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December 3, 2012

Gordis vs Brous: Impressions from a sermon and a Torah Slam

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/gordis_vs_brous_impressions_from_a_sermon_and_a_torah_slam/

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Like many Jewish Journal readers, I have followed the rather personal exchange between Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous over Israel. Since I have never met Rabbi Gordis, and have had only a few personal interactions with Rabbi Brous, I had intended to sit this one out. However, a recent article by Ron Reynolds in The Times of Israel reminded me of my one Shabbat evening at IKAR (Rabbi Brous’s progressive synagogue) and a Torah Slam that have indelibly shaped my perception of her rabbinate. Reynolds, who has never been to IKAR, scoured the synagogue’s website for references to Israel and was largely disappointed. I share his disappointment in IKAR, but for a different reason.

Before I got married earlier this year, I regularly attended shabbat services at LA-area synagogues. I have visited nearly every large synagogue and a lot of smaller ones, and my primary goal when visiting is to have a powerful Jewish experience. Having heard rave reviews about Rabbi Brous, I was thrilled when a friend invited me to join him a few years ago at an IKAR shabbat service. I nearly bumped into noted journalist J. J. Goldberg at the entrance, which I thought was a sign of great things to come. However, after sitting through the entire service, including Rabbi Brous’s sermon, I distinctly recall leaving the building feeling like I had not participated in a Jewish worship service. Change one or two minor details, and I could have been at a progressive Protestant gathering.

That said, I found Rabbi Brous to be very warm and personable, so I invited her to offer the prayer at a large dinner sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. She graciously accepted the invitation and composed a thoughtful prayer tailored perfectly for the occasion. That experience left me wanting to hear more from her, so I was very excited to learn that she would be participating in a “Torah Slam” together with some of my favorite rabbis, including Ed Feinstein, Elazar Muskin, Eli Herscher and Daniel Bouskila. To top it off, they would be discussing “What is a good Jew?” as they analyzed Torah, text and history. I invited two secular Jewish friends to join me, and we settled into our seats at the Wilshire Theatre with a great deal of anticipation.

I enjoyed the debate immensely, and for me it clarified quite a few things. How impressed was I with the rabbis? Well, let’s go through the list. Rabbi Feinstein – I have attended several lectures at VBS (his synagogue), and he went to Utah with members of my committee. Rabbi Muskin – I have attended several shabbat services at his shul, and had the honor of discussing his commitment to Israel in his private study. Rabbi Herscher – went to Utah with our committee. Rabbi Bouskila – I took a “Torah on Tuesdays” course he taught in Beverly Hills and blogged on some of his insights. Rabbi Brous? I have had no meaningful contact with her or IKAR since then. During her Torah Slam presentation, I was not terribly impressed with her ability to articulate her knowledge of or passion for Judaism. Her thoughts just didn’t seem as authentically (or uniquely) “Jewish” as the contributions of the other rabbis. Don’t get me wrong: Rabbi Brous is very bright, and for all I know she may be able to beat any other rabbi in town on a comprehensive exam on Judaism. However, after sitting through her sermon and public presentation as an interested non-Jewish observer who wanted to be impressed, I just wasn’t feeling it.

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P.S. - In response to numerous inquiries, I see no reason to take sides in the Gordis-Brous debate. However, on the question of whether IKAR is as centered on Israel as, say, Rabbi Muskin’s Young Israel shul, that’s a call that even a non-rabbi can make.

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