to repent first. NO, we are responsible for the sins of ourselves, and the sins of our people. If we wish for peace, we have to act first to recognize and admit our sins; to make reparation to those whom we’ve harmed; to confess to God – because in doing so, we humble ourselves and take into our hearts that our acts, whether accidental or intentional, whether preemptive or retaliatory, were wrong; and then to not do it again when the opportunity presents itself.
Stop building settlements, stop demolishing homes, stop blaming others for acts over which we have agency. Goldstone isn’t our enemy, and taking on against him, as the Rabbinical Assembly has just, entirely ridiculously, done, will not bring peace.
As long as we treat acts for which we need to repent as thought they were public relations bloopers which can be addressed if we only change our spin, there will not be kaparah, atonement, no matter how long we fast on Yom Kippur, no matter how many chickens we swing. We have to do the work ourselves.

(From the Yom Kippur Haftarah Isaiah 58:2-7)
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

When R. Shesheth kept a fast, on concluding his prayer he added the following: Sovereign of the Universe, Thou knowest full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him therewith. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Thy will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before Thee on the altar, and do Thou favour me.. (Brachot 17a)

Conservative Movement: Hatikvah Instead of Shofar

The Rabbinical Assembly distributed this letter today to its members, asking its rabbis to read the piece below in lieu of the Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah. (The shofar is traditionally not sounded when RH falls on Shabbat, as it does this year.)

Friends,

On this Rosh Hashanah our brothers and sisters in Israel face the threat of a nuclear Iran – a threat to Israel’s very existence.

Today, we Jews around the world also confront the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment of the Goldstone report which blames Israel disproportionately for the tragic loss of human life incurred in Operation Cast Lead, which took place last winter in Gaza. This unbalanced United Nations sponsored report portends serious consequences for Israel and the Jewish people.

On this holy day, which is not only Rosh Hashanah, but also Shabbat, the Shofar is silent in the face of this spurious report, the world is far too silent.

Today the state of Israel needs us to be the kol shofar, the voice of the shofar!

We ask you to write to our governmental leaders and call upon them to condemn the Goldstone report and to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran.

While the shofar is silent today, all Conservative rabbis, cantors and congregations have been asked to sing Hatikvah at this moment in the service.

We rise in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.

What troubles me most about this suggestion is how profoundly it flies in the face of the very meaning of the festival itself. On Rosh Hashanah, we affirm Malchuyot – God’s sovereignty over the universe. Rosh Hashanah is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to bow all the way to the ground and pledge our allegiance to God and God alone. We acknowledge that our ultimate fealty lies with a Power beyond ourselves, beyond any mortal ruler, any government, any earthly power.

Beyond the political arguments over such a statement, it strikes me as something approaching idolatry.

I’m curious to know your reactions, particularly in regard to its religious implications.

Rabbinate and State

For those of us who live in the U.S. and who, at least in this country, are committed to the ideal of separation of church and state- it is odd to see our own religion so deeply intertwined in the workings of a Democratic Jewish state. In her first documentary, Amy Beth Oppenheimer explores the role of the Rabbinate in Israeli life, mostly in terms of what it means for marriage. Her Film, Faces of Israel raises provocotive questions- What is the role of the Rabbinate? Who should be included in it? What are the alternatives to it? Should Israel allow Same-sex or secular Civil Unions?  Her presentation, in the form of a series of interviews, is surprisingly evenhanded, and broad in scope. She allows her subjects, who range from rabbinic leaders to average Israeli citizens, to speak for themselves.  That even-handedness is the strength of this movie, and I hope it will inspire viewers to hear the many disparate voices in this conversation.

Faces of Israel opens Tues. March 24th at the Riverdale Y and will be followed by a panel discussion.  Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.facesthemovie.com, or at the door.