Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Reform Jew's Hand-wringing

I’m a Reform Jew, and I have varying levels of discomfort with that fact. Sometimes the ‎discomfort is mild to unnoticeable, and sometimes it’s severe, but always it’s there, for ‎a number of reasons. But this weekend began to change that, for me. I sense a shifting of ‎things, inside of me – a realignment that begins to look, I think, like comfort, and will ‎look in time, I believe, like pride. So two things happened to me:‎

‎1) This week, the decision was made by the Education Director at my shul to scrap the ‎textbook curriculum for Sunday School and replace it with Haiti. Probably lots of ‎religious organizations meeting this weekend did the same, Jews and Christians and ‎everybody in between. But Sunday School, for Jews, is a little more intense than the ‎Christian variety – it’s three hours long, for one thing. That’s a long time to talk about ‎anything, and while it’s broken up with art! and music! and prayertime! it’s still a lot of ‎air to fill. ‎

When I drop my two youngest off at Sunday School, my oldest (the genial agnostic) and ‎I usually hang out in the shul’s library and read, work, do homework, grade papers, ‎etc. It’s quiet there, and lush, and there’s great stuff to look at when you get bored (and ‎also the gift shop ladies are always there on Sundays, so yay! shopping breaks) and all ‎in all it’s one of my favorite times of the week. This Sunday, it was a little hard to get ‎work done there; the teachers of the 4th and 5th graders had apparently decided it was ‎RESEARCH TIME. (You may count 4th grade research among sausage and politics as ‎something you Don’t Want To See.) There was much squabbling over maps and ‎websites and resource material, and much heated discussion over when, exactly, the ‎French government recognized Haiti (shut up Sam you don’t know anything) ‎and when, exactly, the US marine occupation ended (oh yeah why don’t you shut ‎up) and much pointless shushing by the teachers and the gimlet-eyed librarian. ‎

‎“I’ve seen Haiti!” one girl proudly announced. “Well, but I didn’t see much, since I was ‎just on the promenade deck.”‎

I hid my smile in my notes and kept my head down. So well-heeled, all of them; so ‎well-kept and well-scrubbed and well-fed and well, rich. And so earnest about learning ‎this stuff, even if it was just to do better than the person next to them. It was an exercise ‎in Reform Judaism, really – all that white-hot earnestness about living the voice ‎of the Prophets, and living the repair of the world, and living the mitzvot. ‎They might never really hear the voice of the Prophets; they might never repair the ‎world; they might never succeed in living the mitzvot. But God, I love them for trying, ‎for rubbing the sleeve of their size 12 Patagonia fleeces on the window of the world and ‎trying, haltingly, as well as they know how, to peer out at the great wide universe ‎beyond. ‎

God bless them, and God bless the country club hippies who teach them every week. ‎There’s a hackneyed old saying that Jews are the only group that earn like ‎Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans, and I was proud to see some of the reason ‎for that today. I was proud of my faith community, for its relentless focus on things that ‎are larger than ourselves, and proud of the way Reform Jews have been on the front ‎lines of engaging Judaism with these issues, from Selma to Darfur to Haiti to yes, Gaza. ‎Hand a Reform Jew a siddur and she might or might not know which end of it is up; ‎hand her a cause and stand the hell out of the way. I suspect I know which pleases ‎Hashem more. ‎

2) In a prosperous bedroom suburb of Tel Aviv there is a synagogue called Darchei ‎Noam. It’s one of 30 or so synagogues in this community, which would seem to say, it’s ‎nothing special. But it is. For one thing, it’s Reform, and if you know anything about ‎Israel, you know that makes you rare to begin with. I’m not going to go into Israeli ‎religious politics here, but suffice it to say they’re uglier and more disheartening than ‎‎4th grade research projects by an order of magnitude. And the upshot is, Reform ‎Judaism is not recognized as being any valid sort of religion by the state, which means ‎that Reform rabbis can’t marry or bury their congregants, and often can’t get permits ‎even to build their synagogues. It’s not an easy place to be a Reform Jew, basically.‎

So this weekend we hosted the rabbi of Darchei Noam, Rabbi Stacey Blank. She’s young ‎‎(or do people just look that way to me now?) and pretty and blond and pregnant and ‎all the things that tend to get you dismissed in a room full of Orthodox rabbis. What ‎else is she? Well, intensely learned, for one thing. Midrashically brilliant. Passionate ‎about Torah, and passionate about her congregation, and passionate about Israel, and ‎passionate about Reform Judaism. It’s that last that brought me up a little short, ‎because really? I suppose to me that's a bit like being passionate about Presbyterianism ‎‎– you could be, but why? ‎

Well, she made the case for why. Without getting up from her chair, with an easy smile ‎and deft words, she showed me why. We began as is usual in Torah stody: zeroing in ‎on a few verses of Torah and mining, delving, digging, arguing, hypothesizing, ‎arguing, all in one exhilarating hour. This week it was Exodus chapter 12, when God ‎tells Moses and Aaron, “Speak to the people.” (This is where God has come up with the ‎whole lamb-on-the-doorpost with jazz hands thing, plus the showgirls and feather ‎boas. Though that last may have been edited out, in later redactions.) So yeah: SPEAK ‎to the people, in the plural imperative, dabru. And she posed the question, why ‎does God tell both Moses and Aaron to speak now, as opposed to all the singular ‎imperatives before, where God had just told Moses alone to speak, diber?‎

Obviously there’s lots of midrash on this, as there is on, well, just about anything. She ‎presented us with a sampler platter of midrashim on the subject and largely stood back ‎to let us hash it out. And the midrash she kept gently drawing us back to was this one:‎

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Moses would share the honor with Aaron and would ‎say to him, ‘Teach me.’ And Aaron would share the honor with Moses and would say to ‎him, ‘Teach me.’ And the speech went out from between them as if they were both ‎speaking.

‎“You see,” she said quietly. “Reform Judaism, what we subscribe to, it’s not a 19th ‎century invention. It is a living, breathing, ancient voice in our tradition—the voice of ‎mutuality. The voice that says, ‘let us learn together.’ The voice that does not worship ‎hierarchy and authority, the voice that does not silence women. Reform Judaism is ‎here, in our texts and in our tradition, and it’s a voice that was slowly choked out, over ‎the centuries, as we grew more afraid, more insular. And now we are renewing that ‎voice, and all of us here in this room are engaged in that project. We will make that ‎voice powerful again, the voice of Rav Shimon bar Yochai and others like him. In their ‎name we teach.”‎

I sat there, stunned, not sure what to make of it. Of her. I am at all times impatient with ‎Reform’s lack of what I would call backbone on halakhic issues – as a friend regularly and patiently reminds me, Reform Judaism is not a halakhic movement – and ‎I think I was in danger of losing sight of the larger issues at stake, which is the ‎reclamation of Israel (in all senses of that word) for plural voices. So I suppose I am ‎starting to think of myself—thanks to Rabbi Blank and to Rav Shimon and to the ‎harried 4th grade Sunday School teachers—as a Reform Jew. A Reform Jew with ‎Orthodox tendencies in my practice, sure. But it’s a better fit, I think, than an Orthodox ‎Jew with Reform tendencies in my thinking. All I know is, when she spoke, I wanted to ‎be part of the world she was working to weave. She made me believe that in time, she ‎and voices like hers will prevail, and that my tradition in all its glorious parts and ‎pieces will embrace the lives and contributions and voices of women, of gays, of the ‎other and the outcast. She made me breathless for the World To Come, that could ‎almost—maybe, perhaps—be this world too. A world where women stand on the ‎bimah with their sons, a world where young girls raise their voices in song at the Wall, ‎a world where grandmothers read and teach Torah, a world where one Jew turns to ‎another and says, teach me. Where two women—or two men—stand together under a ‎chupah, and the only shrieking is that of joy. Where no Jew—where no person—is ‎made to feel less than, or smaller than, and where the word of Hashem goes forth from ‎Jerusalem. ‎

In the words of Yehuda Amichai: Amen, amen, and may it come to pass. ‎