Thursday, October 30, 2014

Variations of Tzniut

Once in a while something special catches my attention, a brief insight into Torah nor more than a few minutes of length which has any number of widespread application and insight.  One of these came a a pre YK Dvar Torah by one of the younger Roshei Yeshivah of Yeshiva University.  The rabbi spoke of elements of modern life that we acquire from the outside mainstream culture, absorb into our usual and customary practice but are really contrary to what we are supposed to be extracting from Torah and its many expositions.

The Rabbi selected three:  Shabbos, Tzniut, and elements of law that run counter to our best assessment of what our concept of Din ought to entail.  The reality is that my pager and cell phone never shut off, as I am the only endocrinologist on staff at my hospital.  I carry them to shul on shabbos, assuring that the concept of shabbos does not disappear.  Electronics shut down except for immediate patient care.  For the last three years I have been treating myself to a leisurely breakfast to mark Saturday morning and for the most part the shopping centers are off limits.  While maybe the car ought to be put away too, it enables me to do things not available to me the rest of the week.

I'll reverse the order slightly.  Election day approaches next week.  I live in a Blue State where I am within the majority, and in small state where I've met nearly all my representatives, chatted with most at one time or another and do not have any particular ethical problems with any of the people I have voted for and few ethical problems with the people I've voted against.  At one time I was a swing voter.  That stopped with the last election.  There can be no moral defense of Legitimate Rape, enslavement of workers by their employers, science denial or accepted maneuvers whose intent is to deny people their access to cast their ballot.  Sorry, very nice Red State people I encountered in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming this summer.  Torah requires a certain commitment to laws that reflect justice and the reality of what HaKodesh Barechu put into place in the world, at least as I interpret it.  In that context, Judaism's values run separate from a significant fraction of the mainstream.  While we tend to vote in the same manner as much of America's underclass, we make our electoral statements the way we do primarily because it represents the right choice, and less because we got the gimmes for ourselves.

Tzniut requires special mention as it has a lot of implications beyond maximizing skin and hair covering among women.  While I'm still a product of the suburban debate nights of the 1950's when representatives of the Orthodox and Conservative shuls would meet on neutral turf to solicit membership from beneficiaries of the post World War II GI too good to pass up home loans, the reality is that Orthodox and Conservative worship were not very different.  Mixed seating and open parking lots were the main differences, with my parents opting for those elements which inevitably imprinted on me.  Fifty years later, the differences have exaggerated considerably, not only in the decline of shabbos and kashrut and even population among the Conservatives, but in the mindset.  Tzniut has eroded as well, not so much in clothing or hair covering or who can worship where, but in how people are classified as important vs convenient.  Macher swoops, small in-bred assemblies of wealthy operators running their organizations with entitlements due large corporate shareholders violates any application of Micah's L'Hatzneat Lechet.  We have tyrannies of small minorities who can leverage what they want by threatening funding or in our case withdrawing from an already tenuous daily minyan.  We have tyrannies of the majority undermining the quality of the Hebrew school curriculum so that kids get processed through to Bar Mitzvah with little of enduring da-at or binah to show for the five years of afternoon and Sunday effort.  We have Federation Machers who want your money but not your ideas for how to best allocate what gets collected.  The Rabbi asserted that theses assaults on tzniut derive from applications of exposure to common practices of our secular world adapted to our Jewish agenda.  I'm not so sure this quest for status or influence that has really devalued status was really imported.  Where I think the Rabbi scored, though, is in his assessment that resistance to this remains a core element of Judaism, one that could be asserted more consistently by more participants than it has been.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conducting Judaism's Business

Simchat Torah evening used to be fun.  As a kid, families would come out but it was really a kids' evening with marching, flag waving, fencing duels with the sticks, some acapella singing, swinging Torah scrolls back and forth.  The elders of the shul knew how to chant their verse of Atah Haretah, or as we called it Ataw Hawresaw.  Torah would get chanted at the end with all of us squeezing under the blanket of a tallis held above us by the four tallest men.  It remained an evening not to miss in college.  Some hijinx, some underage wine, now thoroughly taboo by University policy, rigidly enforced.  And moreover, an evening's solidarity with our Soviet Jewish counterparts who for some reason unknown to me selected Simchat Torah evening as their forum to publicly display their Judaism and the measure of joy it can bring, even in troubling circumstances, while the hostile authorities looked the other way for one day.

As a suburbanite devoting myself to parnassah while allotting time to raise my family, circumstances began to change, though not unravel.  My congregation, the local USCJ affiliate at the time, had kingmakers and other forms of leadership which effectively partitioned celebratory events to adult time and kids forums.  It said right on the High Holy Day tickets, still in my possession, that no children under the age of 6 would be permitted in any service.  It cost them some very valuable young members who took exception that anybody in authority would think that way, and they no longer do.  My current congregation runs by those members that they could have had.  Kids time was assigned to Purim Eve and Simchat Torah Eve.  Kids cannot sit through readings, so they reasoned, so a truncated selection of Megillah was chanted while an often unsuccessful attempt at a full reading took place before the official festivities in a side room.  I offered to read on Simchat Torah eve, as I was the reader on Simchat Torah morning, but was turned down cold by the Rabbi, a young parent himself, who just wanted to process the kids through their allotted time in a merry way.  There did not seem to be a lot of opposition to this tradition by anyone outside my household.  Eventually they became lenient on kids attending but the traditional children's events remained that way with nary an adult who was not a parent of one of the kids in attendance on Purim or Simchat Torah.

My current place expects the festivals to be participatory for everyone.  On the Holy Days, our seniormost member was 96, our juniormost barely old enough to be carried in safely by her parents.  We do not have a lot of kids ourselves, but for the Holy Days families gather including the grandchildren of our members.  That reality became starkly apparent at Simchat Torah and most shabbatot when the entire contingent of pre-Bar Mitzvah tykes can be counted on one hand, the Rabbi's four girls.  The majority of the adults could still sight read their verse of Atah Haretah, though some opted for the English translation when their turn arrived.  Torahs were carried, the Hazzan led the usual songs in between each Hakafah, but it did not seem festive.  The business of Simchat Torah got conducted in its ritualized way without any of the spontaneity that would in another era bring great pride to the Soviet Jews, if even for one day.

Unfortunately, much of the synagogue experience has taken a similar course.  There is an agenda to get through:  the portions of the service, the Aliyah Sound Bites, a sermon, the obligatory handshakes from those in the Torah procession.  There has been no give and take, no genuine curiosity of how somebody's week went, what anybody thought of anything, not even at kiddush.  The middle part of our logo says ENGAGING.  Not sure at this point if it is even a work in progress.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Year Later

Somebody sent me an item from his local Jewish newspaper about an assessment of how the Conservative Movement has spent the year since the release of the Pew Research Center report on American Judaism trying to create a turnaround.  This reality is not limited to Conservative Judaism, of course, nor is it precipitous.  My own congregation once had 700 members, I am told, and even during my time in the on the membership roster as a USCJ expatriate, the membership households have declined from a little above 300 to right about 200.  Board meetings talk not about the talent and energy that a vibrant membership can bring to the congregation but the necessity of adequate membership to be able to pay everyone's salary and have enough left over to keep the power company from making the shabbos goy irrelevant.  In the Conservative Movement the Rabbis and officers have been aware of disquiet among their talent for some time.  As long as forty years ago people were reading The Jewish Catalog where a chapter on Havurot implied a need for alternatives to an often insipid experience watching Bar Mitzvahs on shabbos morning.  Some congregations, including mine, experimented with Havurot.  We would meet monthly for study and schmooze but when push came to shove, the other members arranged amongst themselves a Sunday trip to Jewish Baltimore, not inviting us so as to not have to deal with young children.  There is a book by Dr. Jerome Groopman, an active Conservative Jew who acknowledged his Rabbi in his How Doctors Think.  How Baalebatim Think remains to be written but understanding this probably determines whether the non-Orthodox branches of American Judaism have any remote chance of recapturing the children of the participants they have lost.  Getting defectors like me back to the organizations abandoned for cause probably has little prospect for reversal.

United Synagogue's "Conversation of the Century", the theme of their last convention approaches its first anniversary with either little to show for the effort or little transparency to the activities that will restore Conservative Judaism and the organizations they sponsor to their former glories.  As a Pew Research Report poster child, one who despite decades of engagement always felt estranged from the mainstream, external to the USY cliques, and leery of any place that valued obedience more than talent, the survey's findings hardly surprised me.  Conservative kehillot can probably trace this skepticism among their proficient young participants to the early days of congregational Hebrew schools where selection for the Honor Roll correlated a lot more with behavior than intellect.  I could say the same for USY participants disqualified from holding office for wanting to be on their high school athletic teams or performers in the arts, defaulting to less capable students who were willing to show up for services on shabbos.  When you set your organizational values that way, you will eventually be left with neither talent nor much participation.  The concept of disruptive innovation had not yet arrived in the business world but nothing made me feel less valuable than being sidestepped by a Rabbi or two who did not take kindly to even the most polite challenge and by baalebatim manipulators who thought they could run the congregation from the back seat of a Mercedes Benz while the Rabbi drove.

As I read the various responses from within Conservative organizational sources, or even Orthodox sources, I wonder whether any of them really interviewed any of their former members as they proceeded onto their congregational exit ramps.  We will expose them to the beauty of a shabbat dinner.  They've already been to shabbat dinner.  Our committees will give them what pleases us.  They used to be there and it didn't please them.  We will develop leadership.  Attrition is already leadership generated.  These machers think they can kick Lucy's football just one more time, perhaps, and this time make it sail through the uprights for a score.  There are certainly turnarounds but they usually depend on outsiders who understand the benefits of schecting a few sacred cows.  That's just not what I see happening at present, either through the organized Conservative Movement or in my congregation.

Fortunately Conservative Judaism, whether the modern USCJ or AKSE, the surviving relic on what mainstream observant Conservative Judaism once was, has not really disappeared.  It has reassembled and will continue to as denominational labels become ever less appealing.