Culture and Context: Shabbat Shemini, April 1, 2016

Almost every day, in my Facebook feed, I see an article that’s getting passed around the clergy circles telling us how we need to be cool and relevant to keep our congregants engaged and informed. So imagine my surprise yesterday, when I read a blog on the Christianity Today web site that started out this way: “I don’t care if the church is culturally relevant.”

Obviously the blogger, Karl Vaters, wanted to get everybody’s attention, and he certainly got mine. The rest of the blog was less dramatic. “No I don’t want us to wallow in some old-time, glory days that probably never were,” he wrote, “But cultural relevance is not the answer. It’s better to be relevant than stale. But being relevant isn’t enough. I want the church to be better than relevant. I want us to lead.”

Vaters’s argument is that when we fixate on cultural relevance, we are always chasing trends that – by definition – are soon irrelevant. It makes us followers. And it makes us just like everybody else – because of course we are always all chasing the same trends – instead of staking out a place of difference. A place of leadership.

Vaters argues that we can do that, even in small towns and small congregations. Instead of battling for cultural relevance, he writes, we should shoot for what he called ‘contextual reality.’

Contextual reality means meeting the challenges of OUR real lives, of dealing with OUR real issues.

Vaters lists a bunch of ways to do that: being personal rather than generic; inviting outsiders in rather than creating a culture of insiders and outsiders; and getting our hands dirty – as it were – rather than keeping a distance.

I saw these and I thought. But those are things that we’re already doing.

We in small congregations know that nobody can be anonymous. When anybody new walks in that door, as Don and I did for the first time, I can guarantee you that Mel and Sissy want to know who you are, where you’re from, and how you ended up in our building.
When anyone in the congregation is sick, or suffers a loss, we don’t ‘activate’ our caring community. We ARE a caring community. We take care of each other as we take care of our own. We call, we run, we cook, we bake, we pray. When anyone is celebrating a simcha, we rejoice, we share food and gifts and laughter.

But sometimes that’s not enough.

Let’s face it – we are in a small community, in an ever-shrinking congregation, in a fairly isolated part of rural Pennsylvania. I’ve served a lot of congregations in circumstances like ours, and they all have one thing in common: a tendency to the status quo. The same prayers, the same songs. There is comfort in continuity. But there’s no growth, there’s no energy.

So I do strive for a level of cultural relevance. Over the summer, I’ll be incorporating into our outdoor services some of the new, cutting-edge melodies I learned at Songleader Boot Camp last month.

I always share ideas and perspectives from contemporary writers and Torah commentators. I encourage people to keep up with what’s going on in Israel. It’s important for this congregation to stay relevant to the rest of the Reform movement, to the rest of American Judaism, to the rest of the Jewish world.

We may not accept or incorporate everything. But we give it a shot – be it a prayer, a song, even new liturgy – to see if it speaks to us.

As a result, we HAVE become more engaged in the wider Jewish world. We took the opportunity to test out early versions of the new high-holy day prayer book and provide our feedback. We haven’t adopted it yet, but that’s not to say we won’t in the coming years – just as we did with Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat. It’s new. It’s challenging. And it’s important that we DO continue to grow and learn outside of our comfort zone.

The fact is that Judaism, over the centuries, has done a pretty good balancing act: maintaining a sense of community and peoplehood while adapting to the outside world. And I’m not talking about Reform Judaism, necessarily – I mean traditional Jewish life.
We see in Jewish legal texts, written over a period of two-thousand years, how individual Jewish communities around the world have dealt with their own challenges of assimilation, discrimination, and cultural dissonance. They sought guidance from the greatest authorities of their time, from the academies of Babylonia to Maimonides in Spain and later Egypt, to the poskim of renaissance Western Europe, to the rebbes of Ashkenaz.

But they held for themselves the right to issue their own takkanot, their own rules that worked for their own communities, based on the advice they received.

Reform Judaism is, I believe, a great expression of this evolution, of acknowledging that different Jewish communities in different places have their own needs and priorities and circumstances. Our Responsa Committee gets all sorts of questions about how to Jewishly resolve unique problems with bigger underlying conflicts of Jewish values. And we issue conclusions, rather than commands.

The truth is that Reform Judaism has different expression in different places. More Classical in small towns like ours, more conservative in Canada, more Israeli in, well, in Israel. But the truth is, as well, that Judaism as a whole has always been that way.
Which brings us to what’s happening these days in Israel.

In January of this year, you may recall, a consensus agreement was reached regarding the difficult issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The agreement – which included the Israeli government and the Reform and Conservative movements – called for a renovated, expanded prayer space at Robinson’s Arch for mixed-gender worship.

It incorporated this area into what’s been known traditionally as the Western Wall – the Kotel – the holiest space in the Jewish world. People would come into the Kotel plaza and be able to choose where to go:

To the left, to the Northern end of the plaza for traditional, gender-segregated worship, or to the right, to the southern end of the plaza, for egalitarian prayers.

The good part: The agreement gave Israeli government support and financing, really for the first time, for a recognized space along the Western Wall for men and women to pray together in a non-traditional setting. The bad part: The agreement meant that we would cede control of the traditional areas of the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

We would abandon a quarter century of work on behalf of the Women of the Wall to pray together as they wished in the womens’ section. It was a victory for Reform and Conservative Judaism, but a loss for Orthodox women who just wanted to pray together, as the Israeli courts have rules that they ought to be able to do.

At the CCAR Convention in Israel last month, my male and female colleagues went to the Robinson’s Arch site and worshiped together, read Torah together, and rejoiced together in that holy space without interference.

That happened just last month. That was then. This is now.

Now, the agreement is falling apart. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox in his government, backed away from the deal. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who had agreed to it, flip-flopped as well. Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, who has a history of saying nasty things about non-Orthodox Jews, refused to implement the deal.

Bibi says there will be “new talks” – which is to say, the issue will now be dragged out for months and years, as it has been before. As John Oswald wrote in The Forward this week: “It comes down to modern day politics and ancient patriarchal power that refuses to change with the times — and believes it has the final say on what it means to be a Jew, Reform and Conservative critics say.”

Yes. Yes we do.

The ultra-Orthodox men who control not only prayer space and purse strings in Israel, but also have say over the personal status of every citizen, who can marry whom and where one can be buried, insist that they are simply implementing the rules that have been set down in the Torah and enforced by the rabbinic tradition ever since.

The tradition says – that’s nonsense. The truth is, as I said earlier, that Judaism always has always evolved to remain relevant to each and every generation – without compromising its basic ethical tenets and commitment to peoplehood. That is Judaism’s special gift.

If Judaism had never evolved, we would be living under a system like the one that we see in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, the section of Leviticus that deals with the ordination and anointing of Aaron and his sons as the high priests of the tabernacle. Such a Judaism would be completely patriarchal and hierarchical, with one family controlling decisions over personal status and life and death.

Actually, when you think about it, that’s the kind of Judaism the Chief Rabbinate and its minions have set up in Israel. It’s a pretty cushy deal. They are the bosses. They make the rules. They believe they can ignore the Israeli courts, as well as the court of public opinion, as long as it empowers and enriches them.

This situation is untenable. It is unacceptable. And it will further isolate Israel from the wider Jewish world. Yizhar Hess, the head of the Conservative movement in Israel, called it “a nightmare scenario from a Jewish and Zionist perspective.” And my Reform colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who toiled for years to make the agreement possible, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“We call on the prime minister to make clear to his ultra-Orthodox partners that the unity of the Jewish people and the connection between the state of Israel and world Jewry cannot be held captive to street battles within the ultra-Orthodox community, and to take a clear and public stand against the continued incitement of ultra-Orthodox politicians against millions of Reform Jews.”

Judaism has come too far to succumb to the desire of a handful of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and professional politicians to regress to an ancient past – to return to what that Christian blogger, Karl Vaters, called “the old-time glory days that probably never were.”

We know in our own little corner of the Jewish world that we have to resist the temptation, on the one hand, to retreat into stasis, and, on the other, to chase after every pop culture trend.

We are what we are. We are the sum of all of our experiences as a community, and as a people with thousands of years of evolutionary tradition. To be true to ourselves is to be both contextually real and culturally relevant. This unique ability is what has allowed Judaism to survive for millennia when, by all rights, it should at some point have disappeared into the abyss that eventually swallows even the greatest cultures and empires.

The greatest threat to Judaism is not change. The greatest threat is the refusal to recognize the need for change.

We must support our Reform movement and our Reform colleagues in Israel. We must continue to use the power of our voices and our pocketbooks to effect necessary change in Israel. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


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