Archive for May, 2010

Elena Kagan’s Bat Mitzvah

May 18, 2010

As the entire country is abuzz with conversation and speculation about Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, several crucial details emerge. Yes, she would be the third woman on the Supreme Court. And yes, she would be the third Jew on the Supreme Court. And yes, there will be no Protestants on the Supreme Court, which is itself highly symbolic of the social changes that are occurring across America.

But here’s the other detail.The New York Times reported that as a young teenager, Elena Kagan openly challenged her rabbi on certain details of her bat mitzvah ceremony.

This is nothing less than a massive victory for us as Jews, and certainly for Jewish women. Unless Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrated becoming bat mitzvah, Elena Kagan will be the first Supreme Court justice to have experienced this modern and quintessentially American rite of passage. But more than that: we can take pride in the fact that Ms. Kagan’s first learned her skills at argumentation by challenging her childhood rabbi. The media has not revealed any of the details of her battle with her rabbi; perhaps this will come out in the confirmation hearings (!). What was the “theme” of the controversy? Did she not like her assigned Torah portion? Did she demand more aliyot for her family? Did she want to do less (or more) prayers in the service? Did she and the rabbi disagree on the subject of her devar Torah?

Let this give courage and inspiration to American Jewish teenagers.

Yes, Judaism teaches kavod ha-rav — the respect that is necessary for rabbis and teachers. But kavod ha-rav can also mean challenging your rabbi, spiritually and intellectually, when it is appropriate to do so. Protest and challenge are woven into the very fabric of Jewish existence — from Abraham to Moses to the psalmist to Job to Tevye to Elie Wiesel. It’s why we are Yisrael, the God Wrestlers. The term chutzpah doesn’t only mean “gall”. It also has a theological dimension — chutzpah c’lapei shamaya, audacity in the face of God. And our tradition notes that God needs it. God even loves it, rejoicing when we “win” — “My children have defeated Me!” God sighs, lovingly.

I would like to imagine that the young Elena Kagan challenged her rabbi on a matter of deep principle. I am not even ashamed to say that I hope that she won the argument.

And I should like to think that her childhood rabbi is smiling broadly. After all, he (or she) gave young Elena her first experience in argumentation, and maybe also in listening and responding. No doubt she has carried that lesson with her — from the Upper West Side to Princeton to Harvard to Chicago — and now, let us assume, to the bench of the highest court in the land.

It’s good for the Jews. And it is very good for America


A Great Loss for our Movement

May 6, 2010

Rabbi David Forman, z”l
There are times when you can really understand the ancient Jewish mourning practice of tearing one’s clothing when hearing of a death. That’s precisely how I felt this morning when I learned of the death of my colleague Rabbi David Forman, who died at the age of not-quite-66 years old while waiting for a liver transplant.
Rabbi Forman was a Reform rabbi — one of a noteworthy and notable group of Reform rabbis who made aliyah and who threw their destiny in with that of the Jewish state. He was also the son-in-law and brother-in-law of rabbis, including one Orthodox rabbi; I used to imagine what their family seders were like. He made aliyah in 1972, and served in the IDF, and authored several books — each one skillful in its commentary and conversational in its tone. I loved his regular columns in the Jerusalem Post. David always told the truth.
But the best thing about David was his vision. He founded Rabbis for Human Rights in 1988 and served as its chairman from to 1992, and again in 2002-03. RHR is primarily concerned with the plight of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1994, he was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for laureates Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. The greatest thing about David was that he never subscribed to some of the more promiscuous Israel-bashing that exists within the Jewish world. Yes, he often criticized Israeli policy — but always, always, as a Zionist and as a deep lover of the state of Israel. In that spirit, he directed the Israel office of our national Reform movement, and in that role, he was a pioneer in the effort to achieve┬áreligious pluralism in Israel.

It is ironic (as if there are ironies): David died during a time when the issue of religious pluralism is very much on the international Jewish agenda. It is even more ironic that he died several days after Herzl’s 150th birthday.

Judaism has lost a great teacher and role model. May his memory be a blessing.