Loving the Stranger, Even When He’s Estranged

Originally published on

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed some radical reconfiguring of my own views on inclusivity and exclusivity in Jewish community and Jewish tradition. I’ve become much more conscious of the ways we speak about Jews of multiple heritages, Jews born into other faiths, etc.

From the time I was a kid (I’m going to guess the seventh grade, when we spent a year of Hebrew School learning about the Holocaust), I have been very uncomfortable by any reference to Jews as a race. (“That’s how Hitler defined us!” I was trained to think.) But I never really thought about the concept of “Jewish Blood” as anything other than metaphor until BatyaD objected to the phrase in a comment on this blog.

Her comment got me thinking about the way we speak of converts. There’s a somewhat accepted, conventional (dare I say “traditional?”) narrative of the “Jewish soul” that many people use to conceptualize conversion into the Jewish faith. Somehow, the idea that converts were born Jewish but just didn’t know it yet is supposed to make someone feel more comfortable about including them in the Jewish people. This bothers me. If someone finds that the teachings of Judaism feel like the appropriate framework for her life, and wants to cast her lot in with the Jewish people, I don’t know what benefit there is to say “it was predestined.” Jews, to the best of my understanding, don’t believe in predestination anyway.

But there’s another problem with this creepy Jewish soul business. Often, the self-same proponents of “they were born Jewish but just didn’t know it” (guess God makes mistakes?) are those insisting that if you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish no matter whether you renounce Judaism or take on some other religion or no religion or what have you. This, to me, feels hypocritical. I don’t see how we can accept the idea of people converting into Judaism while denying the possibility of people earnestly and honestly leaving Judaism for another path. Either souls can get born into the “wrong” religion or not. Either people can determine appropriate frameworks for their own lives or not.

I know I’m largely (but not entirely) preaching to the choir here, but I had to get this off my chest. I feel better already. Having Faith in the Media

Originally published on

When I was in high school, one of the stops on USY‘s Israel tours was The Propaganda Center. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t actually its name, but I defy you to google “Israel propaganda center” and come up with anything useful. Regardless, this place was supposed to teach us about spotting bias in the media. Although I went there twice during high school, I don’t remember the specifics — some of it involved seeing how Hitler’s media peeps used images of Kosher slaughter to make Jews look like devil-worshippers with bloodlust. What I do remember is that even though I was already aware that pretty much all media had some sort of bias, watching the folks at The Propaganda Center poke holes in actual news stories forever changed the way I read the news about Israel (and much of the news in general).

Blind SpotAbout a month ago, I had a similar experience that has changed the way I read the news, only this time it was in book form. Reading Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion was an experience of consciousness-raising. The anthology, edited by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Roberta Green Ahmanson, takes contemporary newsmedia to task for misunderstanding and sometimes simply missing critical stories because of an epidemic of ignorance about religion in the world’s newsrooms. Some of the stories analyzed are what you’d expect: Iraq, Iran, terrorism, etc… but perhaps the most interesting chapters cover the ways a misunderstanding of religion crippled the reporting of George W. Bush’s reelection, the hooplah surrounding The Passion of the Christ, and faith-based humanitarian programs. (The best “fun fact” I took away from the book, however, relates to the 24-hour cable news stations. Turns out they get higher marks than most other news outlets. Since they have so much time to fill with only so many stories happening on any given day, they’ve taken to exploring many more angles for each story simply out of necessity. That doesn’t make them any less annoying.)

Naturally, I approached the book searching for bias. After all, this could have easily been a conservative screed against the Liberal Media Elite. And to be fair, there’s a little of of that in evidence. But part of the book’s point is that religion doesn’t always equal conservatism, and that outlook is a huge part of the problem to begin with. So, for example, when religious liberals and religious conservatives banded together to champion human rights legislation (such as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004), the remarkable alliances at work were overlooked in most press. This does everyone a disservice, especially the end-consumers of the news who end up with a flattened and inaccurate view of the world.

The book avoids one of my pet peeves (whining about a problem without offering a solution). The final section of the book is called “Getting it Right,” and includes an article about some notable exceptions to the trend, and another with recommendations for the future. Of course, some of the recommendations, which include something akin to an affirmative action program to place more religiously connected people in newsrooms, may not be so realistic in these end times of traditional media. But at the very least, those writing the news should be aware of their own blind spots and look for collaborations that will enrich their understanding of the stories of the day. Even the most casual observer of world events can see that the place of religion in shaping our day isn’t getting any smaller, so we owe it to ourselves to meet the challenge of understanding head-on.

Livejournal: Telling Old Stories Anew

Originally published on my long-defunct Livejournal.

One of the most formative influences on my Jewish identity is, for good and for ill, the years I spent (and continue to spend) involved with USY. In the New England Region, we have a tradition that whenever the region spends Shabbat together, the regional president tells a Jewish story before mincha. Through my years as a USYer, I heard dozens of Jewish folktales. (I have since learned that some of these stories even have authors, and original versions! But at the time, I never connected their tellings and retellings to Peretz and Singer and the rest. Thank goodness for graduate school. But I digress.) As regional president, it fell to me to tell the stories, so I devoured collections of Yiddish tales and Chasidic tales and listened carefully when rabbis and friends told stories that I might adapt. In the years since, there have been many opportunities for me to hear successive generations of USY presidents tell stories, and on more than one occasion the current president has asked me to tell him or her a story in case I might have one that’s usable.

One story that seemed to continually resurface in USY went something like this:

There was a town that had a group of holy men, and every year they would go out to the secret, appointed place with their secret, special implements to perform their secret, specific ceremony involving the secret, precise way to light a fire and the changing of a secret and beautiful prayer, and God was happy. As generations passed, the group of holy men dwindled until there was only one holy man left who knew the location of the secret place, the way to make the secret implements, the order of the secret ceremony, the procedure for lighting the secret fire, and the words to the secret prayer. But he faithfully enacted the ceremony every year and God was happy. When he passed away it fell to his son, who could not find the secret place, so he took the implements to a new place where performed the secret ceremony, lit the secret fire and chanted the secret poem. And God was happy. When he passed away, his son no longer knew how to make the implements, so… you get the idea. Until we come to today, where there’s no one left who even knows whether God is happy or not.

The story is a very effective precautionary tale against assimilation, reinforcing the importance of teaching our traditions to successive generations. But today, the story seems all wrong to me. There’s a piece missing. If a generation has lost their way to a holy place, perhaps the holiness of that place did not resonate with them. But instead telling the story that they compromised by doing their ceremony any place, shouldn’t we celebrate their ingenuity at finding a new place that holds meaning for them? And instead of despairing that a later generation forgot the poem or the melody or the fire, why not celebrate that generation’s yearning to approach God with their own words, with new music, with a different, personal ritual?

In my story, that’s exactly what happens. And next time I have the opportunity to share a Jewish story, I know exactly what story I’m going to tell.