Posted by Jeremy Fine
Below is the sermon I gave last Shabbat at Temple of Aaron. Please note that there is a paper that has been submitted to the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards with credited sources and a version of that can be found HERE. Thank you to my chervuta Charlie Goodman for doing much of the learning with me and to my dear proessfor Dr. Beth Berkowitz for pointing to her research. Some of this work is directly from her book and she is credited in the paper link above. Also, thank you to Laura Elkayam, Evan Miller, Rabbis Joel Roth, David Saiger, Jeffrey Abraham, Amiel Hersh, and Efrem Reis for their help.
In 2010, I gave a sermon about the complexities Jewish Americans face each year on October 31st. After my sermon, I was approached by two different congregants. The first applauded me for being the first rabbi to get up and say that the celebration of Halloween by Jews was wrong, though I said no such thing. The second hugged me because she had been battling this dilemma for quite some time and now was happy her rabbi had permitted her kids to go trick or treating. Again, I made no such claim. At that point, it was clear to me that Halloween is an issue for Jewish Americans. I realized the need for some deeper research into Halloween, its history, and how Judaism should approach this common secular practice. Along with Charlie Goodman I studied sources pertinent to Halloween from Biblical to modern as well as spoke with an expert on Halloween to understand the holiday’s origins. My research has been submitted as a paper of law to the Conservative Movements Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and I hope it will get on the agenda soon. Today we will look at some of the research and the conclusion and sometime next week I will post this sermon and my full research argument.
In my mind, Halloween is in a category much like Valentine’s Day, where Jews want to celebrate and be a part of the community. Other holidays such as Christmas and Easter, regardless of their festivities, are understood by Jews to be rooted in and symbolic of Christianity. It is clear they are religious in nature, due to the prayer, meal, and festivities surrounding those days. Jews, like any other Americans, celebrate cultural holidays such as Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day. But Halloween seems to occupy a different category. It is believed to have pagan roots, or at the very least non-Jewish roots. But those religious undertones are not visible or recognizable to most.
My paper was not the first article written on the topic. Rabbi Michael Broyde, a scholar and Orthodox Rabbi at Tulane wrote a paper entitled Is Thanksgiving Kosher? In Appendix A of his paper he writes about Halloween and juxtaposes it with Thanksgiving, basing his opinion on the writings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Broyde claims: “Halloween, unlike Thanksgiving plainly has in its origins religious beliefs that are foreign to Judaism, and whose beliefs are prohibited to us as Jews. On the other, notwithstanding the origins of Halloween, one must recognize that the vast majority of the people in America who currently celebrate Halloween do not do so out of any sense of religious observance or feeling. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a religion in the United States that recognizes Halloween as a religious holiday.”
But the lack of recognition of the religious origins of Halloween by many Americans does not nullify its Halahkic (Jewish Law) status, but it does raise the question: What exactly is Halloween? In order to understand the religious nature of Halloween, I interviewed Halloween scholar Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Morton writes, “Halloween has pagan roots, and I believe those were very important in shaping the holiday (not all Halloween scholars share that opinion, by the way). However, the Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day were equally important in molding Halloween. However, in the contemporary observance, I think we can safely say that it has become largely divergent from the Catholic holidays.” She goes on to explain how Halloween came over to the States as a secular holiday and the 20th century retail involvement further removes any religious association.
Morton’s understanding of Halloween jives with Broyde’s claims, with a few differences. While they both agree on its origins and lack of religious adherence or recognition, Morton points out that the holiday itself diverged from its own origins. In America, while there is almost no recognition of the separation of All Saints Day from Halloween, it seems that in the mid-19th century it was brought to the States and treated as a secular holiday which it, according to both Broyde and Morton, remains today.
The traces of pagan origins in Halloween may preclude Jews from participating in the holiday. Broyde draws his conclusion based on the Rama, the main commentator on the Shulchan Arukh one of the most vital works of Jewish law, who writes; “Those practices done as a [Gentile] custom or law with no reason one suspects that it is an idolatrous practice or that there is a taint of idolatrous origins; however, those customs which are practiced for a reason, such as the physician who wears a special garment to identify him as a doctor, can be done.” To Broyde, and seemingly the Rama, the slightest essence of pagan custom can nullify the observance of the holiday by Jews. Broyde concludes that in order for Jews to celebrate Halloween one must acknowledge and agree that one of the following is true:
1) Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2) The conduct of the individuals “celebrating Halloween” can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3) The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.
Broyde claims that none of these statements are true and prohibits the celebration of Halloween, since he believes its origins are pagan and “lacks any overt rationale reason for its celebration.” However, he does permit giving out candy to those trick or treating, if one feels it necessary, on the accounts of darachai shalom (ways of peace) and eva (creation of unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people).
Broyde’s four permissible bases are questionable. We know from Morton’s beliefs that some celebrations do have secular origins. Broyde’s permitting of handing out candy also implies that at very least some pieces of the holiday “can be rationally explained independent of Halloween” which he has done using other Jewish principles. Finally, it is possible to believe that the true origins have been lost or are at very least hidden as he points out in subject three.
The fear of following the practices of non-Jews stems from Leviticus 18:3 and the commandment to not follow the practice of the “other.”
כְּמַֽעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּהּ לֹא תַֽעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַֽעֲשֵׂה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַֽעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּֽתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵֽכוּ:
“You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” This verse lends itself to a massive amount of commentary, none more conclusive than that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch makes it very clear that customs of non-Jews, which are practiced due to immoral or religious ground, are to be avoided and Jews may not imitate them. Surely, not all of the customs of Halloween are immoral and those that are should be immediately dismissed from the conservation. However, the problem with Hirsch’s statement is that some of the customs, such as passing out and possibly collecting candy, have been adopted on rational grounds and, as we learn from Morton, are secular practices.
For centuries Jews have adopted customs which, have at the forefront, been a custom of the land, religious or not, and now have only secular meaning. The custom of Yahrzeit was borrowed from the Catholics after the massacres that accompanied the First Crusade; present-day Chasidim wear garb that was fashionable among Polish Gentiles two centuries ago!”
The social constructs seem to oppose Hirsch. Jews have taken on customs that originated, not with Jews but with the “other,” and have altered them to fit into Jewish observance. Halloween, none of it, will ever be seen as a Jewish holiday. Certainly, it has begun and will continue to be celebrated as a secular holiday, even with its remote pagan roots. The question remains: Are there some elements we can permit due to their secular origins even if they are associated with Halloween?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes; “In a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.” It is this quote that Broyde uses as the basis for his permissive stance on celebrating Valentine’s Day. But Broyde, does not feel the same way about Halloween because he assumes that all modern customs of Halloween are linked to the historically religious nature of the holiday.
Morton writes, “Trick or treat is completely secular. It came about mainly in the 1930s as a way to buy off mischievous pranksters. Occasionally someone will try to claim that the costuming and begging aspects come from the earlier tradition of ‘souling’ - when beggars went house-to-house in Britain begging [for] food in exchange for offering songs or prayers on behalf of souls in Purgatory - but there's absolutely no evidence for this at all.” Therefore, one could conclude that trick or treating is not, as Feinstein would put it, related to the religion or law of pagans or non-Jews and that Jews trick or treating have no intent on mimicking idolatrous or pagan rituals.
Feinstein’s multiple responsum on the dilemma of Thanksgiving that is most curious. Feinstein wrote about Thanksgiving on four different occasions, once in 1963, and three times in 1981. Feinstein’s 1963 stance states, “Should Thanksgiving be seen as a fully secular holiday that in no way impinges on Jewish religious practice and is therefore permitted, or is it an alternative religious practice that competes with Jewish obligations and is therefore prohibited?”
The same question could be asked about Halloween. While Feinstein had never written on the topic (to my knowledge), probably because it was not as widely accepted in 1963, as it is today, can, as was asked, [Halloween] “be seen as secular holiday that does not impinge on Jewish religious practice?” The timing of the year opens up the gate a little. Since holidays like Hanukkah and Pesach correlate annually with Christmas and Easter, we should be extra careful not to see these as American holidays but solely as religious days for Christians. But Halloween, usually like Thanksgiving, has its own place and time on the calendar, and does not impinge on religious practice with the exception of Shabbat. “Feinstein affirms the fully secular character of the celebration of Thanksgiving yet sees it as still potentially violating Jewish strictures. Feinstein’s earliest statement on the subject from 1963 is brief: ‘And thus Thanksgiving, one should not prohibit by law, but pious people (ba’ale nefesh) should be strict.’”
This would preclude Jews from potentially hosting Halloween parties or allowing any Halloween practices to trump Shabbat or other Jewish observances. In many ways this outlook would prove Broyde’s conclusion about Valentine’s Day. He writes “I think it is conduct of the pious to avoid explicitly celebrating Valentine’s Day with a Valentine’s day card, although bringing home chocolate, flowers, or even jewelry to one’s beloved is always a nice idea all year around, including February 14.” For Feinstein and Broyde it seems that there is a difference between participating (i.e. eating turkey or giving chocolates) versus celebrating (i.e. holding a feast or giving specific Valentine’s Day cards). Are there moments of Halloween, which might be participatory versus celebratory? For example, decorating one’s house with ghosts and goblins might be celebrating, but giving out candy would be participating.
Feinstein offers multiple proofs that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday: it was not created by priests; it is no longer practiced largely by religious people but by secular ones; it is not marked out religiously in any way, either by the celebrants themselves or by the typical rituals of idolatry.”
According to this logic, Halloween is in the same category. There may have been a religious attachment in the 1960s, but there certainly is not in 2013. When measured by the yardstick of meal and prayer, two central features of Jewish holiday and ritual, Halloween is not religious. It is a night for children to dress up and run around the streets. In many ways in can be categorized, as Feinstein in 1981 did of Thanksgiving, as a Simchat ha-reshut, an optional joyous event.
“Feinstein believes that the intention of gentiles when they perform a particular practice becomes vital in determining whether Jews may perform that custom as well. He differs from one of his key sources, Maharik, who instead believes it is the Jews’ intention that is determinative.” It is seemingly clear that Jews are not participating or even celebrating Halloween with any religious intention. As for gentiles, it also seems fairly evident that their participation or celebration has little, or nothing at all, to do with religious ties or ritual observance. It is more a fun-filled American custom than anything remotely resembling idolatrous practice, or even religious celebration. “If Feinstein can show the gentiles’s intention to be devoid of idolatry, then Feinstein can establish that practice’s secularity and, potentially, its permittedness to Jews. Feinstein’s approach to ‘their laws’ thus reflects and contributes to the trend in the United States towards the privatization of religion…For most cases that come up, what we do and what they do need not be different, whether that is because the practice is reasonable, or because the practice is originally Jewish, or because the gentile’s intention is secular, or because the Jew’s intention is pure, as Feinstein indicated it always should be and often is.”
Through my research I believe that there are elements of Halloween in which Jews should be permitted to participate. There is no prohibition on participating in what is secular. I agree with Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Michael Broyde that if there are those who wish to remain extra cautious and pious then all elements of Halloween should be prohibited. However, due to much of its current practices being secular, it is my opinion that many of the customs of Halloween can be permitted, although never required. “Obligatory status is reserved for Jewish practice. If a Jew attributes obligatory status to a secular practice, he violates Jewish law.” Halloween, like Thanksgiving yet not to the same extent, is viewed to the average consumer as an American holiday in regards to the customs surrounding it. Therefore here is my conclusion:
1) Passing out candy or other acceptable items to those trick-or-treating both non-Jewish and Jewish.
2) Trick-or-treating with no religious intention.
3) Carving pumpkins, ideally not in the shapes of ghosts or the undead, to celebrate the time of year.
4) Dressing up in already owned or reusable ordinary clothing. Yes you can reuse this coming years Purim custom for next year’s Halloween.
5) Attending parties as a participant with no religious association to the holiday including prayer, meal, or Halloween specific celebrations.
1) Dressing up in immodest clothing due to Tzniut (modesty).
2) Wearing costumes of ghost, zombies, etc. which transfer one from participating to celebrating.
3) Hosting of parties that include any prayers, celebration of the religious nature of the holiday, or meals. I would suggest not hosting parties at all.
4) Decorating one’s home in celebration of Halloween.
5) Vandalizing of any kind including, but not limited to, the common use of toilet paper to and eggs to ruin property.
Hopefully through this, many of you learned, at very least, that Judaism can respond to modern lives. Rabbis work daily to solve issues that affect our modern lives. It took me a year to try to solve Halloween, a fairly insignificant mountain to climb and Rabbis search for much tougher resolutions. So, yes Jewish law is still very much relevant. And just as the rabbis search for Jewish responses, we as individual Jews should continue to incorporate Judaism into our American lives even if it’s not so popular. And lastly I would like to place a disclaimer on this issue. There are laws that we can prove or sides of the spectrum we could sit on but often we choose not to for the sake of the longevity of the Jewish people. I was hesitant at first about this research and shocked that no one in the liberal world had addressed the topic. Rabbis much greater than me could have drawn this up a long time ago. So when I, or any other rabbi, writes, submits, and/or publishes law it’s always advantageous to be the pious and cautious Jew that Rabbis Feinstein and Broyde alluded to. Just because we can do something, does not mean we have to do it.
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October 22, 2013 | 12:50 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
This year I was lucky enough to attend and present at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference. It was truly an amazing experience and a Yasher Koach to all those who put it together. On the heels of the craziness (and some would say depression) of the Pew Research, I experienced a room full of over 1,200 participants excited to learn, over a hundred teenagers welcoming in the conference by singing with Jewish pride, and an authentic reflection of 100 years of the USCJ and the future of Conservative Judaism.
There was much more to be excited about. The session I conducted with colleague and classmate Rabbi Aaron Weininger was so packed that we heard screams from the hallway of not being loud enough. We celebrated with some of the best Jewish musicians, informal educators, and teachers in the world. And finally, rabbis were sharing ideas to invigorate a crucial mass of Jews. It proved to me once again that Conservative Judaism is the most powerful pathway that Jews have to live in a modern world and practice Judaism seriously.
My biggest concern was that I would leave without a revelation or action, but I was not disappointed. The announcement of a new rabbinical school in Berlin left me impressed and intrigued. The honesty and vibrancy with which Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen, keynote speaker Harold Kushner, and author Ron Wolfson addressed pressing issues was nothing short of extraordinary. And yet, with all the positive vibes and the immediacy in which the USCJ expressed, I remained concerned about tangible actions going forward. Conservative Judaism has long been ready for the battle ahead. The call of this conference now needs actions from the leaders inside the Movement; its Rabbis, professionals, and laity. And here are four ways we can get it done.
Since the conference the Conservative Movement has been getting good press. Articles have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, and several blogs. But we need more of this. We need rabbis to stop challenging the Movement’s decisions and to start fixing what they find wrong. We need our scholars to research our issues, propose real solutions, and act on them. We need to stop mentioning the notion of post-denominational Judaism, which only hurts our brand (not sure the last time Coca-Cola said to Pepsi, lets merge for one great cola taste). That does not suggest building competition but rather believing in what one is “selling.” Let us write, speak, and preach to the Jewish world about the good in Conservative Judaism and how it is able to connect so many Jews to community, meaning, and God.
Entrepreneurship does not just come from our arms and branches of the Movement but from within our synagogues, summer camps, and schools. Reward bold thinking and allow people to grow ideas and relationships. We often look at Chabad and get upset at their success. The fact is that their higher ups have dedicated themselves to their cause and to their leaders. It is time for us to re-invest in ourselves. We need to find ideas and ways to fund them. We need to allow for rabbis and staff to try, fail, and try again.
Rabbis & Leaders Need to Get Out There
The game of Judaism has drastically changed and rabbis can no longer be stale. Every rabbi, and his/her synagogue, needs an online presence. If they do not know how, that synagogue and Jewish organization should train their leaders. Every rabbi should be meeting with one organization or congregant per day (and ideally a potential member as well). Not because they want to meet with us but because we want to meet with them. The professionalization of the rabbinate has brutalized our rabbis because many synagogues have made their clergy expendable. Rabbis need to stop fearing for their jobs and start fearing for their people. We need to get rid of Keruv committees and just be welcoming. Welcoming is not a guy standing by the door handing out flyers, it is going up to people and saying hello. It is also about looking at everyone who walks into your office as if they were family.
Conservative Judaism should be doing outreach. Every synagogue should have a Starbucks budget line and another for their rabbi to host Shabbat dinners. It should be our major focus, to reach Jews of all ages and embrace them for who they are while explaining to them what we offer. We need to be out in our communities and calling random people to grab coffee. Not everyone wants us to be bound by Halacha (Jewish law) but we need to show them the advantages of a God-centric, meaningful life.
Cling to Something
In a recent blog post, my dear colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Olitzky called for the Conservative Movement to “stand for something.” This is not a new idea, and I believe it was Rabbi David Wolpe who said we need a new bumper sticker, because “Tradition and Change” doesn’t work anymore. I do not know if it is us standing for something or needing a new bumper sticker but Conservative Jews need to cling to something (or someone). Some of the most dynamic Conservative Rabbis are working outside of the Movement. We need them back inside. It is time to find that “it factor.” And we have amazing leaders like Eisen and USCJ Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Wernick to lean on to help get us there.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at the New York University Hillel and I said “the Movement isn’t dying; it is remodeling.” I still stand behind that statement. Nowhere else could I have kept a non-egalitarian minyan alive while at the same time be accepted in and proudly serve a very liberal Jewish community. We have bad press problems, modern workplace problems, and leadership buy-in problems. I am reminded that not in Solomon Schechter’s wildest dreams would there be this many Conservative Jews, working in the modern world and living practical and committed Jewish lives. And the Centennial, and even the Pew Research study, should not just be regarded as highs and lows but rather wake up calls to Conservative Jews everywhere. We need to do this together and make realistic goals and accomplish them. Otherwise these conferences and articles are unattached words that wind up as unattached failures.
So today I will attempt to be a part of the solution. I hope some of you will take this pledge with me and others can make their own pledge. This year, in honor of the 100 years of the USCJ, I will do three things:
1) I will have coffee/drinks/lunch with 100 people in my community. My only objective will be to help improve their Jewish lives, hear their stories, and show them the beauty of Conservative Judaism.
2) I will make 100 phone calls to families in my community to say hello or wish them a Shabbat Shalom hopefully leaving them with a feeling of connection and warmth.
3) I will invite 100 people into my home to celebrate Shabbat or a holiday. This will allow them to experience conversations with their rabbi outside of the synagogue.
I am going to begin tracking my progress on my website www.RabbiJeremyFine.com (I apologize for the self-promotion) and will write about this experience a year from now. My call to Jews everywhere is to reach out and make sure there is another 100 years of growth for the Jewish people. Together let us have confidence in Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Jeremy Fine
September 12, 2013 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Midrash is text behind the biblical text. It helps bring biblical stories to life so Jews can better engage with their religion. But Midrash, in many cases, can feel like reality. Rabbis often teach these stories as if they are a part of Jewish history. While Judaism is made up of laws, rituals, and customs its heart has always been in Midrash.
In 1965 a story formulated that for many Jews is on par with biblical magic. The story states that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar (to most Jews anyway), the greatest baseball pitcher of all-time, Sandy Koufax, put religion before baseball and sat out the first game of the World Series. Most Jews, baseball fans or people with access to the internet have heard this story. Jewish religious school teachers always teach this story in their classrooms this time of year. But this article is not about whether Koufax pitched or did not pitch, we have an answer to that; the question is if Koufax was not on the mound on October 6th 1965, then where was he?
Who am I to tell this story? A little over a year ago I became the Assistant Rabbi at Temple of Aaron in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Temple of Aaron is a Conservative synagogue that has served the Twin Cities for over 100 years. Included in its many claims to fame is being featured in scenes from the 2009 film A Serious Man and being the congregation of former member Beatty Zimmermann (Bob Dylan’s mother). What it might be most famous for is that Koufax himself attended its Yom Kippur service instead of pitching; or did he? It was one of the first things I heard when I came to Saint Paul, which to a Jewish sports blogger was very enticing, but along the way I learned a thing or two about Koufax’s absence from the field and his presence in synagogue.
Jane Leavy, the author of Sandy Koufax’s biography Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, wrote about Koufax’s whereabouts that day; “Koufax did not attend services there that day or anywhere else. A friend may well have made arrangements for Koufax to attend as [Rabbi Bernard] Raskas was led to believe. But friends say he chose to stay alone in his hotel room.” While Leavy claims he was not in synagogue many within the Saint Paul community believe Koufax left his Saint Paul Hotel room.
There is still some confusion amongst members at Temple of Aaron. The uncertainty stems from the old tradition of having two High Holiday services; the early service at 9AM and a second service in the afternoon. It is possible that some saw Koufax and some did not because no one stayed for both services. Congregant Bonnie Goldstein told Leavy, “Everyone agrees he was at the early service.” Therefore, if he was at the early service, those at the second service would never have seen him, and much of the buzz would ave been hearsay. Leavy continues “The rabbi, Bernard Raskas, waited until afternoon services to address the issue, affirming to the congregation that Koufax had been there, seated in the back, near an exit. In Raskas’s recollection, they nodded to each other…He did not want to infringe on the pitcher’s privacy.” It is possible that everyone is right; he was both in attendance and not in attendance referring to two different services.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Raskas has passed and this year the former ritual director of Temple of Aaron, Harry Gottesman passed as well. Gottesman’s family walked into my office his son stared at the Jewish sports memorabilia in my office. He said, “Rabbi, my father took Sandy Koufax to his seat on Yom Kippur.” I want to believe this story. I want to in my heart. So I did some more searching. It seems like many stories passed down to generations that this story, also, has subtext to the original text; Midrash within the Midrash. Apparently, Koufax had a driver to and from the St. Paul Hotel. So I reached out to the “driver” that everyone told me about. His response, “As much as I would have liked to have chauffeured Sandy Kofax (even on yontiv), I didn’t do it.” While everyone claims this man drove him, the ritual director escorted him to his seat, and the rabbi made eye contact with him no one else claims to have interacted with him. Although in all fairness to the synagogue, Koufax is and has always been a very private person and would not have made a big deal about, at the time, a simple appearance in the pews.
Still to this day Sandy Koufax has never made a statement about his whereabouts on Yom Kippur in 1965. Until Koufax does, I am not sure this synagogue will ever have a firm answer. Until then I believe this story becomes a part of a category labeled “Modern Midrash.” It’s a story within the story. It is a story that has been told to generations of children who have gone through the Temple of Aaron Religious School and Hebrew schools throughout the country. A story passed down from generation to generation, so much so that it has become fact within Temple of Aaron’s history. Koufax’s silence about his whereabouts has enabled a Midrash that my congregation and I are living within. While I had set out to find an answer to this question I believe there is something extremely exciting about living inside one of the great Jewish stories of the last 100 years. Although, if Koufax ever wants to call me and talk about this modern Midrash; I would be more than happy to listen.
- Rabbi Jeremy Fine
September 3, 2013 | 1:01 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
A college student seeking guidance came into my office two weeks ago to discuss Judaism. After about an hour of talking he looked at me and asked, “Rabbi when do you have time to find a moment to yourself to pray.” It’s funny that he asks that because I often joke about the irony that rabbis “work” on Shabbat and we preach to others not to. However, I think he was certainly onto something and as we all go into the Holiday season it is important to think about our own prayer and the prayers of those around us.
My dear professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Neil Gillman, once said to my class that no matter how long the services lasts, if you can achieve two solid minutes of Kavannah (deep intention) then you have been successful. We will be in our pews or pulpits over the next two weeks, struggling to find meaning or provide meaning, and I think most of us will be lost throughout. We will look at friends to talk, maybe flip through the pages or whatever the synagogue hands out, but I hope we can all find those two minutes. Even for the rabbis the words on the page or small interludes we say might at times feel apathetic, but I hope we too can find two minutes to make sure we got something significant out of services.
That college student helped this rabbi stop viewing the rabbinate as a job for just a moment and once again understand that rabbis need to search for God as well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote; “Prayer is a way to master what is inferior in us, to discern between the signal and the trivial, between the vital and the futile, by taking counsel with what we know about the will of God, by seeing our fate in proportion to God.” May this Rosh Hashanah be a time that we are all able to pray. A time congregants understand that their rabbi is better with space to reach God and for rabbis to display their search openly for their community to witness.
Shana Tova U’Metukah
August 15, 2013 | 5:43 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Fifteen years ago was my last summer at Camp Ramah (as a camper at least). I have returned to camp since my days as a camper; including six summers as staff along with visits to show my wife a little slice of the Judaism that resonates with me the most. This year I returned to Conover, Wisconsin as a rabbi for the very first time. Camp Ramah, referring to the camp in Wisconsin (although I am sure the other camps as well), is a place where Judaism and Jewish education are at their finest.
This summer I visited to four Jewish summer camps, all great in different ways. Some excel in Ruach (spirit) and others in the ability to allow Jewish kids to be openly Jewish, make Jewish friends, and if we are lucky marry a Jewish spouse. These are all great attributes and certainly beneficial to Jews everywhere. And while it’s not the most popular thing to say or write, and often rabbis shy away from this topic, I feel the overwhelming need to promote Camp Ramah inside my synagogue, especially as a Conservative Rabbi and Jew.
The fact is, Ramah is not a camp for just the religious or studious. I was neither of these things before I went to Ramah or during my time there. Ramah was suggested to me by my Rabbi in several forms, including the bimah. Some of my friends attended as well, so it became a natural fit. Ramah does more than give young campers or counselors Jewish friends. It provides them with Jewish answers and tools to live Jewishly in the real world. At Ramah, campers and staff learn, not just in text classes, but by osmosis and real conversations. On Saturday night during my recent visit I sat with over 100 campers and staff who gave up their free time to sing zemirot (Jewish songs) together. And while this was happening I was able to find a bit of Kavannah (spiritual intention) in my own life, something not always easy for the day-to-day rabbi to conjure up. I realized that Ramah serves as the answer to Conservative communities, especially families and clergy invested in Jewish education, to the struggles of how to best educate our children and excite a synagogue.
Most families who send their kids to Ramah, and then experience it for themselves, say to their rabbis “How do we incorporate that Ramah feeling into synagogue life?” The fact is synagogues cannot recreate camp. Synagogues are not 24/7 vehicles of living and breathing Judaism for each individual. They are platforms for lifecycle events, formal education, rituals and services, and if you are lucky a close connection with the limited clergy you have. However, while we cannot recreate Ramah inside a synagogue we can do our best to extract some of the excitement, rich learning, and deep connection by highly encouraging our children to attend Ramah. Show me a growing Conservative synagogue without a strong Ramah presence. It probably does not exist.
As day school tuition continues to be a barrier and Hebrew school education dwindles in days and hours, Ramah is the perfect supplement for the Jewish education a child needs. But it’s more than that. We know that Ramah works just by looking at rabbis and committed Jews everywhere. Ramah has played a major player in many their lives. So if the Conservative Movement has this proven entity, why are some afraid to say Ramah is the answer. Yes, there are other camps and they have great qualities, but if you and your child want more out of your Jewish lives; Ramah gives you that opportunity. Let us not shy away from promoting Jewish camping which is what the Conservative Movement excels at providing.
I want to encourage my colleagues to speak about Ramah from the bimah. I want to encourage all those reading this (hopefully a few are not my Facebook friends) to really think about sending their kids to Ramah next summer. Summer camp is expensive but the return on your dollar is powerful and has longevity. Most camps have scholarship funds and if Jewish education is important to you I encourage you to not be shy to ask for help. Jewish summer camp is an amazing vehicle and I believe that Ramah will provide the most amazing ride.
July 7, 2013 | 9:02 am
Posted by Jeremy Fine
Last week I was at Dodgers Stadium for the first time. While I think my wife is starting to take a liking to my hobby of traveling the country to see baseball stadiums, we found ourselves in an awkward situation. At Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, the second largest Jews community in the United States does we could not find Kosher food (Though I'm told that the stadium does offer Kosher alternatives). Seriously, how is it possible that the Minnesota Twins can have a Kosher cart but not the Dodgers? Luckily, the night we were there was Jewish Heritage Night and there was a Kosher stand so my wife could get her hot dog, but it left me puzzled. My biggest issue with Judaism, across the denominational spectrum, is the inaccessibility of our religion. And Kashrut, at Dodger Stadium and other places, is in many ways the perfect example.
Since arriving in the Twin Cities I have struggled with Kashrut. I came from New Rochelle NY where there were three restaurants, two ice cream shops, a grocery store, and a bakery all in a one block radius of my apartment and all Kosher. Minnesota struggles to have any Kosher restaurants. Even Chicago, in my mind, does not meet the realistic needs and desires for Kosher food. Kashrut, like many other Jewish staples, has turned into a business. Most restaurants cannot afford a full salary Mashgiach (someone watching over the food) or the expensive Te’udah ( Kosher certificate). When they do take these steps, they tend to jack up their prices to cover those costs along with the rising prices of Kosher meat or cheese. Also, eating out Kosher costs families far too much or restaurants become crowded with often Haredi Jews and it can be an uncomfortable environment for outsiders. Instead of being stringent on the laws of Kashrut, should we not be stringent on making Kosher food accessible?
How can we as rabbis ask people to shell out more money for the food regardless of quality? Or to live a modern secular and Jewish life when the choice is often one or the other. Our hang-up is clearly that our food or utensils are being handled by the “other” or someone less strict. And our fears have made it extremely difficult to encourage new Jews to take on this important mitzvah. It does not make much sense. What I think does make sense is asking rabbis, I am perfectly fine that this decision is made in the Orthodox community, to find ways to Hechsher (stamp of Kosher approval) more establishments.
First I would start small at ice cream shops and bakeries, to help Jews in all areas keep Kosher. Here in Minnesota, many of the Breadsmiths are Kosher. Getting chains to sign on would be a major accomplishment. There are already ice cream parlors like Menchies that carry a Te’udah (not accepted by all) and others receiving a Conservative certification from MSPKosher.com. How great would it be if Dairy Queens carried some sort of national label like Crumbs Cupcakes do. Try to convince Falafel Maoz in New York and other chains that can easily be kosher to carry a symbol and have local rabbis help in the checking of the operations.
Another approach is offer a Kosher menu in a not fully Kosher establishment. This would be easier in chain restaurants or vegetarian establishments; like a local deli here in Minnesota named Cecils which carries Kosher meat. There are obvious problems with this model, but there is also a lot of potential. We shun ideas like this because it is not what we have done. At the same time very few people agree on the complexities of any Te’udah. Some people only recognize Orthodox supervision, some say Glatt Kosher or Cholov Yisroel Kosher, along with issues like being open on Shabbat and the reputation of the Rabbi giving the supervision. The fact is all of this discourages people from keeping Kosher on any level and makes Judaism inaccessible. We need to stop pretending the biggest issue is the salt on the meat or which plant the food comes from and understand that our inability to offer an accessible option is the biggest barrier.
May 23, 2013 | 3:41 pm
Posted by Jeremy Fine
This week I sat in on a conversation, organized by various leaders in the St. Paul Jewish community, with Rabbi Rick Jacobs the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. In this meeting Rabbi Jacobs discussed the influence his rabbi, Rabbi David Hartman z”l, had on his personal decision to become a rabbi. Today is my one year anniversary of being ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I have been reflecting on the great rabbis in my life, one in particular who paved my path towards the rabbinate.
I remember my first meeting with Rabbi William Lebeau, at the time Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School. We met in the backroom of the staff lounge at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Rabbi Lebeau, figured I was a sports fan (I had yet to embark on my blog TheGreatRabbino.com…shameless plug). He was correct. He asked me if I was aware of Cal Ripken Jr. and his streak of consecutive games played. I told him I was and I knew the greatness of Ripken’s accomplishment. Rabbi Lebeau then said, “what if I told you my streak of wrapping tefillin was even longer than Ripken’s games played.” I chuckled and understood his point, although flawed since rarely are there reported tefillin injuries. Rabbi Lebeau’s attempt to speak my language made a lasting impact on my career path. It was a few years later that Rabbi Lebeau would become the guide through my rabbinic journey.
In 2006 I was learning in Israel. I had deferred from JTS and in had been applying to other rabbinical schools as well. Several schools came to Israel to interview students. I continued my dialogue with JTS and Rabbi Lebeau. After an honest conversation with him I knew it was clear that JTS would serve as my future. I remember calling him and accepting JTS’ program minutes before another school admitted me. It was beshereit in my mind and I knew I had found a rabbi in Rabbi Lebeau.
Flash-forward another year into the future, and this time I am sitting in Rabbi Lebeau’s office. I was offered the opportunity to potentially graduate a year early. I was distraught because every bone in my body said to graduate early but my heart said stay and learn more. Rabbi Lebeau looked at me and said “will it really matter if you are a rabbi at age 29 or 30?” With that wisdom I stayed and throughout my time at JTS found myself happy with the extra year of Torah study. There became no corner of Rabbinical School where Rabbi Lebeau did not serve as a guide through important decisions about my path through rabbinical school and the rabbinate.
When Rabbi Jacobs spoke I heard his passion for Rabbi Hartman and I hope that when I speak I can channel my rabbis as well. On this one year anniversary and with a year (or two) of pulpit experience under my belt, I think the biggest thing I have realized is that I am the rabbi I am because of the rabbis who taught me. I am forever indebted to their wisdom, time, and compassion. We should all take moment at the end of this “school year” no matter what age we are to re-connect and thank our greatest teachers, who led the way for us to do what we do. Teachers remain the most valuable mechanism for learning and we as students are required to thank them every chance we get.
April 23, 2013 | 10:31 am
Posted by Jeremy Fine
As social media continues to expand, ironically in more concise platforms, I often wonder what the role of an individual rabbi is on social media. Should a rabbi be on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tout, etc. or should s/he remain in the confines of the synagogue walls and community events? Most rabbis my generation are on Facebook, it is a given due to the social dynamics of college or even high school. Often that Facebook page once filled with fraternity party pictures or funny relationship statuses has become more subdued and reflects the professional side of the rabbinate. Facebook, like any of these sites, can become positive tool or a product of detriment. On one hand like in any profession, synagogues will check their rabbi’s Facebook page to find out more about their rabbi. On the other hand rabbis know that potential search committees will search for them and therefore they can adapt their page to reflect their rabbinic and social life (when sometimes those things do not line up).
Once in the job setting Facebook can be a great way to connect, reach out, and learn more about one’s congregants. I often use Facebook to promote events or interesting articles. Their newsfeed allows me to passively engage my community and advertise the synagogue happenings. So let’s assume that Facebook, when used appropriately, serves as a tool for your rabbinate. How about the other sites? Twitter is another example of promotion, although it is much harder to gain a following. On Facebook once a rabbi and congregant are “friends” it is a mutual connection. On the contrary, on Twitter I can follow someone who does not follow me (I am looking at you Conan O’Brien).
Which is better Facebook or Twitter? I am not sure there is an answer to that question except that both sites used well can be great assets to a rabbi. I like to think of Facebook as “my” social media page and Twitter as “my rabbinic” social media page. On Facebook, while I promote programs, I also post statuses about the White Sox or my daughter or appear in friend’s picture tags. It has more information about my life and history (see Facebook Timeline). Also, in order for me to accept your “friendship” I insist on knowing that person. On Twitter anyone can follow me. And since I know that, I often only post articles, pictures from events where I am working, or retweet from organizations that I want my community to support.
While I think that having a personal Twitter and Facebook accounts are important for today’s rabbi to engage a community, stay relevant, and promote their community I am not sure about other social media websites. I have a YouTube page and occasionally upload videos from events. It is far more important for a synagogue to have a YouTube channel than an individual rabbi (unless it is for an eventual job hunt). LinkedIn is a nice thing to have to stay current with job postings and professional networking for the rabbi and his/her community. Tout, Pinterest, and other sites could become more popular amongst rabbis but as of now I am unaware of its popularity among clergy. Potentially, to have a blog or a website of one’s own can help, but it is discouraging when these sites are stagnant and never updated. Social media is intended to keep someone current and an old looking or rarely posted on blog/website can reverse that feeling about a person. So yes, I believe in the importance of being a social media rabbi. One has to use it carefully, but if done well it can be a remarkably effective tool.