Thursday, February 20, 1997

Partly Pregnant?
What does it mean to be a "good Jew?"

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, PA

The other day someone asked me the following question: Do you have to keep kosher to be a good Jew? At about the same time, in response to one of my weekly columns for America Online  in which I had made the historical assertion that "Jews don't eat shrimp," I received a heated note asserting that many "good Jews" are indeed connoisseurs of all kinds of crustaceans.

Personally, I keep kosher, to some extent. To me, and to the way I understand Judaism, that is not a contradiction in terms. And to the all-or-nothing fundamentalists who assert that keeping "kind-of kosher" is like being "partly pregnant," I respond that they would squeeze creativity and experimentation and individual involvement out of Judaism in the name of a conformity on which they can not agree in any event. And I do believe that what comes out of our mouths is more important than what goes into them. But, denominational defensive polemics aside, I find great joy and meaning in the idea that every time I sit down at a meal, I become conscious of limitations and options, of my people and my heritage. Keeping kosher to the extent that I do is a powerful part of my Jewish spiritual identity.

But. That is a response about kashrut. It does not answer the question that was asked. And the far more interesting aspect of that question was this concept about being a good Jew.

Do you have to keep kosher to be a good Jew? The answer is... "maybe."

What kind of an answer is that?, you ask. Well, it is an answer based on the modern Reform movement's "pro choice" approach to Jewish ritual.

When the Reform movement was founded over a century ago, it was officially anti ritual. The Pittsburgh Platform of the late nineteenth century, the first official statement of (North American) Reform movement ideology, wrote that "today we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization." Specifically, they continued, "we hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a sense of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation."

The authors of those words could not have been clearer. With disdain dripping from their pens, they wrote that you could not keep kosher and still call yourself a Reform Jew.

A lot has changed since then. Already by the 1930's, the Reform movement began to realize that many customs, symbols and ceremonies "possess inspirational value." And by the 1970's, with the San Francisco Centenary Perspective, the movement had changed a great deal, from anti ritual to pro choice. The words that remain the "official" position of the Reform movement in regard to ritual are: "Within each area of Jewish observance, Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge."
These words leave a great deal in the hands of the individual. But. They also mean far more than the derisive taunt that Reform is "do what you want" Judaism.

Commitment to a living Judaism requires that we take the claims of our tradition seriously. And so, to be a good Jew, one must interact with traditions such as keeping kosher. One must learn about it. Since learning is more than merely cognitive and intellectual, learning involves experience. It involves experimentation. It involves trying things on.

In my opinion, to be a "good" Jew today, one has the responsibility, indeed, the obligation to take our tradition seriously including the rituals part of our tradition, such as keeping kosher. But. As a modern Jew, I also believe that we have the right to bring that tradition into our lives in the ways we determine. And we are to make the choices we are allowed to make... on the basis of knowing the tradition, caring about it, and wanting Judaism to live on into the future. As the platform says, we are to make our choices on the basis of commitment and knowledge.

And so, if someone came to me and asked me, as a Reform rabbi, if they "should" keep kosher, I would say the following: here, take these articles. Some describe keeping kosher. Others prescribe it as a wonderful way of life, a spiritual path, a road to holiness. Others deride it as a nutritionally based system no longer needed. Try it for one month. Or try giving up pork, and eating anything else. Then eat bacon cheeseburgers for a month. At the end of two months, you should have some sense of what is involved in keeping kosher, of what it means, of what it feels like, and of what it might mean in your life. Then, do whatever you want... but keep thinking about it. And that will probably mean: keep tinkering with it. Keep experimenting. Keep on eating as a Jew... however you decide to eat.

A good Jew is one who cares about Judaism, who knows the Jewish tradition, who lets questions of "whether this is good for the Jewish community" affect his or her actions, and who knows what Judaism means to him or herself personally. One can eat shrimp, and be a good Jew. One can never touch pork, and still not be.

It depends on commitment.

It depends on knowledge.

It depends... on you.

Monday, February 10, 1997

Back in the Saddle Again

Back in the Saddle Again

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, PA

I have not been able to write this column for some time.  Which… reminds me of a lesson.

The ancient rabbis ordained that Jews were to pray three times a day. I do not do this, nor do I always meet my intended personal target of at least once a day. But I know why they set out this goal. And I know what happens to me when I meet my target. And what happens when I do not.

The rabbis did not believe that every Jew would "encounter God" every time he (or she?) prayed. But in order to maximize the potential for that encounter, one had to try. Like in the play "Waiting for Godot," one had to show up at the scheduled meeting place.

Of course, services were much shorter in the days when these ancient rabbis envisioned Jews praying three times a day ; many liturgical additions have accrued over the years, most of which were met with astonished opposition of more conservative elements when they were first introduced . These have included medieval poetry, signature acrostics, prose explanations of customs, additional songs, mandatory multiple repetitions of the same prayers, and so on.  It has been like a college course whose reading list (in reverse of recent trends in higher education) simply got longer and longer and longer, with some protest at each additional book.

But beyond the protest, something else happens. As the reading list gets longer, the students begin taking short cuts. They skip some classes. They skip some material. They cut comers. What they do read, they sometimes read at such speed that little gets absorbed. And if the reading list keeps getting longer, while at the same time the human attention span seems to be getting shorter, at some point there is going to be a revolution.

To me, this is the experience of a Jewish daily service in its traditional form. Even with practice, even with familiarity, even with experience, I cannot read English as quickly as some people race through the Hebrew of the daily service. It has become so long that the goal is just to do it, not to absorb it. To show up, even if one wanders around for half the time. But if people care at all about the content of the claims we make in prayer, the cognitive meaning of the words , and not just the experience of coming together (although this is the heart of it all for many), then sometime, somewhere, somehow, someone is going to do something about it.

The revolution in this case was the founding of the Reform movement in Germany almost two centuries ago. But the Reform movement was not the first to change the service; it was just the first to change it in the direction of making it shorter.

Eliminating repetition of certain prayers. Cutting out some of the medieval additions. Setting aside certain statements whose content they believed to be outdated, claims which - honestly - only a very, very small minority of those praying those particular words believed anyway.

So the rabbis, when they demanded that all Jews pray three times a day (well, all male Jews), envisioned a much shorter service - and therefore a different, easier and perhaps more contemplative experience - than the traditional service of today. But despite not knowing how the future would change the service, and even with all those differences, I believe they were still on to something. For the more we do something, the more familiar it becomes. The easier it gets. The greater the odds of success.

The more we pray, the more productive our prayers. The more we show up for that meeting with the One we seek, the more likely the meeting will take place. (As my wife said to me once, with insight and wisdom, being pregnant greatly enhances the chances of having a child. It doesn't guarantee it -we knew that already. But it sure made the desired outcome a lot more likely.) The regularity, the requirement, the routine... that gives us the greatest odds for the most powerful prayer in the long run.

Discipline, exercise. Regularity. It makes for better prayer. It makes for better writing. It is a lesson I know well. It is one I teach. It is one I believe in. But it is one I have not practiced during the time I did not write, falling short of the mark.  For missing the target.  It is to get up, and try again. To get back on track. Back in the saddle again. Or, as a certain shoe company is fond of saying: Just do it.

Not as easy as it sounds. But a good description of what we do when we are successful at establishing routines in our lives. And a good goad to get us back when we miss the mark.