Monday, July 23, 2012

On "Sunday Styles," Privatized Spirituality, and Revolutions

When my Sunday New York Times arrives each week,  I read "Sunday Styles"  first.  In part because it allows me to ease in to the heavier content of the other sections, but also because I love to see if I know any of the rabbis or cantors who might be officiating at the listed weddings!  Of late, more and more, instead of reading about weddings officiated by clergy, I read: "a dear friend of the bride/groom was ordained as a universal life minister especially for the couple's nuptuals" or something like that.  Many will say that this reflects only interfaith couples reacting to their rejection by synagogues and clergy who won't officiate, but a closer look reveals both exogamous and endogamous couples seeking this option.   Looking to add personal meaning and intimacy to their weddings, couples seek out the people who know them best to honor them in this most special way on their most special day.  It's not that they are outright rejecting the Jewish part of their lives, as often,  Jewish traditions are "acknowledged" in some way, perhaps in the form of a groom stepping on a glass or someone's relative leading haMotzi before the dinner is served.   But by and large, those are the only Jewish notes in an otherwise completely customized and privatized symphony commissioned to reflect the couple's individualized and particular desires and love, because at the end of the day, personalized customization is what's most important. 

And it isn't just weddings either.  The truth is, any Jewish lifecycle moment is up for customization these days.  The "privatized" route of arranging for private venues for Baby Namimgs and Britei Mila, Bnai Mitzvah, weddings, and even Shiva observances, where these Jewish rituals are "observed" in the same ways as the weddings I mentioned earlier.  Just last month, The Jewish Times published an article on the Reform movement's new effort to "revolutionize" Bnai Mitzvah.  The author cited a recent example from a well-known Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, describing how, instead of chanting Haftara, a Bar Mitzvah spoke about "his recent ride alone on a city bus... across Los Angeles on a Friday at rush hour “to see my city from a different perspective.”**   Noting the understanding that a ritual marking a transition out of childhood should reflect the skills required to become a Jewish adult in the community, the synagogue's senior rabbi remarked, "It was a reframing of the bar mitzvah ceremony.” 

And I get it.  I can see how a Bar Mitzvah  would find more "meaning" from a bus ride than from learning Haftara trope.  I see how a custom candy buffet with the child's initials imprinted on each pink or blue sugar coated chocolate proves more memorable for people than welcoming a child into the Jewish covenant with a Hebrew name and hopes in Hebrew of Torah, Chuppah, and Gimilut Chasidim.  The world we live in, the world I live in, is one where, for any number of sociological, historical, and phsychological  reasons, we are all desperate for real, personal acknowledgement and intimiate connections -and many believe those cannot be achieved through Jewish cerermonies now perceived as too "one-size-fits-all."

But here's what I wonder: do these customized "meaningful" observances actually provide the meaning and connection that so many seek? I think that people think they do, but I also believe that they are missing an entirely different, deeper type of meaning and connection that can only come when we tap into that which is larger and more enduring than ourselves.  Jewish markings along the lifecycle serve the explicit purpose of putting meaning into what are otherwise limited, both in time and space, experiences. 

When lanky and awkward pre-teens do an aliya, chant Torah and Haftara on a Shabbat to mark the experience of Bar or Bat Mitzvah amidst a larger Jewish community, not just their invited guests, they link themselves at once to their own local community, every other Jewish community around the world, not only that Shabbat, but for every Shabbat beforehand for countless generations and hopfully for countless to come.  It is a failure of the non-Orthodox institutions, leadership and lay community for creating a reality where our people have become so estranged and thereby disinterested that Hebrew matches to any other foreign language they don't know.  And yet, even so, there is deep meaning and significance, both practical and spiritual, from knowing that a young person might have the skills to navigate and lead any Jewish community in prayer any where, any time.  It is significant for the Bar Mitzvah boy and it is significant for the comuninity - not just his invited guests, but the Jewish community as a whole. And that is something the "bus ride" just can't do. 
When the wedding couple has witnesses sign a Ketubah, stands under a chuppah,  sanctifies themselves to each other with the words intoned over the generations, sips wine after 7 blessings, then even if each of those components is made fitting for them individually, they join together in a way that links them in a moment that mimics nothing less than the world's Divine creation. Not much else can get you that, even with a mazal tov and HaMotzi.

I'm not saying we can't have customization and personalization.  We can, and we should.  They enable us to acknowledge who we are and where we are in our own lives in an important way.  But to do so while whitewashing partially or entirely the "Jewish" expressions of these moments is to truly travel upon the turbulent sea with no compass nor anchor. At its heart, Judaism may be personal, but it is NOT private.  Part of the enduring profundity and beauty of Judaism is its mandate of connecting to that which is outside of ourselves: our families, our communities, our world and the Divine.  The true "Revolution" of the denominations that take modernity into account has always been and continues to be when they make Judaism, its teachings, and practices more meaningful, more personal, more inclusive, and more relevant through embracing and lifting up those core values, not diluting or disolving them in part or entirely.*** 

***As an example, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler did this with her cutting edge work around Brit Ahavah, and her son and daughter-in-law Rabbis Amitai and Julie Pelc-Adler have updated her work in a notably compelling, inclusive and intergity-filled wedding ceremony.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Front Yards, Sink Holes, and Resilience

As a family with 2 kids ages 3 and 5, we are lucky to have a large front yard.  It is a great place for our kids and neighbors to run, jump, play, whatever.  The only problem is, our front yard has a minor sink hole.  Not a huge one, but one significant enough to create a 4-6 inch drop spanning the length of our yard and about a foot wide.  This large "divet" in the terrain initially proved challenging for my children  and their friends when they played in the front.  It made soccer games unfair, as the team protecting the goal that sits behind the sink hole had an unfair advantage given the bunker that protects it from infiltration, in addition to its goalie.  And it made running from first to second base of the makeshift t-ball field we set up notably treacherous as inevitably the runner had to leap across the hole twice to avoid falling in it.  You get the idea.  As a result, this sink hole has been filled with pebbles, dirt, and re-sodded numerous times, in attempts to create a level playing surface for our family's so-called "athletic" endevours.   But despite all efforts, the sink hole always returns in some form - maybe a little further South or a little more North - but it always comes back!

Our front yard really is a metaphor for life and how we handle the "sink holes" - the obstacles that challenge us along our own life's path.  The way I see it, there are 3 choices. 
  1. Fill in the sink holes. 
Whatever the obstacle is, try to make it go away.  Say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done to create an even, level playing field. When another sink hole appears, repeat the process.  The problem with this method is that, just like in my front yard, sink holes always return in one form or another, regardless of how many times we try to even our path. This response assures a life lived on the defense, always waiting for the next hole to appear, always filling in and patching just to get by.

   2.    Step away from the sink holes. 

Knowing that it is just going to reappear, why not abandon the sink hole-ridden surface and find a different path entirely?  Who needs obstacles anyways?  My kids could just move their sporting events to our backyard.  It's flat back there and completely sheltered with its fenced and wooded perimeter.  The problem is, abandoning a challenging path for an easier one often comes with significant drawbacks.  The simpler route may not have the same benefits as the rougher road.  In the case of my backyard, because it is so private, it loses ease and accessiblity to the neighborhood kids' participation in these games.  So although my kids might be able to play their games on a flat surface, the "team" sports will have to become one-on-one games between my son and my daughter, which  (given my kids' age and skill differential) will undoubtedly make the games quicker and less interesting, or much less spontaneous.

  3. Figure out a way to play despite of (or even with) the sink hole.

Accepting that the path is challenging yet valuable, figure out a way to work with the sink hole's presence.  Is there a way to look at the obstacle instead as an opportunity?  "Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child." This notion can serve as important advice for each and all of us, children and adults alike.  Playing fields aren't ever perfect.  Sink holes, fallen trees, and inclimate weather prove no different than any of the obstacles and challenges that will confront us wherever we go, whatever we do.  Comprising ourselves and our goals to assure a simpler path may, at first, seem to make things easier, but in the end, it assures stagnation, if not, diminishment, not only of the personal growth that comes from traversing a challenging road, but of who we are meant to be. 

So we decided to keep our sports in the front yard. Sure, sometimes the soccer games aren't so balanced and t-ball runners become a little more guarded on their first-to-second base dash, but in the process, the kids have learned agility, balance, not to mention determination and resilience.  Plus, if you kick the ball into the sink hole at a certain spot from the side, it jets the ball into the goal at an angle that no goalie has been able to stop!