I know the country is open to a renaissance of spiritual-moral values, and the rabbis kill it. We have a rabbinate that has absolutely no connection to the people, no understanding of Jewish history, no understanding of the Zionist revolution.
As this quotation from our interview with the unorthodox thinker indicates, Hartman’s is a voice that challenges all types of conventions. Our show with him is airing on more than 250 public radio stations across the U.S. this week and via our podcast. If you want the unexpurgated version (like all our interviews), we’ve made the mp3 available too. How’s that for transparency!
Walking a Constant Tightrope Between Vulnerability and Responsibility
by Krista Tippett, host
It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.
Tattoos and Torah: One Woman’s Journey to the Rabbinate
by Robyn Carolyn Price, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Rabbi Rochelle Kamins has not always felt Jewish enough. No youth group or summer camp. She never did all of the things that young Jewish people were “supposed” to do. But she always wanted to feel like she fit, and that she could belong — tattoos, motorcycles, and all. Relaxed in her office at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades where she is the youth activities director, Rabbi Rochelle talks candidly about her non-traditional road to the rabbinate and why she doesn’t plan on conforming anytime soon.
“I think everyone has an image of a rabbi,” says Rabbi Rochelle laughing. “They think old white man with a beard and big hat. Just like when you ask most kids what God looks like, he is still the man on the cloudy throne in the sky.”
Rabbi Rochelle is a bit of an anomaly. Adorned with tattoos, albeit inconspicuously, she drives her Honda CBR F4i motorcycle through Los Angeles traffic en route to perform one of her rabbinic duties. Ordained in 2009 as a Reform rabbi, she has built an image on being different and welcoming people into Judaism that might not fit the mold.
Her goal is to make change in the Jewish community — in the way that Jews look at other Jews. She has a passion that stems from a lifetime of feeling like people were looking at her as if she could not be a part of the community, because she didn’t participate in all of the things that constituted being a “good” Jew. As a rabbi, she aims to help people foster connections within the community while being a reflection of what she believes are different, yet acceptable routes to Judaism.
She tells the story of a couple who asked her to perform their wedding on a Saturday, the day of rest in Judaism where working or getting married is against tradition. The couple grew up Jewish and were interested in maintaining a Jewish household, however were not currently connected to a synagogue. They shared with her horror stories of other rabbis who had refused to perform the ceremony and told the couple that they were not Jewish because of their decision to get married on Shabbat.
“I had a conversation with them and explained the tradition,” recalls Rabbi Rochelle. “The date and the place for their wedding was already set. Is it the worse thing in the world? No. The worst thing in the world would be if the next rabbi said no. And the next rabbi said no, and the next. Then they would be lost. Why would anyone come into a community if they feel like the door keeps getting slammed in their face?”
Raised in San Francisco by her mother, a more traditional Jew from the Bronx, and her father, an L.A. Socialist Jew, Rabbi Rochelle’s experience was anything but traditional. “How the two of them came together and created a rabbi is anyone’s guess,” chuckles Rabbi Rochelle.
Her upbringing, however, cultivated a sensitivity for Jewish people whose lives did not fit perfectly within the boundaries of traditional Jewish practice or thought. “My dad’s parents were basically communists,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “You know L.A. Socialists had meetings in their house. One of my grandparents’ good friends was a lawyer who was defending people at the Supreme Court during the Red Scare and all of that. My dad’s father was very anti-organized religion. He was all about science and reason. My grandfather was like, ‘Oh sure you can have a bar mitzvah, if you believe in that.”
Her father, who is in his sixties, never had a bar mitzvah until she performed it last November. “We had a deal,” says Rabbi Rochelle with a smile. “He said he would have a bar mitzvah when I could be the rabbi. It was pretty cool.”
Her mother shares that her daughter’s decision to become a rabbi came as a huge surprise: “I knew after she went to college that she would do something with kids and Judaism, but had no idea that she would take this route.”
Veering from the beaten path has become one of Rabbi Rochelle’s hallmarks. She successfully petitioned UC San Diego to allow her to create her own undergraduate major in Modern Israeli Society and Israeli Culture. And in rabbinical school she wrote her thesis on the question of tattoos in Judaism, “The Illustrated Jew: A New Jewish Perspective on Tattoos,” hoping to give a reference to people like herself that were trying to find a balance between the secular world and their Judaism.
“I did a ton of research before I got my tattoos,” she says. “And I eventually came to the conclusion that body art did not make God angry with me or make me a bad Jew. I am not a bad person and I live my life with integrity.”
Rabbi Rochelle’s body is adorned with two tattoos, although the second one can hardly be considered a single tattoo. It initially started off as a tattoo on her back that spelled the word “love” in the shape of a heart. It has since morphed into an olive tree, which makes the heart appear more like a carving in the tree. The olive tree has special significance in Judaism.
The word emet, meaning “truth” in Hebrew, is tattooed on her hip and was designed to look like it was written on her body with a black Sharpie. The tattoo’s placement was carefully chosen, as she wanted it to be a bit hidden, just for her, and to serve as a reminder to always walk in truth and integrity.
Walking in truth and integrity for Rabbi Rochelle has not always been an easy road to travel. Adopting the unpopular position that someone’s sexual preference, body art, or piercings has nothing to do with their spirituality has presented its fair share of challenges. She is aware that she might be looked at as a bit of an outsider, and is sometimes referred for jobs that quite possibly nobody else will take. Weddings on a Saturday. An interfaith wedding with a minister. She gets the impression at times that people refer these jobs to her because they think, “Oh, it’s Rochelle, she’ll do anything.” That just because she is open in some ways, that she has no boundaries or rules, that there is no method to her madness.
“So many people go through the motions,” says Rabbi Rochelle. “They go to religious school. They do the things, but there is no real connection. I want people to stay connected and to let people know that even if they feel different, like they don’t fit or they don’t belong, there is still room here. You know, they say that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides, so that visitors or people coming from any direction — he could greet them. I really think that is what the synagogue should be and that is what a rabbi should be. A rabbi is like Abraham, open on all sides and ready to welcome anyone in when they are ready and from whichever direction they come.”
Robyn Carolyn Price is native of Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University, and studied in Florence, Italy. She is currently a Masters Candidate in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism. Her specialization is American politics and its effects on marginalized communities.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
One Voice in a Jewish Spiritual Renaissance
by Krista Tippett, host
At the beginning of my conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.
Our show “Days of Awe” (listen in the audio above) evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature’s messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like “living like there’s no tomorrow” into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and rituals of the High Holy Days that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshipers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.
We wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this show, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for “essence,” or “core.” Her congregation is bursting at the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.
Solemn words like “repentance” and “atonement” define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don’t capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.
There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other younger guests I’ve had, such as Shane Claiborne or Eboo Patel, but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.
In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that “the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.” And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.
Title Fight: The Boxing Rabbi
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Checking up on the results of the Manny Pacquiao fight on Sunday, my attention was diverted by another headline: “aspiring rabbi claims piece of 154-pound title.” Not exactly what one expects to see on ESPN.
“When I got the title shot, I was really focused and it’s very satisfying because I have been dreaming about this since childhood. I am very, very proud to do this for Israel and Brooklyn and to show that Jews can fight.”
Yuri Foreman, who emigrated with his parents from Belarus to Israel and now lives in Brooklyn, is in the final year of his rabbinical training. The undefeated boxer said of his multi-tasking disciplines, “It just shows that you can do many things. You can be a world champion and you can be a rabbi,” but later commented, “Boxing is something I probably would not advise yeshiva (school) students to do but this is what I do.”
I can’t imagine the discipline it takes to simultaneously study to be a rabbi and an elite athlete, but I marvel at the accomplishment and would love to be in the yeshiva when he returns to school.
Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
» download (mp3, 15:19)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of “Marriage, Family, and Divorce.” Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.
Top Rabbis and Orthodox Voices
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Earlier this week, I wrote about a photograph of a Lubavitch assembly. In response to a comment in our Flickr community, I was doing some research and happened upon a couple of lists about the top 50 most influential rabbis and the top 25 rabbis from the pulpit. Sharon Brous, the Conservative rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, from our Days of Awe program was included in both. Not only is she young and vibrant, she’s also one of the few women on these lists. She’s worth paying attention to in the years to come.
Also, Ari (the aforementioned commenter) encouraged us to speak with some Orthodox Jewish voices for future programs. Perhaps Rabbi Schneerson would be a good biographical portrait to pursue. Any other suggestions? (Note, these don’t have to be rabbis.)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
This photo [see here] by Marc Asnin has intrigued me for years now, long before I began this gig at SOF. The sheer density and composition of the image feels almost painterly, and I think that’s why I enjoy it so much — not to mention the wealth of characters. The scene is also a reminder that this boy from NoDak (short hand for North Dakota) must constantly seek out new worlds of thinking and ways of living and discussing.
This crowded room of Lubavitcher men in the heart of Brooklyn are fully engaged and attentive to the words of their leader, the late Rabbi Schneerson. I see them listening to him with the utmost reverence, but as discerning believers who are not passive, but questioning and challenging. What a different world than the prairie Catholic one I grew up in!
I think about this photo every so often when I start resigning myself to another place — particularly today during our staff meeting. I reminded myself to tune in, listen to my colleagues respectfully, engage, and then remind myself of Edward Tufte’s (the guru of information design) call to action, “If you don’t fight for your content, who will.”
A Jewish Santa Claus
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
This wonderful anecdote about the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel brings deeper meaning to the holiday season and cultural relations:
“In 1965, after walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was at the Montgomery, Ala., airport, trying to find something to eat. A surly woman behind the snack-bar counter glared at Heschel — his yarmulke and white beard making him look like an ancient Hebrew prophet — and mockingly proclaimed: “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her, until now.” She told Heschel that there was no food to be had.
In response, according to a new biography, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 by Edward K. Kaplan (Yale), Heschel simply smiled. He gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?” Yes, she acknowledged. “Is it possible that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?” Perhaps, she admitted. Well, then, Heschel said, if you boiled the eggs in the water, “that would be just fine.”
She shot back, “And why should I?”
“Why should you?” Heschel said. “Well, after all, I did you a favor.”
“What favor did you ever do me?”
“I proved,” he said, “there was a Santa Claus.”
And after the woman’s burst of laughter, food was quickly served.
What a fabulous story; I can’t wait until we do our program on this great man.