Feb 26, 2010

PJA Responds to SF Federation's New Policy

PJA Logo

Progressive Jewish Alliance Addresses
"JCF Policy on Israel-Related Programming for its Grantees"

On February 18, 2010, the San Francisco Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (JCF) released a policy and set of guidelines, which are intended to address the controversy that arose from the screening of the documentary "Rachel" at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  While we applaud JCF's attempt to craft a policy that allows for "the rich exchange and expression that defines us as a community," we have grave concerns that the announced rules may undermine that very goal -- may, in fact, censor or chill an open exchange of ideas. 
We are particularly fearful of the effect these rules may have on a younger generation of Jews who are grappling with their Jewish identity, their relationship to Israel and their place in the larger community, precisely by engaging in the time-honored Jewish tradition of questioning.  Young people are our future.  They possess a strong moral compass, the discernment to question the world around them and a hunger for knowledge.  PJA calls on Jews of all generations to live up to the name Israel: meaning one who wrestles with God.  In so doing, we continue an age-old practice of debate evident on every page of Talmud and at the heart of the vigorous and messy experiment that is democracy -- here and in Israel.
Because it is the mission of the Progressive Jewish Alliance to engage Jews of diverse backgrounds to learn, lead and act in our communities to create a more just and equal society, we seek to amplify the impact of our work by forging alliances with many partners within the Jewish community and beyond.  We do not always agree with these partners on all issues, but we do endeavor to respect their opinions and, above all, value our shared commitment to comfort the afflicted.  In this spirit, we welcome an ongoing open and honest dialogue with our partners and friends at JCF and with the community at large.
If you have thoughts about the JCF policy that you want to share with PJA, write to us at bayarea@pjalliance.org.

Saturday night is Purim! "Nafoch hu"

Purim is a day on which "Nafoch hu" - nothing makes sense. It's a day of ritual ridiculousness. To that end:

Feb 24, 2010

Forward: "The Conservative Moment"

Forward: "The Conservative Moment"


Published February 24, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.

Is this the Conservative movement's moment? Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, certainly thinks so, and his optimistic evaluation takes full account of the challenges facing what was once America's largest Jewish religious denomination as it now struggles to define itself. His analysis echoes, though with far more detail and prescription, the statements made recently by other Conservative leaders — a hopeful sign, perhaps, that the center of American Jewry may actually be able to chart a future.

In an interview just published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and elaborated on in a follow-up conversation with the Forward, Eisen offered an unusually blunt critique. Too many Conservative Jews — rabbis, even — can't describe the movement's message. Too many synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, men's clubs and sisterhoods don't offer a quality product. Too many Conservative Jews can't read Hebrew, don't keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don't find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.

Unless "we can raise levels of observance… the movement cannot stay strong," he said in the published interview. "We will lose both many young people and the most committed adults unless we can give them something comparable to Orthodoxy when it comes to these key issues."

Plus, there aren't the financial resources to meet all the movement's needs. Eisen believes that his is "the most underfunded of the major movements" because Reform Jews give to Reform causes, the Orthodox to their causes, and Conservatives give, well, to everyone.

No wonder the ranks of Conservative Jews are aging and shrinking.

And then there is the question of passion: "I tell rabbinical students at JTS that if they cannot exhibit the same love for the Jewish people and Judaism as Chabad rabbis, then they have chosen the wrong profession," Eisen stated in the interview. Interestingly, when Rabbi Steven Wernick became executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism last summer, he made much the same point in comparing his movement's outreach efforts to those of Orthodox Judaism. "They're missionaries! We want to get paid. We don't believe," Wernick just about exclaimed in an interview with the Forward.

Wernick got into trouble for voicing such a blunt observation, but the truth is, he and Eisen are correct.

The challenge for both men is to harness this penchant for truth telling into productive action. Eisen says that the Conservative movement should adopt the unified leadership structure of the Reform movement, instead of the multi-headed beast that now, inadequately, sits atop a variety of the movement's institutions. Wernick has hinted at much the same thing, when he spoke in his opening address last December of positioning the USCJ as "the muscle that connects all of our 'bodies' together."

But which institution will prevail? Will it be USCJ, representing congregations and their lay constituencies? The seminary, the embodiment of the movement's intellectual and rabbinic legacy? The Rabbinical Assembly, essentially a union for rabbis? The international Masorti movement? Some amalgam of them all?

The USCJ is in the midst of a long-range strategic planning process, to examine its own structure and mission, and if that process is honest and bold, it should provide the starting point for a broader re-imagination. This is important to all American Jews. Over the last century, the Conservative movement has spawned tremendous leadership in the Jewish communal world, and an opportunity for Jewish individuals, families and communities to confront and embrace modernity while adhering to tradition. In its iteration as Masorti, it is slowly gaining a foothold in Israel and Europe.

But these days, we are all Jews by choice. "One thus has to give Jews a good reason to be Conservative," Eisen wrote. This is the moment to do so.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
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Feb 23, 2010

jpost.com: "Hartman Institute to ordain women rabbis"

February 23, 110 Tuesday 17 AdarI 3870 15:42 IST print
Print Edition
Photo by: AP
Hartman Institute to ordain women rabbis
Move aimed at creating cadre of North American Jewish educators.
In a step that marks a major change in gender roles within modern Orthodoxy, women will be ordained as Orthodox rabbis. Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Rabbi David Hartman, himself a modern Orthodox rabbi, will open a four-year program next year to prepare women and men of all denominations - Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and also Orthodox - for rabbinic ordination. Ordination will be provided within the framework of a teacher-training program that prepares graduates to serve in Jewish high schools in North America. "For too long now we have been robbing ourselves of 50 percent of our potential leaders; people who can shape and inspire others," said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of David Hartman. "The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant. People who come to the Hartman Institute to study are committed to making gender equality in Judaism a reality."

Hartman said the institute was not trying to make a political statement by ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis, but rather was fulfilling a real need for "master educators" who could take on leadership roles in education in North American high schools. Why would an institute that runs an Orthodox middle school and high school for boys, and that will open an Orthodox girls' school next year, decide to provide rabbinic ordination to women despite the controversy it will arouse in Orthodox circles? "Hartman has been multi-denominational for the last 12 years. We make no distinctions between men and women here. Our latest decision is a natural evolution of our existing policy," Hartman said. "We think the title 'rabbi' is important because in the Jewish tradition, the highest level of educator was given the title rabbi, which literally means teacher. Today, the top-tier educators seek the title of rabbi to reflect their status as well," he said. During the four-year course, participants will receive a master's degree in Jewish Philosophy from Tel Aviv University and intensive training in teaching techniques and theory.

"This is a smicha [ordination] program that is not built around the classic learning of Jewish law, rather on the ability to communicate the central ideas of Judaism in an inspiring and meaningful way for the next generation of youth," Hartman continued. Traditional Orthodox rabbinic training programs focus exclusively on text learning and the acquisition of legal knowledge. They do not devote time to teaching skills that Hartman believes are desperately needed. Hartman will be the first institute to offer Orthodox rabbinic ordination to women. In all non-Orthodox streams, being female is not an obstacle to becoming a rabbi. The Reform Movement began ordaining women in 1972, Reconstructionists began in 1977 and the Conservative Movement began in 1983. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi and head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, said in response to the Hartman Institute's announcement that he opposed giving women the title "rabbi." "I think it is degrading to tell a woman that she won't be respected and appreciated unless she adopts a man's title," Aviner said. "Throughout the generations there were always scholarly women who were highly respected. Jewish law dictates that a man must stand before a learned woman just as he must stand out of respect for a learned man."

Aviner said he was more concerned with the idea that Orthodox Jews would study together with their Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist brothers and sisters. "Learning Torah is like getting married," he said. "It is not just an intellectual exercise, it is a Jew's life. To learn with a totally secular Jew is permitted, but learning with Reform and Conservative Jews is problematic because they do not believe as I do, they do not have a fear of God." The Hartman program will be the first rabbinic ordination program to bring together students from all the streams of Judaism. Each graduate will receive ordination in accordance with the stream of Judaism to which he or she belongs. Aviner added that there was nothing in Judaism that prohibited learned women from answering questions about Jewish law. "In some cases, women feel much more comfortable asking another woman certain halachic questions," he said, referring to issues of "family purity" or when and when not a woman is permitted to her husband after menstruation. Nishmat, a modern Orthodox educational institute in Jerusalem, has been training women to answer family purity questions for several years. Orthodox rabbis familiar with the program say these women, who are doctors, lawyers, social workers and other highly educated professionals, often have more knowledge of family purity issues than their male rabbinic counterparts.

However, Nishmat, afraid of losing Orthodox legitimacy, is careful to emphasize that the women are not ordained as rabbis. Instead, they are called "halachic advisers" [yoetzot halacha]. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, perhaps the first woman ever to receive Orthodox ordination (from a private rabbi, Aryeh Strikovsky, on Pessah eve 2006), said she hoped what she termed Hartman's rabbi-educator program would be "the first step toward full rabbinic ordination for Orthodox women." She asserted that the Hartman Institute was "stopping short" of "calling them rabbis" and said this was "annoying." But, she added, "perhaps it is a political decision to start off with a half-title so as not to be too controversial and only later to give women the full title of rabbi. "As people get used to seeing women in these positions they will open up to the idea of female rabbis," said Ner-David. Ner-David, who has a doctorate in Jewish Studies from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said she hoped female rabbis would transform the entire rabbinic institution. "Women's voices are changing the way we practice Judaism. Ordination of female rabbis will not only bring these voices to the forefront, it will also change the way men serve as rabbis," she said.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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JTA: "Oren: Dispute at Wall will require ‘compromise’"

JTA: "Oren: Dispute at Wall will require 'compromise'"

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Israel's U.S. ambassador said resolving the controversy over prayer at the Western Wall will require "compromise on everyone's behalf."

Michael Oren, speaking Sunday night at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Dallas, responded to a question about Israel's police investigation into women who wore prayer shawls openly and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.

The controversy, which came to a head in January when the leader of the group Women of the Wall was questioned by Jerusalem police, has galvanized liberal Jewish groups in the United States.

"I will only assure you that I think there are good solutions for the problems at the Kotel," Oren said in response to a question on the subject. "They are at the top of my agenda. And that at the end of the day, it will require compromise on everyone's behalf."

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the president of the Conservative movement's congregational arm, welcomed Oren's remarks, saying "they show he understands that the status quo isn't working and that some changes and compromises need to be made."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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-- www.shefanetwork.org
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Feb 22, 2010

Announcing a Special ShefaJournal: "Tech-Tonic"

Announcing a Special ShefaJournal: "Tech-Tonic"

On February 4th Avi Hein, a professional expert on technology and a passionate Conservative/Masorti Jew living in Israel, shared with the ShefaNetwork a link to an online project entitled "Envisioning Jewish Peoplehood" (jpeoplehood.com). That post, along with a one from Avi Montigny, an administrator of JewsByChoice.org, sparked an online conversation that has ranged from theory to technology and back, all directed at re-inventing the USCJ website. In the spirit of the upcoming celebration of Purim, the posts all called out "Nafoch Hu! Change it!" (Avi Hein's posts, found on pages 6-9, 14-15 and 19-20 of the journal, are truly the core of this journal's suggestions for technological transformation.)

Avi's message was post #3022 on the Shefanetwork archive (groups.yahoo.com/group/shefa/messages). Within the eighteen days since his posting, more than forty responses were shared publicly, with a grassroots message crystallized by Rabbi David Kay: "SOMEBODY MUST HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO BUILD A WEBSITE FOR THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT WHICH IS ANALOGOUS TO THOSE PUT UP BY OTHER DENOMINATIONS. (message #3096)" Leadership of USCJ, some of which participate in the ShefaNetwork.org conversation, were already working on improving the website, and are planning on communicating about this in the coming month.

To that end, this special edition of the ShefaJournal, playfully entitled "Tech-Tonic", is a collection of the suggestions shared by Shefaniks regarding the importance of and universally felt need for the USCJ website to become something special. It is clear that, given the recent Shefa-bandwidth being saturated with so many qualified offers of help, there's a way to leverage all the strength and expertise being presented to transform the USCJ website into an appealing manifestation of Conservative Judaism's motto of "Tradition and Change."

ShefaNetwork's Tech-Tonic can be downloaded from http://www.shefanetwork.org/shefajournal5770b.pdf

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Rabbi Goldie Milgrom Reviews "Rashi's Daughters" and "Torah Queeries"

Rabbi Goldie Milgrom Reviews "Rashi's Daughters" and "Torah Queeries"


Engaging New Torah Queeries 

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram

New ideas and ideals in Jewish and secular life tend to develop on a creative periphery and move into mainstream acceptance over time. Usually, this ideological shift occurs in response to real or perceived oppression or inequities. We have seen this with regard to labor laws, kashrut, women and children, as well as the ordination and growing acceptance of female, gay and lesbian clergy. All along the remarkably diverse spectrum of gender we are seeing new books and social action initiatives in Jewish life.

These trends are underscored by two recent sets of work, the carefully researched and wonderfully imaginative historical fiction of Rashi's Daughters(Book I: YochevedBook II: MiriamBook III: Rachel; by Maggie Anton and the poignant non-fiction lament and solidarity of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, Edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer with a Foreword by Judith Plaskow. I review them together because Rashi's Daughters beautifully contextualizes the historic struggles for inclusion so well documented in Torah Queeries.

Rashi's Daughters

Reclaiming "herstory" as well as a wide range of engendered Jewish experience is a major part of the mission of Rashi's Daughters. Maggie Anton employs the power of storytelling to envision the lives of three medieval French Jewish sisters, their families, and famous father, the great commentator and vintner Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki. The author's simple approach to narrative writing facilitates the readers' learning a great deal of Talmud, Torah and Jewish history, particularly regarding Shabbat, gender, Judaism's spiritual practices around sexuality, wine-making, contact between men and men in the yeshivot, and the culture and times leading up into the Crusades. By way of example, let's enter Rashi's Daughters in Book III, where one daughter, Rachel, is filling her sister Miriam in on her trip to Tunis:

"You can imagine my surprise when I learned that both he [her husband's business associate] and the Nubian housekeeper, Dhabi, were slaves who now belonged to Elizer [Rachel's husband]. And then I realized that Dhabi was actually my father-in-law's concubine."
"Eliezer's father had a second wife in Tunis?" Miriam's voice rose in dismay....So, besides owning slaves, what else was different between Tunis and Troyes? How did you spend your days?"

"Visiting other women." Rachel sighed. A major disparity, one that irritated her the longer they stayed, was that Tunisian women seldom left their homes except to visit other women. They rarely saw men outside their families.

Experiencing medieval life through women's eyes includes aspects few may have pondered in our time, such as what it might have felt like to be targeted by a non-Jewish noble under the rules of "courtly love." This is "where a knight devotes himself to a married noblewoman who feigns indifference to preserve her reputation...The code requires that, should the lady accept him as her lover, he must remain discreet and faithful despite all obstacles....And Frankish Jews have the status of knights." As one of Rashi's married daughters is assailed by such a one, we learn intricacies of Talmud and the nobility of leniency in interpretation that our tradition attributes to truly great teachers.

If there is too much of anything in Rashi's Daughters, it's steamy sex scenes; not much is left to the reader's imagination. There is also an element missing. Somehow, regardless of their sexual orientation, the major characters do manage to reproduce with their wives. As a reader I wondered if Anton is in denial that some humans simply cannot deal with the opposite sex at all and that some remain barren for life. With all the choices she presents, these too deserve a prominent place in the script.

How my generation yearned for lively material like Rashi's Daughters in rabbinical school. And on occasion, some did emerge. I well recall Dr. Jacob Staub, then Dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, introducing us to courtier times, when men would write wine poetry as an expression of the beauty of gorgeous boys serving them at all male parties. He revealed to us how the Shabbat prayer L'cha Dodi came from this genre, reinterpreted in Jewish liturgy as the Shabbos bride wedding the masculine dimension of God. Anton brings not only the courtier class salon to our attention, but also those she terms ganymedes, men whose natural attraction is to men, not women.

Ganymede in Greek mythology was a Trojan boy of great beauty whom Zeus carried away to be his lover and cupbearer to the gods. We read of the sorrows of young men attempting to control not only their yetzer ha-rah, sexual energy, for each other, but also the love that not infrequently blossoms in the intimacy of study partner relationships. Anton doesn't shy away from details, including the loopholes that still exist in Jewish law for males to go off to a prostitute or another town to satisfy a compulsion in secret, away from his community.

Torah Queeries

There is often a brilliance to the Torah commentary of those who have been oppressed just for who they are. Such individuals often have an ability to see from a different angle, termed "bent" in this volume. Queer Theory, for the uninitiated, is an approach to literary analysis that, as Plaskow explains, "challenges norms, upends hierarchies, and trains people to read against the grain." Some entries offer a clever reinterpretation of the Hebrew, as in Yoel Kahn's take on the Torah portion titled Vayeitzei as meaning "And Jacob Came Out." Others offer a rereading so plausible as to awaken and astonish us all, such as Sarra Lev's very careful reading of the Hebrew in parshat [each weekly Torah reading is termed a parsha] Toldot helps us see Esau's choices as not those of a macho man, but rather as one more "classically female."

Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible ~ Joshua Lesser (Author), David Shneer (Author), Judith Plaskow (Author), Gregg Drinkwater (Editor)

Isaac, she shows us, can be read as being the one who hungers for meat from the hunt and expects his first born to be a leader of men. Isaac the father projects onto Esau the type of man he wants to see. But Lev documents how Esau is not Mr. Macho in the text, how Esau tires of the hunt and eagerly sells his birthright for a pot of lentil stew. Leadership schemes and family politics are not Esau's mettle, but rather that of his smooth skinned brother. Lev reads Isaac as a parent blind to the true nature of his sons. She shows us an emotional Esau, a son who is more like a disempowered woman. In fact, his words echo those of Hagar-the-outsider who "lifted up her voice and cried" (Gen. 21:16) as does Esau (Gen. 27:38).

As in Rashi's Daughters, many of the commentary authors in Torah Queeries have carefully excavated any and all traditional Jewish commentaries that address or highlight the gender issues under consideration. Gwynn Kessler's entry on parshat Vayera reveals: "A tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 64a-b) that states, "R. Ammi said, 'Abraham and Sara were tumtumim [of indeterminate sex/gender]'..." She goes on to write: "I imagine Abraham as a genderqueer kid in his father's little shop of horrors, smashing the idols, the false ideals, of heterosexism and gender normativity with as much fervor as he smashed the wood and stone images of false gods."

Though some commentary from straight allies is included in the volume,Torah Queeries is primarily a volume where parsha (Torah portion) by parsha, those who are not heterosexuals find ways to locate something of their lives within the text. It is as Judith Plaskow states in her introduction, "Torah Queeries builds on ..[the] history of feminist commentary by enlarging the circle of former outsiders who now claim the authority to participate in the process of expounding on Torah." She explains this is part of "a countertrend" to the Marxian view of religion as the "opiate of the masses," where leaders such as the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel "saw social justice and religion as intimately linked and the Bible as a text of liberation, not oppression."

In light of the controversy of retaining homosexuals in the military under debate here in America and the arrest of women attempting to hold Torah services and wear tallitot during prayer at the Kotel, Dawn Rose's piece on parshat Miketz is a springboard to awareness. She illuminates something fascinating that is really hidden in plain sight within Judaism. "...Mystical Judaism teaches that man should have desire for God and "cleave" to him in mystical and ecstatic union. This state of human-Divine union is often called yihud, which is also the name in the Jewish tradition of the first quiet and secluded moments a newly married couple spends together...Even in non-mystical Judaism, the daily ritual of tefillin or phylacteries is performed while reciting the Hebrew liturgical formula for betrothal."

Rose gives a number of reasons why Jewish men might put themselves into the female position vis-a-vis a masculine Godsense by talking about an "'old gay' designation of soft butch....a woman who sometimes likes to look butch (masculine) but does not always want to behave that way...might want to experience behaving more passively...than aggressively...." So by analogy, she suggests this balance of masculine and feminine is also desired by "a whole lot of other people apparently, particularly in their relationship with God." Which leads one to wonder, if this subliminal gender balancing that is so difficult to face might be the self-homophobic force behind opposition to women in tallitot? While Dr. Rose doesn't specifically make this leap, her feminist approach leads one to wonder if this could undergird the violent responses to the Women of the Wall.

Religious violence and derision of gay males is often rooted in biblical interpretation. AIDS, for example, is viewed by some religious fundamentalists as a punishment by God, an explanation derived by analogy from the longstanding belief that God inflicted leprosy for wrongdoing. It is most unfortunate that Jay Michaelson's commentary in Torah Queeries lends a hand in perpetuating the mistranslation of the biblical term tza'ra-at as leprosy. A summary of research on tza'ra-at was reported in Koroth (Vol. 9 No. 11-12, 1991, published by the Department of History of Medicine, Hebrew University) and also in a 1993 letter to the New York Times. The report stated that tza-ra'at was erroneously rendered as "leprosy" when the bible was translated from Greek into English. Lepros actually means a skin reaction in Greek, whereas elephantiasis was the Greek term in its time for leprosy. Even more striking is that Hanson's Disease, a.k.a. leprosy, bears no common manifestations with those listed in the Torah and, in fact, anthropologists and epidemiologists maintain that leprosy did not appear until the time of the Greeks.

It is critical that Jewish scholars, teachers and rabbis do not to perpetuate this mistranslation any further, as it has facilitated so much cruelty to date. Correcting mistranslations that yield what the bible scholar Phyllis Trible termed "texts of terror" is something allies for the equal and honorable inclusion of GBLTQ Jews must include in our work and teachings. RegardingAharei Mot, the Torah portion central to the issue of homosexuality, Elliot Dorf of the Conservative Movement lets us know that to his regret even he, an accomplished Jewish bioethicist, could not find a way to endorse anal sex within a halachic paradigm. Perhaps by way of response Steven Greenberg, best known perhaps for the groundbreaking film on homosexuality in Orthodoxy,Trembling before God, points to the possibility of "a unique vision of queer love that lives at the margins of a much larger divine plan and that, being at the margins, can rightly claim to obey a different set of rules."

In an important joint essay on parshat Re'eh, Gregg Drinkwater and David Shneer issue a call for ethics in the GBLTQ relationship to Judaism as an evolving tradition. They cite the Chief Rabbi of England, Sir Jonathan Sacks: "Judaism never changes but halachah does." They urge social change that is "Godly and not written on one's own account; the wellspring of change must allow us to celebrate the core values given at Sinai." They also cite the medieval Jewish philosopher Albo teaching that Torah cannot possibly be understood as static for how can one "prevent God's self from adding or diminishing."

The Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion ordained Elliot Kukla, the first rabbi admitted as a woman and ordained as a man, in 2006. He wrote in his commentary on parshat Shemot probably the most memorable lines inTorah Queeries. As a youth on a family retreat with the Buddhist scholar Rimpoche, Kukla was caught repeatedly ringing a gong during silent meditation. He recalls Rimpoche first telling him that nothing is inherently wrong with ringing a gong, but there was a lesson to learn. Kukla learned from Rimpoche that "The key in growing...would be to figure out the right moments to ring the gong and when I needed to respect the silence." This commentary, like many in the volume, helps us understand what sexual repression and societal oppression of those who are different sounds like and feels like. He urges us to, like the title of his commentary, be "Making Noise for Social Change" on gender matters.

The palpable yearning of most of the commentators is to be accepted as they are. They do not seek interventions to help them change as speech pathologists eliminate lisps or surgeons remove diseased or inconvenient tissues. Ihos Singer joins Kukla and many of the authors who recognize that acceptance will not come from silence in the face of oppression, but rather from vocal visibility. Like Moses going "back to Egypt" to free the slaves, "We go back to Egypt every time we show up at a PTA meeting as a queer family, every time we introduce our partner, every time we push for unisex bathrooms, every time we reveal our truth. Each time we come out, we are taking on the daunting task of reshaping the hearts and minds of everyone we touch."

In some ways the volume feels like a visit to a gay bar. In Torah Queeries it becomes clear that one is a guest witnessing a different culture with its own vocabulary and behaviors. The GBLTQ authors and those they represent are a distinct "we" and not an "us" that includes the heterosexual reader. The volume reads as a gathering of essays by and primarily for those who have been gender oppressed. Although in her commentary on Balak, Dr. Lori Lefkowitz tries to say that we are all of us queer "because each of us improvises a Self, the Self is queer, by definition, it doesn't resonate as true in the face of the acute suffering of those oppressed for their non-heterosexual orientation."

Torah Queeries makes a great gift for GBLTQ friends, colleagues and family members, Jewish and non-Jewish, because it provides fascinating "bent" perspectives on the parshiot and urges GBLTQ persons to speak up for the justice and respect they deserve. As a long-time ally to this cause, my primary disappointment with the endeavor is that it does not speak to all of us by presenting alternate gender interpretations in a way that would make it a must have Torah commentary for those of us who regularly study Torah and give talks about Torah. Since most all of us have GBLTQ family members, whether we know it or not, as an act of solidarity and support there is a place for this volume in every home library.

The editorial decision to give full voice to GBLTQ concerns through the lens of Torah commentary ultimately does confront us with the challenge of whether the tent of Judaism has, or will make, room for all.


Both Rashi's Daughters and Torah Queeries succeed at expanding our understanding of human experience. While eloquently articulating the pain of gender and religious oppression, they also show how Jewish texts and tradition can be interpreted to enfranchise, engage and uplift the voices of all. The appearance of these works via mainstream publishers attests to society's growing willingness to listen.

Susannah Heschel, despite rumors to the contrary, reports she chose to place an orange on her seder plate as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. When last year I led a cruise ship seder, imagine my surprise to find oranges on each table's seder plate and a room full of Jews - secular through modern Orthodox - who joyfully accepted facilitation by a woman rabbi.

As Purim approaches, may we all be inspired by all our Queen Esthers to take risks for justice and to practice inclusiveness in fulfillment of the mitzvah of ahavat yisrael, love of our people. For as our tradition teaches, it is only when we can respectfully include each other that the messianic potential for peace among the nations comes ever closer to being realized.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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JPost.com: "Jewish Agency Chairman Bielski: Recognize Reform, Conservative Judaism in Israel"


Photo by: Ariel Jerozolimski

Bielski: Recognize Reform, Conservative Judaism in Israel

Jewish Agency chairman says non-acceptance of other streams limits the potential of aliya.

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Ze'ev Bielski has called on the State of Israel to embrace Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism and acknowledged that non-acceptance of these movements, which are followed by the majority of Jews in North America, was one of the biggest barriers to immigration from the West. "The time has come for the government and the rabbinate to show the millions of people from the Reform and Conservative movements that they are a part of us," Bielski told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview this week. "I don't think that anyone can take the responsibility for losing out on so many people who might want to come on aliya and be integrated into Israeli society." 

"Israel is open for everybody," he continued. "And we have to do what we can, not only to increase aliya but also for the unity of the Jewish people. There are, after all, so few Jews in the world. We should not all be fighting each other and we should look for common ground." While the Law of Return grants automaticcitizenship to anyone who has close relatives (father, spouse, grandparent) who are Jewish, many people who have converted to Judaism via the Reform or Conservativemovements or are ideologically committed to those streams encounter insurmountable barriers practicing or celebrating certain lifecycle events, such as marriage, in Israel. "This situation is very hard," Bielski told the Post, referring specifically to the issue of conversion. He said that in recent months, the Jewish Agency's Committee of Unity of the Jewish People had undertaken to work with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to try and change the situation. 

"We understand him [Amar] and we know how hard it is for him," acknowledged Bielski, adding that among the proposals made was the addition of 40 more lenient Orthodox rabbis to the Conversion Authority. However, last month, Amar told the Post that he not only rejected Jewish Agency claims that overly stringent conversion court judges were scaring away potential converts but that he was also looking to appoint more stringent judges to the conversion panel. "[The situation] is really sometimes unfair and not justified," commented Bielski. "It is not even Jewish and does not lead us anywhere. You can make people so miserable, and it is not necessary, right or the Jewish way to do things." Bielski said that not only do the barriers hurt the potential flow of new immigrants into Israel but it also affects the some 275,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, who came to Israel under the Law of Return but who are not Jews according to Orthodox criteria. He also said that the Jewish Agency was well suited to forward this agenda because the World Zionist Organization, whose members' form 50 percent of all Jewish Agency committees, had a majority ofConservative and Reform Jews. 

"The advantage of the Jewish Agency is that around our table we have the Reform, the Conservative and the Orthodox movements," said Bielski, adding, "This is the only table on Earth that the three are sitting together in such a forum." Bielski said he was an optimist and that despite Amar's position believed that the changes - both practical and in attitude - would eventually come. "Today, [the situation] is very hard," he finished. "While we are not making these changes, we are damaging aliya, hurting people already living here and forcing innocent people who want to be one of us through a process that I have not found any evidence for in Judaism." 

Amir Mizroch, Haviv Rettig and Matthew Wagner contributed to this report.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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MARCH 3, 2010 AT 7:30 PM

The Playback Theater is a modern ritual with powerful ability to help build, strengthen and connect between community members. The show brings together compassion, intimacy and fun at the same time. Jewish Circle Productions is an educational Drama production company dedicated to spreading Jewish and Israeli awareness through the use of drama. A team composed of Israeli actors, writers, and musicians; we believe that the best way to connect to our audience is through real people and compelling stories.  The actors improvise on the spot a scene or an image based on a story. The playback technique treats the story and the storyteller with respect and the actors are highly trained to listen, reflect and play the story back in a creative meaningful way. A story can be anything; nostalgic, sad or funny.

  • Reservations: $15, $10/seniors & students - RSVP to Rachel at 510.549.9447 x101 or office@netivotshalom.org.
  • At the door: $18, $12/seniors & college students

For more information about Jewish Circle Productions please check out their website: jewishcircleproductions.com.  
For more information about Congregation Netivot Shalom, please check out www.netivotshalom.org.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Feb 21, 2010

[shefa] proposal for the USCJ website

hi fred (and chevreh) - 

i've been hoping that the USCJ page would become the conduit for CJ Torah, since there is so much content already embedded.

examples: the COMPACT archive (online but not searchable),  the "how to keep a kosher kitchen interactive page", (all but invisible), the program bank, (which isn't searchable, etc....).  The USY program page is searchable, and the KOACH page is categorized quite well.  The USCJ page has a decent Hazak program-bank, but the only other place for quickly accessible program guidance is the Schechter awards section (again, not obvious from the home page).

So, if this 'conduit' approach were taken, individual shuls could choose their template and 'feed' from the USCJ page, similar to a blog service (which i utilize myself), and USCJ could serve as the convener and disseminator (though, significantly, not the author) of CJ Torah emanating from FJMC, JTS, Ziegler, Masorti, etc...  This would be a (welcome and) significant shift in USCJ's self-perception as "source" and the perception of others (shuls) of USCJ as confusing and chaotic, even in the midst of the obvious efforts at healthy transformation.

This profoundly simple while large task seems to have many Shefaniks and others fired up, and it would go a long way to changing not just perceptions but organizational facts on the (virtual) ground.  I'm hopeful that sites like jewishfreeware.orgthe Tali Virtual Midrash page (http://www.tali-virtualmidrash.org.il/DefaultEng.aspx),  the Jewish Educators' Network (http://www.jewisheducators.org.uk/) and the Mechon Hadar Niggun Database (http://www.mechonhadar.org/niggun-melodies) could be utilized as possible models for a new, searchable USCJ website.

I think it's in our reach, and would be more important than linking to the other organizations' websites - the content needs to be organized.  That's the major need, as I see it,for movemental cohesion.  We could reduce the competitiveness if each organization's mandate was to do "its thing" and USCJ's "thing" could be, in this framework, a conduit for CJ Torah.  (whereas conservativejudaism.org) could be the "global CJ institutional gateway.")

kol tuv, shavuah tov, and good luck!

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Feb 20, 2010

organizing and an article to remind us of our work

Shavuah Tov, Chevreh,

Much has happened, even since our conversation last Sunday morning.  Below, please find an important (and upsetting) article by Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of Religious Affairs for the Masorti movement.  And we have a lead that might help us plan some events to raise both awareness and funds for the Masorti Foundation.  Rom Rosenblum has agreed, along with others who are coming forward to support the effort, to lead our efforts to advocate for pluralism in Israel through strengthening the Masorti Movement.  Jeff and I had a meeting with Rom this past Friday, and are committed to supporting this effort every way we can.

A grant has been announced, through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, for local communities to do innovative Israel programming.  It will take some quick/skilled work to get this grant written and submitted.  It will hopefully empower us to make progress towards local Masorti organizing.  If you can help out in this effort, please be in touch with Rom directly at Rom.Rosenblum@vitecgroup.com.

Kol Tuv,

CJ: "Praying With Our Feet"

In 1965 Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker, went to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for civil rights. Someone marching alongside him questioned why such an eminent scholar would come to Selma instead of remaining in his ivory tower in New York. Heschel's reply was profound: "When I march in Selma, my feet are praying."

For many years this phrase has stuck with me. Most of us associate prayer with attending synagogue, davening each day, or reciting blessings. We place a premium on social action – tikkun olam – but rarely see the connection between action and prayer.

In November I felt a sense of pride in our Masorti/Conservative movement as Heschel's words rang true to life in real time.

For some 21 years the group known as Women of the Wall has been davening in the women's section of the Kotel, the western wall in Jerusalem, on rosh chodesh, the beginning of each month on the Hebrew calendar. These are women from all Jewish streams, many of whom pray with tallit and tefillin.

Over the years, the Masorti movement has reached a compromise, born of a violent struggle, with zealously Orthodox Jews – haredim – who tried to keep us from mixed prayers even in the upper plaza of the Kotel. We now sponsor some 450 minyanim each year at Kotel HaMasorti in front of Robinson's Arch at the southern end of the Wall. We pray enveloped by all of the sanctity of the Kotel but without the ballegan, the nonsense, associated with its most-visited section. Women of the Wall usually move to Robinson Arch to read from the Torah.

Let me be clear. I do not believe that most haredi Jews are violent. But they certainly have a disproportional say in the way our country is governed, even though most do not serve in the army and many do not pay income or property taxes. Let it also be clear that Zionist Orthodox Jews in Israel unfairly suffer the stigma created by those more rigid in their approach.

Rain or shine, WOW come to the Kotel at 7AM every rosh chodesh. The Israeli Supreme Court has found that their desire to pray in keeping with their customs indeed is legal. However, that same court accepted the now disproved police contention that should the women pray as a minyan in the women's section, the police would be unable to maintain public order and provide them with adequate protection. So rather than punish the perpetrators of violence against the women, the court sent them off to Kotel HaMasorti. For all these years the women complied quietly. For all these years they allowed the authorities to determine how and where they would pray.

Although we have found a home at Robinson's Arch, the Masorti movement never relinquished our call for the right to pray in the plaza at the Western Wall in keeping with Jewish tradition. We may not hold our minyanim there but we certainly accept the principle of religious pluralism and back Women of the Wall's right to daven as they wish.

Over the years the Kotel has become much like a private shtiebel, a neighborhood Orthodox shul. Celebrations there have become rare. Few swearing-in ceremonies for the Israel Defense Forces now take place there, and new olim, immigrants to Israel, are no longer officially welcomed there. No longer does the army choir sing there on Israel's Memorial Day, because the singers include women, whose voices the haredim feel they are prohibited from hearing.

This haredization of the Kotel is symptomatic of much that is happening all over Jerusalem. There are weekly clashes between the haredim, who seek to impose their will on the entire city, and the rest of its citizens.

There have been clashes over parking lots and businesses kept open on Shabbat (staffed by non-Jewish workers), gay pride parades, gender-segregated buses, and even a desire to create separate hospitals for men and women. Masorti is a religious movement. We are not in favor of breaking Jewish law. But we strongly oppose religious coercion through legislation, and most certainly through intimidation.

On rosh chodesh Kislev one brave woman, Nofrat Frenkel, took a stand. Without sounding overly dramatic, in a scene reminiscent of Rosa Parks, Nofrat, who grew up in Noam, the Masorti youth movement, and is active in a Masorti congregation, decided that she was unwilling to hide her tallit under her coat. The Torah, she decided, did not have be carried off elsewhere to be read. Her actions were unpremeditated. For this nefarious, subversive, sinful act, Nofrat was taken into custody by Jerusalem's finest. She was guilty of carrying a Torah scroll while draping her shoulders with her ever-so-offensive prayer shawl.

The citizens of Jerusalem had seen enough. In an almost unprecedented show of unity, people affiliated with Masorti, Orthodox, Reform, and secular groups poured into the streets on a Saturday night, in the very center of downtown Jerusalem, to claim that Jerusalem belongs to all of us. It was time to take back our city.

Nofrat, the unlikely hero, a fifth-year medical student, quoted Psalm 82 as she told the crowd, "'God stands in the congregation of God' but it appears that God is not alone in this holy place. There is also hatred and contempt, arrogance and argument. At least that is what I experienced when I prayed in the women's section wearing my tallit."

That Saturday night, in the presence of hundreds of people from all of our congregations; from our organizations, including Noam and Marom, which is for young adults; and dozens of our rabbis, we all felt that Jerusalem is the city of holiness and justice for all humankind. We cannot allow the tyranny of the minority to rule us. While the tide of intolerance and extremism has been on the rise, it now has peaked and will no longer sweep away those who love Israel. As Nofrat said that night, "From Zion, the voices calling for equality should be heard, for boundless love, for better understanding between people. Jerusalem already has been destroyed due to unfounded hatred. Let us hope it will not happen again."

The throngs that evening, many of whom were active members of Masorti in Israel, were praying with their feet, just as Heschel had done some 44 years ago.

The following week we were witness to yet another, more distant Masorti community praying with its feet.

Judaism goes to great lengths to show respect for the dead and dying. The High Priest, on his way to the service of God in the Temple on Yom Kippur, must delay those duties if he is the only person available to bury a body. Respect for the dead is a matter of paramount importance. Jewish tradition mandates that the terminally ill, their families, and ultimately the body be treated with awe and reverence. So it is with the utmost disappointment, sadness, and horror that I share the following true story.

The Ben-David family are active members of the Masorti community in Madrid, Spain. Zohar Ben-David is Israeli-born. His wife and his son, Gai, were converted to Judaism. Gai, a wonderful young man, recently celebrated becoming bar mitzvah. Sadly, he also was diagnosed with a brain tumor. While his family did everything in its power to help, Gai's situation deteriorated. Soon he was unable to swallow or even to breathe on his own. The only thing left to do was to pray for God's mercy.

Facing the inevitable, his brave father began to look into how his son would be buried. He was shocked to learn that the chief rabbi of Madrid, Rav Dahan, would not authorize Gai's internment in the Jewish cemetery without an official okay from Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar.

Gai was a righteous ger (convert). His conversion included brit milah (circumcison) and mikvah (immersion in a ritual bath). He lived as a Jew because he was a Jew. But because the beit din (religious court) that officiated at his conversion was made up of Masorti rabbis, Rav Amar was unwilling to temper his stern justice with a bit of mercy. This despite the fact that Jewish law, halachah, forbids the mistreatment of the convert, including reminding a convert that he or she was once not a Jew.

Rav Amar demanded that if the family wished their precious child to be buried in the Jewish cemetery he would have to be taken again to a mikvah, in the presence of witnesses acceptable to Rav Amar. Gai had a respiratory tube in his throat. He was unable to swallow and was being supported by hospital machinery. He could not be moved. But this did not trouble Rav Amar even one iota. The suffering of Gai and of his family just was not relevant to Rav Amar. It was far easier to say no rather than to look, with compassion, for a solution.

Rav Amar made the final call that Gai must be buried outside the main cemetery.

Each chief rabbi, Dahan and Amar, blamed the other. Let us call upon the rabbis to stand up and take the heat for the damage they have done to the Ben-David family, to the Masorti community in Madrid, and to Judaism.

Gai died on a Friday and was buried that Sunday, at the edge of the Jewish cemetery, in a special section reserved for outsiders. I believe that God will treat his soul as that of a righteous Jew. The punishment, if it is to come, will be for those who caused his family humiliation and even more suffering. Israel's chief rabbi violated the principle of halachah that says it is better to hurl yourself into a fiery furnace than to shame your fellow in public.

There is an interesting postscript to this sad tale. The Masorti community of Madrid prayed again after Gai's death – but this time they prayed with their feet. Many leaders and members of the community have signed a document stating that when their time comes (may it be a long time off), they would like to be buried where Gai was laid to rest. Others who never have been affiliated with the Masorti movement also signed this document.

May Gai's memory serve as a blessing to all of us. May the light of his life guide those who are unable to temper justice with mercy. May his family be comforted with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May we all continue to pray with our hearts, our souls, and our feet.

As an expression of support you may get in touch with the director of the Masorti community in Madrid and with the Ben- David family by writing to mario@betel.org. Then you will be praying with your heart, words, and hands.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs both the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the Masorti movement.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

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