You Shall Be Holy

Diverse groupI will be speaking as part of Diversity Shabbat on Friday, April 25. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the well-known and still profound statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). This difficult demand is directed to “the whole Israelite community” (19:2). It is addressed not only to the priests, elders and respected ones, but also to all men, women and children; young and old; and leaders as well as people in the community.

Here is what I believe:

Who is the “whole Israelite community?” It is all of you here. If you were brought up with Judaism, or have found yourself in Jewish life because you fell in love with someone Jewish, if you have a parent who isn’t Jewish, if you wandered away from organized Jewish life, whether you think about Judaism throughout the week or not…you are the whole Israelite community.

If you cast your fate, so to speak, with the Jewish people…feel proud of and part of our amazing history, feel inspired by our audacious hope even in the face of despair, want your children to learn values and ancient wisdom from our texts which we still argue with and confront today, you are the whole Israelite community. If you want American, liberal Judaism to exist in the years to come because it adds creativity, nuance, ingenuity, joy, order, sacred purpose, social justice, support for education and so much more to our society, then you are the whole Israelite community.

If you have a Christmas tree in your living room, enjoy a cheeseburger, have grandparents and cousins and extended family who share Christianity with your children, yet you are here because you identify with Judaism, you are the whole Israelite community. You are in. You are good enough. We want you here. You are worthy. Your Judaism is authentic. You have layered, complex, multi-faceted family dynamics and you work to create Shalom bayit—peace in your home and your wider home—which is one of the most important mitzvot (commandments)…we understand. It’s a journey. You make decisions. You revisit decisions. Identity grows and changes. You are the whole Israelite community.

There is one God of peace and love. We are one people, trying to make our family, our circle of friendships, our workplaces, our school communities, our Temple family, our world a more just, kind and decent place.

You shall be holy. This is holy work. The word in Hebrew for honor as in the 10 Commandments, to honor our parents, is kavod. This word also comes from the word for heavy. True honor and respect is a heavy pursuit. This is not for the faint of heart. This stretches us and brings us into new territory. But, ultimately, loving our neighbor next to us in these seats is holy because you are your neighbor. We are one.

Fun with the Hebrew Calendar

CalendarThere is a Jewish joke that says: Two Jews are in a synagogue, and one turns to the other as asks “when is Hannukah this year?” and the other responds “the same as always, on the 25th of Kislev.” This little tale helps us to learn about the Hebrew calendar. Jewish holidays are celebrated on the same day of the Hebrew calendar each year, but since the Hebrew year is not the same as the solar year used by most of the Western world, Jewish holidays always fall on a different Western calendar day each year.

This quirky calendar difference can be confusing. My husband likes to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries using the Hebrew date and this takes some effort on my part to keep track. I am fortunate that the two most important dates I need to remember happen to fall on important dates in both calendars. In the year that my husband was born, the first night of Hanukkah fell on December 25—Christmas Day—and that day is his birthday. Every year, we celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and Nathan’s birthday. Last year, it was also Thanksgiving, which made it a triple celebration! We got married on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Lyar, which is also the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, another special day that is on every Jewish calendar, making it easy to remember our anniversary.

The Hebrew calendar has a fascinating twist, a method to reconcile the lunar and solar years. The secular calendar is based on the solar cycle, in which the earth revolves around the sun in approximately 365¼ days. Since we cannot measure a quarter of a day, we have 365 days each year, and every 4th year add a 366th day, creating a leap year every four years. The Jewish calendar consists of months based on the lunar cycle, the time it takes the moon to revolve around the earth. A lunar month consists of 29½ days. Again, since we cannot have ½ day, we have some Hebrew calendar months with 29 days, and some with 30 days. As a result of the extra half days, the Hebrew calendar also includes some leap years.

Every so often, 7 times out of every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds an extra month of Adar and names them Adar I and Adar II. This year, 2014/5774 has one of those fun occurrences. The reason for the extra Adar is that a solar year consists of 365 days, and a lunar year consists of 354 days, causing the same Hebrew calendar day to occur 11 days earlier in the following year. As a result, Passover which is supposed to occur in springtime, would happen earlier and earlier each year, eventually ending up in the winter, fall, and summer. To prevent this backward slippage, the Jewish sages added an extra month to reconcile the Jewish and secular calendars.

This leap month is called Adar Sheni, or Adar the 2nd (Adar II). Interestingly, Adar II is the month that is constant every year, where Adar I, is the one added in a Hebrew leap year. The way we know this is that Purim, which always occurs in the month of Adar, is celebrated during Adar II in a leap year. Interestingly, a year consisting of 13 months is not called a leap year, but Shana Me’uberet, a pregnant year.

During Talmudic times, the Hebrew calendar was established by the Rabbinic court in Jerusalem, based upon the sighting of the new moon by two witnesses, who were quizzed to determine the reliability of their testimony. In the 4th Century, the Jewish sage Hillel II, established a fixed calendar, basing it on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This is the Hebrew calendar that we use today to know precisely when to celebrate holidays in the current year, and to help us plan for the future.

It is a fun activity to compare the Hebrew and Western calendars to find out if you were born or married on a Jewish holiday, important day in Jewish history, or if you share a birthday with a famous Jewish leader or prophet. You can find a Hebrew date using the online HebCal date converter and then see what happened on that Day in Jewish History. I was born on the 30th day of the month of Sivan, which is a day of celebrating the new moon and the day before Joseph, the Son of Jacob and Rachel was born!

A Day Together—Away From the Checkout Line

Since I joined InterfaithFamily last fall, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jewish traditions and practice, and more importantly, what messages and ideals about Judaism I’d like to pass on to my children. I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, and while my family was actively involved in our synagogue and many other aspects of Jewish life, we didn’t often mark Shabbat in a meaningful way—something I have not much changed as an adult.

I’ve been thinking about how much time I’ve been spending at Target on Saturdays. We just moved, and well, there are things to buy. Important things, like diapers and shower curtains and hand soap. And more diapers. Or grocery shopping. Or picking up the dry cleaning. Or any one of the endless errands that seems to pop up and never get done during the week.

Increasingly, there’s something unsettling to me about dragging my 2-year-old boys around on errands on Shabbat. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited that InterfaithFamily is a community partner in Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging (NDU) on March 7-8. I’ve taken the pledge to unplug as long as I can for the day, and am using it as a way to reboot (yes, pun intended) the way we spend Shabbat.

Jodi and kids

Jodi makes the pledge with her sons

I’ve been thinking about the NDU since I signed the pledge, and on Reboot’s website, found out that the program which InterfaithFamily is supporting (read Marilyn’s pledge) is an outgrowth of “The Sabbath Manifesto”, a project “designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.” The Manifesto is a list of principles to think about incorporating and interpreting in whatever way you see fit. My favorites? “Connect with loved ones” (What better way to spend the day?), “Get outside” (Is it spring yet?), and “Eat bread” (Nothing better than a freshly baked challah from my new favorite kosher bakery, Blacker’s Bakeshop!).

But more important, I’m using the National Day of Unplugging as a chance to think critically about how we spend the day, and whether it matches our family’s values and what I’d like my sons to understand about Shabbat and our priorities. I’m thinking that instead of errands, can we linger over challah French toast before playground and storytime? Check out that Tot Shabbat service at a nearby synagogue? Or have a dance party in the living room? Because what I want my sons to take away from Shabbat is that it’s a joyful break from the week, a chance for us all to spend time together, with family and friends. A day apart, a chance to reset, to reflect, to connect, to start over, to do something special. Away from the checkout line.

Interested in taking your own pledge? It’s not too late—click here.

Treat Others with Honor

“Ben Zoma asks, ‘Who is worthy of honor?
The one who treats others with honor.’”
Pirkei Avot (4:1)

My wife and I are always reminding our children that there is nothing more important than being kind. Hearing the “mean talk” of children’s taunts or playground mishaps—which of course happens everywhere—makes our ears perk up. Mess up on your homework, that can be resolved pretty quickly, but if you treat another person with disrespect, the consequences can be devastating.

The Hebrew word for respect is kavod. It is also translated as honor, dignity, and even glory. Kavod is a cherished word in Judaism. The Hebrew root of the word, (KVD) likens itself to weight, importance and abundance. Simply stated, kavod is not something to be taken lightly. It is all about how one treats their fellow person. This is ascribed an indisputable holiness that is essential in Jewish philosophy. Right in the heart of the Torah, we are instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

A psychologist studying the aftermath of a Golden Gate Bridge jumper in 2003 said, “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner. The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’” (New Yorker, 2003)

Apparently no one smiled at him and the rest is a tragic moment in the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, and suicide in general. Of course, there was a deep psychological imbalance in his life that led to such a horrific decision. Yet, the fact that people continue to regularly disregard each other is troubling. Admittedly, no one passing by this tortured soul could have known the level of despair he was in, but perhaps back then and even now, people could make an effort to show a stranger in our midst a little pre-emptive kavod. Surely all of us have felt uplifted by the gift of another’s smile in passing. How much the more so for people we know!

So what are you doing to show honor and respect to the ones you love? How do you express dignity and kindness to the people you meet? The littlest gesture can make such a difference.

Interfaith relationships offer an incredible opportunity to contribute to Judaism’s enduring strength and diversity. All people should be welcomed and included in Jewish rituals that are such an incredible source of value and meaning to all who participate in them. Perhaps the question when planning life cycle events should not be what are you going to get out of this moment or the person involved in the ritual, but rather, what can you give to the relationship? How can you help break down the barriers and include others?

I invite you to think about this as you peruse our interfaith forums and dialogues here at InterfaithFamily. Let’s open our hearts and minds, for kavod is all around us and it all starts by recognizing the holiness inside you.

Pride Versus Prejudice

Sports fansThere are many things that I am proud of about my background. I am proud of my heritage, my hometown and my family. Being proud helps our self-esteem and drives us to reach for new goals. But from time to time, when speaking about my background, I want to be careful that I am not insulting another person’s background. Sometimes I worry that pride can cross a line and become insulting or even prejudice. I’m going to put it out there: I am a conservative Jew who likes country music and cheers for Duke and the Phillies. But many people who I adore are Catholic, like heavy metal, are UNC fans and love the Red Sox. OK—I said it. We all make our own choices.

No one would argue that being proud of your family, school, city and heritage is a wonderful thing. Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombings, it was powerful to see the slogan “Boston Strong.” The concept of uniting the city to find the bombers was a crucial first step in the healing process for a city that had suffered such a devastating event. Similarly, I greatly admire people who serve in our military because they love our country so very much that they put their lives on the line. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being attacked, so it makes sense to unify as a community or country to take back a feeling of control.

In the past 100 years there were two World Wars, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. During the Second World War, Jews were targeted and murdered. As a result, many Jews have had a strong sense of pride as a way of overcoming such a horrific event in history. After centuries of persecution, many Jewish people felt very protective of their religion and culture. Many people dedicated their lives to working for Jewish causes. That sentiment is weakening as younger generations feel a distant connection to the Holocaust. Currently, some Jews do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism and feel very welcomed into American culture.

Here’s the problem. Pride is a wonderful motivator and generally exudes positive energy. However, sometimes pride comes at the expense of another city, town or culture or religion—and becomes prejudice. It is a very fine line between the two. The risk of misinterpretation or offending someone is constant. (And, there will always be people who are overly sensitive.) Yet, people don’t want to have their thoughts censored in their effort to be politically correct. It’s OK to have an opinion and to express it. But I think it is infinitely important to be aware that pride can easily step over the line and become prejudice.

Here is my recommendation: Think of pride versus prejudice like a sporting event. Everyone can and should cheer for their team. Competition is a great motivator and perseverance leads to wonderful self-esteem. Players and fans should exercise good sportsmanship. Occasionally there is a player or fan who steps out of line. Occasionally a player breaks a rule or there is even a flagrant violation. That doesn’t indicate that every player on that team is vindictive. We should exercise good sportsmanship and sensitivity and maintain the balance between pride and prejudice.

Eyes on the Prize

I love when my kids come home from school with inspirational materials. This week, with MLK day on everyone’s mind, it was to honor the great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Found inside my 1st grader Eli’s backpack was a scholastic news weekly reader called “Before and After Dr. King,” emphasizing how MLK had helped change unfair laws in his lifetime. This little flyer highlighted three topics featuring before and after photos: Buses, schools and water fountains which clearly and visually showed the inequality and horrific level of prejudice in daily life in the south in the ’50s and ’60s.

So we had a kitchen table discussion, and I found myself getting teary-eyed, as I often do at the thought of being separated and judged for who you are by the color of your skin or boxed into feelings of shame for what you were born into. My kids are blown away that people were treated so unfairly. Eli found it fascinating that I was born in 1969, “way back then only one year after Martin Luther King died.” We talked about how hard it is to believe that people couldn’t sit together or learn together or share the same water fountain; things I did not have to witness in person, thank God, being way up north and born after the civil rights movement had a chance to flourish.

“Jews were treated unfairly too back then,” I explained to Eli.

“Why does it always have to go back to the Jews?” my wife bemoaned, “Can’t we just stick with MLK?” (It’s got to be tough to be married to a Jewish educator with every topic coming back to Judaism at his kitchen table.)

“I’m just saying,” pointing to the picture with the separate seating on the buses, “there were also signs back then that said, ‘No Jews Allowed.’ Of course, it was nothing compared to the horrors that faced the Southern black community at the time, but there are similarities. Deb gave me that “Lets not bring this back to the Holocaust” look, knowing all too well where it was heading. I got the message. “You will learn more details about this every year as you get older.” I tried to conclude my digression before Shalom Bayit had been compromised—again.

Eyes on the prize videoMavis Staples, created one of the best civil rights songs of all time (and albums for that matter titled We’ll Never Turn Back in 2007), called “Eyes on the Prize,” telling us to “hold on,” and to keep our “eyes on the prize” of freedom.

We have come a long, long way as a more inclusive society (thank God) and prejudice needs to be fought wherever it strikes. There are many issues to hold on to as we keep our eyes on the prize. King’s vision to change the world began with color (or rather I should say a dream of not judging people by the color of their skin) and continues to grab our hearts and attention on opening our minds to all people who suffer and have been marginalized by society, “still vastly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” (MLK, I Have A Dream speech, April 28th, 1963)

As of this writing, 17 states have legalized same sex marriage (starting with my home state of Massachusetts in 2004). And intermarriage is a fascinating because it is not an issue of legality from state legislation, but rather in issue of relational acceptance by denominations or complex family dynamics.

Going through the list of rabbis who are willing to officiate marriages on this website, I am struck by their level of heroism to stand up for change and inclusiveness, despite the slowness of many congregations and some of their peers.

Things are evolving and getting better, no doubt. It is wonderful to see same sex marriages continuing to be recognized and officiated by rabbis in synagogues. But somehow, interfaith marriage has a bigger hurdle to overcome in acceptance on the institutional level. For example, the Conservative movement has a doctrine to not allow their rabbis to even attend an interfaith marriage, let alone officiate one.

You have probably heard about the small, but still existent, ultra-Orthodox factions that are pushing for separate buses for men and women. Oh Dr. King, how did some of us get so far off? It is deeply embarrassing to see people miss the mark in respecting others’ differences.

In the meantime, this year I will be watching for more synagogues to be more inclusive and welcoming to more intermarried couples. I want my children to grow up witnessing synagogues and Jewish institutions working to make a stronger community of unity and respect.

It’s OK to Go Alone

MarilynYesterday my husband asked for my advice about how to help a friend of his. His friend wanted to know how he could motivate his wife to attend services and other Jewish events at our synagogue. They are empty nesters and he wants to grow their Jewish practice. My husband turned to me because I am the family psychologist, a.k.a., the in-house armchair analyst. While I am sympathetic to our friend’s situation, my answer may not have been the one he was looking for: “He can’t.”

For most of my life, I engaged with Judaism to please my family, not because it was something that I wanted or because it was my idea. It was easier for me to participate than it would have been to explain why I did not “feel it.” I always experienced a strong attachment to the music, the food and to Israel but these are not religious motivations, they are cultural. Sometimes I wonder where the line is between culture and religion.

Spirituality is personal. I am not sure how the flame gets going. Some have it from birth, others find it as a result of a life changing experience, and for me it appeared during my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem a few years ago. My internal flame was lit near midnight on a warm summer evening in Jerusalem.

When I returned home from Israel, I went looking for a Jewish community to join and I found one in San Francisco. From that first Shabbat morning, I always felt welcome and never self-conscious about showing up alone. There were always plenty of other people who came alone, just like me. Some were single, some with partners who chose not to go or who stayed home with their children or aging parents. We sat together at services and saved seats at the table for each other at events. Not once did I ever feel the awkward loneliness that can creep into one’s consciousness while going solo in a group setting. The positive experience I had the first time motivated me to try it a second, and then a third, and so on, until I joined the community as an official member.

Since then, I have married and my husband and I go to synagogue together. I no longer go alone but I know that I can, any time I want or need to. A while ago I heard a fellow congregant speak at a panel discussion about how, as a divorced parent, she has found her village in our community. She no longer feels awkward about attending as a single parent and comes to temple events a lot now. She even comes alone when her children are with their father. I have another friend who is always at Shabbat morning services and is rarely accompanied by his partner who works too hard and desperately needs the “Day of Rest” for actual horizontal rest.

I suggested to my husband that his friend could try joining us once or twice without his wife to see how he feels about walking in alone. Once he is inside, he will be joined by friends, swept away by the gorgeous opening song, and carried through the morning by Rabbi’s calm guidance of our prayers. Our friend may find out that his inner flame of spirituality can be nurtured through the warm and uplifting embrace of our community in San Francisco. He may also discover that the impression he walks away with is contagious.

To learn about what to expect at a synagogue, watch this video.

Are You a Lazy Dad?

Father reading with son

Perhaps you have heard this old joke about an elementary school boy who comes home very excited to share some news with his parents. “I got a part in the school play!”

“That’s wonderful!” his mother replies, “what’s the part?”

“I play the Jewish father,” the son beamed.

His mother sat up, alarmed and with full sternness, “You go back and tell your teacher that you want a speaking part!”

In light of so much talk about the recent Pew study, I would like to turn our attention to an equally fascinating study prepared by CJP, The 2005 Greater Boston Community Study: Intermarried Families and Their Children.

First, the good news for intermarried Bostonians who want to raise their kids Jewish: According to this study, 60 percent of intermarried families in the Greater Boston area are raising their kids as Jews. This is good news compared to the more recent Pew study that found the national average in the rest of the country around 25 percent. If 2005’s survey was any indication (and I know this is a rough comparison of two different studies), Boston is faring stronger for raising Jewish children than the rest of the country. Why is Boston doing so much better? Well that is a whole other blog to write about.

But here’s an interesting part of the CJP analysis that I want to get to: If the mom is Jewish, so the survey says, there is an 80 percent likelihood that the children will be raised as Jews. If it is the father that’s Jewish, only a 32 percent chance (p.19).

Why is this? Dads see themselves as lacking the time? The passion? Are we lazy on Sundays? What’s the deal?

I am proud of our long and storied history of the classic, strong Jewish mom who runs the household, but why are so many of our “classic dads” so complacent? The world is changing fast and our children are growing even faster. I must confess that the reason why my daughter makes it on time to Hebrew School on Sundays is because of my wife—the not Jewish counterpart of my interfaith relationship. So I must be the exception, more than the rule. I lucked out that my wife understands commitment and once we made up our mind to raise our kids Jewish, she is exceptionally committed.

But if she were not so on the ball, I can see how easy it is to fall behind the eight ball. Many of us didn’t love our Hebrew School experiences, and are indifferent. Our parents followed their role models of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants, who were anxious to lose their authentic ethnic backgrounds and fit in. To be fair to my assimilated ancestors, there was horrible anti-Semitism back then that I did not have to suffer through as they did. Although anti-Semitism is not gone by any means and has a deep decoy of anti-Zionism (that’s another blog too), it is safer to be “publicly Jewish” now.

But there still comes a time in everyone’s life when they need to stand up for what they believe in. Everyone is so very busy these days and our children are as over-programmed as the adults. I get it. It can feel like a real schlep to get to Hebrew School on the weekends, but if we engage in some Jewish education ourselves, it need not be such an effort. It can be downright joyful. So as we enter a new year, ask yourself, “Am I a lazy dad?” or better yet, “What do I really care about?” Judaism has so many answers and there are tons of amazing opportunities to learn in Boston. Why walk away from the most amazing education you can give your family. Just try it out. Start the year our right and get involved.

Getting back to that old joke about the speaking part. There are many plays that could use a re-write, and there is no reason to continue putting all of the pressure on one spouse to do everything. Get involved and speak up, Dads. Your future is counting on you and if you get involved just even a tad more, a whole world of beauty and wonder from Judaism will open before you.

“Marrying Out” Is Not “Abandoning Judaism”

Jews don’t live in ghettos anymore, and I think most of us would agree that this is a good thing. In our daily lives we interact with all sorts of people who are different from ourselves—people with different political views, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, people of different races and people of different religions. This exposure to diversity makes our lives varied and interesting. I for one don’t know of many people who would want to give this up.

We don’t live in a world of arranged marriages, and the simple fact is that people fall in love for all kinds of reasons, many of them inexplicable. Sometimes you just know when you have met “the one”—even if that person is someone totally different from you, and even if that person is totally different from what you had imagined for yourself.

Many people, before finding their mate, have a “checklist” of what they’re looking for in a partner. One of my friends always said she’d marry someone blonde, very physically fit and—most important—Jewish. So when she met a man at work who had dark hair, was chubby and didn’t like to work out—and was Methodist—she wasn’t concerned when they started to spend a lot of time together as friends. Sure he was smart, interesting and funny—but he wasn’t her “type.” But eventually their connection become deeper and they fell in love. It stopped mattering to her that he wasn’t blonde and fit. What mattered was that she loved him. And though she didn’t value her Jewish identity any less after falling in love with him than before falling in love with him, she was determined to find a way to make their relationship work since he was “the one” she loved. Eventually, they got married.

For my friend, “the one” is a Methodist. For Rabbi Michal Woll (who co-wrote the recently published book Mixed-Up Love with her husband Jon Sweeney) “the one” is a Catholic author. For me, “the one” happens to be another rabbi. But just because my friend and Michal married Christian men that doesn’t mean that either of them values Judaism less than I do.

Happy familyI’ve met numerous people who grew up with strong Jewish identities and who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people—many of whom spent much of their lives certain that they would never even date, let alone marry, someone who was not Jewish but who simply fell in love with someone they knew, like a college classmate, a work colleague or a best friend. Some of them shared with me that they went through deep soul searching and many tears after having fallen in love with someone of a different faith, but ultimately they came to the conclusion that they could spend their life with the person they loved as well as live a committed Jewish life and raise a Jewish family.

These people didn’t see themselves as having to make a choice between EITHER the person they loved OR the religion and community that they loved. Rather, they made the decision to BOTH spend their life with the person they loved AND to live a Jewish life and raise a Jewish family. Most people I’ve talked to who have made this BOTH/AND decision have acknowledged that there are challenges to being in an interfaith relationship (just like there are challenges in any relationship, especially one in which there are fundamental differences between the partners), but they would rather deal with those challenges together with their mate than having to choose EITHER/OR between their mate and Judaism, and they find meaning and often joy in facing those challenges TOGETHER.

The fact is that in today’s world, in most of the liberal Jewish community, having a partner who is not Jewish and living a committed Jewish life aren’t seen as necessarily mutually exclusive. As Michal and Jon share in Mixed-Up Love, faith and religion are VERY important to BOTH of them; that’s a large part of what attracted them to each other. It just happens that in their case they each have a DIFFERENT religion. Together they are raising a Jewish daughter and making it work for themselves and their family.

So don’t just assume that because a Jewish person is in a relationship with or married to someone who is of a different faith that their Judaism, the Jewish community and Jewish continuity aren’t important to them. Rather than EITHER/OR, perhaps they have chosen to commit to BOTH/AND.

What Happens When Judaism Becomes Ethics?

One of my favorite camp counselors from my youth, now a respected university instructor and demographer, Marc Dollinger, Ph.D. is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He recently posted the following query on Facebook:

“…how many of the 613 mitzvot were classical Reform Jews obligated to perform? My undergrads at SF State want to know.”

I was intrigued, so I started reading the 45+ comments. Professor Dollinger offered additional insight about the class that he was teaching when the question was posed: “Today’s lecture on post-Enlightenment denominationalism, at 75 minutes, was supposed to cover classical and modern Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox (overviews on questions of God, Torah, authority, practice) but we didn’t get past classical Reform. Thrilled with the student interest and passion. More queries coming…”

Rabbi Evan Goodman, formerly from the Bay Area and now the UC Santa Barbara Hillel Executive Director responds: “…I know you stated you need a number, not a theory. However, I don’t believe this question can be answered that way and be authentic to Reform [Judaism]. As you know, Reform Judaism is non-Halachic. Its starting point is the premise that the mitzvot and other traditions are not legally binding on us. It was and is up to each one of us to learn and interpret these traditions in our own generation…”

As the class continued its conversation with Professor Dollinger, he “taught how the early Reform theologians employed rationalist thought to determine which mitzvot remained relevant in modernity and which were considered dated in light of the rapidly changing world. In this sense, wearing kipot and talit would lose value while commandments against murder and stealing would, logically, remain. Students had a deeper concern that once Judaism becomes ethics, what makes it Jewish anymore?”

Rabbi David Cohen, also formerly from the Bay Area and now at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI, chaperoned my teen trip to Israel (many years ago). He offered that “the classical reformers distinguished between rational, ethical mitzvot and non-rational ritual mitzvot. The rabbis of old would have called these mishpatim and khukim. Ethical mitzvot were obligatory; ritual mitzvot were optional. Each Jew was to make a personal, informed choice, choosing to perform a ritual mitzvah if s/he found it spiritually uplifting.”

He points out that a distinction is made between ritual (i.e. religious) and ethical commandments. Fast forward to today. My post read as follows, “I’m curious how your students would respond to the recent Pew Study finding that most of their contemporaries would describe themselves as non-religious Jews. Is this the same or different from classical Reform Judaism shifting away from halacha? It seems that among the non-Orthodox Millennials today, ethical/cultural Judaism is their focus of interest, over religious Judaism.” The distinction between religious and ethical continues.

So, what happens when Judaism becomes ethics? What do you think?