|April 11, 2014||When is a Seder not a Seder? Passover and Messianic Judaism||1 comments|
|March 26, 2014||The Reports of the Death of Congregations has Been Greatly Exaggerated||no comments|
|March 03, 2014||Educational Insight from One of Our Own: Carolyn Gerecht||no comments|
|December 30, 2013||Slinging Mud from the Ivory Tower: the Academic Boycott of Israel||2 comments|
|November 11, 2013||There is a Skew to Pew - Told You!||no comments|
|October 25, 2013||A Very Few Words About Pew||no comments|
|October 16, 2013||And Now for Some Good News about Jewish Identity: Early Childhood Education Improvement||no comments|
|October 04, 2013||Mastering Jewish Communal Service: Pittsburgh's Professional Development Infusion for its Jewish ...||no comments|
|September 25, 2013||The Consecration Ceremony: A Sweet and Sacred Jewish Educational Moment||no comments|
|September 03, 2013||Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Parents and Their Watchful Kids during the High Holidays||no comments|
I was made aware last week by one of my adult students of a "Passover Worship and Teaching" event scheduled for April 15 (the night of the second Seder) at Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill by a local church. They planned to bring Messianic Jewish leaders to run the program. This event's flyer was distributed throughout the Jewishly- concentrated neighborhood of Squirrel Hill which includes Allderdice.
This event is not happening at the high school. Allderdice could not legally deny the use of space to the church during non-school hours, but April 15th is during Pittsburgh Public School's spring break and the building will be closed. Apparently the flyer was distributed before the church contacted the school about reserving the space.
However, given that many Jewish children and teens in the Squirrel Hill area may have seen the flyer, my agency, the AJL, thinks it is important to provide students and parents with some basic understanding about the complicated issue of messianic Judaism, and why it is not acknowledged as legitimately Jewish by any branch of the Jewish family tree. Accordingly, we sent the below information to the families whose teens attend our high school programs but I want to share the information here as well. I hope this explanation will assist families in understanding this topic if it should arise.
- Who was Jesus and what is his significance to Christianity
Jesus of Nazareth lived in ancient Israel at the beginning of the 1st century CE. His life story is found in texts within the Christian bible called the Gospels. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jew who lived and traveled within Israel and who espoused theological positions contradictory to the Torah and the culture of the Jewish community of that time. The Gospels also assert that he was the Messiah of the Jews and the son of G-d; he gathered many followers through the performance of miracles and theological pronouncements that defied Jewish commandments, teaching and authority. The Gospels say that Jesus was crucified by the Romans who governed Israel at that time because he and his followers were causing such unrest and disagreement amongst the population of Jerusalem that they feared civil unrest against their rule.
Christianity proposes that the pain and suffering during Jesus's crucifixion that preceded his death was so great that it atoned for the sins of all people for all time. They also believe that G-d raised his son Jesus from the dead as a final proof of his being the Messiah. Christianity teaches that anyone who accepts Jesus as the Messiah and renounces other beliefs are forgiven and guaranteed eternal life in Heaven. Conversely, anyone who rejects Jesus as the messiah is not guaranteed eternal life in heaven.
- What does the word Messiah actually mean?
The English word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word Moshiach which means "anointed one" and is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to kings that G-d selected to rule the Jewish people in the land of Israel. A prophet would "anoint" a king with oil by pouring it over his head to signify that G-d has selected that man to be the king. The most famous king in Jewish history was David; G-d promised him that his descendant would be the redeemer of the Jewish people in the future i.e. the Messiah.
- What do Jews believe about the Messiah and why isn't Jesus accepted as the Messiah?
All theological viewpoints within Judaism reject Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. Historically, Judaism has understood the Messiah to be a human (not a divine being as Jesus is understood to be) who would be a descendant of King David, selected by G-d. The Messiah will unify the Jewish People to fight against their oppressors and lead the Jews out of exile and back to the land of Israel. This will usher in what is called Olam HaBah, the World-to-Come, which is an eternal existence on earth with no war, hunger, poverty, illness or other social plague. G-d will resurrect the dead and all Jews from throughout history will live together in Israel in the presence of G-d who will once again dwell within the Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE). The rest of the world will also know world peace and plenty and live in eternal harmony at that time. Today, that traditional belief is debated between the various Jewish denominations with many no longer awaiting the Messiah as an actual person, but a Messianic time when all humanity comes together to establish the ideal world of Olam HaBah.
Jesus does not meet Judaism's historic criteria of Messiah in a number of ways but there are three major reasons that are understood to disqualify him. First, Jesus preached to his followers that the commandments of the Torah are no longer obligatory to Jews once one follows his teachings.. The Gospel of Mark, for example, describes him violating Shabbat restrictions on work by leading his people in harvesting grains on a Saturday, allowing people to ignore the dietary rules of kashrut, and miraculously healing the sick through his forgiving them for their sins. According to the Torah, observance of Shabbat and kashrut are core commandments from G-d and only G-d can forgive true sin. Jesus took it upon himself to over-rule G-d and create a new religious system that ignored the commandments. Second, He also claimed to be the Messiah himself rather than being identified by a prophet and anointed in recognition of G-d's selection. Third, Judaism understands that G-d has made an eternal covenant with the entire Jewish people throughout the generations that will lead to the redemption of all us to Israel and Olam HaBah when the time is right. Conversely, Jesus proclaimed that eternal life is earned by each individual's belief in the Messiah which super-cedes any commitment to an entire people.
- What does Messianic Judaism believe?
There is actually a spectrum of belief within Messianic Judaism -- called Hebrew Christians, Jews for Jesus, and Completed Jews among others names. Followers of this theology can be people who were born and raised within the Jewish mainstream and had a change of heart, or Christians who embrace this theology. Briefly, this theology professes that G-d still has a binding covenant with the Jewish people and the Christian bible has been misinterpreted over time as saying that G-d transferred his promises to Christians and abandoned the Jewish people. They hold that G-d still loves and protects the Jews and the state of Israel and that the Torah is at some level still a valid system of law and observance for those who personally accept Jesus as their Messiah. At the same time though, Jesus has fulfilled G-d's promises to the Jews who need only accept him as the Messiah rather than keep waiting. Messianic Judaism reinterprets Jewish symbols to fit this theological viewpoint e.g. the Passover seder is a reenactment of Jesus's Last Supper, Shabbat/Passover wine and challah/matzah represent the blood and body of Jesus that many Christians symbolically ingest when they take communion, the blowing of the shofar is the call to accept Jesus as the Messiah, etc.
Bottom line, messianic Judaism is a form of Christianity that incorporates the Jewish religious calendar, symbols, and even culture in to their expression of their faith. Evangelism, the act of convincing some one to adopt your religious belief, is a part of many messianic Jewish churches too and they actively seek to convert Jews to their belief system which is antithetical to mainstream Judaism. It is important to note that not all Christians believe that Jews are denied eternal life by not accepting Jesus as the Messiah and many of them feel no need to convert us away from our beliefs. It is also important to note that Messianic Jews are not bad people, but they profess a theology that is not Judaism and they are not practicing Judaism. Events like the one that was leafleted around Squirrel Hill this week imply otherwise and it is important to know the differences between Messianic Judaism and Mainstream Judaism.
The boycotts are part of a larger political protest movement known as BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, that is intended to put pressure on Israel regarding its treatment of Palestinians by convincing universities, religious and other associations, and corporations to cease business and relationships with any Israel-based entity. BDS has had some impact on Israeli relationships in Europe but has historically gotten little traction until now in the USA. These few academic actions endorse boycotting any interaction with Israeli universities although not individual Israeli academicians. So why am I highlighting this recent event here on a blog about Jewish education? Because Israel is part and parcel of Jewish education, and how our people, especially our emerging adults on campuses, observe such efforts impacts their own sense of Jewish identity.
Let me say that I understand the motivations behind boycotts/divestment/sanctions in general. They are a powerful tool to right wrongs. Consider the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950's or the divestment movement from Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s or the recent international sanctions against Iran. These were critical to making real change for the social good of all. However, I cannot see the same logic in the actions against Israel. Those efforts were against singular national wrongs; Israel is surrounded by an entire region of countries whose governments mistreat their own citizens far worse than Israel does the Palestinians. Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the list goes on. All of them regularly and lethally persecute their own people over land, beliefs, ethnicity, even gender. I understand that Israel is not completely innocent and that the treatment of the Palestinians has been an ongoing issue for over two generations. But compared to the human rights records of its neighbors, it seems mighty hypocritical to pick Israel to boycott when there is no BDS movement for the other middle east nations. It especially seems hypocritical to me when an academic organization takes a measure like this boycott without a logical basis. The proof of that hypocrisy came right from the president of the ASA, Dr. Curtis Marez. When an interviewer pointed out the discrepancy in human rights records in the middle east, Dr. Marez "did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere."
As an academic in my own right, I would never accept that kind of half-assed validation in an academic dialogue for the simple reason that it lack reasoning which is a hallmark of university-level thinking. The defender of this vote say that the association was exercising its academic freedom. I, and many others, counter that academic freedom is based on intellectual fairness and logical processing of even emotional issues. The ASA and the others who have taken similar votes cannot argue with a straight face that their actions to boycott Israel are based in reason and logic if they have not taken similar action against academic institutions of other nations as well. I am glad to note that this hypocrisy was not ignored by some of our leading institutions; four universities withdrew their membership in the ASA and fifty five others lodged strong disagreement with the vote. That message on the campuses of this country is an important one. It not only ensures that academic freedom is not used as an large-scale excuse for political agendas, but it tells American Jewish students that Israel, while not perfect, is a kindred nation they can be proud of as one that takes human rights seriously.
Basically, if I am reading him right, Dr. Sasson is pointing out that Pew's distinction between "Jewish by religion" and "Jewish with no religion" without factoring in the known reality of the Jewish intermarried population gives the impression that the number of Jews with no religion is increasing which suggest a spiritual or religious dissatisfaction. However, his analysis of the raw data seems to indicate that the adult children of intermarrieds are in fact identifying as Jewish but not necessarily by religion but rather by culture and ethnicity. Therefore Jews are not dropping away from religion as much as a specific and significant sub-group is actually expressing its identity by different definitions of itself. This may seem like a small distinction to some but it a)ripples out in the statistical analysis of the rest of the study and b) raises a flag that our community is no longer going to be able to retain this growing segment along the lines of "outreach" we have been following before and that it will need new and dynamic ideas going forward. As Dr. Sasson says at the end of the article about Millennials,
"A new round of panic will serve the community well if it addresses the real challenge we face going forward. It is not how to make Judaism relevant to a younger generation that rejects religion—or even how to connect committed secularists to the treasures of Jewish (secular) civilization. These are worthwhile aims, but to the extent they are meant to appeal to Millennial Jews of no religion they will miss the mark. Instead, the challenge is how to engage the growing population of young adults who grew up in intermarried homes. This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it. How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine—more than any inexorable laws of demography—the future character of American Jewry."
I couldn't agree more. This will be a major challenge for our community but one that we are up to meeting if we put our heads together. As Dr. Sasson's cogent read of the data proves, keeping those heads cooler with productive analysis of the data will help us formulate the best ideas for the long run too.
We are a lucky community!
On Monday, the Spertus Institute of Chicago will be granting ten of our communal professionals a Master's Degree in Jewish Professional Studies. Let me explain how this whole concept developed. Several years ago, Rabbi Scott Aaron, the Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, raised the idea of this Master's Degree program with Ed Frim (of the AJL), Brian Schreiber ( of the JCC) and me. As we all thought about it, we realized that we have amazing, talented, motivated staff within our agencies. I would go so far as to say that Pittsburgh is blessed with the very best professional staff in the Jewish world! And we all thought that, as our immediate Past Chair Lou Plung likes to say, "we are good, and we can get better".
Working in and for the Jewish community takes more than drive, motivation, people and organizational skills. It takes Jewish knowledge. There are skills in working with lay leadership, forming a vision, public speaking, conducting effective and quality meetings and building consensus. This Spertus program was designed to help grow our professionals from being good professionals into being great “Jewish professionals”.
The program took well over two years to complete. The workload was heavy, especially as our professionals were simultaneously working full time. Classes were held here in Pittsburgh with some study in Chicago.
The program was underwritten generously by the Fine Family Foundation and several other local anonymous donors. In addition, each participant and each agency with a participant paid a piece as well. Everyone had “skin in the game.”
You can read a little more about the program and the participants by clicking here. You are all invited to join the graduation ceremony on Monday night at 7 pm at Rodef Shalom. Two honorary degrees will be granted. One will be given to our very own David Shapira, who I know needs no introduction. The other will be given to John Ruskay, my counterpart from the UJA/Federation of New York. John has been one of the most prolific writers and thought leaders on Jewish communal issues during his long career. look forward to hearing both David’s and John's thoughts. By the way, John is a proud alum of the University of Pittsburgh.
We are a lucky community!
The link in the text above is to an article in the Chronicle about the program and Monday's graduation. We are indeed lucky to have had this educational opportunity here in our community and I look forward to starting our second professional study cohort in the near future!
The fall holiday cycle ends this week with Simchat Torah, which celebrates the beginning of the Torah reading cycle for the new year of 5774. Simchat Torah is the only one of the fall holidays not mentioned in the Torah itself and is thought by scholars to be an innovation of the ancient Babylonian Jews to insert meaning in to the second day of Shemini Azteret which suffers from not having a clear purpose for its existence in the Torah and was beginning to lose adherents. Re-purposing it as a celebratory holiday of joyous dancing and feasting brought its popularity back up in the eyes of the Jewish people and it remains an anticipated event each year even today. (The two holidays are actually celebrated on the same day in Israel but that is a whole different discussion as to why that is the case.)
In America, Simchat Torah is also the day many congregations celebrate Consecration. Consecration is a concept that extends all the way back to the Torah. Something that is set aside for G-d is consecrated. The Hebrew word for consecrate is Kiddush which we often translate as sanctify but that is a synonym for consecrate. In the Torah we sanctify sacrifices, kings, alters and many other things. In modern times we sanctify new synagogues, cemeteries, Torahs and even people; Brit Milah and Simchat Bat are both ceremonies where newborns are consecrated as part of ritual. In fact, the modern consecration service on Simchat Torah is a uniquely American ceremony that was initially developed as an alternative to circumcision. Back in the late 19th century, the leader of what would be called Classical or Eastern Radical Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Einhorn, proposed the Consecration ceremony as a replacement for ritual circumcision which he argued was an antiquated ritual that was more barbaric than sacred. From his perspective, modern Jewry placed more value on intellectual acquisition than ancient ceremony and thought that sanctifying the beginning of a child’s Jewish education was more in keeping with modern values than sanctifying the child through circumcision. While his reasoning was not persuasive over time (the vast majority of Reform Jews still circumcise their sons in accordance with the tradition), the Consecration ceremony became very popular with American families whose sent their children to congregational schools and has even gone beyond the Reform movement to many Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations as well. It now includes girls equally with boys and is marked in day schools as well as supplementary schools.
There are varying practices to the ceremony depending on how a congregation defines beginning one’s Jewish education, so it can be a life cycle event from Kindergarten through third grade depending one where one attends religious school. The children are often given small paper replicas of a Torah or an age-appropriate prayer book as a momento, and they are blessed by parents and rabbis and teachers. The children will often sing songs as a class or perform a dance they have learned as part of the ceremony too. Of course, since it is also Simchat Torah, there is usually candy, fruit, cookies and celebratory flags involved and the kids that stay for the later Torah dancing and parading carry their paper Torahs alongside the adults. All in all, it is a happy memory for most kids and another life cycle moment in the growth of young families. It is one of those moments that families join synagogues to experience, to know that their kids are continuing as Jews and to know that as parents they are fulfilling family traditions of Jewish education and celebration. For interfaith families, consecration also becomes an accessible marker for the non-Jewish parent and extended family to understand what values are central to Jewish life and belief and to know it is recognizable as a growth experience in Jewish life the same way a first communion might be for a Catholic child or a child baptism might be for children in certain Protestant denominations. When I was a toddler, my parents asked our Rabbi, Nathan Zelizer z”l when it was worth while to bring a child to the synagogue. He gave them an educational answer that is still on target today; bring your child as soon as they are able to observe what is going on around them. He told them that if all a child initially knows is that they get a brownie and a kiss from the rabbi after services then that is enough to create a positive association with synagogue until they are ready to tackle something more substantial. Consecration is a celebration of our children being ready for something more substantial and it is truly a sweet and sanctified occasion for the whole family.
Jewish education has made great strides in reaching developing learners where they are at through the use of youth services aimed at specific age groups. Many congregations even have staff members and clergy who are specially trained to reach children and teens at their appropriate developmental stages. However, we as a community need to remember that the ultimate teacher is the parent and your children learn the best about Jewish life and community and, yes, prayer by participating and observing what we do and how we do it.
For example, I grew up as the product of a mixed marriage. My mom was raised 1950s Classical Reform and my dad was raised 1950s Conservative. That meant my mom was used to services with almost no Hebrew (and she was not taught any) and my dad was used to almost all Hebrew which he could follow along with too. They decided to raise my sister and I in a Conservative congregation because my dad didn't want to go anywhere where "they don't wear kippot" and my mom gave up the customs she enjoyed such as instrumental music and English singing as a result. The high holidays thus became a compromise time where we made sure we were at services usually just in time for my mom to see the Torahs come out of the ark, hear the sermon and the shofar, and we stayed as long as my dad thought was sufficient. I know now that my mom was engaged by the things she could access there - the visual and auditory symbols and the only part of the service she could actually understand intellectually. She also like the social component and the fashion show that comes along with services in big congregations. My dad, on the other hand, liked fulfilling his obligations and being a part of a greater group all engaging in fulfilling those obligations at the same time. He always complained about the parking and the rush for seats and the financial appeals, but he knew that was where we needed to be because on the holidays Jews gather together and share the experience.
My parents modeled rationalization for congregational participation for my sister and me. Was it what the tradition said was supposed be motivating us all to be there on the sacred days? Not really but they were valid motivations nonetheless and I suspect ones shared by lots of people in our congregation and around the country. I recall my father singing the prayers as best he could despite not enjoying singing and my mom, who loves to sing, trying to join in the unfamiliar Hebrew as best she could. I recall them lifting my sister and I up to see the Torahs and the Shofar blower, and I recall Dad letting us play with the tzitzit on his tallit and my mom snuggling us up when we were getting restless. Neither my sister nor I enjoyed the children's services or play areas which often felt like Hebrew school without any structure, and instead wanted to be with our parents. We did not learn piety from them and they did not emulate the intensity the rabbis mandate for those days, but they modeled accessible commitment, motivated belonging, patient participation and familial and communal togetherness.
I believe as a parent and as an educator that the best thing we can teach our kids on the holidays is to be a part of the whole community. That means being together as a family at least part of the time in shul, engaging them about the sermon, the Torah portions, prayers or what ever else might catch their interest, joking with them about when it gets boring or uncomfortable, and just being present with them as a family. We parents can teach our kids how to belong to a congregation, and we can best do that by being with them there at least part of the time. Are the youth services better than they were in my day? Absolutely and they should be taken full advantage of by families to develop that side of the child's Jewish experience too. But the time we take to just be together in shul is what will remain in their memories and when we are gone is what they will draw upon with their own children and grandchildren. I take some comfort this year knowing that one of my sons is spending Rosh HaShanah with my parents and my other two will be with my mother in law here in Pittsburgh, but I will be away from them at a pulpit and miss this year's special time with them together in shul. G-d willing, next year.
Shana tovah u'metukah!!