Tag Archives: Judaism

The Kosher Higgs Boson

by Daniela Enriquez

Last week, on the Fourth of July, while most Americans were celebrating their Independence Day, scientists working at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) finally discovered the Higgs Boson, also known as “the God particle.” The entire scientific world celebrated the announcement, which signaled a new era of human knowledge. Israeli scientists were among the researchers who shared in this success. Eilam Gross, a member of the team and a professor at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, said: “When I walk around now and see the trees, I feel better connected to nature.”

Don’t worry if you’re not so interested or think that your life doesn’t seem so different than it did a week ago. I wasn’t thrilled about the sensational news either, until I ran across a number of articles about the religious consequences of this discovery and the relationship between the Higgs Boson and God. “God?” I thought. Why should He be affected by this human discovery? Why should religious people be worried about it? What does Higgs’s idea have to do with monotheism, with God or the Torah?

I started to read about the topic, trying to understand the relevance of this human achievement, and to figure out why such a small particle should be of such great importance to the Jews. I got lost in the midst of incomprehensible scientific descriptions and names, tried becoming acquainted with electromagnetism and the weak force, read articles about protons, electrons and neutrons.

I can’t say I totally understood the role of the Higgs Boson in our universe, but here is what I’ve managed to suss out:

1. The Higgs Boson is responsible for the mass of everything existing in the universe.

2. It controls the speed of protons and electrons.

3. Thus, it makes possible a structured universe, rather than an uncontrolled flow of energy.

By studying the Higgs Boson, scientists will be able to find an explanation to the beginning of the universe–a universe that is the result of a cosmic explosion, not created by God, but governed by natural laws that humans, finally, will be able to explain.

Is it okay for Jews to believe in such a world—come to life thanks to a huge collision, rather than one created by God? Is it okay to accept the idea of a world whose perfection depends on a tiny particle? There is a midrash, in Bereshit Rabba 1, about the letter Bet—the first letter of the Torah. The midrash asks why the world was created with a Bet. The answer? Because only one of its four sides is open—and open in the direction of the text. Thus, human beings can investigate only what has happened since the creation of the world, and not what is before, behind and above them.

Well, apparently this isn’t true anymore. Humans, it seems, are going to discover the entire history of the world, up to the very beginning, whether they are ready for it or not. It seems that religion and science are ready to collide and confront each other once again in the battle between creation and evolution.

Like many, I’ve always thought that in the modern era, religion and science could work together, as religion and philosophy did during the Middle Ages—as Maimonides seemed to be sure of.

But the question still remains: Is the Higgs Boson kosher?

Maybe yes. As Natan Slifkin writes on his website, rationalistjudaism.com: “In light of the foregoing, would Judaism not be justified in viewing this idea of a universal unity, which inquiring minds have already pieced together from the textbook of the universe and which man’s consciousness yearns to express, as nothing less than the long-awaited triumph of the truth of Judaism? This is the truth with which, thousands of years ago, Judaism first appeared in the midst of a chaotic multitude of gods, proclaiming that there is only one, sole God in heaven and on earth, and that all the phenomena of the universe are founded upon His Law. This idea, the concept of the Unity of God, is the truth for which Judaism has endured a course of martyrdom without parallel in world history. And so, I would firmly conclude that the discovery of the Higgs Boson is Good For The Jews”.

Maybe the idea of the world starting from a small subatomic element is anything but against Judaism. Maybe there is still room for dialogue between the most Orthodox rabbi and the most liberal scientist.

Or room for compromise. We discovered the particle responsible for the existence of the entire universe—but where did the Higgs Boson come from? Who created it? Or, isn’t it true that the world “Bereshit” could be translated as “with the principle” rather then “in the beginning”?

Maybe in the end it’s not so wrong to call it the God particle.

Environmental Activism: Good For The Jews?

by Kara A. Kaufman

As we feel the heat this summer–the unpleasant, sweaty results of global warming– we wondered: How are Jewish organizations working on issues like climate change?

As part of a series on faith and the environment, Moment interviewed Sybil Sanchez, the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. COEJL, which is part of the larger Jewish Council for Public Affairs, strategically partners with a host of organizations to conserve energy and support policies that encourage sustainability. In the process, it helps to expand notions of Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving kindness) and tzedek (justice).

Read lightly edited excerpts below, or listen to the full interview.

What got you interested in this work?

I’ve been working in the Jewish community on issues and advocacy and social-justice-related human rights stuff since 1999, and so I’ve always had a passion for social justice and human rights and universal issues and the Jewish connection to that. Before working in the Jewish community, I worked in the Balkans on conflict issues, and learned a lot there about community and how people connect to their community while also asking some very deep kind of personal theological questions about the nature of humanity. And so these various components in my life really brought me to care much more deeply about the environment and about God’s creation and our connection and role with it as stewards of creation and as Jews.

How do you see Judaism and the environment speaking to and interacting with one another?

There are actually many answers to that question. COEJL has been around for 20 years as of next year, and since that time, we’ve been delving into the question, “What’s Jewish about the environment?” But now we’ve really covered some ground in terms of looking at our texts, looking at the Torah, looking at our history as an agrarian society and how Judaism developed as a religion, looking at our holidays, which all bear with them inherent environmental messages because they are all based on the agricultural cycle in Israel. Even our calendar—the lunar calendar—is based on the way the planet functions.

What are the programs that COEJL has been most involved in over the past few years? What have those programs succeeded in doing? What are the next steps?

We have three or four specific areas of programs that we work on. We have a campaign called the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The most basic part of that campaign is a declaration that 53 national leaders have signed on to. It’s a commitment they’ve made to reduce their energy use 14 percent by the fall of 2014 as a matter of justice and as a matter of protecting the environment.

What’s the significance of those 14 and 2014 numbers?

2014 in the fall starts the year of our next shmita cycle or sabbatical year. Traditionally, that is when in Israel you would let the land lay fallow, and it’s based on a whole biblical cycle of sevens. So we chose that symbolically.

We’re also developing a new network called the Jewish Energy Network to engage interested individuals who want to receive training around energy issues and bring that training back to their home community or to their affiliated organization.

Given the fact that climate change and species extinctions—a lot of these environmental issues—can seem daunting to all of us, what message would you leave us with to inspire us with some hope?

Well, I really find guidance in the quote by Rabbi Tarfon that says, “Ours is not to complete the task, nor is it ours to desist from it.” I think that’s important to remember. Another sort of catch phrase I use in my own personal work is that “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” It’s important for me, because I tend to be a perfectionist, and I think that when people look at climate change or look at the environment, they can be very harsh on themselves about what they’re doing. On the one hand, we need to have standards and have a sense of what’s right, but on the other hand, I think we need to do that compassionately and that we have to have compassion for ourselves in order to have it for others. It’s important to remember that we’re not alone.

The Three-Hour Diet

by Rebecca Borison

Thanksgiving never really manages to excite me. Yes, it’s nice to be with family, but the whole feast aspect just isn’t that novel. I have that at least twice a week. It’s called Shabbat.

Judaism is deeply rooted in its attachment to the culinary arts. We like to eat. A lot.  While many Americans enjoy a piece of chicken and some broccoli for their Friday dinner, we’re working our way through challah, chicken soup, brisket, mashed potatoes, squash and brownies.

It’s no secret that food is an important aspect of our religion and culture. And sometimes this runs the risk of bolstering the “overeating epidemic.” It’s not easy to maintain healthy portions at the Shabbat table.

And yet Judaism still provides some opportunity for healthy eating. Unfortunately, it has yet to be scientifically proven that kosher food is better for you. Though some people, in the search for a path to healthy eating, choose kosher foods because they seem healthier, there’s no evidence to support the belief.

What keeping kosher does offer is the “three-hour diet.” In addition to the traditional separation of dairy and meat products, there are various customs regulating how long one should wait in between meat and milk. Some say that simply leaving the table is enough; others say that you should wait six hours after eating meat before you can eat dairy products. Many wait three hours, but you could easily adjust the title of the diet to the “six-hour diet” or even the “one-hour diet.” (Though I’m not sure an hour of no snacking would have much of an impact.)

What difference does it make if you can’t eat dairy for three hours after you eat meat products? You don’t snack. Sure, there are some flaws to this diet: not all snacks are dairy, and if you’re a vegetarian, this won’t work at all. But, if you do eat chicken or meat for lunch, and you abide by the traditional kashrut laws, that means you won’t be able to eat ice cream for three hours.

I know my biggest struggle with dieting is willpower. If I see a scrumptious-looking piece of cake in front of me, it’s just so hard to say no. But if it’s not up to me, if religious mandate dictates that I refrain, then I just can’t have the piece of cake. It’s a no-brainer.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a panacea. If anything, it serves to balance out the ubiquity of food in Judaism. So if I eat a mind-boggling amount of food at Shabbat lunch, the next three hours are a no-snack zone, and I can give my body a little bit of rest from the eating. And if I do reach for the pareve jelly beans, they’re fat-free, so it’s no big deal, right?

Judaism Goes Green

by Kara A. Kaufman

Throughout the past several decades, organizations like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Teva Learning Center and Hazon—as well as many others—have sprung up seemingly out of thin air. Their major goal? To couple religious teachings and belief with environmental stewardship. Their actions have the potential to enrich what it means to be part of the environmental movement today.

To many of us, environmental challenges may seem beyond our control, and outside the scope of our religious beliefs. But in many ways our faith-based texts, customs, holidays and laws can guide us as we attempt to live harmoniously with the other species—and other people—who share our planet. For instance, several biblical and rabbinic laws encourage humans to use natural resources, yet limit our consumption in key ways. To give two examples: The Bible allows us to farm the land, yet instructs us to leave the lands fallow every seven years; and we may destroy things in order to build new ones, yet the rabbinic principle of bal tashchit forbids us from wanton destruction or wastefulness.

In a manner reminiscent of biblical and rabbinic mandates to constrain our resource consumption, today’s leading scientists are beginning to calculate these very limitations of our planet. In a 2009 article published in Nature, 28 of the international community’s most renowned scientists called biodiversity, climate change and ocean acidification three of nine “planetary boundaries” critical to our own survival. It seems that ancient laws, customs, and holidays are increasingly relevant given modern environmental crises.

This post is the first in a series about the intersections between faith and the environment. The series will explore a number of related questions and issues. Topics include the shape of a Jewish environmental ethic, differences between Israeli and American viewpoints and examples of environmental action from within the Jewish and other faith communities. It will feature written articles as well as video and audio podcasts, broad discussion as well as individual profiles.

I invite you to engage with this topic with the question: What do you think of when you hear the words “Jewish environmental ethic?” Please post your comments below or email them to kkaufmanATmomentmag.com. Through all of our participation, this series aims to foster a rich dialogue about faith, our interactions with each other and our relationship to the natural world.

A Vietnamese Yom Kippur

by Kelley Kidd

A Yom Kippur spent fasting on the beautiful island paradise of Phu Quoc, in Vietnam, is not my typical Day of Atonement. But somehow that’s where I found myself, fasting after a seaside dinner in a bungalow. I stayed up late that night gazing into the sea reflecting, and wondering at its vastness. The next day, an early morning moto ride led us to a waterfall in a secluded jungle, where I splashed in the water and lost a flip flop, but where I also took the time to sit on a tree branch with water rushing across my legs and meditate. I considered my resolutions for the coming year, considered what I had noticed in my life that I wanted to change and to improve, and what to keep. I focused on my desire to be more courageous and open, and to live with gratitude, and as I gazed at the beauty around me, I made it my goal to find that kind of peace, joy and beauty in my life every day.

By 10:30 that morning, I was on a private boat out on the water, awed by the absolute beauty of the sparkling water and sunshine. In keeping with my resolutions, I went snorkeling and jumped off the top of the boat a few times—things I would often have been too timid to try. I spent the entire day in a state of wonder at the world, and my own life, and made a conscious effort to focus in on it, savor it, and pay attention to it so that I could preserve that sense of gratitude.

By most standards, this is not what Yom Kippur generally looks like. However, I don’t think that spending my Yom Kippur in hungry bliss detracted from the meaning or experience of the holiday. On the contrary, rather than spending the day exclusively in backwards-looking repentance (which I do also appreciate, as I actually love Yom Kippur), I was able to spend it looking forward to the new year as a time in which I wanted to incorporate the beauty, gratitude and wonder connected to its beginning.

To me, this meant that the traditional way is not even close to the only way, but rather, that personalized approaches can bring value and renewed meaning to faith and practice. Another blog inspired by the idea is the Wandering Jew, written by Ben Harris, who seems to share my appreciation for adventurous Judaism. He traipsed across the Jewish world and traced his experiences, many of which revolved around learning from non-traditional, and even many non-Jewish, sources. None of this detracts from its value. Similarly, I find that a Jew can experience Judaism even far removed from it.

The Jewish people are by no means a global majority, despite our capacity to maintain a sense of community and collectivity no matter where we may be. But our frequent isolation from the majority around us means that we must also cultivate a personal understanding of faith, one that can manifest itself even far from anything familiar or typically Jewish. By making Judaism my own, I am able to access it anywhere, because it exists within me, rather than as something I need to take in from outside.

Twenty (Jewish) Questions

by Kelley Kidd

Monday night, I sat in traffic in a taxi outside the Washington Convention Center as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gala (addressed by Benjamin Netanyahu) went on inside. Protest groups shouted out against a potential war in Iran.  My taxi driver, an Iranian himself, mumbled to me that “these people do not want their tax money funding another war.” The sentiment  seemed consistent with the shouts and signage of the people gathered outside the conference who called for “diplomacy, not bombs.” They, and other anti-AIPAC groups, have expressed fears that AIPAC wants war on Iran, a road they do not want to see America go down. Even President Obama cautioned that we must not disregard “the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world” before jumping into war. For Jews who stand in support of our homeland, it may be easy to side automatically with Netanyahu and Israeli president Shimon Peres in the view that the use of force, even war, is merited in averting a nuclear Iran. However, I think President Obama made a worthwhile point in bringing up “the weightiness of these issues.” The questions posed at AIPAC are worth serious, involved consideration; without lending support to either side, I believe it’s important to remember that both sides require in-depth consideration. Blind faith in any ideology is one of the most dangerous justifications for action. Historically, submission to unchecked and unexamined philosophies has been known to facilitate mass atrocities, the kind we are obliged to remember and prevent. Jewish tradition values examination and possible dissent from everything, even the very word of God.

The Jewish tradition of  “wrestling with God,” as in the story of Jacob, is not only a meaningful path to belief, but also a necessary part of our approach to practical and even political concerns. Challenging, examining and really putting the full force of consideration into finding belief helps you to construct fully formed opinions that you can truly support, even when faced with opposition. Judaism places a premium on understanding, learning, study and deep consideration, so much so that it is at the heart of much of our tradition. In the Torah itself, our forefathers even challenge God’s sense of justice. Abraham famously pleads for God to reconsider his destruction of Sodom, and his plea receives God’s consideration. Moses questions the justice of the “first draft” of the Ten Commandments, in which children will be punished for the sins of their fathers for four ensuing generations. God, upon hearing Moses’s wisdom, agrees to “nullify my words and confirm yours.” Both times, human evaluation leads God to reconsider, showing us that we must never leave the words of even the most decisive authority unexamined.

Looking beyond our biblical past, the importance of thoughtfulness in Jewish tradition is also illustrated by the breadth, depth and variation in Talmud. The study of Talmud demands that no stone is left unturned—“confronted with a statement on any subject, the Talmudic student will proceed to raise a series of questions before he satisfies himself of having understood its full meaning.” The student must search in depth for full meaning, reading between the lines, delving into implications and principles, making note of subtleties to find an underlying message that reconciles apparent contradictions. Our Talmud sets for us the example of questioning what seems readily apparent, searching for and evaluating every possible meaning before coming to a conclusion. In Judaism today, we introduce the “big questions” to our children early on. Each year on Passover, the youngest of the children present asks the Four Questions, demonstrating the importance of inquiry and understanding.

Judaism teaches us to never be afraid to demand and search for answers, and when we aren’t too scared to ask the tough questions, we can become confident in our own answers. God and Torah teach us never to settle for the simple response, for less than full understanding, even when this means facing multifaceted issues in all their complexity. When it comes to politics and Israel, I think that our people’s tradition of “wrestling” holds particular importance—in the maintenance of our Holy Land and homeland, holding fast to our tradition is crucial, and that means never settling for the unexamined questions.


Judaism without Belief in God? Moment Readers Say Yes

Moment Magazine is pleased to announce the winners of the inaugural Elephant in the Room essay contest. This year’s question, “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?” elicited wide-ranging, thought-provoking responses. Essays covered a broad variety of ideas, but an overwhelming majority said it was possible to live a full, rewarding Jewish life without belief in any higher power.

This year’s winners are Craig Hanoch, an Orthodox Jew and author of a forthcoming book on Judaism and nihilism from Highland Park, NJ; Rebecca Van Horn, a 2009 graduate of Bowdoin College working in Chicago as a community and labor organizer; and New York-based Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and, previously, the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, where he wrote a soon-to-be-published book on Jewish memory.

“These essays were selected not only for their eloquence, but also for their clear and thoughtful voice and perspective,” says Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of Moment Magazine.

“To be a Jew is to stand trembling in the embrace of the essential mystery of humanity, that we are possessed of questions we cannot answer,” wrote Hanoch in his essay. “The most secular physicist peering into the far reaches of the universe and the most devout Hasid, swaying at prayer, struggle daily with these same fundamental questions: Why life? Why this here and now rather than something else, rather than nothing at all?”

Wrote Van Horn: “I am the elephant in the room, the Jew who makes us question whether or not it’s possible to claim a monotheistic religion when you question theism.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish without a belief in God, but I know what it’s like to be me, Jew-ish, and not know if I believe in God. I have watered down a big, beautiful religion steeped in thousands of years of history and tradition into my own personal story that views its foundation as a choice. I stand in Rosh Hashanah services and bow my head, praying to no one. And yet, still I pray.”

Kurtzer’s response addressed the importance of the Jewish community moving away from belief as a “litmus test for serious Jewishness (and much less Jewishness altogether).”  He wrote: “Jewishness has always been about book, and not canon; tradition, more than authority; journey, rather than arrival. Our communities must model this, with fluid boundaries, fewer tests of belonging, and a kind of radical and desperate pluralism that we – in spite of more and more institutions that model denominational pluralism – still have yet to achieve.

The goal of the contest is to encourage conversation about topics that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss openly in traditional venues. “It is important to create safe places for people to explore their religious identity and spirituality,” says Epstein. “The response we received, both in terms of numbers and quality of entries as well as spontaneous discussion in social media, shows how much conversation is needed. We found that many people wrestle with this question alone and feel isolated because of it.”

Analysis of the 2011 essays as a whole revealed the following:

  • Ninety-seven percent of contest participants said (for a range of reasons) that one can be Jewish without belief in God.
  • Forty-eight percent said that they identified as a Jew despite their own lack of belief in God.
  • Thirty-two percent of them said that belief is a choice, not a requirement.
  • Sixteen percent identified something other than belief as the most important Jewish value. Family, religious practice, tradition and love of learning were identified as primary Jewish values.
  • Only thirty-two percent mentioned a denominational affiliation.

“These percentages show that this topic is truly an elephant in the room,” says Epstein. “One participant told me he asked the question of his rabbi and the rabbi said he wouldn’t touch this question with a ten-foot pole. Here is a major question of faith that the majority of American Jews (and a majority of non-Jews) confront, and many clergy in our country are reluctant to touch it. This makes it very difficult to have a true conversation. We hope that people will read these essays and be inspired to join the discussion.”

The winning essays, along with excerpts from the other finalists and interesting essays, were published in the November/December issue of Moment, available now.

Moment Magazine seeks to encourage a higher level of civic discourse and is committed to portraying intellectual, political, cultural and religious debates, ranging from left to right, fundamentalist to secular. Founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and acclaimed writer Leonard Fein in 1975, Moment is the premier independent Jewish magazine in North America. Today, Moment reaches more than a million readers through its flagship print edition, digital edition, weekly e-newsletter and “In the Moment” blog. Moment also sponsors other annual contests, including Publish-A-Kid, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest, and the Moment Magazine Memoir Contest.

For more information and to interview winners and finalists, contact Aubrey Lopez at alopez@momentmag.com or 202-363-6422.

Other Religions: The Jewish Final Frontier?

by Matt Ponak

I started the first year of my Master’s degree in August of 2010 at Naropa University. A private school in Boulder, Colorado, Naropa is the only fully accredited Buddhist post-secondary institution in the United States. I enrolled in Naropa’s Contemplative Religions program because I wanted to learn more about world religions from an Eastern lens.

Naropa offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate degrees. These include Contemplative Psychology, Religious Studies–both World Religions and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism–Environmental Leadership, and Writing and Poetics.  Naropa specializes in Contemplative Education, a mode of teaching that aims to have students incorporate what they learn in class into deeper parts of who they are.

When I moved from my home in Calgary, Canada, to Boulder, I thought that I was making a unique life choice. Raised in a culturally Jewish, secular, Conservative home, my move to explore the cultural and religious wisdom of the non-Jewish world seemed to me  independently-minded. But I was surprised and delighted to see how many young Jews were also at this alternative school. Judging from the significant numbers of Jewish students at Naropa University, there are many young Jews who are exploring spiritual traditions apart from Judaism.

I sat down with Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi last month to ask him why Jews might be inclined to seek out other religious paths. Reb Zalman, as he is known, is the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, and has worked toward renewing Jewish spirituality throughout his entire life. Originally ordained as a Chabad rabbi, Reb Zalman later explored a wide variety of religious and mystical traditions and came to teach experiential dimensions of Hasidism as an “independent” Hasid. Renewal readily learns from Eastern religions and other mystical traditions and interprets them through a Jewish mystical lens. This is one of the factors that has led to its relevance within the contemporary American context.

When I asked Reb Zalman why so many Jews were wandering from the tradition they had been brought up with, he responded by saying, “They haven’t been brought up with anything good. That’s to begin with. They have been thinking that the Jewish education consists of getting a parrot ready to parrot at the bar mitzvah day all the right things in the synagogue and then forget about it. That was the implicit promise that parents made, you only have to go on until after your bar mitzvah. The teachers themselves were very often Israelis who were looking for a way of making a living, and they came to a synagogue and said, ‘I’m a Hebrew teacher’ because they could speak Hebrew. But they had no way of talking about how to meet God in prayer, what to do in synagogue on a spiritual level. So all the kids were saying, ‘All right, that’s my tradition and I’ll try and be nice to it. But it doesn’t cut any ice as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t help me in any way in which I can find my place in the universe.’ So then they went and looked at yoga, and sometimes drugs, in order to find some way of getting to the expansion of mind and soul and heart.”

I asked Reb Zalman if there was anything the Jewish world could do to educate youth more in the inner dimensions of Judaism and he said, “That’s what we are doing. That’s what Jewish Renewal is all about.”

I asked Reb Zalman if he believed it is incumbent upon a person brought up in Judaism to explore that tradition even if they do not feel resonance with it. He said, “Incumbent isn’t the right word. Will they be able to fulfill their human DNA issues if they go outside? Look, the person who has been practicing another religious or spiritual tradition is using what in Hinduism and in Buddhism is called upaya, skillful means. And meditative things, contemplative things are skillful means. But there is also that which has to do with more tribal things, with more ethnic things, with the continuity of family. I have my grandparents inside of me, and they have their grandparents inside of them. A Jew can find happiness, if you will, outside, but I think the fullness of realization and individuation will come to someone if they can be at home in their body and in their heart and their feeling life and in their mental life and in their spiritual life.”

A full transcript of the interview is available here.

Why Pray?

by Emily Goldberg

Judaism is ever-evolving, a religion that has for centuries faced the challenges of modernization. With young people steering these new paths, our religion has undergone some drastic changes in order to stay relevant in today’s world. Despite the radical changes, such as the consideration of egalitarianism, political involvement and music, there is one prevalent aspect of Judaism that will never be eradicated: prayer.

Prayer, derived from the Latin term “to beg,” is a fundamental value of most religions. Since the formation of rabbinic Judaism, Jews across the globe have congregated to recognize, praise and communicate with a higher theological being. Depending on the denomination and synagogue, some congregations of Jews sit separately by gender, vehemently studying Torah while dressed in traditional Jewish garments. Other communities will have a more liberal approach to spirituality, beating tambourines and dancing in circles while wearing a multitude of colors. While the styles and structures may differ, prayer unites congregations as they grow together. One cannot help but watch in awe as a room filled with faithful people, regardless of background or religion, springs into life.

Jews form daily minyanim, or quorums of at least ten adults, in order to chant an organized service in unison. There are set times to pray as a group, along with separate opportunities for personalized individual prayer. There are customized body movements while participating in prayer and proper times to either sit or stand. In the siddur, or prayer book, there are endless prayers that thank God for the blessings we receive in life. Varying from weddings to the sighting of rainbows, there is a plethora of written prayers we recite when celebrating the joys in life. These liturgical prayer books have enabled Jews to stay committed to their worship gatherings; with the same words in every book, congregations can sing together.

Prayer is easy during the blissful moments in our faith. Picking up a siddur and openly praising God becomes second nature when we are blessed.

Prayer is harder in times of suffering and struggle. When we experience shock, hardship and grief, the thought of praising and thanking God seems almost impossible. During those galvanizing moments in our faith, we doubt the value of our prayers and impose our rabbis with the difficult question: Why do we pray? If the feeling of loss is inevitable at some point in life, how can our thoughts and mediations feel impactful?

While such questions have no particular answer, it is important to formulate our own views of theology when we pray. Personally, I consider God as more of a parent figure in our lives, with prayer being an opportunity to merely “vent” about the situations we encounter each day. With no guaranteed blessings or successes in return, prayer enables me to lay out all of my issues and decisions and share them with someone who will hear them. During the most climactic moments in my personal prayer, I do not discern the distinct boundaries between an Almighty theological being and me; I just see a parent, one who tries  as hard as any other.

Organized prayer services also connect me to the people surrounding me. Perhaps that is why Jewish minyanim require at least ten congregants in order to begin praying; faithful people are meant to share faith together. We do not realize how vital a quorum of ten people is when we, ourselves, do not feel empty. Faithful people are meant to share faith together. For some, your prayer can mean the world; it could be an initial step toward a physical or spiritual healing process. For others, your faith can inspire them to change the world themselves. In unity, prayer enables the Jewish community at large to be strengthened.

Israeli Holidays: Reaching New Highs

by Erica Shaps

While I gaped at my surroundings with shock and wonder, my Yom Kippur hosts smiled at me with amusement and understanding. Since they moved to Israel decades ago, the vacant highways and main roads filled with strolling figures clad in white, children learning to ride shiny new bicycles, and teens racing skateboards up and down Haifa’s steep hills were taken for granted. For me, though, the scene looked like some form of post-apocalyptic utopia. It was a mesmerizing and moving sight, a true embodiment of the “Jewish and democratic” state ideal.

As I reflect on my first Yom Kippur in Israel, I realize that it also serves as an obvious visual representation of the contrast between American and Israeli Judaism. It is not uncommon to hear platitudes about the differences between Israeli and American Judaism: In Israel, there is a drastic divide between secular and religious, which is mostly seen as synonymous with Orthodox Judaism. In the States, we are quick to categorize ourselves within the frameworks of Orthodox , Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Judaism. American Judaism is limited by lack of infrastructure, knowledge, funds and commitment. Israeli Judaism suffers from the controlling nature of a radically conservative Rabbinate and a lack of egalitarian and progressive options for those who may want them. That these gross generalizations pervade our cultures illustrates the divide.

The subtler distinctions, the kinds that can only truly be understood by witnessing them, are more important, presenting valuable learning opportunities for Americans and Israelis. At no time was this more apparent to me than over the High Holidays.

I am guilty of thinking of Jewish religious diversity in terms of the denominational spectrum. While this may be fairly accurate in the United States, the paradigm falls short of fully describing Judaism in Israel. During Rosh Hashanah and the following Shabbat, I had the opportunity to attend four different services. Though three out of four would be considered Orthodox, they were quite different from each other, suggesting that the religious community in Israel is not nearly as monolithic as we here in the States might believe it to be. One service met in a schoolroom filled with patio chairs. One was in a beautiful community center’s designated prayer space. One kept an orderly structure and tempo; another was completely organic and filled with spontaneous singing and dancing. Opportunities for women to participate varied greatly at each of the four minyanim. These differences do not even begin to touch upon the ethnic and cultural differences among traditionally Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi congregations.

In addition, over the course of the High Holidays I felt completely welcomed and embraced, an experience that is not always replicated stateside. At all four of my Rosh Hashanah locations, as well as at the Haifa synagogue I attended for Yom Kippur, no one asked me for a ticket or any form of proof that I belonged. Although I had never been to the synagogue in Haifa before, I was offered an honor. I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable or unwelcome even though I was not a paying member.

Finally, the High Holidays in Israel are never a spectator sport. Although I love the booming voice of a hazzan and the graceful melodies of a choir, I sometimes find it too easy to sit back and listen to the prayers as if I were at a concert. This is not the case in Israel. Various community members led services with interesting and creative tunes. Participants sang loudly and passionately along with the leader, sometimes even getting up to dance. During announcements, seated participants called out events, stories or invitations. To varying degrees, each of the five services I attended felt natural, informal, and designed to foster participation.

I do not believe American and Israeli Judaism can, or should, look identical; each culture has its unique advantages and challenges. But that doesn’t mean that the differences between the two societies and their Jewish practices should not be explored and discussed. We can all improve by viewing our strengths and weakness through the lens of a society that is different from our own.  Israelis can learn from the generally unproblematic coexistence of various denominations in American Judaism,  and American Jews can learn from the the unrefined, active and welcoming quality of many services in Israel. In the New Year, I hope global Jewish communities can find opportunities for meaningful interactions with increased frequency, grow together, and be stronger for our efforts.