Wednesday, April 27, 2011

3 Things I'd Like to Change About Judaism


On the seventh day of Passover, we had lunch at our friends' house. By day seven, most everyone has had enough of matza and of holidays. Yet, among traditionalists living outside Israel, another day remains. And so a certain amount of Pesach fatigue is natural. Our host, J., innocently offered her opinion about the three things she would change about traditionally observant Judaism if she could. Finding this fascinating [and being a bit of a trouble-maker], I suggested we go around the table and let everyone give their list. Soon, other friends and neighbors stopped by and joined the festivities. When the holiday ended, JR, another friend, had posted this topic on Facebook, and the conversation continued.

A quick word about change in Judaism: Judaism changes. Period. It may change differently depending on whether one is a traditional Jew or a liberal Jew. But change occurs. None of us observes a Judaism that existed 1,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago. Nobody.

Having said that, it looked to me like the changes desired fit into two broad categories: 1. Halacha / Jewish practice; 2. Jewish sociology and custom. These are some of the responses:

Halacha / Jewish Practice

  1. Eliminate the Ashkenazic practice of not eating kitniyot (rice, corn, peas, beans, peanuts) on Pesach. How communities decided that someone might confuse a rice product with the grains that can actually become leavened is unclear. But labeling Tupperware containers should alleviate any concerns.
  2. Eliminate the yom tov sheni - additional day of Biblical holidays - observed by traditional Diaspora Jews for Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot, and by all traditional Jews, including in Israel, for Rosh Hashana. There is a fixed Jewish calendar, so the original issue yom tov sheni was meant to fix: uncertainly of dates, has not been an issue for well over 1,000 years. 
  3. Eliminate the prohibition against men using a straight-edge razor. Biblical law prohibits sharing the "corners" of one's beard. Electric shavers can only go so far.
  4. Eliminate the objections to showering on Shabbat. 
  5. Eliminate the prohibition against shaatnez, wearing clothing of wool & linen combinations
  6. Loosen kashrut restrictions (especially when travelling) - these suggestions ranged from permitting all wines to allowing all foods that don't have clearly non-Kosher ingredients to returning chicken to its original pareve (non-meat) status
  7. Change laws of divorce so that women cannot be "chained" to marriage against their will
  8. Eliminate prohibitions against homosexuality (actually, only male homosexuality is against Biblical law)
Sociological
  1. Stop labelling Jews (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Hasidic, Reconstructionist, etc.)
  2. Stop allowing rabbis to create new stringencies and demand that people follow them
  3. Do away with idea that, in some Orthodox circles, it is OK, or even desirable, for a man to "learn" all day, while his wife works. Doesn't Mishna say that study without work is useless?
  4. Do away with day schools [there was no clear educational alternative suggested]
Here's the thing: These, and many other changes have been made by at least some communities. In some cases, the changes were based on historical reality; in others, they were based on local practice; in still others, there were attempts at liberalizing or "modernizing" Jewish life.

My questions:
  • What would YOUR list of three things to change look like? 
  • What are the obstacles standing in the way of change?
  • For teachers of Judaism: Would you consider asking your students (at least those of middle - high school age) to list the three things they would change about Judaism? If you do, I'd love to see their lists.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Shabbat-Before-Easter Rant

When we moved to West Hempstead, NY, we learned about a time-honored custom. Every year, on the night before Christmas Eve, the West Hempstead Volunteer Fire Department folks jump onto their trucks, with at least one member dressed as Santa, and drive up and down every single street of the town with sirens on. And on the day before Easter, one firefighter [I can only imagine that he drew the short straw on this one] dresses up as the Easter Bunny as the firefighters load onto their trucks and drive up and down every single street of the town with sirens on. In today's case, waking me from my Shabbat nap. Oh, well.

Here's the thing: At one time, West Hempstead was largely populated by immigrants or children of immigrants from Italy and Germany. In recent years however, the Jewish, and particularly Orthodox Jewish, population has boomed. These days, the Easter Bunny and Santa are playing to an increasingly observant Jewish population.

As I awoke from my Shabbat nap to the sound of the fire trucks and the view of the Easter Bunny on one of the trucks, this thought came to mind: What a great wake-up call to the Jewish population in our area. See, the thing is, the vast majority of the Jewish kids in my shtetl go to Jewish day schools, in which all the students, and most faculty are Jewish. Were you to ask a West Hempstead kid what percentage of American Jews are Orthodox, they would likely vastly overestimate the number. Same thing if you asked them the percentage of Americans who are Jewish. So, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are good wake-up calls for my fellow Jewish parents here in town.

In the schools which my kids attended in the past, it was not rare to hear Christians referred to by the pejorative term "goyim" or to hear Jesus referred to by the insulting nickname "yushke" by some teachers. I get where that came from: centuries of pogroms, expulsions and persecutions resulted in our people's pushing back. And some of our people felt justified in insulting others, figuring that insults weren't even close to the level of abuse that we had taken over the years.

But, we live in a different world today, a world in which my oldest son's sukkah is filled with people of various nationalities and faiths. A world in which "holiday" parties, at which all are invited to share the richness of their heritages, have replaced the Christmas parties of the workplace of the past.

Our kids need to know that the Easter Bunny isn't Easter and Santa Claus isn't Christmas. And the two together don't constitute Christianity. I'm fortunate that my daughter now attends a day school that has an anti-bias club, which is is proudly a member of. But the sirens today woke me up to a need for more. Our Jewish day schools, particularly those that serve the relatively sequestered Orthodox communities, need to teach more about our neighbors. It is important that, long before college or the working world, our children understand, respect and value the richness not only of their own heritage, but that of the many cultures and beliefs that make up the society in which they live.

So, chag sameach to my Hebrews, and a Happy Easter to my Christians.