Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Inspiration from Our Founders

One of the things I find striking about texts from the early history of Reform Judaism is how relevant they remain. In class this week, the issue of the reformers' motivations was raised several times. Did they just want to assimilate? Did they push reform for political reasons?

These somewhat cynical motivations certainly played a role.  But I am convinced that the birth of Reform Judaism was motivated primarily by true religious commitment. Personally, I believe our founders were authentic in their belief that Judaism can and must change in keeping with the course of human history.

Their struggle for a meaningful Jewish experience in the modern context remains our struggle today. In his opening address to the Breslau Rabbinical Conference in 1846, Abraham Geiger described it this way:

The conditions are difficult, and confusion in religious affairs appears to be on the increase; despite this you are in this conference again making the courageous attempt to place the pure eternal content of Judaism in a form suited to the present and thus to breathe into it a new and powerful spirit. You wish to convince, to lead to the truth, not to forge bonds and fetters; you know full well that you do not appear here as guardians of consciences, that you have no sovereign power over the inalienable religious freedom of congregations and individuals; nay, you would repudiate such power were it to be offered you, for true religion can prosper and grow only in the atmosphere of freedom of conviction.  (quoted in David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism)               
There are countless similar examples, romantic invocations of the spiritual and intellectual project of Reform Judaism.  Perhaps they are better suited to their romantic era—but I can't help but feel that studying, reading, and hearing our ideological predecessors would give us a great sense of purpose, pride, and identity as Reform Jews.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Where Did "Jewish" Names Come From?

Emperor Joseph II
In class this week, we talked about the emancipation of the Jews of Europe—the political, legal, and cultural process that brought Jews increasing civil rights and freedom from the legal and other disabilities imposed on them during the medieval period.  We looked at Jewish emancipation from the perspective of the civil authorities, how the "improvement of the Jews" and their assimilation into the social and economic life of various countries was seen as an enlightened, humanitarian goal.

Even if well-intentioned, not all of that assimilation was voluntary.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, decrees granting Jews political rights also came with restrictions: Jews were forbidden to use Hebrew or Yiddish in legal documents, rabbis were forbidden to perform marriages without a civil license, and Jews were compelled to adopt standardized names.

For most of Jewish history, Jews didn't have "last names."  I was just Noah "son of Neil" or Noah "from New Jersey."  But in 1787, Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II decreed that Jews must adopt regular family names, to be passed down from generation to generation.  Other rulers followed his example.  In some countries, the names Jews chose had to be approved by the government; in others, there was a predetermined list of acceptable Jewish names.

After class someone asked if I could find one of these lists—full of "Rosenbaums," "Goldsteins," and other Germanic variations.  I'm still looking, but a partial list and an excellent account of the whole story of Jewish names can be found HERE.

[The link above is to an entry from the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe—a terrific website and fun to browse.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

From Berlin to Beit Shemesh

Photo by Orrling
Since our session last night, I have been reflecting on why I think the Haskalah is such an important phenomenon in Jewish history for us to study and understand as Reform Jews today.  After all, much of the Haskalah project, for better and worse, has long since been achieved (e.g., university-level Jewish studies, assimilation).  But the Haskalah and its opponents represent a struggle in Judaism that is very much still with us, a conflict that is shaping the Jewish world.

In the introduction to his history of the Haskalah, Shmuel Feiner writes:

The Enlightenment's values are also threatened by its enemies, the fundamentalist streams. In essence, these are antimodernist and antirationalist streams, and their slogans challenge each and every one of the conceptions of the Enlightenment, beginning with the very perception of man and his autonomous status in the world, and ending with political conceptions relating to rights, freedom, and equality. In certain aspects, these trends also gain a particular expression in Jewish and Israeli life. As we shall see later, the orthodox claim that the Haskalah is an extreme manifestation of apostasy and assimilation originated as soon as the Haskalah movement itself came into being. This criticism has never died out, and is one of the hallmarks of militant ultra-orthodox historiography in the present as well, particularly in the Kulturkampf being waged in the State of Israel. In actual fact, the Haskalah was the opening battle of the Jewish Kulturkampf, whose later stages are still being experienced by Jews in Israel at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The dilemmas that the Haskalah provoked when it first began to grapple with the challenge of modernity have not yet been completely resolved, and some are still very much alive after more than two hundred years.
Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 13

As an Israeli scholar, Feiner is very sensitive to the intense conflict between the ultra-orthodox and the forces of secularism, rationalism, and religious reform—all heirs of the Haskalah.  Just this week we were reminded that what happens in Beit Shemesh touches Montgomery County.  And of course the struggle for the rights of liberal Jews in Israel is vitally important to Reform Jews everywhere.

As Feiner suggests, hopefully the history of the Haskalah gives us insight and sensitivity into how our contemporary conflicts evolved out of the Jewish experience of modernity.

(I know I didn't ask a specific question, but I still hope you will share thoughts and reactions in the comments!)

Photo: "Please Do Not Walk Through Our Neighborhood in Immodest Dress."  This sign is from Jerusalem, but similar signs (and the issue of public modesty) are part of the ongoing conflict between ultra-orthodox and liberal groups in Beit Shemesh.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Beyond Basics: Modern Jewish History — Session 1

Prof. Michael A. Meyer
Welcome to our most recent blog experiment!  As I explained in class last night, as we immerse ourselves in the complexity of modern Jewish history, I hope the Temple blog will become a place for discussion, questions, and comments.  After each session, I will post some thoughts or questions to get the conversation started.

Much of our class last night was devoted to Michael Meyer's seminal essay, "Where Does the Modern Period of Jewish History Begin?" in which he surveys how the great historians of the last two centuries have responded to that question.  We did not have time to discuss a quotation I brought from one of Meyer's earlier works, in which he gives his own description of the "Jew in the modern world."
For the Jew in the modern world Jewishness forms only a portion of his total identity. By calling himself a Jew he expresses only one of multiple loyalties. And yet external pressures and internal attachments combine to make him often more aware of this identification than of any other. Conscious of an influence which Jewishness has upon his character and mode of life, he tries to define its sphere and harmonize it with the other components of self.
Such Jewish self-consciousness—while not entirely without precedent in Jewish history—has been especially characteristic of the last two centuries. In the considerable isolation of the ghetto, Jewish existence possessed an all-encompassing and unquestioned character which it lost to a significant extent only after the middle of the eighteenth century. It is with the age of Enlightenment that Jewish identity becomes segmental and hence problematic.
Michael A. Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (1967)
In this description, Meyer returns again and again to expressions of fragmentation ("portion of his total identity," "multiple loyalties," "components of self," "Jewish identity becomes segmental").

How does this observation square with our experience?  Do we feel that our identities are "segmental" or divided?  Are we aware of our Jewishness as a "component of self," sometimes in tension with other aspects of our identity?  Do you think this experience of complex/multiple identities is part of what makes us modern?

Feel free to comment on those questions or anything else that interested you from the class or readings.  I look forward to your comments, and see you next week!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poem for Shabbat

Krakow Yizkor Book
Earlier this week I was reading the Arts & Academe blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful Jewish poem, Erika Meitner's "Yizker Bukh." 

Yizkor books (The poem title uses the Yiddish spelling.) were created by Holocaust survivors to preserve the memory of the Jews and Jewish communities of Europe.  Working from memory, survivors would record the history of a village or town, often going back hundreds of years.  They would describe families - all the relationships, births, deaths, and weddings - as best they could.  The books include recollections of businesses, important events, and daily life.  Many describe the destruction of the community during the Holocaust.  They list and memorialize those who were killed.  (Read some yizkor books online here.)

Meitner's poem is a reflection on her grief after the death of her grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor.  I find it quite moving ("Memory is / ... / an animal with- / out a leash"), despite the fact that the rabbi in the poem is pretty obtuse.

For Discussion: Varying the length of the lines, the poet creates a very intentional shape for the poem on the page (or screen).  How does this shape contribute to the meaning of the poem?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Go See a Jewish Movie

Earlier this week, a man came to meet with me to talk about converting to Judaism.  I gave him an overview of the process - a course of study, participating in the life of the community, spiritual reflection, and the traditional rituals of initiation.  I also showed him a "syllabus" I've put together with suggested books and activities for those in the process of conversion.  Looking over the list, he said, "I didn't expect you to assign so many movies."

Why not?  Movies are an important medium of Jewish culture.  How many of us learned most of what we know about shtetls from Fiddler on the Roof?  In a few weeks, Jews across the country will participate in the hallowed Passover tradition of watching The Ten Commandments.  I use Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movies to talk about Jewish humor (and neuroses).  Israel, the Holocaust, the American Jewish experience - movies are shared Jewish experiences and great conversation starters.

You may remember from a previous post that I like pop culture lists.  So here are two very different and highly debatable lists (one and two) of "top" Jewish movies.

If there are movies on those lists you haven't seen, think about renting (Netflix-ing, streaming, etc.) one.  Or better yet, go out and see a new Jewish movie that might be a future classic...

Last night kicked off the 3rd Annual Jewish Film Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville.  They're showing a different movie every night this week.

For the D.C. contingent, think about seeing Sippur Gadol (A Matter of Size) this Sunday at the DCJCC downtown.  It's about a group of Israelis who decide to become sumo wrestlers.  It's one of my favorite Israeli movies of recent years, and proceeds from the showing will benefit relief efforts in Japan.

Check out the trailer below.  And if you want to LEAVE A COMMENT, I'll give you a topic:  What's your favorite Jewish movie? (Define "Jewish" however you like.)  Why?

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Purim: Don't Forget Those in Need

Flickr user joshbousel
This Sunday is Purim.  As in most Reform congregations, our Purim observance is primarily focused on children.  They wear costumes, sing songs, and of course, there's the Purim carnival.  But Purim is not meant to be only a children's holiday.  For one thing, the themes of the Purim story - antisemitism, assimilation, jealousy, sex, revenge - are far from pediatric.  Purim also has four mitzvot, four commandments that are relevant and potentially quite meaningful for adult Jews today.

1)  Megillah - It is a mitzvah on Purim to hear the book of Esther ("the Megillah," "the Scroll") read in its entirety.  This is a tough one, since a complete reading of the Megillah is not customary in our congregation.  Still, you could read Esther online (or in any Jewish Bible).  You could even listen to a little of the scroll being chanted.

2)  Seudah - It is a mitzvah on Purim to have a festive meal.  This is the mitzvah we fulfill with our congregational celebration.  This is also the origin of the custom of drinking alcohol on Purim - but any festive food and drink will do!

3)  Mishloach Manot - It is a mitzvah on Purim to give gifts of food to family and friends.  Normally, these are ready-to-eat snacks like candy or - of course - hamantaschen!  Sending mishloach manot is a nice way to reconnect with family and friends, or just to reach out and tell someone, "I'm thinking about you."

4)  Matanot l'Evyonim - It is a mitzvah on Purim to give tzedakah to the poor.

This last mitzvah is the one I want to highlight, since I think it is most often forgotten in our celebration of Purim.  At the end of the book of Esther we read:
...observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year – the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy...observe them as days of feasting and merry making, and as an occasion for sending presents to the poor. (Esther 9:20-23)
Commenting on this mitzvah, Maimonides writes:
One should rather spend more money on gifts to the poor than on his Purim banquet and presents to friends (mishloach manot). No joy is greater and more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers. He who gladdens the hearts of these unhappy people imitates God, as it is written: "I am…to revive the spirit of the humble, and to put heart into the crushed" (Isaiah 57:15).
According to Maimonides, it seems that giving tzedakah to the poor should be the MOST IMPORTANT way we celebrate Purim.  Whatever we spend on Purim costumes, we should be giving more to the poor.  Whatever we spend on hamantaschen, we should be giving more to the poor.  Whatever we spend on our festive meal, we should be giving more to the poor.  Our joy in this holiday is best expressed by bringing joy and relief to those in need. 

In the Orthodox community, there are very specific guidelines for matanot l'evyonim, the tzedakah of Purim.  The Reform Movement has generated numerous creative ways to incorporate this tradition into our modern lives and families.

Purim can be a lot of fun, but it also has a serious side.  We deepen and enrich our Judaism when we take our holidays and traditions seriously.  Let's honor and observe this Purim by making a special donation this Sunday to those in need.