I am sitting in a classroom in Jerusalem, Israel and trying not to roll my eyes. My classmates have spent the last forty-five minutes debating the addition of the imahot (the names of the mothers) into the Amidah, the central prayer of the traditional Jewish liturgy.
Tempers and accusations flare. For many, the addition is the equivalent of Jewish pandering, a direct offense to Halacha and liturgy. For others, the exclusion of the imahot is a direct affront to their sense of integrity and fairness.
For myself, I don’t really care.
Correction: I do care. But, it’s not an issue I want to spend more than five minutes thinking about. Include the imahot, or don’t. Make a decision with your community and move on.
What’s the problem?
Instead, I’m staring at all my classmates in disbelief (still trying not to roll my eyes) and feeling the length and distance of our different upbringings – mine secular, them from day school and Jewish summer camps – like an immovable weight between us.
I didn’t know what the Amidah was until I was twenty-five years old.
To be certain, I went to Hebrew School. I learned all my prayers (albeit poorly) by seventh grade. I had a Bat Mitzvah at thirteen. I even went to Camp Ramah for a month, USY pilgrimage, Hebrew High School and grew up in a kosher home. But, for the life of me, I never knew there was a central Jewish prayer, or where it was, or what you did with it when it came around… until I went to Rabbinical School.
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” by Dr. Seuss keeps running repeatedly through my head. And, I realize I have a choice – to sit in class quietly while this debate rages on – or to be that person (again) who has to go there and say it.
So, I raise my hand.
“I don’t want to talk about the imahot when there are so many other real-world issues facing the Jewish world. I don’t want to talk about the Amidah before we talk about the service, and why so many young Jews don’t feel connected to their Synagogue anymore. And, I don’t want to talk about the Synagogue, until we talk about the people who aren’t in the pews, but live in our communities. Talking about the imahot is a privilege. It’s the equivalent of debating what color the carpet in your house should be – when you haven’t built a roof – and, it’s about to snow. ”
The conversation ends.
Recently, my friend and colleague, Patrick, who runs PunkTorah, wrote a blog in defense of his opinionated Judaism. He spoke about his own internal struggles, with whether or not his opinions were right, and the backlash he sometimes receives from pushing the envelope of what was Jewish life, and what will hopefully become Jewish life.
Patrick and I are often (though, not always) on the same page, which is why we have committed to work together in the coming year. Despite some theological differences, we both want a go there Judaism. We both want a Judaism that can deal with the issues – the real issues – with thoughtful, reflective and proactive answers.
I’m not afraid of the question.
We don’t talk about these things in Rabbinical School. But, I want to know. I want to know how we can expect people who don’t read, speak or understand Hebrew – to sit for three hours in primarily Hebrew services on Saturday morning and find meaning?
I want to know how in this economy, with foreclosure and job loss affecting everyone – we can ask people to spend their savings on kosher food, day school and Jewish summer camps?
And, I want to know how we can expect a Jewish-American community, a generation cash strapped and rent-poor, who has seen terrorism in the US, wars in the Middle East, and a rapidly changing family structure – to blindly support the institutions of their parents and grandparents without knowing where their money is going and how it is being used?
Heschel no longer applies.
I see two camps developing in the face of this Jewish uncertainty. The first camp wants to close rank. Silence is better than free thought or discussion. Stay the same and everything will … stay the same. So, we’ve stopped hiring women Rabbis. Or, we admonish Rabbinical Students for discussing difficulties with Israel. Or, we ignore the issue completely and talk about baseball and gefilte fish.
The second camp feels compelled to push. The second camp believes in access points and confronting difficult questions. The second camp knows that change is inevitable. So, we side-step Halacha in favor of Halicha (or walking) the path.
You can guess what camp I’m in…
It is not easy to be in the second camp. It takes a tremendous amount of courage. Contrary to popular belief, receiving hate mail is not fun. I also have an enormous amount of anxiety around my actions. I am certainly not a tzaddik. I am probably not even a very good student.
But, I feel responsible.
I am not afraid of the risk to myself. Perhaps it is the benefit of a life with Chronic Illness, but I don’t look very far into the future. If tomorrow I was completely cut off from the Jewish world, thrown into herem (excommunication) and refused employment, I would move on.
I’ve always wanted to work in a Tanning Salon…
Snow Globe Judaism is pretty and safe — but it is also stagnant and unchanging. I never wanted to be the person banging on the glass, but the cracks were there long before I started shaking its shell. And, while it will always appear that I am destroying Judaism to some, I may be saving it for others.
That is, at least for me, a good enough reason to keep fighting.