Here is the link to the article I was refering to in my blog.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
This past week Newsweek and the Daily Beast came out with its list of the fifty most influential Rabbis in America. Sadly, I must admit that I didn’t make the list once again. Maybe I was close but who knows. I’ll try harder for next year’s list.
The list gives criterion for how the reviewers decide who gets onto the list. What I noticed that was different was that more women appeared on the list. That is a good thing. Second, I took a step back to acknowledge the fact that Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the titular head of Habad in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was rated number one this year for the most influential rabbi in America. For years Rabbi Krinsky was the second in command to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the famed and revered Lubavitch Rabbi that led Habad and touched many souls. His imprint is still felt upon Habad. Rabbi Krinsky does not pretend to have that kind of charisma but has continued to build the international organization of Habad throughout the world. The fact that a Hasidic rabbi in America garners the award for the most influential rabbi should give us all pause for reflection.
His number one status represents a great symbolic achievement for Habad. Who would have imagined decades ago that the most influential rabbi in America would have been a black hat rabbi from Crown Heights, Brooklyn? It is not just about Rabbi Krinisky. The underlying point is that this media ordained award demonstrates that the entire Habad movement is an equal player as any of the major branches of Judaism.
Having served congregations in communities where Habad rabbis also served, I can attest to the challenges of working with them. Their approach is not necessarily community based or collaborative. They do not generally join the rabbinical groups where rabbis from the other branches meet and discuss issues in the community. They refrain from being participants with other Jewish organizations in community based events. They choose to do their own thing and many times get a powerful constituency to follow and support them. Many of their successes are funded by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews let alone unaffiliated Jews. That constituency is really what they specialize in attracting. They are great at reaching out to the people on the fringes who just do not feel comfortable in more mainstream organizations. Sometimes it is about money and other times they see in the Habad movement rabbinical couples who run their synagogues with such passion and commitment which in turn draws a dedicated cadre into their community.
Trust me when I say that many of the major branches cry foul at the various strategies Habad employs to get publicity or, for example, convince political leaders to let them put their gigantic Hanukah menorahs on public property and light them at Hanukah. This always stirs anger from the mainstream Jewish community regarding the principle of prayer on public spaces. Yet they do it regardless.
On college campuses many of the Habad centers have garnered more student activity than the Hillel centers. A Hillel rabbi from my daughter’s campus said referring to the Habad rabbi on campus, “They are eating us up alive.” They have consistently good food for Shabbat. They invite everyone to the home of the rabbi and rebbetzin and they make people feel welcome into their community.
My own congregants have told me stories of how their children have become frum (pious and observant) and chosen an observant lifestyle. That does not always mean they chose Habad but it often happens that way. Habad does not look to attract the interfaith but they strive to reengage disaffected Jews on the streets and even in the prisons. They are outreach oriented in an equally powerful but different way than what Reform Judaism, for example, does by growing its outreach movement.
Rabbi Krinsky’s recognition as the number one most influential rabbi in America means that as much as we resent some of their tactics, Habad is part of the pantheon of major American branches of Judaism. In fact as much as we do not like to admit it, I think we could learn a lot by them. Their reach is worldwide and their rabbis’ willingness to go to the ends of the earth and put their livelihood on the line in far outreaching countries and communities should be a model for any young rabbi looking to make a difference in the world.
What is your view?
Have a continued great week of Passover.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Just as I am preparing for the last minute thoughts and interpretations for the Seder and the festival services of Passover, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Christians are and have been reshaping the Passover Seder and using a Christian lens to redefine it as Christian ritual. Most of the interpretations surrounding this new practice relate to the Christian attraction to the age old belief that Jesus’ Last Supper must have been a Passover Seder. Thus by reenacting the Seder in this context, Christians are actually growing in their appreciation of the Jewish roots of Jesus. In addition the writer of the article, Diane Cole, wrote that some Christian groups really resonate with the symbolism of the four cups of wine and the matzah as symbolic hints to the blood and body of Jesus.
I have to admit that reading these kinds of articles really nags at my heels. It is the classic dilemma for the modern rabbi. We want to create an inclusive environment for interfaith families and we want to share the teachings of Judaism outside the walls of the congregation to the community at large. Yet I find myself shaking my head saying that there are consequences to sharing. I remember a Christian colleague and good friend of mine calling me up one day asking if I could lend him a chuppah for an interfaith wedding he was performing. These kinds of situations remind us that America is all about sharing culture and religion. Isn’t that a good thing? Is it a good thing when one day we will adapting Muslim holidays like Ramadan and calling them Christian and Jewish feasts?
This can only happen in America. Is it a good thing? Maybe, if keeping the peace is the issue. But resorting to that kind of diversity at the cost of losing our roots and religious continuity cannot be a good thing. Surely there must be a middle ground to learning about other people’s religious traditions and respecting them as they are versus deciding that one has the right to do whatever they want to reshape them regardless of what they mean to the religion itself.
There should be a sense of integrity and respect for diversity without having to take these rites and hurl them into a completely different cultural and religious milieu. For example, I used to lead model Seders for Christian churches and they loved learning the history and the rich symbolism of Passover. But that did not mean that they and their minister would say, “We can do this and then turn it into the moment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Yea, that works!”
But in America that is exactly how it does work! It is sad in some regard because I realize that Jews who want so desperately to fit in to American life and fear doing anything that would cast us into outsider status will stay silent. The fact that interfaith marriage has changed the religious landscape of American Jewry is another factor to consider in achieving a balance for families who practices both religions. I would hope that Christians married to Jews and raising Jewish children will educate their Christian families and friends to think about what it means to take someone else’s religious traditions and then substitute a completely different meaning for the rituals that took thousands of years to develop. I hope that is not too much to ask. The same obligation should be said as applying to the Jewish partner for their Christian spouse’s religious heritage.
I can certainly understand how my Christian colleagues get upset when they see how American commercial culture has turned Christmas into a secular holiday and extracted out of the holiday all the religious content that went into making it sacred for Christians all over the world.
Let me give you another example. I am not an American Indian. That does not mean that I do not respect the rituals and traditions of Native American religion and culture. I do. I can sit and read their poetry and be inspired and listen to their sages tell stories of their world view and feel enriched. That does not mean I will go out and actually redefine their rituals as Jewish ones that should be part of my synagogue’s liturgy.
You see the issue is not just about the Passover Seder or Hanukah or Christmas holidays staying true to each religion’s own traditions. It is, however, about teaching Americans to understand and respect these holy days and ceremonies in their own historic and theological framework. I also believe that people of faith should learn the history of their own faith tradition and its connection to the Jewish faith before unilaterally and sometimes impulsively deciding to incorporate such rituals into their religious systems. And that goes for any religious institution considering adopting a new ritual from another religion into their own community’s religious practices. A bit of humility and respect for history goes a long way.