S.F. panel probes how far Judaisms boundaries reach

Jewish Buddhists, mixed-faith marriages, Orthodox women breaking centuries-old traditions. If our ancestors took a look at contemporary Judaism, they might not recognize it.

The changing face of Judaism made for a lively topic of discussion at a panel Friday of last week, titled "Challenges and Changes in Contemporary Jewish Boundaries."

Held at the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway in San Francisco, the session was part of an annual conference run by the Florida-based Association for the Sociology of Religion. ASR was founded in 1938 to promote "the study of religious behavior and traditions."

Panelist Judith Linzer, a clinical psychologist and student at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Seminary, has written a book on Jewish Buddhists. She offered insight into this phenomenon.

Referring to a Berkeley family she met in which both parents were Zen masters and the children attended yeshiva, Linzer joked, "It was like the Jewish `Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not.'"

She went on to say, however, that her research revealed that Jewish Buddhists often undergo a process she calls "excursion and return," which entails "having to go away [from Judaism] in order to come back."

Other panel members were Ellen J. Kennedy of the University of St. Thomas, Ailene Cohen Nusbacher of CUNY-Kingsboro and Susan B. Prager of Stern College for Women, a department of New York's Yeshiva University.

Kennedy, who discussed her extensive research on mixed-faith marriages, was optimistic about their effects on Judaism. Her research revealed that, contrary to popular assumption, the marriages did not seem to threaten Jewish continuity.

She gave anecdotes from her interviews with 30 mixed-faith couples who discussed their religious upbringings and current affiliations. While "the religious commitment for virtually all of the respondents, Jews and non-Jews, was rather marginal during their childhoods," she said, the couples had all made a strong commitment to Judaism — especially if they had children.

"When having children, the Jewish partner…felt an irrevocable connection to Judaism," she said. And when non-Jewish parents spoke about a child's bar or bat mitzvah, there was one word that each used without fail.

"They said it was wonderful."

Panelists Cohen Nusbacher and Prager focused on exploring attitudes of contemporary Orthodox Jewish women.

Cohen Nusbacher's research looked at the recent emergence of Orthodox women's prayer groups. Of the 20 she'd found in the New York metropolitan area, they enjoyed the support of some rabbis, she said. "But the large majority of Orthodox rabbis is opposed to such groups."

Women in the groups "have to omit certain prayers because technically they can't form a minyan."

While the women said they enjoyed their prayer groups, many were frustrated with the status quo, she added. "Over half said that they wanted to be able to do whatever men do in their prayer groups."

Cohen Nusbacher saw the women as pioneers, although most declined to challenge rabbinic law. But merely by holding prayer groups, they were "seeking to expand the boundaries of their role.

"These women know that the halachah can change…slowly," she said. "What they're doing isn't dramatic, but it's a large step forward for women."

Prager noted shifts toward more stringent observance in Orthodox Judaism, adding, "these shifts…present challenges to women to redefine their roles."

All of the panelists seemed to agree that Judaism's expanding boundaries would ultimately benefit the Jewish community. Linzer summed up the panel's feelings when she quoted from T.S. Eliot's poem "Four Quartets":

"We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started from/ And know that place for the first time."