Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Meet the Reform Rabbi (Part 1)

Today on DovBear we interview Rabbi Oren Hayon, a Twitter friend, scholar, and all around good guy.

Oh, and he's a Reform Rabbi, too.

In the interview that follows, he tells about his training, his daily routines, and shares his thoughts on any number of hot and cold button issues.

His Education

Undergraduate degree in English from Rice University. Rabbinic ordination and master's degree from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Currently working toward a doctorate in Jewish Studies.

His favorite mesechta:
I'll have to say Avodah Zarah - I wrote my rabbinic thesis about it, and I love it. It's really rich, challenging stuff. I chose it for the Talmud course I'm teaching at my congregation this year, because it promotes really intense conversation (and good, rigorous learning) about how chazal tried to figure out the phenomenon of diaspora Jewish life. It's clear from the gemara that they are deeply concerned about the influence that non-Jewish society might have on their communal standards and integrity, but at the same time, they are really reluctant to slam down the drawbridge altogether. It reminds us that dynamic Jewish life in a mobile, cosmopolitan world requires that we figure out how to maintain cooperative social, commercial, cultural relationships with people who are different from us - even when that prospect terrifies us.

Hours spent per week on Torah study
That's a toughie. Each week I have to prepare for my Talmud class, plus whatever additional preaching-and-teaching I wind up doing, and I always try to set aside a little bit of time for my doctoral coursework and some substantive sessions of good old Torah lishmah. I can't really put a reliable number of hours down, but I guess I'll go with the old standby and tell you that every week, it's never enough.

Morning routine
I'm really a night-owl, so mornings are terrible for me. I force myself out of bed so that I can help get the toddler fed, clothed, and off to preschool. If I can manage to feed and dress myself presentably as well, that's just a bonus.

One of the best things about my life is the fact that each day is different, so there's no such thing as a "typical" morning. I may be teaching, or attending an early-morning meeting, or visiting with a congregant in crisis.

Evening Routine
Evenings are very busy, but at least I'm more alert than I am in the morning. Evenings invariably find me leading or attending some sort of synagogue programming, or running a meeting of a synagogue governance committee. I oversee the work of our young adults' group, and all of the adult education work at the congregation, so there are a lot of meetings to attend; fortunately, the work of these groups is really exciting to me, so I get to spend lots of time with inspiring people who are volunteering their time to do wonderful stuff at their synagogue.

I don't get to have dinner with my family as often as I'd like, but I do my best to get home early enough that my wife doesn't have to all the work of kiddo feeding/bathing/bedtime. I usually get about 30 minutes' quiet time to myself when I take the dog for a nighttime walk; I usually spend that time listening to a lecture on my iPod, or just enjoying the quiet and the dark.

Shabbos routine
Our congregation has 4 pulpit rabbis and a cantor; we usually rotate Shabbat responsibilities each weekend, so we all get to do different stuff each weekend. I spend most of my preparatory time working on divrei Torah or the remarks I may deliver to a wedding couple on Saturday night. I'm fortunate enough to work at a synagogue where I love to pray, so it doesn't usually feel like "work" when I'm leading t'filah.

A recurring sermon theme
I've been doing a lot of personal Mussar reading lately, so I find those themes - self-examination, personal refinement of one's middot, strengthening one's personal connection with God - working their way most frequently into the stuff I've been writing these days. But of course this stuff ebbs and flows, and in other months I may talk frequently about Israel, or social justice, or a book I'm finding particularly fascinating.

An odd religious question he's fielded
I was approached by a woman who discovered evidence that her maternal grandmother was Jewish, and had been sheltered by a Christian family during the Holocaust. The hidden girl grew up to live as a Christian woman and raised her subsequent family in the same way. Now, two generations later, the churchgoing Protestant granddaughter discovered the story, and came to talk to me about the possibility of living a Jewish life and returning to the faith of her ancestors. She revealed that she had already spoken to an Orthodox rabbi, whose halachic response was that there was no impediment to her beginning a life in the Jewish community right away. So she was confused by my response when I told her that Reform standards of ishut dictate that she undergo a conversion ceremony before being considered Jewish by the community.

[You can read the text of the relevant teshuva here; the resolution holds that within the Reform community, Jewish status is conferred by having one Jewish parent (of either gender) and "public acts and declarations" of Jewish life. Since the woman in question had neither, we cannot consider her to be Jewish.]

Anyway, it was a fascinating meeting not least of all because the woman had been under the impression that Reform rabbis would always and unequivocally render more lenient rulings than Orthodox rabbis. She couldn't understand how I could say "no," when my Orthodox colleague had said "yes."

What he thinks every Jew should know.
1.  How to read Hebrew.
2.  A rudimentary understanding of Jewish history from, oh, let's say, 1500 BCE to 1500 CE.
3.  The structure and content of a traditional siddur.

Armed with these three things, I imagine that pretty much any Jew on the planet would be able to utterly transform their own spiritual life (and the life of their synagogue/community) without breaking a sweat.  It would be pretty awesome.

The midrash (or rabbinic teaching) he'd tattoo on his arm
This is an easy one.

"Chotamo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu: emet hi"-
"The sign of the Holy One is truth."  [B. Shabbat 55a]

It's a great reminder that serious Jews should never be afraid of truth, research, reason, or inquiry.  We must - we MUST - seek truth at all times, and with as much seriousness and rigor as our world allows.  But there's also a wonderful teaching in the converse as well: that anyplace we find real truth - whether it's in archaeology, or botany, or music theory - that particle of truth is also the dwelling-place of the Divine.  And any place you find falseness, fraud, deceit or lies: know that God cannot live there.

What he thinks Reform Judaism does especially well / What he thinks Reform Judaism does poorly
There's a great line in Isaac Mayer Wise's autobiography which comes when he recounts the events of his first arrival in the United States in the mid-1840's.  He's talking about his first experience in an American shul, and he says:

The shacharith chazan, it is true, could not sing well.  His breathing was too labored; but he read Hebrew so poorly that he would have been able to conduct the service successfully in the most orthodox congregation.  It is well known that poor Hebrew reading and indecorum were as necessary an accompaniment of Jewish orthodoxy as was dog Latin of Catholic orthodoxy.

It's pretty harsh.  But it's also a great reminder that the Reform movement - and its institutions (the Hebrew Union College and the (then-named) Union of American Hebrew Congregations) - was established in order to bring professionalism, academic seriousness, and technical expertise to American Jewry, and especially to the American rabbinate.  Wise's greatest legacy is that he created a movement which demanded serious academic credentials from its rabbis and prepared them with the best tools to use in the pursuit of those credentials.  In the early days, no rabbi would have been as prepared as an HUC ordinee with text skills, knowledge of ancient grammars, and a deep understanding of classical philosophy.

Now, of course, a commitment to both Torah u-maddah is wide-spread throughout the denominational continuum, and we're all well-off because of it.  The problem now, though, is that the Reform movement can no longer rest on its historic academic laurels.  Now YU musmachim can quote Kant (and even Wellhausen) just as well as can; Reform rabbis can't rely on their well-rounded Jewish and secular knowledge to make them uniquely qualified to lead any more.  And the other traditional bailiwick of liberal Judaism - our work for social justice and responsibility - no longer belongs only (or even mainly) to the progressive movements.

If Reform rabbis want to continue to have a compelling and qualified voice in the American religious marketplace, we can't back down from Wise's scholarly standards.  But we do have to work hard to stake our claim in the areas where people don't always turn to us as primary authorities: strengthening Jews' relationships with Israel, giving them the tools to enrich their connection with God, and educating them in the classic texts that are the inheritance of all Jews, everywhere.

Where he thinks Rashi would daven if he lived today
I have no idea.  But I can pick a few places he'd never be caught dead.

What he'd do with a magic wand
Create a pill that allows humans to thrive on only 1 hour of sleep per day.  Also, producing French fries that cure cancer.

Give me your knee jerk response to the following:

:: Gay marriage
I wish that civil governments spent less time trying to stigmatize and criminalize gay families.
I wish that orthodox Jews spent more time trying to make their communities hospitable for gay families in spite of their halachic stances against on same-sex kiddushin.
I wish that liberal Jews realized that making their communities hospitable for gay families isn't enough, and that we need to approach same-sex kiddushin with religious rigor.  In this case, progressive social/political values are necessary, but not sufficient.

:: The Obama/Israel brouhaha
I'm just not sure where the brouhaha was when George W. Bush was President.  If I recall correctly, he didn't do a whole lot to advance the peace process, and no one ever called him anti-Israel.  I would place myself in the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" camp, and as an American Zionist, I'm actually really happy to have a President in the White House who is (1) engaged with Israel as an ally, but also (2) has the courage to insist that Israel ought to comport itself with moral rectitude.

If I were a Belgian-American, I'd expect (quite appropriately) that my homeland Belgium should act morally and righteously in her foreign (and domestic) policy - and that would hardly make me a "self-hating Belgian."  Why the double standard for progressive Zionists in America?

:: Women Rabbis
Dude, seriously?  That is SO forty years ago.  Want to hear what I think about Watergate, too?

:: Maharat Sarah Hurwitz  
A lot of energy has been expended over the controversy of what she ought to be called, whether or not she has the right to be called "Rabba" or "Maharat" or whatever, etc.  Now, I don't have a fair or objective stake in the nomenclature issue, because I am a member of a movement which does not differentiate between the ordination of men and women.  Nevertheless, the most exciting part of this issue for me has been watching the halachic back-and-forth about it within the orthodox world.  R' Weiss has done a lot of things that I admire, and whether or not he was being deliberately provocative by bestowing semicha on Sarah Hurwitz, I appreciate the fact that he was willing to push the issue within a halachic framework, not just a political one.  It's meant that a significant sector of the orthodox community is now taking seriously the possibility that a woman can play a major official role in communal halachic leadership.  It's very exciting; I'll be watching closely to see what happens next.


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