Moving Beyond Denominational Differences?

I began teaching a Melton Scholars Series course this past Wednesday evening. The 10-week course, “Jewish Denominations: Addressing the Challenges of Modernity,” deals with the history of the formation of the modern denominations of American Judaism. I began the first session with a quote by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: “It doesn’t matter which denomination you affiliate with, so long as you’re ashamed of it.” I understand his comment to mean that no interpretation of Judaism has all the answers, so don’t think that your particular flavor of Judaism is the absolute “Truth.”

What follows is my Op-Ed that was published in this week’s Detroit Jewish News. I hope you’ll leave your reaction to it in the comments section on this blog.

Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, recently wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Jewish Week entitled “Time To End The Reform-Orthodox Wars.” He was responding to Israeli chief rabbi Shlomo Amar’s attack on Reform Jews and his pressure on the Israeli government to prevent involvement of non-Orthodox movements in state and religion affairs.

I was pleased to read Rothenberg’s perspective that it is time for Orthodox Jews to “build bridges of cooperation [to Reform and Conservative Jews] for the sake of the entire people of Israel and its future” without compromising principles or “fidelity to a life of Torah and mitzvoth.”

My own sense is that despite some animosity toward other denominations of Judaism, which is often bred on ignorance, there is actually much tolerance and understanding among fellow Jews. We are moving toward a Jewish community in which the borders that separate the denominations are becoming blurred.

Rothenberg recognizes the need to bridge the vast abyss between his brand of Orthodoxy and the more progressive streams of modern Judaism, but he remains concerned that the depths of antipathy will make this too difficult. I disagree.

We live in a time when a Jewish person’s Facebook profile identifies her religion as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form.” This combination of religious denominations does not demonstrate confusion or haziness, but rather the realization that there is “meaning” to be made from the various pathways to Torah.

I knew when I decided to become a rabbi that the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary would be the right place for my training. I had been raised in Conservative Judaism, studying at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit and honing my leadership skills in United Synagogue Youth, the movement’s youth program. However, it was in rabbinical school that I came into contact with the other “flavors” of Judaism – praying each Shabbat at an Orthodox shul, engaging in Torah study with a Reconstructionist rabbi, and training as a hospital chaplain with a Reform rabbinical student.

My first job after graduating rabbinical school was at the University of Michigan Hillel, an institution that offers five different Shabbat service options. On any given Friday evening I could find myself in a Reform havurah, a Conservative minyan, an egalitarian gathering with separate seating, or a traditional Orthodox service. From week to week, I saw many students sampling the various options, less concerned with ideological labels than with finding a comfort level that spoke to them spiritually, intellectually, and communally. They were in search of meaning, not a denominational brand.

Last year, I traveled to New York City several times to be part of a fellowship with rabbinic colleagues spanning the denominations. We gathered every few months to study Torah together, to pray together, and to dialogue about the important issues of the day. As part of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program, we found a safe space to share our distinct viewpoints on a host of topics – from faith perspectives on healing to the economy’s effect on religion to the role of music in prayer. We might not have all agreed on how the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people in the desert thousands of years ago, but we each managed to share our Jewish wisdom through the medium of Torah.

Denominational labels are becoming far less important in the 21st century as the borders have blurred. While I may be a card-carrying Conservative rabbi, I work for Tamarack Camps – a Jewish camping agency that serves the entire community, from the unaffiliated to the religious. I lead a Reconstructionist synagogue, Congregation T’chiyah, in which my more traditional practices and beliefs are not compromised, but respected and admired. I teach teens on Monday nights at Temple Israel, one of the largest Reform congregations in the world. I run a kosher certification business in which I demand the highest levels of kashruth compliance to meet the requirements of our faith and the needs of our community.

Looking beyond the borders that divide our Jewish community is not always easy or comfortable. After all, there are real differences that set us apart. There are always going to be political and ideological conflicts that keep us from praying together or eating together. But we must always seek to dialogue with civility and come together over the issues on which we can agree. A Reform Passover seder may differ greatly from an Orthodox one, but the context is the same – we are all recalling the days our people spent in slavery. Neither Pharaoh nor Hitler differentiated between Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jews.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Justin Bieber Says the Shema & Other Jewish Customs Adopted by Non-Jews

It’s no secret that certain Jewish rituals have become mainstream. In her new book, “Kosher Nation,” Sue Fishkoff explains that kosher food isn’t only for Jewish people anymore. “More than 11.2 million Americans regularly buy kosher food, 13 percent of the adult consumer population,” she writes. “These are people who buy the products because they are kosher… There are about six million Jews in this country. Even if they all bought only kosher food, which is not the case, they would not be enough to sustain such growth. In fact, just 14 percent of consumers who regularly buy kosher food do so because they follow the rules of kashrut. That means at least 86 percent of the nation’s 11.2 million kosher consumers are not religious Jews.”

So, it is clear that there are millions of non-Jews out there who have gone kosher. And that is certainly not the only Jewish practice that has transcended Jewish borders.

I’m sure that at some point in history, if you were at a wedding and the crowd danced the “Horah,” you would be certain that it was a Jewish wedding. But not any more. The circle dance, in which the bride and groom are lifted in chairs in the middle of the circle, is no more Jewish than a bagel these days. Ami Eden, executive editor and publisher of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), wrote an article the day before Chelsea Clinton’s famous wedding entitled “Will Chelsea Dance the Horah?” It was insignificant that Clinton married a Jewish man — likely, no matter whom she married, she would have danced the Horah at her wedding.

The next Jewish ritual that seems to have been adopted by non-Jews is the mezuzah. While the Horah is just a dance, placing the words of the “Shema Yisrael” on the door post of a home is actually a biblically mandated commandment in Judaism. However, as an article in the New York Times last month demonstrated, mezuzas are not only for Jews anymore. Ann Farmer wrote, “The doorways inside 30 Ocean Parkway, an Art Deco building in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, are studded with mezuzas of all sizes and styles: plastic, pewter, simple, gaudy, elegant. The people behind those doors are an assortment, too: Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Buddhists, atheists and even a few observing the High Holy Days this week.”

Many of the gentiles with a mezuzah adorning their door posts didn’t affix the encased scrolls themselves, but decided to keep them hung after the previous Jewish tenants vacated the apartment. The article even mentions an 87-year-old Catholic woman who said she often wished she had inherited a mezuza like many of her non-Jewish neighbors did. The tradition recalled her youth, she said, when her local priest appeared each Easter to write “God bless this house” on her family’s front door. To her delight, one of her Jewish neighbors recently hung a mezuza on her doorway. “Every time I come home and remember, I kiss it and touch it and then I bless myself, saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.'”

And that takes us to the teen pop sensation Justin Bieber. Though not Jewish, it appears that the young Mr. Bieber says the Shema Yisrael before each concert. Isrealli.org, the New Blog of Israel, reports that Scott “Scooter” Braun (otherwise known as Shmuel ben Eliezer), a 28-year-old born to a Conservative Jewish family in Connecticut with many relatives in Israel, discovered Justin Bieber on YouTube. Braun, now Bieber’s manager, told Adi Gold, the NY Bureau Chief for the Israeli newspaper “Yedioth Ahronot,” that “the thing that children from Israel will most want to hear: Justin prays the ‘Shema’ before each show. First he says a Christian prayer, then he says the Shema.”

Based on the number of concerts at which Justin Bieber performs, I’m guessing that he’s actually said the most important statement of Jewish belief many more times in his life than the average 16-year-old Jewish youth. There’s nothing wrong with non-Jews eating kosher food, dancing the Horah, putting mezzuzas on their doors, or saying the Shema. In fact, it only shows how Judaism continues to transcend borders in the 21st century.

It does lead me to wonder about the next “it” Jewish ritual that breaks into the mainstream. With the recent success of Sukkah City in New York, I wouldn’t be surprised if building sukkahs becomes the next  attractive Jewish ritual taken up by non-Jewish men who are handy, creative, and think it would be fun to build a temporary hut on their deck. I guess nothing really surprises me anymore.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Technology’s Limits – After Tyler Clementi’s Death, a Rabbi Warns of Technology without Ethics

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

The tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who took his own life after being filmed having sex with a man, has led some to voice concern over young people’s misuse of technology.

Rabbi Andy Bachman, the founder of BrooklynJews, wrote an open letter to young people in the community on his blog. The letter was reposted on the Forward’s Web site.

In his open letter, Bachman begins by reaching out as a rabbi to the young generation of his community be they gay or straight to let them know they were created in the image of God. He then goes on to address the use of technology to invade the privacy of Clementi and lead him to take his own life.

Bachman writes, “…[Clementi’s] peers, besides reflecting a disgusting prejudice, also worshiped their technology. Young people live in a world of too much access to too much instantaneous entertainment. And with a webcam and a laptop and an Internet connection, college students at Rutgers created their own bizarre “reality TV,” without thinking about the moral and ethical and criminal implications of what they were doing to another human being. A click and a laugh — and now someone with so much potential is dead. And that, plain and simple, is wrong. Technology can save lives but it can also be a tool for evil. So take stock next time you’re ready to click so quickly. Think and feel before you act.”

I teach a weekly high school class about Judaism and technology at a large Reform congregation in Metro Detroit. On the first day of class, we discussed the pros and cons of technology. I asked the teens to describe how new forms of technology can be used for good and how they can be used for evil.

The NY Times reports that the news about Clementi’s suicide came on the same day that Rutgers kicked off a two-year, campuswide project to teach the importance of civility, with special attention to the use and abuse of new technology.

We are still learning how best to use these new technologies, from social networking to video streaming. The ability to broadcast realty television is now possible for millions of people with a camera and an Internet connection. The question is whether our society has the ethics necessary to guide us in the appropriate use of these media. As we see from the case of Tyler Clementi, the misuse of technology can be fatal.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller