Spectator – My Husband, the Rabbi


The first time the word “rebbetzin” appeared in The New York Times was in 1931, in a review of a book about Yiddish theater. The term stood untranslated; the reviewer and his editors assumed that readers would understand the meaning.

The word has gone in and out of favor among those whom it describes, but the role itself has been an influential one, albeit not always recognized, over the last century in the American Jewish community. The first book to study the evolution of the role and the women who have filled it, “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life,” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz (New York University Press), not only honors many unsung heroines but provides a significant contribution to American Jewish history.

Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and dean of its undergraduate List College, is the daughter, niece, wife and soon-to-be the mother of rabbis. Sadly, since beginning this book, her husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, died suddenly, so she now has an additional role — that of widow of a rabbi. Although “The Rabbi’s Wife” is not at all personal, Schwartz’s insider’s perspective informs her book. Because of her background, she was able to gain access to rabbis’ wives of different generations, who felt comfortable opening up their lives and — when they had kept them — their files.

Schwartz began pondering related issues while a graduate student at the Seminary in the 1970s, as she noticed the number of women in her classes hoping to get into rabbinical school should JTS begin ordaining women. “It got me thinking: Here are these bright, motivated religious women, who felt a calling to the rabbinate. My question was where were all these talented women in previous generations? My answer was that a lot of the talented women married rabbis.”

These days, professionals do much of the work that once was taken care of by the rebbetzin: synagogues now have executive directors, assistant rabbis, education directors and youth directors. In general the traditional rebbetzin role continues to thrive mostly in the Orthodox community, where women cannot be ordained. One pocket where the role continues most clearly is the Lubavitch community, where rabbis and their wives do outreach work as a team. But among the other denominations, women’s roles have changed radically.

“Women don’t have to marry rabbis to lead,” Schwartz says. “In balance, the Jewish community is richer.”

 

Editor’s Corner – Junk Science


“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, “so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether “intelligent design,” which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush’s views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.

A really big lefty.

The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society’s oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.

Bryan’s objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level — of which Darwin had no idea — as proof of Darwin’s blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of “light-sensitive freckle” are so astounding, he orated, “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?”

Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth.”

The end result would be social Darwinism by those who “worship brute ancestors” and the unrestrained use of eugenics.

What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin — Charles Darwin — into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.

The president’s partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?

No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, “are preeminently important religious activities.”

Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote — and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove — we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.

A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class — or perhaps in a design class.

Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best — to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, “Is the Bible True?” Silver answered Bryan — and Bush — in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.

“Science or religion?” Silver said. “Which will survive? Why, both — if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

It’s Time to Change


The oldest and most primitive human dates back about 7 million years, according to a skull found by scientists in Central Africa.

"That’s so depressing," I say to my husband, Larry. "I can’t believe that in 7 million years we haven’t evolved any further than this."

"This" being a world in which half the people live on less than $2 a day; in which 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night; in which 115 million children never go to school at all; and in which 27 million people live in some kind of slavery.

"You’re looking at this all wrong," Larry assures me. "Seven million years is an insignificant blip in the history of the cosmos."

And, Jewish tradition tells me, the first 6,994,235 years hardly count.

After all, it’s not the birth of the prehominid that scientists have named "Toumai" that marks the beginning of our moral evolution, but rather the birth of Adam and Eve.

We Jews recognize this milestone as Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, which occurred 5765 years ago and which begins this year at sundown on Sept. 15.

Also known as the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah gives us an opportunity — well, actually, it obligates us — to commit to improving ourselves and our world.

This concept of effecting personal and collective transformation is nothing short of revolutionary. As Thomas Cahill points out in his book, "The Gifts of the Jews" (Anchor, 1999), we were the first ancient people to realize that we could actually make a difference. According to Cahill, ancient Jews recognized, "We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free."

Not free in the sense that my four sons envision — free from parental criticism, curfews and curbs on Internet use — but free in the sense of having the opportunity to partner with God to help eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, slavery and other ills.

But we haven’t always used this freedom wisely. Fewer than 2,000 years after Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden, mankind’s egregious misbehavior led God to destroy everyone but Noah and his family. When we built and worshiped the golden calf while Moses was fetching the badly needed Ten Commandments, we came close to annihilation for a second time; only Moses’ intervention saved us. And there have been other close calls as well.

Yes, our moral progress is slow. We are stiff-necked. We whine and we moan. We look for the easy way out.

And yet, once a year at Rosh Hashanah, we must fearlessly and aggressively assess our mistakes, misdeeds and misbehavior. We must make apologies and amends both to other people and to God, and vow to make positive changes.

"I’m a teenager. You can’t make me change," Jeremy, my 15-year-old son, says, proving that stubbornness is not just an ancient characteristic.

"No, but you can make yourself change," I answer. And the consequences, I remind him, as the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer tells us, are nothing short of determining "who shall live and who shall die."

And so we strive to make "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," as the David Bowie song goes. Changes that are probing, painful and substantive. Changes that are powerful enough to avert a decree of death.

These changes come about in three ways:

First, through teshuvah. Often translated as "repentance," this Hebrew term actually means "returning," referring to a return to God. It involves the difficult work of introspection, apology and amends that begins in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and ends with the blowing of the shofar signaling the end of Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah, one Midrash tells us, was so important that God created it before creating the world, knowing that our free will would invariably lead us astray, and understanding that we would need a way back.

Second, change can occur through tefilah, or prayer. But, as Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his book, "Tough Questions Jews Ask" (Jewish Lights, 2003): "Real prayer, prayer that works, doesn’t change the world; it changes us. We can’t ask God to change the world for us. We have to do that ourselves."

Third, we can change through tzedakah. Though commonly translated as "charity," the Hebrew root of tzedakah means "justice," which is yet another route toward meaningful change. As God commands in Deuteronomy 16:20, "Justice, justice shall you pursue."

Larry and I ask our sons what they will be doing in the coming year to help repair the world.

Zack, 20, will continue to write and edit for the Williams College newspaper, spending long hours every week helping to keep the students and staff informed and involved.

Gabe, 17, will be co-organizing a program for Milken Community High School juniors and seniors to live and work for two days at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.

Jeremy will do at least 120 hours of volunteer work at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, assisting in the emergency room and in pediatrics.

And Danny, 13, is kicking off his campaign for president of the United States, with the goal of helping to eliminate poverty.

To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it is not our responsibility to finish the work, yet neither are we free to walk away from it.

Which is maybe what happened 7 million years ago.

This article reprinted courtesy of JTA.

Keys to the ‘Kingdom’


"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters — these were all the gifts of the Jews."

So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.

"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.

The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.

And bloody battles they were — by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.

To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.

The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."

Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.

Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.

"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.

The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.

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