Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part V: Quorum call

The story so far:
This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. Since the series has gotten popular, I should emphasize that I should get no credit for the actual innovations described therein; I'm just collecting and blogging them (albeit not just as a disinterested anthropologist, but as a proponent who wants to see Stage 3 pluralism spread).

Like Parts III and IV, Part V (or should that be Part not-V?) will address issues of communal prayer.


Certain parts of the prayer service (most notably, barechu, kedushah, kaddish, and Torah reading; see Mishnah Megillah 4:3) require a minyan of 10 members of some set M. In the absence of a minyan, those parts are omitted. This is agreed upon by pretty much all Jews (who are praying in the first place). The disagreement is about the composition of M.

The major split is between two schools of thought:
  • M1) M includes all Jews over age 13
  • M2) M includes all male Jews over age 13
And there are additional border cases with room for disagreement: Who is a Jew? What about 12-year-old girls? And so forth.

This post deals only with approaches to the binary question of "Is there a minyan in this room right now?", separating it from the question of "Now that there is a minyan, who can do stuff?". In communities above a certain size, this binary question rarely has a practical impact, because a minyan is always present (by anyone's definition). However, in communities where people don't show up on time, this question can mean the difference between stalling and proceeding, and in smaller communities, it can determine whether Torah is read at all.

In most Jewish communities, there is no internal disagreement on this question. The community generally agrees on either M1 or M2 above. Sometimes there are questions about the border cases, but this is generally framed as an issue of communal standards rather than an issue of pluralism. The pluralism question arises when people who adhere to M1 and people who adhere to M2 want to pray together in a Stage 3 setting where both of these identities are respected.

Some communities, for a variety of reasons, require the presence of 10 men and 10 women for a minyan. This ensures that a minyan is present by the M2 definition (and, it goes without saying, by the M1 definition, which may or may not be a consideration in these communities), while ensuring that both men and women have indispensable roles. As I said about other practices in Part III, "[t]hese minyanim are meeting a real need for a particular set of people ... but they're not providing a permanent solution that will make it possible for everyone to pray together in Stage-3 harmony. And again, they're not claiming to." This policy is problematic for people who are looking for (many understandings of) an egalitarian community, because roles are still assigned based on gender, even if this is applied symmetrically to both genders. Also, the way this policy is usually implemented, these minyanim wait (if necessary) for 10 men and 10 women before starting the parts of the service that require a minyan. It is assumed that 10 and 10 will eventually show up. But what happens if they never do? (I'm asking because I don't know.) If only 10 men and 7 women show up, will these minyanim really forgo reading Torah (etc.)? If the answer is yes, then this is problematic for people who count by M1 and for people who count by M2, since they all agree that a minyan is present, yet they are skipping something that many would consider an obligation on the community when a minyan is present. If the answer is no, then the policy isn't even truly symmetric. (UPDATE: This isn't just hypothetical; here's one real-life account.) To quote again from Part III, "[t]hat's not to say that these minyanim don't have an important place among all the other types of minyanim. But they are not a Stage-3 solution that includes people who seek to be in a community that is fully egalitarian."


There is (at least) one solution at the communal level that can encompass a multiplicity of individual identities: define a minyan communally as "10 consenting adults", i.e. 10 people who count each other as a minyan. Does anyone know the origin of this practice? (You haven't let me down on the history of the trichitza or the two-table system.)

Jews In The Woods's fall 2006 mid-Atlantic gathering devised an ingenious method of implementing this definition: before each point in the service where a minyan is required, call "minyan check". At this point, raise your hand if you believe that a minyan is present in the room that includes you. Count the hands. If the number is greater than or equal to 10, proceed as if there is a minyan. If not, proceed as if there is not a minyan. Thus, the presence or absence of a minyan is determined on the spot by the grassroots, rather than by a contentious policy.

(A variation has been suggested in which you raise your hand if you believe that a minyan is present in the room, whether or not it includes you. I have not yet been able to understand this one. It seems to me that any cases in which this method yields a different result from the other one involve some kind of logical contradiction.)

The minyan check method accords with the principles established in Part II: no one is compelled to violate his/her own core values, and no one is prevented from carrying out his/her own practices.

Let's look at two thought experiments to illustrate this:

1. Bilhah believes a minyan is present, Zilpah believes a minyan is not present, and the count is less than 10. In this case, the parts of the service requiring a minyan are skipped. Bilhah may be unhappy about this, because she believes a minyan is present, but she has no right to count Zilpah or anyone else toward the minyan without their consent. The minyan is formed by voluntary participation, and there aren't 10 people who are willing to constitute themselves as a minyan, so no minyan can be formed. Bilhah misses the opportunity to say certain prayers with a minyan, but she would miss that opportunity anyway if Zilpah et al. weren't there.

2. Bilhah believes a minyan is present, Zilpah believes a minyan is not present, and the count is greater than or equal to 10. In this case, the service proceeds as though there is a minyan. Zilpah may be unhappy about this, because she believes no minyan is present, but she has no right to prevent Bilhah and 9+ others from constituting themselves as a minyan and praying accordingly. If she doesn't want to take part in these parts of the service, she can leave the room or close her ears at those times, and she would still be missing no more than if everyone agreed with her that a minyan was absent.

Bilhah (in case 1) or Zilpah (in case 2) might prefer that the community take a pause and wait until a minyan (of consenting adults) is present by her definition. Sorry, but that's not a right that anyone is entitled to. If you (as a participant or a communal leader) want to be sure that a minyan (by your definition) is present for a certain part of the service, then make sure 10 people whom you count and who count themselves as a minyan show up on time; don't expect everyone to wait.

There are a few practical complications with the minyan check method, but nothing that sinks it entirely. First of all, each of the parts of the service that require a minyan also require a shaliach/shelichat tzibbur -- a prayer leader, but literally "a representative of the community". The sha"tz should be chosen from within the minyan. But in practice, the sha"tz is generally chosen in advance, before the composition of the minyan is known. So it's possible that the minyan check will yield a positive result, but the designated sha"tz doesn't consider him/herself part of this minyan, and therefore can't serve as sha"tz. In this case, the community can appoint a new sha"tz to pinch-hit for these parts. (The original sha"tz isn't missing out on anything, since s/he wouldn't have led those parts anyway, given that composition of people.) Ok, that's easy enough to do on the fly for barechu and kaddish, but what do you do about Torah reading when the people who prepared the parsha don't believe that a minyan is present? That presents a larger practical challenge.

Another possible complication is that, if all logical possibilities are considered, a positive result from the minyan check does not necessarily mean that there is any set of 10 people all of whom count themselves and each other as a minyan (the desired result). However, in practice, the set of minyan-definitions that people actually hold isn't all that complicated. The Venn diagram would be made up almost entirely (if not entirely) of concentric circles. For example, I don't think there is anyone on earth who doesn't count women in a minyan, but counts men who have had Reform conversions. (Yes, as ZT points out, there are people (like lame-duck Sen. George Allen) who are considered Jewish by Orthodox standards and not by Reform/Reconstructionist standards, because they have Jewish mothers but don't have Jewish identities. However, in practice, anyone in this situation with enough of a Jewish identity to be present in this pluralistic Jewish community and to honestly raise his/her hand during the minyan check would be considered Jewish enough by all standards.) If all minyan-definitions are concentric, then there are no weird paradoxes.

A third issue is imperfect information when it comes to some of the less obvious (i.e., non-gender-related) questions of personal status. However, this is not a complication specific to the minyan check system; it can be dealt with (or not dealt with) in exactly the way it would if the community had a single minyan definition.


Coming in Part VI: The limits of pluralism. In what circumstances is there no pluralistic solution?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The never-ending story

The Democrats have an unquestioned majority in both the House and Senate of the 110th Congress, but the 2006 election isn't over yet in three districts. Here's a summary for those who haven't been obsessively following political blogs:

  • Florida 13th District: We knew that electronic voting without a voter-verified paper trail would result in a crisis, and now that it's happened, it's no surprise that it happened in Katherine Harris's old district, with a candidate named Buchanan on the ballot. The campaign between Vern Buchanan (R) and Christine Jennings (D) was ugly, with the Republicans making harassing robocalls that voters thought were coming from Jennings. Based on the votes that were counted, Buchanan is ahead by 369 votes. However, the count includes about 18,000 undervotes -- ballots showing that the voter didn't vote for anyone in this race. Any "recount" would show an identical result, since there is no further information beyond the data stored in the electronic voting machines. These 18,000 ballots voted predominantly Democratic in other races, so it is likely that if their votes for the congressional race had been counted, Jennings would have won. The fight continues (again) in the Florida courts. The only fair outcome is to call a new election, along with legislation preventing this from happening again.
  • Louisiana 2nd District: In Louisiana, candidates from all parties compete in an open primary on Election Day, and if no candidate receives a majority, there is a runoff in December. In this district covering most of New Orleans, the candidates in the runoff are incumbent Rep. William Jefferson (D), subject of a federal bribery investigation, and challenger Karen Carter (D). The seat will be Democratic one way or the other, but now that the corrupt Republican majority has been overthrown, the voters have the opportunity to clean up the Democratic party too and throw out the corrupt incumbent.
  • Texas 23rd District: This was one of the districts redrawn in Tom DeLay's 2003 redistricting, and then it was redrawn again in August 2006 following the Supreme Court's ruling in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry that the district violated the Voting Rights Act. Since this was after the Texas primary, the re-redrawn districts had open primaries on Election Day, and the 23rd District, in southwest Texas, is going to a Louisiana-style runoff. Incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) goes up against former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), a victim of DeLay's redistricting.
When the dust settles, the Democrats will hold 233-235 seats in the House, and the Republicans will hold 200-202.

Greatly exaggerated

Several readers have brought to my attention that Mah Rabu was down for several days, and expressed concern that this was the end. Thanks for the alerts! This was just a technical issue with Blogspot, nothing more, and it's fixed now. Since I was in the old country for Thanksgiving, I didn't catch it quickly.

If Mah Rabu ever has to go down for good, I promise this will happen with more fanfare, and that it won't just suddenly disappear. But I don't see any reason it would have to. I'm not worried about writing anything that would get me into trouble: I don't intend to look for a job in the organized Jewish community or (l'havdil!!!) the Republican party, and I don't really post about work or my personal life. So we're here to stay!

Coming soon: Hilchot Pluralism Parts V and VI.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Everyone got crazy and nobody got harmed

And somewhere in the distance
An orchestra shows its face
With Natalie on the oboe
Ty on double bass
John plays the viola
Slik the tenor sax
James he blows harmonica
In vanilla skintight slacks
Hugo oozes alto sax
Ivory the trombone
Masuda squawks the trumpet
Andre xylophone
Ron he shreds the violin
In a green Italian suit
Mike talks on the telephone
On a tape with an endless loop
Geoff he blows the clarinet
With an old-time rockin' feel
Charlie dings the triangle
Dave the glockenspiel
Chris puffs on the tuba
H a big bass drum
Alfonso throbs the cello
Like he would a woman, with his thumb
And high up on the podium
In tails with his baton poised
Banksy leads the orchestra
In a glorious, awful noise
And on a float of dripping oil paint
The orchestra, it played
Kissing the whole universe
In the Thanksgiving Day Parade

הַלְלוּ-יָהּ:הַלְלוּ-אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ; הַלְלוּהוּ, בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּו
הַלְלוּהוּ בִגְבוּרֹתָיו; הַלְלוּהוּ, כְּרֹב גֻּדְלו
הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר
הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב
הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי-שָׁמַע; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה
כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ: הַלְלוּ-יָה

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

We'll have to bring our own tunes

And Michelangelo finally came down
After 4 years on the ceiling
He said he'd lost his funding
And the paint had started peeling
And he told us that his patron
His Holiness, the Pope
Was demanding productivity
With which our friend just couldn't cope
And he rode off on his skateboard
With his brushes and his blade
Muttering something 'bout some food
And the Thanksgiving Day Parade

--Dan Bern

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Monday, November 20, 2006


Here at Mah Rabu, there have been lots of posts where I've said "I'll talk about that in a post of its own", and then never gotten around to it. So now, one by one, I'm going to try to write those posts. If you can think of any Mah Rabu posts that were supposed to have been written and haven't been written yet, say so in the comments.

As promised, this is the post where I list the microscopic differences between the prayers that I say and the prayers printed in the traditional siddur that I use, in order to encourage others to do the same and open up a conversation.

I don't claim that this is entirely self-consistent, and it's certainly subject to change.

The siddur that I use most often on Shabbat is the Koren chumash with the Shabbat (and immediately pre-Shabbat and post-Shabbat) services in the back, so I'll just use that and go in order.

[UPDATE: I should have specified nusach Ashkenaz rather than just assumed that it was the default; Koren comes in both flavors. I apologize for the ethnocentrism. Thanks to JewDot for indirectly bringing this to my attention.]

p.3: In the first blessing of the Amidah, I use the version in all Reform siddurim of the last 15 years:
בא"י א-להינו וא-להי אביתינו ואמותינו, א-להי אברהם, א-להי יצחק, וא-להי יעקב, א-להי שרה, וא-להי רבקה, א-להי לאה, וא-להי רחל, ... וזוכר חסדי אבות ואמהות, ומביא גאולה ... בא"י מגן אברהם ועזרת שרה.

So this version includes both the patriarchs and matriarchs, lists both groups in chronological order, but doesn't put the group as a whole in chronological order (probably to maintain "א-להי אברהם, א-להי יצחק, וא-להי יעקב" as a unit, based on Exodus 3:15), and talks about redemption rather than a (single) redeemer.

Some argue that 1) avoteinu is inclusive to cover both genders, 2) if you say "avoteinu v'imoteinu" here, then you've made it be uninclusive in all other cases, 3) if you say "avoteinu v'imoteinu" here, then you have to do that in all other cases. I respond 1) maybe, but there's no harm in doing it this way here, 2) I don't think this kind of consistency really exists (outside the Gemara's games) where if a word means something in one place then it must mean that in all other places, 3) in hachi nami.

In the second blessing of the Amidah, I also use the version in Reform siddurim, changing מתים to הכל in all four places. God does not revive the dead, but God gives life to everything. Living in the US (with all Ashkenazi lineage, AFAIK) but having lived in Israel and picked up some Eretz-Yisrael minhagim, I'm agnostic about מוריד הטל.

p.5: In the extra blessing that was added to the Amidah, I use the version from Ha-avodah Shebalev, the Israeli Reform siddur:

התועים אליך ישובו, והרשעה כרגע תאבד, והזדון תכניע במהרה וימינו. בא"י שובר רשע ומכניע זדון.

This version focuses on destroying evil, not destroying evildoers.

p.6: For the antepenultimate blessing, I use the version in Gates of Prayer:

רצה ה' א-להינו בעמך ישראל, ותפלתם באהבה תקבל, ותהי לרצון תמיד עבודת ישראל עמך. א-ל קרוב לכל קראיו, פנה אל עבדיך וחננו. שפך רוחך עלינו, ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים. בא"י המחזיר שכינתו לציון

Also, on this page and anywhere else it says אבותינו, I add ואמותינו.

p.8: Kaddish. I add ועל כל יושבי תבל in each of the last two lines (I don't understand why many people add it only to the last line).

p.9: Aleinu. Like most siddurim until recently, I don't say the line "שהם משתחוים להבל וריק". But I like one thing about that line: the particle "she-", which introduces a subordinate clause, rather than "va-", which introduces an independent clause. Both this line and the next line ("ואנחנו כורעים") are supposed to be part of a subordinate clause, but when the first of those lines is eliminated, then "ואנחנו כורעים" appears to be an independent clause. So I change one letter in the usual text of Aleinu and say "שאנחנו כורעים". I think this version is less problematic. Instead of saying "You have separated us from everyone else. [full stop] We bow down to you...", it says "You have separated us from everyone else in that we bow down to you", and "we" can be defined as broadly or as narrowly as you want.

Kabbalat shabbat: pretty straightforward and uncontroversial.

p.17: I don't say Bameh madlikin. And I'm almost never at services where anyone does.

p. 21 (in Ge'ulah): משה ומרים ובני ישראל

p. 22 (end of Hashkiveinu): הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל כל יושבי תבל ועל ירושלים

Amidah: same issues as above, and for all other Amidahs.

p. 28 (Me'ein sheva): avot v'imahot as usual. I should probably say מגן אבות ואמהות and find a way to squeeze this into the melody. מחיה הכל

Aleinu and kaddish as above.

p. 31 (kiddush for Shabbat day): my family's minhag (German, I think) is to say just Veshameru and then the al kein line.

p. 33 (Yigdal), which, in my cultural context, I am almost infinitely more likely to sing on Friday night than before shacharit: I follow the Reconstructionists. The word משוחנו in the penultimate line becomes גאולתו (with the added bonus of a rhyme within the line), and מתים יחיה א-ל becomes חיים מכלכל א-ל in the last line (grabbing a different piece of the Gevurot in the Amidah).

p. 35 (birkot hashachar): Following all liberal siddurim I'm aware of (and, I hear, some old manuscripts too), I say שעשני בן-חורין and שעשני ישראל. Following Siddur Sim Shalom and Siddur Eit Ratzon, I say שעשני בצלמו.

p.36-45 (other preliminary material, up through Rabbi Ishmael and kaddish derabbanan): I pretty much never have occasion to say this stuff.

Pesukei dezimrah: I don't change what it says in the psalms.

p. 61-63 (Nishmat through the chatimah): אביתינו ואמותינו when appropriate

p. 65 (Yotzeir Or): Right before El Adon, לתחית המתים becomes לחיי עולמים, following one option in Siddur Eit Ratzon.

p. 70 (Ge'ulah): Following Siddur Eit Ratzon,
אמת שאתה הוא ה' א-להינו וא-להי אבותינו ואמותינו
מלכנו מלך אבותינו
גואלנו גואל אמותינו

p. 71 (Ge'ulah): משה ומרים ובני ישראל again

Amidah: mostly same as before. In the intermediate blessing, ערלים changes to ערלי לב, in reference to Deuteronomy 10:16, Deuteronomy 30:6, etc. (similar to changing בבשרנו to בלבנו in birkat hamazon).

p. 82 (Berich Shemei): I don't usually say this. Not for any principled reason.

p. 86-87 (Yekum Purkan): Usually this is my bathroom break, but if I happen to be saying this, I obviously take out ונשיא and ונשיהם. (In Siddur Sim Shalom, they fix it in Hebrew but not in Aramaic. Is this dog-whistle politics? Are they assuming that anyone who understands Aramaic is ok with women being less than full members of the community?)

At this point, my main Shabbat morning minyan says the "prayer for our country". So yeah, I guess I say it without modification for the moment. Let's hope for the best. In the prayer for the state of Israel, I say שתהי ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, following Soloveitchik.

p. 88 (birkat hachodesh): I follow the minority of siddurim in saying החודש הבא (not הזה), because it makes logical sense. And I like the longer Eretz Yisrael version of יחדשהו.

p. 89 (Av Harachamim): Skip! I'm not into martyrdom or revenge.

Musaf: Yes, I say musaf. I'm not convinced by the usual Reform arguments for taking it out. It goes something like "The musaf prayer is said in place of the additional sacrifice that was offered on Shabbat and holidays in the Temple, and we're not interested in rebuilding the Temple, so we don't say prayers that are based on Temple offerings." To which I respond "Is that so? Then WHAT ABOUT SHACHARIT AND MINCHA?" The whole large-scale structure of Jewish prayer as we know it is modeled after the structure of Temple worship (yes, I'm siding with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi on Berachot 26b; what are you going to do about it?), so it seems arbitrary to eliminate musaf while maintaining the rest of the structure.

p. 93 (the middle blessing of musaf): I keep it in the future tense. I understand it metaphorically, and hope for future redemption, rather than fixating on the literal animal offerings of the past.

Shabbat mincha: mostly the same as everything else

p.111 (the middle blessing of mincha): Anyone know a version of this that includes the imahot?

p. 114 (end of the mincha amidah): Yeah, I like the Eretz Yisrael minhag of doing Sim Shalom here on Shabbat (and Shalom Rav on weekdays).

Weekday maariv: mostly the same

p. 137 (Baruch Adonai Le'olam): I don't say this (as in Eretz Yisrael and many other minhagim). How is it ok to add an extra berachah here?

And that's about it. How about you?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Memo-RANDOM of agreement

I don't understand this.

A brief history of recent collective bargaining between the United Federation of Teachers and the New York City Department of Education:

Just before I started teaching in the NYC schools in 2002, a contract agreement was reached. This coincided roughly with a general upheaval in the school system, as Mayor Bloomberg took over the Board of Education and turned it into the Department of Education. The previous contract had expired at some point in the past, and the new contract began retroactively at the time that the old contract expired, and lasted until May 2003.

May 2003 rolled around, and no new contract was signed. For 2 1/2 years. Not that this really mattered, since the old contract was fully enforced: the teachers kept showing up to school, and the city kept paying us. In October 2005, the UFT and the city reached a contract agreement. This was transparently timed to happen right before the mayoral election. As a result, the UFT made no endorsement, instead of endorsing Ferrer against Bloomberg. The current contract goes from June 2003 (retroactively, of course) to October 2007. We all got retroactive pay raises, as well as future ones (which are now in the past), and in exchange, the school day and school year were slightly lengthened, which I think is just fine.

In conclusion, recent history shows that the nominal dates of contracts are mere formalities, and contract agreements tend to be retroactive and timed for political expediency. I predicted that the next contract would be signed several years after the current one expires.

Then we got some strange news last week. The UFT and the city have reached a tentative contract agreement, for a new contract going from October 2007 to October 2009. You read that correctly -- they're agreeing to a contract before the contract even begins! This contract includes a one-time $750 bonus in January 2007, a 2% raise in October 2007, and a 5% raise in May 2008. There are no changes to the length of the school day or school year, and no significant changes in any other contractual provisions.

So obviously I'll vote to ratify this contract -- it's more money in exchange for no extra work. But my question is WHY? What motivated Bloomberg and Klein to agree to this now? Bloomberg isn't up for election (as in 2005) and doesn't need to buy support for his reorganization of the schools (as in 2002). The recent national and state elections have no effect on the city, which holds elections in odd years. They still have another year before the current contract "expires". The new contract will expire just before the next mayoral election, which is sure to elect someone other than Bloomberg, who is term-limited. (Thompson? Weiner? Who knows.) So what gives? I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but does anyone have insights on what's really behind this?

Just and rightful authority

On Shabbat mornings for the last several years, I have been chanting the "Prayer for Our Country" in the mournful Eicha trope. Yes, I understand that it's supposed to be aspirational, so that if our "leader and advisors" are not "administer[ing] all affairs of state fairly", we should pray that they will. But it seems to me that as long as the Bush Republicans are in power, this is a tefilah lashav (vain prayer), like asking God for something whose outcome has already been determined, and saying this prayer without an implied disclaimer would be a mockery. Therefore, I have been using Eicha trope to indicate that this prayer (expressing currently unattainable ideals) serves as a lamentation for the dire situation in this country.

(Yes, I generally get the phrasing right; no, it's not 100% rigorous with all the third-level disjunctives and such, per Jacobson et al. ASL has attempted to cantillate it more precisely. The problem is that pazeir doesn't exist in Eicha trope; all the pesukim in the book of Eicha are too short for it ever to come up. Also, making it possible to chant this in unison with other people who are just reading it requires liberal use of the makaf.)

Last week, "citizens of all races and creeds ... banish[ed] all hatred and bigotry." WHEEEE!!!!!!!!! A number of people have asked me whether I would continue chanting this prayer in Eicha trope. For now, the answer is no. That doesn't mean that I think that everything is suddenly better due to a mere election result. The Democratic majority hasn't even taken office yet! But it does mean that I no longer think that it is a tefilah lashav to even think about the possibility of change. This past Shabbat, the first since the election, I was visiting a minyan in a city where Bush placed third in 2000, and when we got to this prayer, there was a sudden groundswell of enthusiasm throughout the room, as people read the words as if for the first time, filled with hope that this country could indeed be "an influence for good throughout the world".

Now I'll just have to turn my attention to other pressing questions about this prayer, such as:
  • At minyanim that otherwise pray entirely in Hebrew, why are we saying this prayer and only this prayer in English?
  • At minyanim that identify as non-denominational (viz. Hadar and its progeny), why are we using a specific version of this prayer that is otherwise exclusive to the Conservative movement?
  • Why are we saying petitionary prayers on Shabbat?
  • Why only "citizens"?
  • "...ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country"!

Leo Baeck: 50 years later

(crossposted to Jewschool)

I just got back last week from a very quick trip to Israel. I was at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa for the commemoration of my great-great-grandfather Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck’s 50th yahrtzeit. My parents and I were there as special guests — my father and I are two of only 7 living descendants of Leo Baeck (the others are my grandmother, my two younger siblings, and my two younger cousins).

Leo Baeck was born in 1873. He studied in all three major Jewish movements as well as the University of Berlin, and was ordained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. As a rabbi, he served congregations throughout (what was then) Germany, ending up in Berlin. His two major works were The Essence of Judaism (1905), in which he contrasted Judaism with Christianity and argued that Judaism was distinguished by the inseparability of faith and action/commandment, and This People Israel (1955), which he wrote in the concentration camp and published after the war.

Baeck was a liberal rabbi who was highly respected by all streams of German Jewry. So when the Nazis came to power and life got worse for the Jews, Baeck became the recognized leader of the German Jewish community. After Kristallnacht, Baeck’s 13-year-old granddaughter (my grandmother) emigrated to London on a Kindertransport, and her parents (Baeck’s daughter and son-in-law) followed soon after. (Baeck’s wife had died before the war.) With his stature and connections, Baeck had many opportunities before and during the war to flee Germany to safety, but he chose to stay behind, pledging that as long as any Jews remained in Germany, he would be their rabbi. After being arrested several times, he was finally deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. In the concentration camp, Baeck would teach classes at night to the other inmates, providing inspiration in the most adverse circumstances. Baeck survived Theresienstadt, and was reunited with his family in London after the war. He died in November 1956, 50 years ago this month.

One of the many places where Leo Baeck’s legacy endures is in Haifa. In 1938, one of Baeck’s students, Rabbi Meir Elk, made aliyah. Baeck gave Elk a Torah scroll from the synagogue in Berlin, to start his community in Israel. (That Torah scroll now resides in the Ohel Avraham synagogue at the Leo Baeck Education Center. On Friday night, they asked us, the descendants, to come up and hold it.) Elk founded a progressive Jewish school in Haifa, combining secular and Jewish studies. It started out as the Hillel School, and was renamed the Leo Baeck School after the war.

Today, the Leo Baeck Education Center is affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and is more than just a school. It includes a junior and senior high school, a fledgling elementary school, the Ohel Avraham synagogue, the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies, and the Leo Baeck Community Center which serves the surrounding mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods. The Leo Baeck curriculum emphasizes Jewish values from a progressive perspective, and thus fills a niche that often goes unfilled in an Israeli educational system split between secular and Orthodox schools. The school includes a fully stocked beit midrash where students study Jewish texts in chavruta, alongside a rigorous secular curriculum. (I got to see part of a physics class, and as a physics teacher all I can say is watch out America!) The school’s understanding of Jewish values includes engagement with the broader community. Some of the essential social services provided by the community center are there because Leo Baeck high school students took the initiative to start them. During this summer’s war with Lebanon, when rockets were being fired at Haifa, the Leo Baeck school converted its underground parking garage into a day camp, where children could be out of harm’s way.

Many people in the United States and Jerusalem (the two places where I have lived my entire life) are under the impression that the Israeli Reform movement is dominated by “Anglos” (people from English-speaking countries). This is because their exposure to the Israeli Reform movement is limited to HUC-JIR (the Jerusalem campus of an American university) and Kol HaNeshama (a Jerusalem congregation founded by Israelis who made aliyah from the United States).

[Side note: I don’t mean to suggest that Anglo communities are any less legitimate or less Israeli than any others. Israel is a nation of immigrants, where Jews from all over the world retain elements of their cultures of origin, while participating in and contributing to the broader Israeli culture and identity. If Iraqi Jews and Lithuanian Jews and Ethiopian Jews can be considered fully Israeli while maintaining Jewish traditions that originated elsewhere, why are American Jews any less entitled?]

But this impression is shown to be inaccurate as soon as you step outside of Jerusalem. There are vibrant progressive Jewish congregations in cities like Tel Aviv, Modi’in, and Ra’anana, all populated primarily by native Israelis. And the Leo Baeck Education Center, whose community includes people of all ages, may be Israeli progressive Judaism at its finest, and most of its students and faculty are Israeli-born. The headmaster is a Leo Baeck graduate himself, and the rabbis were born and ordained in Israel.

This was my first time spending more than 24 hours in Haifa, and I highly recommend it. Haifa is a beautiful city, and much more chill than Jerusalem; there’s a reason that no one has been diagnosed with Haifa Syndrome. And it makes sense that Haifa is fertile ground for the development of Israeli progressive Judaism. It’s not weighed down by the baggage of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodoxy or Tel Aviv’s ultra-secularity. My Israeli cousin said “In Jerusalem, people pray. In Tel Aviv, people play. In Haifa…. people live.” Haifa has a culture of religious pluralism; though things got off to a rough start, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations now live together peacefully, as well as the Bahá’í World Centre. Perhaps Haifa will be the beginning of the rebuilding of Israel on progressive Jewish values.

May the life and teachings of Rabbi Leo Baeck continue to be an inspiration to us 50 years later, as we combine faith and action in working toward better societies.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Democracy in America

WOO HOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Democrats win EVERYTHING! Majorities in the House, the Senate*, and the governors! And the Republicans have been completely shut out, not picking up a single Democratic seat! Even in the Republican blowout of 1994, the Democrats still picked up a few seats.

(*Yes, Allen is eligible to request a recount, and Burns might or might not be, but based on their past statements, we can safely assume that they're not going to. "We'll need to move America forward as soon as these votes are cast." --George Allen, November 8, 2000)

This is the first election since I started voting that every candidate I voted for won. And Rumsfeld is resigning!

YIPPEE!!!!!! Let's make America live up to its ideals!

UPDATE: Goodbye Mr. Burns!

UPDATE 2: Allen concedes! It's over! Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.