Thursday, December 12, 2019
Shabbat-O-Gram - Women's Headcoverings, Jewish Nation or Religion, Human Rights Day
Photos from last weekend's dinners at congregant homes.
See more in our fall album
Join us for our pre-Hanukkah celebration on Friday evening. The service begins at the early time of 7PM (following dinner for those who have signed up). Katie Kaplan and I will be leading the service. Click here to sign up for dinner.
Don't forget to sign up for our "Beyond Dispute" class, which begins this Tuesday at 7:30.
Hanukkah Links: From MyJewishLearning
Are Jews better off being called a nation or a religion?
Anti-Semitism keeps rearing its ugly head onto the front pages. A week doesn't go by without someone referring to anti-Semitic tropes, which have replaced Torah cantillation as the most popular tropes in Jewish jargon. A helpful guide to anti-Semitic tropes is the AJC's handy new glossary, "Translating Hate." As AJC notes, stopping anti-Semitism begins with understanding it.
So yes, you'll find "dual loyalty" there, and references to clannishness, greed and a discussion of when anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism overlap. Thus far, nothing about Jews being "brutal killers," who would never vote for a wealth tax. Presumably, they'll put that into the next edition.
There is certainly much that is confusing about the topic, and now we add another complexity, with this week's Executive Order designating Jews as a nationality, like Italians and Irish, rather than a religion, like Christians and Muslims.
According to Ari Hoffman in the Forward, the order is really more of a suggestion. He writes:
As the Jewish Insider reported, there is no mention at all of a redefinition of what it means to be Jewish in the order, and no effort to recategorize Jews as a different protected class. This order actually alters very little; it suggests - rather than mandates - that U.S. government departments adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism when enforcing anti-discrimination statutes, which, far from criminalizing criticism of Israel, specifically states that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
So, first we need to ask: Which are we, anyway, a nation or a religion? Then we need to ask which is better, and who gets to decide?
So, let's cut to the chase: We are neither a nation nor a religion. We are both. And neither. Jews are a people.
In Israel, Jews are considered a nationality, in America, primarily a faith group. For Jews and Judaism to thrive, we need to be a combination. Being a "people" combines elements of tribe and tradition.
We are a group, inextricably tied to an idea, a story, and a mission.
The Forward asked 23 rabbis what Jews are, exactly, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs responded: Jews are a people. The tongue-in-cheek term "Member of the Tribe" may actually be the most accurate. As a tribe, we have a history, ritual practices, a land, civil laws, and cultural practices. It is a mistake to suggest that Judaism is simply a religion, parallel to Christianity (or to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition) - that erases much of who we are. A major component of anti-Semitism has long been the difficulty for most of the world of figuring out who Jews are. The desire to put us into the "religion" box leads to confusion and anger when we refuse to stay in that box, but rather to self-define, and to live our full selves in the world.
As I mentioned in my Rosh Hashanah sermon, We need to lead the way in redefining what group identity means. We don't want to give up Jewish peoplehood, which cuts to the core of who we are and the story we have to share. But we need to show the world how being tribal means shifting from a mentality of "us versus them" to a more expansive, inclusive, nurturing model - a model that leads us to the place where, ultimately, the "them" cease to be othered, and there's only us.
The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations cheered the move, saying:
With a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism at home and abroad in recent years, particularly on college campuses, the Jewish community has persistently advocated for the protections this measure provides against Jew-hatred. Jewish students are now included in the groups protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meaning US institutions of higher education risk federal funding if they fail to act against anti-Semitic discrimination on their campuses. We hope this will abate the increasingly virulent Jew-hatred on display at some colleges and universities across the country.
The ADL welcomed the order, saying in a statement that it was "an important step acknowledging the growing concern about anti-Semitism on American college campuses."
But Truah, an organization of progressive rabbis, criticized the move, saying that the order "purports to fight antisemitism while only reinforcing antisemitic stereotypes that suggest that Jews are not loyal to the countries where we live, and threatening first amendment rights including the right to criticize sovereign countries. (The) Executive Order will actively fuel the rising tide of white nationalism and violence against Jews. To those Americans who harbor mistrust of their Jewish neighbors, this Executive Order gives credence to their belief that Jews are guilty of not just dual loyalty but principal loyalty to the nation-state of Israel, as opposed to the United States or any other country where a Jew lives. Too many Jews throughout history have lost their lives or have been expelled because of this unconscionable falsehood."
I share the Conference of Presidents' concerns about protecting Jews on campus from attack (and our own TBE students have been personally involved in several such situations this semester, at places like Syracuse, Emory and Brown). But I much prefer another move that was made recently by the Administration, in Homeland Security's new (and sadly belated) effort to address the growing threat of White Supremacy. Jews on campus should never feel threatened for being Jewish (or supporters of Israel), but it's the growing network of emboldened White Supremacy that is killing Jews - and others - in Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso and elsewhere.
My bottom line - let's address anti-Semitism in ALL its manifestations, on campus and off - but let's do it in a manner that does not change the legal definition of who Jews are.
The unexpected consequences of a change of status could be significant. If Jews are no longer to be seen as a religion but as a nation or ethnicity, how will we be able to claim religious discrimination if the Supreme Court decides to adopt the Christian (and decidedly non-Jewish) belief that human life begins at conception?
Whether we are seen as a religion or a nation, people are going to find reasons to hate. I hear that even Hallmark's making anti-Semitic Hanukkah movies this year. Really. So I'm not sure how much it will really help Jews on campus for us to be seen as a nation.
Meanwhile, violent anti-Semitic attacks have spiked to levels unseen in decades. Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel said in May that attacks targeting Jews around the world rose by 13% in 2018, to nearly 400 cases; about one in four took place in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League said it found 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents reported throughout the United States in 2018. And in Jersey City, Jews were killed this week because they were Jews, evidently by followers of an anti-Semitic Black Israelite sect that has nothing to do with Black Hebrews, other African Americans or Judaism.
Just another group for us to track.
On Account of a (Woman's) Hat
Over the past few weeks, while we were all being distracted by small things like Israel's endless election cycles and that little impeachment thing, something of truly earthshaking significance was happening under the radar: Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued a landmark ruling on whether women and girls should wear yarmulkes or other head coverings during prayer. While this matter has been discussed for a long time, this was the first time a formal teshuvah was written and passed, by a vote of 16-1, with five abstaining.
And the answer: A resounding "Yesss! ...Sort of." As with everything in life and in Judaism, it's complicated. But the complexities illustrate important truths.
The responsum is 17 pages long - you can read it here - and we will unpacking the responsum at services this Shabbat morning - but let me cut to the chase and deliver it's four main recommendations:
1. Women and girls should cover their heads when reading from the Torah and when receiving an aliyah.
2. In deference to the notion of respecting the community (kavod ha-tzibbur), women and girls should cover their heads when acting as prayer leader.
3. When praying the three daily services - shaharit, minhah, or ma'ariv - as an individual, women and girls should cover their heads at least when reciting the
amidah and ideally during the entire prayer service.
4. Headcovering at other times is a matter of personal piety, and a woman or girl may cover her hair with a garment of her choice; that garment need not publicly identify her as a Jew.
There's a whole lot to digest here, but the recommendations do not stray far from our longstanding philosophy, which embraces both tradition and egalitarianism. We've long encouraged girls and women to wear tallit, for instance, but have respected that some have more traditional views on what is proper religious attire for women. That's part of what being pluralistic is all about. We need to be respectful of people's feelings and not be shaken when their priorities differ somewhat from ours.
The responsum provides some background to the dilemmas we face. It states:
For some women, a decision about headcovering rests on the following calculus: headcovering, while not obligatory for males, has long been understood as such a strong Jewish custom as to have become obligatory. Even if traditionally worn by men, a headcovering need not be inherently male. Thus, egalitarianism would suggest that women also understand themselves as part of this custom and similarly cover their heads.
For other women the decision rests on a different calculus: headcovering as a symbol of piety and Jewish identity has largely been a male practice. Women's headcovering is too easily identified (even if mistakenly) with women's hair covering after marriage. Headcovering, in this view, should not be conflated with covering one's hair (with a wig or in services, a doily) for reasons of modesty.
Furthermore, the problems of non-egalitarian practice cannot all be solved through a model that presumes men as the norm and requires women to imitate their practices. Since there is no decisive female tradition about headcovering and the lack of a headcovering does not have any ritual consequences, the male norm need not necessarily apply. Indeed, in contrast to tallit and tefillin which are both categorized as time-bound commandments, there is no specific commandment to cover one's head. Therefore, a woman who strongly believes in the obligation of both men and women to fulfill the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin might choose to take a different position in regard to headcovering. Recognizing the integrity of both of these positions and the commitment to egalitarian practice that each positions reflects, this teshuvah will lay out a halakhic path for women and girls who are deciding whether or not to cover their heads in synagogue and for communities considering communal policy on headcovering.
The crux of the matter is that since wearing a yarmulke is just a custom and not a matter of biblical or rabbinic law, we are welcome to be creative with it. The problem is that this custom has been practiced for so long that it has taken on the impact of something of far greater import than was originally intended. If you don't believe that, look at how indignant people get when a male visitor - Jew or non-Jew - forgets to don a kippah when entering our sanctuary. We get indignant because it is seen as disrespectful. Yet in so many synagogues of movements to our left, not wearing a
kippah is the norm, while in synagogues to our right, a woman wearing a yarmulke (as opposed to a wig or good ol' glam doily) might be looked at with scorn. That actually has happened at the Kotel of all places, where a while back, a security officer refused entry to one of the Women of the Wall for wearing a yarmulke.
What we put on our heads may not be a matter for halacha, but the choice carries enormous emotional baggage. Our ethnic and national identities, ideologies and tribal affiliations are all mixed in, along with gender considerations. If my hat has an interlocking N-Y, it conveys a very different message than one with a big, bold B. To be wearing the same garment means we are, to a degree, on the same "team."
In one of Shalom Aleichem's most famous stories, "On Account of a Hat," a pious but gullible Jew mistakenly exchanges hats with a gentile officer, and this ordinary Jew is suddenly treated like royalty. (See the story here). Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge by appearance or let looks be so important to us.
But the new CJLS responsum also reminds us that, to a degree, clothes do make the man - and woman. If we want to be true to our egalitarian ethic, we need to offer women the opportunity to be fully expressive of their Jewishness, right down to the choice of what to wear on their head. And we all need to be open to creative ways of taking our ideals and putting them into practice.
Human Rights Day
Finally, this week was Human Rights Day. Our Jewish community used to mark this important anniversary with a public ceremony at Government Center each year. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on Dec. 10, 1948 and it may have been the U.N.'s proudest hour. During a week when we are profoundly concerned about maintaining democracy and human rights at home and abroad, concluding a year when people have been taking to the streets in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Algeria, France, Haiti, Indonesia, Chile, England, Russia, Hungary and, yes, the U.S., we need to be reminded of what is most sacred. Download the poster below and take a few moments to reflect on it. It helps to put things into perspective.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman