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.