Monday, September 14, 2009

Holding out for Pluralism and Believing in Klal Yisrael

It has been a while since I have last posted on this blog. It has been the summer and, as always, this time has provided an opportunity for exploration, thinking, relaxing and consideration of so much that it often gets eclipsed by the details and the frenetic nature of the programming year. During three weeks in July, I spent some of my annual Israel time participating in a Rabbinic Seminar at a place I truly love to be, the Shalom Hartman Institute, located in the German Colony of Yerushalayim. I was the only non-Rabbi (or non-Rabbinical student or non-Rabbinic spouse) in the program and how that happened goes something like this. I was an active participant in the Educators’ Programs that were run there, and this past summer of 2009, Hartman, like so many other institutions were forced to make difficult budgetary cuts, and this impacted upon the Educators’ program. So, I pursued my commitment to learning there by making and presenting the following argument to the powers-that-be at the institute.

The Institute is a pluralistic institute that embraces and welcomes members of all branches of Judaism, right? Right! The Rabbinic Seminar includes Rabbinic leadership from all of those branches of Judaism (and then some, in the true spirit of pluralism and acceptance of all of Klal Yisrael), right? Right! The Rabbinic Seminar is openly accessible to men and women, right? Right! So, therefore, I as an Orthodox woman (whether or not this is a proper and accurate title with all of the political implications it evokes is another discussion, entirely, not for this particular posting!) who does not hold the title Rabbi as a result of my Hashkafa. However, I do have a rightly earned Doctorate in Jewish Studies and Texts as well as Jewish Education, and this is my Rabbi-equivalent degree for the purposes of the program and therefore I should be admitted. So, while this seemed perfectly logical to me, it did take some time to acquire institutional agreement, and eventually I was accepted into the program. I truly enjoyed being in a learning/living environment with Jews across the denominational spectrum and try to be part of such communities every chance I get. My question is as follows: Why is the notion of building and being part of a pluralistic community so obvious to me and others, and simultaneously so alien to too many amongst us?

While I was in Israel and after my return to the States, my daughter, Rachie (who I hope will begin writing for this blog as well along with her sisters, Talie – her twin – and my eldest daughter, Yoella) spent the summer at Yeshivat Hadar in New York. Yeshivat Hadar identifies itself as a Halachic egalitarian community. The group it attracted reflects a wide breadth of the Jewish community on many levels and pulls these different individuals together within the rubric of its definition of Halachic egalitarianism, inviting all within the rubric of Klal Yisrael who hold by this philosophical and personal religious standard. This represents another attempt at rebuilding our fractured community elements by stating a philosophy that transcends observance points that would identify one as a card carrying member of this or that denominational grouping, too often more as a token observable than an actual determinant of identity.

Through the years, I have had the privilege of belonging to different types of communities of Jewish learners and seekers that defy the conventional definitions of established streams of Jewish community. It is in these settings that I most feel the power of Klal Yisrael and the approving presence of Ribbonu shel Olam. I am well familiar with many writings that poke fun at the tragic isolation and demarcation amongst the “communities within the community” of Klal Yisrael. I personally do believe that just as no two stars, snowflakes or grains of sand are exactly alike, the beauty of the human being is that each one is unique and brings their own special gifts to our community, to our world. How wonderful it would be if we could learn to focus on these specific gifts and reflect upon the amazing collective we could create if we could integrate our many different voices, ideas and perspectives in an embracing and validating manner. To be sure, the goal is not to get everyone to agree with each other and become carbon copies of one perspective, but rather to “agree to disagree” much as is found in the culture of the Gemara, though admittedly not all see or accept the presence of this dynamic within its collective wisdom.

As religiously and ritualistically observant Jews who truly believe in all of Klal Yisrael (my attempt at a more precise and descriptive nomenclature with which I am more comfortable), the trick is how is one able to maintain their own personal standards of observance while being a contributing and active participant in these communities. I have had the experience of navigating how to share a Shabbat meal with others whose levels of Kashrut and Shabbat observance may be different than mine. I have dovenned (prayed) in environments in which my preferred and practices “default position” of praying in an Orthodox shul is not the framework of the service. I have taught classes in which students and group members come from across the denominational spectrum and always begin with lessons of respecting and truly listening to each other carefully. I have shared celebration of Hagim with friends and family who do not observe the restrictions that Halacha dictates that are part of our daily lives. Our entire family has done this with me (and are just as committed to doing so, for which I am eternally grateful to HaShem!) and I know that I speak on behalf of all of us when I state that if we ate a bit less, accommodated our prayer practices by dovenning as if we were at home, explained what we do in a careful way that is non-judgmental, or made whatever other adjustments were needed to allow us to be in these communities, I assure you that we have all enjoyed and benefited from the experience.

Now, I totally understand that not everyone is comfortable with this arrangement and I respect this. I have Orthodox friends and family that would never be able to do these things and I have certainly been “pegged” (and initially avoided) by non-Orthodox friends and colleagues, who assumed certain things about me based on appearances. Nonetheless, I have always taken on the task of “explaining myself” joyfully and am happy to answer any questions and challenges when appropriately stated. I feel that this is part of the portfolio of the true believer in the breadth of Klal Yisrael (as a community of communities) who must understand that not everyone will share their comfort level in this reaching across the communally defined lines of separation. I think the goals are to be confident that you are comfortable with who you are within the community and to reach as far across the spectrum as you possibly can in building this community. I love the challenge of “moving from your comfort zone to your courage zone.”

All of this being said, back to my experiences at Shalom Hartman Institute! This unique and wonderful institution states in its mission the notion that everyone is invited to come and learn and share regardless of affiliation or level of observance. A noble thought to be sure! I, for one, took them up on it. Yet, I must state that while many of my colleagues have no trouble accepting me and those who were initially reticent often become treasured friends in that environment, I have felt insulted and offended at times by some of the leadership. Comments through the years belittling focus on Mitzvot bein Adam LaMakom (commandments between man and G-d), calling observance of certain restrictive behaviors on Shabbat and Hagim “stupid stuff” or saying that we “should not even bother with” certain observances, and worse have been hurtful to some and I know that some of my colleagues who are committed to pluralism will not return to the Institute due to such statements. Additionally, I as a woman was subjected to certain derisive remarks regarding the fact that I daven in a community with a Mechitzah and am not egalitarian in approach. How sad this is, given that the number of Orthodox leaders, teachers, and Rabbis who will agree to be part of such a community is already comparatively smaller when set next to the representatives from other groups.

When I teach and work with groups I always explain that “I statements” and asking questions when there is an area of disagreement or lack of shared understanding will build community much more than many other approaches. I believe it was Martin Buber who said “Questions unite, answers divide.”

As I write this, we are approaching Parshat Netzavim as our annual cycle of Torah portions comes towards the end of our fifth book of the Torah. This begins as follows:

You shall stand all of you this day before the Lord your G-d; your captains of your tribes, your elders and your officers, with all of the men of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of water. You shall all enter into the covenant with the Lord your G-d… (Devarim 29: 9 – 11 )

Let us all learn as we begin to think about the Yomin Noraim about how we can build the wonderful community of Klal Yisrael with all of its various elements, the special wisdom that we all bring to the table, our many talents, and yes, our questions!

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