Archive for March 15, 2011

One Aspect of the Changing Role of Jewish Women

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Dvora Weisberg, Director, School of Rabbinic Studies; Associate Professor of Rabbinical Literature in Los Angeles, about her latest book, Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism (Brandeis University Press, 2009)

SFS: Dvora, congratulations on the publication of your book and on its being honored by Jewish Book Council as a finalist for the Women’s Studies Barbara Dobkin Award.

Tell me, what is Levirate Marriage? And why should we care about it?

DEW: Levirate marriage is union between a widow of a childless man and, in Jewish tradition, his brother. In other cultures, it could be another man in the deceased’s family.  The purpose of the union is to produce children for the deceased. While in Judaism, this union is a marriage, in other cultures it might not be.

The reason that I care about it is that it helps us understand how cultures respond to a catastrophic death in the family. It is almost always practiced in cultures that are patrilineal or patriarchal; in such cultures the death of the man causes a breakdown of the family structure. The death of a woman, while upsetting, would not cause a change to the family structure.

SFS: Who do these laws protect/benefit?

DEW: Depending on how they’re practiced, (they’re practiced differently in different cultures) it can benefit the widow who is immediately absorbed back into her husband’s family;  the deceased because he can now have children through a surrogate; or the larger family because it allows the family to reconfigure and stabilize after the death.  It will depend on how the laws play out both in other cultures and within Judaism over time and in different places.  It’s interesting for the scholar to see how the family structure and particularly the role of women has changed.

SFS: We tend to think of pre-modern Jewish families as large extended clans, but you found that much of Rabbinic literature focuses on the nuclear family and on the needs of the individual.

DEW: Part of my argument in this book is that the Biblical family is usually seen as an extended family and the laws focus on that extended family. But the Rabbinic tradition focuses much more on the nuclear family.

SFS:  How much choice do individuals have in the decision to go through with the levirate marriage?

DEW: The Biblical law focuses on the deceased’s “right” to have a child. The widow and her brother-in-law are expected to cooperate.  But in rabbinic literature, the rights of the living people involved are given precedence. They may make the decision to go through with the levirate marriage or not.

SFS:  You mention that many scholars look at the surrounding cultures when studying rabbinics – what does that perspective bring to your work?

DEW: Particularly when you’re looking at the rabbinic period, you can see major differences between the Palestinian laws which are influenced by the Greco-Roman society as opposed to the Babylonian which are influenced by Zoroastrian culture where a form of levirate marriage was practiced, as well as polygamy. This shows that Judaism has been influenced by its surrounding environment.  Many scholars of Judaism are surprised to learn that forms of levirate marriage were practiced by other cultures.

SFS: Is there any lesson for families today?

DEW: I think that the really important thing that this study shows is that family structure is not static and that it changes over time and in response to different circumstance. And even within a culture there can be multiple shades and nuances in the definition of family.  When I talk about the rabbis addressing the “nuclear” family (mother, father, children), that doesn’t mean that other forms of family don’t exist.  Different family members are included in mourning customs, incest laws, and inheritance laws.  We have a tendency to think that “family” means one thing but, “family” can mean multiple things within a society and families are always changing.

SFS: Thank you!

Visionary author about visionary synagogues

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing HUC faculty member, Dr. Isa Aron about her newest book.

sfs: Congratulations on the publication of your new book, Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary (with Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman. Alban Institute, 2010).

sfs: The title really caught my eye.  Why would you want to move a congregation away from “functional”?
IA: “Functional” synagogues are filled with congregants who view synagogue membership as equivalent to membership in the auto club.  They pay dues in exchange for a series of services which include worship, religious school, and clergy officiation at life cycle events.  Perfectly functional for an organization, in that it can balance its budget and have a well-maintained and even aesthetic facility; but not especially inspiring for a Jewish religious organization. In contrast, members of “visionary” synagogues see themselves as part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  In order to transform a group of isolated consumers into a holy community, the synagogue must also have the other characteristics of visionary synagogues, such as a participatory culture, reflective leadership, and an innovative disposition.

sfs: In the first chapter, you mention a book, Good to Great which highlights corporations which have proven their success by earning lots of money.  How do you measure a congregations success?
IA: For us success means the percentage of active participants.  Not the overall size—the congregation may be large or small–but rather: How many of its members come to services on Shabbat? How many children continue their education past bar/bat mitzvah?  How many adults engage in ongoing learning or social justice projects?  As one rabbi in our study noted:  “I’m not impressed if the parking lot is full of different cars every Shabbat.  I want to know: how many of the same cars are there week after week?”

sfs: I’ve read many articles that show that American Jews are not joining congregations nearly as much as their parent’s generation had and that many congregations are in trouble because of this.  Why is it important to save the synagogue?
IA: This may sound heretical, but I don’t think it is important to save “the (generic)” synagogue.  On the other hand, visionary synagogues provide their members with rich, supportive, engaging, stimulating and spiritual communities, communities in which they can live out their deepest Jewish values.  That kind of community is definitely worth saving.

sfs: In my experience with groups – any time one person suggests a change, a second person will dig in their heels and want to keep the current practice.  How do you introduce change without alienating some of your group?
IA: This is the hardest question of all, because every synagogue, even the most functional, works very well for some of its congregants.  These are the congregants likely to be in power, and likely to be the most resistant to change, because, after all, the synagogue meets their needs perfectly.  To change a functional synagogue it is helpful to have the support of a project, like HUC’s Experiment in Congregational Education, or Synagogue 3000.   The synaogues profiled in Sacred Strategies used these projects as resources, helping them to bring together a diverse, forward looking group of lay leaders, who could inspire their fellow congregants with a more vibrant vision of the future.

sfs: Thanks Isa for taking time out to share your thoughts!