Rabbi Rant: Freedom Rules!

rabbi rant

Two weeks ago, someone shared with me that, for him, discipline is freedom. He closely watches his diet, works out regularly, studies diligently for grad school…in short, his regimen helps him be the person he wants to be.

A week later, someone else shared with me that freedom means not having any rules. She listens to her body and brain and does what she wants in the moment. To her, freedom is letting go of all the burdensome rules that are imposed on us and that we impose on ourselves.

Rules vs. No Rules

I’m still thinking about these two different perspectives on freedom and where I fall on this rules vs. no rules spectrum.

I know one doesn’t just magically become self-actualized, physically fit, spiritually aware, etc. To be the person you want to be, you have to work hard at it. It’s so obvious and trite that it belongs on a poster with an eagle soaring over a river.

Yet the thought of living a life of rule-following feels constraining, exhausting, and not fun. As adolescent as it sounds, I still associate the word discipline with after-school detention.

The struggle is real

It might seem funny that I’m a rabbi and that I struggle with rules. After all, Judaism is full of rules. The rabbis even make an explicit connection between Jewish law, which was engraved (in Hebrew: charut) on the tablets, and the Hebrew word for freedom (cheirut). “For no person is free unless they are involved in the study of the law.” (Ethics of our Ancestors 6:2)

But Judaism recognizes the limits of rules. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Rules are generalizations. In actual living, we come upon countless problems for which no general solutions are available. There are many ways of applying a general rule to a concrete situation. There are evil applications of noble rules. Thus the choice of the right way of applying a general rule to a particular situation is “left to the heart,” to the individual, to one’s conscience.” (God in Search of Man, p. 327)

Are we ever free from rules?

We’re currently in the period of the Jewish calendar known as the omer, where we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. I think the wisdom of connecting these two holidays, one celebrating freedom and the other celebrating the Torah, is to remind us that we can be free from slavery but will never be free from rules. As writer David Foster Wallace said:

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

People who claim to live a life of no rules are either unaware of or in denial about the rules they are following.

The rules we follow reflect our priorities and our values. Paradoxically, choosing to follow certain rules can free us from the need to follow other rules. The Ishbitzer Rebbe, commenting on the verse that the Israelites left Egypt with their “heads held high,” explains:

“They were free, without any fear or worry from any person.”

We choose what to worship. There’s a freedom in choosing which rules to follow, and which ones not to.



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: On Inner Freedom

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Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery to freedom. The rabbis refer to Passover as “the time of our freedom.” And in our prayers we refer to Passover as “chag hacheirut” – the holiday of freedom.

So if we’re going to try to connect to Passover in a meaningful way, we should probably talk a bit about freedom.

But, I find that most Passover-related conversations about freedom tend to be either philosophical or historical, both of which, frankly, sound irrelevant and boring.

I get very bored by pseudo-philosophical conversations where people pontificate about the meaning of a grand, abstract word. All it takes is for someone to ask “What is (insert: freedom, truth, love, etc.)?” and I’m asking “Where is the exit?” Ironically, I would like to utilize my freedom to avoid talking about the nature of freedom.

I also get bored by history. I know, I know – if we don’t learn from our history we’re doomed to repeat it. (Which is also ironic because I had to repeat my 9th grade history class.*) But when it comes to the Passover story, talking about how my ancient ancestors were freed from slavery feels disconnected from my life and the world around me.

The rabbis anticipated this problem and mandated: “In every generation a person must see themselves as though they had gone out of Egypt.” (Mishna Pesachim 10:5). This is the foundational idea behind the concept of the seder, where we are meant to keep our history alive by reenacting it. Still, keeping history alive by resuscitating it every year feels more like a burden than the choice of a free person.

Lucky for me, and anyone else looking for a more meaningful connection to the holiday, the chassidic rabbis of the 18th and 19th century turned the Passover story inward. They related to the story less historically and more metaphorically, and they related to the idea of freedom less abstractly and more personally. For them, “Egypt” (mitzrayim) is a metaphor for the confining/restricting (meitzar) aspects of our lives. As the Gerrer Rebbe writes:

“The truth is that in every generation there is an ‘Egypt’ for every Jew.” ~Sefat Emet, Exodus, p. 51

By turning Passover inward, these rabbis allowed us to relate to the theme of freedom in a much more personal way. If freedom requires leaving our own “Egypt,” then this holiday becomes a time to confront the question: “What is your Egypt?” i.e. “What prevents you from being who you want to be?”

To be truly free, we must free ourselves from the constraints that hold us back. Those constraints might be thought patterns, behaviors, or actual people in our lives. Passover is a time to take a step forward on our spiritual journey, away from our “Egypt(s)” and towards redemption.


*False, but funny?


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.


God’s Preferred Pronoun

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Women have won a record number of primaries this summer, which has “led to more focus on the underrepresentation of women in public office.” Although there are many factors contributing to this problem, I wonder if God is partially to blame. Not God, per se, but the way we conceive of and talk about God.

The “default” approach, found in most translations of the Bible and in most prayer books, refers to God in the masculine. When we describe God using male pronouns, we learn to associate positions of power with maleness.

So, as the high holidays draw near, when conversation about God spikes, I think it’s worth asking: what pronoun should we be using to describe Him / Her / It / God / Them?

Below is a brief analysis of three alternatives to using male pronouns for God.

1) Use female pronouns for God.

Let’s call this the “Ariana Grande approach,” inspired by her latest single, “God is a woman” – from her upcoming album “Sweetener”, set for release this Friday.

This concept of a feminine God has roots in traditional Judaism. Although God in the Hebrew Bible is predominantly described using masculine imagery and pronouns, there are several instances where feminine imagery and pronouns are used. As Professor Marc Brettler writes, “the Bible speaks with multiple voices and holds differing conceptions of God.” Centuries later, Jewish mystics explained God as containing both masculine (the Holy One) and feminine (the Shechina) aspects. In theory, then, it’s no better or worse to refer to God as “She” than it is to refer to God as “He”, since both are incomplete approximations of the divine.

Still, referring to God as “She” may be distracting. According to Miriam Webster, “he” can be “used in a generic sense or when the sex of the person is unspecified.” While this itself reflects the privileging of male over female in the English language, the result is that referring to God as “She” draws more attention to God’s “gender” and can distract from the subject, God.

There’s also the danger or reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes by referring to God as “She” only in a nurturing or caring context.

But these concerns may be outweighed by the significant downside of using exclusively male pronouns for God, articulated by Professor Judith Plaskow:

“The absence of female metaphors for God witnesses to and perpetuates the devaluation of femaleness in the Jewish tradition. The God-language of a religious community is drawn from the qualities and roles the community values, and exclusively male imagery exalts and upholds maleness as the human standard.”

When femininity isn’t represented in the divine, it is harder for women to be seen as equally valued and important. And the opposite is also true.

As Rabbi Rebecca Alpert writes in her 1991 article “What Gender is God?”: “To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman’s body, with womb, with breasts—this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.”

Describing God in feminine language, while potentially jarring, might be an effective way to elevate the role and status of women and femininity.

Option 2) Abolish all pronouns when referring to God

This approach prevents us from assigning gender to a genderless being. But, while transcending gender may technically be the most accurate way to speak about God, it can be linguistically challenging, as Rabbi Harold Kushner explains in “Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life”:

“To speak of God as “He” misrepresents what I believe, but I am a prisoner of the English language, which lacks a neutral pronoun. (I refuse to speak of God as “it.”)… I’m not about to write a sentence like, “Here God tells God’s people that God will punish them if they reject God’s demands.”” (p. 18-20)

The use of genderless pronouns can also make God feel less personal and thus harder to relate to. This, according to Maimonides, is precisely why the Hebrew Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God:

“… because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body, and that which is not a body nor connected with a body has for them no existence.”

Nevertheless, avoiding gendered pronouns may be the best way to disentangle God, and, by extension, conceptions of authority, from destructive affiliations with a particular gender.

Option 3) Use the singular “they”

Using a traditionally plural pronoun to describe Judaism’s monotheistic God might seem strange and confusing. Yet, thanks to a growing sensitivity towards the way we speak about genderqueer folks, the word “they” is increasingly being used as a nonbinary, singular pronoun. Using this pronoun for God could help us accustom ourselves to this important shift in language, and, in turn, help us speak about God in non-gendered terms.

After all, the first human – made in the image of God – is referred to as “them” (Genesis 1:27). Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman understands this to mean that the original human was androgynous (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). So, referring to God as “they” accurately conveys the androgynous nature of God, who, like the first human, is of indeterminate gender.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Some final thoughts

Yes, changing the way we speak about God can feel daunting. So much of our tradition uses gendered God language. Some may fear that this type of change is a slippery slope and could dismantle our entire tradition.

There’s another way to look at it, though.

Maybe these changes can be viewed as progress, moving us away from a flawed conception of God as “masculine.” Maybe these changes can bring us closer to the fulfillment of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below…” (Exodus 20:4).

And perhaps this shift will “trickle down” and promote greater gender equality among humans, too. God created the world with speech; Jews believe that language matters. The gendered language we use to talk about God affects the way we think about God and the way we think about leadership and even worth. As we head forth into the Jewish New Year, this might be one small way we can help promote greater equality in our communities and the larger world.



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Pondering Wandering

Sukkot, which began last Wednesday night (10/4), is a serious contender for “most obscure holiday.” It is best known for the temporary huts (in Hebrew, sukkot) that traditional Jews eat in and even sleep in during the holiday. Sukkot also involves the daily shaking of a palm frond, a citron, myrtle, and willow, aka the four species (see: Leviticus 23:40).

This holiday can feel inaccessible to many, both practically (it’s hard to find a place to build a hut when living in a city like DC) and intellectually (it’s hard to connect to seemingly arbitrary rituals).

But the central purpose of the holiday is far from obscure. As the Torah explicitly explains: “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; every citizen of Israel shall dwell in sukkot; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:42-43).

Sukkot, then, is a holiday where we remember our wandering. Interestingly, this is a holiday we are told to observe “for all time, throughout the ages.” (Leviticus 23:41). Even when we are no longer wandering – or perhaps, especially when we are no longer wandering – we disrupt our lives for one week each year and force ourselves to relive our past, collective wandering.

Growth rarely happens from a place of comfort and stability. The act of wandering helps us step outside of what we know and lets in the possibility of surprise and discovery. When we leave the familiar, we learn about ourselves, about others, and about the world. Intuitively we know this – it’s why so many of us love to travel.

Sukkot takes this idea one step further. Vacationing in hotels or hostels is also a break from routine. But Sukkot, unlike most vacations, pushes us outside of our comfort zone by pushing us, literally, outside. The nature of a hut is, well, that it’s in nature.

The wilderness facilitates spiritual exploration. There are so many stories in the Torah of divine encounters in nature: Abraham arrived at monotheism while looking at the sky, Isaac prayed to God in a field, and Jacob and Moses both first encountered God while alone on a mountaintop. The Torah itself was given in the desert.

Being in nature doesn’t answer all of life’s questions, but it helps us more easily confront them. During Sukkot, and in life, wandering isn’t only a physical state – it’s also a mindset; the more we can cultivate this mindset, the more we will grow.

If you are looking to get out of DC for a weekend and are open to learning about different Jewish perspectives on spirituality, you can apply to our Jewish Spirituality Camping Weekend here. While Sukkot will have ended by then, hopefully we will still be carrying the feeling of wandering with us as we navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

What Broad City Teaches Us About Next Level Friendship

I don’t watch nearly enough TV to know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine there’s a better pair of friends on-screen right now than Broad Citys Ilana and Abbi. So with the new season starting tonight (9/13), and with the High Holidays just a week away, I figured it’s a good time to address the topic of friendships.

Given the importance of friendships (the Talmud says: “friendship or death”), it’s surprising how rarely we reflect on our relationships with friends – what qualities we look for in a friend, what we expect from a friendship, how we can deepen a friendship, how we can be a better friend, etc.

We spend a lot of time thinking about friends as “possessions” – the ones we have, the ones we no longer have, the ones we wish we had – and less time on what it means to be a friend. We often focus more on quantity of friends than quality of friendships.

Quantity isn’t really a Jewish value when it comes to friendship. As Ethics of our Fathers states: “Acquire a friend for yourself.” Just one is sufficient. But what about quality? Thanks in part to Facebook, the word “friend” has lost a lot of its meaning. Besides, there are different tiers of friends. (“Best friend is not a person, it’s a tier.” – Mindy Kaling.) So, what type of friend must we acquire?  


Based on this idea from Ethics of our Fathers, Maimonides, arguably the most famous Jewish philosopher, explains that there are three types of friends:

1) a friend with benefits (yup, he actually uses that term)

2) a pleasant friend

3) a friend for the good

He explains that friends with benefits, or “useful friends,” are like business partners. They each do something for the other in this transactional relationship. As it says in Ecclesiastes (4:9-10): “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” While we associate “friends with benefits” to a particular type of relationship today, sadly, this may describe more of our friendships than we’d like to admit.

Pleasant friends, the second tier according to Maimonides, “inspire full confidence, so that you do not need to be reserved with them in action or in speech. Rather, you will be able to reveal to them all your concerns, the good and the ugly, without fear that it will bring you harm before them or anyone else. For when one achieves this level of confidence in another person, s/he will discover great pleasantness in speaking with that person and the intimacy of that friendship.” This perfectly captures the friendship of Abbi and Ilana, and it describes the type of friendship we crave for in a society that obstructs intimacy.

But interestingly, there is a higher tier than this – “friends for the good” – and this is the type of friend that Maimonides believes we should acquire. He describes this type of friend as follows:

When both friends yearn for and are directed toward one goal, namely, the good. Each one will want to be helped by the other in achieving that good for both of them together… This kind of friendship is like the friendship that a teacher feels for a student and a student feels for a teacher.

As opposed to the second tier, which is defined by absolute acceptance, this higher-level friend pushes and challenges the other to grow. This type of friendship requires honest communication and receptivity to hard truths. It might not be as fun, or as “pleasant,” but it does move us toward greater self-actualization.

This top-tier of friendship is not easy to build or maintain. Many of us may not even want it; growth is painful, and maintaining a second-tier friendship is hard enough (especially when your friend, like Ilana, wants it to also be a “friends with benefits” relationship). But, as we head into the high holidays -traditionally a time for self-reflection – next week, it’s worth considering who pushes us to be our best selves. If you don’t have such a person, perhaps it’s time to acquire a top-tier friend for yourself.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

When Fasting and Praying Becomes Distracting and Weighing

Two years ago, I wrote about how American Jews tend to overemphasize fasting and synagogue on Yom Kippur – tools that help some people connect to the purpose of the day but for many others have the opposite effect. Often, fasting and formal prayer end up being a distraction. X number of hours until the fast is over. X number of pages until the service is over. X number of tiles on the ceiling of the synagogue.

Inspired by the desire to shift the focus toward the actual meaning of Yom Kippur, this year I’ll be leading an alternative Yom Kippur experience. My goal isn’t only to challenge people to reflect on why we do the things we do on Yom Kippur. It’s also to make Judaism more accessible by prioritizing personal meaning over uniform practice.

Of course, it’s not inherently either-or. With a lot of study, a traditional Yom Kippur practice can be very personally powerful. But the meaning that comes from these practices is not self-evident and doesn’t just happen experientially. Therefore, most Jews – who have not spent years learning Hebrew, exploring the background of the prayers, and studying the intention behind fasting – wind up choosing unfamiliar and unhelpful practices without realizing there is another option.

These practices – intended as means to an end – have become the end. The path, for many, has become a roadblock. Shouldn’t there be another option for people who still want to address the themes of the day?

Yet, I’ve received some pushback regarding this idea. Why do some Jews give so much weight to the means? My sense is that there are two main reasons.

The first is that there is something powerful about knowing that Jews across the world are all engaged in the same practice, like fasting or praying in synagogue. Acknowledging that shared practices don’t work for everyone potentially threatens this feeling of unity and peoplehood.

But engaging with the purpose of Yom Kippur does not need to threaten that experience of unity and peoplehood. In fact, that can become the new unifier. I believe it is equally powerful, if not more so, knowing that Jews across the world are all meaningfully reflecting on their lives – even if that reflection takes on a variety of different forms – doing what needs to be done to rectify their past mistakes and commit themselves to be better in the year ahead.

The second reason people may be afraid to let go of prayer and fasting is a fear of shedding what makes us uniquely Jewish. Without those practices, do we just become regular humans engaged in ordinary reflection?

But that represents a misunderstanding of what makes Judaism unique. While we do have unique practices, we also have a unique calendar, history, and culture with unique texts, perspectives, and wisdom. The void caused by letting go of a unique practice that isn’t working may be filled by another unique aspect of our identity that is more personally resonant.

Besides, what ultimately matters on Yom Kippur is not what makes us unique, but rather what makes us human. Highlighting the importance of having unique Jewish practices will distract us from the more fundamental human questions we should be asking ourselves on Yom Kippur. Questions like “Am I living the life I want to be living?” “How can I bring more love into the world?” and “Where have I messed up?”

What is Yom Kippur really about? I’m afraid we’ve spent too much time fasting and praying to properly explore this question. Will you find a personally meaningful answer at a beer garden? Maybe. Maybe not. But, if you’ve been to a bar more than you’ve been to a synagogue this past year, then it might not be a bad place to start.

Click here to sign up for GatherDC’s Alternative Yom Kippur on Saturday, September 30.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

How Jewish are the Religions in Game of Thrones?

Warning: this article includes spoilers, plot points and lines of dialogue from Game of Thrones episodes, through the most recent one on August 20th. But, like, you should be caught up by now.

While there are a few articles that highlight the Jewish trivia related to Game of Thrones (example: its two creators are both Jewish), I haven’t seen any article analyzing the actual religious content of the show as it relates to Judaism. With around 20 unique religions in the GoT world, this task is too much to take on in one rabbi rant. But in honor of the season seven finale coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d rank the show’s six religions that seem the most “Jewish.”

#6 – The Old Gods of the Forest

At first glance, this religion isn’t very Jewish. First of all, it involves many gods. Also, praying is centered on trees with a face carved into the bark. This type of tree-based idol worship is explicitly prohibited in… (gotta love the timing here!…) this week’s Torah portion: “Do not plant an asheira (an idolatrous tree) of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 16:21). As Maimonides explains: “This was an idolatrous practice; they planted trees near their altars so that people should gather around it.” (6:9).

Still, there are some resemblances to Judaism. Both place a strong value on welcoming guests – “the guest right,” as it’s known in this religion, or as it’s known in Judaism, hachnasat orchim. This is part of why the Red Wedding was such a terrible crime: “Walder Frey committed sacrilege that day. He shared bread and salt with theStarks. He offered them guest right. The gods will have their vengeance…” (04×03). Also, the idea of going out into the woods to meditate more or less resembles the chassidic practice of hitbodedut. And apparently the old gods are felt in the gentle breeze (01×08), which is reminiscent of Elijah’s encounter with God: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but God was not in the wind. After the wind–an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake–fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire–a still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)


#5 – The Hound’s “Religion”

It’s not clear what, if anything, Sandor Clegane believes in. But one touching moment in the first episode of season seven reveals that he has not only a heart but perhaps a religion too.

When the Hound comes across the dead bodies of the farmer and daughter who had hosted him three seasons earlier, he feels compelled to bury them. Something about that whole scene felt extremely Jewish to me. First, the very impulse to not wait until morning to bury them is straight out of the Talmud: “Anyone who leaves his deceased overnight without burying him transgresses a prohibition.” (BT Tractate Sanhedrin 46a). Second, despite being a man of few words, he feels the need to eulogize them. This reflects the Jewish obligation to eulogize the dead, as it says: It is a great commandment to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the commandment is to raise one’s voice to say over the departed things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying” (SA Yoreh De’eah 344:1). I know anyone who watched that scene is with me on this one – mission accomplished, Sandor, mission accomplished.

More generally, the Hound surprisingly seems to model true teshuva – repentance. In season 6, episode 8, Beric Dondarrion tells him, “You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” This echoes Maimonides’ description of teshuva: “Even a person who was wicked his whole life and repented in his final moments will not be reminded of any aspect of his wickedness” (1:3). Or, if you’re looking for a similar sentiment through more Games-of-Thronesian language: “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from praying for mercy.” (BT Tractate Berachot 10a). This idea, that it’s never too late, is a powerful message as we enter the month of Elul (which begins today) and start our own teshuva process. And it’s one that the Hound has internalized, transforming from a nihilist to someone who lives for a purpose.


#4 – The Faith of the Seven

Judaism loves the number seven, representing wholeness and holiness (examples: shabbat, number of blessings at a wedding, number of days of shiva, etc.)… but not when it comes to number of Gods.

On the surface, the biggest similarity seems to be the focus of both religions on guilt. But shame is different than guilt, a distinction that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains nicely:

In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others. Acting morally means conforming to public roles, rules and expectations. You do what other people expect you to do. You follow society’s conventions. If you fail to do so, society punishes you by subjecting you to shame, ridicule, disapproval, humiliation and ostracism. In guilt cultures what matters is not what other people think but what the voice of conscience tells you. Living morally means acting in accordance with internalised moral imperatives: “You shall” and “You shall not.” What matters is what you know to be right and wrong.

The Faith of the Seven is clearly a shame culture, while Judaism is a guilt culture. Nevertheless, there are still many parallels between these two religions. Both feel “institutional” – with similar frameworks of clergy, laws, and trials. They also both have similar rituals around lifecycle events, such as weddings and funerals. For example, each partner at a “Seven” wedding recites the line: “I am his/hers and she/he is mine,” which is almost an exact translation from the classic Song of Songs line recited at many Jewish weddings: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (6:3). They both emphasize faith over material possessions, as it says: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Finally, they both have the concept of communal prayer – with a similar focus on atonement and mercy. So while the Faith of the Seven resembles a more old-school, formal Judaism that we may not connect to, it certainly looks familiar.


#3 – The Many-Faced God of Death

Now we’re getting closer. Unlike most religions in GoT, this is a monotheistic religion like Judaism. But even if it’s one God, it’s a God with “many faces.” Surely that is an idolatrous idea antithetical to Judaism… or so you might think! That is, until you come across this incredible text about the moment of Divine Revelation to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai: “Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though God were a statue with faces on every side” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25). Turns out this idea of a “many-faced” God is rooted in our traditional sources.

There are also two key aspects of this religion that resemble Judaism. The first is the idea that we only say one thing to death: “Not today” (01×06). This is more or less the idea articulated at the end of the Torah: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19). Second is the ideal of being “no one.” While self-negation, known as bitul, is not a Jewish practice most people are familiar with, it was indeed championed by many musar and chassidic masters. For example: “A person must nullify himself completely before God… Everything must be nullified as if he is nothing and zero before God” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Tezaveh). The spiritual motivation behind this practice is that, by reducing our own self, we can become more intimately connected to God. If you’re interested, maybe the House of Black and White should be the next on your spiritual journey. Though I hear it’s hard to get in.


#2 – Daenerys Stormborn’s “Religion”

It seems Dany doesn’t have a religion. “Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself” (07×03). But still, there is something deeply Jewish about holding onto faith in returning during many years of painful exile. As it says in Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” about the Jewish people’s return from exile: “Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old.” As Jon tells Dany (07×04), she is able to make “something impossible happen.” This is the story of the Jewish people’s improbable survival against all odds.

Also, one of her many titles is “breaker of chains.” Similar language is used by the Prophet Isaiah in a subversive passage that we read on Yom Kippur: “This is the fast that I desire: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). As someone vehemently against slavery and any form of oppression and unjust law, she is a perfect expression of the type of religiosity that Isaiah demands of us. So while she doesn’t avow a particular faith, her value system may be the best expression of Judaism’s core principles and values.


#1 – The Lord of Light

OK, so the whole child sacrifice thing isn’t Jewish – in fact, it is the worst sin condemned several times throughout the Bible, as in: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5). RIP, Shireen.

Still, Judaism and this religion share a mutual belief in “the one true god” and a mutual love of burning down false idols, as in: “You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god” (Exodus 34:13). Also, the belief in the coming of “the Prince that Was Promised” sounds a lot like the Jewish belief in the Messiah. As in Jewish history (see: Shabbtai Zvi), this can lead to “false Messiahs” like Stannis.

There are many other similarities between the two religions – the idea of a commanding God, the prominence of prophecies, the acknowledgment that the night is dark and full of terrors (see Psalms 91:5: “You will not fear the terror of night”). But the clearest articulation of its belief system, and where its similarity to Judaism is most pronounced, came from Beric Dondarrion in the most recent episode (07×06):

“[I’m fighting for] life. Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last… We can defend those who can’t defend themselves”

This is a perfect distillation of Judaism. It goes a step further than the “not today” attitude of the followers of the Many-Faced God; this isn’t just about personally choosing life. This is about a religion that is centered around the promotion of life. Amazingly, we see almost identical language from Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his description of Judaism (The Jewish Way, p. 182 – 183):

“Judaism is a religion of life against death… In a world growing toward life, death is a “contradiction” to God, who is pure life. In the end, therefore, death must be overcome. “God will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from every face.” (Isaiah 25:8). Judaism’s ultimate dream then, is to vanquish death totally… Death is treated as the enemy.”

At its core, Judaism is about promoting life and human dignity, not just for ourselves, but especially for “those who can’t defend themselves.”

Could Game of Thrones be more Jewish? Of course. (Just think: dragons lighting a big menorah, Hot Pie baking delicious challah, Samwell Tarly getting into an argument with the Maesters over a Talmudic text…)

But with so many different religions featured prominently in the show, it’s hard for this rabbi not to see the Jewish parallels. Were they intended by George R.R. Martin? Probably not. But I’m still holding out hope that Dany is Jewish. And if things don’t work out with her and Jon… I’m around.

Do you disagree with my analysis? With my ranking? Did I miss other Jewish connections? Other ideas for how Game of Thrones could be more Jewish? Feel free to share in the comments below. Just no trolling, or you’ll pay the iron price.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: Trolling Tevye

There’s no debate – Fiddler on the Roof is part of the Jewish American canon. It’s given us a classic story, many popular songs and two dance moves that aren’t the Hora – the Bottle Dance and the Tevye Shimmy.

But it’s also given us a terrible metaphor for Judaism.

“A fiddler on the roof – sounds crazy, no? In our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.”

These are the very first lines of the movie, spoken by Tevye in the opening song “Tradition”. So, being Jewish is crazy. And dangerous. And it isn’t easy. OK, not a great sales pitch for Judaism.

But surely there must be some benefits to fiddling on the roof…otherwise we’d just get down from there, no?

“You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home.”

That’s the pitch?! We stay, not because we gain anything by being on the roof, but because that’s what we’re used to and we don’t want to leave? Habitual Judaism: do it, because that’s what you do.

Maybe there wasn’t a need to articulate reasons for staying on the roof back in the day, when Judaism was so ingrained that “leaving” would have been extremely difficult in the rare instances when it was even an option.

But Judaism does not play the same role for most American Jews today. For those on the roof, seeing how easy it is to leave, the “it’s your routine” argument doesn’t suffice as a reason to stay. Besides, most of us aren’t on the roof at all – we’re on the ground floor deciding whether climbing up is worth the effort, sacrifice and risk. We need the case for engaging, not the case for staying.

So, why fiddle on the roof? Tevye has only one word for an answer: tradition!

“You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you… I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”

This may be a funny joke, but it reflects an uninspired relationship with Judaism. Tradition without explanation is arbitrary and empty. It’s the routine argument all over again, except, instead of it being what you’re used to doing, it’s what previous generations were used to doing. Just because someone did something 200 years ago doesn’t mean it has inherent meaning. We believe in the idea of progress precisely because we don’t believe that the way things were is necessarily the way things should be. Tradition for tradition’s sake is not a value, and it’s certainly not a foundation upon which to build a Jewish identity.

Maybe it’s not fair to give Tevye this burden of representing an inspired Judaism. His character wasn’t intended as a model of the ideal Jew. Still, whether by causation or coincidence, his understanding of Judaism as something that is important because it’s old, not because it’s relevant, is shared by many American Jews today.

While this may have provided Tevye with sufficient motivation to stay, it certainly isn’t a compelling reason for us to engage today. We need to find a new metaphor. To do that, we’re going to have to put the fiddle down and get off the roof.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: Jewish Intersectionality

Once again, American Jews are at the center of a conversation about intersectionality.

For those less familiar: intersectionality, as described by Nathan Heller, is “a theory, originating in black feminism, that sees identity-based oppression operating in crosshatching ways. Encountering sexism as a white, Ivy-educated, middle-class woman in a law office, for example, calls for different solutions than encountering sexism as a black woman working a minimum-wage job.”

This theory, in theory, provides a more nuanced way of looking at oppression through the lens of multiple, intersecting identities. It’s a framework that reminds us not to reduce people to any one identity. Yet it has led to very unnuanced ways of thinking – forcing complex identities into an oppressor/oppressed binary and demanding a total consensus on that categorization.

This reductionist form of intersectionality is often applied to the American Jewish identity, which becomes reduced to oppressor (Jew = Zionist = Oppressor) and is thus unwelcome in social justice spaces. We saw this play out most recently just a couple of weeks ago when three people carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars were asked to leave the Chicago Dyke March.

As in past instances, this led to a litany of counterarguments that Judaism doesn’t necessarily mean Zionism or that Zionist doesn’t necessarily mean oppressor, along with the subsequent debate addressing the degree to which those conflations amount to anti-Semitism.

These responses are important, but they ignore a broader logical flaw that is incorrectly associated with intersectionality. If all oppression is interconnected, the flawed logic goes, then fighting to end one example of oppression requires that we all agree on and speak out about all examples of oppression. And if you are an oppressor in one realm, then you are de facto an oppressor in every realm.

But the interconnectedness of oppression does not mean all oppression should be lumped together, nor does it mean anyone is defined solely by any one oppressive belief. In fact, a proper understanding of intersectionality leads to the exact opposite conclusion. Each instance of oppression, like each person, is a unique and complex combination of different factors and components. The challenge is in being able to simultaneously hold both truths – that different forms of oppression are interrelated and distinct.

Even if Jew = Zionist = Oppressor (it doesn’t), that should not exclude Jews from all spaces that advocate for the rights of others. Belief in one cause does not require a belief in all causes; being considered an oppressor on one issue should not prohibit one from being an ally on another issue.

Yet many social justice movements today seem to be demanding uniformity of thought. They are making the same mistake that was first recorded in the story of Babel.

In chapter 11 of Genesis, we are told that “everyone on Earth had the same language and the same words.” They came together to build a tower, but God disapproved and scattered them across the earth. Why did God disapprove? One interpretation is that their mistake was in coming together with “the same words” – silencing disagreement and forcing a complete consensus. And so God disperses the people, perhaps to teach us: enforcing ideological uniformity and eliminating difference is not how you build coalitions.

The defense of Judaism and Zionism is important. But that shouldn’t distract us from working on other social justice issues, such as queer rights. We do not need to agree on everything to work together on something.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: Intermarriage Isn’t Good, Or Bad

The conversation in the Jewish community around intermarriage is extremely polarized and seriously lacking nuance.

One side wonders, “How are we still talking about this?” To them, the idea of telling someone to only marry Jewish is antiquated and even racist.

The other side thinks, “Those who are intermarried have rejected Judaism and are actively contributing to its destruction.”

Both are wrong.

For some Jews, Judaism is a central, if not the primary, piece of their identity. For them, wanting to marry someone who shares their values, traditions, worldview, etc. is certainly not racist. In fact, it’s actually a good idea. Data suggests that children of intermarriages are far less likely to raise their children Jewish. If building a Jewish home is extremely important to you, you should probably marry someone Jewish.

For other Jews, Judaism might not be as primary. For them, finding a loving partner is more important than concerns of Jewish continuity. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about Judaism or that they aren’t committed to building a Jewish home. It certainly doesn’t mean that they are rejecting their Judaism. It simply means that they prioritize romantic connection over religious affiliation, and it’s perfectly reasonable for these Jews not to limit themselves to a Jewish partner.

Will any particular interfaith couple successfully raise a Jewish family? That depends on many factors, including: Is the Jewish partner able to share Judaism with the non-Jewish partner? How does the non-Jewish partner relate to Judaism? Does the non-Jewish partner actively practice another faith? Does the couple actively talk about religious differences? Do they have a plan for how they will incorporate Judaism into their home?

These are important factors for those who are in (or looking to be in) a serious relationship to consider. There is no guaranteed formula for successfully building a Jewish home or raising a Jewish family, though depending on the answers to these questions, couples will have an easier or harder time navigating their differences. What’s important is acknowledging that intermarried couples are not a homogenous bunch. It doesn’t make sense to have a blanket view on intermarriage – you cannot draw conclusions about people’s connection to Judaism without knowing their backgrounds or the complexities of their particular relationships.

I’ve become much less interested in the question of whether one should date or marry Jewish. By focusing on the act of intermarriage, we ignore the far more significant questions: what role does Judaism play in your life, and what do you want your Judaism to look like in a romantic relationship? Though our answers may evolve over time, we don’t have to wait for a relationship to address these questions. They are arguably the most important Jewish questions we will ever ask ourselves.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.