Friday, April 27, 2012

Rabbis, Lay Leaders, and Synagogues

Serious problems bedevil most synagogues. How would you judge an NGO that lacks a clear mission and message, most of whose participants and clients lack comprehension of the institution and its purposes? Most of us would recoil from getting involved, certainly heavily, in such a chaotic sort of scene. Yet many synagogues resemble this picture. They lack a leadership, a process, and a culture for taking vision seriously, either on the philosophical or programmatic level. One specific area where synagogues should invest is the rabbi. Rabbis need to learn how to perform many tasks: writing, public speaking, and teaching. Why should we assume they just know how to operate at a high level in any or all of these areas? Lay leaders need to take professional development of rabbis seriously: evaluating them, strategizing with them about putting in place a regimen of mentors and coaches that can achieve positive results. Rabbis, who after years in the pulpit still cannot attract potential congregants or strengthen the commitment of those who are, represent a drag on the ability of congregations to survive and thrive. Rather than gossiping and sniping at their rabbis, lay leaders need to work collaboratively with rabbis to help them grow in their rabbinate. Rabbis need goals for themselves, and the tools to achieve those goals. Everyone will benefit if this kind of culture of accountability and self-improvement becomes a reality.

Monday, February 20, 2012

History and Meaning

Many goods appeal to people; when those goods conflict what should we do? People want meaning, they also want knowledge, and they also want their freedom to think and to choose. Sometimes they want someone else's "Torah"--sometimes they want their own. To invoke the spectrum: Some people care only for the chase, for the question, for the logic of inquiry, others want that and Meaning, others want only Meaning (forgive the Germanic capitalizing of nouns--I'm not German which explains why I only capitalize those I wish to emphasize).

In his just-published book The Jewish Jesus (Princeton 2012), Peter Schäfer succinctly and I think effectively critiques Moshe Idel's indifference to historicism (part of his long-running duel with Gershom Scholem's historicist work that created the modern study of Jewish mysticism) in his methodological and existential preference for the phenomenological--a fancy academic word suggesting his interest in the content of ideas and how they work rather than in placing them in historical context and then perhaps raising Meaning sorts of questions about them.

Here's Schäfer on page 6 re. Idel and his phenomenological method (specifically his book Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism (Continuum 2007):

"an approach that scorns both unilinear histories of Jewish mysticism as well as homogeneous interpretations focusing on the theosophical strand of Kabbalah (as opposed to the ecstatic strand), the latter demonized as Gershom-Scholem-and-His-School. Such an approach leads to a highly idiosyncratic mixture of sources that deliberately ignores the constraints of time and place, advocating instead a synchronic reading of the respective literatures that moves effortlessly back and forth between antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern period. The reader who doesn't want to follow Idel's presupposition is confronted with a hodgepodge of sources and impressions that--although often interesting and illuminating--defy any serious source-critical analysis and chronological classification and are therefore, from a historical point of view, worthless. Even at the risk of being suspected of historicism, I prefer a sober historical evaluation to one of impressionistic ideas, brilliant as they might be."

I frankly remain perplexed as to why we still argue about this. To make meaning (going normative) out of something requires understanding that thing, understanding (going analytical) requires knowing that thing (going descriptive), hence the strong linkage of these supposedly exclusivist assays.

Anyone who pays attention to students in classes sees this all the time. Students need information, and they need to learn how to not just what to think about it. Jewish study--at its best--involves various sorts of interpretive dialectics: between students and their own ideas and values, between students and one another, between students and teachers, between students and the texts/history/ideas under scrutiny, and between the implicit if not explicit dialectic of text and interpretation embedded in the Jewish process and substance of learning. Without contexts how can one possibly store, sort, question this mass of material?

The real obstacle to this sort of multilayered work remains the desire for intellectual coherence and even unity. When someone invokes "Jewish unity" that usually means they want you to agree with them and their worldview. They may know more than you, they may care about your soul, whatever their motive the fact remains they possess the truth and they want to teach it to you to transform you. That's fine in my book, as long as they make that goal clear, and that they teach responsibly. But that method usually excludes pluralist dialectic, and it almost definitely precludes genuine criticism.

Of course the hard part in all of this remains those multiple goods that we seek: we want to live inside of a tradition (except when we don't), but we also want our freedom. Judaism's power (at least from the Sages onward, and perhaps even prior, cf. Michael Fishbane's work on inner-biblical exegesis) derived from its built in interpretative mindset and operation. It's not possible in any real way to separate text from interpretation, to go to the Original Intent place that some of us crave. That's not some fancy relativist deconstructionist talking, just the midrashic mentality. But that assumes some sort of a priori commitment to the people, culture, religion, to the truth of what brings you to the study, to the process of the study, to the outcomes by which individuals and communities choose to live.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dumb and Dumber Parents Teaching Kids Non-Accountability

A former Boston Bruin, Mike Milbury, landed up in our local jail, charged with assault and battery of a minor. At a youth hockey game that he sponsored and in which he served as one team's assistant coach, he grabbed a twelve year old kid's jersey and swore at him (A kid from the opposing team). The mother of the kid said Milbury went beyond that re. physical abuse. Milbury's version--provided in today's Boston Globe Sports section, maintains that the kid bullied Milbury's son, steadily throughout the entire game. Milbury asked the opposing coach to police his players; no response, just one of those "everybody's doing it." Milbury insisted he just tried to separate the bully from his own kid when all else failed. Who knows what happened? Witnesses support Milbury's story.

Assume his side for the moment. Where is the nitwit mother of the other kid? Are parents incapable of policing their own kids? Holding them accountable for their actions? Coaches too for that matter? In "Coach," what I think is his best book, Michael Lewis recounts his high school baseball coach, who lamented that for many kids today "All this is about a false sense of self-esteem. It's now bestowed on kids at birth. It's not earned. If I were to jump all over you today, you would be highly insulted and deeply offended. You would not get that I cared about you."

It's about over-parenting and under-parenting. Don't blame the school, the coaches, the teacher: blame your kid or at least try to ascertain their responsibility for their actions. And try to stay out of the damned way once in a while, letting professionals ply their trade. Lewis' coach lamented that he no longer enjoyed meaningful relationships with his players. "I can't get inside of them anymore. They don't get it. But most kids don't get it. The trouble is every time I try the parents get in the way."

For this life task we require no license? Amazing: the most important job in life and the least regulated....

Reform Orthodoxy

Regarding the recent Table piece on Reform orthodoxy.
The Political Orthodoxy of Hebrew Union College – Tablet Magazine

Orthodoxy reflects temperamental tendencies as much as actual thinking through of issues, and assessing them on their merits. It therefore comes as no surprise that Reform Judaism--in this case Hebrew Union College--struggles with its own process for meaning making and decision making on all sorts of issues, particularly Israel. When I served in a pulpit, a neighboring colleague who served in the nearby Reform temple, told me the following story. When he came to the synagogue, more or less fresh out of rabbinical school, if memory serves, he wore a kippah, pretty much all of the time. He informed the temple's senior rabbi that he planned to wear his kippah at prayer services. The senior rabbi accepted this practice, though he maintained no such observance for himself. But he asked the junior rabbi to speak to a senior board member and to inform him of his intentions. The younger man spoke to this board member, who responded, "That's fine, Rabbi, but if you do so I'll resign from the temple."
What we see in the recent controversy at HUC reflects this historical tension in what it means to be a liberal Jew. Does this term refer to the phenomenon of Jews "liberated" from large, pre-existing entities like Church and State and by implication free to chart their own course? Or does liberalism constitute a set of fixed positions on any given issue or cluster of issues? That board member, and by extension the "orthodoxy" at HUC, reflects the latter view, one that leaves little room for the illiberal view on anything and everything from Israel to social action to ritual concerns. Historians see "Classical Reform" in that light, a late 19th century worldview that sought to articulate and legislate a coherently anti-ritualistic Reform position. That view supplanted but I would argue undercut an older view that made more room for a religious liberalism centered on personal autonomy. Autonomy guarantees self-expression, but can one maintain strong communities unified around anything? That struggle continues to live at the heart of religious liberalism everywhere.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Israel and American Jews

Why the fuss about the Israeli attempt to reach out to diasporic Israelis?
American Jews took offense. They felt the marketing strategy painted them as both disconnected from Israel and bad for Israelis. Pardon my obtuseness--and some would say my classical Zionist mentality--but why the fuss? How is this not true?
Israelis should worry about yeridah; though the Start-Up Nation gurus extoll "portable Israel" as if its the Information Age's equivalent of the Torah as a portable Jewish homeland, they're hardly the same. Israel is an actual place, a state and society, whose very existence depends not just on security matters, but its ability to remain demographically viable. So is the reality of a large Israeli diaspora worrisome? How can it not be? That's not to mention certain specific sectors like the academy, where the brain drain worsens daily.
Ok, I hear you say, that may be true, but why the crude, mawkish commercials?
Anyone who works in Jewish life knows that Israelis here in the states can be hard to reach. Many of them behave like all immigrants; they instinctively gravitate to their like. That's fine. But their Jewishness, however complex and complicated in Israel, remains inextricably tied to Israel: its civic religion, its institutions, etc. Since little or none of that exists in diaspora, why are we surprised when many "non-religious" Israelis struggle to find their place in American Jewish life.
Finally, does anyone really believe that being here, where high school kids focus more on Stanley Kaplan than on deciding which unit one will be going to in the army, makes no impact on an Israeli's connection to Israel? Of course it does. These are two radically different societies, in spite of unceasing heavy-handed attempts to promote their congruence. That may be true compared to the strangeness of Islamic and or Arabic states, but that's really not the point.
So too with wounded feelings of American Jews that they feel that Israelis depreciate American Jewish connection to Israel. How many American Jews visit Israel? How many make aliyah? How many would like their kids to live there? How many--whether because of assimilation or genuine philosophical struggling--feel at least somewhat estranged from an ethnic Jewishness that their parents and grandparents embraced, centered on peoplehood tropes like the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel? As wonderful as AIPAC Policy Conference is, most American Jewry is not there, neither in body nor in spirit. Yes they want Israel to exist, but in what way is it actually consequential in their lives?
The bottom line is that these are two different Jewish communities, for better and for worse. One invented off of a religious paradigm borne out of Protestantism and the Enlightenment; the other romantically rebelled and internalized the need for a nation-state of its own for the sake of political and cultural renewal. Each benefits the other; each damages the other. Let's actually talk about this, rather than hunkering down and taking offense when the other acts for its own benefit. Israel should continue to work to create or recreate strong connections between the motherland and its wandering Jews, and American Jews should understand that without defensiveness. And Israelis should learn to appreciate the vitality and diversity that has marked American religion generally, and American Jewishness in its own more modest way.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Defensive? Moi?

We invest so much in our kids, and therefore rational thought often/usually eludes us when it comes to the JEWISH IDENTITY conundrum. We can't figure out exactly what we want to be, much less what we want our kids to be, much less how to get there, much less how to apportion responsibility among us, our kids, their schools, teachers, social settings, synagogue, etc. So my explicit/implicit critique of Schechter in no way ignores the much fuzzier reality that is much larger than the school and what it can and should be doing. Having said that, what should these schools be doing and why?

1. Clarify the nomenclature: what are they exactly? Independent schools, parochial schools, movement schools? That's just another way of figuring out what the worldview is...

2. Think more like summer camp. Camp's organic, removed, fun. None of those apply to school, at least not all the time. But try to have the Jewish equivalent of Phil Spectre's "Wall of Sound" where everything reinforces everything else: teachers talking Jewish "have a good shabbos" to kids on Fridays, music on the intercom, dancing, art, the works.

3. Try to work more closely with synagogues and rabbis again to reinforce messages/content. Lots of wasted energy that falls through the cracks.

4. WHAT ARE THE STANDARDS FOR JEWISH STUDIES? Hebrew? Bible? Rabbinics? Halakha? Israel? What do we want these kids to know and why? Is there a logical sequence to the curriculum?


The last one is the rub for me: I can't help feeling that we try so hard to be inclusive and non-judgmental that we end up shortchanging families in terms of taking them seriously re. saying "you're here...we want you to be here + 35% when you're done at SSDS." If you're not willing to push, to critique, to make claims about what constitutes Jewish excellence, which yes does include making our best claims and value judgements, then how is growth possible? We do that for math, science, english, are we doing that for growing the Jewish person?

I once heard a rabbi say to students: "why would you do any of this stuff if you didn't believe that it was true?" We need to have the courage to ask that of ourselves? what is our truth? What are we willing to do for it? To teach it to others?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reflections on a Schechter Education

The SSDS of Greater Boston celebrated the 50th anniversary of the school's founding. Eight hundred plus people came to remember, see old classmates, teachers, colleagues, friends. The community should take pride in what it built and what it accomplished: creating an alternative vision of what a day school could be, vis a vis the Maimonides School. I think of some of the virtues that Schechter the man embodied upon which the school founded itself: a love for Judaism, for tradition, for intellectual breadth and depth, a strong engagement with peoplehood, the Hebrew language, Zionism, and the modern State of Israel.

Those commitments still animate today's school. Sad to say there weren't much in evidence at the "party." There was one devar Torah, but it was given by Barry Shrage, not by one of the school leaders, professional or lay. And it was not delivered at a time when the entire gathering could hear it. There were no substantive remarks: the heads of school talked more about the 8th grade plays than they demonstrated what the school cared about on the deepest level. It's disappointing because many of us want a serious egalitarian Judaism; this sort of messaging subtlely and overtly perpetuates the distinction between Torah-centered Orthodoxy and liberal Jews who are centered on what exactly? At least the Reform Rashi school talks and acts re. social justice as a "Jewish value." What does SSDS talk incessantly about?

Education has to be about teaching students how to think. It has to orient them to contribute to the larger world. And it has to be about relationships inside and outside the classroom, modeling what it means to take seriously the blessing of life, the blessing of freedom, the blessing of being able to receive, to transmit, and to create. At its best SSDS creates that sort of environment. But it needs to push itself to do that as a truly, deeply, Jewish school. That is the hard part.