Thanksgiving is Part of the Jewish Experience

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday. I love waking up on Thanksgiving morning knowing that it will be a relaxing day spent with family and friends. I will contemplate all the things for which I am thankful, including being an American.

This week one of my children asked if Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday or if it’s a holiday that everyone celebrates. I explained that it was a holiday that everyone celebrates, but there are some Jewish people who do not celebrate it. Some observant Jews believe that Thanksgiving shouldn’t be observed because it is a holiday invented by gentiles and has no basis in Jewish law. Heshy Fried (“Frum Satire”) created an xtranormal video on the matter of why frum (religious) Jews don’t celebrate Thanksgiving including some of the unspoken traditions of frum families eating turkey for the Shabbat dinner on the Friday evening following Thanksgiving (but no stuffing!).

Thanksgiving in my opinion should be a day for feeling grateful. Even if we give thanks to God on a daily basis in our prayers, it is essential to take a day out of our busy lives to be thankful for our country. I believe that the consumerism and materialism that is Black Friday have begun to infringe on the Thanksgiving holiday. Stores that encourage shoppers to wait on line for the best deals on the night of Thanksgiving are contributing to our society’s loss of the ideals of Thanksgiving. A day that has long been set aside to be grateful has become corrupted by those willing to camp out on a sidewalk to save $100 on a substandard flat-screen television and the stores that are opening for those sales on Thanksgiving night.

Not all of my colleagues agree with me that Thanksgiving is a worthwhile secular holiday for the Jewish community to celebrate. My colleague Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a leading Jewish activist who is passionate about fair wage, public housing, and homelessness, is not a fan of Thanksgiving. She writes:

Personally, I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving… My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur [forbidden], or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.
With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving Haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism. I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While I feel strongly that part of being thankful for what we have should include being charitable, I don’t think Rabbi Jacobs presents a fair picture of the American Thanksgiving holiday. I much prefer my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson’s take on the Thanksgiving experience. He writes in the Huffington Post:

The Sukkot theory of Thanksgiving is really great. And it could even be true. The only challenge is that I couldn’t find any colonial Puritan authors who made that claim. What is charming about it, nonetheless, is the resonance that so many Jews feel toward Thanksgiving. It is a very “Jewish” holiday, even if it wasn’t a Jewish holiday to begin with: Great meal, great company, celebrating life and joy and resilience and freedom in community. All values embedded deeply in Jewish tradition. 

But I’d like to invite us to a more nuanced and complex vision of what we can celebrate in Thanksgiving and in what we can dedicate ourselves to for Thanksgivings yet to come. 

The term “Jew” comes from the Hebrew word Yehudah meaning thanks, joy, gratitude. At the core of the Jewish way is a resilient joy that directs our attention toward the blessings we already have, those we need to work toward to realize, and the need to share those blessings in community. 

Turns out that Native American traditions have such a tradition as well — feasts of gratitude in which the abundance of the earth and community are shared, noticed and celebrated. So do most of the world’s wisdom traditions. 

When I was a child, the Thanksgiving story was presented as early Americans (the Pilgrims) hosting a meal of gratitude that hosted Indians. The Indians were guests, the Americans were European. And we latter day Americans focused on the nascent democracy found among the Pilgrims. 

As I grew and read, the circle expanded. I learned that the “Indians” were First Americans. They are not outsiders to America’s story, they have always been at its heart. So, Thanksgiving expanded to include two incompatible tellings — the tale as told by Puritans and a very different perspective as recounted by Native Americans. There was a bittersweet quality that joined the older narrative, a tale of displacement, of blindness to the wisdom and depth of the culture of First Americans, of their generosity in reaching out to the newcomers, of opportunities for cooperation and learning missed, of sheer survival against overwhelming odds. 

But the expanding circles keep growing. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving Africans joined this continent as unwilling captives enslaved to serve European farmers and merchants. They too were seen as outsiders, and they too are now an irreplaceable component of the American story. Another layer of grief and tragedy, but also of extraordinary courage, caring, persistence and faith was added to our complicated national identity. 

And the list continues to expand. First seen as interlopers, outsiders, group after group, moved from perifery to core, from alien to American: evangelicals, Jews, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Mormons, Mexicans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims — each community (and still others) contributed their stories, perspectives and traditions. These cacophanous tellings were first viewed as threats, eclipsing what it means to be American. Eventually we recognized each new tide as expanding, transforming and elevating what it means to be us. 

That process is by no means finished and is very much in process. Women made a claim to their own dignity and humanity — gaining first the vote, then growing power and a recognition for the distinctive ways that women add to American culture and vitality. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people have started to make themselves heard as participants and contributors, no longer tolerating those who would banish them to the margins. People with special needs are gaining a slowly attentive hearing — asking not for pity and charity but for access, dignity, partnership. 

Most recently, brave voices have started to speak on behalf of the rest of the biosphere and our beleaguered planet. Can one love America and rape the land? Is is possible to celebrate “from sea to shining sea” while depleting those oceans of diversity and life, while dumping so much carbon into the air that we are literally choking the plankton that helps our planet breathe?
As the circles expand to include those who used to be invisible, marginalized, despised, our tellings of Thanksgiving become more nuanced and layered, and they shimmer with flashes of color they previously lacked. We are all enriched to inhabit a world of raucous diversity and resilient inclusion. 

Our dinners may be less simplistic, and our giving thanks is now joined by taking responsibility. But as our telling swells to include many stories, we are made that much greater by the expansiveness of our humanity — warts, joys and all. 

And for it all, let us breathe deeply, take it all in and give thanks. God bless us, everyone!

All holidays are complicated. Jewish holidays are complicated and so are our secular holidays. It’s crazy that we Americans spend Memorial Day at the beach, on the boat, and at barbecues. It’s crazy that some Americans spend their Thanksgiving Day camped out on a sidewalk waiting for deals on big-screen televisions. But that shouldn’t dictate whether Jews should celebrate Thanksgiving. For me, it’s a special day that includes spending meaningful time with family and friends, watching parades and football games, and eating a delicious meal. For all that I remain grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Torah From Terror

Following the Jewish High Holiday season in 2001, I decided to collect the sermons that rabbis had delivered about 9/11. I knew that on September 11 most rabbis already had drafts of their High Holiday sermons completed, but after the attacks that day these rabbis would have to rewrite those sermons. That tragic day left us speechless, but rabbis had to come up with the right words to bring comfort to those sitting in front of them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the days following 9/11.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 cast a dark shadow on the Days of Awe 5762. Many rabbis, after discarding their already prepared sermons, found their voices and were able to construct the appropriate words to bring a sense of comfort during those uncertain days.

I was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary at the time and I told my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, about my idea for a project. Rabbi Gillman agreed to be the co-editor of the “Torah From Terror” project and we sent out requests to Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis asking them to submit a sermon from either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur that dealt with the 9/11 tragedy. Immediately, the sermons began pouring in. I organized the sermons into the Torah From Terror website.

On this, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I have decided to reformat the Torah From Terror website. The sermons are now available at http://torahfromterror.blogspot.com. Now visitors are able to leave comments on the different sermons. Also, the search capability is much improved from the original site.

I hope you will visit the Torah From Terror website, and through those words of wisdom you will find comfort and hope. May those words be a remembrance of that horrific day in our nation’s history and may we continue to find inspiration in words of Torah.

Our world has changed immensely in the past decade as a result of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, but we continue to pray the memories of the victims will be for blessings. God bless America.

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

Death of Osama Bin Laden Reported on Yom HaShoah

Today was Yom HaShoah, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in which we remember the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. As I read the names of children from Hungary who were murdered in the Shoah, I thought about my recent trip to Berlin. I thought about how different Berlin would be today had the majority of its Jewish citizens continued to live and procreate.

I plan to write some reflections from my Berlin experience soon, but the big news now being reported is that Osama Bin Laden has been confirmed dead. It would truly be poetic justice if he were killed on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

However, the reports are saying that Osama Bin Laden was actually killed over a week ago. If so, that would put his death right in the middle of Passover, the time of our liberation. The theme of Passover is freedom, the principle that Bin Laden tried to crush on September 11, 2001. It would be fitting if the U.S. was able to finally kill Bin Laden during the Passover holiday. (This year, the secular anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fell during Passover.)

In Judaism, we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us and blot out its name from under heaven. I have no doubt that Osama Bin Laden’s name will be blotted out, but that the American people will also never forget the atrocities committed on 9/11.

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

Saying Kaddish Over "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell"

During the presidential race of 2000, an email was being sent around that showed a photo of Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman. In large letters under their photo was the name “Gore.” And next to that photo was a photo of their opponent George W. Bush above the Yiddish word “Gornisht” (loosely translated as good for nothing).

Much has changed since that dramatic election and many in the Jewish community would now label Lieberman as gornisht. For some, however, Lieberman’s energetic lead in championing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell might catapult him back into the good graces of politically liberal Jews. Many news organizations noted that Lieberman, a Sabbath observant Jew, made some exceptions in order to help pass this legislation. JTA wrote, “A number of gay activists noted in blogs that Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, thought the measure important enough to devote the Sabbath to shepherding it through.” And according to an article on the Daily Beast website, Andrew Sullivan, the gay Atlantic blogger who has championed repeal of DADT, dubbed Lieberman a “civil rights hero.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was quoted in a JTA.org article. He said, “With today’s vote, Americans may serve without being forced to choose between their commitment to our country and their integrity.”

A couple months ago, I was asked to respond to a question about DADT on the Jewish Values Online website. A Reform and Orthodox rabbi had already given their response and I was asked for my opinion as a Conservative rabbi. My answer was quoted on several websites including The Jewish Week. Now that DADT will be repealed it will be interesting to see how the Jewish community’s general feeling toward Joe Lieberman will shift.

Here is the Jewish Values Online question and my response:

QUESTION: What is the Jewish view on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gays serving openly in the U.S. military?

RESPONSE: The U.S. military’s policy of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” might have actually been the best policy at the time. However, the level of public inclusion for the GLBT community in our country has changed since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was instituted under President Clinton. Like other groups that have been treated unfairly in our country (Blacks, women, the handicapped, etc.), over time the public has changed its treatment and its laws.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a “safe” way for the military to acknowledge that there were gays and lesbians in its ranks, but not to make too much “noise” about the situation. Today, in 2010, our nation is much more accepting of the GLBT community and I believe the military will follow suit.

From a Jewish perspective as well, GLBT inclusion has taken great strides in the past two decades. As a value, it is imperative that the military update its policy to allow gays and lesbians to be as honest with their comrades as they are with themselves.

Policies change over time. Our society, like our religion, is not stagnate — it is ever evolving. When I studied at the Conservative Movement’s academic institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians were not allowed to matriculate there. If a student came out as gay, they were asked to leave the school. I guess you could say that JTS operated like the U.S. military — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. However, a ruling in December 2006 changed the Seminary’s position and granted admission to avowed gays and lesbians.

The times change. Our values change. Rules change.

(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

In Desire of a Less Political 9/11 Anniversary

Last week, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press to submit three paragraphs reflecting on where I was on September 11, 2001 and how my life changed as a result of that day. The irony for my wife and for me is that we made the conscious decision to go ahead with our plans of moving to Israel for the year even though there was violence in Jerusalem throughout the summer of 2001. It wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred here in the U.S. that we made the difficult decision to alter our plans and not move to Israel.

This year, the anniversary of 9/11 was a collision of religious events as it fell on the Sabbath following Rosh Hashanah — a fast day were it not the Sabbath — and on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr — a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. 9/11 was turned into a political storm as a result of the explosive debate surrounding the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.

There are some similarities between the planned building of Park51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) two blocks from the Ground Zero site and the potential building of a convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1989. However, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the lesson taught by Pope John Paul II in not allowing the nuns to move their convent to that site is not necessarily what the “‘move the mosque’ spokespersons would want to hear.”

More than the debate on whether to allow the Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built so close to Ground Zero, what has surprised me is that the family members of the victims from the Twin Towers have not voiced loud opposition to the fact that their loved ones’ graves will become a shopping mall. The lower floors of the rebuilt World Trade Center will be stores. Some will argue that this displays our resolve to rebuild that site as a place of commerce. Others will recall the debate, again at Auschwitz, of constructing a shopping mall in a building once used for storing hair and possessions from murdered prisoners of the camp. A mile from the Auschwitz camp, the site of the proposed shopping mall had been a disco until it was forced to close.

All of this controversy comes down to the issue of space and how we seek to sanctify it. Ultimately those who argue that a mosque would desecrate the hollowed ground of Ground Zero, the burial spots of thousands, and attempt to prove their point by burning copies of the Koran are just as guilty of desecration. I’m hopeful that in the end, calmer heads will prevail, and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be a more civil display of remembrance rather than a petty political debate. I’m nostalgic for the passionate displays of patriotism that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks in our country.

Here is the unedited reflection I submitted to the Detroit Free Press last week:

My life was in limbo on September 11, 2001. My wife and I had spent our first two years of marriage living in a small apartment in Manhattan, just twelve blocks from the Jewish Theological Seminary where I was studying to become a rabbi. We planned to relocate to Jerusalem after the Jewish holidays where we would experience life in Israel for the year and I would continue my rabbinic studies. In the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, I traveled by plane to Chicago to visit my friend who had just moved there. Little did I know I would be stranded in Chicago and our plans to move to Israel would be canceled.

I woke up on the morning of 9/11 in my friend’s Chicago apartment. Jeremy told me to turn the television on to the Today Show on NBC because a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes and then we saw another plane fly into the other tower. The world would change forever, and so would the way people talk about that date in history. My flight was canceled, but I was able to take a train back to Michigan a couple days later. Air France, with whom we had booked our flights to Israel, decided they would no longer fly to Israel and immediately refunded our money. We made the difficult decision, along with many of my classmates and their spouses, to stay in the U.S. for the year rather than spend it in Israel. Ironically, it was a choice we made because of the terrorism in America and not because of the scary terrorist acts that had plagued Israel all summer long.

My wife and I had already rented out our New York City apartment so returning there wasn’t an option. Instead, we took our possessions out of storage and moved to Caldwell, NJ – close enough to commute into Manhattan and live in a vibrant Jewish community where I would intern at the local synagogue. For us, 9/11 altered our plans. We never had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a year (at least not before children), but that is certainly no comparison to the way so many lives changed dreadfully as a result of the horrific events of that day. We made the best of a change of plans, while so many families will never be the same. Our country will never be the same after being shaken from the acts of 9/11 – as much as we came together as an American people in the weeks that followed, the events of that day have also torn us apart.

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

Newsweek Magazine Affirms Female Orthodox Rabbi

Newsweek Magazine released its annual list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America.

Now in its fourth year, Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., list who they think are the 50 most influential rabbis in the U.S.

While the yearly ranking is merely based on the opinions of two Hollywood moguls and some unscientific criteria, it generates a lot of buzz. There’s also a certain amount of ego that becomes manifest among rabbis when the list is released each year, in addition to debate regarding who was ranked too high and who was missing from the list altogether. My teacher Irwin Kula, who ascended from #10 in 2009 to an impressive #7 this year, tweeted a link to the Newsweek list with the question “How can I not share this!”

What is most interesting in this year’s list is which rabbi was ranked as the 36th most influential rabbi in the U.S. She is new to the rabbinate and new to the Newsweek ranking. Her name is Sara Hurwitz and a lot of controversy surrounds her. Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) ordained her as a rabbi a couple years ago giving her an acronym for a title and then changing it to “rabba,” a title that irked many in the Orthodox world. Earlier this year, under much pressure from the Right, he backed down and decided to not go through with creating women rabbis.

However, it would appear that Lynton and Ginsberg side with Avi Weiss on this one. And so Rabba Sara Hurwitz becomes one of the most influential rabbis in the country according to Newsweek Magazine, while among the people she is supposed to serve she is not even considered a rabbi.

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

Tweeting the Flotilla Attack

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Peter Beinart’s essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books argues that most of the mainstream American Jewish organizations have abandoned liberalism on the issues of the Middle East and are responsible for a generation of young Jews who hold no connection to Israel. He writes, “not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups.”

Beinhart’s essay has of course drawn much criticism and debate within the American Jewish world, both from the right and the left.

Perhaps the best way to see the divide in the American Jewish community over Israel is to look at the dissemination of information and the debate on the Web today following the IDF raid of the Mavi Marmara and other ships in a flotilla traveling to Gaza.

Here’s what happened today: American Jews woke up this morning — a vacation day from work and school in commemoration of Memorial Day in the U.S. — to learn that Israeli commandos raided a Gaza aid flotilla, killing nine and injuring dozens of others. Since American Jews didn’t head to work this morning, there was no water cooler at which to debate the issues. Did the Israelis act in self-defense? Who struck first? Was the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid workers or political demonstrators? Did the men on the flotilla have guns and knives or was it a peaceful transport to Gaza? Were the IDF soldiers stabbed and beaten when they boarded the ship? Did the crew of the Gaza flotilla try to lynch the Israeli soldiers?

So, with no water cooler by which to stand, no office coffee to share, and no bus on which to commute, American Jews took the debate to Twitter. On the social media site users tweeted their latest discoveries from their choice online news networks. With links from Fox news, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times, etc., Twitter users included hashtags featuring the newly popular term “flotilla” — from the Spanish, meaning a small fleet of ships — and voiced their opinion on the controversial event. Some pro-Israel tweets included the hashtag #freedomflotilla with the word “not” included parenthetically.

Some users of the microblogging service complained that Twitter apparently censored the #flotilla hashtag in discussions about the convoy deaths. Charles Arthur at the Guardian explained that Twitter didn’t censor the #flotilla hashtag. Rather, as #flotilla began trending, users started using the #freedomflotilla hashtag in its place. Also, as Mike Butcher at Techcrunch points out: “This surely was a case of anti-spam filtering [as] there had already been a “flotilla” story in the past week – the anniversary of Dunkirk (for non-Britons: a dramatic rescue during the second world war of British and French troops from the Dunkirk beaches by small craft). And Gaza is frequently topical. So Twitter’s anti-spam algorithms – that is, the machines – likely decided that this was a spam attack trying to piggyback on old hashtags, and pushed the “#flotilla” hashtag out of the trending topics.

In addition to Twitter, YouTube also figured as a prominent player in today’s Flotilla debates. Tweets sent readers to the YouTube site to view videos from both sides of the attack — there was footage taken by the Israel Defense Forces of the  Mavi Marmara Passengers Attacking IDF Soldiers as well as video footage from Al Jazeera of  Israeli troops storming the Gaza flotilla after the white flag was raised.

On this lazy Memorial Day Monday morning in the U.S., Americans had no where else to go other than the Web with their views on the situation in the Middle East. Perhaps this virtual debate over the flotilla attack is the best litmus test for Beinhart’s assertion of how American Jews connect (or don’t) with Israel.

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

What Elena Kagan Can Teach Us About Judaism

If Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the open seat on the Supreme Court, is confirmed there will be two Jewish female justices on the highest court in the U.S. and a full third of the bench will be Jewish for the first time in history. The rest of the justices are Catholic. A Supreme Court made up of six Catholics and three Jews will certainly be interesting.

But there is also a lot that the biography of Elena Kagan can teach us about Judaism today.

In a recent article in the NY Times, we learn that Kagan had the first bat mitzvah ceremony at Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what led up to that event, and Kagan’s Jewish identity in the decades since that event, shed much light on the post-denominational Jewish world of today and perhaps give us a glimpse of what is possible in the future.

Lincoln Square Synagogue started with a few Conservative Jewish families in the Lincoln Towers apartment complex in NYC. In 1964, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was sent by Yeshiva University to lead High Holy Day services for this group (essentially a “chavurah.”) They took a liking to Rav Riskin, dropped the “Conservative” label from their name, and in 1970 formed Lincoln Square Synagogue.

The Times article goes on to explain that a women’s prayer group began at the synagogue in 1972 and when Elena Kagan was approaching her twelfth birthday, she requested to have a formal bat mitzvah. It would become the first bat mitzvah that Rabbi Riskin would officiate.

“We crafted a lovely service, but I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” said Rabbi Riskin, who left the synagogue in 1983 to move to Israel, where he is chief rabbi of Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “But she certainly raised my consciousness.”

Since then, bat mitzvahs have evolved at Lincoln Square. Today a girl can choose to lead the service and read from the Torah, as long as the ceremony is held during a women’s service in an annex of the synagogue. There cannot be more than nine men in attendance, and they must sit behind the mechitza. (“If there are 10 men” — known as a minyan — “that becomes a men’s service,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who taught Ms. Kagan.)

Elena Kagan’s parents eventually left Lincoln Square Synagogue and joined West End Synagogue (now located next door to Lincoln Square), a Reconstructionist congregation. Today, Elena Kagan considers herself a Conservative Jew.

This means that the woman who is likely to soon be the newest Supreme Court justice was a member of an Orthodox synagogue that began as a Conservative “chavurah” with an Orthodox-trained rabbi who was willing to have women’s prayer groups, a glass see-through mechitzah (barrier between men and women), and organize a bat mitzvah ceremony at a time when most Conservative rabbis weren’t willing to do so. And from that synagogue, her family became Reconstructionists, and she eventually became Conservative (in her Jewish ideology, but not her political or judicial approach).

Modern American Judaism is at a cross-roads. It has become much more difficult to determine what it means to be a Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox Jew. On the one hand Orthodoxy has moved further away from center with increased strictures on everything from dietary laws to issues of family purity. But on the other hand, Orthodox rabbis like Riskin, Avi Weiss, Yitz Greenberg, Saul Berman, Dov Linzer, and Asher Lopatin (to name a few) are embracing an “open Orthodoxy” that sees challenging questions of Jewish law through a modern lens and allows for increased participation of women in the community.

Reform Judaism has moved quite far in the past half-century and many Reform Jews have found it possible to cling to traditional Judaism within a Reform setting. Conservative Judaism has shifted from a post-war period in which Jews had the Tradition but were in search of modernity and change. Today, Conservative Jews begin with secularism and are in search of Tradition (or at least their rabbis see the situation that way).

Elena Kagan’s emergence on the national scene should demonstrate the fluidity that exists in our Jewish world. We have become a community less about denominational structure and more about comfort. I write this from Israel where I spent this past Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, a congregation that calls itself Orthodox, but allows for a great deal of liturgical participation by women. At Shira Chadasha, one immediately gets the sense that many of the Jewsthere are post-denominational in the sense that they don’t worry about which camp or category they fit into. Rather, they are comfortable being a part of that community, whatever it’s called.

Thanks to the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, our American Jewish community can learn a little more about the direction in which we’re headed.

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

Denominational Judaism is SO Last Century

I am often asked the question: “What kind of rabbi are you?” My tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I usually answer: “A good one!”

Of course, the questioner is trying to ascertain in which denomination of Judaism I affiliate and will then make a whole host of assumptions about me. Denominational labels, whether for rabbis or lay people, are thought to reveal such things as congregational affiliation, personal theology, daily practice, views on Israel, the role of women in Judaism, etc. However, we are now in a post-denominational age of modern Judaism and denominational labels have been rendered useless.

We are in a time when Jewish people identify their religion in their Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form.” No, these people aren’t confused about their Jewish identity, rather they have realized that there is “meaning” to be made from the various pathways to Torah.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, when asked about the different streams of Judaism, remarked that this is the reason that Baskin Robbins offers thirty-one flavors of ice cream. And to this I would add that it’s possible to order a mixture of flavors too. Yitz Greenberg also famously said, “I personally don’t care which denomination in Judaism you belong to as long as you’re ashamed of it.”

To those who ask what type of rabbi I am, perhaps a better response would be an invitation to sit and shmooze over coffee so that I may share my narrative. I was raised in the Conservative Movement attending Shabbat services, going to the synagogue pre-school, and studying at a Solomon Schechter Day School from kindergarten through the end of the seventh grade. In high school, I was active in the Conservative Movement’s youth group, and traveled across the country and to Israel with other Conservative Jewish teens.

When I decided to become a rabbi during my second year of college, there was never a doubt that it would be at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, known as the flagship educational institution of the Conservative Movement. It was in rabbinical school, however, that I really came into contact with other “flavors” of Judaism.

I was chosen for an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. We went on a week-long retreat and stayed at a Catholic seminary outside of Baltimore. I learned a bit about other faith traditions, but it was sharing a room with a Reform rabbinical student and talking to Reconstructionist rabbinical students that was the most eye-opening experience for me. We talked about our individual calling to become a rabbi, matters of belief and practice, and the future of the Jewish community.

Not long after this experience, I returned to the Detroit area to spend a summer training as a hospital chaplain. There were Christian seminary students representing different denominations, but I spent the most time with a Reform rabbinical student who also attended that Conservative Jewish day school. We studied Torah together, prayed together, and debated Jewish law. It was wonderful. We each had our own “torah” to teach and we were both deeply engaged in learning from our rabbis, but we also gained so much from each other.

It was also in rabbinical school that I become involved with Clal, a pluralistic organization that employs teaching fellows from every Jewish stream. In the Clal offices I found Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox scholars who were so deeply engrossed in discussing the issues of the day. It didn’t matter where they prayed or how they thought the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people; all that mattered was that they could challenge each other to think outside of the box and help people make meaning out of their lives.

Rabbinical School was a time when I prayed at an Orthodox shul in which men and women sat separately. But I also led a very Reform service on Friday nights for a nice group of thirty elderly people at the local nursing home. All the while spending my days studying Torah and Talmud in a Conservative seminary with professors who had all studied under Mordechai Kaplan, the founding father of Reconstructionist Judaism.

After graduating from rabbinical school and becoming a card-carrying Conservative rabbi, I took a job at a Hillel foundation on a college campus. There, my job was to advise the leaders of the various student minyans, from Reform and Conservative to Humanistic and Traditional. I spent time in each of these different prayer groups and noticed that many students sampled the various offerings regardless of their upbringing or their family’s affiliation. During this time, I also consulted a Conservative synagogue that didn’t have a rabbi and taught adult education classes at a Reform temple.

Today, I serve as the rabbi of a non-denominational camping agency in which I help run Shabbat services at our summer camp. The services tend more toward the Reform liturgy. I also serve as the part-time rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation, and as the director of a consolidated, weekly high school program for the Conservative synagogues. I am part of two national rabbinic fellowship programs in which I learn and dialogue with rabbis from just about every Jewish flavor imaginable. When we come together at retreats, we forget at which institution we were each made into rabbis and just allow our Torah to permeate the room so that we may learn from each other.

Whether with my colleagues at the STAR Foundation’s PEER program or at Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, I’ve learned that if we perpetuate the arguments of whose Torah is true Judaism, we’ll only do damage to the Jewish people. When we recognize that the labels don’t help and that we’re living in a post-denominational world we will be able to bring more of our collective Jewish wisdom to the world.

I may find that my theology resonates the most with what has historically been considered a Conservative approach, but I still like to pray in an Orthodox minyan at times. The strong emphasis on social action in the Reform Movement motivates me to see the world beyond my nose and my responsibility to humanity. But the deep-rooted sense of a heimish community in the Orthodox world is something that I find gratifying and reaffirming. And the focus on egalitarianism and human dignity that has been critical to the Reconstructionist Movement since its inception is important to me.

Conservative Jews are keeping Orthodox yeshivahs open with their generous philanthropy. Reform Jews are showing their strong support for Israel by becoming AIPAC leaders, traveling to Israel on solidarity missions, and planning community events to honor Israel — all actions to which their Reform forebears would object. Orthodox synagogues are finding innovative ways to increase the role of women in the prayer service and in the community. And independent minyanim are forming around the country with no denominational affiliation and made up of young people who were raised in different traditions.

So, the next time someone asks me what kind of rabbi I am, I think I’ll just ask them: “Well, how much time do you have?”

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