Humanistic Judaism: Basics & Intercultural/Interfaith Family Appeal

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom, written after a recent presentation on Humanistic Judaism to a program of InterfaithFamily/Chicago for soon-to-be or recently married couples. He thought it could be useful both as a basic explanation of Humanistic Judaism and to explain why his denomination is a good fit for many intercultural couples and families. This is cross-posted from his blog.

If you wanted to explain Humanistic Judaism in one sentence, it would be “Humanistic Judaism celebrates Jewish culture through our human-focused philosophy of life.” Since I have room for more than one sentence, I’ll expand a bit.

Humanistic Judaism

a logo for Humanistic Judaism

For Humanistic Jews, Jewish identity is an ethnic, family, cultural identity. This can include elements understood as “religious” like life cycle ceremonies or holidays, but also art, history, literature, food, language, jokes and more. And this is not unique to our movement; many Jews connect to Jewish culture more strongly than to Jewish religious beliefs or practices. There is no “Methodist-land,” while there is a sense of a Jewish homeland and a feeling of connection to other Jewish people, however diverse that peoplehood may be. Even the most traditional definition of “who is a Jew” is an ethnic definition: who your parents are rather than theological beliefs or rituals. Our cultural Jewish identity is who we are and where we come from, as well as what we do.

There are several implications from a cultural Jewish identity. First, culture evolves and changes, was created by people to respond to their time and place, responds to new circumstances and is open to new creativity. So what Jews 2000 ago believed or prescribed may or may not still inspire us. Second, cultures are available to choose from, just as we may connect with certain aspects of American culture and not others. In weddings I perform, couples choose which elements they want to include, and how to include them; for example, sometimes each one breaks a glass, rather than only one (male) partner. Most important [for this audience], we live in multiple cultures, multiple families at once. I am part of my own family, and also my wife’s family; even though both families are Humanistic Jewish, we learn from each other’s traditions and celebrate each other’s milestones. So, too, with intercultural families who are connected to both partners’ traditions (and both sets of grandparents!).

Humanistic Jews celebrate our identity, or our identities, through our human-focused philosophy. All too often religion is not about people — read a siddur/prayer book, particularly the Hebrew text or a clear translation. The focus is on what people CAN’T know, what people CAN’T do, how much help we need from above and beyond. Our Humanistic approach is to change the focus: instead of looking above and beyond for help, let’s celebrate what we CAN do, how much we HAVE achieved (individually and together). Let’s learn what really happened in our past, through critical study and archaeology, so we can discover how we really came to be who we are. And let’s celebrate the reality of the world we know, the life we share, the power we have, the inspiration we seek.

What are the implications of this philosophy? We can learn from our tradition, since it was created by people, and we also learn from modern human knowledge in the sciences, psychology, genetics and all the rest. We believe that all cultures, including Jewish culture, are responses to the human experience, and so we can find parallels and points of common ground between ours and others, and even learn from them. It’s not an accident that other cultures also have light-lighting holidays in the depths of winter! Most important, you are in charge of your own life — whom you choose to marry, how you create your family, what values you want to live. That means more responsibility, but also potentially great satisfaction for a life well lived.

This is why Humanistic Judaism has officiated at interfaith marriages and welcomed intercultural families from the very beginning, including our first policy statements in support of these families, both intermarriage and co-officiation, in 1974 and 1982.

Humanistic Judaism can be a comfortable Jewish home for intercultural families who share core human-focused values; we are very meaningful as the Jewish piece of an intercultural mosaic.

You can hear more about our/my approach to intermarriage in this audio podcast.

The Struggle to Tolerate the Intolerant… One Parent’s View

I heard someone say, “I hate the xxxx people. They are so intolerant.” I thought this was a very hypocritical statement and it was very… well, intolerant. You can insert any extremist group for xxxx, but the person seemed to think that they were very progressive and open minded in their thinking. I thought otherwise. I have struggled with this concept for months: I don’t want to be intolerant of people who are themselves intolerant because then I would be a hypocrite.

I try to teach my children to set high standards in order to do their best. Somehow, the implication of trying to attain high standards implies that other people have low standards. Who hasn’t heard the argument, “Well Joey gets to watch TV all day,” followed by, “I‘m not Joey’s parent!” I don’t want to insult or second-guess the judgment of another parent. I try not to criticize other people because, for all I know, maybe Joey doesn’t watch TV all day or his parents are not home when Joey watches TV. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult not to imply that we think we are better than others. However, as a parent, it is important to instill respect and acceptance of others.

For example, during the most recent election, I tried to teach my kids how lucky we are that we can vote for our president without fear. I punctuated the conversation by saying that in some countries, women aren’t allowed to vote. The kids were surprised and asked which countries and why. We have friends of many nationalities and I dodged the question because I didn’t want to create any inadvertent prejudice. My son’s good friend is Muslim and I didn’t want to get into a discussion about religious influence on politics in some countries.

While I don’t want to be a hypocrite, there are times when striving to be the best that we can be may come across as a little condescending. The crux of it is, as long as we are aware of where the line of tolerance is, we are doing the best we can. None of us can be “politically correct” all of the time, but as long as we are trying to be sensitive, that’s a very good first step.

In the Jewish community, there is often scorn or lack of respect toward intermarried couples. We need to embrace the different choices people make (even if we would choose differently) and encourage intermarried Jews to keep a piece of their Jewish identity. As Jews, if we are welcoming to the person of a different faith, they will likely gain additional respect for their spouse’s Jewish identity. Jewish people should treat all individuals regardless of their religion or background with chesed — kindness. We will all sleep a bit better knowing that we have been kind and respectful to others.

Thoughts on Jewish Identity

The Winter 2012 edition of Contact, the journal of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, is devoted to the question, “What is Identity?” You can read the issue online as a pdf.

The following are excerpts I found to be the most thought-provoking. They offer a snapshot into the issues raised in this publication. I’ve included my responses to each – what do you think?

Identity is Strongest When It Leads to Action
The more interesting question concerns how people come to consider their Jewishness as somehow helpfully guiding them as opposed to operating merely as a feature of their background.
- Bethamie Horowitz, page 3

As educators, ideally we show people how Judaism can be experienced in everyday life. We demonstrate how Judaism can be lived, how ancient values apply to modern scenarios, and we instill a sense of a Jewish purpose, connectedness and rootedness that guides the decisions we make. How do we do this as educators? We study Talmud, rabbinic stories and midrash to evaluate modern day ethics. We share a Judaism that applies to the transitions in the day, from waking up to eating to work to interacting with our friends, parents and children. And we suggest ways to access Shabbat that will be realistic and doable for modern families. Our “Jewishness” has to be helpful to us in living a life of meaning, purpose, joy and order.

What is Specifically Jewish About My Behavior?
The sharp boundaries that traditionally separated Jew and non-Jew have been blurred, and it is more difficult to know what self-identification means.  Intermarriage, in particular, adds to the complexity of describing Jewish identity both for the Jewish spouse and for the children of intermarried parents.

If Jewish identity is to be salient among the dozens of potential identities available, Jewish education will have to be prominent and effective.
- Leonard Saxe

Anytime I participated with my religious school in a social justice project, I always followed up by asking the students to describe what we did. The students would explain how cleaning up the park, working at the food pantry, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, etc., was a good deed and helped make the world a better place. They would talk about helping our neighbors and taking care of the earth. They would say that this is part of what it means to be a good person.

I would ask, “What was Jewish about what you did?” They would say that all religions teach these ethics and values; tzedakah (Hebrew, literally meaning “righteousness,” but generally referring to charitable giving) and gemilut chasadim (Hebrew, literally meaning “bestowing kindness”) are the way Judaism describes what to do, but ultimately it’s just about being a good person.

Is this true, that Judaism’s approach to repairing the world is based in universally held principles of kindness and generosity? Yes and no. We may share values, but each religion has specific ways of understanding, talking about and acting on them. Judaism has a language, guidelines and narratives that teach a specific way to approach areas of charity.

When those raised with Judaism grow up knowing the particularities and nuances of their religion, they may see more distinctions in a Jewish way of life. Rather than water down Judaism and Christianity to blend into a sea of universal ideas of being a good person, why not learn and celebrate the specific stories, specific heroes or models of a certain trait, and seek to emulate the profound values of our sacred texts?

Jewish Identity is About a Connection to the Jewish People
[The term Jewish identity] carries with it three misleading and ultimately distorting messages:
Being Jewish resides in the individual … is about subjective feelings … is a fixed quality.
- Steven M. Cohen, page 5

Cohen, like others in this publication, suggests that when someone has friends who are Jewish, he or she will tend to identity more strongly with Judaism. Affiliating with a community of other Jews is what it means to be Jewish. When someone is “unaffiliated,” we work tirelessly to bring them into the fold of organized Jewish communal life. We don’t care about people’s Jewish beliefs, behaviors or level of literacy nearly as much as whether the person belongs to a community with other Jews.

This is an ostracizing and potentially divisive and hurtful statement to make to people who are not Jewish who have Judaism in their lives and participate in Jewish communities like synagogues. Cohen is essentially saying that it is fine if people who aren’t Jewish raise Jewish children and attend synagogue programs, but the main factor in forming a strong Jewish identity is when children, teens and adults hang with other Jews.

I believe that identity is about feelings. It is about affirmations that one makes about one’s own sense of self and place in the world. Identity is personal, yet it can be expressed and felt in groups. Community is essential for living out Jewish ideals. However, the make-up of today’s Jewish community is more and more diverse. I think these new voices and backgrounds strengthen rather than diminish the group.

Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.

Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.

The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?

We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.

The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.

In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?

Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.

More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.

What is Judaism?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Evan Moffic on the topic of a new book that examines Jewish identity. It is partially in response to another review, “Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists”.

What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?

A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community. 

This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.

Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.

Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.

These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

Kosher Jesus?

A difference between Christians and Jews, one could say, is that Christians believe the Messiah came (you might have heard of him – a fellow named Jesus?), while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. Over the years, this basic difference has become, amongst some sects, more confusing:
[list][*] – some Orthodox (Chabad or Lubavitch) Jews believe their late-rebbe is the messiah;[/*]
[*] – Jews for Jesus and other Messianic Jews usually identify themselves as Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah and as part of the Trinity, though they are Christians.[/*][/list]

But, Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.

Until now? In his soon-to-be-published book, Kosher Jesus, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is making some unusual statements.

Boteach said he regrets that Jews allowed Jesus “to be ripped away from them without even a fight.”

“We just accepted a Christian interpretation of his life and narrative,” he said. “One of the most influential people of all time is seen as a Christian who loved the Romans and said about the Jews that they are all the children of the devil.”

But “Christian ideas of Jesus as divine messiah emerged as a savvy adaptation following the destruction of the Second Temple,” Boteach explained. Once Jews understand that, he writes that they “can take inspiration from Jesus’ often beautiful ethical teachings and appreciate Jesus as a devoted Jewish son who became martyred while trying to lift the Roman yoke of oppression from his beloved people.”

The excerpt, from an interview with Ha’aretz, continues. Let me quote Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com:

Enter Jesus, the latest subject of Boteach’s ‘scholarship.’

Boteach is about to publish a new book called “Kosher Jesus.” To be sure, there is no shortage of hucksters and delusional messianic types writing books about the man-god, but most of those less than honest writers don’t command the media audience our slurping egomaniac does. That means Botech has the potential to do more good or, more likely, more harm, than they do.

Ha’aretz interviewed Boteach about his latest ‘scholarship’ which, Ha’aretz says, is based primarily on another non-expert, the late British author Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s works are based on outdated science and were rejected by scholars almost out of hand when they were originally published because Maccoby has a tendency to make the facts fit his theories rather than letting the facts shape his theories. And this bodes poorly for Boteach’s book.

That said, Ha’aretz reports that Jewish-Christian relations expert Rabbi Jeremy Rosen likes Boteach’s book, so perhaps Boteach has managed to avoid doing any serious damage.

On the other hand, Alan Dershowitz endorses the book (but not necessarily its content) and the unber-crazy, uber-irresponsible hard right radio show host Glenn Beck endorses it. Make of this what you will.

Here’s some of what King Shmuley the Self-Anointed told Ha’aretz:

“This book is telling the Jews to reclaim Jesus, the authentic Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Jewish Jesus” and to be inspired by his “beautiful” teachings, the U.S.-born author and TV show host told Anglo File this week in Jerusalem. “It’s asking Christians to make an effort to enrich their Christianity through an understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus.”

“Suddenly we have evangelical Christians emerging as the foremost supporters of the state of Israel,” he said. “We have this political alliance. What is a lacking is a theological bridge.”

“Christians don’t know the Jewish Jesus,” Boteach continued. “They know the Christ-divinity but not the Jewish man Jesus. There’s a need to discover the humanity of Jesus.”

“Kosher Jesus” amalgamates research (mostly by Hyam Maccoby ) which suggests that the gospels give the wrong impression of Jesus. “There was a lot of embellishment and editing,” Boteach said. “We have to remember Paul [the apostle] never met Jesus. He cannot offer us a first-hand account of Jesus’ life.”

Christian scripture “doesn’t add up” when it portray Jesus as a self-hating Jew, or when it lists sins that allegedly led Jews to condemn him, Boteach said. Jesus never declared himself God or meant to abolish Jewish law, he asserts.

And the fact that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah shouldn’t bother Jews, he insists: “I could declare myself the messiah right now. There’s nothing blasphemous about this,” Boteach said. “I even encourage people to have a certain messianic tendency in their lives, a desire to redeem the world.”

[/quote]

Lest this post come across as too biased, here are other hechsher-from-rabbi-shmuley-boteach">reviews, plus Rabbi Shmuley’s own take.

What do you think? Will you be reading the book? Will it further relations and bridge-building between Christians and Jews? Are you, like Shmarya Rosenberg, skeptical and worried?

On Different Hebrew Pronunciation…

A friend of mine, Amanda, is writing some articles for InterfaithFamily.com, explaining the different ways different people pronounce, translate and transliterate (write with English letters) Hebrew. The first article just went up: The Case of the Missing Sav, and other mysteries in the transition of American Hebrew. But in addition to that, I wanted to share an article that didn’t make it into her final draft.

Wait. Let me back up. One of the sources cited in her article was Alan Mintz’s Hebrew in America: perspectives and prospects. In it he writes,

I am not convinced that the American teaching agenda [of Hebrew] must be set by a dependence on Israeli teachers.

I agree! And I suspect that many parents who have or had children try to learn Hebrew in a synagogue’s religious or Hebrew school would also agree. Fluency in a language does not necessarily a teacher make.

But his argument goes on to explain, as Amanda’s article paraphrases, that in America:

Camps, schools and other infrastructure existed to teach children Ashkenazi Hebrew, in addition to it being the language of synagogues’ prayers. The transition to Sephardi pronunciation was gradual, and was aided by growing feelings of Zionism, the availability of Hebrew courses on college campuses taught in Sephardi Hebrew, sometimes by Israeli instructors, and other factors.

So what does that mean? The majority of Jews in the U.S. are of German and Eastern European descent (Ashkenazi). Many of them spoke Hebrew with their community’s pronunciation, which included pronouncing some “t” sounds (the Hebrew letter tav) as “s” (sav), “o” sometimes became “oy”, and “a” sometimes was “o.” There were many other differences too. (Which we’ll be sharing a resource on shortly!)

Sometimes, because of the push to standardize Hebrew in the U.S., fuelled, in part, by Zionism and a desire to align our Diaspora Jewish communities with Israel, the “old school,” Ashkenazi pronunciations are seen as backwards, stupid, and sloppy. I strongly diagree. In fact, I call that bullshis. (See what I did there?)

And here we return to the article that didn’t make the cut. Because she, and I, found it offensive. It’s archived from a URJ email discussion list, and we don’t know much about it. But the author, Burt, says in part:

Over the course of the last eight years I have discovered something deeply frustrating within our Reform congregational world. The struggle to instill a knowledge and love of standard, modern Hebrew is challenged not only by the centrifugal pulls of assimilation, the extracurricular demands on our children, the challenges of maintaining two-income households and a terminal case of “pleasure principle”, but by the persistence of archaic and inaccurate pronunciation of Liturgical Hebrew due to old habits, ce , pseudo-orthodox affect or cultural sentimentality. The widespread use of this strange half-Hebrew, half-Yiddish dialect I call Ashkebonics (the Jewish equivalent of Ebonics), subverts the proper teaching of Hebrew and exacerbates a cultural and cognitive gap with between the American Jewish Community and Israel. The fact that so many of our Jewish professionals use and reinforce Ashkebonics is to me both puzzling and deeply frustrating.

If you want to read his rant, by all means. But I’ll stop quoting there. In essence, he argues that this historical, cultural, familial Hebrew pronunciation system should be squashed once and for all. He wants to see all Americans using the Hebrew pronunciation of Israel.

Would that simplify things, help folks learn? Perhaps. Perhaps it would be less confusing if we all referred to the 25 hours of Friday evening through Saturday night as “Shabbat” instead of some people saying “Shabbos.” But then, doesn’t learning about our multitude of cultures and histories make us a stronger, deeper, more enriched community as a whole? When we recognize that there is more than one way to speak or pronounce Hebrew, just as there is more than one way to be or do Jewish, just as there is more than one way to claim Judaism as our own… the whole community benefits.

In Case You Missed It…

A few interesting articles that you might have missed:

1. Rabbi Bruce Warshal opined on why interfaith families should raise their children in just one religion. Check out Choose One But Not Two Religions.

2. A clip from Samon Koletkar’s “Mahatma Moses Comedy Tour,” during which he discsusses being a Jew in America. (Warning, he also drops the “r” word, too many times, at the end. To counter that, a PSA from Glee‘s Becky and Sue.)

3. Instead of arguing about how to count the Jewish population, an argument for increasing egalitarian parenting. Why?

Both quantitative and qualitative studies have found that if the intermarried Jew is a woman, the children will more likely be raised Jewish. Further, intermarried Jewish men stand a greater chance of raising children to identify as Jews if the organized Jewish community will count those children as Jews.

Intermarried Jewish men can raise Jewish children as effectively as intermarried Jewish women provided they are able to integrate work and family, currently a national challenge evident by President Barack Obama urging ìTake time to be a dad, today.î Increasing the contemporary understanding of the relationship between gender, religion and culture will be what determines how Jewish is the Jewish population in the future.

4. Effective March, 2010, gay and lesbian couples in Washington, DC were able to legally marry. In what’s believed to be a first, an Orthodox rabbi, Steve Greenberg (who’s openly gay), officiated at the marriage of a gay couple at the synagogue/">Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Mazal tov!

5. Last week, I was unable to go to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. (Luckily, Joanna and Ed were able to go and represent InterfaithFamily.com.) There, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer gave the opening address, bravely (given his audience) talking about how “continuity” should not be the Jewish community’s focus. Instead, he suggested, it should be learning. From the op-ed version of his speech:

Jews, like all people, are searching for meaning, substance and connection. The more we are inundated with e-mails, status updates and tweets, the more we want to go deeper. Our souls are calling out for engagement; our hearts are crying out to be opened.

Judaism, at its core, is a response to that yearning, an answer to that call. What are we “continuing” with our calls for “continuity”? Why does Judaism need a future? Because Judaism offers a system, a covenantal language, a heritage and tradition that responds to the human need for meaning, substance and connection. It is our system, our language, our heritage; it is relevant, and that is the reason that we need a Jewish future.

We Jews have a word for the pathway to meaning, substance and connection. It is called Torah. I don’t just mean the Torah scroll that sits alone in the ark, or even just the words of the five books of Moses. I mean the sum total of Jewish sources and texts — the wisdom stored up in our textual heritage.

I agree. The rest of his speech-turned-op-ed is worth reading as well.

October News Hodgepodge

It’s been a while since I last blogged in hodgepodge style. With the fall holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, sukkot/Sukkot_and_Simchat_Torah.shtml">Sukkot and Simchat Torah) behind us, a new year begun and so many interesting things happening the the Jewish community and wider communities around us, it seemed like a great time to share some interesting articles and blog posts that I’ve come across. Let me know what you think!

1.  In the Creation story in Genesis (the first book of the Torah), we read that a snake tricked Eve into tasting a “forbidden fruit” (and she, in turn, gave it to Adam to eat). On DovBear, they wonder what the unnamed fruit might have been. With 125 comments so far, this is far from an easy question to answer. Apple? Maybe. Figs? Perhaps. What about a pomegranate?

2.  You may remember that last year, we were asking you to vote for InterfaithFamily.com’s CEO, Ed Case, for Jewish Community Hero. No, I’m not going to ask you to vote for him again. Instead, I’m going to share a list of nominees you might want to vote for this year, all of whom are “heroes for their justice work combating racism, poverty and injustice.” The list, posted to Jewschool, was compiled by Kung Fu Jew (who admits to wearing “New York-tinted glasses”).

3.  There’s a lot going on with the Occupy movement that is specifically Jewish. First, Keith Olbermann debunks the anti-Semitic charges of Occupy Wall Street (the relevant part starts at the 1 minute mark). Now then, with that settled, let’s look at some of the amazing Jewish practices coming out of the Occupy movement. This long, personal piece by Avi Fox-Rosen examines his reasons for being involved with leading the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and how it played his “incredibly ambivalent” Jewishness and atheism off his enjoyment of ritual and “traditional cantorial a capella singing” (known as chazzanus). And on Jewschool, a bit about how there came to be Jewish practice at Occupy Wall St, Occupy K St and elsewhere.

4.  Many organizations, including ours, examine statistics, look to data to know if we’re having an impact. One such source was the last national Jewish population survey, done in 2000-2001. Over ten years later, another study hasn’t come along to update those numbers. Gary Rosenblatt, in The Jewish Week, asks, How Many U.S. Jews, And Who Cares?

5.  You know who cares? Pat Buchanan. And he seems to have it all figured out. “In his new book, Suicide Of A Superpower, Pat Buchanan takes a look at the Jewish population of the United States and concludes that Americans Jews are disappearing because they decided, as a group, to have lots and lots of abortions.” Seriously. He blames the Jewish women who were among the leaders of the feminist movement and… oy, just read about it all here.

6.  And in Israel a campaign has been launched, encouraging “parents of non-Jewish children to inform them of their [non-Jewish] status in childhood.” This stems from patrilineal descent, largely among Israel’s Russian population. And the implication, according to the campaign, is that patrilineal descent Jews are finding out that they’re “not Jewish” as adults, which means they need to convert to Judaism in order to get married. I wonder if this is a common issue or discovery in North America, where the Reform movement also holds by patrilineal descent?

And there you go. Recent news in a nutshell.

“Outing” Celebrity Jews as Jews

We’ve seen these articles before, or heard the rumblings from co-workers or friends. “Did you hear that [famous person] is Jewish?” In our own celebrity column, the famous are “outed” as having Jewish ancestors on a fairly regular basis.

Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

Good questions. Thanks, Jewish Daily Forward.

The latest new-Jew is Ralph Branca:

Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

J.J. Goldberg, who wrote Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews in the Forward, suggests that there are other questions that should be asked, but never are:

Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable [sic] patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

There are some answers in the article, if you want to click on over.

But I think the other unasked question, of relevance to readers of InterfaithFamily.com, is: if celebrities or other famous people are so readily declared Jews, after their parents turned away from Judaism, or after a couple generations have not practiced Judaism or even known they were Jewish, why aren’t the same standards applied to the rest of us, the non-famous? If Celebrity X can be proclaimed Jewish in the media, a couple generations after their last relative practiced Judaism or identified as a Jew, why can’t Regular Citizen Y get the same treatment? Why are so many descendants of interfaith families struggling to have their Jewish identities acknowledged by the community, when the press seems so willing to hand it over to athletes, politicians and actors?

Goldberg concludes,

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

I would suggest instead, “The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for those already in our midst and for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.”