Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Take me to the round church, where echoes resound and my spirit is found

Several weeks ago, ZT wrote a post about different seating configurations for prayer, which may seem too "inside baseball" for those who aren't independent minyan entrepreneurs and thinking about this stuff all the time, but I'm going to write about it anyway because, well, it wouldn't be the first time.

ZT contrasts two approaches, the Single Direction Approach and the Circle Approach (which includes Concentric Circles), and states the pros and cons of each one. Let's look at the various options and sub-options, and first whittle away the unacceptable ones.

First of all, for the reasons that ZT states, the single circle (with all participants around the periphery of the room, facing inward) is voted off the island. The giant acoustic void in the middle of the room makes it dead in the water. Concentric circles are still ok, because the innermost circle can be made arbitrarily small, eliminating the dead space in the middle, and achieving almost the same population density as the Single Direction Approach. Yes, aisles are necessary, but this isn't so hard to do; Kol Zimrah often has three or more.

Next, within the Single Direction Approach, we'll eliminate any sub-options where the leader is in the front of the room. There are two sub-sub-options if the leader is in the front: (1) the leader is facing the congregation, and (2) the leader is facing forward. (1) is unacceptable because it sets the leader apart from the rest of the community, and suggests a top-down style of leadership. The leader should be a member of the community, facilitating the others in prayer. (2) is unacceptable because it makes the leader unable to see the community, and it is harder to facilitate a community in prayer if you can't get any visual feedback from them. As ZT says, the leader is literally talking to a wall. However, a much more palatable option is when the leader is at the center of the room, as at Hadar or in Sephardi synagogues.

To review so far:
  • I. Single Direction Approach
    • A. Leader in front
      • 1. Leader facing forward
      • 2. Leader facing the congregation
    • B. Leader in the center
  • II. Circle Approach
    • A. Single circle
    • B. Concentric circles
So there are two viable sub-options. They both have pros and cons, but overall I prefer concentric circles, but not for the same reasons that ZT suggests. He says:
The Circle Approach proponents i daven with tend to talk about it in terms of emphasizing the value of the community and valuing the connections within the community. It demonstrates a caring about who is in the room and who is praying with whom.
In contrast, a commenter says of the Single Direction Approach that "the common direction gives a feeling of unification of purpose."

I think these philosophical approaches are nice, but secondary. I would focus first on the practical aspects, and if they're done right, then the rest will follow. If the configuration allows for spirited davening, then there can be a feeling of unification of purpose even in the Circle Approach, and there can be a sense of connected community even in the Single Direction Approach.

Philosophically, I'm with those who want a unification of purpose (I think prayer should be primarily about that purpose and not about connections with other people; the connections with the other people are a powerful means of achieving that purpose, not the other way around), but practically, I'm with the (concentric) Circle Approach, and here's why:

1) Being able to see the other people in the community is at best a mixed blessing, and can (as ZT suggested) feel intrusive. However, I think being able to hear the other people is very important, and assuming that we project our voices forward, the Circle Approach allows everyone to hear and everyone to be heard. In the Single Direction Approach, there are people in the back who can't hear others (except their echoes) and people in the front who are talking to a wall. In the Circle Approach, everyone can hear lots of other people.

2) As a frequent sheliach tzibbur, it is important for me to be able to see the community so that I can gauge their mood at each moment and be most effective in facilitating the community's prayer. This is somewhat possible in the Single Direction Approach with the leader at the center, but is more limited.

3) It's easier for the leader to feel like a member of the community this way. One of my best experiences as a sheliach tzibbur was last November at TLS/DCRC. We were in concentric circles, and the size of the crowd relative to the size of the room necessitated maximum chair density, so the innermost circle (where General Anna and I, as shelichei tzibbur, sat) was very small, like 6 people or so. We didn't feel like we were broadcasting into the void (as I sometimes feel when leading in a variety of different seating configurations), because this inner circle reflected everything right back, creating a resonant chamber (like the sound box of a guitar). After each prayer started, I didn't feel like I had to be "leading"; I could just jam. The intensity developed within this inner circle spread to the rest of the room. In JGN's lingo, we were a "circle facing outward", even if we were physically facing inward.

Some odds and ends:

Based on this approach, I don't think there's a contradiction (as ZT suggests) in sitting in a circle for most of the service but facing east for Barechu, Amidah, or other things. If the reasons for sitting in circles are practical rather than philosophical, then there may be times in the service when the philosophical value of a unified purpose may outweigh the practical value of sitting in circles, and the formal call to worship may be one of these. And for the Amidah or other parts that are said individually, none of the practical pro-circle arguments apply. That said, there's no good reason to face east for, say, Psalm 29, just because people happen to be standing.

Another commenter on ZT's post says:
An alternate approach to a circle, concentric circles, and everyone facing one direction is to put people in rows that are curved. That fosters the sense of community and closeness that a single circle does, and it allows for the group to face a single direction and unite in space and purpose. I love it because there is no way for someone to be at an edge or on the periphery of the communal prayer experience.
The problem with this approach is that there's no good place to put the leader. The options are:

1) The leader is at the end of the front (inner) row/arc. Then the leader does indeed feel like s/he is on the periphery, especially since other participants tend to avoid sitting near the leader (which I'll discuss in the next post).

2) The leader is at the center of the front row. Then the leader is facing the front wall and can't see the community so well, and we run into the same problem as I.A.1 above.

3) The leader is at the center of curvature (the place where the center of the circle would be if the circle went all the way around), facing the community. Then the leader is set apart from the rest of the community, and we run into the same problem is I.A.2 above.

4) I suppose the leader could be in one of the rows other than the inner arc, but this could still be awkward for a combination of reasons.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

My soul hates your new moons and your seasons

I have a confession.

You know those people whose practice is not Orthodox by any standard, but who know deep down that Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism? (Call them "Israeli", or "Sephardi", or "Chabad donors", or whatever label you like.) I'm realizing that I'm the opposite. My Jewish practice may appear to 99% of the world (for these examples, let's say my non-Jewish co-workers) to be ritually stringent -- I take days off for holidays no one has heard of, I hurry home on Friday afternoons to go pray, I never eat meat out -- but deep down, I know that it all really boils down to ethical monotheism, and Classical Reform basically had it right.

Let me be clear: Classical Reform explicitly repudiated a number of religious practices, on the individual and communal levels, that I uphold, and that I intend to continue to uphold. My personal practices would have David Einhorn spinning in his grave. However, I make a distinction between my values (by which I make decisions about my own actions) and my meta-values (by which I coexist with people operating under value systems that differ from mine). (Of course it would be more convenient if everyone agreed with me, but I have to live in the real world.) While my own values and practices may not be in line with Classical Reform, the metric by which I assess others' values and practices is.

I don't eat shrimp, and I don't observe the 2nd day of Shavuot, and I have solid reasons for both of these practices, and consider these practices to be obligatory (for me). I know Jews who eat shrimp and/or observe the 2nd day of Shavuot, and I still consider them to be good people and good Jews. I can disagree with them insofar as we have basic tenets in common, but if their practice comes from a different set of axioms, I can't make a universal claim that their practice is wrong.

In contrast, I will make the claim that a Jew (or a non-Jew) who steals or murders or furthers economic injustice is wrong. If they have a value system that permits these things, then I think their value system is wrong.

Thus, like the Pittsburgh Platform (and like the Mishnah, but more strongly), I make a sharp distinction between mitzvot bein adam lamakom (commandments between humans and The Place) and mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro (commandments between humans and their fellow humans). And I don't really make such a distinction between Jews and non-Jews. That is, I consider people (Jews or non-Jews) to be obligated by mitzvot bein adam lamakom only to the extent that they consider themselves obligated (in whatever value system they're using), and I consider all people (Jews and non-Jews) to be obligated by mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro regardless of whether they think so. "There will be one Torah and one law for you and for the stranger who lives with you." --Numbers 15:16

The Pittsburgh Platform (founding document of American "Classical Reform", adopted in 1885) often gets a bad rap, especially from people like me. But, to be fair, a lot of stuff in there is pretty good. For the rest of this post, I'm going to go through the Pittsburgh Platform section by section and comment on it. These comments will be primarily on the text itself, and not on the implementation. The Reform movement's implementation has had some problems; as Gates of Prayer itself admits on page 324, "Our failings are many -- our faults are great." But I'm not going to focus on the failings of Classical Reform in execution; beating a dead horse is considered rude. In a later post, I'll write about how the contemporary Reform movement fails to live up to its own ideals (which, on paper, are swell).

1. We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and in every mode, source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man.

So right off the bat, God is described as both transcendent ("the Infinite") and immanent ("the indwelling of God in [hu]man[kind]"), and there is a hint here (which I'm surprised isn't more than a hint) of exclusive monotheism -- all religions are experiencing the same God, even though the language is different.

We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages.

Judaism's conception of the God-idea (God is One, we are created in God's image, etc.) is pretty cool. But is it "the highest" (holy brothers and sisters, mamash gevalt)? I don't think I've studied other religions enough to make that claim, nor do I think there's a point in trying to pick a winner. But it's good enough for me to stick with.

Mordecai Kaplan devotes Chapter IX of Judaism as a Civilization (which, apparently, no one reads anymore -- there are no Google hits for "Religious-Culturist" or "Secular-Culturist" outside of Mah Rabu) to a "Critique of the Reformist Version of Judaism". (He insists on "Reformist" for grammatical reasons, because "Reform" as an adjective is only correct in the original German. In a footnote he says "The term 'Progressive Judaism' would have been a more exact equivalent of 'Reform Judentum.' 'Liberal Judaism,' if not a happier designation, is at least good English.") Don't worry - "Neo-Orthodoxy" gets its own critique too. (Kaplan doesn't recognize Conservative Judaism as a coherent religious philosophy in its own right; he says that those who identify as "Conservative" are basically either Reformist or Neo-Orthodox. Plus ca change.)

Some of Kaplan's critiques are dead-on, but are more directed at the implementation of 1930s (and earlier) Reform Judaism than at the concept. But he also addresses the statement in the Pittsburgh Platform under discussion:

Reformism admits that the God-idea, as taught in Scripture, has always been "developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages." If this be true, then it was not always the Jews who evolved the most spiritual conception of God. On the contrary, they found it necessary to bring their traditional teachings in line with the moral and philosophical progress achieved by others. Such progress, according to the Reformist way of thinking, necessarily involves a better understanding of what God means and a deeper insight into his [sic] nature. The conclusion is therefore inescapable that there were frequent periods in the history of the God-idea when the Jews had to learn from the Gentiles.

So yeah, I'm not into the Jewish superiority part. But I'm still into the Jewish "God-idea".

We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.
This is an important point. On the surface it sounds like the opening sentence of a Federation appeal, until you realize that the thing that has been kept alive for all these centuries through all these tribulations, and is implied to be worth preserving, is not "the Jewish people" or "Jewish identity" or "Jewish continuity" or even "Judaism", but the "central religious truth" of monotheism. Jews are a vehicle for preserving the essence of Judaism; Judaism is not a vehicle for making Jewish babies.

2. We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God, and value it as the most potent instrument of religious and moral instruction. We hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age, and at times clothing its conception of divine Providence and Justice dealing with men in miraculous narratives.
I would expand this beyond the Bible to include rabbinic and later Jewish "instruments of religious and moral instruction" (up to the present), but I agree with everything here. Here they say that the science-vs-religion debate doesn't have to be a debate: obviously, the classic works were wrong about a few things (including, I would add, some things outside the "domain of nature and history" and more in the domain of "religious and moral instruction"), but the big picture is strong enough that dismissing these things doesn't invalidate it. They also foreshadow the Slifkin affair.
3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.

4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
These sections may be the most frequently quoted parts of the Pittsburgh Platform. ("only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify" has 71 Google hits, and "diet, priestly purity, and dress" has 105. In contrast, "highest conception of the God-idea" has 34, and "contrasts and evils of the present organization of society" has 36.) It's not surprising; it's human nature to focus on the elements that more people disagree about. These sections are quoted by contemporary Reform Jews explaining how the movement has changed, and they play a central role in the Conservative creation myth.

But even though I'm one of those contemporary Reform Jews (albeit an expatriate one) who disagrees with these sections, I'm going to be fair and say that I only half-disagree. These sections can be restated as a syllogism:

Major premise: If X does not "elevate and sanctify our lives" and "is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation", then X should be rejected.
Minor premise: "Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress" do not "elevate and sanctify our lives" and "their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation".
Conclusion: "Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress" should be rejected.

So I agree with the major premise, and merely disagree with the minor premise (and therefore with the conclusion). I agree that "ceremonies" have value if and only if they inspire us to be better people (whereas following "moral laws" ipso facto makes us better people). However, I think that some of the practices that Classical Reform rejected do in fact qualify under this test, and are therefore worth keeping around (and evolving). I won't say that they were wrong about what their "present mental and spiritual state" was in 1885; they would know that better than I would. But times have changed. In 1885, they faced a choice between maintaining particularistic Jewish practices and being full members of American society. In 2006, now that the melting pot has given way to the salad bowl, we can do both without contradiction. And before we trash the Classical Reformers for making the choice that they did, we should thank them for making our lifestyle possible. They did what they had to do to become fully American, and as mainstream American society expanded to include Jews, it became more multicultural, so that we no longer have to make the same choices.

I wish Classical Reform had been more self-reflective, and, over time, applied its methodology to itself. For me, "They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation" is an excellent description of prayer services with responsive readings and choirs. If Classical Reform still took itself seriously, then these elements would be axed in favor of practices more in line with "the views and habits of modern civilization". Instead, Classical Reform has become a small-o orthodoxy, maintaining its practices for the sake of tradition. For this reason, people have their directions all wrong when they label proponents of kashrut, Hebrew, etc. (such as myself), as the "right wing" of Reform. The "right wing" is those who hold onto antiquated practices (organ music, sexism, whatever) because that's the way we've done it, while the "left wing" is those who recognize the necessity of evolving and adapting to changing circumstances.

So anyway, even if the implementation went bad, I agree with the major premise that ritual practices cannot be seen as ends in themselves and must serve a greater goal, and should be rejected if they obstruct that goal. This position should not be mistaken for the straw-man position that each individual should be determining his/her own practice in a vacuum (rather, the way that ritual practices can "elevate and sanctify our lives" is often in the context of a community), or for the straw-man position that individuals/communities should determine their practice by picking and choosing individual practices from a list (rather, these practices can better "further modern spiritual elevation" when they are part of a coherent system, whatever that system is). I'm not actually making any claims here about the process by which it should be determined which practices are to be observed and how, but only about a goal that should be kept in mind during that process.
5. We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
Ok, here's one where they messed up. In my Tisha B'Av post last year, I pointed out that they were far too optimistic about how close we are to "the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace". (They weren't alone. Physicists of that time also thought they were almost done discovering the physical laws of the universe.) It's going to take longer than we initially thought.

As Kaplan points out in his critique, both the paradigms of "nation" and "religious community" are too narrow to describe the Jews; I won't belabor this point, since the synthesis has long since killed off the thesis and the antithesis as Kaplan's "civilization" paradigm became mainstream. Nor will I belabor the reasons why "a return to Palestine" turned out to be necessary and a good thing. (I'll cut them some slack, since they were writing before the Dreyfus affair. I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.)

As for "a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron", I think they just didn't get the joke. Of course no one really wants to physically rebuild the Temple and start slaughtering animals in it. But that's not the point. It's a metaphor, which their literalist reading failed to pick up.
6. We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.

Great! No argument there. While the Jews have a mission to redeem the world, this mission is not limited to the Jews.
7. We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness.

This sounds nice, but I have no idea what it means. Maybe it made sense in 1885.

We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.

Oh snap! Not only are these beliefs false, but to add insult to injury, they're "not rooted in Judaism". As I said under #1, (Kaplan and) I think that being rooted in Judaism is neither necessary nor sufficient for a belief to be correct or worthwhile. And the rest of the text of the Pittsburgh Platform seems to suggest that its authors would in general agree, so this zinger may be a bit disingenuous, but it's a point worth making anyway. And I still agree with their rejection of bodily resurrection and of heaven and hell.

Writing about this, I have an uncontrollable urge to sing The Who:
"On top of the sky there's a place where you go if you've done nothing wrong
If you've done nothing wro-o-ong
And down in the ground there's a place where you go if you've been a bad boy
If you've been a bad bo-o-oy
Why can't we have eternal life, and never die?"

And then I realize that this contradicts earlier policy statements in this area: "Hope I die before I get old." Kashya Daltrey a-Daltrey. This also means I should finish this post soon.
8. In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.

Word. This part is the punch line. Just like the Mishneh Torah (its rationalist predecessor), the Pittsburgh Platform begins with the "God-idea" and ends with the establishment of a just society. The purpose of religion is to get from one to the other. The Pittsburgh Platform and the Mishneh Torah don't agree on much in between, and what I would put in between differs from both. But I respect our differences about the intermediate steps as long as we agree on the end goal -- both the final goal of a world redeemed and the preliminary objective of preparing ourselves to act toward that goal (whether we accomplish that objective through ritual practice or by other means)

(Kaplan questions how much the Reform movement of his day was actually practicing what it preached. In a scathing endnote, he writes "Committees have been appointed and resolutions drawn up bearing on the strife between capital and labor. The Union Prayer-Book ... contains a trenchant statement on the question to be recited once a year. All these measures are, however, about as potent as whistling at a thundering express train. The frequent appeals for cooperation between workers and employers are mere verbiage. 'Cooperation toward what?' it has been asked. Each has his dominant objective: The employer asks for cooperation toward increased production; the worker toward increased wages. Just what, then, is implied in the appeal to cooperate?" Since then, the Reform movement has gotten better about this, though no one should stop where they are.)

In conclusion, let's keep working towards "the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace", even if it's farther away than we thought, and let's do what we need to do to "elevate and sanctify our lives" so that we can accomplish this.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cars trucks buses

I don't spend money on Shabbat.
I ride trains, buses, and cars on Shabbat. (No airplanes.) (I think I'm the only person who has read the Mar'ot Chayim, an illustrated commentary to Masechet Kelim, on a bus on Shabbat.)

Don't ask me to justify this by reference to the 39 melachot. That's not the system I'm operating under. The philosophical underpinnings of this practice can go in another post. This post is about the wacky practical consequences.

Because this is an unusual combination of practices, I get into all sorts of crazy adventures. When I went to Boston on Friday, I knew that if I Funged Wah after work, the bus would arrive after sundown, and then I'd have to get from South Station to my destination. Plus, the place I was staying was out of walking distance from the places I was hanging out. Fortunately, I still had a stash of T tokens from the days when I used to make this trip more often. So I did extensive research beforehand to confirm that these tokens would in fact work for all three types of transportation: T stations that still take tokens, T stations that have switched to CharlieTickets (the machines let you convert tokens into CharlieTickets), and buses that take change. The Boston locals I had asked didn't understand why I was so insistent about the questions I was asking. ("If you don't have change, just give them a dollar bill." "Just take a taxi.")

Past experiences include:
  • Driving around Chicago in a non-I-PASS-equipped car and going out of the way to avoid toll roads.
  • Unlimited MetroCards make it very easy to get around NYC.
  • Four summers ago, I went to visit my brother at Kutz. For some reason, visitors are only allowed during the day on Shabbat. I don't have a car. I found a bus to Warwick, purchased a ticket before Shabbat, and called the camp office asking for advice on getting from downtown Warwick to the camp. They said I could call when I got there, and someone would come and pick me up. Uh....ok. Isn't the office closed on Shabbat? I arrived in bustling downtown Warwick, dialed the camp's number on my cell phone, and sure enough, no one answered. Taxis existed, but were out of the question. I went into a store and asked for directions to the camp, and started walking, periodically calling again just in case. I ended up walking the whole 5 miles. It was a beautiful day, and beautiful scenery.
  • I've made kiddush on a number of moving vehicles, and not just Fung Wah trips as discussed above. I had a beautiful Shabbat lunch with NAF and SBN on a MetroNorth train in fall 2003.
  • Then there was the trip to IT. The doors opened Friday morning, and the shows were on Saturday and Sunday nights. We decided to be foolish and go to the Camden show on Thursday night, then drive all night and arrive in the (temporary) largest city in Maine sometime Friday afternoon (or so we planned it). Did I mention that Maine is a really big state? Also, we didn't anticipate that the last 20 miles would take over 12 hours. I had packed a challah and a bottle of grape juice, planning to do Shabbat with any other Phish phans who were interested. When it became clear that we weren't going to arrive before sundown, I thought to myself "Fine, so this will take another hour or two, and then when we get there, we can settle down and welcome Shabbat." And then midnight rolled around. I don't know if you've ever been in a 12-hour traffic jam before, but the way it works is you sit for 20, 30 minutes with the car turned off, maybe you're outside the car strolling around, and then you see the car 10 cars in front of you turn its lights on, and that's the sign to get back in your car and turn the engine back on, and then all the cars start moving, and you move forward maybe a half mile, then hit the brakes, and then all the cars shut off again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Very slowly. So midnight rolled around, and we were hungry, and I said "let's make kiddush." As it happened, all four people in the car were Jewish, but I was the only one who was so gung-ho about making all this portable Jewish stuff happen. Bechol makom asher azkir et shemi, baby. But everyone was hungry, and I think some of them also wanted some spiritual sustenance after all these hours in the car. So we made kiddush, drank the grape juice out of the bottle (we didn't have cups. oops!), and immediately the cars started moving again. It was a sign! Unlike Shabbat itself, this sign did not last forever. The cars stopped yet again. "Ok, now let's do motzi." Before we said the beracha, I was fumbling to get the plastic bag open, and before I could get it open, the cars started moving again! One of my traveling companions said "God appreciates the gesture." And so it went throughout the night. We arrived in the morning, slept all day, and went to some amazing shows. I made havdalah during the set break between the second and third sets.
  • Then there was Shabbat at Coventry. This time around, we weren't stupid, and left on Thursday and arrived on Friday morning (after a similarly awful traffic jam), well before Shabbat. We did kabbalat shabbat in the rain, and had a sumptuous tailgate Shabbat dinner on the hood of the car. Others weren't so lucky (or didn't plan ahead), but this story (involving the disciples of Rav Shmuel) deserves its own post.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Hanhu chavurata #4 (Independent minyan gossip column)

After independent minyan gossip columns #1, #2, and #3, Shavuot has inspired me to rename the column to "Hanhu chavurata" ("these chavurot"). Bonus points to the first person to identify the source.

  • This past Shabbat, the minyan of choice for the chavurati was the Cambridge Minyan (in Massachusetts, not England). A certain local university attracted a number of out-of-towners for their 5th, 10th, etc. reunions, so founders of Kol Zimrah, Hadar, Tikkun Leil Shabbat, DC Beit Midrash, and of course the Cambridge Minyan itself (can anyone confirm any others? is Tehillah confirmed?) were all davening in the same room.
  • Of course, the Hadar Shavuot Retreat was a smashing success as always, and Torah was received. But this year there was karaoke! After Shabbat.
  • Beth Shekinah of Washington DC is disbanding, now that most of its members are involved with other Jewish groups.
  • Techiyah of Harlem (NYC) is taking the plunge and moving from apartments to the Harlem Police Athletic League Community Center, having outgrown even the huge-by-Manhattan-standards living rooms of Harlem.
  • Is B'Merkaz (Philly) changing its name and the date of its first meeting?
  • Summer is here! What does this mean for independent minyanim? One of three options: (1) Continue operations as normal, (2) Decrease or suspend operations, or (3) Increase operations. And it's fascinating to see who chooses which of these. For example, our Boston correspondent reports that Tehillah and the Washington Square Minyan are suspending their Shabbat morning services for some or all of the summer, and meeting on Friday nights only, while the Cambridge Minyan is increasing its Shabbat mornings. Here in New York, Kol Zimrah is increasing its frequency (with more bonus services in Brooklyn), the Brooklyn Egal Minyan is going on hiatus for the summer, and everyone else (as far as I'm aware) is keeping their usual frequency. What factors go into these decisions? On the one hand, minyanim with large student populations have their regulars disappear for the summer. On the other hand, if many of the participants are on an academic schedule (students and teachers) and stick around for the summer (which may be more common in New York than in Boston?), then the summer means they have more time and energy to organize things for the minyan. Also, in cities like these, the summer exodus is offset by the influx of people who are in town only for the summer, or moving in during the summer for a longer sojourn. Each minyan has to make these calculations for itself.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Happy Brooklyn-Queens-Manhattan-Bronx-Staten Island Day!

Tomorrow is the little-known holiday of Brooklyn-Queens Day, aka Anniversary Day. This holiday, celebrated since 1829, commemorates the founding of the first Sunday school on Long Island in 1816, and the Brooklyn Sunday School Union will be holding its 178th annual parade. (Why don't they do it on a Sunday? For this question I was thrown out of the house of study.)

A state law requires that students in Brooklyn and Queens have the day off from school on the 1st or 2nd Thursday in June, whichever is 10 days after Memorial Day. (For our readers outside New York, no, school isn't over yet. We stick around until the end of June. High schools are in the last throes of classes before we adjourn for exams, and elementary and middle schools are still in the thick of things.)

Until this year, schools in Brooklyn and Queens were closed for Brooklyn-Queens Day, while the other three boroughs had a regular school day. Those of us teaching in Manhattan experienced nothing unusual on this day beyond our students' complaints about how their younger siblings back in the neighborhood had the day off and they didn't. Now, the new teachers' contract corrects this inequity among the boroughs, or destroys the Brooklyn/Queens cultural heritage, depending on whom you ask. Tomorrow, students in all five boroughs have the day off, and teachers in all five boroughs have to show up for "professional development". (It might actually be useful; my department is using the day to plan the curriculum for next year.)

Kenny Bruno of the Queens Ledger mourns the loss of Brooklyn's and Queens's specialness:
I suppose the single most delightful thing about Brooklyn Queens Day was that it was a day off from school for no apparent reason. Grownups had to work and therefore couldn't schedule any vacation-like activities. Unlike Christmas or Thanksgiving, there were no holiday curricula, no commercials, no traditions to uphold and no family events to attend. It came in June, during the best weather and longest days. The kicker was that no one else had this day off. You could actually go to Manhattan and see to it that your Manhattan friends, if you had any, would look enviously at you from inside their prisons.

So the students of Brooklyn and Queens keep the holiday but lose the bragging rights. Though I'm not sure Brooklyn and Queens can really claim underdog status anymore, now that they're the two largest boroughs by area and population, comprising a solid majority of the New York City population.

(On further investigation, Brooklyn and Queens have had a majority since the 1930 census, the decade that Brooklyn passed Manhattan to become the most populous borough. Queens passed Manhattan in 1960. The Bronx and Staten Island have always been 4th and 5th. But maybe the underdog mentality isn't about population, but about national and international attention, not to mention $$$$, so it still makes sense.)

[UPDATE: Correction: The Bronx was in 3rd place until Queens surged ahead of it in 1950. Ah, suburbanization.]

Meanwhile, other forces have conspired to make tomorrow likely to be a rainy day like today, lessening the possibility of a day of fun in the sun.

Whichever borough you're in, whether you're a student with a day off from school, or a teacher with a day off from teaching, take a moment tomorrow to thank Brooklyn and Queens for being who they are.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism around the web

Mah Rabu's still-ongoing Hilchot Pluralism series, documenting and analyzing pluralistic practices in independent Jewish communities, has been making its way around the web, and even meatspace.

  • Boston: Today, Knitter of shiny things reports on a "Reclaiming Mikveh" conference at Boston's liberal Jewish mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim, and discusses pluralism in the context of a mikveh that is used for Reform conversions as well as by Orthodox women observing hilchot niddah.
  • Washington, DC: Tikkun Leil Shabbat links to Hilchot Pluralism in its FAQ when discussing the two-table system (which I learned about from the DC independent minyan scene in the first place), as well as under "How we think about pluralism".
  • Philadelphia: ZT reports that Hilchot Pluralism was used in a mandatory workshop at the Akiba Hebrew Academy's 9th-grade shabbaton.
  • New York: Later this month, I'm teaching about the Taxonomy at a session on pluralism for Hillel's CLIP interns.
Let's keep it going! With more exposure, we can continue to share ideas among our communities, and help more communities move to Stage 3. What issues belong in Hilchot Pluralism Part V?