Yom Kippur Without Fasting

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson sayshealth takes top precedent in Judaism, even when it means deferring from tradition. (Provided)

Each sect of Judaism has its own way of observing the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, but there is at least one custom observed across the board: fasting.

As members of the Baltimore Jewish community spend the day in synagogue with empty stomachs beginning the night of Oct. 3, some observing the holiday won’t be able to take part in the ritual.

“I have Stage 3 kidney failure,” said Pikesville resident Mike Solomon. “They don’t want me not drinking or eating, because the kidneys could shut down.”

While Solomon said his condition is stabilized and that he is not on dialysis anymore, he and his doctors would like to keep it that way.

Solomon’s condition is just one of many that exempts him from fasting, according to rabbis and physicians.

“In Judaism life always takes priority over anything else,” said Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, director of pastoral care and chaplaincy at LifeBridge Health. “If fasting is going to get you sicker, then you shouldn’t be fasting.”

Dr. Elliot Rothschild, an internist at Pikesville’s Baltimore Suburban Health, said patients who can’t fast include those who are frail, have heart conditions, take medications that require food, some diabetics and those with acute conditions such as pneumonia that could worsen from fasting.

“I tell somebody not to fast if I think it will destabilize their condition, particularly someone who is frail,” Rothschild said.

Perfectly healthy people, such as some pregnant women, don’t fast either.

“It’s just generally not a good idea,” said Daniela Levine, an expectant mother. “You don’t want to deprive the growing fetus of nutrients.”

Levine, who is modern Orthodox, still plans to celebrate the holiday and said she will miss fasting.

“It gives you a chance for introspection, it gives you a chance to really think about all the things you’ve really done over the past year,” she said. “Although difficult, I think it takes away that little bit of pleasure you get from eating, and it gives you a chance to really think about all the things that Yom Kippur is about.”

Owings Mills resident Dennis Duell said he last fasted about 10 years ago. He and his wife both have medical issues that prevent them from fasting.

“That’s what happens when you get into your golden years,” he said.

He takes medicine for his rheumatoid arthritis that requires food. And although they can’t fast, Duell sees the value in the tradition. He explained it as a way of connecting to past generations and their hardships.

“We didn’t suffer as other people suffered prior to us, so [fasting is] really little compared to what other people went through before us,” he said. “It’s an important thing because it’s symbolic.”

Rothschild said some patients do fight him on not fasting but joked that it’s no different than any other time he gives them instructions. Some, he added, can fast with precaution and consume small snacks and drinks. For those who fight him, he cites a story a rabbi at his synagogue, Suburban Orthodox Congregation, told about a man whose wife told the rabbi he wasn’t following doctors’ orders to not fast.

“The rabbi visits him [and says], ‘I just want to let you know I won’t be able to give you an aliyah in shul anymore,’” Rothschild said. “The rabbi says, ‘You have decided to practice a different religion. The law is you have to eat.’”

Rabbi Ackerson has dealt with similar situations. Although those admitted to the hospital generally understand why they can’t fast, there’s one population that sometimes has trouble with the notion of not taking part in the ritual.

“It takes more effort in terms of that emotional side, particularly with some of my very elderly Holocaust survivors,” he said.

“They’ll say, ‘I fasted in Auschwitz and now you want me to eat?’ That’s a very different situation.”

So what does a rabbi say to that?

“For most, it was their deep faith, that’s what allowed them to make it through,” he said. “We tell them, ‘That deep faith is what tells you to make your life a priority.’”

At the end of day, even though it means missing out on a lifelong practice, Solomon said there really isn’t another option.

“It’s just one of those things where you have to go by what the doctors and the rabbi says,” he said.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Count Your Blessings

Saying a blessing before inhaling snuff, sometimes stored in ornate boxes or tins, can assist in reaching the required 100 blessings a day when meals are not taken. (Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Opal_Art_Seekers_4" via Wikimedia Commons)

Saying a blessing before inhaling snuff, sometimes stored in ornate boxes or tins, can assist in reaching the required 100 blessings a day when meals are not taken.
(Wikipedia Loves Art participant “Opal_Art_Seekers_4” via Wikimedia Commons)

Based on a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Talmud declares that a Jew should recite 100 blessings a day to adhere to God’s ways and to serve Him.

Fortunately, reciting the blessings for prayer and meals, each three times a day, easily achieves the required number. But it becomes a challenge if meals are not part of the daily regimen, as on Yom Kippur.

During the Yom Kippur fast, when all food and drink is forbidden for slightly more than 24 hours, some turn to making a blessing before smelling a fragrant spice, fruit or herbs to make it to 100.

Others, like Avie Yudin, might even inhale a pinch of powdered —and sometimes flavored — tobacco known as snuff.

“Another reason why we do it,” said Yudin, 57, and a member of Congregation Ohr Simcha, “is there are certain points during the day where you get tired and lethargic. That’s the last thing I want to [feel] on Yom Kippur. … This helps me wake up a bit. Believe me, I’d like to be able to smell coffee [instead] and feel this way.”

Yudin said the smell of snuff also invokes memories of his grandfather.

“Apparently he used to do that on Shabbos, yom tov or every day, so he had the little box where he would keep it,” said Yudin, who still has the snuffbox.

When Yudin was a boy, his father would offer smelling salts around the synagogue, but he didn’t care for it much.

“But as I got older, someone passed around snuff, and I loved it,” he said, “because it reminded me of my grandfather and it woke me up.”

A few years ago Yudin’s good friend, Dr. Sol Langermann, returned from Israel with a gift of snuff  “because he knew I liked it on Yom Kippur, and now that’s what I take out every year and use.”

Yudin’s snuff has a powdery texture, mixed with a menthol scent.

It’s called shmek tabak in Yiddish, he said, a reference to the “pinch of tobacco” traditionally taken between one’s thumb and index finger.

“You put [the pinch] up by your nostril, and breathe in,” he said. “I probably do it three or four or five times.”

Yudin shares the snuff with fellow congregants, he added, and “most people refuse it, because they don’t know what the hell it is, and some people smile when I pass it around probably thinking, ‘Oh, the old guys used to take it.’

Binyamin Ziman, a maintenance technician at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, prefers to inhale aromas of spices and other pleasant smelling things. He’s practiced this for years and it’s especially important for him on Yom Kippur because when a “person is fasting, you can’t eat but you can smell and you can make a brachah while taking in the smell. That in itself, it’s a merit to make extra brachahs on a day like that.”

Ziman, a member of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation, leaves the spice bottle at his synagogue for use during the holy days and says smelling the fragrances helps him.

“It’s not like taking a bite out of a candy bar, but it gives you a sense of refreshment,” he explained, likening the practice to using mouthwash instead of a toothbrush; like a quick fix.

Abba David Poliakoff, 62, also a member of BJSZ, says he appreciates the lift and added focus that snuff can provide. He remembers older European Jews at his synagogue that came with a snuffbox.

“And every once in a while, someone comes to shul with snuff. … If somebody there has it I love to try it. I love to try anything,” said Poliakoff. “It’s the novelty of doing it. … It kind of blows your mind literally.”

Taking a pinch of snuff effectively relieves sinus congestion, but it’s typically accompanied with quite a few sneezes too, he added.

“I find that on Yom Kippur there is just so much to look at and understand that I also find myself short on time of doing what I have to do,” said Poliakoff, who is partner and chairman of securities law practice group Gordon Feinblatt LLC. “My key to everything is to be as involved and focused as much as possible, and when one does that, there’s very little time to think about food.” A pinch of snuff seems to help.

Yudin said there are other methods people use to stay awake, remain focused and avoid headaches, like caffeine suppositories. But Yudin sticks to snuff for its effectiveness and nostalgia.

There is one drawback, he said. “It’s pretty disgusting when you blow your nose.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

At Yom Kippur, A Heads-Up On Chest Thumping

090613_yom_kippur

On Yom Kippur, by tapping on your chest, the door of your heart flies open.
(Edmon J. Rodman)

On Yom Kippur, when we beat our chests during the confession, maybe we should be knocking instead on our heads. After all, isn’t that where all the trouble starts?

On this most physically demanding of Jewish days, Jewish tradition has us beat the heart side of our chests, as if to say this is the source of our falling short.

During the Viddui — the confessional portion of the service composed of the Ashamnu and Al Chait — some of us tap, some of us rap, some of us pound really hard. Many do nothing, perhaps wondering if this is some kind of Jewish self-flagellation.

Those who tap are reminded, without leaving marks, of the connection between spirituality and physicality. But are we choosing the right body part to make our confession meaningful?

In the Bible, it is widely accepted that the heart — in Hebrew, lev — is the seat of emotion. Maimonides even linked the heart with the intellect.

However, in the brave new science-guy world today, while we’re standing in shul tapping our hearts, our focus could easily turn from confession to hypertension.

So what about lightly tapping the side of our heads instead with a why-did-I-do-that kind of knock? Isn’t the head the place where, working in discord, our mouths and minds create the tsouris we confess?

Beginning with Rosh Hashanah — literally head of the year — our heads are in our rituals. We put tefillin on our bicep, next to the heart — unless you’re left-handed, like me — but we also wear tefillin on our head, before our eyes. On Friday nights when parents bless their kids, their hands are placed on the heads of their children.

Confusing head and heart even more, in Psalm 90, an ideal is held up of obtaining a “heart of wisdom.”

So which to tap, heart or head?

To Rabbi Goldie Milgram — the founder of Reclaiming Judaism, an organization seeking Jewish innovation and “maximal involvement,” and author and publisher of a number of books on creating a meaningful Jewish life — striking one’s chest on Yom Kippur is an acknowledgment that “I am out of alignment.” Tapping on the chest is a way to realign, Milgram said from the Alliance for Jewish Renewal Aleph Kallah in New Hampshire, where she was teaching.

Milgram, who has master’s degrees in social work and Hebrew letters, says that Judaism can be approached from the point of view of a gestalt psychologist. “People want to get things integrated into their bodies,” she said.

When I asked Rabbi Milgram about my idea of tapping on one’s head, she wondered why I would want to do that.

“What would you get from it?” asked Milgram.

“It would remind me of the source,” I responded, seeing yet again that my ideas were getting me in trouble.

“In Judaism, the heart is the seat,” she reminded me. “Your awareness of ahavat Hashem [love of God] starts in the heart,” the rabbi added, explaining that seeing the head as the center is a Western tradition.

Milgram also interprets tapping on the heart as a kind of drumming. “The body is the instrument,” she said, making a connection between drumbeat and heartbeat and suggesting that while we are tapping, to “listen to both your head and your heart.”

Striking the chest is “a form of dancing one’s prayer,” Milgram said.

Offering perhaps a new dance step, she suggested I try moving my finger in a circular motion slowly over my heart. I tried, it was definitely soothing, and I could see how the continuity of motion might help me through the more personally applicable “we have sinned against you’s” — but wondered if it would look weird.

“People are doing it,” she offered, pointing out that in her work she has encountered a diversity of customs.

“What should I think about while I’m doing it?” I asked, recalling that while reading the lines of Ashamnu, instead of focusing on the individual lines, I would sometimes get caught up in the acrostic of shortcomings, wondering what the machzor would use for “X.”

“Ask, ‘What is my resistance to aligning with the mitzvah of caring for myself?’” Milgram said, also suggesting that I make a list, noting aspects of body, family and Judaism, where I would like to be more in alignment with the mitzvot. She also advised “to forgive myself,” pointing out that just striking my chest was not enough, “one has to engage afterwards.”

“Tapping on your chest, the door of your heart flies open. That’s the beginning of teshuvah,” she said, mentioning the Jewish concept of returning, or asking forgiveness, that beats through the Yom Kippur liturgy.

The Viddui, she said, is written in the we. “We take responsibility.”

For that I would need both heart and head.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist.

What Is Jewish Unity?

This year, the Torah portions Nitzavim and Vayelech were read together on Aug. 30. However, Nitzavim is considered to be related to Rosh Hashanah and Vayelech to Yom Kippur. Both parshiot have similar messages — they speak about Jewish unity. According to Torah commentators, on Rosh Hashanah (in Nitzavim), the Jewish unity referred to is unity above, in Heaven. Yom Kippur, in contrast, is about unity below, on Earth.

Vayelech begins by saying that “Moshe went and spoke the following words to all Israel,” meaning he spoke to all Jews in the same way. The portion concludes with Moshe addressing “the entire assembly of Israel” — all Jews, together, in a united manner. (In that portion, we learn about the mitzvah of hakhel, the commandment to gather the people; the term is translated as “congregation.”)

One major Yom Kippur Jewish law and tradition is reuniting with those from which you are estranged — a coming together, a reconciliation and rejuvenation. In this spirit, the JT approached a diverse cohort of Jews and asked them for their perceptions, possible misperceptions and nagging questions about Jews who they see as different from themselves. Then, the JT asked area rabbinic figures for clarification and answers. (See “Myth or Fact?”)

The not-unexpected revelation: The Jewish world is not black and white. However, neither is it gray. The Jewish people are many colors.

Finally, five local rabbis — one mainstream Orthodox, one Modern Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist — were asked the following questions: “What is Jewish unity? Despite our differences, can we get along?”

The answers: Yes, no and maybe.

Herein lies the debate: Is Jewish unity the uniting of disparate levels of Jews or is it that all Jews are entirely equal?

The answer is inconclusive; we welcome your feedback.

The JT team wishes you an easy and meaningful fast.

— Maayan Jaffe

 

Myth Or Fact?

Assumptions About The Orthodox

By Maayan Jaffe
All Orthodox women shave their heads
“Absolutely not,” said Rabbi Chayim Lando, director of the Learning Institute for Torah Empowerment.

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, seconded that statement, explaining that this is something many Chasidic women do. He noted that in the areas of modesty and intimacy, many women strive to go above and beyond what is required by the Torah. He also conjectured that it might derive from the practice of ritual immersion; a woman cannot have any tangles in her hair when she dunks in the mikvah (ritual bath).

Rabbi Lando surmised that the source of the tradition might be a story in the Talmud, which notes that one man, Pinchas, had “a whole bunch of sons who were Kohanim Gedolim. The Gomorra says that Pinchas was rewarded because the beams of the house never saw [his wife’s] hair.”

All observant Jews are Republican
“On any number of ethical, moral and political issues, the Orthodox community is naturally going to be more on the conservative side,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Torah.org. “But that is by no means monolithic.”
Rabbi Menken cited several local Jewish leaders who are registered Democrats and said this is a personal decision.

So, too, did Rabbi Lowenbraun, who noted that “people should vote their conscience and for their ideas and values. You vote for people, not parties.”

Rabbi Lando said with regards to some major issues, the Republicans’ viewpoints tend to better jibe with those of the Orthodox community, especially those concerning pro-family values and Israel.

“Take abortion,” said Rabbi Lando. “I would not agree with the way the Christian right approaches abortion. It is a misnomer to think the views of Orthodox Jews on a lot of issues necessarily correlate with the Christian right. There are some similarities, but this is not across the board.”

Orthodox parents don’t want their children to associate with non-Orthodox children
“Yes, no and maybe,” said Rabbi Lowenbraun.

The rabbi explained that while his children have played with children from many different backgrounds, there are “some people who are afraid of being involved with something they are not exactly sure of. What do you do when your children go into the home of someone who doesn’t keep kosher? What if you go in [to someone’s house] and they have the TV on, and it’s Shabbos. … It is a complex issue.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun said that people who don’t allow their children to mix with less observant kids do so to help protect them from “negative influences or values they don’t want their children exposed to.”

Rabbi Menken said that it is less challenging for an adult than a child, who may be tempted by what he sees and have a harder time saying no. He did say that he has encouraged his own children to have relationships with his less Orthodox neighbors, and those have been mutually rewarding.

In traditional Judaism, women have a lesser status than men
All of the rabbis who commented on this statement quickly noted that this is a question best asked of women, but they also all felt confident that this is certainly not the case — “not better or worse, just different,” said Rabbi Lando.

“Women are more likely to become Orthodox — and less likely to leave it — than men,” explained Rabbi Menken. “So if Orthodoxy is really that stacked against women, then Jewish women [who choose to be Orthodox] are mentally limited or are more spiritually attuned with what is important; I would assume the latter.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun said that what is often perceived as inequality is Judaism’s way of protecting and elevating women. He cited several laws that work to ensure women are treated fairly and noted that women command respect. For example, women cannot testify in Jewish court, something considered disrespectful to the subject (King David was not allowed to testify in court for this reason). He said that in his estimation modern society puts women in competition with men and squelches the importance of family and the home.

“If a woman’s role in the home is looked down upon [in secular society], we have the opposite value [in Judaism],” said Rabbi Lowenbraun. “The family is the most important thing.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun noted that mothers influence the next generation of Jewish leaders by instilling Jewish values in the children. He also noted that modesty does not degrade women but “just the opposite.”

Orthodox Jews do not watch or read anything not Jewish
According to Rabbi Lando, like with all of the above, here you “find a continuum.”

“There are those Orthodox Jews who have absolutely no problem being influenced by secular culture — books, movies, television, sports — all the way to your most right-wing Chasidim who try to keep out such influences.”

The goal, said Rabbi Lowenbraun, is to be close to God.

“We keep Shabbos to be close to God. We learn Torah to be close to God. Based on that goal, everything falls into place. If it helps me be closer to God, it is a good thing,” he said, noting that Jews in America read English and that there are secular books and programs that are of “great value.”

Rabbi Menken said that there is nothing that says Jews should not be aware of the world around them (the news, etc.). He cautioned, though, that Orthodox Jews should use prudence in selecting which secular
influences to be involved with and bring into their home.

Said Rabbi Lowenbraun: “Torah includes everything, everything around us.”

One Big Conversation

090613_Rabbi_Geoff_Basik“We are One,” say the United Jewish Appeal campaign signs. A friend and colleague remarks, “Really? Isn’t it God that is ‘One’?” So I wonder, is there a connection between the oneness of God and achdut Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people?

Evidence of our disunity abounds; achdut Yisrael is apparently not descriptive. We have no consensus, let alone unity, of belief or behavior. “She’ma” is not a unifying mantra, nor do we share in behavioral norms, observances and customs — religious, cultural and lifestyle choices that often reflect divergent values.

Perhaps achdut may be found in the realm of belonging. We belong to something extraordinary: one big conversation across time and place, encounters over the same texts, material culture and customs and the ultimate questions about life, what is good and true, important and meaningful, and especially how to live. We have inherited and belong to that conversation and exploration.

Or perhaps we belong to the same narrative (our master story from Lech l’cha to Egypt to Mount Sinai to Jerusalem and continuing on to a not-yet-achieved land of promise/Israel). We share a story, an identity and, for some, even a trajectory and purpose that helps locate us in history and in the world.

We affirm our belonging in the opening blessing of the Amidah: we belong (either biologically and/or by choice) to the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (and all the rest). We continue the living they started, their questions, struggles, yearnings and attempts. They provide the steppingstones for us to live more fully in covenantal relationships with others and the world, happier and wiser, more connected.

Another friend and colleague suggests that the overarching value of “unity,” if understood as unanimous voice and action, has served its purpose, and we are now strong and secure enough to revel in diversity and pluralism, to relish the variety of practices and beliefs and expressions, interpretations and opinions. We now can understand our diversity not as weakness on the part of a vulnerable people, or straying from covenant or as something less than legitimate or authentic, but as a strength, a positive virtue.

Which leads us back to God or Godliness. Connecting with Godliness through one of 70 faces of God, or 70 languages of Revelation, we are diverse and may embrace that diversity, l’shem Shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven.” As long as we have respect and mutuality, we may differ and disagree yet stay in the same conversation, enriching ourselves and our inherited traditions, advancing holiness in the world. “One” does not mean “same.” Uniformity is impractical, unnecessary, and stultifying.

Achdut must be prescriptive: When we love each other as ourselves, when we are responsible one for another, when we are mutually respectful of everyone’s place at the table, then we may reflect the connectedness, the oneness, which we associate with God. Achdut is a potentiality, an aspiration, an ideal. The learning here is less about what we do or think and more about remembering who we are and how to be together. Then might we merit, and experience, achdut.

Rabbi Geoff Basik is spiritual leader of Kol HaLev Synagogue, a Reconstructionist community.

Prescription Or Description?

090613_Rabbi_Andre_BuschA visit to a doctor may turn out with two kinds of statements: descriptions and prescriptions. The medical description is a diagnosis. The prescription might entail following a course of treatment or, for so many of us, being told simply to watch what we eat and exercise more. In a medical setting, we generally find it easy to differentiate between the description and the prescription. In other walks of life, we often confuse the terms.

Let’s apply this distinction to the concept of Jewish unity. Is it intended as a description or a prescription? In discussing Jewish unity, are we describing a current or past situation, or are we prescribing behaviors necessary to achieve a goal? If it is descriptive, then, possibly, we Jews are who we are. We are not monolithic in our practices, beliefs and backgrounds. This diversity may be hard to accept, but it is reality. Diversity will be found in any country or people, any religion or ethnic group. We value shalom bayit (peace in the home), yet the very need for the value concedes that our families are not always perfectly unified.

It takes work to keep a family, a community and a people together.

If Jewish unity is prescriptive, we are being reminded that this oneness is a goal. We must understand that communal life is not perfectly smooth but comes with divisions that sometimes appear deep and at other points are less troubling. The prescription of Jewish unity often appears to be raised by those who are troubled by the lack of full accord within Judaism. “Be mindful of Jewish unity” is the kind of response directed at those raising minority or unpopular opinions.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, the great 20th-century German Jewish thinker, taught: “The history of this people is also a history of boundaries, of eras that divided it deeply. … At times, there existed a tension between the parts, but the parts never broke apart. In the end, the tension had the strength to create strength.”

Rabbi Baeck was encouraging us to be mindful of Jewish unity, but to understand that connections among our people, are not simple. After thousands of years of history, living through highs and lows, and interacting with countless other languages, cultures, lands and historic eras, how could Jewish unity be simple?

Description? If we are willing to understand that unity doesn’t mean that we will agree on everything but that we do value our interconnections. Prescription? If we are encouraging our fellow Jews to remember their joint responsibilities and connections but are not trying to quiet the diverse and lively debates that have long been the hallmarks of Jewish life. May we draw strength from this millennia-old dilemma, even if the language and vocabulary have evolved over time. May we draw strength from the tensions involved in exploring Jewish unity.

Rabbi Andrew Busch is spiritual leader of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform temple.

From Strength To Strength

090613_Rabbi_Dana_SarokenConservative Judaism has always prided itself on being a big tent. There are inherent challenges that go along with this approach, as sometimes trying to be everything to everybody diminishes one’s ability to take a particular stance or to define a specific vision. And yet, our movement’s commitment to the greater klal Yisrael is both inspirational and aspirational in that it creates Jewish unity as a core value.

In the past when Jews have addressed the issue of Jewish unity, what we’ve really been exploring is the relationship between the different communities within the greater Jewish community. We’ve tried to gauge the strength of the connection that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews feel toward one another as fellow Jews. Do we really feel as though we are a part of the same Jewish family?

On the best of days, we work together toward a common cause. We are particularly good about coming together in moments of crisis. We read about the accomplishments of other Jews (of any denomination) and feel pride, and we learn about a fellow Jew’s immoral, unethical or illegal actions and feel disappointed and ashamed. On these occasions, we know that our Jewish connection is strong and so is our shared loved for and commitment to God, the Torah and the Jewish people.

Yet, at other times, we can disagree on particular issues — both here and in Israel. When it comes to egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, the Tal laws that affect ultra-Orthodox service in the Israeli army or the
occasions that we pass by Naturi Karta Chasidim with posters protesting Israel’s existence on the way into the AIPAC convention, it’s impossible not to feel the divide.

In Baltimore, I am proud to say that at the leadership level we are able to join together as a united community. But the question of Jewish unity raises a whole new set of issues. The challenge is no longer the way that those within our movements feel about one another and the connection between us, but rather the new reality that the majority of American Jews today (yes, majority!) don’t define themselves by denominations at all.

According to recent census reports (and dating websites), the majority of American Jews today define themselves as “just Jewish.”

I would breathe a sigh of relief if the “just Jewish” Jews turned out to be post-denominational, but deep inside I know that mostly they are either unaffiliated, uninspired by what they have learned or unimpressed by what they see within the organized Jewish community.

My prayers for us — the united us — in 5774 are that we could learn from the great sages Hillel and Shammai; it is possible to disagree about our respective understandings of God’s will without diminishing the other. I pray that this year will be a year that the Jewish people can strive for an even higher standard of tolerance and civility toward one another and that those of us who live inspired by our Judaism will find meaningful ways to use the beauty, depth and wisdom of our Torah, traditions and peoplehood to reach out to those who haven’t yet experienced God’s presence in our communal midst. Just as we all stood together at Sinai, may we continue to be a part of a united Jewish people for thousands of years to come, and may we go from strength to strength together.

Rabbi Dana Saroken is a spiritual leader at Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue.

The Challenge of Being One

090613_Rabbi_Mitchell_WohlbergThere are approximately 14 million Jews in this world, among whom about one million consider themselves Chasidic. The Chasidim are separated into 30 different sects, or dynasties. Three of the most significant
dynasties — Satmer, Bobov and Vizhnitz — are split in half. Each one is divided within a family, whose leaders are either brothers or close relatives who often don’t even speak to each other. So, if that is what it’s like in just one narrow corner of the Jewish world, what is one to say of the broader Jewish world? The fact of the matter is, within most every Jewish community there are strong divisions and conflicts.

We are one? No. Not at all. All we can really say about the Jews is: We are one of a kind.

The truth is, there have always been divisions among our people. What makes today’s divisions more dangerous is that frequently they have come about because extremes within Judaism operate on the assumption that those with whom they disagree will disappear. In the early 1980s, when the Reform Movement voted to accept patrilineal descent to identify a Jew, this caused an irreparable division among our people. It was thought by many Reform leaders that ultimately their decision, due to pressure, would be accepted by Conservative Judaism and that those “old-fashioned black-hat Jews” would eventually be swallowed up and disappear in modern America. That has not happened. Similarly, there are elements within the Orthodox community who attempt to deny the existence of Reform and Conservative Judaism, operating on the basis that given the rate of
intermarriage and assimilation, those Jews will eventually disappear. That is not going to happen.

We may as well get used to the fact that come what may, we’re all going to stick around. That’s what history teaches us … that’s one of the things that make the Jews one of a kind.

As long as we’re going to have to learn to live with each other, we might as well accept the reality of the words of the famed Maharal: “If the thing is impure it is impossible that it will not have some purity within it. Likewise, if the thing is pure it is impossible that it will not have within it some impurity. And man, too, is variform in thought … it is impossible that all human thought will follow one path.”

With this in mind, I have always been guided by the principles that: Judaism may not be pluralistic, but Jews are.

We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Every Jew has the right to be wrong.

Let God judge, we are not His policemen.

Like it or not, we need each other.

All of the historic accomplishments of our generation — the re-establishment of the State of Israel, freedom for Soviet Jewry, the establishment of day schools throughout America — came about because Jews of all backgrounds stood united.

While there does seem to be a major divide separating the Jews from Park Heights Avenue from the Jews from Owings Mills, on Mount Royal Avenue — at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore — we all come together as one. There, we are one.

If we can do it there, why not everywhere?

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg is spiritual leader of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue.

Uncompromised Commitment

090613_Rabbi_Moshe_HauerTo grasp the Orthodox perspective on Jewish unity requires an appreciation of two fundamental Orthodox beliefs, one of which challenges our religious unity, the other of which strengthens our national unity.

1. “I believe with a complete belief in the divinity and the immutability of the Torah.”

This is a fundamental religious assumption of Orthodox Jews. It is a simple restatement of the eighth and ninth of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.

Our belief in the divinity of every word of the Torah defines our mission and fuels our passion for living a fully observant life, with all the sacrifice that entails. It explains how hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews not so much as flick on a light on Shabbat, carefully monitor their food’s kashrut and sacrifice financial stability for the sake of their children’s Torah education.

This perspective informed Jewish learning as practiced by the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, by Rashi and Maimonides and by subsequent generations of Talmudic and halachic scholars and laymen. Classic Torah study was a process of exploring and analyzing the Torah as a God-given document. New situations and applications required discovery of how the divine, unchanging principles were to be applied, and these applications were endlessly debated, leading to an infinite plurality of halachic opinions. But aside from marginal movements such as the Saducees and the Karaites, within the community of Torah study there was no consideration of whether the divine, immutable principles should be rejected or changed. And this approach is alive and well in the contemporary Orthodox community, in its yeshivot, synagogues and homes.

This belief makes religious unity among today’s different streams more than challenging. While we are people of the same Book, we are not on the same page. The non-Orthodox approach to Torah functions without these cardinal assumptions, making its mandates less compelling and its principles subjective and changeable. While there are certainly religious matters we can agree upon, the basic assumptions are fundamentally different, creating a religious gap very difficult to bridge.

2. All Jews are responsible for one another; a Jew is always a Jew, even if he does not practice his faith.

It is a fundamental Jewish belief that Jews are absolutely connected to one another. This connection must express itself in an uncompromised commitment to each and every Jew’s well-being.

Orthodox Jews are avid students of Jewish history, ancient and recent. We do not study history academically, but as the story of our personal identity. We see ourselves as the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. We see our past and our future in the land of Israel and raise our children on Jewish stories and on a steady awareness of current Jewish events.

As such, a large part of the foundation of our identity as Jews is not how we live our lives because we are Jews, but the appreciation of our roots and history and what makes us Jews. This is something we share with every member of our people.

The Orthodox community prides itself on its uncompromised commitment both to our Torah and to our People. I hope and pray that all of us throughout the broader community can strengthen Jewish unity by enhancing the Jewish identity and commitment of our respective communities.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is spiritual leader of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, an Orthodox synagogue.

Yom Kippur Resource List

First Fast – Cohen, Barbara

Sneakers to Shul – Cohen, Floreva

The Magic of Kol Nidre: A Yom Kippur Story – Siegel, Bruce

List of Jewish Holiday Resources Available at the Aaron H. Leibtag Resource Center of the Center for Jewish Education
5800 Park Heights Avenue
(410) 578-6943