Cool website (and even cooler interview of me)

February 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm Leave a comment

Menachem Wecker edits and hosts a fascinating website about relgion and art called Iconia: Wherever faith meets art. I ‘met’ Menachem on twitter and he subsequently asked if I’d like to be interviewed (I made the mistake of telling him my wife was an artist… guess he assumed I knew something about art). Of course I said yes! The following is what’s posted on his fine site.

Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is information technology director for the Center for Congregations. According to his bio on the CFC, he has served several congregations in South Florida, has a B.A. in comparative theology from Union Institute & University, ordination from the Rabbinical Academy of Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, and is a D.Min. candidate in congregational studies at Hartford Seminary. I “met” Rabbi Siegel, who is a “transdenominational rabbi,” on Twitter, where his handle is @rebaaron. (Image courtesy of Rabbi Spiegel.)

MW: Your blog “Ma Hamatzav?” (site) describes you as a former pulpit rabbi and a rabbi at the Hillel at Butler University, and the CFC site calls you “transdenominational.” Most people have enough trouble keeping Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc. straight. What does it mean to be a transdenominational rabbi?

AS: I wish I could claim that I made it up but alas I’m not that creative. Trans – beyond – denominational is just that, beyond the movements or denominational tags. While I have great respect for each of the movements and their historical significance, I believe we’re now in a period in which their relevance is severely diminished. It used to mean something when someone said ‘I’m a Reform Jew’ or ‘I’m Conservative.’ Most Jews, particularly those younger than baby boomers, have little or no attachment to these monikers. In some cases, the labels are seen as negatives. I like to refer to myself as a Reformativadoctionist. Or in other words, I’m confused!

MW: You are one of very few rabbis that I have found on Twitter, and I’ve spent a lot of time looking. I see you do information technology for CFC, and have written on congregations and technology. Why do you think there is such an aversion to new media in the rabbinate, and why do you think you’ve managed to overcome that?

AS: I can easily answer the second part of the question – my first career was in information technology (starting in the late ‘70’s, early ‘80’s) so I’m a techno geek at heart. As to why rabbis have an aversion to technology I can only speculate.

Rabbis are still trained as scholars. There is little in the way of ‘practical’ leadership and management in rabbinical school. Technology, at its best, is a tool to lead and manage. I’m oversimplifying, but without an incentive to use these tools, i.e. it’s what the secular world uses to communicate, rabbis often see them as irrelevant.

I will contradict somewhat your statement that I’m the only rabbi on twitter. I’ve now found another four or five of us. I’m also seeing rabbinical students on twitter as well. I should also point out that though the numbers aren’t exactly proportional, Christian clergy have the same problem adopting technology tools in their ministry. Many find themselves doing so because their congregants are forcing them. I just did a survey on congregational use of social networking (link) and the responses were interesting. Most of the respondents were church leaders and while most agree these tools are important for maintaining relationships and communications, very few are actually adopting the tools.

MW: Your Twitter profile includes: “technologist, motorcyclist, sailor, cigar smoker, renaissance man” and “friend o’ bill(stein).” I won’t even ask about the first list, but who is Bill Stein?

AS: It’s an inside joke!

MW: As a technologically-inclined rabbi and husband of a painter, you must deal with art and design a lot. What sort of religious role can the arts play in a transdenominational setting?

AS: I’m not sure art is much different in a transdenominational setting than in any of the liberal Jewish movements. Jews have been and are great supporters of the arts. We have data that Jews give to the arts disproportionally to non Jews. I believe that Judaism is a religion of aesthetics. Judaism appreciates beauty and values individual expression.

In his book Congregations In America, sociologist of religion Mark Chaves (link) reported from the findings of the first National Congregations Study that Jews had a higher proclivity to the arts than non Jews – so I’m not making this up!

MW: Are there subject matters that are off limits to a Jewish artist — whether nudity, idolatry, or heresy?

AS: I don’t think so. Nudity is one thing and I do believe there’s a line between tasteful nudity and pornography (though I can’t tell you what it is). Regarding idolatry and heresy, I’m not sure there’s much chance for either.

It’s very difficult to define idolatry in Judaism. The commandment against idolatry was written (or channeled by God if that’s ones beliefs) during a time when idols were still common. Judaism doesn’t anthropomorphize God nor even hint that God has human characteristics. The prophets and later thinkers like Maimonides all stated that humans don’t have an adequate language with which to talk about God. Therefore we use the human language we have to describe God and ascribe attributes to God that we can grasp. To depict God as an old man with a long white beard isn’t depicting God – it’s merely depicting our idea of God, albeit a limited, human depiction.

The same goes for heresy. What’s heretical about depicting God? Judaism is not like Islam or some Christian sects who hold an image of a prophet or saint as sacred. They’re just pictures.

MW: Who are some of your favorite Jewish artists and works? Do you think there is a such thing as Jewish Art?

AS: I do believe there’s such a thing as Jewish art. It’s art created by Jews that has some kind of Jewish influence. In the visual arts I’m a big fan of Chagall. I do like some of his famous pieces (like the stained glass) but my favorite works are his attempts at creating a Bible. While one can see his Eastern European influences, he also showed he was very influenced by Christianity. Some of the pieces show the Bible stories from a Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible rather than a Jewish interpretation – it’s fascinating to me.

I love the photography of Roman Vishniac, especially his photos of Eastern Europe before the Shoah. The illustrations of Arthur Szyk are amazing. One of my prized possessions is a Szyk Haggadah (link) which my parents bought me and my two brothers when we were kids. I still use it at our sedar to bring the story to life. But of course, my favorite Jewish visual artist is my wife! (site)

If we include authors and websites as art (which I do) the list is too long to name. There are some outstanding young Jewish authors like Dara Horn (site) and Michael Chabon (site). I love new ventures like Nextbook, Jewcy, Jewlicious, Zeek, and Heeb Magazine. I give special mention to the new website G-dcast (link). In music, there are some outstanding artists like Craig Taubman, Josh Nelson, Joshua Nelson (yes, two different people), Rick Recht, Matisyahu, JDub Records, etc who are bringing Jewish music into the 21st century.

MW: How much is Jewish art on the radar screens of American Jewish communities? Are Jewish educational institutions doing enough in your mind to engage the fine arts, as opposed to literature and music?

AS: I won’t speak for Jewish educational institutions (because they have problems that almost preclude them from worrying about art!), but I think art is very much a part of the ethos of the American Jewish community. As I mentioned in the previous question, I think there’s a ‘new crop’ of exciting projects – in print, on the web, and music. I wouldn’t yet call it mainstream, but only because the mainstream is slow to shift. Ten years from now I think (hope) these will be the mainstream.

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Entry filed under: Judaism, Media, Religion. Tags: , .

Social Networking and Congregations Survey Twitter is sooooo Jewish!

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