Modern Liberal Judaism--We're Not "Coca Lite" (as Diet Coke is called in Italy)
As the first and only woman rabbi and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy, I am often asked to explain the differences between modern liberal Judaism and the more traditional approach to Jewish belief and practice. From my very first year in Italy (2004) when I was appointed rabbi at Italy’s first non-orthodox synagogue in Milan, the population in general, as well as specific groups, from journalists to Jews, wanted to know how this modern approach to Judaism interfaces with orthodoxy – the only branch of Judaism that Italy has ever known.
At first I was given to long explanations where I would try to weave theology with history and history with heritage – all in Italian, which is not my madrelingua. Oy vey! As my discourses became more complicated and as my audiences and I became more frustrated, it was a young lady who was a guest at a wedding where I was the officiant who turned things around for me and helped me find my way.
The ceremony was held in a gorgeous setting – on the grounds of a villa that bordered Lake Como in the north of Italy. The bride, a Jewish girl from Milan was marrying her beloved, a young man from a Catholic family. When I first met Rubina I was impressed with her determination to incorporate both faith traditions into the ceremony and I was honored and delighted to help this couple who so very much wanted to invite God into their interfaith partnership.
On a lovely Sunday evening we three stood under the chuppah, the Jewish bride, the Catholic groom and the modern liberal woman rabbi! The ceremony itself was “meravigliosa!” Wonderful! It included the traditional bridal canopy, the kiddushin blessing, the Shevah Brachot (seven wedding blessings where the bride circles the groom) and the ketubah, the Jewish wedding document that the couple designed to celebrate their mutual respect for each other’s faith. Readings included Bible passages from the Book of Psalms and Proverbs, which were part of the groom’s Catholic traditions, along with an instrumental version of Ave Maria. Of course, the ceremony concluded with the breaking of the glass.
But it was at the wedding reception when I was confronted by one of the bride’s close friends, that I truly understood how important it is to clearly define the differences between traditional and modern streams of Judaism. The guest’s comment enlightened me when, after she thanked me for the beautiful ceremony, she went on to say, “I didn’t expect to see anything Jewish at this wedding.” When I asked her why she thought that way, the young woman said, “Well, you are a woman rabbi which is not permitted. You have broken all the Jewish rules. I heard that you make Shabbat in five minutes, that you don’t ever read Torah and that at the Passover seder you serve lobster!”
That’s when I knew. The orthodox community in Milan, and later as I observed, in most of Italy has the misconception that their brand of Judaism is “Coca Cola,” while we modern liberal Jews are “Coca Lite.” Attribute it to fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of losing a level of comfort or security, but the perception that a modern approach is necessarily a watered down version of Jewish tradition is something that I now work hard to dispel.
Jewish law, “halakah,” as it is called in Hebrew, derives from the Hebrew root, “holech” which means “to walk.” This relationship strongly implies that Jewish law is ever changing, adapting with the times, or, as the 15th century Rabbi Isserles put it, “halakah must always be based upon new knowledge.”
So as we modern Italian Jews do our “holech-ing,” or as we walk the path of progress, we incorporate new knowledge into existing Jewish tradition. Specifically that means that we study Jewish dietary laws and learn about establishing and maintaining a kosher kitchen. Then we modern Jews make personal choices about the food we eat, with the knowledge that if we maintain a strictly kosher diet, we know why we do it and if we do not keep kosher, we have made an informed choice as to why we do not.
Given this new knowledge, modern liberal Judaism openly welcomes gay and lesbian Jews as well as their partners and their children.
Rashi, said to be Judaism’s greatest commentator, pointed out that there was never a prohibition that stated that women could not read Torah, lay tfillin or participate in prayer service and Talmudic studies. Rashi and others emphasized that women were “exempt” from these mitzvoth given their responsibilities at home. Over the years this exemption became a prohibition.
As modern liberal Jews we examine our history to verify the value of women’s participation and as such our women are free to become rabbis, to read Torah, and to become a Bat Mitzvah with the same level of participation as is required of her male Bar Mitzvah counterparts.
If my wedding guest were to visit our liberal synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud, on a Friday evening or a Saturday morning, she would feel Jewishly quite a home. Like the traditionalists, we light the Shabbat candles, make all the blessings in Hebrew, sing the Shabbat melodies and on Saturday mornings, we read from the Torah scroll. At a recent Bar Mitzvah service in our synagogue, Alessandro Yosef laid tfillin and, using an ancient Italian trope, chanted directly from our 1783 Torah scroll. And then we all enjoyed a kosher kiddush lunch. The two videos that appear in this blog post feature Alessandro; in the first video he chants Parasha Pincha, and in the second (below) he sings the Sh'ma.
It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve served as rabbi here in Italy, and I’ve learned so much. I’ve come to understand and respect a traditional approach to Judaism while at the same time offer an open and welcoming opportunity to those Jews who appreciate the incorporation of modernity and relevancy into Jewish belief and practice.
How does that translate? Very well, especially since I now begin my lectures with two familiar bottles, one in each hand. “If Judaism is Coca Cola,” I say to my audience, “I am here to explain to you how modern liberal Judaism, is grounded in Jewish tradition. We are NOT “Coca Lite.”