Thursday, February 24, 2011

Glenn Beck's Apology and the perils of too much air-time

Yes, Glenn Beck apologized for his comparison of Reform Judaism and Radical Islam.  He admits that it was a ludicrous analogy.  He apologizes for the offence caused.  He doesn't revisit the deeper issues that I raised in my blog response, of how religious values and religious life must, in my opinion, respond to the same societal issues that the legislature also deals with to be a full expression of living a life of faith.  That doesn't mean that religious values can answer the question of whether a particular piece of legislation is well-written, but they can guide us to consider whether we should address a particular need in society, and then advocate for the legislators to find a way to do that.  They should not dictate what happens in civil society, but they have a place at the table.
Listen to Beck's apology and make up your own mind.  I think I was most struck by his recognition that being on air for 4 hours every day without a script was 'a recipe for disaster'.  Glenn - I think that's the most sensible thing I've heard you say!

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

'Reform Judaism like Radicalized Islam' - Why Beck got it so very wrong

Those who have read this blog before know that its not my usual mode to add my commentary to the wonderful world of political punditry.  While my congregants can probably guess what TV channels I mostly tune in to for my daily dose of news (ok, I'll confess - its usually BBC World because how else am I going to get a daily dose to try and preserve my ever-diminishing British accent!), I don't use (or rather, abuse) my pulpit in ways that make it a soapbox for my personal, political views.  That's not what a place of worship is for.
But.... when I listened to the excerpt from Glenn Beck's radio show posted on  that is rapidly being re-tweeted all over Twittersville as I type, I decided that this one was blog-worthy.  Why? Because the accusation that Rabbis can speak of nothing that politicians vote on without being accused of being 'political' and not truly 'religious' is such utter ridiculousness that it cannot be left to stand.

Now, the tweet making its away up the charts is eye-catching (that's why I used it in my blog heading today) but somewhat misleading.  If you listen to the full context of the quote from the radio show, Beck explicitly says that he is not making the likeness between Reform Judaism and Radicalized Islam on the basis of fundamentalist or violent behaviors.  Rather, he is saying that neither of them are expressions of Religious faith as much as they are politically motivated movements.

What Judaism and Islam both have in common as faith traditions is that their codes of law and practices were never confined to ritual practice and belief.  Both were conceived of, in their origins, as entire social systems.  Jewish law from the earliest centuries speak of the obligations of a community providing a particular minimum of teacher/student ratio in the classroom.  It speaks of the obligation of a communal pot to ensure that doctors are paid for their medical services even when an individual cannot themselves afford the medical care they need to keep them alive.  It speaks of ethical business practices, ethical ways of collecting charitable funds, and how to figure out ways of distributing those funds when the community's need is greater than the contents of the fund.

While, as American Jews, we live in a country where there is a constitutional separation of church and State, Judaism as a faith tradition was not originally conceived with such a separation as part of the cultural context in which it operated.  This means that when Jews talk about practicing Judaism, they might be talking about their Sabbath observance or their Passover Seder, but they might just as equally be talking about their social activism on behalf of the needy.

They might be talking about why they, as individuals, feel called to lobby their political representatives to preserve a woman's civil legal right to an abortion because those who wish to take away that right would actually be preventing Jews from dealing with these women's health issues in ways that are congruent with Jewish law.  Jewish law is absolutely explicit - if an unborn child threatens the health of a woman, the woman's well-being always takes precedence.  Reform Rabbis who advocate on this issue don't wish to prevent someone else acting on the basis of their faith in a different way; but they do object to a different religious understanding of this issue impinging on our rights as American citizens.

They might be talking about environmental policies because Jewish ethical teachings about environmental conservation go back to Genesis, and the rabbinic extension of Bal Taschit - do not waste - has modern day, practical applications that lead us to encourage our government to take steps to help our society better take care of our precious earth.

And so, yes, Reform Rabbis like myself are among those who will speak out on issues such as these because our Religious tradition has wisdom to share that guides our values and lives today.

For someone as deeply uninformed about most things as Beck to claim to know what Reform Judaism is and what it stands for, and on what basis Reform Jews engage with matters of social policy, is simply ridiculous.  But more than that; when he brings up the notion that people of faith have nothing to offer on any issue that is ever dealt with by the legislature and that doing so nullifies their claim to be 'religious', he is perpetuating a fallacy about the role of religiously-informed values that guide the lives of individuals.

Jewish Religious living and Jewish values that do not address what it means to live together as a community and as a nation, what it means to take care of each other, what it means to preserve civil freedoms, what it means to challenge those who whip up fear and hatred among neighbors, is no Judaism that I care to associate with.  If Judaism is reduced to the performance of ritual and the recitation of rites alone and is not also about how we live our lives as human beings, with each other, as best as we possibly can, then it is a Judaism without heart or soul.  That's not Reform or Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or Renewal... that's just Judaism.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, February 14, 2011

A time to check in, and a time to check out

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven...
So goes the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (3:1).

Today, reported on a new app for your smartphone, due out by Feb 25th, developed as part of Reboot's 'National Day of Unplugging'.  As reported on the ejewish philanthropy blog, they explain:
Bucking the trend of technology that allows people to tell everyone that they’ve checked into their local restaurant, cafe or bar, Reboot has developed a smartphone app that helps users “check out” of the internet altogether. The app ironically will use technology to shut down technology.

Think of it as rehab for the smartphone. By using technology, the Sabbath Manifesto app is intended to spur a massive movement away from technology on the National Day of Unplugging, March 4-5, 2011 and beyond, and a return to the values inherent in a modern day of rest: reconnecting with family, friends and the world around them.

The 'Sabbath Manifesto' is an ongoing Reboot project that 'encourages people to slow down their lives by embracing its 10 principles once a week: Avoid Technology; Connect With Loved Ones; Nurture Your Health; Get Outside; Avoid Commerce; Light Candles; Drink Wine; Eat Bread; Find Silence; Give Back.'

This is a great example of the kind of work that Reboot does best.  Not only do they translate Jewish wisdom into actions that speak to C21st Jews, but they take that Jewish wisdom public and make it accessible to everyone.  Many took part in the National Day of Unplugging last year - millions of all faiths and backgrounds from around the world.  The New York Times and Huffington Post were among those mainstream media outlets that drew attention to the 25 hour period of downtime.

Now, in truth, while I love this project, I personally find it challenging to participate 100% as intended.  Living on a different continent to my parents and my brother, ichat or skype video chats have become one of the wonderful ways that I stay connected with my family.  You'll notice that one of those 10 principles of the Sabbath Manifesto is to 'connect with loved ones.'  While I connect on many occasions during the week, sometimes just for 5 minutes before I leave for work, Shabbat afternoon is one of the prime times for an extended family chat.  I try to be disciplined and don't do email or facebook or twitter on Shabbat, but that valuable family connection time is the one reason that I don't entirely shut down the computer on the Sabbath.

I expect I'm  not the only one who has a personal caveat to following the Sabbath Manifesto 100% to the letter, but I feel (and yes, as a Reform Rabbi who will set aside some of the constrictions of traditional Jewish law), that there is meaning in making an informed choice that is intentional to elevate a particular value that I hold above all else - honoring my parents and staying as connected to my family as possible, especially in light of my life having brought me to another country.  I've often felt that it is sometimes harder to be an 'observant' Reform Jew; when one is often making informed choices about so many aspects of Jewish ritual and observance, it requires a different kind of engagement than the, in some ways, simpler observance of strict halachic observance.  Falling into mainstream cultural norms without thought and getting caught up in activities that really don't jive with any attempt to observe a day of rest is easy unless one chooses to create a vessel or structure that helps you to make Shabbat for real.  And that's where Reboot's manifesto, and their upcoming app show such creativity and are so user-friendly.

If Shabbat is meant to be, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, a 'Palace in Time', then I can think of no better place to 'check in' for day.  See  you there!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Friday, February 4, 2011

And we'll sing our souls to You - in memory of Debbie Friedman

Wednesday marks the end of shloshim - the 30 day period of mourning after the funeral of Debbie Friedman.  Many congregations, federations and communities in the USA and abroad have been, and will be having musical gatherings to honor Debbie's memory.  Some of the larger programs were streamed live and  recorded for subsequent viewing.  You can listen to the Memorial service held at Central Synagogue, New York, here.  There was a concert memorial held at Temple Israel in Boston which you can view here.

Here, at Congregation B'nai Israel, we are gathering at the end of the first Shabbat after shloshim for a Havdalah song-session on February 12, 5-6:30 p.m.  Our focus will be on one thing and one thing only - singing Debbie's music together in a gathering that is open to everyone.  Helping to lead us will be several local musicians such as Cantor Scott Harris, Rabbi Suri Krieger, Rayhan Pasternak, Rhea Farbman, and Adrianne Greenbaum (in addition to B'nai Israel's own clergy and educators), and also some special guests from further afield: Kathy Gohr from Allentown, PA, Adrian Durlester from Amherst MA, Arnie Davidson from Glastonbury, CT and Batya Diamond from Wilton, CT.  This latter group are all people that I met at or with whom I share one very special place in common - Hava Nashira.  In fact, Rayhan, who is a Fairfield local, is also someone that I first met many years before I found myself in Connecticut, at Hava Nashira.  I'd like to say a little more about that in a moment.  But first, I hope you'll be able to join us to sing, learn and share Debbie's music on the 12th.  So that we can estimate numbers, it would be very helpful if you could RSVP via this link.

Hava Nashira is the program that first brought me to the USA.  It is the annual conference for song-leaders, held at OSRUI camp, Oconomowoc, WI and it is the URJ camp that serves the Great Lakes region.  I came because two years earlier Debbie had visited the UK, performed at the Liberal synagogue in St. John's Wood, London and run the choir a the UK national Limmud conference.  This was before Limmud became the 2,500-person mega conference that is today.  We were about 750-strong that year, and it was my first time attending the conference.  After Debbie left, a number of us based in London who had sung in her choir were bemoaning the fact that there was no-one like her for us to sing with when she left.  Both the style of the music and the passion and excitement that we felt in just singing our souls to God, experimenting with harmonies, feeling the surge of the voices coming together - we didn't know of a place in the UK to do that.  There were formal Jewish choirs that one could join and, wonderful though some of them were, it just wasn't the same.

For whatever reason - perhaps a sense of calling, or perhaps just pure chutzpah, I decided that there was no reason we couldn't continue to sing Debbie's music, and music like Debbie's in an informal musical gathering that had no 'outcome' in mind - no concerts, no performances.  Shir B'Yachad (sing together) was born, as a monthly musical gathering (A name suggested by Diane Bramson who still runs the monthly gathering now many years after I left the UK).  Initially I partnered with a friend, Nina Maraney, who was a talented Music graduate who played guitar and had a beautiful voice.  She was just beginning to focus on doing more professional music work for the Jewish community and, after almost a year, she encouraged me to take the helm musically as well as organizationally.  My musical skills were much more limited - some passable keyboard accompaniment and some rhythm, but I learned the songs quickly and gained confidence in teaching them to others.  Another friend and talented song-leader and composer, Jess Gold, encouraged me to join her the following year at Hava Nashira where I could gain some skills training and broaden my repertoire.

Debbie Friedman leading a session at Hava Nashira
Hava Nashira was a life-changing experience in so many ways.  On the first evening when we gathered for our first song-session, I felt like I'd entered some heavenly realm, surrounded by so many folk voices, effortlessly breaking into 6-part (at least) harmony as we sang together.  In addition to Debbie, the faculty included Jeff Klepper, Merri Arian, Ellen Dreskin, Rosalie Boxt, and  Donny Maseng.  There were many talented musicians and composers among the attendees too and it was quite awe-inspiring to be in the midst of it all.  I learned a lot of repertoire and picked up a lot of great advice on how to song-lead effectively in different settings.  Still very much the amateur, I returned to Hava Nashira whenever I could (although its been about 5 years since I was last able to make it).  Reconnecting with old friends became as much a part of the pleasure and, even with those I didn't see or hear from much in the interim, there was a powerful bond that transcended time and space that connected so many of us who had shared the Hava Nashira experience.  
When Debbie died, the remembrances and stories shared by all those who subscribe to the Hava Nashira listserv continued unabated for well over a week.  So many shared stories of things they had learned from Debbie, things that they had seen her do at Hava Nashira, the jokes she had told, the personal connections she had made with so many, inspiring them or supporting them at vital junctions in their lives.  It was deeply moving.

And so it is that, among the musicians helping to lead us in song next Saturday evening are some of those special connections from Hava Nashira.  Hava Nashira will go on, although Debbie's absence this year will be enormous.  The faculty in recent years has include Craig Taubman, Peter and Ellen Allard, Dan Nicols, Shira Kline and Josh Nelson - many very talented musicians, composers and song-leaders.  In addition, last year a Fall/Winter gathering was added called 'Shabbat Shirah', providing another opportunity to gather at OSRUI.  To learn more click here.
Sharing the joke (one of so many) with Debbie, Jeff, and Dan
Debbie, we will all miss you more than words can say.  Your memory is forever a blessing, and we will honor that memory by continuing to 'Sing Unto God'.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz