Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote a blog post on a previous site of mine called “Whole Grain Judaism“. I proposed some radical ideas that reflected both where I was politically and personally. While some of the ideas have faded into my past subconscious, some seem relevant today. In particular, the very title of the article.
The previous article focused a lot on the financial structure of Judaism and how it keeps us unnecessarily apart. Some of the ideas no longer resonate as much with me, but some do. There is a hyper-financialization of Judaism especially in the liberal settings I know best. It’s one of the reasons that the Chabad financial model attracts so many Jews. More Jews, less dues, more do’s, less inhibition to give on your own accord.
Nonetheless, acknowledging that life is more gray than black-and-white (liberal congregations are striving for financial stability, and I support their efforts), I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Whole Grain Judaism.
That aspect is our ability to cross the boundaries which keep us apart Jewishly. Not financially, but socially and interpersonally and religiously. Culturally. How can we take our Judaism and make it a source of connection rather than isolation?
Isolation, as I define it, is when you keep to your own- exclusively. Now everyone does this to a degree and if you never preferred one institution over another, you wouldn’t be telling the truth. We all have our preferences and I think that’s healthy. Different ideologies and life choices can strengthen the dynamism of the Jewish community and all religious and cultural groups. Even sometimes when it creates tension.
However, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. Or at a minimum, a severe exacerbation of the internal conflicts we experience. Which, if left unchecked, stretch the creative tension to the kind of dissension and chaos that allows external threats to tear us apart. It’s not a light subject- there have been multiple anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. in recent months (not to mention in Europe, Israel, and around the world, where they are sadly more accustomed to them). If we don’t manage to have a bare minimum of internal solidarity, how are we supposed to face such threats? We are two percent of the U.S. population- on a good day. There are times we need to put aside our differences and work for our common good. It’s not as if an anti-Semitic shooter is going to distinguish us based on where we pray, how progressive (or not) we are, nor our belief in God itself.
That being understood, what does this mean in practical terms?
It’s not as if any of us have a magic wand and can magically rearrange the Jewish world to institutionally promote the kind of ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jew, that would be needed to build such solidarity on a national level.
And yet, we all do have the capacity to make a difference.
My theory is that while institutional change is necessary, that shouldn’t get in the way of the little daily actions that, when combined, can create the kind of safety net of kindness that can preserve our people for generations.
I grew up in a Reform community. Not in a small way- I became incredibly involved on my own accord. I taught Hebrew school, led teen services, was on my youth group board, went to synagogue almost every week, and even almost went to rabbinical school. I’ve visited or led services at Reform congregations from St. Louis to Barcelona, Budapest to Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C. The Reform Movement’s intense fervor for caring about the other, for inclusion, for ethical living, for fervent prayer (as best embodied by its youth group NFTY)- those values still resonate with me in many ways.
I go to an Orthodox synagogue. Not in a small way- I’ve become incredibly involved. Especially for someone who has absolutely no Orthodox upbringing, relatives, or anything of the like. I go weekly to synagogue on Saturday mornings. I almost always go to mincha and maariv and havdalah. I am usually at a shul member’s house for Shabbat lunch. I rarely use my phone and I usually walk. I love the rabbi. He knows I’m gay. I feel largely accepted and welcomed and I go because I love the people there. It is not out of rejection of my past nor of the Reform values I still identify with. I would still say I am a Reform Jew. And I’m kind of an Orthodox one too.
This seeming dichotomy is how I live. I am a fully-out-of-the-closet gay man who loves marching in Pride parades (and has done so two or three times under the banner of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center). I am the same gay man who savors every bite of gefilte fish at the restaurant Shtiesel in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak (the famous show is named after it!). And who savors that gefilte fish at Chabad in the States. Who speaks Yiddish at both a secular socialist summer camp and in Hasidic book stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
If you can’t untangle where one part of my Judaism starts and another stops, good! Because I’ve prayed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Litvish communities. I am just as happy accepting my culturally-Jewish friends who may not believe in God as I am davvening at shul on a Saturday morning. Not because we have the same preferences all the time- we don’t. But because we share important things in common. And out of a love for my fellow human being, not to mention my fellow Jew, I try to focus on those commonalities as a way to build connection.
I don’t run the American Jewish Committee nor the Jewish Federations of North America. I don’t sit on a synagogue board and I am not a rabbi. I am a writer. I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and every-day Jew trying to make a difference through words and actions. Just like you- wherever you work or play.
I’m grateful to all the Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and ordinary citizens who try to bridge the gaps on a daily basis. Who, instead of bemoaning the news or incessantly refreshing the page of the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz (it’s tempting, I’ve done it!), decide to take some power into their own hands. To be the moderate-tempered person willing to talk to reasonable people of different backgrounds. So that if we don’t have to deny our differences, we shouldn’t be prisoner to them either.
Do you. Live Jewishly in a way that lets you experience the best of all worlds- from Hillel to Chabad, from peaceful protests to quiet Shabbat reflection. Or just some of the worlds, but with a desire to respect people who inhabit the others. And if you’re not Jewish, try taking this idea and applying it to your own community. After all, we’re all part of the human community. And if we don’t find a way to explore other cultures and ways of thinking and be those bridges of sanity during this time of confusion, then we will collapse. Bring the healing yourself, and find yourself both challenged and rewarded for it with the richness a textured understanding of life has to offer.
To conclude, I’ve seen a lot of signs in both America and Israel with the same gist: “ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha”. Love your neighbor, your companion, your colleague, your friend, your stranger, your person squishing over into your seat on the bus. Love.
It’s not easy. And sometimes, there are other emotions we should allow ourselves to feel. I don’t love when people are cruel and I don’t love when people threaten innocent human beings or animals. Love is a commandment, but not the only one.
And love we must. Because if we don’t take it upon ourselves to get to know each other, it’s not as if our newspaper will do it for us.
Grab the only thing you can control, your self, and go for a ride somewhere you’ve never been. And your open eyes are the best gift you can endow your soul, two little holes that let it breathe fresh air. An air whose wisdom may eventually, God willing, come out of our mouths a little cooler than usual. As kindness. And whose spirit will allow us all to live Whole Grain lives.