Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Burn My Siddur Award

The past week has seen many interesting questions relating to restricting expression (one's own and others').

This post isn't about censorship or freedom of speech. Censorship is generally done by a government or other de jure authority. In the United States, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment (subject to certain limitations). However, "it's a free country" isn't the end of the story. Just because I have the right to say something doesn't necessarily mean that I should say it, and also doesn't mean that you have an obligation to publish it, or to listen. Therefore, there are questions that go beyond legal issues and public policy issues.

For example, one angle of the Danish cartoon controversy has focused on whether newspapers elsewhere in the world should reprint the cartoons. There is no question that, in the United States and many other countries, newspapers have the right to do so. But that's only the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it. But that's all I'm going to say about it for now.

Spinning the globe from Denmark, we arrive in China, and the google.cn controversy. Everyone (in the First World) agrees that the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet is a bad thing. The question is how Google should respond, given that the Chinese government is unlikely to change its mind soon. Should Google voluntarily comply with the Chinese censorship? Or should Google pull out of China entirely? Again, not an easy question.

Two things have come to light today that provide new perspectives on some of these questions.


Kos brings us this message from a former eCampaign Director for the GOP:

The plans for the launch of GOP.com last spring included two things that have never made it to the light of day - a viral fundraising component, and a "MyGOP" functionality that would have let activists build a MySpace-like site on GOP.com. Practical reality set in, however, and killed both. The trouble with the MyGOP concept was the conflict it created with incredibly tight internal controls on message.

When we were forced to pull a Social Security Testimonials tool off the site because someone dared to use the word "private" instead of the more acceptable "personal" accounts, it became apparent that our internal tolerance for self-expression would not allow that sort of openness. Arguments that restrictions of that nature are ridiculous and hamper our ability to be effective online were met with stony silence. In the end, MyGOP went nowhere.

Why is the Republican Party so obsessed with maintaining a completely consistent message, to the point of stamping out individual voices? Because, as Glenn Greenwald points out (in a post that has circumnavigated the blogosphere many times in the last 2 days), "conservatism" has come to mean absolute loyalty to George Bush, rather than any political ideology, and "liberalism" (in the eyes of Bush supporters) means any deviation from that absolute loyalty.

Thus, just as Bush himself lives in a hermetically sealed bubble, having all his news filtered through his handlers, and speaking only to audiences who have signed loyalty oaths, the entire GOP machine is going to every length to create its own reality and avoid contact with any dissenting opinions or even inconvenient facts.

This is different from google.cn in its extent and authority (since no one is preventing me from writing this post, or you from reading it), but identical in its intent.


I acknowledge that a blog belongs to a blogger. No one is inherently entitled to comment on another blog. But I exercise no substantive editorial restraint on the comments at Mah Rabu. The only comments I delete are obvious errors (e.g. someone accidentally posts the same comment twice) and spam. I am called "profoundly hypocritical", I leave the comment there, even if I choose not to dignify it with a response. Of course I can see changing this policy if I get overwhelmed with hostile comments to the point where they drown out everything else, because if you want a forum for your views, you can get your own blog. I'm nowhere near that threshold now, so all is well. But some bloggers set their threshold much lower, to the point where any fact that might encourage readers to look outside their bubble is unwelcome.

And thus we come to the first Burn My Siddur Award. The name is a reference to Steve Silver's periodic Burn Your Siddur Award (particularly because Kol Zimrah is so far the only recipient of the Don't Burn Your Siddur Award), but this new award is given for keeping alive the spirit of those who burned Mordecai Kaplan's siddur in 1945.

As far as I know, no one ever burned the Union Prayer Book. As far as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis was concerned, the Classical Reformers were just a bunch of far-out hippies with their organ music and their bare heads and their "Grant us peace, thy most precious gift". Groovy, man. But nothing that posed a serious threat to Orthodoxy, because its superficial elements were so different from Orthodoxy that they literally weren't speaking the same language. Now Kaplan, on the other hand. His proto-Reconstructionist siddur looked like an Orthodox siddur, and you had to actually read it to find the sedition. (This superficial similarity led to the historical accident by which the historic synagogue of Curacao affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.) Thus Kaplan's siddur was perceived as much more dangerous, and had to be burned.

Today I read a post on Drew's blog where he responded to a post on Beyond Teshuva and expressed agreement, saying that he was also looking for a service that combined the full Shabbat liturgy with spirited music from NFTY and elsewhere. I posted a comment saying that Kol Zimrah was exactly what he was looking for, and you can read the rest.

I then went to the original post on Beyond Teshuva and submitted a similar comment, but without any of the politics in my comment to Drew. It said basically "Kol Zimrah was founded by NFTY alumni who wanted to pray the full kabbalat shabbat liturgy with ruach-filled music from NFTY and elsewhere. If you're ever in NYC, you're invited to join us!".

Then I got this email from the moderators:


It was with pain and hesitation that we deleted your link to your
Friday night services. The fact that you came over to our site, are
into Jewish music and Friday night services and want to share it with
others, shows that we have much in common.

We set up this blog with Rabbinic guidelines, and one of them was to
work within the framework of Halacha and musical instruments on
Shabbat aren't within that framework. We hope you understand and
aren't hurt or offended. We certainly didn't mean to do that if we

Be Well

Ok, let's analyze this. I won't contest the halachic issue -- I accept that, in the way that the folks at Beyond Teshuva understand halacha, playing (and probably listening to) musical instruments on Shabbat violates that understanding of halacha. But apparently it is also a violation of halacha to read about the existence of Jews playing musical instruments on Shabbat. I mean, I didn't go visit them on Shabbat and start playing musical instruments; all I did was link to a website about Shabbat services with musical instruments.

Does Beyond Teshuva really have a policy that no one can write about actions that violate halacha (according to the moderators)? Of course not -- here's a post that longingly discusses cheeseburgers and ham sandwiches. So what's the difference between cheeseburgers and Kol Zimrah?

Cheeseburgers are what these self-described "BTs" made a conscious choice to leave behind. Kol Zimrah, on the other hand, is something that addresses a spiritual need that they admit to having. Thus, Kol Zimrah, like Kaplan's siddur, poses a greater threat to this blog's paradigm of "growing" toward Orthodoxy.

Beyond Teshuva even has posts about Reform services with musical instruments. Is this description of a High Holiday service with a violin solo more halachic than KZ? No, and that's precisely the point. Discussing lame frontal Reform services is ok in opposition to warm and participatory Orthodox services, because it supports the frame that if you grow up Reform and you're interested in a more engaging Jewish experience, then it's time for you to "graduate" to Orthodoxy. (Indeed, many Reform congregations do such a good job confirming this frame that one wonders whether they're receiving commissions from Orthodox kiruv organizations or whether they're just doing it pro bono.) Kol Zimrah provides a different paradigm, because it proves that it is possible for educated liberal Jews to have an engaging, deeply personal, and deeply communal Jewish experience while maintaining all of their progressive Jewish values. And for this, it must be burned.

Of course, I have no right to have these opinions published on anyone else's blog; if I want a forum for my views, I can get my own blog. So I did.


  1. just wanted to point out for your readers that "union of orthodox rabbis of the US and canada" is a right-fringe group with no affiliation to the well-known "orthodox union". UoORotUSaC is called in hebrew "agudat harabanim" but not affiliated with the well-know haredi organzation Agudat Yisrael, either.

  2. I actually just learned about the historic siddur-burning last week, when a Reconstructionist rabbinic student came to speak at my Reform shul. What a story...!

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post and the questions you've raised in it. You've expressed yourself clearly and cogently, without being unduly negative about Beyond Teshuva (which I think is an interesting and worthwhile blog, though I'm totally willing to accept your analysis of what's problematic about their comment policy). And I think you're right about why KZ services are troubling for them in a way that reading about organ music at a Reform temple isn't; it breaks the binaristic paradigm.

  3. Would you actually describe the use of musical instruments on Shabbos as a "progressive Jewish value"?

  4. Egalitarianism (which isn't being discussed here, but is another difference between spirited services at KZ and, say, the Carlebach Shul) is certainly a progressive Jewish value. I wouldn't say that the use of musical instruments is itself a value, but I think a larger conception of Shabbat (into which musical instruments fit as one piece) is a value for many people.

  5. You made a few assumptions about our thoughts and policies at Beyond Teshuva and I thought it would be helpful to clarify where we are actually holding. Firstly, we sent the email hoping that you might understand our position and accept our apologies for an action which we don't like to do.

    As you correctly pointed out, we allow commentors and contributors to discuss non-halachic experiences they have had. In fact we have taken a lot of heat for providing such an open forum discussing the diversity of the Orthodox experience. When we feel the commentor is inviting others to engage in non-halachic practices, we will delete the comment.

    Many BTs consider themselves progressive in that we share your values of understanding, empathy amd inclusion and we pray that we can collectively use those values to bring people closer to G-d and make the world a better place.

  6. BZ, I know you probably disagree, but Mark's explanation that when "we feel the commentor [sic] is inviting others to engage in non-halachic practices, we will delete the comment" actually makes some amount of sense to me. It is clearly because they see KZ as a threat, which is testimony to your efficacy in creating a warm, spiritual, and authentic Jewish community. But I don't think it's unreasonable for someone to delete a comment that they feel threatens their way of life or their way of practicing religion. I would personally rather engage in dialogue about it than delete it, but they don't see their blog as the forum for that kind of dialogue, and I respect that. It would probably get very heated and distract them from their mission, which appears to be to provide a (safe) place for BTs who have chosen Orthodoxy to talk about religion.

    I think comparing deleting a comment on a blog to burning a siddur is unreasonable and unnecessarily inflammatory, not least because of this famous quote:
    "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." —Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821)

  7. I really enjoyed this post Ben! Thank you!

  8. I also want to add that I really enjoyed this post as well. Thanks, BZ!

  9. Hey. I heard about your post on Friday afternoon as I was on my way to Jews in the Woods from our mutual friend Desh, and since then had been dying to get online to actually read what happened.

    I understand both sides. If I were running the blog, I personally wouldn't have deleted it [I never even saw your post!] but I'm of a more liberal persuasion.

    What it comes down to is that there are 2 types of Orthodox Jews- the kind that want all Jews to become Orthodox and the kind that accept that Orthodoxy isn't for everyone, and people have valid reasons not to become Orthodox. I fall in the latter category now [I didn't always] but most people on Beyond BT I would say fall into the former, for whatever reason.

    As such, they feel that it is their duty to prevent other Jews from "being led astray." While I don't think that it is halachically ok to play guitar on Shabbat, and thus would never daven at a place like Kol Zimrah, I certainly don't have a problem with telling someone else about a shul like that. I don't like taking away a person's right to choose. Maybe I am still Reform at heart in that respect.

    Of course, I'm not very representative of Orthodox Judaism. I see myself questioning what I thought were base assumptions, especially concerning women's roles. I don't fit into any Orthodox community, whether it's Modern or Charedi. I think I've become "halachically observant trans-denominational." Which makes me wonder whether or not I should still even be a contributor to Beyond BT, a site meant to help people become Orthodox.

  10. Ben, in your ongoing analysis of pluralism you MUST read Jonathan Sacks's "One People?" While he wants to be a pluralist, he outlines why orthodoxy cannot be pluralist. Its a really well written look at some of the issues involved. check it out!

    PS If BT cannot handle the competition, it just shows how worried they are about their own position.