Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post

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

Obama’s Bar Mitzvah Speech

President Barack Obama gave what even he described as a “Bar Mitzvah speech” at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial on Friday afternoon. Love him or hate him, the President gave an impressive speech that earned him no less than 70 rounds of applause.

In the speech, he not only defended his administration’s record on Israel, but claimed that, “no U.S. administration has done more in support of Israel’s security than ours. None. Don’t let anybody else tell you otherwise. It is a fact.”

Telling the audience that his daughter Malia has been on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit, he took his daughter’s advice and gave a D’var Torah about this week’s Torah portion. Obama’s message focused on the Hebrew word “Hineini” (I Am Here) saying that like Joseph from the Torah, he is here and ready to take on challenges even if he can’t predict them all. He also dropped some other Hebrew words, but didn’t pronounce all of them well. He struggled to pronounce the term “Tikkun Olam” but fared better with other words and received a rousing ovation when he wished the audience a “Shabbat Shalom.”

Obama’s “Shabbat Shalom” came with the acknowledgement that he knew it was still a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath. He said, “Even though it is a few hours early, I’d like to wish all of you Shabbat shalom.” His former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (or any other Jewish adviser for that matter) could have informed him that we Jews start wishing each other “Shabbat Shalom” as much as 24 hours prior to the actual Shabbat. My sense is that Obama knows this and his statement was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the criticism he received for hosting the White House Hanukkah party two weeks before the actual holiday.

Who knows if “Hineini” will replace “Hope” as Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, but here are some Obama Hineini t-shirts and products just in case (available online).

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

Matisyahu on Contradictions in Religious Observance

As any man with a beard, goatee or mustache will tell you, it is a transformative experience to shave it all off. Something tells me that Matisyahu felt a sense of freedom after he shaved off his iconic beard the other day. There has been a lot of discussion about Matisyahu’s transformation after he came clean [shaven] and claimed he has evolved from a Hasidic reggae star. The opinions have ranged from those who interpreted this as Matisyahu’s having left a religious lifestyle (going “off the derech“) to those who can’t figure out why this story even qualifies as “news.”

While I personally question if shaving off his iconic beard was a wise PR move, what I think is more interesting is how he has made his personal religious journey into a public narrative. His rise to super stardom occurred after he had already adopted a religious lifestyle and his break from Lubavitch a couple years ago wasn’t very well publicized so this is really the first time his observance has been discussed on such a broad scale. And now that he’s gone public with his shifts in observance, Matisyahu has (unintentionally?) brought the conversation of religious shifting and spiritual seeking into a very public sphere.

I listened to Matisyahu’s first interview since his transformative shaving experience and there was an interesting exchange toward the end. Soundcheck host John Schaefer began to ask Matisyahu a question that was sent in to the program by a listener having to do with him living some sort of a contradictory life. Matisyahu quickly cut Schaefer off and said something that I think is of utmost importance in any conversation about religious observance and spiritual seeking.

I’d like to say one thing about contradictions — I don’t mean to cut you off — but the whole thing is contradictions. And that’s what I’ve realized, is that everything has multiple sides to it, you know? We’re so quick to go, to make things black and white and to put things in their box. You know what I mean? But everything is this mixture, and that’s what this world is, is this blend of different things.

Exactly! I hope Matisyahu’s quote goes viral because it is so true. Religion is not black and white although some may claim that it is. I recently had a conversation with a young venture capitalist in Detroit who is a ba’al teshuva, meaning he adopted an observant Jewish lifestyle. As he hammered away at the contradictions of non-Orthodox Jewish religious practice (“they keep strict kosher at home, but eat vegetarian in non-kosher-certified restaurants,” “they don’t drive on Shabbat except to go to the synagogue,” etc.), I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that these contradictions exist across the board. Human beings are inconsistent and religion (including religious law) is fluid so that it breeds inconsistency (across denominations, between communities, and in individuals).

Some observant Jews may find comfort in their own reality distortion field, but I am certain that contradictions exist in their own personal religious practice. As a colleague of mine often says, “Every Jew can find another Jew who isn’t as frum (religious) as he is and look down on him.” There really does not exist any baseline for religious observance because religion has many sides to it and is a mixture, as Matisyahu expressed. Perhaps the end of 2011 marks Matisyahu’s most meaningful religious epiphany yet. Shaving off his beard helped him open his eyes to the sea of grey that is a religiously observant life and a spiritual existence.

Beard or no beard, I’m sure that Matisyahu’s music will continue to resonate with millions. I hope his insight will as well.

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

ESPN Joins the Who Is a Jew Debate

Since commenting here about how the assassination attempt of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has brought the “Who Is a Jew” debate back into the spotlight, I have had some really intriguing conversations with colleagues about how we define Jewish status. A number of colleagues, including Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Rabbi Alana Suskin, and Rabbi Sue Fendrick, posted comments and contributed to the discussion on this blog. A Reform colleague and I have had an ongoing private discussion about patrilineal descent. She told me that some Reform rabbis are questioning whether Gabby Giffords would even be considered Jewish according to the Reform movement’s definition (there’s been no mention of her Jewish education or upbringing which would be required by the Reform movement’s policy on Patrilineal Descent).

My rabbinical school classmate, Rabbi Micah Kelber, noticed that the “Who Is a Jew” debate has even made its way into the sports world. Watching ESPN’s “First Take,” Kelber caught commentator Skip Bayless putting his foot in his mouth while referencing how Judaism defines Jewish status through lineage. He blogged about at Jewcy.com:

Today Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take made a tiny, but amusing mistake while debating whether it is appropriate to call Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers the first great white star because while his father is black, his mother is white. To support his argument, he appealed to the Jews for help in determining someone’s identity.

His slip of the tongue: “I would just like to point out that in some cultures, like in the Jewish culture, if the mom is white, you’re Jewish.”

I don’t think that’s what he meant or else there’d be a whole lot more Jewish people in the world. I never thought the question of Jewish status would be taken up on ESPN. Maybe it’s better if it didn’t. In fact, maybe it’s better if we all moved on to other subjects now.

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

Gabby Giffords and Patrilineal Descent When It’s Desirable

As a Conservative rabbi and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, I cannot officially consider Jewish descent to be determined patrilineally (from the father). In fact, in its “Code of Professional Conduct,” the section detailing the responsibilities for membership in the Rabbinical Assembly lists four current standards of religious practice. The first is: “Matrilineality determines Jewish status.”

And yet, like many Jews who regard Jewish status to require a Jewish mother or proper conversion, I admit to feeling pride when a Jewish athlete or celebrity is successful, even if their “Jewishness” isn’t technically defined by halachic standards. After all, when major league baseball player Ryan Braun won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2007, should the Jewish community have refused to claim the “Hebrew Hammer” as one of our own since only his father is a “Member of the Tribe?” Braun considers himself to be Jewish and his Israeli-born father lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement to recognize Jewish status by either the mother or the father continues to raise questions for the other streams of Judaism. The debate over “Who is a Jew” is back in the headlines following the shooting in Tucson, Arizona that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. For Giffords, the daughter of a mother who is a Christian Scientist and a father who is Jewish and the grandson of a rabbi, there is no question of her Jewishness. She is a proud Jew who is an active member of her Reform congregation. She was married under a chuppah (wedding canopy) by a rabbi, albeit to a non-Jewish man.

This week, as Giffords lay in a hospital recovering from being shot in an assassination attempt by a domestic terrorist, her Hebrew name has circulated the world to be used in the traditional Mi Sheberach prayer for healing. Some rabbis have even questioned whether her non-Jewish mother’s name should be part of her Hebrew nomenclature for the prayer, while others have referred to her as Jewish but added the caveat “not halachically speaking.” Giffords co-chaired the Jewish Outreach Institute’s 2007 conference and is active in her congregation. Yesterday, President Barack Obama called Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi at Congregation Chaverim, to offer his prayers for a speedy recovery for the congresswoman.

Since Saturday’s shooting, we’ve learned quite a bit about Gabrielle Giffords and her Jewish pride. Her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, changed his name to Giff Giffords for anti-Semitic reasons. On her campaign website, Giffords wrote, “Growing up, my family’s Jewish roots and tradition played an important role in shaping my values. The women in my family served as strong role models for me as a girl. In my family, if you want to get something done, you take it to the women relatives! Like my grandmother, I am a lifetime member of Hadassah and now a member of Congregation Chaverim. When I served in the State Senate in Arizona, I had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I will always be a strong supporter of Israel. As the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, Israel is a vital strategic ally of the United States. As a woman and as a Jew, I will always work to insure that the United States stands with Israel to jointly ensure our mutual safety, security, and prosperity.”

The Jerusalem Post was the first publication to state emphatically that Giffords’ Jewishness shouldn’t be questioned. In fact, in their editorial “Learning Judaism From Giffords,” they wrote, “With all our desire for a universally accepted definition of ‘Who is a Jew?’ that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the complicated reality that many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.”

In her “In the Mix” blog at The Jewish Week, Julie Wiener wrote of how Giffords’ Jewishness is shining a spotlight on the “who is a Jew” debate. In her article, “Plight of the Patrilineals,” Weiner cited blogger “Kung Fu Jew,” who posted his angry rant on the JewSchool blog about how Giffords is “Jewish enough for the Jewish community to own a side-show of the media circus. Jewish enough to be our martyr, it seems, but not Jewish enough to be treated equally in life.” He has a point here. I’m sure many synagogues will offer prayers of healing for Rep. Giffords this Shabbat and recognize her as a Jewish member of Congress, yet they would be violating their own religious policy if they ever called her to the Torah for an aliyah honor.

I really wish we had a consensus on what determines Jewish status through lineage, even if only in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Certainly, we cannot continue to make an exception for athletes, celebrities, and politicians of Jewish patrilineal descent. I’m in agreement with the Jerusalem Post on this matter. If Rep. Gabrielle Giffords considers herself Jewish because her father is Jewish and she lives a Jewish life, then she’s Jewish.

May Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Gavriela bat Gloria v’Spencer) be granted a speedy and complete recovery.

(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

Woman Arrested for Illegal Use of Torah

I work as the rabbi at a Jewish summer camp. We have eighty campers from Israel join us each summer. Many of these young campers, like most Israelis, are not familiar with liberal, alternative forms of religious expression in Judaism. In Israel, Judaism is black and white. You either do it or you don’t – secular or religious. Even the Israeli youth at camp who have heard of the Conservative and Reform movements still don’t really understand what it means to be a Conservative or Reform Jew.

This morning, a 12-year-old Israeli boy approached me and asked, “You’re not an Orthodox rabbi, right?” No, I responded wearing my cargo shorts, t-shirt, and shortly cropped hair with a knitted kippah. I told him that I’m a Conservative rabbi. He said that’s what he figured but he wasn’t sure. He then said something that caught me off guard. In Hebrew he asked, “That sefer Torah (Torah scroll) that you read from on Shabbat morning at services here at camp isn’t kosher, is it?”

I explained that the Torah is most certainly kosher, but I understood immediately where his doubt came from. I told him that our camp actually owns two kosher Torah scrolls and that this particular one we’ve been using this summer was on loan from a local synagogue. Based on the Judaism that he sees in his native Israel, he found it difficult to believe that a non-Orthodox rabbi could possess a valid Torah scroll.

In Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) establishment is calling the shots when it comes to religious law. Israelis like to boast that their country is the only true democracy in the Middle East, but when it comes to matters of religion, Israel is beginning to look more like one of those backward, primitive religious states in the Islamic world at which we roll our eyes.

Each month, on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month), the Women of the Wall gather in Jerusalem for a women-only prayer service. These prayer meetings have been turned into a media circus ever since Nofrat Frankel was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) a few months ago. Yesterday, Women of the Wall leader Rabbi Anat Hoffman was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll from the Western Wall women’s section to the Southern Wall area where the Chief Rabbinate and the police both agreed that women could read from the Torah.

My colleague, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, was part of this group and witnessed Anat’s arrest. She detailed the incident in a jewschool post. She writes:

We finished Hallel and began to proceed, according to the terms of the Israeli High Court (Bag”tz) decision, to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah, with the intent to preserve the continuity of the service by escorting the Torah in song. Now, it should be noted here that WoW has had a hard time lately getting the Sefer Torah into the Kotel area, even though Bag”tz permitted it in its ruling. I won’t reveal how they got it in this time around, but it took some maneuvering.

It is perfectly kosher, according to the Bag”tz ruling, to take the Sefer Torah out of its bag, as Anat did this morning, by the Kotel, to carry it to Robinson’s Arch. It is not permitted to read from the Torah in the women’s section, and we did not. We were singing and escorting the Torah, and things got more and more tense, with police trying to physically push Anat out of the women’s section and she (and those of us holding on to her) was trying to walk out, but at a more dignified pace. Eventually there was a skirmish involving the police trying to physically take the Torah out of her hands (we were now out of the women’s section and on our way over to Robinson’s Arch) and somewhere in all of that, they arrested her, and she was taken into custody (as was the Torah).

Many Conservative and Reform rabbis have written articles recently expressing the notion that the real enemy in Israel is us. Often the greatest threat is from within.

Just today, a law called the Rotem Bill is moving closer to final passage in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament). This law began as a proposal by the Yisrael Beitenu party to streamline conversion for Russian immigrants, but it has been twisted into an attack on non-Orthodox Jews. This bill will vest all authority for conversion in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and guarantee that only a particular Orthodox approach to defining Judaism will become the guideline for determining who is recognized as a convert to Judaism. The Rotem Bill would overturn earlier protections for non-Orthodox converts and threaten the legitimacy of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other converts to Judaism who wish to become citizens or be otherwise recognized by the state as Jewish.

I’m proud of my Jewish heritage and I feel blessed to be a rabbi. However, the notion that a woman can be arrested in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish homeland, for holding a Torah scroll is infuriating. I believe that it is healthy to have differing viewpoints and expressions of Judaism, but the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in Israel must cease. The video footage (below) showing the police brutality toward the Women of the Wall is disgusting.

In a week on the ninth of Av, Jewish people around the world will fast for a full day in commemoration of the destruction of the temples that once stood in Jerusalem. Tradition teaches that the Temple fell in the year 70 CE on account of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred among Jews. The complete arrogance and disrespect shown by some Jewish people toward others in Israel demonstrates that 2,000 years later the lesson has yet to be learned.

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