Saturday, February 26, 2011

Song of Songs 6:10

Who is she that shines through like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun? -   Song of Songs 6:10
Song of Songs, or “Shir Hashirim” is a love story with a variety of interpretations.  Some say it’s a passionate poem between a man and woman that marks the standards of every unbreakable relationship today. Other spiritual scholars describe this book as a detailed relationship between G-d and Israel or Jesus and his church. For me, however, this book can be brought much closer to home.
Chapter 6 revolves around the concept of beauty. Today, in our generation, it is rare to find beauty as raw and pure as described in this verse.  There’s the external beauty displayed on reality shows and pageants that some consider the ultimate and only form beauty, but Song of Songs dives into every perspective of this physical and spiritual trait.
Who is she that shines through like the dawn…
I truly once believed that every person was created to be beautiful in his/her own way. Today, however, that statement is just a far-fetched idea. Our generation has embarked upon so many undesirable situations and has been persuaded by the negative approaches to them. I’ve watched so many innocent girls lose their beauty and grace merely because of their actions and choices. Sadly, it is rare to walk into a room filled with women and find one who “shines through” in regards to pure beauty in its every existing form. This feat, however, is not impossible.
In history, there are women that were depicted for their external and internal beauty and shined through the flawed people that surrounded them. I remember learning about exceptional women such as Princess Diana of Whales, whose actions benefited those in need and created her incredible, unbreakable reputation even after her tragic death. Her external beauty barely compared to her selfless heart that lived for healing others. It has been a challenge for women to shine through in life the way she did, but there are still other women in both history and modern day that strive and succeed to illuminate every dark situation. Only eleven years ago, my aunt Ruth Shapiro devoted endless hours and effort to ameliorating the world, inspiring a new generation of young leaders to be involved with their communities as well. Women like the royal British princess and my benevolent relative have shone through the moments in life where we lived in darkness, and created the bright “dawn” that reminds us all that life is beautiful and worth living. 
Beautiful as the moon…
Naturally, women have the tendencies to worry about their outer appearances. First impressions today are no longer about personality and internal kindness, but rather external traits that will most likely fluctuate within the upcoming years. Make-up, varying in colors for the consumers’ conveniences, has become the latest “nutrient” for women’s bodies and the mandatory purchase before walking in public. I, along with King Solomon, the author of Song of Songs, don’t view make-up as beautiful, but rather a crutch that only prevents women’s G-d-given beauty from shining through them. Nowhere in this precious biblical love story does it mention the need for concealers and hair mousse. Nowhere in this romantic poem does it require women to cake make-up onto their faces, but rather, accept themselves as beautiful exactly the way they are. Unfortunately, women have relied upon these expensive crutches to the point where any natural beauty has already been permanently hidden. Every woman was created with the potential to grow as “beautiful as the moon,” but many lack the confidence to even hobble, let alone walk, without the faux beauty crutch.
Some women, though, still wear their natural beauty with pride. They are able to walk outside not only without makeup, but with the realization that they do not need it to be beautiful. Those particular women, though shrinking in number, possess an inner purity that reflects their outer beauty. I’ve been quite fortunate enough to meet and grow to love some of these women, whose hearts are priceless and eternal, unlike makeup. These women are naturally as beautiful as the moon, one of G-d’s first creations. While it seems as though women were designed more intricately than astronomy, G-d’s intentions of creating both human beings and the moon were identical: to enhance the world with natural beauty and grace. By accepting exactly who you are without adding unnatural details, you are glorifying G-d’s sole purpose for creating the world. I am inspired everyday by the women with the confidence and the awareness of the truth: they are beautiful just the way they are.
Radiant as the sun… 
While it is common to come across women with accentuating features and external magnificence, it is rare to find a woman with a graceful internal essence. Along with a caring heart and pure modesty, the most influential women I know are the women who are able to smile even in the darkest of times. Today, it is not the large issues that prevent optimism, but rather the petty, worthless inconveniences that can easily be disregarded. It is rare to come across a woman who can light up a room with her positive outlook on life and smile at those who cannot access that kind of internal electricity. Moreover, it is the optimistic women who undergo the most inconveniences in their lives, but know how to put their lives in perspective and count their blessings. I am grateful to know such women personally, and I’m inspired everyday by their optimism. Every woman has the potential to be as “radiant as the sun,” they just need to smile first. The petty, temporary inconveniences in life do not override the infinite blessings that surround us. Every woman has the potential to live with a “positive jooka,” or a radiance that not only illuminates a room, but inspires other people to smile as well. Perhaps if we were exposed to more “positive jookas,” or radiant people, the world would indeed be a brighter place in which to live.
While I can think of a various women who meet every aspect of this verse, the first and most personal woman who instantly comes to mind is my incredible mother, Barbara Goldberg. As mentioned before, beauty has become rare and precious today, and I am so grateful that I am exposed to the innermost purity and radiance every single day. My mother has the ability to illuminate every situation, varying from business meetings, family outings, first impressions, and even my occasional “worst days ever.” My mother has the “positive jooka” that everyone admires, and her optimism inspires me to reconsider my own outlook on life and recount my blessings. With gorgeous features that do not require any makeup to enhance, my mother is naturally stunning, but unlike other stunning women, she has enough confidence to walk outside exactly the way she looks, without changing any aspect of herself. While many people have the natural instinct to gossip or complain at any time of the day, my mother has a naturally pure mind, which not only prevents negativity from leaving her mouth, but also prevents pessimistic thoughts from forming altogether. Her pure mind is truly incapable of devaluating life and only focuses on beautifying it, and her pure heart is an “open door policy,” to tend to those who need the warmth.  While none of G-d’s creations were intended to be perfect, my loyal and faithful mother, Barbara Goldberg, is as close as they get. She meets the standards for standing in “tzelem Elokim,” or in G-d’s image, just as the Creator intended for his creations to stand. Just with her personality alone, my mother has the ability to ameliorate the world, inspiring one heart at a time. With a natural beauty like the moon and radiance as recognizable as the sun, my mother has the potential to make this world an even better and brighter place. Just by waking up every morning and smiling every day, my mother fulfills this biblical verse in Song of Songs. While King Solomon was probably unaware of the remarkable women that could meet the standards of his devotional writing, I am fully aware and constantly inspired by the particularly beautiful woman that lives within the four walls of my home. I know that the historical Princess Diana would have been thrilled to meet a Floridian version of herself, and I know that Ruth Wagner Shapiro was and is proud to have a sister as benevolent and as beautiful as my mother. Today, I represent the benefactors of my mother’s internal and external beauty, and have been honored to call her my mother for the past sixteen years of my life. Happy Birthday, Mom, you are truly beautiful and loved.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Future of the Conservative Movement

Lately, I have come across many articles and lectures regarding the future of the Jewish Conservative movement. Rabbis in the community have recently felt the need to address the issues of tradition vs. change in our religion, how to maintain our and preserve our faith while staying aware of the many faiths around us, and how to gather all the generations to their synagogues. While these issues are evident in the Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist communities, they appear the most problematic in the Conservative movement. Among all the branches of Judaism, the Conservative denomination is definitely one of the weakest in regards to membership enrollment, financial stability, and assertive decisions on the future of faith.
I am not here to denounce my own denomination of Judaism, but rather to focus on the roots of the main issues of the Conservative movement. I am an active member at my synagogue where I experience the modern issues brought before my congregation and watch my rabbi handle and address them. The ritualistic peeves, or in my opinion, the positive changes such as musical Shabbat services and triennial Torah readings do not determine the future of Conservative Judaism, but merely benefit the goals and intentions of these changes.
For the typical synagogue president, the main, unavoidable problem in the Conservative movement is the lack of young, active members. Once students enter college, they are exposed to the various spiritual and ethnic groups on campus and visit their synagogues at home less and less frequently. By the time they graduate college and start working lives of their own where financial stability is the largest concern, paying synagogue dues does not override meals and apartment bills. In fact, even if there was enough money for a young single to pay for synagogue membership, would the thought of paying so much money toward a facility where s/he feels no connection whatsoever motivate that person to belong to a Conservative synagogue? You’ll sooner find that single at the local thriving Chabad house instead, where s/he can feel a connection to Judaism while enjoying the meals (and liquor) that are free of charge.
Another aspect that prevents young members from committing to synagogues is the lack of warmth and spirituality. While unaffiliated Jews understand that the Orthodox movement is religious and definite in the unbreakable ritual laws and the Reform movement is far more liberal, the Conservative movement is left somewhere in the middle. The average Conservative commentators and rabbis have grown indecisive over the years in regards to what laws we can and cannot abide by, what ritual practices to emphasize and which changes to succumb to, and how to make synagogue services more enjoyable without losing the traditions of Shabbat. For the average unaffiliated Jew, the atmosphere of a Saturday morning service is rather cold and filled with “No, your non-Jewish boyfriend cannot step onto the bimah,” or “Sorry, here we do not host interfaith music ceremonies.” While no two conservative synagogues are identical, both exude the vibe that the Conservative movement may be open to new ideas, but the answer to any severe changes is “no”.
We, as faithful people, must understand that the only gateway to gathering the younger Jews of the community, the future of Judaism, is promoting spirituality over ritualistic practice. While both rituals and community should be valued, it is pivotal to recognize that a sense of community is more necessary for the single Jew. The average unaffiliated Jewish single with a jaded connection to religious procedures needs to know that in the Conservative movement, it’s ok to not immediately understand every little detail. It’s ok to be confused at first, for everyone in that sanctuary is still learning and will continue to learn for the rest of their lives. It’s ok to find your sense of spirituality while keeping traditions alive. It’s also ok to face the inexorable modern world and all of its advantages in order to take your sense of spirituality with you. Most importantly, it’s ok to not understand the rituals but even better to learn the meanings of them from the synagogue experience. The Conservative movement revolves around teaching, evolving, and learning, three things that could easily be improved in our synagogues. No one truly knows that it’s ok to be confused at first because no one really ends up teaching the ones who are. The Chabad rabbi’s walk up to visitors individually and light-heartedly encourage them to be involved in the services, while at Conservative synagogues, visitors watch the services pass them, due to the lack of warmth around them.
I am still an active Conservative Jew and see hope for this particular denomination. The hearts of all the faithful Conservative Jews are in the right places; we just need to cater our hearts to those who may not have been born into the ritualistic practice that we consider second nature to us. Compared to the other denominations, the Conservative movement is still considered caught somewhere in the middle traditionally, but has the potential to thrive spiritually. As an Egalitarian movement, we have come a long way in regards to modernization, but the road leading to full synagogue membership has not ended quite yet. To gather all the Jews, young and old, affiliated or unaffiliated, spiritually connected or lost, we must open our doors and our hearts before placing the walls of rituals and traditions before us. We must create a warmer atmosphere and welcome all kinds of people with open arms. We must ensure those who feel uncomfortable that having faith is not a talent that only the experienced worshippers can obtain. While we should definitely value our Halachic bonds, the priceless effect of a “kehillah” or community, must take precedence.  In the Conservative movement, along with every movement actually, spirituality should not be a devalued aspect of every community, but rather a primary factor among all the generations that choose to dwell together in search of the connections to their faiths.  Only then will we see a true impact for the future of Judaism.