Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mishenichnas Adar

Mishnah Shekalim 1:1 :

On the 1st of Adar they announce about the shekalim.

Exodus 30:12-16 ("Parshat Shekalim"):

When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment, each shall pay the Eternal a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight--twenty gerahs to the shekel--a half-shekel as an offering to the Eternal. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Eternal's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Eternal's offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Eternal, as expiation for your persons.

We've come a long way since that first extremely regressive tax. Even the proposed national sales tax and the Bush tax are more progressive than the half-shekel. But whatever the details, for over 3000 years we have had an individual obligation to chip in toward the common good.

George Lakoff:

Taxes are an issue of patriotism. Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country?

Patriotic Americans pay their taxes. Taxes maintain the investments we made to build roads, schools and hospitals — we pay our dues to make sure they remain in good repair and available for our use. Taxes support the infrastructure and services that protect us—the military, our police officers, and our firefighters. As a community, we contribute our taxes so that all of us are safe. We pay our taxes because we love our country and want to support it and our fellow Americans — it is an issue of patriotism.

Taxes are our dues — we pay our dues to be Americans and enjoy the benefits of American society. Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens. This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers. Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure. Our dues maintain it.

Today is the 1st of Adar, so I sent in my federal and state tax returns today. Happy Adar, and may we all pay our fair share so that no plague may come upon us.

You heard it here first

First blog post from the new computer:

The National Havurah Committee Summer Institute brochure and registration form are now online! Go register now!!! Everybody's doing it.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part II: Yesodei HaTorah

This is the second in a series that chronicles and analyzes the pluralistic practices of independent Jewish communities.

Part I discussed the two-table system, an approach to kashrut for potluck meals in diverse communities. As suggested in a comment to Part I, Part III will be about prayer. But before we continue with the applied science, we need to build a stronger theoretical framework. Therefore, Part II will lay down some basic axioms for Stage 3 pluralism. If you want to argue with the axioms, comment on this post. Then, Part III and future parts will assume these axioms. "Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism" is a recommended prerequisite to this post.

I reiterate that a pluralistic community can be defined for our purposes as a community that includes multiple sets of beliefs, practices, or identities. Multiple; not necessarily all. Therefore, these ideas apply both to communities that seek to include the full possible range of Jewish identities, limited only by willingness to be part of a community with other Jewish identities (e.g. Hillel, Limmud NY), and to diverse communities that include a narrower subset of the whole (e.g. Kol Zimrah, the Kotel).

Furthermore, nothing in this series should be construed to mean that a "more pluralistic" community (i.e. one that encompasses a larger* set of identities) is inherently better. The only intended value judgment is that (following Rabban Gamliel's requirement of tocho kevaro ("its inside is like its outside"); see Berachot 28a) a community should be honest with itself about the extent of its pluralism. I.e., the community's policies and practices should encompass the same range** of identities as the population that the community seeks to include, no more and no less. Problems occur when a community claims to be inclusive but its practices fail to reflect the full range of its constituency.

*"Larger" is used loosely here. Formally speaking, all nondegenerate sets of possible Jewish identities have the same (infinite) cardinality, like the stars in heaven. There's a reason the mathematicians had to resort to the Hebrew alphabet!

**"Range" should be understood as a multidimensional subspace, not as a chunk of a linear spectrum.

With all that in mind, here are some axioms that define a pluralistic community, with commentary. (Note: The names Reuven and Shimon are chosen as a nod to their use as generic names in rabbinic literature, not to be sexist.)

Community C is a Stage-3 pluralistic community that includes {Reuven, Shimon, ...} iff for all Reuven and Shimon in C:

1) Reuven can participate in the community without being compelled to violate any of his core values, whether explicitly through his own action or inaction, or implicitly by being identified with the community.

Values are a central part of identity, so if Reuven cannot participate in the community in a manner consistent with his values, then the community does not include Reuven's identity.

Assuming tocho kevaro, as above, the second part of this axiom ("or implicitly by being identified with the community") is almost a tautology: the set of values that are so inherent to a given community that anyone who identifies with the community implicitly identifies with those values, defines the scope of the community's pluralism to include only people who hold those values.

"Include" here means include as a full member of the community, not merely as a visitor (or a ger toshav).

Pluralism doesn't mean that everyone should compromise equally; it means that the community should structure itself so that no one has to compromise.

That is, no one has to compromise on core values. But participants in the community should otherwise expect to make some adjustments to their expectations. Innovation and unfamiliarity should not be feared.

2) If Shimon's practices are contrary to Reuven's values, Reuven has no basis to prevent Shimon from carrying out Shimon's own practices, except to the extent that this interferes directly with #1.

If Reuven could require Shimon to follow Reuven's practices, then this would not be a pluralistic community that includes both Reuven and Shimon; Shimon would be merely a guest in Reuven's community. Shimon might be very welcome as a guest as long as he follows Reuven's practices, but that's not pluralism, that's kiruv.

3) Reuven and Shimon are free to discuss and argue their differences, and each is free to call the other one wrong.

Pluralism doesn't mean that we all agree, and doesn't mean that we all think that all of our points of view are equally valid. No "liberal talk radio problem" here. Supporting pluralism, and creating a forum for multiple viewpoints, does not preclude arguing forcefully for one's own viewpoint.

If Reuven and Shimon are part of a community that includes both of them, this provides a more conducive forum for discourse than if Reuven is a guest in Shimon's community or vice versa.


This is all theoretical, so let's look at a simple concrete example to see how these axioms can be translated into reality. Suppose that Reuven does not write on Shabbat, and Shimon writes on Shabbat, and they are both part of the same pluralistic community.

1) The community should not engage in an activity that compels each individual to write on Shabbat, and it goes without saying that the community should not pass an official resolution saying that Jews should (or should not) write on Shabbat. Thus, Reuven can participate in this community without writing on Shabbat.

2) Shimon may write on Shabbat in the context of this community, and Reuven has no basis for claiming that Shimon shouldn't write on Shabbat. If Reuven's idea of a "Shabbat atmosphere" is one in which no one is writing on Shabbat, then Reuven isn't really interested in being in a pluralistic community with Shimon. Not that there's anything wrong with that; see above. And Reuven and Shimon can still get along. But let's call a spade a spade.

3) Now that Reuven and Shimon and Dina and Tamar and Zevulun and Asenat are all in a community together, they can freely discuss why they do what they do. Reuven says that writing is one of the 39 melachot that are forbidden d'oraita, and Shimon says that writing is his method of creative expression that best captures the spirit of Shabbat as a day of rest, and Dina says that creative expression is exactly what should be avoided on Shabbat, and Tamar says that writing isn't about creative expression for her but is a way to jot things down so that they can be remembered later, and Zevulun says that Shabbat is about living in the present and not worrying about what comes later, and Asenat says that Shabbat is about temporarily creating an ideal world davka so that a taste of it can be carried into the rest of the week, and they go back and forth about these questions until they see three stars in the sky, and then they all make havdalah together and live happily ever after. The End.


In Part III, we'll look at communal prayer. What issues do you want to see in Part IV?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Independent minyanim in the MSM

Time magazine reports on independent minyanim:

Zachary Thacher often spends Friday nights at home in his New York City apartment, but not because he's skipping out on Sabbath-eve prayer services. Thacher, 32, is the founder of Kol haKfar, an independent Jewish community that, like a growing number of similar groups around the country, meets in the homes of community participants. Thacher says he started his group--which now has a Friday-eve attendance of about 25--because "having a meaningful, personal service just didn't seem possible in the harsh lighting and monotonous, institutional vibe of a synagogue."

Like Kol haKfar, many of the new communities thriving in cities across the U.S. are run by volunteers--with a healthy representation in their 20s and 30s--and offer religious services organized almost exclusively by e-mail. The groups tend to avoid denominational classification. At Kol haKfar, for instance, some participants use Orthodox prayer books while others follow along using more liberal Reconstructionist texts.

"Throughout our history, Jewish communities were transient, so the tradition evolved to be portable and easy to take on the road," says Joelle Novey, 26, who founded Tikkun Leil Shabbat, which started meeting every other week in Washington apartments this past summer. "It's the people who gather for a holy purpose who create the sanctuary, not the building," she says. Just as the new minyanim--prayer communities--don't require a specific type of physical structure, they are also open to holding services without rabbis. "Laypeople can lead the service, read from the Torah, give a sermon and take on any of the service's traditional roles," Novey says.

Some veteran Jewish leaders draw inspiration from the new groups. "They're a reminder that we need to welcome unconventional approaches to Jewish life," says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a co-founder of the New Shul, a progressive Manhattan congregation, occasionally leads outdoor prayer sessions. "Who wants to sit against hard-backed pews?" says Goldstein. "I'd much rather sit up against a tree."

Yasher koach to Kol HaKfar and Tikkun Leil Shabbat! I talked to the reporter on the phone for a long time, but Kol Zimrah didn't make it into the article. But it was a very short article, and KZ doesn't have services in apartments, so we didn't qualify for the first tier.

The Reform movement has now broken its long public silence on independent minyanim, but I'm not sure what this brief quote means.

Friday, February 24, 2006

I once was lost, but now am found

An announcement from our friends at Keshet:

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is meeting March 7-8 to discuss the Conservative Movement's stance on homosexuality.

In preparation, Keshet invites all JTS students, faculty, and staff to:

Lost (and Found?)
a candid talk with the
affected by our policies

Gabriel Blau
Jarah Greenfield
Kate O'Brien

Wednesday March 1, 12:15-1:15
Beit Midrash

Gabriel Blau is an author, educator, and founder of God and Sexuality: an Academic Conference on Religion and Issues of Sexuality and Gender at Bard College.

Jarah Greenfield is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who could not apply to JTS because of the policy prohibiting lesbian and gay ordination. She serves on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights, and has studied at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.

Kate O'Brien attended the JTS Rabbinical School from 2001-2004 before being forced to leave due to the policy prohibiting lesbian and gay ordination. She is currently studying for masters’ degrees in Jewish Education and Bible at JTS and serves as director of Alma NY, a new progressive learning community.

This Wednesday, at JTS. All are invited!

Background: the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is the Conservative movement's version of the College of Cardinals, but not as transparent. Demonstrating its commitment to halachic innovation, the CJLS has created the new halachic category of "homosexual" out of whole cloth. In the spirit of the rabbis who extended the Torah's "Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk" to prohibit eating, cooking, and deriving benefit from any mixture of meat and milk, the CJLS has taken an opaque biblical verse that chaza"l understood as banning a specific sex act between two men, and extended it to exclude anyone of either sex who identifies as "gay" or "lesbian" (with no actions necessary) from various communal roles. This is the part where Moses shows up to Rabbi Akiva's classroom and says "What are you thinking???"

Even when the CJLS is at its most inclusive, it says "We emphatically recognize the human dignity (k'vod habriut [sic]) of all such individuals, and invite them to participate within our religious communities." (Who is "we"? Who is "them"? Whose religious communities?)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part I: The Two-Table System

Grassroots independent Jewish communities have been developing new practices to address new communal realities, and Ilana suggests that minhagim like the two-table system have become so ingrained (within a particular oilam, which is just "milieu" pronounced phonetically backwards) that they have attained the status of halacha.

The two-table system is an approach to kashrut for independent Jewish communities, and can be extended as an approach to other issues in communities that are striving for Stage 3. (To stave off the inevitable criticism that Kol Zimrah, the NHC, etc., aren't pluralistic because they don't include everyone, I assert that a community can be pluralistic within a limited range of Jewish practice and identity even if it doesn't encompass the full possible range. For example, the Kotel is in some ways a pluralistic davening space. Certainly egalitarian davening is unwelcome there, but it is a place where Ashkenazi and Sephardi men can pray side by side according to their respective practices.)

Two approaches to communal decision-making have existed in the past: authoritarian (a rabbi or other authority makes the decision for the community) and democratic (the people in the community make a decision, by vote or consensus). Neither of these approaches are appropriate for today's grassroots communities, for several reasons:

1) We have no "rabbis". (We have individuals with semicha, but no one serving in a rabbinic capacity.) The community does not defer to an external authority.
2) We don't agree on ideology. Unlike the institutional movements (which have ideologies that everyone at least pays lip service to, even if not everyone follows those ideologies in their personal lives), the independent minyanim form communities that are brought together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities. (One could argue that the movements, too, are held together more by sociological and aesthetic commonalities, but the leaders of the movements don't argue that, and therefore their policies don't reflect this.)
3) Therefore, there is an incredibly wide range of ideology and practice brought together in a single community. And since the community doesn't affiliate with a movement that has a particular statement of belief, there is no metric to determine which practices are more in line with the "correct" ideology.
4) We're secure enough in our own practices that we're not afraid to coexist with people who have other practices.
5) For better or for worse, we want immediate gratification. This is the Internet generation, which never extends Shabbat invitations before Wednesday. The time it would take for the community to hammer out a policy that satisfies everyone would be wasted time when we could be doing something more productive.

Therefore, instead of having a process (however democratic or authoritarian) for making decisions about Jewish practice, we find ways of avoiding making those decisions at the communal level, while creating an atmosphere that respects everyone's individual decisions.

Hence, Kol Zimrah has adopted the two-table system for potluck dinners (when we have control over the space and we're not meeting in a building which has a kashrut policy of its own; because of other practical issues, this means that we rarely get to implement the two-table system these days). Here's the way it's worded in the email:

KASHRUT: Kol Zimrah acknowledges the diversity of kashrut practices in our community, and in order to ensure that everyone can contribute and everyone can eat, it is requested that all food adhere to ONE of the following two standards:
1) Vegetarian, with only vegetarian ingredients. (Fish with fins and scales is also ok as long as it is labeled or self-evident.)
2) Still vegetarian (plus fish, as above), and all ingredients are marked with a recognized kosher symbol (more than just "K"), cooked (if applicable) in a kosher kitchen that uses only hechshered products.

There will be a separate buffet table for each category, so that everyone can be fully informed. Feel free to email if you have any questions.

(Bonus points to anyone who can identify where this minhag began. We borrowed it from the DC independent scene, but we don't know if it started there or elsewhere.)

So let's look more carefully at the two-table system:

Ok, yes, it does assume a cultural milieu in which it's acceptable to make every meal vegetarian (with the occasional lox or tuna). To mix a metaphor, meat is a tougher nut to crack. But let's assume that milieu for now.

If the whole world were table 1, then people who had specific requirements regarding hechshers or utensils wouldn't be able to eat. And if the whole world were table 2, then people whose kitchens did not meet this standard wouldn't be able to cook, and would feel like less-than-full members of the community. And if the community were to work out some compromise between tables 1 and 2 (everything must have a hechsher except cheese, etc.), then (a) lots of time would be spent hammering this out, and (b) at the end of the day, some people still wouldn't be able to eat, and some people still wouldn't be able to cook.

The two-table system, which captures the two "extremes" (within a setting where everyone is ok eating vegetarian and no one is making distinctions about which hechsher they trust), makes it possible for everyone to eat and for everyone to cook, without anyone compromising. "But wait!" you say. "I don't fit into either of those categories. My kitchen uses only hechshered food, except for cheese, and I eat only hechshered food, except for cheese." Fabulous! Cook something and put it on table 1, and then eat from table 2. And people like me (whose kitchens use only hechshered food, but who eat non-hechshered vegetarian food) can cook for table 2 and eat from table 1.

This doesn't produce divisions in the community, because this division is only for the buffet tables, not for the tables that people are sitting at. Nobody really pays attention to where other people are taking their food from.

Of equal importance to the two-table policy itself is the language and framing. It is very intentional that one table is called "vegetarian" and the other is called "vegetarian with a hechsher". Neither table is called "kosher" (implying that the other table isn't kosher). To some people, everything at both tables is kosher (since there is no meat from non-kosher animals, no milk and meat together, and no meat from animals that were not properly slaughtered). To other people, it is important to have a printed guarantee on the package that this is the case. But no one should be put into the trap of saying "I don't keep kosher" because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don't believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don't keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.

This post is Part I, and other examples will be featured in a future post. Assignment: What other pluralistic practices of independent Jewish communities belong in Part II?

UPDATE: Judith Hellerstein of Washington DC sends in this history:

I believe I have the answer to your question of the two tables. Several years ago, Eric Gurevitz, who was then the Mayor of Van Ness, (an area in DC where lots of traditional/egalitarian/pluralistic jews live, created this system so that everyone who came to Van Ness Minyan could participate.

His goal was to set a higher standard than the present Adas Israel Kashrut standards and so created a system where everyone could feel comfortable, the people who ate strictly Kosher, and the ones that did not. Prior to this, peopel who kept strictly kosher would only eat their food or the food cooked by someone they knew to be Kosher.

The 2 table set up was also done in an effort to get more people to bring main courses and salads without having to rely solely on the people in the community who kept kosher to provide all the food.

It also gave other people the opportunity to host potlucks. This would relieve Eric of the task of finding people a place for shabbat dinner. At that time he had started a volunteer effort to make sure anyone who wanted a place for shabbat had one.The 2 table system succeeded and then grew to other groups as people associated with Van Ness Minyan began spreading the idea.

Many of the people who started Tikkun Leil Shabbat had been regulars at Van Ness events and they continued to improve on the concept.

I believe this was the genesis of the two table set up in use today.

(Present Van Ness Mayor and Head of the Ruach Minyan)

She also writes:

The only addition I have is that Eric told me that Jonathan Levine had helped him create the Two tables standard that Van Ness uses and that others have adopted.. I had not known that when I wrote my response and thus did not give him the credit he deserved.

Redemption song

I'm still learning Megillah (chapter 2) and Makkot (chapter 2) with my respective chavrevata, though I've realized that there just isn't enough time to continue live-blogging them on a weekly basis.

This week in Megillah there was a cool sugya (pericope) on 17b-18a, where it goes through all 18 (or 19; the extra one is hinted at) blessings of the weekday Amidah and provides prooftexts (or logical arguments) for why they're in the order that they're in. (We saw the beginning of this on Rosh Hashanah 32a, but that was just the first three blessings.)

Ge'ulah (redemption) appears in the 7th spot, because the future redemption (specifically, the war at the end of which Mashiach ben David emerges victorious; see Sanhedrin 97a) will occur in the 7th (sabbatical) year.

We had a chiddush (novella) about this (unless someone else already came up with it): according to rabbinic tradition, the redemption will occur not only in the 7th year, but also in the 7th month (Tishrei). That's according to Rabbi Eliezer. But according to Rabbi Yehoshua, it will be in the 1st month (Nisan). (See Rosh Hashanah 10b for their controversy.) Therefore, our liturgy embraces both positions: we have ge'ulah as both the 7th blessing of the Amidah (go'eil Yisraeil), supporting R. Eliezer, and affixed to the 1st blessing of the Amidah (ga'al Yisraeil, and ha-someich ge'ulah litfilah and all that, it should be connected without interruption), supporting R. Yehoshua.

If you want, say that it is all according to R. Yehoshua: ge'ulah attached to the 1st blessing refers to the past and future redemption in the 1st month, and ge'ulah in the 7th blessing refers to the future redemption in the 7th year.

If you want, say that it is all according to R. Eliezer: ge'ulah attached to the 1st blessing refers to the past redemption in the 1st month, and ge'ulah in the 7th blessing refers to the future redemption in the 7th month (and year). Dika namei (the language is also precise): ga'al (attached to the 1st blessing) is in past tense, and go'eil (in the 7th blessing) is in present tense.

It was an angry mob of hipsters

The Mob Project was one of the highlights of summer 2003, along with the rebirth of hope provided by the Dean campaign (which had much in common with the Mob Project; sadly, in the end, too much). I was at MOB #3, MOB #4, MOB #5, MOB #7, and the final MOB #8.

Almost three years later, "Bill", the semi-anonymous inventor of flash mobs, has revealed his identity as Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine. In the March 2006 issue of Harper's, Bill tells the story behind the Mob Project. (The full article is in the print edition, and it is being serialized on the web.) Turns out we were all subjects in an experiment.

The basic hypothesis behind the Mob Project was as follows: seeing how all culture in New York was demonstrably commingled with scenesterism, the appeal of concerts and plays and readings and gallery shows deriving less from the work itself than from the social opportunities the work might engender, it should theoretically be possible to create an art project consisting of pure scene—meaning the scene would be the entire point of the work, and indeed would itself constitute the work.

Read more!

UPDATE: Where can I get a print copy of Harper's around here? The regular newsstands don't carry it (regardless of what they claim), and we don't have uber-newsstands.

UPDATE 2: I found one at Grand Central, and I recommend reading the full article. In addition to a schema of hipster celebrities and a discussion of Stanley Milgram as a performance artist, there is explicit mention of the Dean comparison (yes, I knew I was neither the first nor the last). But I think Wasik goes too far with the analogy. The Dean campaign was conducted with methods similar to flash mobs, and was short-lived like flashmobs, but the analogy should end there. To attribute the Dean campaign's rise and fall purely to internal factors, without reference to the broader political context, is to ignore key parts of the tragic story.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Attention all New York City teachers:

Did you ever dream of becoming fabulously wealthy from that masters-plus-30-credits salary differential, but decide that it just wasn't worth taking classes after school for several hours a week for years and years? Bring back the dream! Last week I learned that the Department of Education accepts credits from CLEP tests. You can take them in any subject you want, and some of them are 6 credits each, so that's just 5 tests and you're there!

I took the Social Science test today and found out instantly that I passed, so I'm 20% of the way to joining the haves. I'm not allowed to reveal any of the questions, but it's stuff that any educated person should know without any special preparation.

I thought I was done with standardized tests when I passed the ATS-W, but it just keeps going. But that's ok. I was good at answering multiple-choice questions. The rest of life is sometimes more challenging.

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.

Monday, February 13, 2006

To the victor go the spoilers

What adolescent trauma has made Professor Snape so bitter at the world, and particularly at Harry Potter? The answer to this and many other questions can be found in Joel Henry Hollander's Harry Potter and the Ultimate Spoiler. No, Hollander (the father of an old friend of mine) does not have any inside information from J.K. Rowling about the content of the 7th and last Harry Potter book; he has produced this 91-page document through an incredibly close reading of the six books. It will shock and amaze you.

Tree tree tree, tree tree tree

I was listening to NPR during the eight crazy nights, and they interviewed a rabbi about all the different ways to spell Chanukah / Hanukkah / Hannuka / etc. He had his own preferred spelling (chet nun vav kaf hey), and his congregation had set an official one so that they could be consistent (Chanukkah), but when you get down to it, all the spellings are valid and it's just a question of personal preference.

The same is not true for the New Year of the Trees, which was observed last night and today. "Tu Bishvat" is correct (even though it's only #4 on Google), and the more popular "Tu B'Shevat" and "Tu B'Shvat" are WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Here's how it works:
The name of the 11th month is Sh'vat or Shevat. There is a sheva under the first letter, and it's a sheva na (vocal sheva) because a sheva under the first letter is always na (if SHF reads this, she may disagree about shtayim, but that's just an exception that probes the rule). The name of the month is prefixed with the preposition b' or be -- that's the letter bet with another sheva. Hence, many think that the result is "B'Shevat" or some such. BUT there is a rule that a word may not begin with two shevas. Thus the preposition becomes bi -- the sheva is lengthened to a chirik (that's the vowel that's just one dot under the letter). The sheva under the shin becomes nach (quiescent), since it's no longer at the beginning of a word; now it's just at the end of a closed syllable (bish).

Let's stop this phonological scourge by boycotting all "Tu B'Shevat" seders! Think globally, act locally!

For those who are interested, here are the Google rankings. Note that Google treats apostrophes, spaces, and hyphens as identical. These rankings are incomplete; feel free to contribute more possible spellings. All searches below are in quotes.

  1. tu b'shevat 318,000
  2. tu b'shvat 196,000
  3. tu beshvat 87,000
  4. tu bishvat 83,300
  5. tubshvat 54,100 [this one, and #8, showed up mostly in URLs]
  6. tu bisvat 21,100
  7. tou bichvat 18,600
  8. tubishvat 11,500
  9. tu bish'vat 2500
  10. tu bshvat 1110
  11. tu bishevat 792
  12. tu bi'shevat 786
  13. jewish arbor day 784
  14. tu bischwat 663
  15. tubeshvat 604
  16. tu bshevat 588
  17. tu bi'shvat 503
  18. tu beshevat 478
  19. tu be'shvat 382
  20. tu b'sh'vat 332
  21. tu be'shevat 175
  22. tu bishbat 174
  23. tu b'shebat 44
  24. tubeshevat 41
  25. tu beshbat 28
  26. tube'shvat 28
  27. tubi'shvat 22
  28. tubi'shevat 19
  29. too bishvat 7
  30. tou b'chvat 7
  31. too beshvat 5
  32. too bshvat 4
  33. tu besh'vat 4
  34. too b'shvat 1 [Googlewhack!]

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Total Eclipse of the Tetragrammaton

The Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat is serious, not just wacky contrafactum. But, as Kohelet said, there is a time for serious and a time for wacky contrafactum. And the latter time is coming up soon! Sort of. I mean, it's almost Tu Bishvat, which means it will be only a month until Purim, and some of us are planning well ahead.

This will be my sixth straight year leading Purim maariv, and my fourth straight year leading it in the same place. Since many of the same people are in the same church basement year after year, I need new material each time to keep it fresh. I see maariv as the opening act for the megillah reading, which is (at its best) a work of comedic theater. So maariv should get the crowd fired up and in a wacky mood, ready for some comic inversion. This is accomplished mainly through two types of musical devices (neither of which I can claim any credit for):

1) Dissonant nusach. For example, I often use the High Holiday maariv tune for Barechu, the High Holiday Torah service for the first line of Shema, yom tov maariv for the last line of Shema, High Holiday musaf for the first four words of Chatzi kaddish (before segueing into an unrelated song, see below), and a kaddish shaleim that combines Shabbat mincha, Shabbat musaf, yom tov musaf, High Holiday shacharit, and Debbie Friedman's Oseh Shalom.

2) Setting prayers to secular melodies. Yes, I often set prayers to secular melodies when it isn't Purim, and the two endeavors should in no way be confused. To avoid this confusion, I will not use any secular melody on Purim that I would use for serious davening during the rest of the year, lest people think that the use of these melodies during the year is nothing more than Purim silliness. Thus, all of Automatic for the People is off limits (I've set it to kabbalat shabbat), as are "Redemption Song" (Mi Chamocha), "Scarborough Fair" (havdalah), "Down in the River to Pray" (Psalm 136 or chatzi kaddish), and Leonard Cohen's "Halleluyah" (Psalm 146). [I don't take credit for all of those!] (Then there are the lesser-known melodies that I've used in non-Purim davening not because I thought anyone would recognize them, but just because they're good tunes: we used Phish's "Dirt" for I think Hashkiveinu at Kol Zimrah, and R.E.M.'s "Swan Swan H" as a wordless niggun. I've also used Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' "True North" at the end of pesukei d'zimrah on Shabbat, but it fits so seamlessly with the nusach that I'm not sure anyone noticed that it was anything other than embellishment of the nusach.)

So the melodies used on Purim have to be of a completely different sort. Past selections have included "Basket Case", "Blame Canada", "Blowing in the Wind", "Circle of Life" (from The Lion King), "Friend of the Devil", "Hey Jude", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Lean on Me", "Like a Prayer", the Looney Tunes theme, "Rubber Duckie", "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Stand" (R.E.M.), The Brady Brunch theme, "The Sound of Silence", "Total Eclipse of the Heart", "Uf Gozal", "What a Wonderful World", and "Yellow Submarine".

What are the selection criteria? The song should be well-known to an American Jewish crowd mainly born between 1970 and 1984, and should be easily recognizable from the melody alone without instrumental accompaniment, and should ideally be either dissonant with prayer or somehow ridiculous or over-the-top or all of the above. Bonus points if I get to impersonate Louis Armstrong or Madonna or Bob Dylan or equivalent. In other words, all the criteria that make a good karaoke song.

And yes, secular Israeli songs are filed under secular (with "Yellow Submarine"), not sacred (with Automatic for the People). The fact that the original lyrics were in Hebrew does not change how goofy the song is. And please keep "Erev Shel Shoshanim" out of the kedushah. Thanks much.

So the reason I'm posting all of this now, over a month before Purim, is because I'm starting to work on this year's madness, and I thought the blogosphere would have some good suggestions for new songs to use. I have a few new ones lined up already (and no, I'm not telling! Wait until Purim to find out), and a small number of crowd favorites will return, but otherwise the floor is open. The selection criteria have been spelled out; now get to it! Thanks in advance!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Voting: not just for Canadians

Thanks to everyone who voted in the first round of the Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards! With your support, Mah Rabu has advanced to the finals in all three categories for which it was nominated: Best Jewish Religion Blog, Best Post, and Best New Blog 2005. You can vote once every three days, from now until February 2. For those of you just joining us, here are some Mah Rabu highlights from 2005.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Regime change begins at home

The highlight of Bush's Speech from the Throne was when he outlined the Democratic domestic agenda for 2006:

Ultimately, the only way to defeat the [...] is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So the United States of America supports democratic reform [...].
Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, protection of minorities and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.

That and the human-animal hybrids.

The right wing tips its hand

Priceless quote from the Associated Press:

''They are treating people here like Arabs,'' said legislator Arieh Eldad in a telephone interview from the scene with Israel Radio.