Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

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

Jay Michaelson On Taking the Boring Out Of Shul

I just read Jay Michaelson’s spot-on article in the Forward, “Rethinking Egalitarianism:
Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”
. Michaelson seems to always have his pulse on the Jewish community, and his perspective is not limited to only one denomination or to what’s going on in New York City.

His article tackles several problems in synagogues today and I agree with him on most counts. I disagree, however, that egalitarianism has much to do with the malaise one finds in most non-Orthodox congregations today. He begins by introducing his friends who emigrated from the famous B.J. (B’nai Jeshurun) on the Upper West Side to a mid-size Jewish community in the South. When they couldn’t find a shul as invigorating and active as B.J., they settled for the Modern Orthodox congregation despite their egalitarian leanings. Not finding a shul like B.J. is a common complaint for people who leave this dynamic ruach-filled NYC congregation and go elsewhere. In fact, as a rabbi I’ve heard dozens of people exclaim after visiting B.J. just once, “Why can’t we recreate the B.J. experience at our shul?” (Newsflash: It’s more than just Argentine rabbis and musical instruments!)

More than “egal doesn’t matter anymore,” what I think Michaelson is arguing is that the heimishe quality found in Orthodox shuls needs to be a goal for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. The attempts to make services more inclusive and accessible to everyone by calling page numbers, over-explaining and over-simplifying the liturgy, and presenting English readings with confusing themes that pose theological problems have caused a general malaise in these services. Not to mention, most Reform and Conservative services are taking place in buildings that are too large to create any sense of warmth or heimishe ambience.

Michaelson is correct about the roots of this culture. He writes:

The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others? If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.

Non-Orthodox shuls need to spend the next decade focusing more on the kavanah (the unbound spiritual search for devotion and intention) and less on the keva (the mindless following of the rote). The Orthodox service is less robotic, thereby allowing individuals to move at their own pace and find their own comfort zone within the service. I concur with Michaelson that synagogue leaders seeking to invigorate the service and empower the membership need search no farther than Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism, where Kaunfer writes “What the Jewish world needs is not more dumbing-down but more empowerment of individuals to opt in if they so desire.”

I also appreciated Michaelson’s apt view of how children should be treated in shul. He writes, “Of course, the kids ran around themselves too, as is the de facto culture in many traditional places of worship. This, my friend observed, was far better for the children’s sanity and their parents’ prayer lives. A few decades ago, we were told that the family that prays together, stays together. But if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all.”

This article should be required reading for synagogue leaders. There’s a lot we can learn from the culture that permeates Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat mornings.

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

Labels Can Be Good and Bad

I’ve been thinking a lot about labels lately. I recently wrote an op-ed about denominational labels in Judaism that was published in the Detroit Jewish News and on the Huffington Post website. In it, I explained how ambivalent I am about labeling individuals because these labels don’t always help us understand the individual better. Calling a Jewish person an “Orthodox Jew” doesn’t tell us much about them. In fact it only leads to misperceptions (Are they Modern Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox? Are they actually unobservant, but affiliate with an Orthodox congregation?).

The analogy I’ve used several times in the Melton Scholars course on denominations that I’ve been teaching this fall has been that one could walk into ten different ice-cream parlors and find that each parlor sells an ice-cream labeled as “strawberry.” Yet, despite the identical label, each strawberry ice-cream will actually taste quite different. As I wrote, the woman who labels her religious affiliation on her Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form” isn’t confused, hazy or even necessarily post-denominational. Rather, she is articulating the notion that we don’t have to choose just one label. There is much more cross-denominational activity today, and based on reader comments to my op-ed on Huffington Post, this is just as true in many other faiths as well.

In thinking of a photo I could use to complement my op-ed, I decided that a car bumper is often used to display ones ideological, political, and religious identity and affiliation. I imagined a car bumper with bumper stickers representing all the trans-denominational activities in which I’m involved –the pluralistic Jewish camp where I work, the Conservative synagogue where I’m a member and my children go to school, the Reform temple where I teach, the Reconstructionist congregation where I serve as the part-time rabbi, the Chabad-affiliated special needs for children organization I support, the community day school my child attends, and so on.

I didn’t manage to include all of those institutions, but I took a photo of the bumper on my wife’s minivan with several of these magnets (magnets seem to be the new bumper stickers and it’s nice that they’re temporary in these more transient times). In the end, I decided not to use that photo to accompany the HuffPo posting. (The photo on HuffPo is of a liberal Jew and a traditional Jew arguing as my friend and local rabbinic colleague Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg looking on.)

I did, however, post the “bumper stickers” photo (above) on Facebook where it was viewed by my friend and colleague Rabbi Paul Yedwab of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Rabbi Yedwab opened his sermon this Shabbat by mentioning my photo:

A friend of mine, Rabbi Jason Miller, whom many of you know, recently tagged a photo on his Facebook page showing a car bumper with a Temple Israel bumper sticker magnet (available by the way, on the table just outside the door if you’d like to sport one on your vehicle.) And, in this picture, right next to the Temple Israel sticker, is a Friendship Circle bumper sticker, a Hillel Day School bumper sticker and a Tamarack Camps sticker as well. And the caption under the photo reads: “Time to get a second bumper.”

I have long been fascinated by this concept of labels. Is the owner of a car really defined by the labels on her bumper? And if she were, how many bumpers would she need to let us know that she is a proudly Jewish, caring mom, tree hugger, vegetarian, Zionist, who is politically moderate, loves animals, nature, Swirlberry frozen yogurt, crossword puzzles, Gucci, Glee and her alma mater. Forget a second bumper; she would need a tractor trailer.

In our Torah portion, God is speaking to Abraham and telling him that he is going to have to take his son up to Mt. Moriah, there to sacrifice him on the altar. But the words God uses to break the bad news are very deliberate. Take your son, God begins, bincha, and then y’echidcha, your only son, asher ahavtah, the son you love, and then and only then, God finally identifies Isaac by name.

Now classically, the Midrash tells us that God stretches out his description of Isaac in order to break the bad news to Abraham slowly…gently. But I am not satisfied with that explanation. After all Abraham was not an idiot; he knew exactly to whom God was referring from the very beginning of that dreadful conversation.

So here is another interpretation. In our tradition God is the one being in all the universe who is ineffable, which means beyond labels. God is not a male or a female, a Democrat or a Republican (although you would never know it from some of the political ads that have cropped up recently). And, according to the Torah, God does not even have a name other than Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, I will be what I will be, or in other words, you can’t put a label on Me. And therefore it follows that, since we human being are made in God’s image, God understands us too as holistic, complex, multi-dimensional creatures. No single label can fully capture the essence of a person. You know, that rabbi with the gray hair at Temple Israel. No, no, not him….the other one…the short one. Oh! Rabbi Yedwab. Labels really never tell the whole story.

So God tries to supply a multi-dimensional description of Isaac, whom after all is so much more than his position in the family, or the feelings his father has for him, or even his name. You know, Abraham: Isaac, the one whose essence is way beyond what any name, label or verbal description can possibly capture, your son, Yitzchak.

Rabbi Yedwab goes on in his sermon to mention some interesting new research that has been done recently into the field of language and epistemology, and then offers some suggested rules for communicating with our “necessarily insufficient words.” One of his rules is to stop communicating in Cyberspace. As a tech-embracing rabbi, I can’t say I agree with that proposed rule, although I concur that we all need to be mindful of how we communicate through technology.

Overall, I agree with Rabbi Yedwab’s message. Just like God, we humans are beyond labels. It is all too easy to assign labels to everyone we know and everyone we read about. The alternative is to use our God-given ability to communicate in order to learn about others. Rather than asking them what kind of Jew they are, we should ask more specific questions about their beliefs and their doubts, their affiliation, their education and their faith history. We should ask them what gets them out of bed in the morning and what do they do to recharge their spiritual batteries. And then we should listen.

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

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

Yes, Orthodox Judaism Changes Too

With all the talk of the changing narrative in the intermarriage conversation, the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in synagogues, and the virtually across-the-board practice of egalitarian prayer in Conservative and Reform congregations, many Orthodox Jews claim that they are the only ones practicing “Torah true” Judaism and refusing to change course on any of these social issues. Of course, even saying Orthodox Judaism is misleading because it encompasses so many different practices and beliefs — from modern, liberal Orthodoxy to the Haredi (ultra-religious sect).

Judaism, like most religions is fluid. It evolves throughout time; the question is how quickly the changes materialize and when. In response to changes in society, the most progressive denominations evolve the quickest because, well, they are the most progressive. Take the issue of women rabbis for instance. The Reform Movement, Judaism’s most liberal branch, minted the first female rabbi in 1972 with the Reconstructionist movement following suit in 1974. The more traditional Conservative movement spent many years debating the change before finally ruling to allow women rabbis in the mid-1980s with my colleague Rabbi Amy Eilberg becoming the first Conservative rabbi to be ordained in 1985.

A quarter century after the Conservatives opened its seminary to women, the more progressive Orthodox Jews in Centrist Orthodoxy are now debating the leadership roles of women in the synagogue. It was only a matter of time.

A few Orthodox women have already been ordained in some seminaries with the most well-known case being Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss (pictured) of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (New York). While her title was debated, there’s no question that she functions like a rabbi in Weiss’s congregation. And I have no doubt that Weiss will ordain more women in the future.

And Orthodoxy has begun to evolve on the case of gay and lesbian acceptance. Again, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements acted quickly with the Conservative movement taking years to study and debate the issue before opening its seminaries and allowing the movement’s rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies in December 2006.

Recently, 150 Orthodox rabbis issued a statement calling for the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community. The statement said in part that “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism… Jews with homosexual orientations or same sex-attractions should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue and school community.” At the Orthodox movement’s Yeshiva University in New York, there have been several conferences on GLBT issues. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an out-of-the-closet gay Orthodox rabbi has helped move Orthodoxy to a place of increased acceptance for gays and lesbians following the success of 2001’s film “Trembling Before G-d,” which explored the struggle of Orthodox Jewish homosexuals.

Many Orthodox Jews will say that the one place there cannot be any leeway is when it comes to davening (prayer). The dignity of the service is compromised when a woman leads, they’ll say. And yet, this seems to be the next big change in Orthodoxy — women prayer leaders. Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem and Darchei Noam prayer group in New York have allowed women to lead certain parts of the service and be called to the Torah for an aliyah honor for years now, but the major news was last Friday evening. Rabbi Avi Weiss allowed a woman at his Orthodox shul in Riverdale to lead the congregation in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. The New York Jewish week reported, “In Rabbi Weiss’ latest effort to push the boundaries of women’s roles in an Orthodox shul, he had a woman, Lamelle Ryman, lead a Friday-night service with both men and women in the pews. Rabba Hurwitz, who heads a seminary for Orthodox women created by Rabbi Weiss, made a few brief remarks, not even touching on the fact that no other Orthodox synagogue in the U.S. had apparently ever before had a woman lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service. But it was Ryman’s show, and according to those in attendance, the davening was beautiful.”

Some in the Orthodox movement are in favor of Weiss pushing the envelope and moving Orthodoxy into the future. Others feel that he’s making changes without any process or input from others. It’s possible that a censure from the Rabbinical Council of America is forthcoming, but Weiss is doing precisely what rabbis have done for generations — moving Judaism forward.

The Judaism of 2010, in any of the denominations, looks different than the Judaism of past centuries. That’s because the times change and the Jewish religion changes too, whether people like it or not.

Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on “Torah true Judaism.” If Judaism is truly going to be true to the Torah, then we must all embrace the Torah’s dictum that says the Torah does not reside in the heavens. It belongs to humanity and it is up to us to see that it remains vibrant and evolves.

(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

Honorable Menschen: Michigan’s Levin Brothers

While living in New Jersey during rabbinical school, I attended a benefit dinner for the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in which Senator Jon Corzine was honored.  Prior to the event, questions were raised as to whether it was wise of JTS to honor a politician while he was serving in office. Honoring Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs Chairman and who after serving as senator became the governor of New Jersey, would bring in a lot of contributions to JTS, but it also upset several donors who saw this as the Seminary engaging in partisan politics.

Now the local region of the Seminary here in Michigan is honoring not one, but two politicians. And yet, there won’t be any objection to this event because of the reputations of the politicians who will be honored. In the Detroit Jewish community, Carl and Sandy Levin have earned their “Favorite Sons” status over a combined sixty-plus years in elected office. The Jewish Theological Seminary will honor the Levin brothers at a brunch on Sunday, April 18, 2010.

The Levin Brothers are making big news today, following yesterday’s decision of House Democrats to make Sandy Levin acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Today’s Detroit Free Press reports that Sandy’s “ascension, taken with his younger brother Carl’s chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, creates what the Christian Science Monitor called ‘one of the most powerful brother acts in Washington since the Kennedys.’ The Office of the House Historian said there have been four instances of brothers serving as chairs of congressional committees at the same time but none since 1881. And there is no precedent for brothers chairing committees as powerful and prestigious as those headed by the Levins.”

A few months ago, PBS aired a documentary about the history of Jewish Detroit in which Sandy and Carl Levin were interviewed together about their beloved neighborhood in the City of Detroit. Their interview was a touching tribute to their upbringing and the city they love. Many described the scene not as two elected officials being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, but as a couple of local Jewish grandfathers waxing nostalgic about their childhood and the old neighborhood.

I first got a sense of Carl Levin’s character when a good friend of mine worked on his re-election campaign as a fundraiser. I would hear her tell people that she works “with Carl” as opposed to “for Senator Levin.” However, that is precisely what the laid back senator wanted his staff to say. While he’s served in the Senate since 1979, there’s no ego there. Both Carl and Sandy are humble, well-respected men who can be aptly characterized by the term “mensch.” I’ve met both men on several occasions and have found them to be warm and friendly, without a hint of that “Inside-the-Beltway Braggadocio.”

Most people don’t know that in addition to all of his accolades and accomplishments in the Senate, Carl Levin also founded a synagogue. A February 11, 1977 article in the Detroit Jewish News reports that when the former synagogue building of Congregation Mogain Abraham in Detroit was about to be demolished, Carl Levin (Detroit Common Council President at the time) and three others salvaged relics from the 63-year-old building to be incorporated in the new synagogue they formed called Congregation T’chiyah. “When Levin became aware that the former synagogue of Mogain Abraham (now Mt. Olive Baptist Church) was to be demolished as part of the Medical Center Rehabilitation Project, he proposed that the group make a bid to the city, which had purchased the structure, for the interior fixtures… the bid was accepted.”

Years later, Carl Levin was walking in Detroit when he saw a pickup truck drive by with a stained-glass window in the back. He immediately recognized it as one of the windows from the synagogue, which was now a church. Even though, Congregation T’chiyah technically owned that stained-glass window, which had apparently been stolen out of the church, Carl stopped the truck and bought the stained-glass window from the man right there on the spot.

Today, I’m proud to be the part-time rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah; probably the only synagogue in the country to be founded by a U.S. Senator. I’m also honored that Sandy Levin’s family is active in the congregation, continuing the Levin legacy at Congregation T’chiyah that began over thirty-three years ago. I’ll be among the many who will come together next month to honor Sandy and Carl Levin, and to support the Jewish Theological Seminary.

With many politicians today, people seem to just be waiting for a scandal to occur. That is not the case with the Levin Brothers. Through their integrity and decades of hard work, they have actually made strides to give politics a good name.  They are just two nice Jewish boys from Detroit who earned law degrees and set out to make a difference by legislating in Washington in a non-politics-as-usual way.

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

Intermarried Rabbinical Students

The student-run journal New Voices has published some thought-provoking and quite provocative articles in recent issues. Their current issue takes on a theme I don’t think has been discussed much. Is it acceptable for rabbinical students to intermarry? This is certainly not an issue in the Orthodox world and I don’t remember it ever really being discussed at JTS (Conservative). However, in the more liberal rabbinical schools (namely the Reform’s Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the new non-denominational Hebrew College), I guess this has been an issue.

One of my classmates at JTS was dating a non-Jewish woman, but she converted to Judaism early on in our six-year course of study and it was a non-issue.

The New Voices article, “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi”, by Jeremy Gillick opens with the story of David Curiel (right), who decided to become a rabbi in the summer of 2008. Curiel was shocked when Hebrew College told him he would not be welcome at its seminary because his wife was not Jewish. In the “it’s a small world” category, Curiel is from Metro Detroit and is the brother of a Hebrew High School classmate of mine from Adat Shalom Synagogue.

The author explains that the “Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) all refuse to admit or ordain students in relationships with non-Jews”.

The policy at the Reform Movement’s seminaries reads: “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program”.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philly said “The bedrock of what it means to be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people. Leaders of the Jewish community, who model to others what Jewish life can be, should themselves be in homes that are fully Jewish”.

There are some intermarried rabbis out there. “In 1992, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the neo-Kabbalistic Jewish Renewal movement, ordained Tirzah Firestone, making her the first intermarried rabbi on record. In her memoir With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Firestone recounts how her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith.”

According to Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of ordination programs at ALEPH (Renewal), Firestone’s experience informed the school’s approximately 10-year-old policy to evaluate students with non-Jewish partners on a case-by-case basis. When ALEPH does admit such students, it does so with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will one day “join the tribe”.

What do you think? Leave your comment about whether it is appropriate for rabbinical schools to refuse to admit intermarried candidates into their ordination program.

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

Indie Minyans Revisited

I last took up the subject of independent minyanim (or “Indie Minyans”) on this blog in January 2008. What prompted me to blog about these minyanim (prayer services) for the 20- and 30-something crowd was the coverage in the mainstream press. The New York Times article (November 28, 2007) opened with the following line: “There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.”

At the 2004 UJC General Assembly in Cleveland, I attended a session in which my colleague Elie Kaunfer (founder of Kehilat Hadar) was one of the panelists. He was challenged about what happens in the future when these young, progressive members of the indie minyans need a nursery school for their toddler or a rabbi for their son’s bar mitzvah. He theorized that many of these young adults would move out to the suburbs and join established synagogues as they got married and had children. His caveat was that they would shake up the establishment at these congregations. Time would tell.

Well, it’s now been about a decade since the founding of indie minyans like Hadar and those original members are now in their mid-thirties with spouses and children not too far off from the bar and bat mitzvah track. But many of them are doing what they did ten years ago. They’re founding new minyans and recognizing that DIYJ (do it yourself Judaism) can extend to their families too (Who says you need a rabbi to officiate at a bat mitzvah?).

This doesn’t bode well for the Conservative Movement where most of the indie minyan adherents were brought up and educated. Rabbi Jerry Epstein (right), the outgoing head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was banking on the idea that these “best and brightest” young people could be lured back to Conservative synagogues. As any study of the American Jewish population will tell you there are far fewer Conservative synagogues than there were when these indie minyan alumni were teenagers in USY and their synagogues are much thinner now membership-wise (at least the ones that haven’t merged with other synagogues).

Rabbi Epstein writes that these young Conservative Jews “live precisely as we told them to [at Camp Ramah and in USY], but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement. They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue. If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.”

This is no surprise to me. The Conservative Movement in general, and its affiliated synagogues in particular, got fat and lazy during the movement’s heyday (1950-1990). They took their market share for granted and didn’t progress or modernize. They also neglected to look behind them as the Reform, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Chabad movements were gaining ground. Many of my contemporaries who were active in the movement’s youth program (USY) and at the movement’s various Ramah camps had a choice to make: become a Conservative rabbi or affiliate with Modern Orthodoxy. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the theory went, was the only place in the Conservative Movement where one could actually live out the ideals of Conservative Judaism. The young person who became more observant within the framework of the Conservative Jewish ideal was made to feel unwelcome in the Conservative synagogue. Is there any doubt why they packed up and moved to Orthodoxy or helped create a new non-denominational minyan community?

So what is the Conservative Movement’s strategy for drawing in former members who have left for the indie minyan movement? Bribery!

Rabbi Epstein has some $2,500 checks to give out to entice some of these minyans to forge relationships with the Conservative Movement. The amount is relatively insignificant when you consider that Kehilat Hadar’s annual operating budget is $160,000 and they have received six-figure grants recently from the Covenant Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (where selling out isn’t a prerequisite to getting the funding). I can’t imagine a couple thousand dollars forcing any indie minyan to lose its independence and hook up with the establishment that was the impetus for its initial creation.

Ben Harris, in a JTA article (Figuring out why promising Conservative alumni set up ‘indy minyans’), explains what has happened in the aftermath of these grants from USCJ: “More than six months later, the organization has handed out six grants. At least two went to minyanim that already had relationships with a local Conservative synagogue. One minyan founder in New York said his group’s connection to the movement had changed little since it received the grant. “

The discussion about indie minyans and the Conservative Movement’s desire to reconnect its best and brightest young people to the established Conservative synagogues they fled has been taken up at the Jewschool blog under the title “Same story in two movements”. Several young Reform Jews have remarked that the pattern is similar in the Reform Movement as well.

David Wilensky writes on his Reform Shuckle blog that this is “the same challenge that I and many of my friends face with our own Reform movement. The Reform world has educated some of us so well and so effectively taught us how to be engaged in some sort of active personal reformation and now we’re so into it that all the ‘normal’ Reform Jews think we’re nuts.”

Justin, a commentor on the Jewschool site, wrote “I also think that what Epstein et al fail to understand, coming from a future Conservative ordained rabbi who was the gabbai of an indy minyan, is that it is PRECISELY being engaged with the movement that is the problem. If we can pursue egalitarian, halakhically inspired and influenced communities without paying dues, and manage to have successful prayer communities, why do we need the movement at all? In my opinion, and this is overtly crass, movement folk want to keep their movement jobs and they view us as a threat. Hence the USCJ donating grants to indy minyanim willing to have relations with Conservative shuls. I think they believe that when people need religious school and day-care they will join a shul. For now this may be true, but I am sure eventually indy minyanim will be able to figure out how to provide that for their own communities similar to what the havura movement was able to do in some instances in the 70s.”

I agree with Justin. I think that as these emerging communities and indie minyanim came on the scene, the thinking from the establishment was that these were transient communities for Jewish young people in the post-college (Hillel) and pre-family (religious school and bar mitzvah) part of life. Well, that does not appear to be the case.

It looks like the indie minyan that starts with a dozen grad students turns into a havurah and and then eventually the type of ideal synagogue community these “best and brightest” Conservative Movement dropouts have been dreaming about but the established Conservative Movement, with its status quo thinking, cannot provide for them.

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