Thank You, Chabad Beijing!

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (...

Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. (1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m incredibly grateful for the remarkable warmth, and love with which I was welcomed (back) into the Chabad Beijing community. Yom Kippur away from these wonderful people is, after over a decade in their fold, unimaginable. I will definitely have to arrange to come back every year — and, of course, many times in between.

Thank you to Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich, Rabbi Nosson Rodin, the wise and learned Zalman Lipskar, and the entire Rawack family. Teshuvah never felt so comforting!

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Reading “Kosher Nation”

As an aside, I am really enjoying Sue Fishkoff’s Kosher Nation. I listened to the first half of the book on my way to Shanghai, and I’ll listen to the other half on the way back.

I am a huge fan of Fishkoff after reading her book The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, where her balance and her approach to the topic put to rest my longstanding fears of dealing with Chabad. Her treatment of kashrut has been an eye-opener, and has dropped my personal anxiety level around the upcoming kashering of our kitchen.

Now if I could only get my wife to read it, we’d be off to the races.

Forgive the Rabbis. They Know Not What They Sell.

Forgive the Rabbis. They Know Not What They Sell.

Rabbi Hayim Herring suggests that regardless of denomination, too many U.S. Jewish congregations think that they are in the business of selling “memberships,” or, worse, seats at the High Holy Days. Herring, who in fairness is talking his book, says that what they should be selling is a complete Jewish ecosystem.

Having spent the past decade loosely affiliated with Chabad of Beijing, I can tell you that this is precisely what Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Mendy, Rabbi Nosson, and their families have done. Even better, they have done so in cooperation with (rather than in opposition to) the reformed/conservative community of Kehillat Beijing.

I once likened Chabad’s role as being similar to an artificial reef on a sandy sea bottom. Their job is to create just enough to incite the development of a Jewish ecosystem where before there had been little, or in some cases, none. I’ve seen this approach work brilliantly on the far frontiers of the diaspora, but R. Herring reminds us that the same lessons apply even in the heartland of international Judaism.

UTJ – A Denomination, or a Post-Denominational Movement

Union for Traditional Judaism.

I was fascinated in my reading of the recent special report in The Economist about the growing movement toward post-denominational Judaism. For those of our faith who are moving past institutional distinctions, it’s not about whether you’re Haredi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist, but whether you’re on the path of Teshuvah.

My first exposure to this approach came through Chabad in Beijing, and radio personality Denis Prager also openly practices a trans-Denominational form of Judaism, incorporating the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements in his life.

But there are more sparks of the movement, and one of them is the Union of Traditional Judaism, a group whose beliefs fall between Conservative and Modern Orthodox articles of faith. The group seems interesting, but I wonder whether it is trying to hew a road between Orthodox and Conservative, or genuinely attempting to transcend such distinctions. I sincerely hope it is the latter.

Beyond Denominations

The Economist, in its recent special report about the Jews, “Alive and Well,” offers us an interesting – and I think defensible – chart of the key points of belief and practice, delineating where the similarities as well as the differences lie among the four major denominations – HarediModern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. The guide offers some interesting insights into the faith, and it raises some others into each of us. After looking over the list and seeing how that made some sense, I then gave myself a test. Where do my own articles of faith lie?

  • On the Source of the Torah, I agree with both Orthodox denominations in that I believe that the Torah was dictated by G-d to Moses;
  • On the Authority of Halacha, I find myself between the Modern Orthodox and the Conservatives: life is regulated by halacha but that halacha can evolve to a degree;
  • Similarly, on Ritual and Practice, I’m with the Modern Orthodox in that they are regulated by halacha, but that there is room for evolution;
  • On Zionism and Israel, however, I am torn. I generally support Israel, but I am troubled by the State’s handling of the settlements issue.
  • On the Definition of Jewishness, I am between the Modern Orthodox and the Conservative position, but mostly out of selfishness – I want to be considered Jewish, but my mother did not convert according to halacha and I am not yet ready to take on the full scope of the Mitzvot.

But enough of this navel-gazing.

The article raises much more meaningful questions: are the differences between the denominations as great as we believe? Are they always a matter of choice, or are they a matter of upbringing? Do not each of the movements and denominations serve a purpose? Should we take a more holistic approach to our faith? Is it time for us to knock down the walls that divide the denominations?

Inter-denominational dissing is too prevalent, and we forget too easily that bBaseless hatred cast us out of Israel. Is it such a leap to think that it is,  the continuing presence of Jew-on-Jew strife that keeps Moshiach away?

One of the things that inspired me about Chabad was how the rabbis, while clearly Orthodox almost to the point of haredi, refused to classify themselves as such, and profess a point of view that says “all Jews are the same.” If they can do that, why can’t the rest of us?

On Being a Goy

I was born into a family wherein my father had been born to Jewish parents, but my mother had not. My mother converted at a Reformed synagogue, and she believed that made her Jewish.

Fast forward sixteen years. Hot on the path toward becoming a more observant Jew, I am told by a dear (modern Orthodox) friend that I am not actually (i.e., Halachically) Jewish. Needless to say, that was upsetting, and it began a journey of 15 years wherein I wandered away from Judaism. I was brought back into the fold by a group of friends who cared less for my parentage than my beliefs, and then deeper into the fold by Chabad rabbis who understood that it was the inner spark (what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called the pintela yidI) that made a person truly Jewish.

Yet despite all of that support, I am not considered Jewish by those among my friends and mentors who are bound by Jewish law. As a result, my wife, who went through a conversion similar to my mother’s long before we met, is also not considered Halachically Jewish, nor is my son. The problem has not gone away.

So why do I react differently now than I did when I was sixteen? Apart from a few more years (and a few more pounds) under my belt, what has changed?

I think the answer is in the journey. Having spent years sampling from the tables of many faiths (the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholicism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Islam, and Buddhism among them), I kept coming back to where I found my soul, and that was in Judaism and Torah. Regardless of my status under Jewish law, I realized, I felt Jewish, thought Jewish, acted (somewhat) Jewish, and related to G-d as a Jew. Nobody, not even a beit din, had the power to give that to me, or my wife, or my son, or to take it away. What a Halachic conversion can (and, please G-d, one day will) confer upon us is the legal status of a Jew.

I my wife, and my son all live in this Halachic limbo, at best b’nei Noach, at worst goyyim, and will continue as such until our level of observance has evolved to a point where a beit din in good standing will declare us othewise.

And that’s okay. If our forefathers could wander in the Sinai for 50 years before G-d was ready to let them into the Promised Land, I suppose we must take our own journey of hardships before we reach our (spiritual) Canaan.

Bill Bishop Wonders about China’s Latent Anti-Semitism

Today’s China Readings May 24, 2012 | Sinocism.

On his excellent Sinocism blog, the thoughtful and prolific Bill Bishop examines whether China Central Television‘s (CCTV) talk show host is an anti-Semite, a subject broached by the Shanghaiist editorial staff.

While he reaches no conclusion either way, Bishop, whom I do not believe is a member of the Tribe, approaches the topic with tact and care.

When asked how Jews are perceived in China, I always fall back on the words of Rebbetzin Dini Freundlich of Chabad of Beijing, who once said, “Chinese say the same [stereotypical] things about Jews that everybody else in the world says. The difference is that they say it with respect.”

My experience over 17 years living in China and ten years traveling here before that is that most Chinese have a healthy admiration for Jewish people, albeit one based too much on hearsay for my comfort. (After all, a positive reputation based on hearsay can turn into a negative one when the hearsay changes, all without reference to the facts.)

It behooves every Jew with the ability to visit China to do so, and to make no effort to hide your Judaism, any more than an American should hide his origins. If the Chinese are to know us, they must know who we are, and I believe that the more they know us, the better we’ll be liked. (Especially if we act according to Torah in the process.)