Minhag America – Graduation Address by © Anita Diamant - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Minhag America – Graduation Address by © Anita Diamant

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

HUC-JIR Graduation Ceremonies
April 30, 2008 / 25 Nisan5768
New York, NY 

Contrary to what you might have read or heard elsewhere, there has never been a better time to be Jewish. Let me say that again. There has never been a better time to be Jewish. This is not rhetoric - not for me, anyway. And not for my daughter. 

I have no patience with the teeth-gnashers and wagon-circlers who predict the imminent demise of the Jewish people, beset as we are by choice, diversity, and change. 

Today, we find ourselves in the middle of a thrilling, not to say risk-free leap into the next, into the new. We are living through changes as profound and unpredictable as those presented by Rabbinic Judaism when it first emerged. Talk about a rough passage. The end of the Temple cult must have seemed like the end of the Jewish world. But our ancestors did not sit in the dust; they chose life, which meant choosing change. 

We are on the verge of an entirely new iteration of Jewish history and of Judaism itself, a time that is bursting with ideas and possibilities, music and art, wisdom and laughter, scholarship and movies. And holiness. 

I call this new chapter Minhag America. The title comes from the famous prayer book published in 1856 by Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who dreamed of uniting all of American Jewry with a single siddurThat was doomed to fail, and fail it did. 

I use Rabbi Wise's title not to unite or paper over the differences and variations in American Jewish practice, but as an umbrella term to describe the rich diversity of Jewish life in America, and of a uniquelyAmerican Judaism, alive and kicking. 

For the past few years, I've been collecting ideas and values that fit under thisMinhag America umbrella. So far, I have 16. 

Don't worry. I don't have the time here to explore them all no matter how fast I talk. So I'm going to say a few words about four of the defining elements of Minhag America. 

My perspective on all this is not that of scholar or academic but of a writer, a journalist and a novelist; and most recently as a Jewish "lay leader," a role I spent most of my adult life avoiding. 

I speak in the first person, feminine. 

This is not something I take for granted. Nor should you. Because the cornerstone of Minhag America, its greatest hiddush to date, and for my money the root of its genius is the full participation of women. 

The inclusion of women has changed everything so profoundly and so completely, that it is as invisible and essential as oxygen. 

And yet the point must be made. The fact I'm a girl is no big deal. A woman addressing seminarians, rabbis, cantors, scholars, the gedolim of our movement, taking the pulse of the Jewish world? No big deal, but only for the past couple of decades in a history that stretches back a few thousand years. 

I speak personally about Minhag America because my abilities and my success are so completely an expression of the time and place in which I happen to have been born. There has been no other time in history when I could have participated in any Golden Age for the Jews. Not me or my daughter. And I stand upon the shoulders of those who preceded me and led the way. 

Rabbi Sally Priesand's retirement in 2006 was a milestone, reminding us that we've had a whole generation with a full panel of women's voices being heard on the broader stages of Jewish life. 

We Jewish women have always had voices. We've always had our opinions, and redoubtable kitchen table power. We can and should honor the participation of Jewish women behind the scenes, just as we can and should be proud of the inherently/sometimes covertly democratic tendencies within Judaism itself to foster literacy and independence among women. 

But in our day, we take it for granted that there are women on the bimah. On the faculty. All over the bookshelves. In the boardrooms. This is the first time in Jewish history that the full chorus of female voices is heard. Not just the lone extraordinary character. Women take part in public discourse about God and halachah, about the governance of our synagogues, about marriage and how we educate our children, about ethics and politics, about the substance and fire of our lives. 

This unprecedented participation of women grows from nearly two generations of Jewish women and men who understand that feminism is an expression of Judaism's mission, part of the Torah's mandate for justice and the sanctification of life. 

Women's participation has fostered new paradigms in virtually every aspect of Jewish life. More democracy. More congregational singing. More ritual. A redefinition of social justice and political action. And it has served as a model for the enfranchisement of all Jews, regardless of their physical abilities, their sexual orientation, their race, or their religion of origin. 

These are enormous changes. As Jews, we reflexively look back to our sources for prototypes that root change in tradition. Thus we cite Miriam the prophet as a foremother in leadership. We claim Hannah, the spiritual seeker, as the inventor of personal prayer. We explicate Ruth and Esther as exemplars of distinctively feminine forms of courage. 

These are legitimate arguments. But I think we also have to own up to the fact that we will not find an ancient precedent for everything that's happening in Minhag America. We have to be honest that we are inventing the Miriam we need: the musician, the performance artist - we give her a timbrel and a place at the Seder and put new songs in her mouth. We give her words that speak to our spiritual needs and reflect contemporary models of female leadership. 

We can and we must embrace new and unprecedented insights along with the familiar and heavily footnoted; not out of expediency or political correctness but because they are the fruits of a community of learning and learned Jews, which is the second feature of Minhag America I want to address and that is; the democratization of Jewish learning. We Jews are a little too proud of the fact that Judaism has always placed a high premium on scholarship, learning, and literacy. But this is bit of a nostalgic fallacy and it makes us moderns tend to venerate the Jews of yore as far more learned than us, and thus more pious and authentic than us. 

But the fact is, for most of our history, Jewish study was an elite practice. Rabbis and men rich enough or lucky enough to be supported by their families were the only ones who had the time for and the honor of on-going Jewish learning. 

Until very recently, the idea of a commitment to life-long learning was not within the reach of most Jewish men -- never mind women. And this made essential elements of Judaism - including God - seem inaccessible to the average person. But Minhag America presents a vision and a growing expectation of Jewish learning for all. No Jew left behind. 

Across movements, in the federation and organizational world as well, efforts are afoot to insure that everyone in the Jewish community has the chance to engage with text, to study the sources, to learn Hebrew, to find ourselves in Torah. This is seen as a basic Jewish right to the extent that extraordinary measures are taken - on a communal scale -- to enable physically and mentally challenged Jews to go to Hebrew school, to become bar/bat mitzvah, to participate at the highest level attainable to them. 

Torah study is a growth industry, not just in shul but in the JCCs, Federations, senior centers, Hadassah, brotherhood. "Lunch-and-learn," is old news. Board meetings begin with Torah study. Everything begins with Torah study. And of course, it's all as close as your computer, where the internet is alive with Ten Minutes of Torah, 24/7. 

Let me stress that this is not a return to old ways of doing things. This is the radical democratization of study, emerging as the learning and learned practice of Minhag America, which is producing hundreds of books every year; theology, history, how-tos, haggadahs. Also novels and short stories. And to get off the page for a moment, also movies and plays, operas, dances, paintings, photography, video art. Which brings me to my third point, which is that for Minhag America, the arts are valued as never before. No longer suspect as a form of idolatry, the arts are understood as pathways for the soul's journey; teaching tools and ways to convene and enter community, inspiration for tikkun olam, opportunities to add new voices to our ongoing Jewish conversation. 

The truth is, I would not be here today were it not for The Red Tent a novel based on Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, and a very obscure character in Genesis. Jewish readers (and reviewers) invariably apply the term Midrash to my book. I did not set out to write Midrash, which means "search" or "investigate." It was not my intention to search or investigate the biblical text, but to fictionalize it. What I did was not interpretation but improvisation. It was the story, the plot, that attracted me to this project. I wrote what I thought was a historical novel. 

On the other hand, it was as an adult student of Judaism, in my synagogue, where I was inspired by the freedom inherent in our tradition to make art out of the Torah. According to rabbinic teaching, every word of the Torah has 70 faces and 600,000 meanings. Torah is infinitely analyzable, which means there is no one correct interpretation. 

The Red Tent is an artifact of Minhag America; a product of adult Jewish Torah study at my Reform congregation, and of my education at American universities, and my work as a journalist, and of my life-long love of fiction as a form of entertainment. 

This is the first time in history when such a book could not just be conceived and written, but published by a mainstream publisher and marketed to a large general audience. To readers in 26 countries and in 20 languages, most of whom have never heard the word, "midrash." 

The arts open doorways to the larger community in which we live -doors that enrich American culture even as they challenge and strengthen American Jews and American Judaism. 

When the arts succeed, they break barriers between people. Of course, whenever you break something, raw edges get exposed, unfamiliar questions get raised. This inevitably brings up fear and backlash. 

Good art has an edge, and we see lots of the cutting edge in Minhag America's cultural life. Mass culture and popular culture are part of this too, a new wave of tummlers and troubadours who number among them the likes of John Stewart (who has replaced Steven Spielberg as America's chief rabbi). Sarah Silverman. Mattisyahu. The Levees. HEEB magazine. The Jewcy website and a hundred other sites being invented and forgotten this very minute. 

These are exuberant, sometimes startling expressions of a profoundly self-confident Jewish American voice, in film, on TV, music, the visual arts. These artists and their works freak out a lot of people, but they announce the presence of a new generation of Jewish story-tellers telling new Jewish stories. 

You don't get any more Jewish than John Stewart, who writes and performs on The Daily Show on Comedy Central. John Stewart is totally "in your face" about being an outsider/commentator in America. He's not just Jewish, he refers to himself as "Jewy." And he dares the world to show itself as anti-Semitic by calling attention to his Jewy-ness. 

This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out. And gay Jews often lead the way, with courage as well as creativity. 

These are extreme Jews. I learn from them even as I watch them with a kind of parental pride, and it doesn't matter if I don't like everything they do or say. 

The Jewy Jews have opened a wild new conversation between religion and culture. This is a good thing. The arts raise questions. And questions are the tastiest fruit on our tree of life. Questions often start us down unexpected paths. 

Before my husband, Jim Ball, and I got married, during a meeting with our rabbi, I asked what books I might consult as we planned the ceremony. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner looked me in the eye and said that I should write a book about Jewish weddings. That turned out to be my first book, The New Jewish Wedding. And brings me to the fourth and final element of Minhag America I'll talk about this afternoon. 

Spirituality; the word, I have to tel you, makes me uneasy. I never understood my discomfort with it until I read The Journey Home by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, in which he wrote, "Spirituality is a new term for Jews. Holiness, we are familiar with. But spirituality is a Christian category and Jews are in the process of translating it. 

He continues, "Spirituality asks us to live in the world so that we can appreciate things we would not be conscious of, if we were to limit ourselves to the way our secular culture perceives reality. The Jewish way of mapping this other reality includes rituals that help us appreciate things we might gloss over. Or of connecting what we do and who we are to God." 

For me, the most successful translation of spirituality into a Jewish idiom is embodied in the religious gestures, the personal dramaturgy of ritual enactment. 

I don't remember too much from my few years in religious school at Temple Emanuel in Denver. But I do recall my teacher, Max Frankel, z'll, intoning the words, "Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed." I thought he meant good works, not pie in the sky. And while that was certainly part of his lesson, I've begun to understand that truism in terms of Jewish spirituality as well. 

Rituals make spirituality manifest without demanding too much in the way of explanation, which is essential, since language is essentially worthless when it comes to the sacred. Deed not creed .We perform religious gestures that give us a handle on the ineffable, the nameless. We light Shabbat candles and stop time. We wrap ourselves in prayer shawls, altering our appearance to approach the holy. And we immerse in mikveh to acknowledge the mystery of change. 

A generation ago, the idea that someone like me, a Reform Jew and a feminist, would be talking about mikveh at all would cause heads to explode. That's how much things have changed in Minhag America, where mikveh can be an expression of much of everything I've been talking about: women's full participation, the work of a learning and learning community, an expression of art and culture, the spiritual wisdom of ritual. 

And as you know, this Reform feminist is the founder and president of a mikveh, which meets all halachic requirements and is fully kosher and is thus like every other mikveh. But it is also a mikveh unlike any ever built because of the ways that it gives life to Minhag America values and aspirations. 

Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton Massachusetts is not your grandmother's mikveh. Or to be more accurate, it's not the mikveh your grandmother refused to step foot in. This is a mikveh imagined, designed, largely funded by and run under the leadership of Jewish women -- and a lot of wonderful men. Those of you who have been there know it is beautiful in every detail, and serves the needs of everyone in the community: men, women, and children, gay and straight and transgendered, able-bodied and those who require physical assistance or an American Sign language translator: everyone. 

Second, it is an educational institution. The full legal name of Mayyim Hayyim is a mouthful. "Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Paula Brody and Family Education Center." We had to put all that in because learning is a central part of our mission. Students from Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist synagogue schools, and from the local day schools, from colleges come for classes. Sisterhood and brotherhood groups come to study and to imagine the potential of a mikveh in the 21st century. Since we opened our doors, in May 2004, more than 8000 people have toured, studied, celebrated there. We have had more than 4,500 immersions. 900 converts to Judaism - and their families -- have been greeted with the words, "We built this place for you." 

With an international web presence, and an international conference which was co-sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Boston's Hebrew College, we have been approached for consultation and materials by 40 communities in the US, and four in Israel. 

Mayyim Hayyim has a cultural mandate as well. One of our seven founding principles is hiddur mitzvah, the rabbinic injunction to make Jewish life beautiful. The building is bathed in natural light, decorated to make people feel relaxed, cared for, at home. The education center is also an art gallery. Three weeks ago, we opened a show of the work of sculptor Nancy Schon, a local treasure and the woman who created the Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in The Boston Public garden. More than 200 people came to the opening - Jews and non-Jews, most of whom had never been in a mikveh before -- demonstrating how the arts can build community, teach, inspire, and reach out. 

But most of all, Mayyim Hayyim speaks to a yearning for authentic spiritual expression. This mikveh could be seen as a return to the past, as an embrace of traditional Judaism. And indeed, some use the place in the most traditional of all possible ways: 50 women immerse on a monthly basis; in all, about 227 individuals - including a handful of men -- have come to observe niddah, in their own way. 

But Mayyim Hayyim is really a radical appropriation of a ritual and of an institution. We propose a way of thinking about Jewish life that is breathtaking in its audacity. So conversion to Judaism - another defining dimension of Minhag America - is given its rightful place as the powerful, life-cycle event that it is, transforming individuals, families and our entire community, one soul at a time. 

In addition to these traditional purposes, this Minhag America mikveh acknowledges transitions that have been ignored by Jewish ritual -- never sanctified with blessings or songs. At Mayyim Hayyim we have had immersions to mark weaning of a child. Adoption. 

Menopause. The end of chemotherapy. Ordination. Coming out. The empty nest. Divorce. A new career. Weddings are celebrated not only by brides but also by grooms: 20 percent of immersions are by men and boys. 

Before we opened the door, we thought one of the main uses for mikveh would be healing and consolation, after illness and loss. But it hasn't worked out that way. You see, Jews are figuring out their own reasons for coming, like milestone birthdays: 40, 60, 80, 

Recently, we've noticed an up-tick in the number of 13-year-old bar and bat students coming to immerse before their big day. They draw smiley faces in the guest book and they write things like, "Now I am ready." 

That guest book is a great tonic when you're tempted to pull out your hair or wring your hands or circle the wagons about the state of the Jewish people 

Mayyim Hayyim is part of the audacious experiment in change that I am calling Minhag America. It's happening in every corner of our community. It's not going to stop. 

The question is, how do we respond to it? With arms folded across our collective chest, or with arms and eyes wide open. It's a choice. 

Although both my parents were Jews, I consider myself a child of intermarriage. My father was an optimist, my mother a pessimist. 

These two strains both have long and respected Jewish pedigrees. For centuries, pundits have been predicting our imminent demise. The Jews are, as someone famously wrote, the ever-dying people. The pessimists have had good cause for alarm: we have faced extinction by tyranny, persecution and anti-Semitism, assimilation. We live in perilous times, too. No doubt. 

And yet, history has proven the optimists right. It is the expansive hopeful Hillel, not the watchful, fearful Shammai who seems to have gotten it right. 

My father's optimism gene is dominant in me, for sure. But the older I get more I learn that optimism is an attitude, a choice, a muscle that requires exercise. I'm an optimist, damn it. 

So for me, as a practicing optimist, the mikveh - like the proverbial glass -- is half-full. American Judaism is strengthened and nurtured by the full participation of all Jews. It is inspired by the study of ancient texts and hot-of-the-presses texts. It is challenged and informed by the lively arts and it is enriched by the unabashed exploration of authentic liberal piety. 

I have no idea where this is going to take us. No one does. But I do know that as Jews, we are asked to hold fast to the tree of life that is Torah, and to be like that tree ourselves. Without roots to soak up the moisture, the tree topples. But without new growth reaching for the sun, there is no photosynthesis and no fruit. 

Ancient roots are no more authentic than new growth. Both are crucial, both are sacred. To paraphrase Rav Kook, "The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy." And that is us. That is you and me. And that is Minhag America. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu