"Introduction to Judaism" final paper
10 August 2006
Section I: Discuss spirituality in Judaism.
Spirituality is a hot topic these days. Neo-paganism and other "New Age" religions are the fastest growing religions in America. Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, is experiencing a surge of growth and political power unprecedented in our country's history. Our country defines itself by religion: whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Pagan, it's likely you mark your life by religious/spiritual milestones. At first glance, defining spirituality is easy. But is it, really? How do we define spirituality? Is it separate from religion? Does Jewish spirituality in particular exist apart from the religious practice of Judaism?
Traditionally in Western culture the definition of spirituality has been dominated by Christianity and its emphasis on faith. Christians have historically tended to see spirituality as an all-or-nothing proposition: a person is either saved or damned. If one is saved, one is spiritually alive and active; if one is damned, one is spiritually dead. There is little in-between. Even in modern Christianity, this attitude is pervasive in more traditional denominations.
By contrast, many New Age, neo-pagan, and Eastern religions emphasize an entirely different aspect of spirituality. Adherents of these religions often adopt an experiential, mystical approach. In this paradigm, personal experience is the most important part of a spiritual path. Dogma is pushed aside in favor of mystical experience and examining of one's internal processes. I recently read this definition of spirituality in Western culture: "Activities which renew, lift up, comfort, heal and inspire both ourselves and those with whom we interact." There is no mention here of God or any other divine figure. (This is one reason why New Age religions are looked upon with contempt by many followers of traditional Western religions. The emphasis on personal experience, self-realization, and enlightenment is seen as wishy-washy, too subjective, and too non-hierarchal.)
So what about Judaism? Do we emphasize the rules or the experience? How did our ancestors relate to spirituality? What about modern Jews?
In the days of Moses, the concept of "spirituality" as separate from everyday life would probably have been viewed as a little strange. There was the physical world; there was the Ark or the Temple; there was the cycle of sacrifice, feast days, and Shabbat. Religious life and "real" life overlapped and it was impossible to distinguish between them. Spirituality for the ancient Hebrews was as simple as offering the sacrifices and following the rules laid down by God through Moses. The people did their part by keeping God's laws. God, in turn, kept God's part by taking care of the people. It was very simple: if one didn't offer the right sacrifices and the rains didn't come, there was clearly a cause-and-effect relationship at work. From the time of Sinai, Jewish spirituality has always been based on the idea of the covenant between the people Yisrael and God. Everything else in Jewish spiritual life springs from that seed.
When the Second Temple was destroyed, rabbinic Judaism arose to take the place of priestly Judaism, and spirituality began to take a different form. Study and prayer were now the channel through which Jews connected to God. As the peoples' religious focus turned inward, the sages spent their time defining the most minute details of halacha, the religious code. Halacha, specifically as laid out in the Talmud, became the unique Jewish response to the peoples' relationship with God. This expression of spirituality continues to this day, particularly in Orthodox Judaism.
We are entering a third period of Judaism. The model of rabbinic Judaism still works for many Jews, but increasingly we find modern Jews disillusioned with their religious heritage, assimilated into the surrounding culture, and uninterested in understanding (much less practicing) the fine points of halacha. Orthopraxy is irrelevant to these Jews, but Buddhism and other Eastern religions are highly appealing, and they are flocking to these religions. There's even a name for these seekers: BuJews. These Jews are looking for a mystical connection to the divine, an expression of personal, rather than communal, spirituality unlike what they find in traditional rabbinic Judaism. Jewish teachers such as Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi are leading the way in reaching out to these Jews through new, Eastern-influenced styles of worship and prayer. This movement has been dubbed "Jewish Renewal". Jewish Renewal combines mystical personal experience with Jewish traditions and folkways. The end result is a new, organic spiritual and religious experience, but one that is still grounded solidly in Jewish tradition. Jewish Renewal is reminiscent of the Hasidic approach to spirituality, and in fact incorporates Hasidic niggunim and midrashim. In Jewish Renewal, halacha is not seen as the final word in Jewish life, but neither is it disregarded. Rather, halacha is examined from the viewpoint that it has something important to say and needs to be taken seriously. It is the collective wisdom of our people, and, like Torah itself, it must be turned over and over.
In traditional Judaism, it would have been impossible to separate a "spiritual experience" from the covenant of Yisrael with God. As Eastern religions leave their mark on the Western religious landscape, many Jews are seeking new forms of spiritual expression outside the old paradigm. Only time will tell which approach will win out, or if this generation of Jews will succeed in synthesizing the two into a harmonious whole that will last l'dor v'dor: from generation to generation.
Section II: Choose one aspect of Shabbat and expound upon it.
"Sometimes nothing is more powerful, more communicative than something. It is the spaces between things that define them. There would be no day without night, no summer without winter, no life without death."
-- Danny Gregory, "The Creative License", p. 116
In all of Jewish ritual, there is no more beautiful, meaningful service for me than Havdalah. Havdalah is the ceremony marking the transition from the restful peace of Shabbat to the everyday, regular work week. The word itself means "separation" or "distinction". It's the first aspect of Shabbat I ever celebrated, even before lighting candles on Friday night. It is a rich sensory experience that needs to be experienced rather than merely discussed. Havdalah engages all the senses: you drink the wine, smell the spices, see the multi-wicked candle burning bright, and move your fingers in the light of the flame -- all the while singing the blessings to end Shabbat. The ceremony is quite simple and short, yet it's the most powerful, magical moment of the week for me.
Havdalah is all about the in-between spaces, the contrasts. To make Havdalah is make a ritual out of separating the sacred from the profane, light from dark, holy time from ordinary time. (There's even the idea, drawn from midrash, of separating and sending one's "extra soul" back to God until the next Shabbat.) My partner and cantorial soloist, Miryam, says the secret of creating kavanah during services is being able to capture the in-between moments, the indrawn breaths before singing, the silences during prayer. This, she says, is where God happens. This is reminiscent of the statement in the Jerusalem Talmud that the Torah is written in black fire (the letters) on white fire (the parchment). In this metaphor, the black letters are the Written Torah, and the white in between the letters is the Oral Torah. Without the negative space of the Oral Torah, our sages arguing about and distilling the Law, the Torah is incomplete. So, too, would Shabbat be incomplete without Havadalah's in-between moments, the special separation that occurs on Saturday night. In the moment where "nothing happens", we can find holiness.
In my community, we pay special attention to the in-between. To do Havdalah properly, we wait until after dark, turn out the lights, and light the multi-wicked candle, thus signaling Shabbat is coming to a close. (Lighting the candle is a stark reminder that Shabbat is leaving us, since it is forbidden to make fire on Shabbat.) Our tradition at the close of Havdalah is to chant almost all the way through the Havdalah blessing, pausing after "Baruch atah Adonai [Blessed are you, Adonai]," then lowering the candle into the wine. The flame sputters, fizzes and sparks as it is slowly, inexorably extinguished. Darkness closes in deeper and deeper as the candle sinks into the kiddush cup. The moment the flame finally dies, the room is completely dark and silent. Only then do we finish the blessing, in hushed tones: "ha-mavdil bein kodesh l'chol [who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular]." The holiness of Havdalah, for me, lies in that singular, suspended moment when we extinguish the candle, before the glare has completely worn off and our eyes adjust to the dark. The shock of that silent, dark instant is powerful beyond words. In that moment, the Shabbat queen departs, so quietly you could miss it if you weren't looking for it, to return to us the following Friday night.
After the blessing, we move right into the joyous strains of "Shavua Tov", wishing each other a good week, a week of peace. The singing helps us remember to be glad, even as Shabbat leaves us.
In between the moment of lighting candles on Friday night and chanting Saturday night's blessing for separating the holy and the ordinary, for 25 hours we build what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "a cathedral in time". Without Havdalah, the uniquely Jewish way of marking the contrast between the sacred and the ordinary, Shabbat would be just another day, and we would all be poorer for it.
Section III: Please reflect on your experience in the class and how it has affected you. The Rabbinical Council and the ITJ coordinator would also appreciate any feed back on the program.
I've been studying Judaism for over three years, practicing Jewishly for two, and actively pursuing conversion for about 18 months. As a result of this self-driven course of study, about 85% of what we went over in class was review. My initial reaction to being told I had to take the class in order to convert was incredulity: "I'm keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, partnered with a Jew, raising Jewish children, attending shul, learning Hebrew, and praying almost every day, and I have to go through a class to tell me how to be Jewish? Are you kidding me with this?" It was frustrating to be forced to jump through hoops.
Given a little time and space, though, I came to understand the value of standardizing liberal conversion and requiring one class for all non-Orthodox converts in town. Such a thing is, to my understanding, highly unusual, and I'm glad the liberal rabbis in Denver agreed to make this class the standard. I came to enjoy going to class if for no other reason than I got to do something Jewish with other people (outside my family's Shabbat celebrations) at least once a week. My tiny synagogue meets every two weeks; sometimes I need a communal fix in between services.
ITJ is exactly what it says it is: an introduction to Judaism. The coverage is as broad and as thorough as it can be considering Judaism's sprawling history, theology, and culture. It would take a lifetime to get truly in-depth with Judaism; six months is barely scratching the surface, but this class was a good overview. I think, given the format and length of the class, skimming the surface can't be avoided, but I do wish we'd had more opportunity to get into the subject matter a little more. My favorite class was Spirituality, with Rabbi Katzan, for exactly that reason. He engaged the class in a chavruta-style discussion. He coaxed ideas out of us, then challenged them, but not in a condescending or insulting way. He forced us to defend our viewpoints, thereby helping us clarify what we thought. By the time we were done, we'd hammered out our beliefs and really thought about them. It was a thoroughly engaging, stimulating class. I came away from it feeling like we'd really gotten into the meat of the subject matter.
As far as feedback goes, I may get figuratively lynched for this, but my main concern is the Zionism & History of Israel class. I'd like to see the students get a more balanced view of Israel's history and current situation. It's a hot issue, that's for sure, but the simple fact of the matter is that Israel's history is not spotless, and the Israeli government doesn't always do the right thing. ITJ is a class for non-Jews or Jews who don't know much about Judaism, and given that, it felt a lot like the rabbi was taking the opportunity to mold the minds of the poor, ignorant goyim into hardline Zionists before they converted. I felt like I was being indoctrinated. I'm not anti-Zionist; I can appreciate the pro-Israel viewpoint. But I was disappointed to find such an anti-Arab bias in that and other classes. What really bothered me about it was the attitude from the rabbi that all but commanded us to think a certain way. The attitude was, "This issue unites all Jews. We all agree that Israel has the right to exist. There are many issues that divide us, but on this issue we all agree. If you're going to be Jews, you have to think this way too." This is simply not true. I know several anti-Zionist Jews, including a few that deny Israel's right to exist. There are Jews in Israel who believe the state of Israel shouldn't exist!
The point here is not to debate Israel's right to a state, the Palestinians' right to a state, a two-state solution, or any other aspect of the current conflict. The point is that it's not okay for a rabbi, a person in a position of Jewish authority, to tell a group of would-be converts that Jews unanimously agree on this or any other issue. It's completely misleading. Are we Jews or are we not? We never all agree on an issue, much less something as fiery and divisive as Middle East politics! That's what's great about being Jewish: there is room in the religion and the culture for disagreement and argument. Discussions about Zionism and Israel shouldn't be an exception to this rule. We don't have to agree on everything, even "sacred cows" like Israel.
Overall, the class was enjoyable. I enjoyed being around fellow gerim and having the space to think and speak about Jewish things every week. I wish you all much success with future classes.