Posted on August 29th, 2012 No comments
The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder
RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?
MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.
RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?
MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume) that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.
RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?
MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field. We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.
RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?
MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage, so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.
RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?
MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.
There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.
We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.
RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?
MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.
Posted on August 1st, 2012 No comments
דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן
עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה
מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג
Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said: Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations
-Midrash Rabbah Vayikra
Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.
Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.
Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.
This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.
Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,
“רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17
Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.
When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase, תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.
For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.
Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.
Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.
Posted on July 25th, 2012 6 comments
Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.
I love stories. I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history. Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level. I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter. Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA. Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean. Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees. Centropa’s goals include: connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking. I have heard this before. But Centropa is different. Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war. For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies. After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways. Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone. In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history. I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves. When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels. I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt. I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm. We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning. We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom. I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning. The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.
The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me. I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about. Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews. It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students. I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II. I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels. I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well. But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right. There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere. It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government. There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin. The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest. Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that. Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.
Posted on April 18th, 2012 5 comments
In the normal course of things, stuff happens, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff. Then it passes and we forget most of it. We remember what is meaningful, or useful, or hard to let go of. Those memories inform our actions, which in turn create new stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff.
But when something catastrophic happens, when the stuff is beyond words, imagination, or of a scope that cannot be imagined, this regular chain of stuff, remembering, forgetting and incorporating is disrupted.
Growing up in a family that was, as my mother now calls us, second hand Holocaust survivors, I lived with the effects of catastrophic disruption. No one in the family that went to the camps survived but many did escape. It was not easy, (you can learn about how my family was interned in United States at the Holocaust Museum) and it left long and lasting imprints. Hitler and the Holocaust were ever present and our extended family ever absent.
On my path to figuring out how to cope with this legacy, I became a Jewish historian. My initial goals were purely feminist, but when I settled on the study of German Jews, I had to confront my sense of disruption, memory and family history.
The focus of my graduate work was the period from 1848-1914. I looked at the rythms and flow of domestic life. As I read diaries, letters, and cookbooks, the mundane elements of daily life came to life. There were joys and frustrations, aspirations and limitations. It was stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, fun stuff, difficult stuff –normal stuff.
Somewhere in between the Anschlus and the liberations of 1945, my namesake, Razel Lowy Brody known as Rufi was murdered. My mother never knew her grandmother. Never got to experience her cooking, her drawing, her singing. She never had a chance to get annoyed with her grandmother, bored that she told the same old stories, or argue with her about the way she dressed. She missed out on all the stuff. She never got to remember, forget and incorporate the way one normally does in the ebb and flow of life.
It goes without saying that we can never forget the brutality of the Nazis and the callousness of the millions of bystanders. That is what Holocaust Remembrance day is for.
But if we only remember that, we are in danger of handing Hitler a posthumous victory. Reducing the memories of those who perished to their final helpless moments robs them of the complex legacies they would have passed on if the richness of their lives had been lived out in the proper order of things.
When the candles go out at the end of Holocaust Remembrance day, take some time to engage with the past. Learn about Jewish life in Greece, the complexities of ethic Jewish identity in Yugoslavia, or domesticity in Germany. Take some time to get to know the people who did not live to share their stuff.
Posted on March 2nd, 2012 1 comment
Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?
As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.
And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.
Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.
Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.
Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.
In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!
Posted on November 23rd, 2009 No comments
Jews are particularly gifted in negotiating between the realms of historical fact and mythic narratives. We need only look at the vast chasm that separates the story of the Hannuka as told by the Macabees and that of rabbis of the Talmudic era to see our ability to hold both truths together. The former is a tale of power politics, armies and alliances, the latter one of divine intervention and miracles. Both play powerful roles in informing our understanding of the holiday.
Interestingly, there is modern Hannuka tale, about George Washington, that plays with not only the national and divine themes, but also with the boundary of history and midrash.
While I no longer remember where exactly I found it originally, the version of the tale was similar to that found in Isador Margolis and Sidney L. Markowitz’s collection Jewish Holidays and Festivals: A Young Person’s Guide to the Stories, Practices and Prayers of Jewish Festivals, originally published in 1962.
As told in this volume, there was one Jewish soldier among Washington’s troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. One cold evening, General Washington out for a walk among the troops came across the young man lighting a menorah. Noting the man’s tears Washington engaged in a fatherly conversation, learning that the man had come to the new world in the hopes of living a life devoid of the anti-semitism and humiliation he had experienced in Poland. Lighting the menorah, he recalled not only his father who had given this treasure, but also the ancient battle for freedom and drew a parallel with Washington’s own fight. Washington commented that if the Jew, the descendant of the prophetic people, predicted that Revolutionary Army would win, so it would. Years later on Hannuka, the same Jew now living in New York placed the same menorah in his window at the start of the holiday. As it happened, President Washington passed by and noticing the candles knocked on the door. Recalling the night they had spent in Valley Forge, the Jew gave the President the menorah as a gift.
There is a lack of evidence to suggest that these events are founded in historical reality. So, if we were to stick to a vision of Judaism that relies on history alone, this story would be of questionable value.
To consider this story as midrash raises other questions. After all, it does not follow the traditional methods for uncovering textual meaning. It also takes as its starting text a modern historical event that post-dates not only the biblical but also the era of the traditional rabbinic commentaries.
Additionally, this story melds together the nationalism of the historical Hannuka story with the divine intervention of the rabbinic Hannuka narrative further complicating our ability to easily identify this story with established categories of narrative traditionally associated with the holiday.
Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of this, the story has much to offer us when we acknowledge it for what it is and is not. It is an excellent example of modern midrash; an attempt to read Jews into the silences of American history. It speaks of the desire of Jews to see their own story as inseparable from that of the broader American narrative. But it also speaks to the flexibility of the American narrative that allows for such weaving of particularisms into communal fabric. Our understanding of America is built as much on myth as it is history and individual groups in the United States find, or do not find, their place not only in the events of the past but in the telling and remembering of those events.
Moreover, this story speaks to some of the truths about George Washington and provides some challenges to the alignments of nationalism with history and myth with Godly intervention as portrayed in the rabbinic/Maccabean tellings of Hannuka story. George Washington is well known for supporting religious groups of all types –his letter to the Jews of Newport being a shining example of such support. This support stemmed not from secularism, but from a deep belief in an omnipotent God. That deity belonged to no particular faith group but to the cause of goodness. Indeed, as Steve Waldman recounts in the Founding Faith, Washington often attributed success in battle to God’s direct intervention. And while there is no specific evidence of the recitation of prayers over Hannuka candles at Valley Forge, it seems likely that had they been said, Washington would have endorsed them.
Recently the tale has reentered the popular Jewish consciousness in the form of a children’s book by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin. And it deserves a second look. The Valley Forge tale is a uniquely American Jewish blend, combining midrashic myth creation with historic events. It not only presents us with an opportunity to explore some of the major themes of the Hannuka story from a new perspective but also opens up the possibility for conversations about midrash and meaning making more broadly.
Posted on April 26th, 2009 No comments
Golda Meir, Bella Abzug and So Much More: The Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia
Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia is a welcome addition to the landscape of great Jewish resources. Hosted by the Jewish Women’s Archive and launched recently on March 1st in honor of Women’s History Month, this encyclopedia represents a rich and critical resource for those interested in all matters Jewish. Publishers Alice and Moshe Shalvi together with editors Paula Hyman and Dalia Ofer, have gathered critical information about Jewish women in an extensive collection of topical and biographical essays.
At their best encyclopedias take the world of scholarship and distill forth the key ideas providing lay and scholarly readers alike with the ability to easily access information and to move easily from topic to topic. In the era of the internet, on some level, this seems superfluous, after all if you want to explore a topic one need only enter a few words into a search engine and “entries” immediately appear. Indeed, fewer and fewer people these days are willing to wade into the library, find the right encyclopedia, look up the topic under consideration and follow cross references across articles or volumes. Yet in “googling” we often fall prey to the most popular rather than the most authoritative information and miss out on the organizational and editorial benefit of the traditional encyclopedia. The Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia works well to focus and direct our looking, creating a rich and enriching resource for Jewish learning.
By placing this work, which has been available previously as a CD-ROM, on the web, the Jewish Women’s Archive has made a critical contribution to our study of Jewish history. The search features make it easy to find material specific in any number of ways; one can look for Mary Antin or scroll through the list of writers to find her among other great and lesser known women of the pen. Browse features ensure that the serendipitous pleasures of the print format are preserved. A global search allows for one to look for the appearance of a term or name in any entry. Borrowing from the best practice of collaborative knowledge, readers are encouraged to add comments, insights or more information.
In addition to providing a good place to check facts, such as those about midrashic representations of Batsheva, it is also the perfect source for inspiration for sermons or charges to the board. It is a great resource for our own learning; with references to rabbinic texts cited and bibliographies. The quality of the writing is high but accessible. B’nai mitzvah students would feel quite comfortable in these pages.
For the sake of full disclosure, I contributed to one of the entries. But my interest in this resource is far from personal. One of the great joys of this encyclopedia is the journey that it provides far beyond our own areas of knowledge and understanding. Looking around on the day it first appeared on the web, I learned about Lane Bryant Malsin the Jewish pioneer of maternity wear and niche marketing, gaining new insights and appreciation for this hard working innovative immigrant; I deepened my understanding of wife beating in Jewish tradition thanks to the scholarship of Naomi Graetz and I got some sense of the breadth and depth of those who might be called Jewish writers. The online Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia has the potential to take us all far beyond the obvious with ease.