Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein

After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.

The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.

I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.

When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.

JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?

America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.

JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?

REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.

That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.

JJ: How do you deal with it?

REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.


Your Inner Joseph

Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.


Our Madonna

Madonna’s just-completed visit to Israel has been called a lot of things: scandalous, threatening, inspiring, encouraging, cheap.

But what it mustn’t be called is shocking.

If Madonna really wanted to shock us, she wouldn’t have flown to the Holy Land with 2,000 other followers of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (see story, page 28). She would have joined a mainstream American synagogue, shown up in the sixth row on Rosh Hashanah and sat in rapt attention for the whole service, without fidgeting. Now that would be shocking.

Some Jews are stunned and others outraged that the Queen of Pop has been attracted to a newfangled iteration of kabbalah. Never mind that kabbalah itself, according to University of Judaism professor Pinchas Giller, over the centuries often appeared in newfangled iterations. Wouldn’t it be more astounding and inexplicable if Madonna adopted what passes for normative Jewish practice these days: an annual visit to synagogue, a limited donation to Jewish causes, no ongoing study, no Hebrew knowledge and no visit to Israel?

Some Jews can’t believe Madonna can find anything spiritually powerful and meaningful in Judaism because they find nothing spiritually powerful and moving about Judaism. How dare she appear to draw insight and power from a religion that they feel has left them spiritually bereft. Who is Madonna to become Esther when so many Jews have become Buddhist? A lot of the people disparaging Madonna’s Jewish practice have long ago given up their own.

Madonna’s faith is hardly newfound. I’ve had several long conversations with the men Madonna claims as her spiritual teachers, Eitan Yardeni and Michael Berg, both rabbis at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles. These conversations took place in 1998 when I wrote a long investigative piece on the center. At the time, it was a mysterious place on Robertson Boulevard that generated shadowy rumors of cult-like practices, yet drew scores of white-clad believers every Shabbat — including Madonna.

I attended services, interviewed current and former adherents, harsh critics and fervent supporters. I didn’t speak with Madonna, but I did say "Shabbat shalom" to Sandra Bernhard.

Rumors and accusations have long besmirched the center. In my mind there is no question that its claims and practices sometimes cross the line into the absurd and the unethical. In Israel, Madonna and other center adherents made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the kabbalist whom center founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, claims as his spiritual teacher. But my own research found that Ashlag’s yeshiva issued a statement disassociating itself from Berg, as have the descendants of Berg’s other putative teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.

The center sells water it claims contains special spiritual powers. When The Journal had the water tested by a reputable lab in September 2000, the lab reported that the water was indeed, water.

Perhaps most disturbing were the fervid sales and retention tactics some center adherents used on others.

"There was a constant push to give money," a former member told me. When a teacher at the center suggested the member write a check for $1,571 because it was "a special number" for him, the man’s skeptical wife asked her husband, "Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure he wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710."

Reports of center lapses have cooled in recent years. One scholar of religion told me that, like Scientology, whose marketing techniques Berg has emulated, success provides incentives to smooth off any rough edges, or at least keep them far from Madonna.

I don’t know Madonna, but, this being Los Angeles, I know people who know Madonna. They have sat at seder tables with her and found her engaged and curious. Her questions about the Passover story revealed a Jewish foundation built with the limited tools provided by center rabbis. But there are many Jews who take their seders less seriously, and many who don’t ever sit down at one at all.

The center has often served as a way station for people on a Jewish journey. By inserting Jewish spiritual practice into mainstream culture and New Age argot, it presents an appealing if (to the rest of us) bizarre face of Judaism. I know several people for whom the center was the first step to more serious Jewish learning and practice. They tired of the center’s particular approach, but they stayed intrigued enough by the Judaism to which it had exposed them.

These people stand in contrast to those for whom Judaism has remained a static inheritance, who have never strayed from their particular orthodoxy, whether that orthodoxy is one movement, one set of political beliefs, one rebbe or one service per year.

The variety of Jewish religious experience wholly embraces the kind of folk religion Madonna experienced in Israel. The country is filled with reputed graves of ancient mystics whose adherents gather to light candles and leave offerings and amulets in hopes of miracles.

Judaism, in all its various guises over the centuries, offers something lasting and important to those who explore it. It’s not a club, it’s a journey, and Madonna — I mean, Esther — is welcome on the path.

How to Approach a Grieving Jew

"Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief" by Rabbi Maurice Lamm (Jewish Publication Society, $30).

Grief erases all regular rules. All the logic that has ever seemed to govern one’s life suddenly seems useless. More than useless, it seems pointless. In death, we are all brought down to the same physical level. In grief, all rules are shaken to the core. Individual, groups, even whole societies can exist in states of suspended animation, for in struggling with the implications of death, they cannot participate in the daily activity of living.

In a religious context, that very suspension is a double-edged sword. Religion must be based on a system of logic. Without it, no belief or ritual would make any sense. So what is a religion like Judaism, with its long history of legal logic, to do with mourning? How is Judaism to cope with the mourner, who is living the paradox of grief: showing the rest of us exactly how crucial the laws that govern every moment and gesture can be to maintaining order and meaning in life, but also making us face the question of whether those rules really mean anything at all.

In 1969, Rabbi Maurice Lamm published "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," which became a staple for those trying to cope with the death of a loved one, and served as the template for the hundreds of books dealing with grief in a Jewish context that have been written since. Now, 35 years later, he has returned to the subject in "Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief."

An Orthodox rabbi, Lamm lives and writes in a world that values halacha, or Jewish law, as the proper way to deal with all aspects of life, both good and bad. Yet grief is the one example of a time and state that defies law. We can see in his treatment of the topic of mourning the ways in which Judaism itself has tried to reconcile the difficulty of grief.

Lamm goes into great detail about the practice of "sitting shiva," the seven-day period of enforced mourning that traditional Jews have long followed. During that week, members of the community visit those who have experienced a death. He goes into great detail about the particulars that govern even the experience of shiva: The mourner is to sit low to the ground so that he or she is closer to the earth and thus to death; the mourner doesn’t wash his or her hair and wears a piece of clothing that has deliberately been torn. Visitors, too, are given instruction about how to interact with those whom they visit. They may not allow the person to isolate himself in his sorrow, but by the same token may not greet the mourner directly.

All these rules to regulate what is ultimately ungovernable. Even this has been written into Judaism’s understanding of the grief process. Before shiva even begins, the mourner exists in a netherworld, not subject to the regular rules. For a day or two, the mourner exists outside the legal system. He or she lives out the fact that death cancels all logic, that law is powerless in the face of death.

What Lamm never seems to confront is that in laying out how the mourner is to travel from that netherworld to full participation in life, Judaism finds a way to re-exert its own logic onto the moment of greatest grief. In the progress from the first shock of death to the re-entry into the community one week later, the mourner is brought back from the place where law has no meaning to the world in which law reigns supreme. In fact, traditional Jewish thoughts about grief and the practices that it has devised, never really do let go of the logic of law.

The result, for "Consolation," is that Lamm is on surest ground when he sticks to the formalities of grief — not just the laws of interaction with a mourner, but even in the suggestions he gives about how to deal with someone in that delicate state.

In fact, Lamm shows sensitivity to the turbulent emotions of any mourner in his approach toward those who would wish to give consolation. The book stresses patience. It offers detailed advice about how to avoid the most dreaded of all situations: saying the wrong thing to a person sitting shiva. He even encourages those visiting to endure some discomfort if it will alleviate some of the mourner’s anguish.

To his credit, Lamm anticipates the existential questioning that comes up during a period of grief, but his book is less successful when it tries to engage those questions on their own, precisely because the law is never too far out of sight. One cannot attempt to answer the spiritual dilemmas that death inevitably brings up if one is unwilling to also suspend all logic, if only for a brief moment, and Lamm simply cannot do that. His worldview is too caught up in the reassertion of the law, and not open enough to its seeming irrelevance in the light of grief’s suffering.

For all that, Lamm has written an important book, a book that offers something to grab onto at a time when the bottom seems to have dropped out, when nothing makes sense and we yearn for the assurance that there is meaning, that the existential questions do have answers. Sometimes, rules can be the greatest consolation of all.

Lamm will be speaking Aug. 31 from noon-2 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (800) 757-4242.

Star Struck

Lately, more people than ever have been staring at my chest. But it’s not what you think. They are looking at a necklace hanging from my neck.

When my boyfriend, Josh, handed me a red paper mâche-wrapped little box for my birthday this year, I never would have guessed it was a piece of Judaica. But sure enough, inside the box was a sparkly silver and crystal Jewish star dangling from a chain. Unlike any other I had seen, the star was about one-fifth-inch thick and had hearts cut out along the sides. The face shimmered with a collection of tightly packed clear crystals. I quickly put it on and have seldom taken it off since.

A secular, nonpracticing Jew, Josh does not wear Judaica. Purchasing the necklace for me was therefore as selfless a gift as he could have given. The necklace, he said, represented his support for me working in the Jewish community, and his respect for my willingness to move to a different state in order to continue doing so.

For me, the necklace has become a simultaneous expression of romantic love and religious identity — a synergy I have never before experienced. I am excited to put it on each day.

I used to believe that wearing a religious symbol implied an unconditional endorsement, like sticking a sports team logo or candidate’s bumper sticker on your car. Since a large part of my personal relationship with Judaism occurs internally — in my head and my heart — how, I wondered, could I wear a symbol around my neck that publicly announces my religion to everyone else?

Wearing the necklace habitually has been an enlightening exercise; because of it, I have stumbled across many new perspectives. It has also led people to make incorrect assumptions about me — that I am an Orthodox or traditionally observant Jew, that I am a staunch supporter of Israeli military actions or that I keep strictly kosher. Though pieces of each of the above hold true in the nonsuperlative sense, there are caveats and loopholes to each. Assumptions are dangerous things for anybody to make, but I would be ignorant not to at least recognize that wearing this symbol will lead many people to make them about me.

Wearing a Star of David has also helped me to work on caring less about what other people think of me and not needing external approval as regularly. I do not wish to hide or deny my religious identity, but symbolically wearing it daily on my chest signals me loudly as "other" and potentially as a target for hatred.

When I hesitate about wearing the star, however, I think back to a not-too-distant atrocity — the Holocaust. Whatever anti-Semitism and resulting paranoia we may be experiencing in this country today, we still possess the freedom to express our religious and cultural identities. There is a big difference between the threat of oppressive violence and the reality of it. While it is only a threat and freedom continues, we have the right, perhaps the obligation, to express our heritage and ourselves.

In a generation from now, I wonder, what will this star around my neck mean to me? What will it mean to the Jewish people? As with most symbols, its meaning will likely change over time.

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest kabbalistic scholars of this century, wrote in the "Encyclopedia Judaica" that historically, the Star of David has had a proliferation of meanings, many of which have been mystical.

In the 17th century, he writes, alchemists called the Magen David the "shield of David" and they believed the opposing triangles to be an alchemical symbol for the union between the diametrically opposed elements of water and fire. At that same time, kabbalists were calling it the "shield of the [Messiah], the son of David."

Also, according to Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch in "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" (Jason Aronson, 1995) the Star of David’s geometric symmetry has led "anthropologists [to] claim that the triangle pointing downward represents female sexuality, and the triangle pointing upward, male sexuality; thus, their combination symbolizes unity and harmony."

Interestingly, the Star of David has only taken on the symbolic representation of Jewish identity and the collective Jewish peoplehood in the last 200 years. Before then it had been, among other things, "the insignia of individual families or communities." In fact, according to Frankel and Teutsch, Theodor Herzl chose it as the symbol for the State of Israel because it was widely considered to be a secular symbol.

I have begun to develop my own interpretation of the Star of David. As I wear it today, the open space at the center represents the answers I have yet to find — the cultural, personal and religious identity I am still forging. The balanced and opposing triangles symbolize my struggle between personal reflection and public promotion.

In the past year I have gone from being single, living in Boston and editing a magazine that speaks to a generation of young adult Jews, to being one-half of a two-person whole, living in New York and traveling as an individual writer on a spiritual and religious journey. When I look at it, the star around my neck reminds me of the many ways in which my personal identities have been modified.

As time moves on and I assume new roles yet again, I am sure new symbolic meaning will continue to unfold.

Jodi Werner is the assistant director of Publications for the Jewish Theological Seminary and former editor of GenerationJ.com. Reprinted From GenerationJ.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life!

‘Girl Meets God’ — Again and Again

“Girl Meets God: On the Path to Spiritual Life” by Lauren Winner (Algonquin Books, $23.95).

Lauren Winner’s spiritual memoir, “Girl Meets God,” is a passionate and thoroughly engaging account of a continuing spiritual journey within two profoundly different faiths.

Winner, the child of a Reform Jewish father and a “lapsed Southern Baptist” mother, was raised as a Jew in the South. Told she was not really Jewish, since Jewish law dictates that Judaism passes through the blood of the mother, she chose to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the end of high school, following her parents’ divorce. By the end of her senior year at college, she decided that while in graduate school in England she would convert again, this time to evangelical Christianity.

One of the fascinating things about “Girl Meets God,” beyond the seismic shifts in Winner’s affiliation, is the degree to which faith and practice have formed the underpinnings of her life. As a teenager, Winner immersed herself in the activities of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va. She “traded in lacrosse practice and ballet lessons and field hockey sticks, awkward dates at the movie theater and Friday night football games and many other normal teenage activities for more hours, more afternoons and weekend at the synagogue.” As a college student, now an Orthodox Jew, she was drawn to Christianity through diligent study, constant questioning and careful, nearly obsessive attention to spiritual teachings.

She explains herself in this way: “What draws me to a religion is the beliefs, the theologies, the books, the incantations, the recipes to get to God, and I like to imagine that they work in the abstract, that they are enough, that they exist, somewhere, pure and distinct from the people who enact them.”

The great strength of “Girl Meets God,” though, is not purity of theology but force of personality. Winner is insatiable, and dauntless, in her search for religious truth, at whatever personal cost. The sheer energy of her quest, combined with her refreshing honesty and flashes of wild humor, give her story its edge. The book follows the arc of a liturgical year, opening with Sukkot in the fall, and then dividing into sections named according to the ecclesiastical calendar — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Eastertide — with subchapters, some only a page or two, on varying topics. There are commentaries on subjects like “Family Reunions” and “The Bible I Use,” the author’s reading of the Book of Ruth and a discussion of the similarities between Christian and Jewish festivals. Yet, Winner’s thinking is so wide-ranging, in scope and in time, that the organizing principle seems imposed, almost too decorative.

Early on, she refers to her increasing love for Jesus in terms of marital infidelity, and compares her abandonment of Judaism to a wrenching divorce that has caused her to lose friends and distress family members. She does not deviate from her path, though, once converted to Christianity for good by a powerful dream. “I knew, as soon as I woke up, that the dream came from God and it was about the reality of Jesus,” she writes. “The truth of Him. That He was a person whose pronouns you had to capitalize. That He was God. I knew that with more certainty than I have ever known anything else.”

The book is, in fact, a curious mixture of certainty and searching, from beginning to end. Nor is it clear even at the end that Winner’s journey is over. Having given away her entire collection of Jewish books at the time of her second conversion, Lauren later finds herself buying the old familiar texts again, missing Judaism and rebuilding her library even as she works to build and sustain her Christian life. “Now I am reading Ruth again,” she writes. “I find I am reading her differently. Ruth is still my favorite. Not because she is a convert, but because she is a bridge, genealogically and literally, to Jesus.

“It is no surprise, I guess, that I read Ruth differently than I used to. All the stories look different, through Christian glasses.”

Skeptical friends have suggested that Winner may convert again, perhaps becoming a Buddhist next time. She insists that she will remain a Christian, albeit one who has been formed and trained by Judaism. “Judaism and Christianity have something to do with each other,” she writes. “Judaism and Christianity make a path.” Most readers of this thoughtful and highly entertaining book will be moved by her journey.

Reeve Lindbergh has written “No More Words: A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh” (Simon & Schuster, 2001) and “On Morning Wings” (Candlewick Press, 2002) an adaptation of the 139th Psalm for children.