Monday, September 22, 2008

A Few Interesting Posts Elsewhere

The three of us have been co-blogging at Sefer-HaBloggadah on Sundays. We're working our way through the interesting midrashim and aggadot in Sefer Ha-Bloggadah in a 2-year program. So far, we have the following posts:

Bruce on Plants and Trees With Attitude! Both trees and the earth disobey God during creation, and God is happy with one, unhappy with the other, and how this all pertains to theories of halachic interpretation.

Diane on To what lengths we will go to confirm what we already think? The midrash tries to slam Eve, and Diane turns the tables and slams the midrash.

Steve on Moderation in All Things, Including Moderation. In the midrash, Satan helps Noah plant his vineyard, and implicitly argues for moderation in drinking. Steve argues for moderation in this moderation.

Bruce on As Numerous as the Stars: Quantity, Quality, and the Quality of Quantity. God tells Abraham to look at the stars and promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as these stars. The midrash elaborates on this story and messes it up. To untangle the midrash, Bruce takes a tour of the stars. Literally.

Speaking of Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, BZ, the resident blogmeister there, has two interesting posts on his own blog Mah Rabu. The first is on orthodox vs. Orthodox, or how the word "orthodox" is confusingly misused. The second dissects the Reform position on one-day yom tovs. (With a second post promised, as well as one on the Conservative position.)

All are worth reading.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Moderate, Liberal, and Secular Jews Should Celebrate Sukkot

Sukkot is a holiday that should appeal to moderate, liberal, and secular Jews. But for some reason, very few non-Orthodox Jews celebrate this holiday. I am not sure why. My argument here --- addressed specifically to Jews who do not celebrate sukkot --- is that you should celebrate Sukkot as well.

The "religious" content is Sukkot is certainly appealing. It is known as Z'man Simchateinu, the time of our joy, and it is actually a Torah-mitzvah to "rejoice" during sukkot. (Deut. 16:14.) It is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt (like Passover and Shabbat) (Exod. 23:42-43.) And it is one of the the three major "pilgrimage" holidays in the Torah.

The "rituals" of sukkot are pretty pleasant as well. Building a sukkah is fun, and its a great activity to do with kids. Kids love decorating a sukkah. And once it is built, one should invite guests to the sukkah and enjoy a good meal. Many people built patios and covered desks in their backyard; there is not a huge difference between that and a sukkah (other than the sukkah's temporary nature).

The "meaning" of sukkot is also appealing, especially in America. For one week each year, we leave the comfort of our nice houses, go sit in a shack, and enjoy the company of family and friends. One obvious lesson is that we can have a wonderful time with our family and friends, even without the material comforts or our house. One of the most important aspects of Judaism is its counter-cultural messages. Sukkot's anti-materialism is an important antidote to the strong (and sometimes overwhelming) materialism of America. There are of course many ways to think about Sukkot, but this is one of the most important ones for me.

So I challenge any Jew who does not regularly build a sukkah to do so this year, or at least to come up with a good reason for not doing so. (Good luck with that one.) There are zillions of easy-to-assemble sukkah kits available in Judaica store or online (google it). Or design and build your own. (I use 2x4s bolted together (for easy assembly, disassembly, and reusability) with metal L-braces (for strength), along with plastic pull-down blinds for the walls, and bamboo blinds or branches or palm fronds for the skach. Everything is easily available at a local home center.)

I have found Aish HaTorah's Sukkot webpages to be quite helpful.

Sukkot is 2 weeks after Rosh Hashanah and 4 days after Yom Kippur. So its a pretty good idea to start planning now.


Parapets on the Roof

In last week's parsha Ki Teitze, the Torah set forth a simply safety law. "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it." (Deut 22:8.) The general principal is obvious to everyone, and certainly to any lawyer: take reasonable precautions to prevent foreseeable harm.

Why don't people literally do this? That is, why don't Jews put a small parapet around their roof to fulfill the literal wording of this mitvah? I've never seen one, at least for these purposes.

Under the literal wording of the rule, the obligation applies only to a person building a new house, not occupying an existing house. But certainly the general principal applies.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - Practical Issues

How do you prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Obviously, the holidays are what we make of them. And they are a great opportunity for self improvement and to right some lingering wrongs. But all this takes some preparation.

At one extreme, people can simply do nothing to prepare for the holidays. They get to synagogue, find themselves a little bored, and get very little out of the holidays.

At the other extreme, people can approach the holidays at a very high level of generality: repenting for mistakes, seeking forgiveness, starting a new year. The obvious problem is that these lofty ideals are too lofty to do much practical good. One needs to be specific: repent for specific mistakes and seek forgiveness from specific people. Start a new year by doing specific things in a different way.

Here are a few things that I have done and that others have suggested to me. Feel free to offer additional ideas in the comments.

Realistic Resolutions. In some years, I have thought about one or two general things I would like to do better the following year. It might involve personal traits, relationships with others, or plans for specific goals. I then try to think of specific and concrete ways of accomplishing these things. I try to limit myself to things that I probably can do. Reaching a little is OK; reaching too much is likely to produce failure.

I then check in with myself at the (secular) New Year and at Passover (or roughly a third and a half of the way through the year) and try to make mid-year corrections. Am I on track? If so, great. If not, why not?

Similarly, I think about one or two general things that I have done well the past year, perhaps with some difficulty, and think about how I can keep on track. These are sometimes last year's goals.

Meetings. A friend noted that he tries to set up meetings with anyone he has an ongoing problem with and tries to resolve the problem one way or the other.

Going Through the Prayerbook Ahead of Time. Another friend noted that one of her friends goes through the prayerbook before the holidays. Specifically, she focuses on the V'dui and Al Chait, thinks about sins or mistakes that she has made that fall into these categories, and actually takes notes in a personal siddur. (Note: if you do this, its probably a good idea to keep it is a secret locked place.) This process helps her use the structure and content of the prayers to help her become a better person. And obviously the prayers have more meaning to her in synagogue once she has "personalized" them ahead of time.

Any other thoughts?

* * *

UPDATE: a link with a few more suggestions. Aish HaTorah's website has an article on this topic called Three Steps to Genuine Change. (It really discusses three separate methods to implementing positive character changes rather than three separate sequential steps.) Aish is particularly good at these types of practical character issues.


Friday, September 5, 2008

The Limits of Reform Judaism and Non-Halachic Halacha

The Union for Reform Judaism has an interesting ongoing essay series called "Eilu V'eilu." Two knowledgeable people (generally rabbis, sometimes others) post on a particular issue, respond to each other's points, and respond to reader's e-mails. The archives are here.

In the most recent series (Volume 30 - with 4 weekly posts and 1 supplemental post), Cantor Dana Anesi and Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl address the the limits of Reform Judaism in general, and more specifically the following question:

Some people say that Reform Jews can believe just about anything and do just about anything, as long as they still call themselves Jews. Others disagree. They insist that there are indeed identifiable boundaries in Reform Judaism. Is there anything I have to believe or do in order to call myself a Reform Jew?

The question is a great one. Reform Judaism claims to be a non-halachic movement, and its primary and perhaps overriding value is individual autonomy. There is much to commend as to this approach, but one drawback is that it lacks a structured and deterministic ideology that can supply definitive answers. It cannot say that people who believe or do X are not Reform Jews. One the other hand, such limits are necessary. Certainly a Jew, or Jewish congregation, that believed and practiced the negation of all the mitzvot would fall outside the scope of Reform Judaism. But how does one determine these limits?

Cantor Anesi and Rabbi Stahl offer some insights, and both draw on an interesting Reform Responsum dealing with whether a humanistic Jewish congregation that omits all references to God should be admitted to the UAHC. I'll discuss the Responsum first, the arguments of Cantor Anesi and Rabbi Stahl's arguments, and then a few thoughts or why Reform Judaism is not really a non-halachic movement.

Reform Responsum 5751.4

Reform Responsum 5751.4 dealt with the issue of whether a humanistic Jewish congregation could be admitted to the UAHC. Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote the responsum excluding the congregation. The congregation had adopted its own liturgy that deliberately omitted all mention of God and well as the Kiddush, Kaddish, Barekhu, Shema, Ve'ahavta, Amidah and Aleinu. Rabbi Plaut noted that although Reform Judaism has always been "an open-ended and variegated movement," it has always grounded itself in a belief in God at least in some form, as reflected in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the 1935 Columbus platform, and the 1976 Centenary Perspective. (I just have to note that the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform most ofter refers to an undefined "God-idea" rather than "God".) Thus, "[t]he Congregation has cut itself loose from the three platforms that define Reform Judaism for their times."

Rabbi Plaut then asks the next logical question: even though it is outside "the realm of historical Reform Judaism," "should we not open the gates wide enough to admit even such concepts into our fold? Are not diversity and inclusiveness a hallmark of Reform? To this we would reply: yesh gevul., there are limits. Reform Judaism cannot be everything, or it will be nothing."

In this dicussion, Rabbi Plaut makes two important distinctions. Individuals can have doubts or disbelief and still belong to a Reform congregation. And congregations can have doubts and still be a Reform congregation. But when a congregation explicitly and affirmatively removes God from the liturgy, it is crossing this limit.

This responsum was not unanimous, and Prof. Eugene Mihaly issued a dissent arguing that the congregation should be admitted. The dissent and the response are summarized at the bottom of the responsum.

Cantor Anesi

Cantor Anesi starts by discussing this responsum, notes that the more recent 1999 Pittsburgh Platform reinforced the centrality of God, Torah, and Israel to Reform Judaism, and added social justice as an important concept. Her conclusion:
And so, this is Reform Judaism: one eye on the tradition; the other on the contemporary needs of our members: lay people and clergy alike, as together we create an evolving consensus as to where our boundaries lie.

Rabbi Stahl

Rabbi Stahl focuses on custom, or minhag, as providing guidance in setting these boundaries. He cites Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, who argued that minhag, which "emerged creatively, anonymously and spontaneously through­out world Jewry," can help define these boundaries.
It is through minhag that we can discover our boundaries as Reform Jews today. Minhag is what serious and learned Reform Jews at a particular time and place con­sider necessary for us to be responsible partners in our covenant with God. It is through our minhagim that we can discern what is obligatory and what is optional.

He then makes a clever move. Boundaries to the left, he notes, "are thus shaped as classical, traditional halachah (Jewish law) continues to encounter modernity." But Reform Judaism's commitment to certain modern principals, such as egalitarianism, also set a boundary on the right.
"Can we, in good conscience, support a plan that will not allow a woman to sit on a beit din (Jewish law court) or to act as a witness at a conversion? If we are truly committed to egalitarianism, can we really sacrifice this principle as a matter of conscience, even to advance the interests of K’lal Yisrael (community of Israel)?"
Rabbi Stahl does not actual advocate kicking a congregation out of the UAHC if it adopted more traditional gender roles, such as excluding women from a bet din or (perhaps more likely, although still quite unlikely) having a mechitzah. But the point remains; there are some limits on the right as well.

Further Thoughts - Reform Judaism's Non-Halachic Halacha

Both authors are almost completely in agreement. They both focus on specific criteria (God, Torah, and Israel), on traditional beliefs and practices, and on the current consensus of Reform Jews about how far is too far. And they both avoid (as they must) a specific list of disqualifying criteria.

What they have described, simply put, is halacha. A more moderate or liberal form of halacha, no doubt, but halacha nonetheless. They have described an organized process or rulemaking, based on some combination of first principles and public policy concerns. In fact, Cantor Anasi quotes the Talmud in her analysis of this situation:
"This is not new; in the Talmud (Bavli, Eruvin 14b), we read: “Said Raba son of R.Hanan to Abaye: What is the law? ‘Go,’ the other told him, ‘and see what is the usage of the people.’""
This is a more moderate or liberal view of the law, as reflected in modern times by Solomon Schechter's claim that the locus of authority of Judaism resides in "Catholic Israel" (that is, the Jewish people considered as a whole, or k'lal Yisrael).

In the Supplement to this series, Ben Dreyfus (who, coincidentally, is the blog-meister at Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, where Steve, Diane, and are part of a large team blogging on aggadah) asked a perceptive question:
Rabbi Stahl writes that "egalitarianism often conflicts with halachah", and that "we cannot compromise those values of human equality that we Reform Jews have come to regard as sacrosanct, even when they contradict halachic demands." As a Reform Jew, why do you accept an Orthodox understanding of halachah as the authoritative one? Why not say that our Reform understanding of halachah must incorporate egalitarianism, and that values of human equality *are* halachic demands for us?


If Reform Judaism took its supposed non-halachic status seriously, it would be incapable of making even the most minor prescriptive or normative statements. At most, it would simply offer a list of things that Reform Jews might want to consider as they go about making their own autonomous decisions. But Reform Judaism does not do this, and does not claim to do this.

In short, the method by which Reform Judaism makes recommendations or advocates positions, all under the label of "not halacha" is similar to the method by which Conservative Judaism makes recommendations or advocates positions, under the label of "halacha". I think the Conservative label is more accurate and appropriate.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Will Your Grandchildren Be Reform?

Some Orthodox advocates view Reform and Conservative Judaism as dying denominations. In a article with the provocative title "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?" the two authors contrast Orthodox Judaism's relatively high birthrates and relatively low intermarriage rates with lower Reform and Conservative birthrates and higher intermarriage rates. Their conclusion: after a few generations, Reform and Conservative Jews will practically disappear, and everyone will be Orthodox. Their recommendation to Reform and Conservative Jews: become Orthodox, or at least sent your children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

An intriguing idea. However, the "WYGBJ" model is inconsistent with the actual observed data over the past 38 years. The reason for this inconsistency is that the model ignores the high Orthodox inter-denominational switching rate, despite this data being published in the same studies that it cites. Nonetheless, the two factors this model is based on (intermarriage and birthrates) are obviously important but require more complex analysis than WYGBJ provides.

If the WYGBJ model were correct, we should have already started seeing this effect in massive numbers. But in fact we do not.

According to the WYGBJ model, 100 Chassidic and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews will grow to 324 such Jews in one generation. 100 Centrist Orthodox Jews should grow to 163 such Jews in a generation. In contrast, 100 Conservative Jews will shrink to 66 Conservative Jews after a generation, and 100 Reform Jews will shrink to only 46 Reform Jews. Thus, in a single generation, the ratio of Chassidic and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews to Reform Jews will increase approximately 7 times (324/46 is about 7), and the ratio of Centrist Orthodox to Reform Jews will increase about 3.5 times. (Technically, a slight adjustment has to be made for changes in total population, but this adjustment does not significantly change the ratios.) Orthodox populations should be soaring.

But that's not what the data show. In 1971, 1990, and 2000-2001, demographers published a National Jewish Population Study (NJPS). (There was no study in 1980.) The data on religious denominations reveals some interesting trends. I'll present the data first and then analyze how it pertains to issue at hand. (Accessing the 1971 and 1990 data requires free registration.)

The 1971 NJPS (Jewish Identity Report) shows the following percentage for the Head of Household:
Orthodox Jews: 11.4%
Conservative Jews: 40.4%
Reform Jews: 30.0%
Just Jewish and Other: 15.0%

The 1971 report estimated there were 5.4 million Jews total.

If (as is likely) Orthodox families had more children than non-Orthodox Jewish families, the percentage of Orthodox Jews (as opposed to just Orthodox Jewish heads of household) would have been higher in 1970.

The 1990 NJPS Study Highlights, Part 2 (Table 25, Current Jewish Denominational Preference of Households) showed the following percentages:
Orthodox: 6.8%
Conservative: 40.4%
Reform: 41.4%
Other: 11.4%

This study used various definitions of who is a Jew, but found a core Jewish population of 5.5 million, with more people of Jewish ancestry who now practice other religions.

The 2000-2001 NJPS breaks down the more recent data in a slightly different but more informative way. American Jewish Religious Denominations, Table 2, contains the following data:

Jewish Adults (18 or older)
Orthodox 10%
Conservative 27%
Reform 35%
Reconstructionist 2%
Just Jewish 26%

Jewish Children (17 or younger)
Orthodox 23%
Conservative 24%
Reform 35%
Reconstructionist 3%
Just Jewish 21%

Total Jews
Orthodox 13%
Conservative 26%
Reform 34%
Reconstructionist 2%
Just Jewish 25%

The 2000-2001 NJPS estimated a total population of 5.2 million Jews.

Although the definition of Jews varied in these three studies, and thus the percentages in different reports are not strictly comparable, they are nonetheless close enough for these purposes. In the years 1971, 1990, and 2000-2001, the adult Orthodox population percentage went from 11.4% to 6.8% to 10%. It was relatively constant. The adult Conservative population percentage went from 40.4% to 40.4% to 27%. (The two 40.4%s are a coincidence, not a typo.) It remained relatively constant through 1990, but declined after that. The adult Reform population percentage went from 30.0% to 41.4% to 35%. It increased.

There is no sign here of a dramatic increase in Orthodox population nor of a dramatic decrease in Reform population. (The decrease in the Conservative population is the result of some odd demographics, and I may blog on this separately.)

But the 2000-2001 NJPS does show a marked increase in the percentage of Orthodox children. While only 10% of Jewish adults are Orthodox, 23% of Jewish children are Orthodox. This suggests that we are on the verge of an Orthodox "breakout". As soon as these children reach adulthood, there will be a lot more Orthodox Jews.

However, there is a problem with this conclusion. Orthodox Jews also had a significantly higher birthrate than non-Orthodox Jews in 1970 and 1990 (and all years in between). Why didn't those children raise the percentage of Orthodox adults in the 1990 and 2000-2001 NJPS?

The answer is also contained in the study. Orthodox Judaism has a very high attrition rate, as the following table (Table 4 from the 2000-2001 NJPS American Jewish Religious Denominations Report shows:

  Denomination Raised
  OrthodoxConservative ReformJust Jewish
Current Denomination
Orthodox 42323
Conservative 2956711
Reform 17287817
Just Jewish 12131470
Total 100100101101

Of all children raised Orthodox, only 42% have remained Orthodox as adults. 29% become Conservative adults, 17% become Reform adults, and 12% become "Just Jewish". In contrast, 56% of children raised Conservative become Conservative adults, and 78% of children raised Reform become Reform adults. Thus, Reform Judaism is more successful than Conservative Judaism in keeping children within the denomination, and Conservative Judaism is more successful at this than Orthodoxy.

Of the children who switch denominations when they become an adult, most become more liberal. Only 2% or 3% of non-Orthodox children become Orthodox as adults, while 17% of Orthodox children and 28% of Conservative children become Reform adults.

A short paper reviewed the 2000-2001 data and concluded there has been a shift away from Orthodoxy. "Viewing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism and a fourth “non-specific” group as categories that range from the most traditional to the least traditional respectively, . . . [¶] We found that 62% stay within the same group, 29% move away from tradition, and 9% move to a more traditional denomination."

This is not new information. A similar table (Table 24) appeared in the 1990 NJPS. The authors note,
"Table 24 shows that nearly 90 percent of those now Orthodox were raised as such, thus indicating any movement toward Orthodoxy is relatively small. In contrast to the Orthodox, the Conservative and Reform drew heavily from one or both of the major denominations; one-third of the Conservatives were raised as Orthodox and one-quarter of the Reform as Conseratives with an additional 12 percent having been raised Orthodox."

However, the WYGBJ model simply ignores this critical demographic statistic.

Thus, the basic demographic facts are clear. Orthodox Jews have a lower intermarriage rate and a higher birthrate than more liberal or moderate Jews, but a much higher denominational-switching rate. Of all Jewish adults who were raised Orthodox, fewer than half are now Orthodox. No other Jewish denomination has such a high switching rate.

What do we make of all this? I see several points that are worth noting.

1. The Orthodox Attrition Rate. I am not a demographer, but I would expect the Orthodox switching rate to increase. There are many reasons why people leave Orthodoxy, but one reason (as illustrated by many commentators on this blog) is skepticism about Orthodox factual claims. Many Orthodox communities limit access to critical or non-Orthodox information or argument, especially for young people. (This might be good or bad, but my point here is simply to note the fact, not debate its merits.) This lack of access to information prevents some young Orthodox Jews from learning about more critical and skeptical points of view, and this in turn makes it less likely that they will choose to leave Orthodoxy.

But the internet has changed that.

In the 1980s, when I first started investigating many of the Orthodox claims (as a non-Orthodox Jew), I had a very difficult time obtaining information. I was in college at the time and fortunately had access to UCLA's extensive libraries. But even that was less than ideal. Finding the information I was looking for was quite time consuming, and virtually no one else that I knew was interested in these somewhat obscure topics. However, this situation is quite different today. A quick google search on any of these controversial topics (the documentary hypothesis, the Kuzari argument, Bible codes, evolution and creationism, Biblical archeology) yields a wealth of information, arguments pro and con, and a large community of people who are interested in these topics.

My point here is not to debate the merits of these critical arguments, but simply to note that some people find them persuasive and switch from Orthodoxy to non-Orthodoxy. And with greater access to this information and these arguments, more Orthodox Jews are likely to find this information, and some of these are then likely to switch.

Of course, Orthodoxy may respond in several ways, and these responses may decrease the attrition rate. Determining the net effect may be much more complex.

2. Birthrates. Despite overlooking the inter-denominational switching rate, the basic point that the WYGBJ chart made is still largely (but not completely) valid. Jews having fewer children will certainly result in fewer Jews in the next generation. Jews who care about this should certainly take this fact into account, at least in some way, when considering how many children to have.

3. Intermarriage. Intermarriage is much more complicated. I am going to ignore the halachic issue of who is a Jew and focus solely on demographics. I know several intermarried couples, some of whom strongly identify as Jews, raise their children as Jews, and have solidly Jewish families. Others do not and are essentially secular. And the same is true for in-married Jewish couples as well.

The overriding factor in whether parents practice Judaism and raise their children as Jews is whether the parents find Judaism important and meaningful. Thus, intermarriage may frequently be the result of a lack of interest in Judaism, not an exogenously determined cause of assimilation. The "solution" to intermarriage may be to focus first on how to make Judaism important and meaningful to Jews. Jews who find Judaism important either do not intermarry or do so and raise their children Jewish.

There are numerous other issues here, and I will leave them for a future post.

4. The Math The WYGBJ math is simply wrong. Including inter-denominational switching shows that the process is a complicated web, not a simple linear progression. It cannot be modeled by a simple chart showing Orthodoxy increasing exponentially and Reform and Conservative Judaism falling into oblivion. Technically, it would have to be modeled with Markov chains. (The basic matrix is provided above, but it needs to be flipped.)

The problem with such a model here is the same as the problem with all models that try to predict well into the future. All these rates (birth rates, intermarriage rates, inter-denominational switching rates) are likely to change over time.

One can do the arithmetic without too much trouble. (For the interested reader, simply take the 4x4 matrix above, flip it along its diagonal, multiply it by 1x4 vectors representing the intermarriage rate and birth rate, and then raise that matrix to the nth power. This will give you the matrix predicting population distributions in generation n. When you multiply a 1x4 initial population vector by that matrix, it will give you the estimated population in generation n.)

However, the result is virtually meaningless. These rates are likely to increase or decrease, perhaps substantially, and such extrapolations multiple generations into the future are simply not reliable.

5. Recommendations: We're All Interconnected The data show that we are all much more interconnected than we might think. I think all branches of Judaism would benefit from strengthening all other branches of Judaism. I will have a separate post on the details and implications of this.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Month of Elul, High Holidays comin' up

Taking stock of one's Judaism

I spent the middle of August in New Hampshire, at the National Havurah Committee's 30th Summer Institute, a kind of Jewish Summer Camp for adults (and kids, too), a Jewish Brigadoon (Brigadoonowitz?) that springs into being one week a year, bringing together 300+ "serious" Jews (by Bruce's definition) of all denominations, affiliations, gender identities, etc. Lots of things are wonderful about this event and this group, and in the avoidance of lashon hara, I will not detail my frustrations -- other than to say that, for the first time in 5 years of attendance, I did not return "charged up" about my own Jewish observance in the upcoming year. I do not blame the event, not at all -- it was wonderful in a variety of ways. But again, I didn't return ready to rush (back) into shul.
The Jewish year 5768 has been a weird one for me, in several ways. I spent Rosh Hashanah in Massachusetts, with my former mother-in-law; a rabbi friend who had recently moved to the Amherst area; my son, who had started college at NYU. I spent Yom Kippur, to my deep regret, at a faculty meeting my colleagues were unwilling to reschedule and that I, an untenured person, was not in a position to miss. And that precise psychological-logistical configuration -- being an over-40, untenured person, feeling myself "too old" for half of what I was going through, and "too young" for the other half, characterized a great deal of the year.
It was a difficult year for me, but really, it was a much more difficult year for a couple of people quite close to me, and part of what I spent the year learning very incompletely was when and whether something bad happening to someone close to me, is also something bad happening to me. There are useful and unuseful, healthy and unhealthy, ways in which one can feel one's fate and well-being and happiness are bound to another, and being the parent of older adolescents (one now 16, one 18) brings that to the fore.
So what's this have to do with my Judaism? Precious little, from one point of view. The shul of which I'd been a kind of satellite member no longer holds much appeal for me. It has become so predominantly a place of "young families," full of married young adults who believe (and maybe rightly!) that Judaism will mean to their children what it means to them (even though that's nothing like what their relationship to their own parents' Judaism is) -- just not a place for me, I'm afraid. The meditation "circle" of my Hebrew teacher, who I have great affection for and hold in the highest esteem, is not quite right either -- the life-stage issues of 50- and 60-somethings are not (quite) mine. So I find myself plodding along through my Prayerbook Hebrew course (which is great) -- the siddur would really be opening up to me -- that is, if I ever prayed in a group any more.