Monday, February 20, 2012

What I want to do

A few things have got me thinking about what I want. First, it was listening to the Greg Epstein interview I linked to in my last post. Then I had a really interesting conversation with a co-worker who is studying Hebrew but knows very little about Judaism. And this morning I read Ethan's comments on my response to him. 

If you don't know anything about Greg Epstein, you can listen to the interview I linked to, check out the Humanist Community Project (link in the list at right), or read his book, Good Without God. I love the work that he is doing. Now, although Epstein is ordained as a Humanist Rabbi, he seems to be identifying mostly as a Humanist, and less so as a Jew. I think this is partly his own inclination and partly because his role at Harvard is as the Humanist Chaplain, so he needs to address all of his constituents, not only those of Jewish origin or inclination. Although he does talk about making a Humanist Seder for Passover in his book, I think most of his public work at Harvard is more generally Humanist.

In the interview, he talks about his role at Harvard and in the larger Cambridge community. He is helping people to form communities in different ways, and through his website, studying Humanist communities around the world to find out what works so that others may emulate best practices.

I don't think I can get away from my Jewish origins. As I have said previously, I love many things about Judaism, and what has stopped me in the past from exploring Unitarianism or even Ethical Culture is that I don't think I can quite cope, psychologically, with a Sunday service. Services on Sundays feels Christian to me in a way that I don't seem to be able to get past, even for Ethical Culture.

But I love the idea of helping people to satisfy their needs for ritual and community in ways that feel right to them. I would love to spend my life helping people to write life cycle ceremonies that meet their individual needs (I loved writing my own wedding ceremony, which is something I should blog about at another time.) And I would also love to help people form communities that meet their spiritual needs. So I'm hoping that Epstein's project spreads far and wide so that someday, when the Little Jewess isn't financially dependent on us anymore, I can spend my time doing those things.

Then there's my co-worker, David. David is currently studying Philosophy at the University where we work, and decided to take Hebrew to satisfy his language requirement because he felt that as a Christian, he should be able to read the Bible in its original languages. (Then he started studying Hebrew and gave up on ever learning Greek and Aramaic, but I still admire the original goal.) We started talking about Philosophy and his goal, which is to find ways through Philosophy to help African Americans change the way they think about themselves so that they can break the cycle of poverty. And he felt that as a Jew, I'd be able to understand something about cultural trauma. David thinks, though that one advantage Jews have is our long history. We always have that story and tradition to keep us going, whereas African Americans lost their history because of slavery.

So I told him about the Jewish idea that we must teach our children four things: to cook, to read, to swim and to earn a living (by giving them an education or a trade.) In my opinion, it is this that has saved the Jews time and again, because although we have suffered many traumas that have forced us to emigrate, those traumas oppress only one generation. That generation may lose their financial footing, but they will make sure that their children are educated and have financial opportunities.

And David asked me a very interesting question. Because of our long history, are there tensions between Jews who want to keep the old ways and those who want to move with the times?

Oh, David.

But thanks to those who have commented here, I may have given a different answer than I otherwise would have.

I said, "Yes and no."

And I explained to him that while we have very strong disagreements sometimes, there is a concept that keeps us all together and makes us accountable to one another.

Which brings me to Ethan. I think, Ethan, that I may have overstated my case. I do not think we can force anyone out of Judaism. And I think there are many who observe the basic tenets of the faith but who think reasonably about what they do. It's one of the things I love about Judaism--that we can study and discuss and draw our own conclusions. And that's one thing that bothers me about the fundamentalists. Why freeze Judaism at one point in time? They dress like it's the 19th century and act like it's the 19th century and say "This is Judaism and it must never change again!" It's foolish.

I'm looking for a community that does take learning seriously, but doesn't impose obligations on its members. At least, not unreasonable obligations. There is a point, I suppose, where one can do so little as to not really be a member. A club I just joined requires attendance at 4 meetings per year and a certain amount of participation in order to maintain benefits. That makes sense, because if one does less than that, one isn't really participating in the club, and so it's fair to say that person isn't really a member. A congregation could require something similar.

But I understand the Reform Movement's hesitation to place such requirements on its members. Because if you only need the community when your mother dies, can we turn you away? If you want to enroll your children in Religious School, can we turn you away? If we say that those who only show up on High Holy Days shouldn't come at all, what are we then?

I seem to have turned a corner to another train of thought (to mix my metaphors.) I think that will require another post.

1 comment:

  1. Quick response this time: I think that once someone is born Jewish or converts, they are Jewish for the rest of their life, no matter what, so we should never turn them away except in extreme circumstances wherein they constitute a threat to the community as a whole. However, that doesn't mean that whatever they feel like doing is appropriate Jewish observance. If someone only shows up at Yom Kippur services, or when in mourning, by all means welcome them then, but don't say, "This is all that they want and that is fine". Rather, think of it as a beginning and try to get them to connect more deeply, using whatever strategy is best suited to the individual and the specific situation.