A Rabbinical Student at the GA: Transcending Affiliations



by Liz Piper-Goldberg

This week, I had the honor of attending the General Assembly meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. My fellowship cohort is composed of 20 Jewish leaders from different denominations and career paths. We are rabbinical students attending Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and non-denominational schools; we are Jewish professionals and Ph.D students. We reflect the great diversity and complexity of the Jewish community today. The Federation “GA,” as it’s commonly called, provided a unique backdrop to highlight the pluralistic reality of both my Wexner cohort and the North American Jewish community.

As a student in HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program, I was proud to be represented by URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who was selected as the Scholar in Residence for this year’s GA in Baltimore. Rabbi Jacobs addressed thousands of GA participants, who attend this yearly gathering for reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. Highlighting the issues that speak to my passions and current events, he challenged us to broaden our discourse on Israel, specifically regarding women’s rights and religious pluralism. Honoring Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, he called on GA attendees to carefully consider “why this holy Jewish site run[s] like an Orthodox synagogue…Why can’t there be space and time for both egalitarian prayer and for more traditional forms of prayer?”

My Wexner cohort listened (and tweeted) as Rabbi Jacobs’ words transcended denominational and institutional affiliations. Using the image of an eruv, a legal boundary that allows traditional Jews to carry items on Shabbat, Rabbi Jacobs spoke about the need for mutual respect among all Jews. He cited a story of an Orthodox colleague who celebrated when the community eruv was expanded to include Jacobs’ Reform synagogue; this allowed the Orthodox worshipers to comfortably attend b’nai mitzvah in the Reform congregation. As Jacobs explained to the GA attendees,

…this is precisely one of the great strengths of the big communal tent cast by Federation social services and by our Jewish Community Center system. Not every stream can and will draw the Eruvim of our community in the same place. But the lesson is clear: the broader we can draw these boundaries and can find vibrant Jewish experiences that can engage all of klal Yisrael in a richer Jewish life, the stronger the Jewish people will be.

My experiences with my Wexner cohort resonate with Jacobs’ message to the GA. I deeply value the conversations prompted by our divergent Jewish backgrounds. They are always a source of self-reflection, learning, and growth. Further, I appreciate the productive discomfort that emerges when our religious practices overlap and even conflict. A microcosm of the Jewish future, we represent the limits and potential of the broader Jewish community. We are also individuals who have personal, meaningful relationships with each other, enabling us to have those difficult conversations today, tomorrow, and twenty years from now as leaders of our respective congregations. As Rabbi Jacobs affirmed, “We Jews are one, but we are not the same, and that is our strength.”

May we go from strength to strength on our path to unity and understanding.

Liz Piper-Goldberg is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is a former legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center, has interned at the URJ, and currently represents HUC-JIR on the Commission on Social Action.


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7 Responses to “A Rabbinical Student at the GA: Transcending Affiliations”

  1. avatar

    I suppose the story of the eruv is nice on a certain level. Certainly, on principle, we should be taking as many measures as possible (without compromising the integrity of our Reform Jewish commitment and authenticity) to increase the ability of more traditional Jews to attend life cycle events in our Temples. Still, this is philosophically shady territory, and we should tread lightly. I have some personal discomfort about statements being made by Reform officials that contain positive comments about an eruv. If I were the rabbi of a Reform Temple and became aware that an eruv had been intentionally moved to include my Temple, I imagine I might feel very uncomfortable–somewhat akin to finding out that Mormons had “baptized” me without my consent. Both instances involve a religious community expanding what they believe is a valid ritual that “makes a difference” onto people who don’t believe in the reality of the phenomenon. As far as I’m concerned, Orthodox Judaism is not the same religion as Reform Judaism. The two rest upon incompatible assumptions, and are just as alien to each other as either is to Mormonism. I know others will disagree with me, but that’s the way I feel. I feel that Reform Judaism (as I understand and practice it) has a lot more in common conceptually with intensely progressive expressions of other faith traditions (like liberal Protestantism or progressive Islam) than it does with Orthodox Judaism or conservative Christianity.

    • Larry Kaufman

      Jordan, you may not be aware that, time after time, Orthodox authorities in Israel have expressed willingness to give full religious rights to Reform rabbbis and Reform Jews, as long as they concede that Reform Judaism is a new religion, and is not Judaism. Of course, the Progressive movement has not found this an acceptable solution — it certainly would provide a crash course in delegitimatizing the absolute Jewish authenticity we claim for our interpretation of Torah mi Sinai. I’m sorry to find you guilty of the sinat hinam (baseless hatred) that would exclude or deny full Jewish status even to those whose practice is frozen in a time warp.

      That, of course, includes those whose time warp is 1885 Pittsburgh and who are still sturggling with the idea that Judaism and Jewishness transcend religion.

      I have written previously on this blog about the eruv — http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2010/03/08/boundaries/, and although the comments to that post indicate that many readers did not follow my argument, it boils down to a total commitment to freedom of religious expression as long as it is not coercive towards those who don’t accept the premise of legal fictions. By the way, Mr. Golden was one of the cogent commenters on that 2010 post, and I applaud the open-ness with which he comes to our Reform discussions.

      • avatar

        I’m sorry to find you guilty of putting up straw men right and left, Larry. The quips about 1885 are getting a little old and tiresome, and my principled drawing of theological boundaries is neither baseless nor hateful. We must do more of that in Reform Judaism if we don’t want to go in the direction of Unitarian Universalism. You are welcome to quarrel with my concept of the boundaries of Jewish identity, and you may even convince me to reconsider, but you shut down the conversation when you try to paint thoughtful theological speculation as sinat chinam. Might I even suggest that your accusation of sinat chinam is hotza’at shem ra, as long as we’re using Rabbinic aphorisms? Go find someone who actually deserves to be accused of sinat chinam–there is no shortage of such people in the world.

        There is a wonderful article by Rabbi Jacob Neusner entitled “When Reform Judaism was Judaism”, in which he argues that Geiger and Holdheim were on to something when they claimed that Reform Judaism was the logical and natural next step in the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism, and that anything else was actually and aberration. I am not saying we should adopt an official polemic of “Reform Judaism is the only legitimate Judaism” (in fact, that would be horrible), but I think we should be less afraid of asserting authenticity in ways that don’t sell out to external standards. Dr. Neusner would argue, with Geiger, that Reform Judaism is “Torah mi-Sinai” while orthodoxy is actually a grotesque distortion, perversion, and desecration of the spirit of Judaism. I might not put it so strongly, but at the very least we should re-frame that positively and claim full authenticity for our position. I’m not convinced that many Reform Jews really believe in that, at least not the laity. I have heard a few too many ignorant remarks from Reform Jews about the orthodox being “legit” and “hard-core” and “the real deal”.

  2. avatar

    As an orthodox Jew who reads RJ to know what my brothers and sisters are thinking, I am always amazed at the emotions aroused by the eruv. It would be better for your blood pressure to just ignore it. I doubt that you could find it without it being pointed out to you.

    I don’t understand the Mormon reference. The eruv is more of an accessibility feature for that congregation rather than an invitation to apostasy.

    However, this comment:

    “I feel that Reform Judaism (as I understand and practice it) has a lot more in common conceptually with intensely progressive expressions of other faith traditions (like liberal Protestantism or progressive Islam) than it does with Orthodox Judaism . . .”

    in the mouth of an orthodox Jew would correctly be labelled as ignorant or worse.

    However, I don’t write off the commenter even if the commenter seems to write me off. Jewish unity does not require agreement or papering over of differences, but it does require recognition or those things that bind us together as a people.

    • avatar

      I really do understand where you’re coming from, Mr. Golden. Perhaps it would be better for me to ignore the eruv, but I was reacting more to Rabbi Jacobs’ emphatically positive reaction to it than to the thing itself. (Note that I like Rabbi Jacobs very much–this is just a pet peeve of mine.)

      The Mormon reference was a bit harsh perhaps, but I consider the practice of eruvim and the Mormon practice of baptizing others without their consent to have a similar level of metaphysical validity–that is, absolutely none. While perhaps not always harmful or morally reprehensible, legal fictions really bother me, and it’s not because I’m ignorant. I grew up Conservative, and have many orthodox relatives. I know how the Halakhic system works, and that’s precisely why I now identify myself with the most radical fringe of Reform Judaism, which is proudly anti-Halakhic.

      We are not without affinity for our co-religionists of all denominational stripes, but we refer to you as “co-religionists” because we conceive of the ties that bind us as primarily spiritual rather than ethno-cultural. We do not deny Jewish “Peoplehood”, but conceive of it in largely post-ethnic ways. So I agree with you that we must maintain warm relations in recognition of what binds us together, but you and I may also have very different conceptions of exactly what it is that binds us together as a People of Faith. In a very real sense, according to my conception, I probably do have a stronger bond with many Orthodox Jews than with many Jews affiliated with progressive movements, because I believe that Jewish identity centers around living in Covenantal relationship with the Holy One. If taken to its logical conclusion, this thinking technically calls into question the Jewishness of atheists or even those with a Kaplanian/naturalist concept of God. I recognize that this is problematic from a Reform perspective which is supposed to be welcoming and inclusive, but it is nevertheless my overwhelming sensibility. Do people get to be included in the Jewish People simply because of their genetic makeup, by accident of birth, or must they RESPOND to this call by personally taking up the yoke of the Covenant? In many ways, I think every Jew must be a Jew-by-choice rather than simply by birth. The only difference is that being born into a historically Jewish family precludes the need for formal conversion when one says “yes” to Judaism.

      I think Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon said it best: “Though we recognize in the group loyalty of Jews who have become estranged from our religious tradition, a bond which still unites them with us, we maintain that it is by its religion and for its religion that the Jewish people has lived. “

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Rabbinical Student at the GA: Transcending Affiliations | BlogHUC-JIR - November 26, 2012

    [...] This post originally appeared on the Union for Reform Judaism blog at http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2012/11/14/a-rabbinical-student-at-the-ga-transcending-affiliations/ [...]

  2. A Rabbinical Student at the GA: Transcending Affiliations | Meet Our Students - January 17, 2013

    [...] Liz Piper-Goldberg is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is a former legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center, has interned at the URJ, and currently represents HUC-JIR on the Commission on Social Action. This post originally appeared on the Union for Reform Judaism blog at http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2012/11/14/a-rabbinical-student-at-the-ga-transcending-affiliations/ [...]

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