Good morning, my friend. I’m writing to you, and hope you don’t mind my sharing this with others. I know that your heart is broken as you learned about yet another murderous attack carried out here in the United States at a synagogue during religious services. As Professor Deborah Lipstadt pointed out, while the media described the killer as having “acted alone”, that is far from the truth. Murders against Jews that are motivated by the simple fact of their Jewish identities aren’t acting alone. They act having been influenced by what they read in online anti-Semitic, bigoted and racist websites. I’d go a step further. Once a person becomes a murdering anti-Semite he is not a lone criminal. He has united himself with anti-Semitic ideas that have crawled around western civilization for centuries. He can find an ideological home in the Inquisition of the Catholic church, in the thinking of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, in the German ultra-nationalism that led to Auschwitz. He gets to share many of his beliefs with American racists, most of whom included Jews among the groups they pour out hatred towards.
My friend, your family and mine escaped the old country, fleeing oppression and poverty. They came to America and believed that they were not a minority group here. After all, President Washington had written a letter to the Jews of Newport RI, greeting their community and congregation and promising that the land in which they lived would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”. And while it took some years until our people were able to break down barriers to living in certain neighborhoods, being accepted to certain schools or joining certain country clubs, these were inconveniences at worst. And yes, while a few kids would be beaten up while walking to Hebrew School back in the day, this tended to be the exception, not the rule. Nothing was even close to the pogroms that our families had once survived.
Life was good in America. We became safe, upwardly mobile, comfortable. We celebrated Israel, most of us from a distance. We knew that Jews from other countries had moved there to escape persecution. But not American Jews. Those of us who moved there went out of pure idealism. Not for a moment did we think of Israel as our insurance policy. It was, for those of us who stayed in the U.S., our Jewish Disney World, where we could visit, tour, study, shop, eat, dance, play and then return to our wonderful American Diaspora.
Unexpectedly, the rug got pulled out from under us. Oh, it’s still mostly safe to be Jewish here. I put on my tallit and tefillin while waiting for a flight at Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport and didn’t give it a second thought. Before I knew what was happening, two other guys had tallit and tefillin on and were reciting their morning prayers. And nobody gave us a second look. As far as I know.
But, over the past few months, our working assumptions were blown up, with the lead taken by two anti-Semitic white supremecists armed with assault weapons. Now, when I walk to synagogue, I look around myself a little more to see who is around me. Now, I no longer laugh when my wife, whose mother left Germany just before the Holocaust struck, would warn me and the kids to always have up-to-date passports. Now I make sure to greet the North Miami Beach cop who sits in his patrol car outside the synagogue and the (armed) Israeli security guy who sits just inside the locked entrance of our synagogue, letting people in one-by-one every Shabbat and holiday.
In my optimistic heart and mind, I do not expect America to be overrun by anti-Semitic violence. But something has started here. Something that President Washington promised wouldn’t happen. And, for the first time in many years, you and I are off balance. Our steps are a little less certain.
Today, I lead a group on the March of the Living. We land tomorrow in Poland where a once proud Jewish community of 3 million now exists as a small community of a few thousand. It happened because something small began in a town in a neighboring country a few decades before the proverbial sh*t really hit the fan across Europe. So, while I want to believe in the “never again” affirmation, I’m no longer so naive as to ignore a few “isolated” incidents. And I mourn the lost innocence.
Today, I stand proud as a Jew. I stand in unity with each and every Jew. I value each and every ally who stands with me against a rising anti-Semitism. I stand with absolute faith in the belief that the Jewish people have an important role to play in human history and that we will continue to play that role faithfully.
Am Yisrael Chai — The People Israel Live!
This week’s social media adventure began for me with a tweet from President Trump proclaiming that “Jews are leaving the Democratic Party” and declaring that the Democratic Party doesn’t “care about Israel or the Jewish people”. This was followed by the usual meshuggenas who decided to let me know that the Democratic party is the “Party of Infanticide, Socialism and Jew-haters. In other words, Nazis”.
To be sure, there are issues with how the Democratic party is positioning itself on Israel issues (and there is tremendous diversity among its elected officials on these issues) and its response to anti-Semitism in its ranks have been less than fully convincing. But given the 50,000 votes a Holocaust denier in Illinois running on a Republican ticket gained in a recent congressional election, it’s fair to state that we have problems across the party divide.
Living in Florida and being registered as “no party affiliation” excludes me from voting next time around in a primary election. But I feel that I will want to. And I am, quite frankly, open to offers from any party. Six months before the primary, I need to switch to a party affiliation or be denied the right to vote in it. So here is the email that I intend to send to every presidential candidate before then:
Dear Sir or Madam:
I will be registering to vote in the upcoming presidential primary. In order to do so, I am required to select a party with which to affiliate. Despite a strong commitment to independent voting, I will do so in order to cast my lot with one of the candidates. If you would like my affiliation and my vote, I require your responses to the following:
- Would the people you work with, your friends, your children, and your spouse or partner consider you a genuinely decent person with a strong sense of values and a solid moral compass?
- How should the health and well-being of American citizens, including its aging members and those affected by poverty , be taken care of in today’s and tomorrow’s world? Be specific and explain who is going to pay for what.
- What ideas do you have to ensure that today’s children are prepared educationally for a world that doesn’t yet exist?
- Do you believe that there is knowledge and expertise in science, academic research as well as experience of those in the military and foreign affairs that must be taken seriously as we look towards the future of the United States and our planet? If so, what are the threats you see (environmental, political, etc.) that concern you and how would you plan to address them?
- Do you unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism of all forms as well as prejudice and bigotry against all minorities or foreign groups?
- Do you support a strong and secure State of Israel? What steps will you take to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table to move their conflict closer to resolution?
I look forward to your response and wish you the best as you compete to earn my vote.
Since the mass murder at Shabbat services at Tree of Life (and no, the irony of the name and the events isn’t lost on me), the thought that keeps rising in my head is: The innocence of the American Jewish community died last week.
Having worked in Jewish organizations for my entire career, I have generally felt removed from anti-Semitism. Sure, there was always that stray person who would ask me “where are your horns?”, but they were few and far between. I felt far enough removed, as an American, from the world in which people believed the accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to occasionally joke about Jews controlling the media. After all, nobody actually believes that crap anymore, right? And the Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist colleagues I interacted with were of the mentsch variety. None of them wanted to see me or my beloved Israel eliminated. Most (not all) did not seem to worry about my eternal soul being damned because of being a Jew.
I live in a country in which even most of the holdouts that wouldn’t allow Jews to live in their communities (file under Kenilworth, IL) had given up and now have their Jewish peeps. And while I had marched against the American Nazi Party in Skokie decades ago, the memory of swastikas in Chicago was a faded enough memory for me to feel exceedingly safe.
When I moved to South Florida, I was shocked at the level of security around the Jewish Federation in which I used to work, the local JCC’s and our synagogues. There was incredibly limited access to the buildings and armed security guards. When I asked it was explained as part of the picture because so many of our Jewish community members had previously lived in countries like Argentina and Venezuela, which had experienced anti-Semitic or political violence, and because of my security-conscious Israeli neighbors. There was no reason at that time, five years ago, to imagine that an American Jewish community would need strict security were it not for the mindset of those who had come from more threatened communities.
The scene for the Pittsburgh attack and for our loss of innocence was being set for a few years before we got to last Shabbat. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents was the sharpest annual increase ever. And of course, we had once again seen protesters marching while carrying flags with swastikas on them. But we continued, for the most part, to ignore the warning signals.
Then eleven individuals were murdered in a synagogue sanctuary and nobody could ignore the situation any longer. The anti-Semites, along with bigots of every make and model, have crawled out from under the rocks. And to blame any one politician or political party misses the point: Anti-semitism and its cousin – racism – has been there all along. But at long as we as Jews were able to get into the exclusive clubs and neighborhoods, we felt safe.
The attack on Tree of Life shattered our innocence. In hindsight, we should have known better. We had seen comments about Jews controlling (fill in the blank with: media, Congress, weather) things. Some of those comments were made by elected officials. Holocaust deniers and individuals who would deny the right of a secure Jewish homeland in our world have been there. And now we see them. In plain sight. And even on tomorrow’s ballots.
The innocent age of American Jewry died. And we have work to do. I am not in any way the expert on what we, as American Jews, do now. But, as a simple Jew, I’d like to invite you to create a dialogue on our next steps. Here are my humble suggestions:
- Be prouder than ever to be Jewish. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. Our ethics and values, which have evolved throughout history, reflect the words of our prophet, Micah “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”.
- Learn about what it means to be Jewish. Find a class, take a Jewish trip, read a book about Judaism, learn to read Hebrew, visit Israel. Go deeper.
- Add to the broader societal conversations. Our deeply divided world needs the wisdom of our tradition. Bring your Jewish game to the table, add value to our society and make sure everyone knows that you’re making a difference because you’re Jewish and that’s what Jews do
- Show up for Jewish. The most powerful sermon I ever heard was as a child when a Hasidic rabbi made the bold statement on the High Holidays that people should be in synagogue, not because of ritual, but because that’s the place where Jewish people come to know what it is important to know as a community. I’ll expand that. Important Jewish community conversations take place in the gym at the JCC, in Hebrew School carpool lines, and in (often non-Kosher) bagels places and delis. [Yes, this rabbi just encouraged you to be in the places where are people are to be found, Kosher or not].
- Give up the idea that Jews are just WASPS who don’t happen to believe in Jesus. We aren’t. We are an ethnic and religious minority. And many of the same people who hate one minority hate all minority groups. Stop running from it. Embrace it.
- Find and embrace allies. Over the past week, I’ve found empathy with religious leaders from the Black Christian, Moslem, Sikh and other communities. And I’ve witnessed good people reaching out to Jews in Pittsburgh and other Jewish communities with prayer, with flowers, with love.
The New Normal for American Jewry is here. What are YOU going to do about it?
As the director of security at my workplace said: It was bound to happen, it was only a question of when and where. It was yesterday and it was at Tree of Life, a congregation in Pittsburgh.
The finger-pointing and blame game began almost immediately.
It was the president’s fault.
It was the fault of the liberals who want gun control.
It was the fault of the victims, because their synagogue didn’t have armed guard (I have no idea whether it did or not, by the way).
It was the fault of Israel’s policies.
It was the fault of all Jews for being too complacent.
It was the fault of the mental health system.
It was the fault of one single person with hatred and bigotry and weapons.
These are the absolutely unconstructive, if not outright dysfunctional responses from people trying, unsuccessfully, to make sense of something that cannot be rationalized away. Like the Holocaust or natural disasters, if we can explain it, it will put our minds at ease. But, like the Holocaust or natural disasters, we cannot. So, we bicker over our responses and come up with all sorts of ways of avoiding what we really have to do today – mourn, and what we have to do tomorrow – act.
The individuals who are creating chaos in our society are not monolithic. They are responding in horrible ways to very complex times. To expect their motivations to fall into one single category is absurd. As a result, the appropriate responses (both in mourning and in action) are going to be complex.
Here is the only simple thing: All those who are conducting acts of terror and of mass murder are creating chaos and festering more hatred and violence.
We are in a war, but probably not the one you think: It’s the war that the Dead Sea sects of the Jewish people spoke of in ancient times: The Sons of Darkness against the Sons of Light. But unlike the tribal designations for who are the forces for darkness and who are the forces for light, today the forces for darkness are those who promote anger, dissent, violence and terror. Today’s forces for light are those who are, to use the words of the Jewish tradition: rachamanim b’nei rachamanim, merciful humans who are the descendants of merciful ones. In other words, those whose characteristics of mercy are so ingrained on their souls, that it is practically part of their DNA.
Today, the Jewish community and its allies sit shiva. We mourn, comfort the mourners and each other.
Tomorrow we mobilize for action. We join the war on the side of the Sons of Light through acts of kindness, increasing mercy and love, decreasing the capacity for violence, and taking necessary measures to protect our community and our society.
Listen, I’m not a politician. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I am not even a registered party member anymore…changed my registration to “no party” in order to avoid the snooping that the federal government was trying to do, when it demanded that states turn over voter records.
I’m just a Rabbi. A Jewish educator. I vote Jewish. That is to say, I care about a wide range of issues and I look at them with a mindset that says: My Jewish values don’t dictate my vote, but they definitely inform it. Specifically, my Jewish lens includes:
- Personal integrity. Not perfection. Striving for good. Striving for ethical. Striving for moral [includes idea of teshuva, that a person can change and improve]
- Truth [a name of God]
- Peace and its pursuit [Shalom is another name of God]
- Responsibility [Ours is a religion of responsibility, not of rights]
- Consistent values
- Compassion [according to the rabbis, a litmus test of a Jewish person]
- Justice [as in: Justice, Justice you shall pursue]
- Strength [not power. Strength]
- Standing up for minorities [I’m a member of a minority religious group, so I notice] or for those historically disenfranchised
- Partnership with God [or with the Godly, if you prefer] in protecting creation
- Security and safety [“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them”]
- The security, safety and peace of Israel as the sole Jewish state in the world
So, when it comes to state-wide or national positions that are going to be on the ballot, I’ll be sending off my questionnaire to candidates and publishing those who answer these simple questions:
- What are the five top values that guide you in life and in public service?
- Are you respected by those of the other party/parties?
- How do you “play in the sandbox” with those whose views you disagree strongly?
- Are you respected by those in other branches of government?
- How do you “play in the sandbox’ with those in other branches, especially when they oppose you?
- How will you protect the right to bear arms?
- How will you protect citizens from gun and other violence?
- What do you think of scientific knowledge, such as global warming? Should our country be joining the rest of the world in environmental action? Is coal “clean” as a fuel, in your opinion?
- Do your religious beliefs, or those of religious leaders you honor, promote the idea that Jews (or Moslems, or any other group) will “not be saved” or “are doomed to burn”because they haven’t accepted a particular religion?
- What actions will you pursue to safeguard the security and promote peace in Israel?
- What are the three special interest groups or corporations that contribute the most to your campaign/s?
How about you. What are YOUR questions for those who want your support as they pursue leadership roles?
Memory: Back in my youth, students came to the school I attended a day after their parents had been on the front page of the local newspaper for criminal wrongdoing. We spent the day ignoring them, feeling badly that they were caught in a situation not of their making. But we knew that a wrong had been done.
We also knew to feel terribly about other scandals in which Jews were implicated – whether it was “white collar” crime or violent crime. When we read the newspaper (back in those days, it’s how we learned the news), our eyes went to the Jewish-sounding names to see who had embarrassed the Jewish people and how. Berkowitz, Ruby, Goldstein, Mezvinsky…We felt a sense of shame that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah could behave in these ways.
To be truthful, some of the shame my generation felt about Jews behaving badly had to do with being a first or second generation American Jew. My Judaic teachers growing up were mostly immigrants to this country. They had fled Europe just before or after the Nazi era. Or they had left Israel during times of economic hardship. They were proud Americans. They were also forever indebted to the United States, feeling that the country had accepted them as citizens who were nonetheless aliens in a foreign (and, frankly, Christian) country. And, as immigrants often do, they tended to feel a bit at risk. So the message that came through their teaching was: you (at age 15) represent the entire Jewish people in the United States. Your behavior directly impacts our safety in this great country. So stay on the straight and narrow, and be sure to express regret and consternation when one of your fellow Jews does something bad.
At the time, we joked about that message, but in hindsight, there was wisdom there: All Israel is responsible for one another (Mishnah).
Dr. Karl Menninger, in a memorable book, Whatever Became of Sin, alluded to how, in a world of moral relativism, society can lose sight of what is absolute wrong. Sadly, that spirit has infiltrated Judaism today. I’m no longer shocked to see Jews explain away acts of Jewish terrorism (which, admittedly are not commonplace, but do occur). Jewish felons were “railroaded” by the system, say defenders of some Jewish criminals. We were even treated recently to scenes of singing and dancing in celebration of a felon being released from prison (and yes, it is possible that he received a longer sentence than usual for the crime for which he was convicted, but it doesn’t change the reality of that crime).
As a rabbi and Jewish educator let me be absolutely clear: Felonies are wrong. Defrauding is wrong. Routinely hiring undocumented immigrants and having them work and live in poor conditions is wrong. When one does so as a Jew, it is what we call a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name publicly. When one does so in the act of providing for the needs of observant Jews like myself, it is unconscionable. Period.
Just to get things out of the way, I fully expect negative comments to this piece. I’ve already been told (after 36 years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal service) that I’m a self-hating Jew or that I hold Orthodox Judaism or Jews in general to an unfair standard (isn’t holding one’s self to a higher standing the point of Judaism?). Here’s the thing: I deeply respect those who disagree with my opinion. All I ask is that those who disagree commit themselves to respect for mine.
Personally, I am happy for any family reunited after incarceration. If you’re the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, your release is cause for public celebration. But if your crime was not of those types, celebrate humbly with your family this Shabbat and commit yourself to a life as a law-abiding citizen who will work hard to be a credit to our people.
As a rabbi and Jewish educator, part of my job is to both comfort people at difficult times and to challenge and teach them how to face the future. Both are difficult for me this morning, living in a country that is seriously divided. As CNN reported yesterday, 58% of voters indicated that they would be “scared” or “concerned” if Donald Trump were to win the election http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/08/politics/first-exit-polls-2016/index.html. I have no words of comfort for those 58%, nor do I have words of exuberance for those celebrating the election.
What I do have, and offer as a rabbi and Jewish educator, are prayers and aspirations for the future I would like to see, and that our communities would most benefit from. My prayer list:
- For President-elect Trump to have the humility and critical thinking to seek out and bring on board the best people to be his partners and advisors. May he move away from his belief that “I alone” can lead change or that “I know more than the generals”, and instead surround himself with the people who will help him to lead
- For those who thought that Donald Trump was giving a green light, either passively or actively, for hatred and bigotry (including anti-Semitism and racism) to crawl back under the rocks from which they came, and for our country to make progress towards being a society that doesn’t hate
- For members of the Senate and House of Representatives, in which his political party holds the majority, to step forward with integrity and without regard to party lines, to fulfill the important role of checks and balances that will keep the executive branch from any possibility of overstepping
- For the wisdom that President-elect Trump and the Congress need in appointing Supreme Court justices and other judges that will not lead the national backwards in regards to issues what we’ve moved forward: women’s rights (including the right not to be harassed), reproductive / choice rights, LGBTQ rights, and other freedoms that have been guaranteed in recent years
- For a system that will improve or replace the Affordable Care Act and continue to provide health care for those who have been covered and who need to be covered
- For President-elect Trump to break his campaign promises:
- To prosecute or jail Secretary Clinton – She has served her country well, and has endured more than enough investigations, none of which found her guilty of anything deserving of prosecution. We have a justice system; It did its job. Move on.
- To require allies (including Israel) to repay all foreign aid. It’s called aid for a reason, and serves a strategic purpose.
- To ban all Moslems from entering the country. It’s a really, really bad precedent.
May our incoming president be a force for good in our country and across the world. And let us say: Amen.
Earlier this month, a dozen of the leading educational directors from synagogues across Broward County, FL joined in this year’s opening meeting of their network, housed and staffed at Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education. Joining with us was a representative of Jewish Federation of Broward County, who challenged the group with the following: What is the best way for the community to invest its money to build the reach of synagogues’ educational programs?
It’s a huge enough question, yet it only touches on part of the challenge that we, as a community face. For many in our Jewish community, the question isn’t “where in the Jewish community should I connect?” but “how does connecting with a Jewish community add value to my, and my family’s life?” This question is not unlike the questions raised by the best-selling author, Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bemoaning the decline of communities and their attraction. We can curse the darkness, blaming this decline on generational factors, synagogue and organizational dues, the online world, financial considerations and more. But, as one of our insightful educators pointed out, we have also failed to recognize that the nature of what a community is (or should be) has changed drastically.
Based on recent writings and research that I’ve perused, I would like to humbly suggest that we, who are invested in Jewish communities, consider the following as part of a plan:
• Stop and listen to the folks that you would like to engage. Do it before jumping into action with marketing and outreach. Can they identify something missing from their lives? What are they asking for that we aren’t providing? What are the causes that do engage them? What are the things they will leave their digital lives for? Are you noticing generational differences in these answers? Once you get answers, identify how you can change your community in ways that meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
• Welcome everybody. We’ve opened the doors to community, but we need to continually open the doors even wider. Are you sure that your organization doesn’t put obstacles or fail to meet the needs of the broadest possible number of participants? Can everyone find programs and a chevra (smaller, more intimate community) within your community: Singles, childless adults, empty nesters, LGBTQ members, Jews of color, non-Jewish members of families in which there is a committed Jew? You don’t need to be everything to everyone, but we do need to work together as a community to identify where everyone has a place and offer opportunities to those who may not find their place in our own chevra.
• Put membership on the back burner. I still remember with astonishment the synagogue welcoming committee that came to my door in one community and handed me membership forms and information about cemetery plots (!) before asking us whether we needed anything in our new home. Create value and relationships first. Do the ask much later.
• Bring resources, people and organizations together. The competition is not between one synagogue or Jewish organization and another. The competition is between Jewish organizations and opting out entirely. Recruiting? Join forces with other synagogues and organizations. The people opting out aren’t interested in the subtle differences between one brand and another. They want to know why they should be engaged at all. Let’s band together and show them what a Jewish community can do for them and for their world.
Community building is not on its face the goal of a Jewish educational organization, but in reality it is what we do. Yes, we offer an incredible variety of educational programs, opportunities to grow and work with other Jewish professionals to expand access to learning in Broward County, but what we really do is make sure there is a place for every learner in our community. For those that are curious about the basic, for those that are looking for something more advanced, for teens who aren’t sure what they are looking for – we are offering them a chance and a place to learn and connect. We are offering them a chance at community.
Let’s band together and show what a Jewish community can do for all Jewish people and for their world.
Judaism is a wonderfully odd thing. Those who want their religion to be more rationalistic can find a home in the thought of Maimonides, the Lithuanian yeshiva world or the Reform movement. If you like your Judaism with more of a mystical bent, Hasidism, some Sephardi schools of thought and Renewal might work for you. It’s a big tent, with plenty of room for you.
It is particularly in that mystical group, though, that Jewish folk religion finds its most fertile ground. People who hang their hats there are not as bound by the need for extreme rationality and are fine with what others would refer to as “magical thinking.” Some of the most ingrained Jewish practices grew in the mystical, Hasidic and Sephardi world (and were opposed by the above-mentioned rationalists). For instance, hakafot with dancing on Simchat Torah and tashlich on Rosh Hashana were practices the Jewish public wanted, even as the rationalist rabbis opposed them. To this day, the rationalists are appalled by kapparot (or kapores, as they are more commonly known), decrying pagan and other roots. But not only has the practice not gone away, it seems to be growing. Not cutting the hair of boys until they turned three years of age was rarely encountered outside of some Hasidic and Sephardi circles just 25 years ago. Today, it’s found surprising popularity beyond those limited groups. And even the rationalists among us can’t leave Israel without a red band on their (ok, OUR) arms, regardless of knowing that the woman who tied them on us purchased the string at a plain old fabric store.
In the old countries, folk practices were often localized. They were spread by traveling merchants (indeed one theory behind Rabbi Gershom’s Ashkenazi decree against polygamy was that it was in response to travelers who encountered and tried to adopt polygamy on the road). But the cross-pollenation of practices and ideas took time to travel.
In today’s connected world, Jewish folk practices spread like wildfire. When I see what to me is a new Jewish practice, I invariably try to track down its origin. More often than not, the person who has just posted the latest and greatest Jewish practice has no idea where it came from.
These days, my Jewish social media is blanketed with folk practices that I had never heard of: Baking challah as a “segulah“, a type of transfer of positive energy, often on behalf of an ill person. Schlissel challah, challah with either a key hidden in it, or in the shape of a key, again as a segulah. These, as well as the earlier mentioned customs, were largely unknown outside of Chasidic and mystical enclaves in places like Jerusalem, Tzfat or (l’havdil), Brooklyn.
Is the proliferation of folk traditions and practices good or bad for the Jews and for the world? The answer is probably: both.
What’s good about it: Well, frankly, some of the traditions are just plain interesting, and they do capture our attention and get us thinking. Also, in a world that spins out of control, these practices give us the sense that we can do things that make a difference. They’re rituals, and studies show that rituals can be healthy for us emotionally.
The bad news: These practices blur the lines between what is “authentically Jewish” and what is a folk practice (assuming that such a line ever existed…). People who perform them often do so mindlessly, without meditating on their value. And, when the action doesn’t have the desired impact (for example, when baking magic challah doesn’t result in a person’s healing), it can diminish a person’s belief in all Jewish ritual.
Lesson learned: Nobody, not Maimonides, not you and me, not even the Reform folks, are going to do away with folk religion among our Jewish people. What we need to do is to constantly ask the questions: Why are you doing this? Where did this practice originate? Are you sure this is a legitimate Jewish practice? And when the answer often is: I don’t know, we need to take a deep breath and appreciate that these rituals reflect the fact that being Jewish is nothing more or less than the Jewish people’s attempts to figure out what the universe wants from them.