I returned from my first session of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders late Tuesday night. As I reflect upon the myriad of information and ideas that were shared with me and my colleagues during our two days in New York City, one interesting moment at Ramat Shalom keeps popping into my mind. The moment, which happened just recently, involved an anxious bat mitzvah mother. For those who do not know, each of our b’nai mitzvah families are required to fill out a form for me listing the names of all family and friends who will take honors during the bar/bat mitzvah service. On the form are listed all of the honors that a family may assign. In this interesting moment that I keep thinking about, the bat mitzvah mother emailed me saying:
Rabbi, I need to see you immediately. I need help with the honors for the service. There is one that I simply can’t assign and all my friends who have had a bat mitzvah at Ramat Shalom tell me I have to assign it. Help please!
The mom and I set a time to meet and she came into my office. She was really upset as she explained that she did not have a family member to give the honor of being the “siddur holder” (siddur is the prayer book). Since all of her friends told her she had to have a “siddur holder”, she did not want to leave it empty and look like she was not respecting an important Jewish tradition. As the mom explained her concern, I smiled and explained to her that the “siddur holder” was an honor I invented about five years ago. There is no sacred tradition involving a siddur holder. I made it up in an attempt to give our many inter-faith families an honor to assign family members during the Torah Service. All of the honors involved with the Torah service are reserved for Jews as they involve carrying and blessing the Torah. For years, I watched families put together beautiful supplements for their services that listed the names of those taking honors during the Torah Service and the bar mitzvah dad’s name, grandma’s name or the name of another important family member who should have had a real role to play in this sacred part of the service was left off because they were not Jewish. This felt wrong to me – so I created the “siddur holder” which could be assigned to an important, non-Jewish family member who is willing to hold the prayer book while the bar/bat mitzvah holds the Torah and says a few prayers. My creation was a brand new Jewish innovation that, over the years, has become a pretty well respected tradition at Ramat Shalom. Thus, the bat mitzvah mom felt she needed to assign it in order to respect Jewish tradition. Her husband is Jewish and all important family members and friends were given an honor. While it took a little convincing, she finally agreed that there was no need to assign the siddur holder. All was good.
This moment captures one of the crucial aspects of the Rabbis Without Borders discussion this week. Every tradition and ritual we have in Judaism –every single one – was once a new innovation. Time made these innovations into valued traditions. King David knew nothing about a synagogue as there were none when he ruled around 1000 BCE. Abraham and Sarah did not light Shabbat candles 4,000 years ago. This ritual developed long after they lived. When Judah the Maccabee attended a wedding, he did not see the groom break a glass under the chuppah. The first Jew to do this was living in Babylonia in the fourth century, more than 400 years after Judah saved the Jewish people. Moses’ wife was not an Israelite – but that did not affect his children’s ability to enter into the covenant that still defines Judaism for many. It was not until sometime around the second century that one’s Jewishness was based upon the religion of his/her mother. None of the great rabbis of the Talmud had a formal bar mitzvah ceremony. It would be their descendants, centuries later, who would become the first bar mitzvah boys. And what about the bat mitzvah? This innovation was not introduced until 1921 and would be followed by the spread of egalitarian practices and, in 1972, the ordination of the first female rabbi.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, who is the Co-President of Clal along with Rabbi Brad Hirshfield (I wrote about Rabbi Hirshfield’s insight earlier this week), spoke with my colleagues and me earlier this week about the Pew Survey that I have mentioned in a previous blog post. Despite the statistics reported in Pew that document the dramatic lack of involvement of Jews in Jewish life, Rabbi Kula is optimistic – directing our attention to the fact that the vast majority of Jews are proud of their Judaism and feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The problem is, however, a significant number of these Jews are on the other side of a border that separates them from those of us who are, in some way, actively engaged in Jewish practice.
This is where Rabbis Without Borders come in.
It was Rabbis Without Borders who, 2,000 years ago, were able to look beyond the sacrificial system that defined Judaism and introduce the concept of the synagogue to the Jewish world that was still reeling from the destruction of the ancient Temple. It was Rabbis Without Borders who would begin to encourage everyone to light candles on Friday night and bring the joy of Shabbat into the home – demolishing the concept that ritual practice was limited to the priests in the Temple. In doing so, they would give generations of Jews one of the most meaningful rituals we have. It was the courageous Rabbi Without Borders, Mordechai Kaplan, who broke down barriers and paved the way for young women to celebrate their coming of age in the Jewish world by creating the bat mitzvah ceremony. Rabbi Kula urged my colleagues and me to follow in the footsteps of these and many other innovative rabbis who were not afraid to create new ways to engage and connect Jews to Judaism. Their creations brought new life to their generation of Jews. Today’s Rabbis Without Borders have the potential to do the same thing. Today’s Rabbis Without Borders need to be willing to see new ideas as not being outside the boundaries of Judaism and, thus, detrimental to tradition. On the contrary, today’s Rabbis Without Borders are being urged to see new ideas as tomorrow’s rituals that will knock down borders and engage those who are waiting to be inspired.
I am very proud to be counted as a Rabbi Without Borders and I look forward to discussing new and creative ways to make our synagogue walls more permeable to the vast majority of Jews who dwell outside of them. I know that many of you will be a vital part of this discussion and I invite you to share your ideas with me.