Monday, April 8, 2013

Wean In: Reclaiming Weaning as a Celebratory Milestone

Most Jews don’t consider weaning a major life cycle event despite the fact that it is one of the earliest recorded celebrations in Jewish tradition. Genesis 21:8 reads:

וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַיִּגָּמַל וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְרָהָם מִשְׁתֶּה גָדוֹל בְּיוֹם הִגָּמֵל אֶת־יִצְחָק

The child grew up and was weaned and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

While feasts (mishteh) are common in biblical literature, this is the only time the phrase mishteh gadol, a great feast, is used in the Torah. Why a great feast? Rashi said it was because the great men of Abraham’s generation were in attendance. This suggests that weaning, not brit milah, was the time to publicly celebrate the birth of a child.  Isaac’s circumcision was mentioned just four verses earlier, in Genesis 21:4, with no mention of a celebration or feast.   This makes sense, given the number of babies who died in pregnancy and in the weeks following. Abraham’s great weaning feast proclaimed: we made it! We successfully conceived, carried, and sustained a son to childhood against so many odds!

Today, our celebrations surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, brit milah/brit bat, and weaning have changed significantly. Medical advances have ensured that most babies will survive to childhood. For this reason, we feel more comfortable celebrating a baby's birth at a brit milah/brit bat. Weaning also holds a different significance today. Breastfeeding is not physically essential like it was in the bible, or even 100 years ago. Luckily, babies who do not breastfeed transition to early childhood nourished and sustained by loving parents. That said, weaning is still a significant emotional transition for those who do breastfeed. Though we do not know how Sarah felt about weaning and the feast held in her honor, I’d guess she felt emotionally conflicted. I wonder if she felt a sense of loss knowing the son she thought she’d never have no longer needed her to survive.

My final days of nursing are coming to a close this week. The process actually started three months ago when my body stopped responding to my pump.  Though nursing itself was going well, I needed to pump in order to maintain a supply.  I decided to transition to nursing twice a day, when Ariella woke up and again when she went to bed.  It was the best of both worlds for me.  I felt like a “normal” person during the day and still had my special time with Ariella.  Now, at 13.5 months, my decision to fully wean is twofold.  First, Ariella started making nursing a game that consists of biting me and then looking up to see my reaction.  The more I react, the funnier she thinks it is.  Trust me, little girl, it’s not that funny.   Second, I’m going away for work this weekend and simply refuse to take the pump back out.  My supply cannot sustain four days away and without proper weaning, engorgement can lead to infection. 

I am emotionally torn. On the one hand, I am confident that the time is right. Ariella is not a baby anymore and I’m ready to move to the next stage in our relationship. There are so many things I have missed over the last two years -- espresso, margaritas, Nyquil -- I can't wait to celebrate our weaning with a responsible return to all of them (though obviously not at the same time!).  But on the other hand is every other conceivable emotion. The bond of pregnancy and the bond of nursing is indescribable.  I have cherished the opportunity to literally give myself as an act of love. While I know I can and already do express love for Ariella in countless other ways, this knowledge does not replace the sadness I feel giving up our special time. Weaning, it feels, is a time for tears, not celebration.

The wisdom of our tradition has encouraged me to rethink what it means to wean a child. Acknowledging the emotional elements of weaning are critical, but they do not reflect the full experience. Weaning is also a celebration of our body’s ability to physically sustain another human being. This is an unbelievable blessing worthy of the biggest celebration imaginable. All change contains loss, even good change. Weaning is one of these changes. It is a celebration filled with sadness, but ultimately it is an experience we can and should share with others through a great feast.

Wednesday will be my last night nursing.  As the day approaches, I’ve been thinking about how to best celebrate this milestone.  There are a few weaning rituals on that I'm using as a guide, though none of them feels exactly right for me.  I plan to mark the transition in two ways.  First, I will offer a private blessing to Ariella as our final session comes to a close.   Second, I plan to have a great feast with my husband after she falls asleep.  In the same way that Abraham threw a feast for Sarah, I will allow John the opportunity to throw a feast for me.  It will probably just be the two of us, but the feast will be grand and I hope we can share together in reflecting on what this milestone means for both of us.  I also hope that by sharing these words with my community, we will symbolically invite you all to join us in our celebrating Ariella’s transition to self-nourishment.  We of course welcome any of your thoughts, reflections, or blessings to share during our celebration. 

I hope that as time goes on, our Jewish community can find ways to help nursing moms mark this milestone.  I hope more nursing moms will feel comfortable sharing the joy of having sustained and nurtured our little ones.  May we work together to overcome any embarrassment or uncertainty in sharing all aspects of this milestone with our communities.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

We praise you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us reach this season.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Are Hanukkah Gifts Really Jewish?

A couple of years ago, a student in my Introduction to Judaism class asked me why Jews gave gifts for Hanukkah. I told her I had no idea but my guess is that the custom is primarily borrowed from Christmas. I told her I would investigate and get back to her. As I started to research, I discovered that there was not a direct answer to her question. I was shocked. All Jewish rituals have a story, or more accurately, many stories. How could it be that Hanukkah gift giving, a widespread ritual, is simply borrowed from Christmas. As I set out to uncover the Jewish background behind gift giving for my rabbinic thesis I discovered that my initial hypothesis is actually mostly correct; the contemporary custom of wrapping presents of toys, clothes, and jewelry arose in conjunction with Christmas. That said, many aspects of the gift giving ritual have distinctly Jewish roots, each of which has helped set the stage for the development of the ritual into what it is today.

The first way we can understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is in the connection between giving gifts and offering sacrifices at the Temple. The original story of Hanukkah, as told in the first and second books of Maccabees, is entirely centered on sacrifice. The Greeks in this time replaced sacrificial worship with pagan worship, which then led to rebellion and war. When the Jews unexpectedly defeated the stronger and bigger Greek army, they set out to restore the Temple and altar that the Greeks destroyed. They established the festival of Hanukkah as a way to celebrate the rededication (hanukkah in Hebrew) of the altar that enabled them to once again offer sacrifices to God.1

Yes, that is correct. The original story of Hanukkah is all about sacrifice. It’s not all about the miraculous victory of the Jews over the Greeks, it’s not all about the miraculous oil. It’s just a celebration for the return to sacrifice. Though the text in the book of Maccabees does not detail what the rededication of the altar looked like, we can postulate that it resembled the dedication ceremonies described in the bible, particularly the dedication of the Tabernacle in Numbers 7. In this chapter, we learn that the chieftains of Israel brought various presents to the Tabernacle. Among the presents they brought were physical items used in facilitating sacrifice, including silver basins, bowls, and ladles.2 A hanukkah gift is therefore a gift that enables us to worship God, and this is precisely how the Jews celebrated the festival of Hanukkah in the years following their victory over the Greeks.

Everything changed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Sacrifice was no longer possible and the understanding of how to worship God shifted from sacrifice to study and prayer. For this reason, the festival of Hanukkah could have transformed as a gift giving holiday. Instead of giving gifts to facilitate sacrifice, one would give gifts to facilitate acts of study or prayer. Instead of giving a silver basin, one might give a tallit or a chumash. As we know, however, the rabbis took the celebration of Hanukkah in a different direction. They introduced the miracle of the oil and focused on the laws surrounding the lighting of the menorah.

The second way we can understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is with the introduction of Hanukkah Gelt in Europe during the 18th Century. Many believe this custom developed because of the etymological connection between Hanukkah and education. Chinuch (education) shares the same Hebrew root (Chet/nun/chaf) as Chanukah (dedication). For this reason, education and specifically Torah study became a central practice during Hanukkah. Historian Eliezer Segal suggests that families began to use these Torah study sessions during Hanukkah as an opportunity to give small amounts of money to teachers, who were otherwise prohibited from accepting money for teaching Torah. Parents would give children money to give to their teachers, and eventually, Segal suggests, the children began to expect it themselves. This, he says, might be the origin of the practice of giving Gelt during Hanukkah.3

There are some, however, who date the practice much earlier. In The Original Chanukah Gelt, Marvin Tameanko argues that this custom dates back to the very first Hanukkah festival celebrated by the Maccabees. He points to the then common practice of taking war booty: when the Jews destroyed the Greek armies, they took weapons, armor, horses, and coins.4 These coins were distributed to victorious soldiers, widows, and orphans of the dead, as well as the general population, including children. Tameanko suggests that this could be the origin of Hanukkah Gelt.5

The third way to understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is by reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday that has always celebrated the interplay between Judaism and the dominant culture of the time. In his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, Irvin Greenberg says that “Hanukkah is the paradigm of the relationship between acculturation and assimilation where each generation has interpreted Hanukkah in its own image, speaking to its own needs.”6 He discusses how the story of Hanukkah began because of the blending of Greek and Eastern cultures. Hellenism attracted the Jewish elite, and in fact, there were some Jews who favored aggressive assimilation.7 Gift giving is the prime example of a custom that was, and still is, borrowed from the dominant culture.

In addition to Jews using foreign coins as Hanukkah Gelt, gift giving was generally practiced in Greek culture during the time of the book of Maccabees. There are three examples in the books of Maccabees that describe Greeks engaging in the practice of gift giving. In the first example, King Anthiochus’ officers tell Mattathias they will give him gold, silver, and gifts if he makes a pagan sacrifice.8 In the second, King Antiochus realizes that his wealth diminished during the war, and he laments that he will no longer be able to give gifts the way he used to.9 In the third example, the King of Persia turns a holy site into a shrine and uses the money he makes from it to give gifts to his friends.10 Each of these examples speak to the fact that gift giving was a prevalent practice in Greek culture during the time of the story of Hanukkah. It sets the stage for a discussion about how Jews borrow from and engage with the dominant culture of their time. If Hanukkah is a time for thinking about what it means to be a free people who also live and participate in greater society, it is a perfect opportunity to think about what it means to share practices with others and whether a borrowed ritual can still be considered Jewish.

These are the questions that are on my mind as I embark on the second part of my thesis, which explores the development of contemporary practices in relation to Christmas. Part of my study will include a look at how people engage in the practice today. I invite you to help me by taking this survey! In the meantime, I encourage you to reflect on the Jewish story behind your gift giving rituals. Do you give as a way to help others worship or serve God? Do you give as a way to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Greeks? Do you give as a way to engage with and be part of larger society? No matter what you do, I urge you to think about these questions and discuss how gift giving relates to your understanding of the holiday.

Happy Hanukkah and Happy Gift Giving!

1 I Maccabees 4:42-56

2 Numbers 7:1-8:3

3 Rosenstock, Natasha. The ongoing Chanukah gift dilemma

4 I Maccabees 3:41

5 Tameanko, Marvin. ‘The Original Chanukah Gelt’

6 Greenberg, Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. 277

7 ibid.

8 I Maccabees 2:15-28

9 I Maccabees 3:30

10 II Maccabees 1:34-35

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vayera: And God saw that all was not okay.

This week’s Torah portion is filled with horrific stories about the state of a world at the brink of devastation. God nearly destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham nearly kills his beloved son, Isaac.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God becomes enraged by the immorality of a few and sets out to destroy entire towns in his fury.  Abraham sees God in this low place and responds by arguing with him to save the people on behalf of the innocent.

Later on in the Torah portion, Abraham sets out to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  God sees Abraham’s pain and suffering and at the very last second, intervenes by sending an angel to stop him.  Abraham and God served as witnesses for one another at each end of the Torah portion.  They saw that all was not okay with the other and found a way to bring each other out of a place that they could not bring themselves. 

This week, all is not okay in New York City.  Every single New Yorker is in a low place, including those of us who were fortunate enough to not be directly affected by the storm.  I happen to live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that had very minimal damage.  A few trees are down, that’s it.  Shops have been open since Wednesday and people are out and about.  On the surface, everything appears to be okay.  In reality, nothing is okay. 

This is my 5th, and most likely my last, year living in Brooklyn and I finally feel like I can call myself a New Yorker.  When I first moved here I was a nice midwesterner who said good morning to people when I went for runs. I had the impression that New Yorkers were cold, loud, and mean.  The more time I’ve spent here, the more I’ve realized this stereotype couldn’t be further from the true.  Yes, New Yorkers walk quickly and many don’t smile at people they pass on the street.  That’s because walking is not a leisure activity here, it’s a commute.  Even in the midwest we don’t roll down our windows to make small talk to the random person next to us at a stoplight. The truth is that I’ve met some of the kindest and selfless people in the world during my time in New York.  It wasn’t until this week, however, that I understood what it really means to be a New Yorker, and that is to be a witness of pain and to respond with all your being.

This week, I have witnessed some of the most extreme pain I have ever seen in my life.  I have volunteered at Brooklyn Tech High School, in the center of the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is currently serving as one of the many evacuation centers.  It is housing hundreds of evacuees from various homes in Brooklyn, many of whom are elderly, and have mental health, and/or medical issues.  

The pain in this shelter is abundant. Many of the evacuees spent 12 or 13 hours in an ambulance during the evacuation and arrived with only the clothes on their back.  They didn’t have a lot to begin with and now they have nothing.  They don’t have family or friends to call and pick them up.  If they did, they wouldn’t be there.  They are poor and they are in need, but more than any of that, their biggest complaint is boredom.  They sit on cots, or roam around the halls of the high school for hours on end with nothing to do.   

The response to help the people in this shelter has been both frustrating and inspiring at the same time.  On the one hand, it is obvious that the city was  not prepared for this type of situation.  There is almost zero organization.  There is no number to call for information, you have to either show up, or talk to others who have been, to find out what the current needs are.  There is no such thing as a volunteer coordinator, at least there wasn’t when I was there.  When I showed up I had to ask multiple people what I could do to help and everyone gave vague answers like, “ummm... why don’t you try the seventh floor.”  When I found my way to the seventh floor I discovered at least thirty volunteers standing around the cafeteria that was about to serve dinner.  Nobody gave instructions and when I asked people who looked like they knew what they were doing they always responded, “I don’t know, I’m not in charge.”  So what did we do?  We spread out, helped where we could and sat down with people while they ate to keep them company. 

On the second floor, I witnessed a volunteer trying to help a man who had come to try to find a family member who he thought was in this shelter.  One of the staff members (from a team of medical staff from North Carolina) told the man that they didn’t have any lists of who was in what room.  He said, “We’re just here from North Carolina to help with medical needs.  Unfortunately we don’t know anything about the people who are here, not their medical history, nothing.  We barely know their names.”  They told the man he would essentially have to walk the halls and look from room to room to find his loved one.  So that's what he did, and a volunteer went with him.

Despite what can only be described as utter chaos, the warmth, love and compassion that I witnessed in the shelter could literally not be stronger.  Volunteers who have no experience assisting grown adults go to the bathroom, took on these roles.  People who have no experience in chaplaincy, were sitting with evacuees and listening to their stories, keeping them company and nourishing their souls.  Volunteers were feeding people who couldn’t feed themselves and cleaning up after them in ways that usually only a nurse or close loved one would do.  I was blown away by the number of people who came to help and their willingness to do any task, no matter how challenging or mundane.   The volunteers at Brooklyn Tech are in no way unique.  This week I have witnessed some of the most unbelievable compassion and kindness and it makes me proud to call myself a New Yorker, or more appropriately, a Brooklynite. 

The needs of the evacuees at Brooklyn Tech HS are a very small example of the great and varied needs of people across the city and across the northeast.   Thousands have lost everything and unfortunately some have lost their lives to this terrible storm.  It is a horrible week in our parasha and it has been a horrible week for my neighbors.   In our Torah portion, Abraham and God teach us to be a witness to our neighbor’s pain and respond appropriately.  I have witnessed so much this week and we are only at the very beginning of what will be a long and difficult recovery.  The need is real and extensive and the response is underway.  If you are in New York, I know you are already doing what you can. You all inspire me and you make me proud. If you are outside of New York, I pray that you will see our pain and respond with whatever support you can provide.  

If you want to donate, but don’t know where, I’d like to suggest you support one of my friends and classmates, Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, in her effort to bring blankets to those in need in Brooklyn.  Read Below:

"It started yesterday. I asked my partner how we could get a bunch of water from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook. She said "shopping carts." I called Trader Joe's on Court Street. They lent us two carts. We walked from downtown to Red Hook and pushed cases of water, peanut butter, and baby food. When I got home, I posed on Facebook and told friends they could send some money if they wanted to help out. Less than 24 hours later, we've raised over $2200 for #blankets4brooklyn. This morning, we purchased 250 blankets and friends drove them to a distribution center in Sunset Park Brooklyn. We are going to continue buying the most needed goods (next up: coolers to keep much-wanted hot food warm) and getting them to the directly affected. You want to help out? We'll take whatever you'll give. Just log in to PayPal (easy to create an account if you don't have one). Click the navy blue "Send Payment" button and submit however much you want to give to I can't give you a tax write-off but I can assure you it'll get to those who need it most and I can send you a GIGANTIC Brooklyn hug!"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Breaking News: Babies Are Pretty Amazing

I turned on the TV this morning to watch the coverage of the shooting in Colorado.  Ariella loves TV.  The second she heard the noise, she turned her head to stare into the bright, shining lights on our brand new, 47 inch LED TV.  Matt Lauer is in the middle of interviewing a seventeen year old witness to the shooting.  Ariella stares straight into this teenager’s eyes and starts giggling.  


“No, Ariella.” I tell her in the soft, sing-song baby voice.  “This is a sad story. Something very sad happened.”  She turns away from the TV, looks into my eyes and gives me the biggest grin you can imagine. I can’t help but smile back.  How can I not?  This precious little child has absolutely no ability to comprehend what happened (thank God). She just wants to look at all the bright lights and she wants me, her trusted mommy, to affirm this desire. “Hi.  I know.  That is a TV.”

What a weird moment.  I’m smiling and talking nonsense while watching a teenager fight back tears after experiencing a horrifying tragedy.   Parenthood: forcing adults to hide emotions since forever. 

An hour later, Ariella and I are sitting in the waiting room at the vet as our dog is getting his nails clipped.  Berlin hates getting his nails clipped with the same level of intensity that Ariella loves watching TV.  I hear him crying in the other room and pretend that nothing is happening as I play with Ariella. Two minutes later, the vet comes out and tells me she needs my help to hold Berlin.  In we go.  I hold Berlin down as the vet clips away.  Berlin cries a Shiba cry and squirms as if this is the most excruciating thing that has ever happened to him. It might actually be the most excruciating thing that has ever happened to him. I turn to see how Ariella is doing and sure enough, she is watching intently with a look of pure terror on her face.  She is a witness of pain and reacts as though she is in pain herself.  No tears, just a look of horror. 

Luckily, I don’t think the incident caused any lasting damage, at least not for Berlin or Ariella .  Berlin pranced all the way home and Ariella went back to playing with her stroller toy, happy as can be.  I, on the other hand, feel horrible.   I’ve already decided that John will be taking Berlin to his next nail clipping appointment and I can’t stop thinking about the shooting.  What a horrible, awful day.

I can’t wait for Ariella to be able to think the way I can think.  One day, she’ll be able to make fun of Berlin for being such a wuss and she’ll actually understand what Matt Lauer is saying.   For now, though, I think I’m okay with having a sweet little baby who feels empathy for her doggy and has no idea how crazy and irrational the world is.  Oh, to be 5 months old again.  Babies are pretty amazing.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Final for Reel Theology class: The Hunger Games!

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, published in 2008, is the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  With more than 7.5 million copies of The Hunger Games in print and having spent more than 160 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list, The Hunger Games is arguably one of the most popular books in the genre of young adult science fiction today.[1]  The popularity of the book is reason enough for those of us in positions of leadership, particularly youth leadership, to consider its messages and the questions it leaves the reader pondering.  As a leader in the Reform Jewish community, I believe it is my responsibility to help my community find meaning in popular culture and explore why any particular text, Jewish or secular, speaks to us.  As modern Jews, we not only engage with popular culture, but also think seriously and critically about how the themes and messages of our popular culture align, or come in conflict with, our Jewish identity, values, texts, and traditions.  The themes and messages of The Hunger Games are relevant to a number of themes and messages found in the vast canon of Jewish literature.  An exploration of the cross-section of these themes provides a particularly rich opportunity for a meaningful conversation that can influence the way we think about and live our lives as modern Jews.

It is important to have a grasp of the genre of young adult fiction in order to discover and find meaning in the major themes of this work.   According to James Blasingame, one characteristic of young adult fiction is: “characters and issues young readers can identify with; those issues and characters are treated in a way that does not invalidate, minimize, or devalue them.”[2]  He goes on to say that reading about issues that adolescents can relate to can help them validate their own experience and find meaning in that experience.  I believe that this is not only true for adolescents, but for many adults as well.  We search for ways to identify with characters and issues and search for ways to validate our own experiences through the lens of an outside text.  In this sense, The Hunger Games is a prime example of a text that takes what at first might seem to be completely foreign (and horrifically unimaginable) experiences and finds a way to make them real and relevant through language and emotion.  The themes become that much more powerful because of the inherent desire to reject the possibility that we might ever find ourselves in the shoes of the heroine, or any other character.  And yet, this inherent desire to push away is precisely what draws the reader in and enables us to discover connections to our own lives. 

A number of themes arise that are relevant and meaningful for the lives of adolescents today.  Despite the fact that God and religion are not mentioned in the book, many of the book’s themes have a deeply rooted theological core.  Some of these themes include the feeling that the weight of the world is on my shoulders, identity struggle and formation, friendship, love, alliances and cliques, reality television, life as a game, gap between the rich and the poor, developing a sense of ethics and determining what I live for, and what I am willing to die for.

I am choosing to focus on this last theme for a number of reasons.  First of all, elements of a number of the other themes emerge as integral elements of this theme in different ways.  Second, I think this theme is one of the most compelling topics in Jewish tradition and one that is worth exploring not only for adolescents, but for adults as well.  Determining what we live for and what we are willing to die for also touches on issues of identity formation, love and friendship, and a concern for global ethics, and standing up for a just cause.  I’d like to first explore a number of examples from The Hunger Games that illustrate this theme, and then examine how a number of Jewish voices further the discussion.  Hopefully, this synthesis of study will lead us to a greater understanding of how and why this book is potentially transformative in the lives of young American Jews and Jewish adults. 

Katniss and Peeta, the two main characters in the book, each go through their own internal struggle trying to determine who they are, what they stand for, and why they want to survive.  Peeta is portrayed as the good-hearted character that cares deeply about preserving his sense of identity and being a good person in the face of evil.  Katniss, on the other hand, is portrayed as a fighter with inherent survival instincts, struggling to figure out her own identity.  Both clearly care, live for, and act on behalf of others, but also struggle to maintain and determine their own sense of self.  Their identity struggles show their development in a way that is relatable and applicable any reader, but particularly adolescents who are going through a process of identity formation.  Before the games begin, Katniss and Peeta have a discussion on the roof where Peeta confides in her about his biggest fear entering the Games.  He says,

“I want to die as myself.  Does that make sense?” he asks.  I shake my head.  How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”[3]

This passage shows the fear that so many of us have about losing a sense of who we are in a new environment.  This is a situation where Peeta knows that his character is going to be tested and that he is going to be forced to do things that don’t reflect who he understands himself to be.  We all face situations that test our character, especially as adolescents. Though our tests are not as drastic as his, they are still tests and we often wonder how we will act. As readers, we identity with Peeta because we want to be like him; we want to be somebody who is seen as having a strong moral standard in the face of adversity.

At the same time, however, we are also drawn to Katniss.  In this passage, the idea of maintaining a moral standard is not on Katniss’ mind, and she doesn’t even understand how it could be on Peeta’s.  Her reaction is real.  She is thinking about surviving, not about losing her sense of self.  She doesn’t even know what her sense of self is.  While Peeta represents the character we all want to be, Katniss represents the character who we really are.  Katniss’ major identity struggle comes during the Games, when she realizes she actually has a chance of surviving.  She discovers that up until this point, her entire life centered on the act of surviving and begins to question who she is, besides a survivor.  She says,

“What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food.  Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.  The idea scares me some.”[4] 

This is a very real moment for Katniss, who suddenly realizes that there might be more to her life than the daily acquisition of food and struggle to stay alive.  This moment is so powerful because so many of us can relate to this sudden and terrifying feeling of wondering, who am I?  When we change schools, stop playing a sport, go to college, quit a job, or end a relationship, we ask ourselves these same questions.  Who am I, if not _________?

Katniss’ internal monologue that follows this passage serves as a beautiful transition to the other aspect of this theme: what, or whom do I live for that I am willing to die for?  Katniss answers her own question by insisting that the one thing she has to live for is her relationships.  For both Katniss and Peeta, relationships are the one thing that keeps them going through the traumas and terrors they face in the Arena.  At times, the power of these relationships is powerful and present in their minds as they act and at other times it serves as a subtle, if not subconscious power that keeps them going.  In addition to being motivated by intimate relationships, Katniss and Peeta both have a strong sense of living for and being willing to die for the greater good of others.  They are both committed to a sense of justice and making things right in a world that is filled with so much wrong.  Two of the most powerful passages in the book show Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself both for the power of relationships and also for a greater sense of global justice. 

The first passage is the scene of Rue’s death.  In this scene, all of Katniss’ actions are selfless and defy the logic of a person who only cared about their own personal survival.   Katniss puts herself at risk, both in the arena, and in front of the entire nation, by comforting Rue in her death and mourning her as an act of rebellion against the Capitol.  Katniss employs two modes of culture, singing and art, which are normally absent from day-to-day life in the districts, as a way of expressing both love and justice.  Katniss reflects,

“I can’t stop looking at Rue, smaller than ever, a baby animal curled up in a nest of netting. I can’t bring myself to leave her like this.  Past harm, but seemingly utterly defenseless.  To hate the boy from District 1, who appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate.  It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us… I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own.  That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”[5] 

This passage is an expression of true love and a true sense of justice.  At this time, Katniss doesn’t care about herself or her own survival, she cares about honoring a person she loved and also fighting and standing up to the injustice of the Capitol.

The second passage comes at the end of the story, where Katniss and Peeta are willing to make the ultimate self-sacrifice for the sake of love and justice.  Even though one could argue that Katniss was motivated by survival, assuming that the Capitol would not let them go through with the suicide, she was also willing to commit.  She knew that she could not survive if it meant killing Peeta and was willing to take this risk, even if it meant her own death.  Additionally, the thought of this ultimate revenge against the Capitol was enough to motivate Katniss to do whatever it took to again show them that she is more than a piece in their Games. 

We relate to both of these expressions of love and the pursuit of justice on so many levels.  Katniss’ relationship with and feelings toward Rue remind us of our own feelings toward the vulnerable, the sick, and the needy in our midst.  Katniss was originally attracted to Rue because she reminded her of her little sister Prim, somebody who she felt she needed to protect and take care of.  This instinct to care for and protect others is the root of Katniss’ love and something that we can all relate to, whether we feel this way toward a child, younger sibling, friend or neighbor. 

Though we pray that we will never be in a situation like Katniss and Peeta, we also know that there are things in our lives that we would be unwilling to do, even if it meant our own death.  For Katniss and Peeta, that meant surviving while the other person died for us.  It also meant giving in to the Capitol and sacrificing their identity and their sense of ethics in order to survive another day.  For us, this passage is so powerful because it forces us to reflect on what those things are in our lives.  Are they a loved one? A cause we believe in? Both? We know there are times in our lives when we act because of these relationships, or because of these causes, regardless of if we are conscious of it or not.  These moments are indeed moments of transformation, teaching us what we care most about, what we live for, and what we are willing to die for. 

Though many Jewish texts discuss these themes, there are two contemporary Jewish thinkers that truly transform the conversation, Primo Levi and Martin Buber.  Primo Levi writes about issues relating to survival in his book, Survival in Auschwitz, and Martin Buber writes about the power of being in relationships in his book, I and Thou.  An examination of each of these texts can further our discussion of these themes in a Jewish context. 

Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz could be read as a non-fictional companion to The Hunger Games.  His accounts of suffering, hunger, and a determination to survive are horrifying and inspiring, elevated all the more so given the fact that his story is real and but only one account of millions like his.  Unfortunately, there are many parallels between the setting and plot of the fictional story The Hunger Games and the Holocaust.  Nazi ideology mirrors the evil of the Capitol and the experiences the teenagers face in the arena are chillingly similar to life in the camps.  It is interesting to think about these connections and what it means to be reading a book like this at this time in history.  For young adults today, the Holocaust is part of history.  The number of survivors still alive is getting smaller each year and though young people learn about the Holocaust, there is not a strong personal connection or feeling of immediacy.  The Jewish world today looks different because of the Holocaust, and not just because of how many Jews were lost.  The response of the Jewish community to the Holocaust has changed what it means to be a Jew in the world. 

The same can be said for Katniss and her generation in relation to the rebellion that remains the sole reason behind the Games.  Their generation is directly experiencing the result of something that happened 75 years ago (almost the same exact number of years since the Holocaust).  They have no personal connection to the rebellion, but feel its significance in their lives every day.  Obviously, there are drastic differences between the way the Jewish community and the greater world have responded to the Holocaust, and the way the Capitol responded to the rebellion.  That being said, the impact is still great, especially amongst the younger generations.  Many Jewish adolescents today are extremely interested in learning and reading about the Holocaust, and Jewish educators have spent countless hours developing appropriate curriculum for this age group.   It is interesting to think about how one might include The Hunger Games in any number of discussions about the Holocaust and possibly even consider it part of the genre of post-Holocaust theology.

Primo Levi does a beautiful job of addressing this difficult topic of what I live and die for in Survival in Auschwitz.  Through his narrative, Levi addresses and expands the notion of what it means to survive. He talks about survival on every level that one can imagine.  He provides an account of the harsh reality of what it meant to literally survive in the worst imaginable conditions.  He talks about the brutal realities of what it takes to physically survive hunger, exhaustion, cold, illness, work, and the randomness of unwarranted persecution.   He also, however, talks about what it takes to survive emotionally and spiritually.  He discusses the human elements of survival in this setting and what it brings out in a person’s character.  His presentation suggests that one can only survive on physical instinct for so long and that ultimately, we all need some type of meaning in our lives in order to survive a reality like Auschwitz.  We need something that we are willing to live for and something we are willing to die for.  For Primo Levi, this was a civilian named Lorenzo, who helped him survive physically and spiritually.  Lorenzo, like many others, provided Levi with food and clothing, without which he might not have been able to physically survive.  In this way, Lorenzo served a similar role as the donors, who provided Katniss and the other tributes with medicine, food, or whatever they needed to survive.  Unlike the donors, however, Lorenzo was also Levi’s spiritual hope; he was the reason why Levi decided life was worth living.  Levi writes,

“I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror, something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”[6]

Levi, we learn, lives for the possibility that there is still good in the world.  As long as he sees this example of pure, uncorrupt goodness, he is willing to commit his spiritual being to the act of survival.  The same is true for Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games. If survival in The Hunger Games were merely a matter of overcoming hunger and physical challenges, nobody would care about the book because that type of survival is not only barbaric, but it is also unrealistic. We learn that there is so much more to survival than acquiring food and shelter; there is a human element, an emotional and spiritual element that we all need in order to survive, regardless of our physical realities.  Primo Levi is here to tell his story because he was lucky enough to not only overcome the physical challenges, but because he was able to acquire the spiritual capacity to want to live.  We are drawn to Katniss and Peeta because they too embody the spiritual and emotional elements of survival that enable us to connect to them and root for them to survive. 

Martin Buber offers another Jewish perspective on the theme of what we live for and what we are willing to die for.   Buber has had a tremendous influence on modern Jewish thought and a number of his works are treasured both in and outside of the Jewish world.  He has been particularly influential in the area of religious existentialism, which addresses this theme from a broader perspective.  Where Levi addressed what it means for an individual to live when surrounded by death, Buber addresses what it means to live, or exist, in normal times.  As we explore his thoughts and how they relate to The Hunger Games, we must also keep in mind that Martin Buber was alive during the Holocaust and wrote I and Thou after the Holocaust in 1958.  His thinking, like others’ writing at the time, was informed by the Holocaust, even if he doesn’t always explicitly mention it in this particular work.  We know that Buber’s notion of evil and of God changed dramatically after the Holocaust.  Dr Eugene Borowitz tells us, “The unbearable evil of the Holocaust forced Buber to the tragic recognition that God sometimes, somehow withdraws from humankind.”[7] This will become important later, as we reflect on whether God does, or can exist in a scenario like The Hunger Games.

In his book I and Thou, Buber suggests that we exist in this world, and with those around us in two different ways: I-It and I-Thou.  The first, I-It, represents the primary way in which we act in this world.  It involves all of the moments where we think about, analyze, and reflect on the people, things and ideas that surround us.  I-It is an important and inescapable way to be in this world, but it is not the mode of being that enables us to achieve true meaning.  Meaning can only arise through an I-Thou encounter.  Buber describes I-Thou as an encounter that occurs by being in relation to another being.  The moment a person thinks about, or reflects on the encounter, it returns to the realm of I-It.  According to Buber, there are three realms through which the world of relation arises: life with nature, life with other humans, and life with spiritual beings.[8]  An encounter with God occurs in each of these realms so that every time I stand in relation to another human being in the I-Thou, I also stand in relation to God. 

Life in The Hunger Games, like most of life in general, exists primarily in the I-It.  It is interesting, however, to reflect on the possibility that there were a number of I-Thou encounters throughout the book.  This is interesting in that it suggests that meaning, and therefore God, can in fact be present outside the realm of normal life. I want to examine whether the final encounter that Katniss and Peeta have at the end of the arena was an I-Thou encounter. If so, Katniss and Peeta survived due to the fact that they stood in relation to one another at the most critical of times. First, let’s look at the scene:

My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it.  Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. “No, I won’t let you.”
“Trust me,” I whisper.  He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go.  I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm.  Then I fill my own. “On the count of three?”
Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. “The count of three,” he says.[9]

The moment when Katniss and Peeta gaze into each other’s eyes, communicating without words, but only through a knowing of one to the other, is what I think Martin Buber would consider an I-Thou encounter.  One could argue that Katniss was preoccupied with the scheme she developed moments ago to trick the Capitol and thus wasn’t truly present.  I believe, however, that in this moment Katniss knew she had to give her complete self to Peeta. The encounter had to be real, or it wouldn’t have been effective.  She couldn’t fake anything in this moment because Peeta would have seen through this and would have never been able to commit himself fully to what they were about to do.  It took them both being present with one another, knowing the other without the need for words, explanations or thoughts.  This encounter is truly an I-Thou encounter.

What is most interesting about this encounter is that it suggests that God can in fact be present in the direst of conditions.  If an I-Thou encounter can occur in a scenario where children are being forced to kill one another, can it not occur in any moment?  We must also ask what this means for us today as we try to cultivate moments of meaning in our lives.  Though we can contemplate and discuss what we might do if we were Katniss or Peeta, the exercise is ultimately useless.  They were only able to stand in relation to one another because of the particular experiences they had together and because of the evolution of their relationship with one another.  Instead of putting ourselves in their shoes, we should think about the relationships we are building in our own lives.  Who are the people we care about and who are the people who care about us?  What types of moments do we have together, how do we communicate and what can we do to make ourselves fully present each time we meet?

I believe that it is these types of thoughts and discussions that will enable us to find meaning as a result of reading this important book.  The stories and lessons are interesting to discuss and debate in and of themselves, but these discussions will ultimately leave us still in search of meaning.  I believe that The Hunger Games offers us an opportunity to start to figure out what it is we live for, and what it is we are willing to die for.  This is why this book is so compelling for those who read it.  It is more than a fun and quick read, but an opportunity to transform our lives and fill them with meaning.  I hope that those who read The Hunger Games will take this next step and engage in these important discussions with themselves and with their communities.  Hopefully, the wisdom of the Jewish tradition will serve as a guide and enable each of us to grow and contribute to the conversation.   

[3] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008.  Page 141.
[4] Ibid.  Pages 310-311.
[5] Ibid. Pages 236-237.
[6] Levi, Primo.  Survival in Auschwitz.  Touchstone.  New York.  1958.  Page 121. 
[7] Borowitz, Eugene.  Choices in Modern Jewish Thought.  Behrman House, Inc.  West Orange, New Jersey.  1983, 1995.  Page 155. 
[8] Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Touchstone.  New York.  1970.  Pages 56-57.
[9] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008. Page 344.

Final for Social Responsibility class: Sermon on Education Reform

The start of any new year, Jewish or secular, asks us to think about where we have been and where we are going.  The secular practice of setting new year’s resolutions, a seemingly worthwhile activity, is not in fact a Jewish practice.  A resolution, or statement of intent, sounds similar to making a vow.  As we know from Kol Nidrei, vows are not only discouraged in Jewish tradition, but also strictly forbidden.  The Kol Nidrei prayer annuls us of any vows we might inadvertently make, or be forced to make, in the year to come.  The question is why? Why are vows, even vows with positive outcomes, discouraged?  Jewish tradition teaches that one should not make a vow in God’s name because there is always a possibility that we will not be able to keep the vow.  We cannot predict what the future will bring and any number of outside factors can easily thwart even what seems like the simplest vow.  Judaism is not a religion of outcomes.  We strive to be better people in the world and we learn and teach in order to prepare ourselves for whatever might come our way.  Instead of setting specific goals and working toward particular outcomes, we seek to constantly push ourselves to grow from the experiences and knowledge we have gained.  We strive to change norms and work toward a more just society, but do so knowing that change can take many forms.  More importantly, we know that our work is never done.

Our synagogue community embraces these values on a number of levels, particularly in the realm of education. We are proud that our educational philosophy in this congregation asserts that b’nai mitzvah is not an end to a young person’s education, but one milestone in a larger process of learning.  We work hard to ensure that our religious school curriculum does not focus on preparing students for bar mitzvah, as if it were a culminating exam or performance.  Instead, our curriculum enables students to discover how Judaism is relevant to their lives today.  We push our students to think critically about the role of Torah in their lives and discover for themselves what it means to be Jewish in the world today.  B’nai Mitzvah is only one milestone along the journey, an affirmation of our students’ commitment to continued learning.

These values of discovery, exploration and integration as an educational model must not stop when our students step outside our synagogue walls.  As American Jews, we have a responsibility, not only to educate our youth in Jewish tradition, but also to support and shape the education they receive in the public sphere.  The Jewish community in America has supported public schools since we arrived in this country.  According to historian Stephen Brumberg, Jews were among those most dedicated to public education in New York City in the 1880s and 1890s.  At this time, the Jewish community saw public education as an opportunity to assimilate in society at large so as not to remain segregated from their larger community.[1]  The Jewish immigrant community carried a thirst for knowledge with them from the old country.  In America this thirst for knowledge extended beyond the realm of Torah so that the Jewish community came to see public education as an opportunity for success in America.[2]

Today, our commitment to education remains at the forefront of our Jewish values, not only for the sake of our own success in America, but for the greater good of American society as a whole.  We, as a Jewish community, have a responsibility to support our public education system, regardless of whether our own children are currently enrolled in the system.  The success, or failure, of the public school system directly impacts every other aspect of our lives as Americans.  Not only the knowledge, but also the values that our children take away from their time in school impact and influence the way they function in society.  It is up to us to ensure that the values of this system reflect our own values.

We all know that the current system is stressed and broken in many ways that demand our attention.  One particular stress of the system has to do with the elevation and reliance on test scores as the sole way to assess students, teachers, and schools in general.  Test scores are becoming the single determining factor not only for policy changes within schools, but also for students as they graduate from high school.  A student who scores poorly on a placement test in 8th grade may never have a chance of working his way back toward a path where he will be accepted into a good school, regardless of his skills in other areas, or his capacity to learn.  We judge our teachers by the same criteria, suggesting that teachers serve one purpose: to increase their students’ test scores. 

A recent article in New York Magazine discussed a new principal’s determination to focus primarily on test scores at an elite public school.  Bronx Science, one of three elite public high schools in New York City has always been known for the high profile resumes of its teachers.  These teachers have multiple degrees from various fields and embody the teaching philosophy in which the school was founded by putting student inquiry and discovery at the forefront of teaching.   In 2001, a new principal entered the school who felt that test scores were not high enough for a school of this stature.  She decided to make testing her top priority.  Teachers who did not embrace this philosophy were given unsatisfactory ratings and replaced to the point where in 2010, 25% of teachers had less than three years of experience.  Though test scores have improved since the new principle arrived, the school’s national rating has dropped from 20 to 58 and many of the teachers who left Bronx Science are now teaching at Stuyvesant, the number one public high school in New York City.  There is a great deal of controversy amongst teachers and families associated with the school.  This article shows how the top schools are setting a standard that says testing is the only thing that matters. This is not only unachievable, but it sets an unrealistic standard for the vast majority of struggling schools working with disadvantaged youth.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if it is worth it.  Is this method successful in promoting real learning in any school, elite or struggling? Do test scores really assess teaching and learning? 

A recent article in the Washington Post shares the story of Marion Brady, a school board member who decided to take the 10th grade standardized test.  This man is not only educated, but also incredibly successful as an adult in the real world.  His reaction to the test reflects what educators have been saying for years about the fact that these tests do not assess or promote real-life learning.  He says,

“I won’t beat around the bush, The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.  He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities. I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession…  …A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took. If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had. It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.”[3]

Brady describes what the field of Jewish education embraces and is working hard to enact: life is not about working toward a test, it is about growing and developing skills that will enable you to function in the real world in a meaningful way.  Not only do these tests fail to educate our students how to function in the real world in a meaningful way, they place emotional burdens on students who perform poorly at a very young age.  As Brady says, many students never recover from the stress of being told that you are not good enough.  Not only do the tests fail to educate, they turn young people away from the potential value of education in general.  On top of this, teachers and principals are stuck in a system that forces them to teach to the test and judges their ability to educate according to the ability of their students to score highly on tests that are irrelevant to their lives.  

So, why should we care?  Not only does the current system threaten the potential growth of our country as a whole, it also undermines our Jewish values in regards to the field of education.  It is difficult, if not impossible for us in the Jewish community to convince our students that their religious education is not a preparation for B’nai Mitzvah if this is the only the framework in which they operate during the day.  How can we expect them to understand that Jewish education is not about the test, if this is what education means to them in every other aspect of their life?  If we want to make a change in the norm in our own community, we must seek change in the broader community as well.

At the end of his reflection on the standardized test, Marion Brady offers an opportunity for us to enact change.  He describes how a number of principals in New York are starting to rebel against a system that places too much emphasis on student test scores as a form of evaluation for teachers and principals.[4]  We have a responsibility to support our teachers and our principals in this effort.  The first step is to educate ourselves on the policies and positions of our local community and make our voice heard when we vote for members of our school boards and public officials. 

I want to take this opportunity to invite you all to join us for an event with the principal of the local high school in our community.  At this session we will learn about the issues facing our local school and discuss different ways in which our community can get involved to create change both at the local high school and in the education that occurs in our own synagogue.  Please speak to me if you would like to be involved in the planning of this important program. 

As we each go off and celebrate the arrival of this secular New Year, let us put our efforts not toward an unrealistic resolution, but toward work that furthers our own potential for growth, as well as the potential for growth that we see in the young people of our communities.   

[1] Stephen Bromberg.  ‘Going To America, Going to School: The Immigrant-Public School Encounter In Turn-Of-The-Century New York City.  Page 96.
[2] ibid. Page 97.
[3] Valerie Strauss.  ‘When an Adult took Standardized Tests Forced on Kids. December 5th, 2011.
[4] Valerie Strauss.  ‘Principals Rebel Against Value-Added Evaluation. November 3, 2011  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Senior Sermon ~ Parashat Noach

Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't belong to a synagogue?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't care about Israel?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't support same sex marriage? 
What does the Reform Movement stand for? 

These are some of the questions that are emerging in conversations about Reform Judaism and the Reform movement.  Leaders of our institutions and members of our congregations are asking: What are we building towards and why? Recently, the Reform Judaism Think Tank has invited others to reflect on this question in an online forum. Here’s a small sample of the responses they received that reflects the wide diversity of opinions currently present in our movement.

(Reader 1): Reform Judaism stands for the right and privilege of the individual to make informed choices about Jewish practice and it should continue to stand for that. Reform Judaism also stands for social activism and involvement in the global community.

(Reader 2): The strength of our Movement is also its weakness.  We have serious Reform Jews within our movement, but we have just as many (even more) who define our movement as the one in which you don't have to do anything.  If you don't have to do anything, what's the point of getting involved? It's meaningless and costly.

(Reader 3): We must stand for: 1) support for Israel; 2) a "Reform Halacha" that can be counted upon as unchangeable.  Tikkun Olam is wonderful but it is not a sufficient theme for ongoing survival of Reform Judaism.  We must develop a Reform Halacha, a Reform notion of spirituality coupled with a strong belief in the Almighty.  God must not be an option.

These diverse opinions reflect a similar story to the one in this week’s parashah. Usually, we read the Tower of Babel narrative as an isolated event, unconnected to the flood story that comprises most of the parashah.  We tend to skip over the genealogy that makes up nearly all of chapter ten in the biblical text. Yet, the transition that occurs between the generation of Noah and the generation of the tower of Babel provides an important backdrop for understanding the story itself.

In addition to listing who begot whom, chapter ten describes how people lived and interacted.  The text uses three words to describe the state of the world during the transition from the generation of Noah to the generation of the tower of Babel: nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah.  Spread out, scattered, and divided. We learn that different families were nifr’du, spread out across the earth, implying a physical dispersion reaching across
a vast area of land.

We also learn that the families of Canaan were nafotzu, further scattered from the other clans. The third word in chapter ten is nifl’gah, or divided.   The text says a child was named ‘Peleg,’ describing the divided state of the earth when he was born. These three descriptions capture a sense of what happened in the years after Noah’s death. A new generation emerged that was neither united by location nor language.  They were spread out, scattered and divided.

Surprisingly then, chapter 11 begins with a declaration of unity. “Va’yahi kol ha’aretz safah echat… All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.” 

These opening verses beg us to ask: What in the world happened between the end of chapter ten and the beginning of chapter eleven?How did this generation go from being spread out, scattered, and divided to speaking the same language and dwelling together in the same land?

This contradiction in the biblical text forces us to consider why these texts exist side by side.  Perhaps we can learn something about the relationship between diversity and unity, and what happens as a consequence of shifting back and forth between these two states of being.

There are a number of explanations for why the generation of the Tower of Babel suddenly became united by language and geography. A possible clue is in verse four, which states… ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth.” 

This verse teaches that the people wanted to make a name for themselves and thought uniting and building was the best way to achieve this goal.  Though this might not seem like such a bad thing, the story soon states that God intervenes.  God stops the building, confuses the peoples’ language and scatters them throughout the earth.  These actions make us wonder: why didn’t God approve of the people’s determination to unite and build?

Rabbi Isaac Arama, a 15th century Spanish commentator, suggests that their sin was trying to achieve unity as an end in itself rather than as a means to a greater end.  He notes that the people could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a shelter against the cold,” Or they could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a house of study to serve God.”  Instead, they built for the sake of building, uniting with the hope of advancing their own name.  This teaching suggests that unification requires a worthy purpose and advancing one’s own name is not such a purpose.

Verse four also teaches that the people built to avoid being scattered across the earth. Perhaps they knew they were already scattered and feared what greater scattering could mean. Instead of asking how they might use their diversity for good, they avoided it at all costs.  In this case, the people sinned by making choices out of fear, instead of dreaming about what could be.

Our situation today is not so different than the one in the biblical text. Reform Judaism in America is somewhere between chapter ten and chapter eleven, between diversity and unity. We are certainly nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah; spread out physically and divided ideologically.  This division is reflected in conversations you hear in our congregations and also by the conversations we have in this building.  Look around you. Chances are you don’t hold the same beliefs or practices as the person sitting beside you.We are just a small representation of the many sub-groups in our movement, each one speaking a different language.

There also remains a desire for unity, both physically and ideologically.  In the physical realm, we see Reform leaders regularly coming together for retreats, conferences and conventions.  Every other year, thousands of people attend the Biennial for the purposes  of uniting as one movement and developing a shared language to spread throughout our individual communities. In addition to these gatherings, we are using technology to virtually unite people who would otherwise remain isolated due to physical limitations.

In the ideological realm, we still operate under a framework of institution-building. We built Unions.  The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, later the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.  Today, leaders of these institutions still seek to create a shared language, a shared set of values and shared way of thinking about Judaism.

Small numbers of people are producing and distributing materials that carry significant ideological messages about where this movement stands on any given issue. Mishkan T’filah, the Chai Curriculum, Mitkadem.  Though these materials do not always succeed in uniting the greater Reform Jewish world, they reflect the ongoing effort to create a shared language. Similarly, HUC-JIR has standardized educational and experiential expectations for becoming a leader in this movement.  These requirements serve to develop leaders that will speak and share a basic unified voice. 

Given this blended state of dispersion and unity, we must ask ourselves: Do we still have a reason to unite, or are we simply building for the sake of building, uniting to make our name great, to be the biggest, the best movement of Judaism? The mission for the URJ reads: “to provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish congregations and to perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism.”  The first clause in this statement serves a purpose: To provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish Congregations. Though one could debate whether this purpose is worthy, it certainly is a purpose.  The second clause though, falls under the category of what Rabbi Arama would call building for the sake of building. 
“To perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism” is building to make a name for one's self. 

There is also a section on the URJ website entitled, “Advancing Reform Judaism”.  The concept “advancing Reform Judaism” stems from fear; a fear of being scattered across the earth, a fear of no longer being united.  We are scared of not having enough members to fill our pews.  We are scared of not having enough students to fill our classrooms.  We are scared of not being able to find a job when we graduate.  If we don’t unite, if we don’t advance our own name, what does that mean for us?  This question could not be more real and relevant for all of us in this room, and yet it is the wrong question.  Instead of asking how we can unite, we should ask why we must unite in the first place.

The builders of the Tower of Babel never asked this question.  Instead, they continued to build until God punished them by scattering them across the earth and confusing their words. They chose not to utilize their differences and discover a shared purpose, and were punished in the worst possible way. They could no longer communicate with one another, share ideas or dreams for the future. The possibility for uniting was destroyed because of their pursuit of fame, recognition, greatness and immortality. 

Today, as we stand at a crossroads in the evolution of Reform Judaism, we are confronted with the task of living in a balance between diversity and unity for some greater good. We are already spread out, already divided.  We are also deeply grounded in a need for unity.We are certainly afraid of being scattered. And yet, we have not yet tipped the scales too far.  We are not yet scattered and our languages are not yet confused. It is up to us to determine what course we take next.

What does the Reform Movement stand for? I believe that if the Reform Movement stands for anything, it stands for changing with the times, reforming Judaism according to the changing needs of society.  American society is moving beyond boundaries and boxes, and embracing diversity.  Identity is fluid and people are searching for meaning through the multiple frameworks that make up their lives.  Today, we do not just struggle with the tension of a dual-identity, trying to figure out how we can be both American and also Jewish.  Instead, we struggle with the tensions of tens, even hundreds of identities pulling at us simultaneously. 

I am not just an American and a Jew.  I am a Wisconsinite with a New York driver’s license.  I root for the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Gophers. I have a desire to stay at home with my children and I also have a desire to work full time as a congregational rabbi.  I am a Jew and I also celebrate Christmas with my family. I feel at home in Israel and also a bit alienated from it. This list could go on without end. 
My life is just a small reflection of what I think it means to express and yearn for meaning as a Jew in America today. 

I believe that the value of reforming Judaism today means accepting that we are moving toward a Post Denominational Jewish World.  If Reform Judaism wants to remain relevant, we need to find ways to embrace, not run away from, the diversity that makes up our congregants’ lives.  I also believe there are many worthy reasons to unite and hope that Reform Judaism will lead the way in serving a diverse population of individuals
seeking meaning through Jewish tradition.  I believe we should unite because we can learn from those who are different from us. We can share ideas, dreams, and also resources that can enhance our individual and collective Jewish experiences. 

The downfall of the generation of the Tower of Babel was that they kept building and nobody ever stopped to ask why they were building in the first place.  As we stand at the brink of our own Bavel, the brink of confusion, may we learn from their mistakes. May we find ways to celebrate our differences, to bring holiness to this strange new land of Post Denominational Judaism.  May we each stop, think, and ask: What is our purpose for uniting? What do we stand for? And as we do, let us pray that the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to You, Oh Lord, our God.