Judaism vs. Jediism
Sunday was the big day. Perhaps the most important day in eight-year-old Gordon's life. The day for which he's been mentally preparing for many months. The day he got to see "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith."
I had intended to spend Sunday's Hebrew school trip to Toomey's Diner on the subject of envy. Joe had just had his eleventh birthday party and was working through some materialism issues.
But as it became clear how important "Star Wars" was in Gordon's cosmology, I felt it would be useful to compare and contrast.
"Is the Force like God?"
"No," said Gordon clearly. "The force is like the source of energy. So saying 'may the Force be with you' is like saying 'break a leg' but in a really serious way."
"What are the differences between Jedi faith and Judaism?"
They both involve supernatural theatrics. "Judaism has some magic to it," Gor explained, citing Moses parting the Red Sea and creating blood in the Nile by sticking in his staff. "Jedi has a little more magic. You can make stuff fly toward you."
The differences between the two traditions were far more numerous, the boys argued. "The Force does just whatever the Jedi does," Gordon said. "It doesn't have a mind of its own. It's sort of like a slave."
Joe agreed. "In the Bible stories, God does things. In "Star Wars," the Force doesn't have a brain. Other people USE the force. It's not good or evil. In the Bible, God only does things for good."
Gordon disagreed with the last point. "Not always. What about Jericho?" He was noting that God caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, killing thousands of innocent people.
Despite the moments of divine amorality, we agreed that by and large Yahweh was more likely to live and rule by an ethical code than was the Force.
Then we talked about the afterlife. The boys liked the Jewish conception-which theoretically allows for all people to live in the spirit world-more than the Jedi view, which seems to provide an afterlife only for that small number of people with Jedi powers. Jediism is far more elitist, we agreed, than Judaism.
The Golden Commandment?
My older son, Joe, has taken an interest in the Middle Ages (knights, castles, plagues, catapults, war elephants etc). So I figured I'd exploit that interest to teach Jewish history. We discussed Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish sage who, among other things codified the 613 Commandments said to be in the Torah.
"What was wrong with the Ten Commandments?" Joe asked. Good question. As a Reform Jew, I didn't quite know how to handle that, because we never really studied the other 603, and, upon recent inspection, I don't much like some of them ("to slay the inhabitants of a city that has become idolatrous and burn that city."(Deut. 13:16-17)
But it's worth looking at the 613, for some are both wise and routinely flouted. ("Not to demand from a poor man repayment of his debt, when the creditor knows that he cannot pay, nor press him.") It got interesting when I asked Joe what other commandments God should have put in. "What about the golden rule?"
Now that's another awfully good question. If Hillel's advice is to be taken-that the essence of Judaism is the command in Leviticus (19:18) that "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"-why didn't that rank in the top 10?
The Messiah & The Gossip
It seems that every other time I find some interesting Jewish educational resource online it's been put there by an Orthodox group. A new Jewish Children's Museum opened up recently near us in Brooklyn. It was created by the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the ultra-Orthodox group formerly led by the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, whom many Lubavichers regard as the Messiah. Wearing black fedoras, dark suits, and beards, the Lubavitchers are easily identifiable (and common) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
I used to get annoyed by how aggressive the Lubavitchers seem to be in pushing their literature and their teachings. They prosyletize, sending vans, known as "mitzvah tanks," throughout New York City, as well as to train stations in suburbs with Jewish populations, and they somehow came off as "real Jews" there to teach the fake Jews a thing or two about their faith.
In any event, they did a nice job with this museum, which includes a miniature golf course depicting the phases of a Jewish life. A humorous exhibit on gossip--known in Hebrew as lashon harah, which literally means evil tongue--explained that the practice was bad not only for the victims of the gossip and those maliciously spreading the information-but also those who hear it. We discussed this some but were mostly stumped. Perhaps it was because by hearing the gossip, the recipient is an accessory to a moral crime? Joe suggested that the person was then in an awkward position-having to decide whether to keep the secret or pass it on.
Do Reform Jews Practice Judaism Lite?
The trip to the Lubavitcher children's museum reminds me of an argument we had during the Passover seder. The rabbi at my fathers' Reform temple on Long Island apparently has been campaigning against the recent decision of some Reform congregations to include the tashlich ceremony as part of their Rosh HaShanah observance.
Tashlich-Hebrew for "you will cast away"-is a ceremony on the first day of Rosh Hashanah when Jews gather at a body of water, recite verses from the biblical books of Micah and Psalms, and throw breadcrumbs, symbolizing their sins, into the water. I always liked the ceremony, but my father's rabbi proudly declared that this was exactly the sort of superstition that the Reform movement has cast away.
It made me realize how much Reform Judaism has come to be viewed-by Reform Jews and observant Jews alike-as a lesser form of Judaism. The popular perception is that Reform Jews practice Judaism Lite-creaming a few simple, easy-to-understand and not-too-arduous principles and ignoring the rest. I've also heard several conservative Christians rhapsodize about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in part on the grounds that he's a "real Jew"-i.e., observant-and dismissive of Reform Judaism as little more than a liberal political movement.
I confess some ignorance about the origins of the Reform movement. Some elements paralleled the attitudes of the Protestant Reformation toward the Catholic Church-a rejection of ritual for ritual sake and the corruption of the clerical class. It also paralleled Vatican II reforms of the Catholic Church in its introduction of the vernacular into services, rather than just Hebrew.
I'm not sure whether this is accurate, but as a child I was also taught, or at least came to believe, that Reform Jews were more likely to care about the obligation toward repairing the world (known in Hebrew as tikkun olam) and helping the poor or the exploited. They lived their Judaism through their social activism, rather than their observance of ritual.
But these days, it seems to me that Reform Jews have lost their sense of pride and have internalized the notion that they are merely superficial Jews. Is that perception unfair?
Top 10 Moments From the Waldman Family Seder
10) The traditional Pesach argument over whether Philip Roth's work is anti-Semitic.
9) Gordon (age eight) reading the Four Questions in English and transliterated Hebrew for the first time. He did fabulously well. He was beaming with pride, as were we.
8) After hiding the afikomen, my brother giving the kids a clue--"Some day, all of this will be yours"--and Joe (age 10) getting it! (Search for "curtains" if you don't.)
7) Cousin Ben (age 11) playing "Dayenu" on the portable electric piano. He chose the "pipe organ" setting (as opposed to trumpet or marimba) in deference to Amy's Presbyterian heritage.
6) The surprise revelation of the secret ingredient in Aunt Liz's brisket. (Pepsi).
5) Teaching Gordon and Joe the ancient Hebraic art of using the Cuisinart to chop the ingredients for the charoset.
4) Amy reading Hebrew for the fist time! (Transliteration.) And making awesome matzah ball soup, as usual.
3) The kids describing what people around the world were still not free. (They mentioned Africa, Sudan, Middle East, and China. One of the adults mischievously added, "Palestine." Interesting discussion ensued.)
2) Uncle Mike and I showing the kids our collection of 45s, revealing vast differences between Daddy's adolescent tastes (Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves") and Uncle Mike's (The Clash and Ramones).
1) Traditional family discussion of why we're not allowed to eat charoset-and-horse-radish all year long.
In Every Waldman Generation
Years ago, my mother created her Haggadah for our family's Passover seder. She cobbled together passages from various published Haggadahs she'd found here and there, and then added her own personal philosophy.
Each year, she always threw in a few lines about the Yankees or some school or professional triumph of one of her children, as well as a passage from the "Diary of Anne Frank" and other reflections of her theological and ethical perspectives. This may strike some as sacrilegious, but it definitely made the kids very attentive to the readings. We always looked forward to seeing how she'd manage to weave in some dig at the NRA, or a celebration of some personal development.
We joke about it, but this family Haggadah is one of the most precious Waldman family traditions. It is an expression of my mother's values and her sense of what Judaism really meant to our family.
Here it is. Feel free to copy any parts you like. More important, please send me any special passages from your own Haggadah, or post them on the message board next to this article.
Brotherly Love Is Boring
Whenever I've failed to prepare a coherent lesson plan, I crack open a book of Jewish stories. This weekend I used one titled " Lights Among the Path: Jewish Folklore Through the Grades."