Friday, March 23, 2007

Shabbat And The Single Jew

Much has been written about the predicament of mature singles in our communities, their frustration, sense of helplessness and feeling of exclusion from mainstream Jewish life. However, the religious fallout of long-term single-hood is less frequently addressed: singles commonly suffer from a lack of inspiration and religious burn-out. I would like to address one aspect of this troublesome phenomenon.

Many men and women use Shabbatot as opportunities to attend singles’ events geared to helping them find their life partner. These occasions are often professionally run and claim a good number of successes. While in principle they are a ‘good thing’, singles who attend them regularly are in danger of turning Shabbot into a means, rather than an end.

The purpose of Shabbat is no more than Shabbat itself: affirming one’s belief that God created the universe and building a joyful relationship with Him through the observance of the Shabbat laws. This tremendous experience is an end in itself, yet for many on the singles circuit, Shabbat has become a means to finding a mate, no longer an opportunity for spiritual enrichment. Shabbat is the cornerstone of Jewish observance and of the Jew’s rapport with the Divine: its proper observance and the integration of its message form the basis of a healthy religious identity. Robbing Shabbat of its power by using it as a means to achieve something else will have devastating religious consequences. A Jewish life lived over an extended period without a ‘real’ Shabbat will feel dull and uninspired; the person concerned may never realise why.

For some the need to use Shabbat in this way is so acute that missing a Friday night event may lead to a feeling of angst: if only I had gone along I might have met the ‘right’ one. The single person seeking a partner is caught on the horns of a dilemma: attending deprives Shabbat of its full meaning; not attending leads to feelings of torment that perhaps one has not explored every possible avenue. By way of example, a woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well-organised singles’ events have proved successful in introducing people who will eventually marry each other. They are often run by dedicated volunteers whose dearest wish is to contribute to the Jewish people by relieving the plight of singles who so wish to marry. Yet by running too many of them on Shabbat they unwittingly rob the day of its majestic potential for their clients. Perhaps more of these wonderful events could be held on weekdays, with just a handful on Shabbat.

One need not feel guilty or sad that a Shabbat has passed without finding a wife or husband. Of course, it would be wonderful to meet one’s bashert (destined one) en route, but it is not the purpose of Shabbat, or for that matter, Yom Tov, Purim or Chanukah. (In ancient times, it was an objective of Yom Kippur and the 15th Av, but that is another story!) To be healthy, holistic Jews we require inspirational, self-contained Shabbat and Yom Tov celebrations. We don’t need to use Friday night dinner to speed-date, Seder night as a chance to meet a girl, or Purim to surf the parties.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Metals In The Mishkan (VaYakhel-Pekudey 5767)

The three metals used in the Mishkan – gold, silver and brass – are frequently treated together. Chazal inform us that the use of these metals corresponded to the Avot:

Gold – this refers to Avraham, who was refined in the fiery furnace like gold.

Silver – this refers to Yitzhak who was smelted like silver on the altar.

Brass – this refers to Yaakov, as it says: I have divined that God has blessed me because of you. (Shemot Rabbah 49:2)

We perceive the Mishkan as the focal point of Jewish life – in some way, the physical culmination of the spiritual goals that have been set for us. In that sense, the Mishkan reflects all the accomplishments of the Jewish people, whose identity was established by the Avot. Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov invested the nation with all the qualities it would need to fulfil its mission and as such, each was well represented in the construction of the Mishkan, the apogee of their achievements. The Ramban expands on this theme in his introduction to the book of Shemot:

Scripture has concluded the Book of B’Reishis, which is the book of creation, about the genesis of the world, the formation of everything and the events of the [lives of the] Avot, the progenitors of their descendents…. The exile [in Egypt] was not concluded until the day on which they returned to their place and to the level of their Avot. When they came out from Egypt, although they had departed the house of slavery, they were still considered exiles, as they were in a land that was not theirs, wandering in the desert. But when they came to Mount Sinai, made the Mishkan, and God once again rested His presence among them, then they returned to the level of their Avot…. Only then they were considered redeemed; hence this book finishes with the conclusion of the subject of the Mishkan and with the glory of God continuously filling it.

It seems that the use of the three metals in the Mishkan was a realisation of the talents and input of the Avot in the development of the Jewish nation.

Rav Hirsch also addresses the conceptual reasons for including metals in the manufacture of the Mishkan. He notes that Scripture uses metals metaphorically in three contexts: with reference to their density, value and metallurgical properties. Nechoshet (brass) is principally that is used to denote rigidity and obstinacy, although in general, it is used to indicate the qualities of firmness and strength. Gold and silver, on the other hand, are used to denote value. However, metals are most often used as metaphors for purity, endurance and refinement. As Rav Hirsch explains:

The more precious metals are found in a pure, unalloyed state but often with mixtures of non-precious ores and residues. Yet, even in this impure state, such metals can be refined. The refining process, in which the pure is separated from non-precious and non-recoverable metals, is affected by means of fire. Moreover, alloys of precious and non-precious metals produce manifold grades of purity and impurity, ranging full cycle from the original state of perfect purity to an equal degree of purity regained by and after repeated refinings. The intermediate degrees of purity can be determined by tests and experiments, but even in the poorest mixture, the smallest granule of precious metal is not lost but can be recovered. Finally, the capability of a precious metal to endure is in direct proportion to its preciousness and purity, and the purest and most precious gold is also that which offers the most lasting resistance to the corroding action of time and the elements. Thus, metals represent the best symbols for all things good and true in every mixture with elements of evil and falsehood. The concepts of purity, impurity and fineness in metals need only be taken in their symbolic meaning to express the best in ethics and moral truths…. It is clear from all the passages that in each case the metals are used as symbols characterising varying degrees of moral purity and truth. While n’choshes represents an impure metal, still unrefined, silver and gold represent varying degrees of purity, moral nobility and constancy. (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch vol. 3)

Rav Hirsch further observes that while gold is usually found in a pure state and can withstand the most rigorous tests, silver requires smelting and must always be refined to some degree. He concludes:

In view of all the above, n’choshet would correspond to nature in its still unrefined state; silver to the purity and goodness that can be acquired by refining; and gold to that pristine, perfect purity and goodness which can withstand any test. N’choshes would represent the ignoble nature; silver, the one who is ready to be ennobled by purification; gold, the original and test-resisting, the most complete purity and goodness.

The Avot instilled the Jewish people with the awareness that the focus of life is ethical and spiritual development. Self-examination, and the personal refinement and moral growth that come in its wake, were represented by the use of gold, silver and brass in the Mishkan. Rav Hirsch reveals to us that when the Torah directed the use of these materials in the Mishkan, we were merely reminded of the Avot and their unique role in establishing Jewish identity, but were actually required to build the ideals by which they lived into the fabric of its building.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence: A View From London

Growing up in middle-class not-so-frum Jewish London, I noticed that families with more than three children were very rare. In my childhood I knew only two families with four children – they were treated with awe – and none at all with more. Although this is just my own observation, this situation has changed little among the mainstream of British Jewry: indeed a number of parents of four children have told me their peers regard them as odd.

I was interested in a recent study published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Jewish women in Israel give birth, on average, to 2.8 children. This compares favourably with the average of 1.5 children per women in Europe and points to steady Jewish growth into the next generation. But these figures must be heavily skewed by the high birth rate among the burgeoning religious section of the populace, in which families of 10 or more children are common. Studies suggest that the birth-rate among the less religious is low: while the overall trend may be upwards, the constituency of the population is gradually becoming more religious.

These statistics brought to mind a discussion I had a year ago with a leader of a non-Orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK. He told me that an expert in population statistics from the USA had visited his synagogue and explained to the congregants the inevitable consequences of low birth rate for their community in: their eventual disappearance. While, apparently, no-one could refute his argument, they rejected his suggestion that survival was contingent on having more children!

It is apparent that all sections of the Jewish world from the moderately Orthodox leftwards are in danger of extinction, which is attributable, at least in part, to a low birth-rate. Let’s suppose that the average family in those parts of the Jewish world has 1.8 children, slightly above the overall European figure. While this is my own conjecture, it seems reasonable based on studies of similar communities in the USA and the decline in numbers recorded by the research of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people in just one generation. An average birth-rate of two would still lead to a net loss as sadly there will always be those who do not survive or do not reproduce themselves.

When combined with other factors, however, the reality is much grimmer. With intermarriage on the increase to an alarming degree and many not marrying at all, it is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

An important point must be interjected: many members of the community would dearly love to play a part in building the Jewish future, but are unable to find a marriage partner or are incapable of having children (or as many children as they would like). They must be treated with great sensitivity; any criticism levelled here is certainly not directed at them.

I have a hunch that even three children per family may be too few to secure a strong Jewish community into the future. Many segments of the community in the UK are under-reproducing themselves out of existence. As I discussed with my non-Orthodox friend, we can forget issues of theology, commitment to Torah values, etc., as indicators of the Jewish future, since all but the Orthodox are going to disappear anyway due to lack of numbers.

This problem besets the middle-ground of the Jewish world, even though in the UK most such people are affiliated with the Orthodox world. ‘Mainstream’ Orthodox organisations like the United Synagogue (for which I work) are struggling to maintain their numbers. The bulk of our members follow the same patterns of reproduction as the rest of the populace, where late marriage, high intermarriage rate and small families are common.

Only the Orthodox part of the UK community is dedicated to building the Jewish future in this way. They alone as a group are committed to reproducing sufficiently to actually increase the numbers of the Jewish people. They recognise that the rewards of raising a large family outweigh the practical difficulties involved and are prepared to dedicate many years to child-raising, ignoring the limitations on personal autonomy in order to play a responsible role in populating the next generation. And while far from zero, the rate of intermarriage in those communities is very low indeed.

Many outside the Orthodox world do not want to hear this message: every Jewish family must attempt to raise at least three children, preferably more. I implore each couple I marry to have one more child than they had originally planned for the sake of the Jewish people. Those who do not take family-building seriously are an endangered species. This is a message that the observant community understands and must somehow sell to the rest of the Jewish people. If we can do this, whether by teaching or by example, we will yet make the greatest possible contribution to Jewish survival.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents