Argue with the Torah!

Sometimes it’s hard being Jewish, and even more difficult being a teacher of Judaism.

What do I tell my Bar and Bat-Mitzvah students when we read in their Torah portions that the God we pray to washed away all of human and animal kind except for one family?  Or opened up the earth and swallowed not just rebels but their households?   Or didn’t just save the Israelites but made the Egyptian army get stuck in the mud so they would drown?  These portions can send our students running, and I must say it’s hard for me not to run too.

So, what do we do?  Well, we follow the advice of the author and Torah scholar George Robinson who said, “To fully understand the Torah as given, we would need to fully understand the world into which it was thrust.”  So, I ask my students questions such as: Who do you think wrote the Torah?  Why do you think the people were meant to be afraid of God?  What is the essence of the lesson we can take with us in a modern context, now hopefully evolved enough not to have to be frightened into action?  

You’d be surprised by the wisdom hiding in a 12 or 13 year-old’s mind. 🙂

Well, last Shabbat, we had a portion that is full of text that is easily loved.  After all, the ten commandments are there, the Shema the first paragraph of the V’ahavta are spoken, all pointing us in the direction of living spiritual, noble lives through a filter of love. 

And yet… at the end, we have something that trips me up, especially as a Universalist Rabbi.

Moses is speaking to the people of the many nations they are to defeat once they enter their promised land.  He says, “… and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them: you shall make no covenant with them, nor favor them; neither shall you make marriages with them; your daughter you shall not give to his son, nor his daughter shall you take to your son.  For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord burn against you, and He will destroy you quickly.  But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their sacred trees, and burn their engraved images with fire.”

Now, I became a Rabbi through JSLI, and I chose to be a part of the Jewish Universalist movement because I believe deeply in the Universalist ideals.  On the UJUC website ( it states, “JU teaches that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth and that God equally chose all nations to be lights unto the world.  We reject the concept of a G-d who would choose among G-d’s children… JU embraces Interfaith Families and unconditionally welcomes all people to participate in our Jewish worship and rituals.”

Imagine if today we, as Jews, entered a new land, completely destroyed all non-Jewish religious houses, shrines, and articles and burned it all to the ground.  What if we acted as the Torah suggests here, as if our religion was to be the only one and refused to spend even a tiny bit of energy finding ways to leave peacefully side by side with other religious practices?  What if we denied their right to exist? 

Doesn’t sound very Universalist, does it?

And what about the refusal of interfaith marriage?  Now, I know that many Jews still do not approve of interfaith marriage, but again, this directly goes against the doctrine of Jewish Universalism.  I was taught, and I believe with every fiber of my being, that when an interfaith couple seeks me to officiate their wedding, my role is not to judge them or tell them a set of requirements they must meet in order for me to be satisfied that the couple will be “Jewish enough.”  My job is to create the most loving, embracing, comfortable, meaningful Jewish experience I can for them.  My job is to create a sanctuary of sorts for the non-Jewish partner to explore his/her spirituality without fear within this Jewish experience. My job is to help both members of the couple leave my presence knowing that Judaism can be a nurturing, understanding, flexible framework, and that choosing to live their lives within that framework  could and should feel like falling into a large embrace.  My job is to honor and acknowledge the non-Jewish partner, not frightened him/her away with a judgmental, Rabbinic glance.

Anyone who has ever worked in a synagogue with interfaith families can tell you that very often, it is the non-Jewish parent who volunteers for the Chanukah party, runs the Purim Carnival, brings the family for Shabbat, and makes sure the child studies for her Bat-Mitzvah.  By making sure Judaism’s umbrella is large enough to cover all of us, Jewish or Jewishly curious or related to Jewish, we are better ensuring the survival of this most amazing peoplehood than if we shoo them away or treat them as secondary citizens.

I understand that in a different time, when the Jewish peoplehood was in its infancy, that we may have had to behave in a certain way to stay together.  But in this time in history, teaching that all religions have a place in this world is what I, and the Jewish Universalist movement, are all about.  The lesson of this Torah passage isn’t to fear or destroy the unfamiliar.  The lesson is to hold on to the beauty of our faith, share it with others, and learn from others with open hearts.  If Judaism has wisdom to offer, it will survive not out of fear, but out of its own merits.


Sometimes I Feel Like a Jamaican Bobsledder

Sometimes I feel like a Jamaican bobsledder.

No doubt those guys in 1988 got some funny looks when they first took their positions at the top of the track.  What unlikely warm-climate candidates they were for an icy sport.  They didn’t look like the other bobsledders, they didn’t sound like the other bobsledders, and their lives, I’m sure, had very little in common with the other athletes of their sport.  Yet, down they went, winning the hearts and minds of many with every pulse-racing twist and turn, even though they didn’t win.

So, I’ve decided to jump into my bobsled.  I’m doing something most people in my life never imagined I would do, something for which I don’t fit the mold, and I’m going to do it in an a-typical way.  I’m becoming a Rabbi, and I’m doing it my way.

I’m not going to HUC or JTS or AJR or AJU (why do ALL of the seminaries have three initials???).  I’m going to a relatively new seminary, founded by an inspiring teacher and Rabbi who is starting a movement of Jewish Universalism.  Universalist Judaism.  I like the sound of that.

When I tell people I’m going to Rabbinical School and explain the kind of program it is, some eyebrows rise and some foreheads furrow.  That’s not one of the “normal” institutions from one of the “normal” movements?  Nope.  It’s not.  And I’m doing it this way because my heart is telling me it is where I belong.

It was about 9 years ago that I first starting studying for the Cantorate (and it is only just this week that my mentor has given me the thumbs up that I am finished with my studies).  I remember going to my first Cantorial class and saying to my husband, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.  I just need to.”  Now, many years later, with much experience under my belt, I know exactly why I went… I was meant to do this work.  Many times I was ready to throw in the towel and forget all of this Cantor stuff, but the Universe would tap me on the shoulder and send me right back into the ring.  So, why go to this new Rabbinical school?  I don’t know.  I just need to.  The Universe is tapping me again.

Sometimes we have to follow an idea (it might be a crazy, unpopular, unexpected idea) to feel whole.  Sometimes we have to look at the people around us who don’t get it and say “Please join me while I’m on this ride.  I’m not sure where it’s going to go, but I know we are going somewhere.”  Sometimes we need to be a Jamaican in a bobsled, proving to others that once in awhile the unbelievable is real and that there are many, many paths, traditional and non-traditional, to get where one wants to go.

Besides, life is short.

I know it’s a cliché to say that life is short.  But let’s say it one more time.  LIFE……. IS……. SHORT.  I recently went to a funeral for a man who died suddenly at age 48, leaving behind his wife and two small boys. I cried my eyes out and felt like a hollow shell after the service even though I didn’t know him very well.  Did I cry because he was so young?  Yes.  Did I cry because I felt so sad for his boys who will have to grow up without him and for his wife who is now faced with raising those boys alone?  Yes.  Did I cry because I imagined my own children having to grow up without me or my husband?  Yes.  But I also cried because life is short.  We might as well all get on with it because we never know what’s coming tomorrow.

My mother-in-law died very young too.  Just a few years before she passed away, she followed her dream of going back to school and becoming a social worker.  When she returned to school, she was already a woman who had everything.  She had a comfortable life, a fantastic marriage and had raised two of the best humans I know.  She had travelled extensively, met impressive people, and gone on fabulous adventures.  I bet that when she, as a New York City lady in her late 40’s, walked into that graduate school and then started counseling extremely underprivileged families, sometimes she felt like a Jamaican bobsledder too.  I bet some looked at her with questioning eyes.  And I bet sometimes she looked at herself and asked, “Now, how did I get here?”  But she did it, and she had the opportunity to fulfill an important part of herself as well as offer soulful guidance to her clients and to the world before she had to go.  She didn’t have to ask herself, “What could I have been?”  She was it all.

So, I’m jumping into my bobsled.  Because I love outside the box thinking.  Because I can’t ignore all of this shoulder tapping.  And because life is short.

What crazy idea is tapping you on your shoulder?