Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fit to be tithed

Today is the last day to make donations in 2006, so I'm finalizing my list (and expecting to get an automated call from Visa any minute saying "Did you really mean to make all these credit card payments?"). ZT has a great post on tithing, and I fully endorse the general contents (though I have a different list of organizations). Thanks also to ZT for bringing this article to my attention -- how much better would the Jewish world be if we could apply the same obsessive-compulsiveness to tzedakah that we do to cleaning for Pesach?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

10 Tevet

Esther prepared to enter the king's chamber on behalf of her people, with the hope that she could reverse the king's evil decree. Three days before she went in, Esther and all the Jews of Shushan began to fast, praying for success and underscoring how much was at stake.

In three days, a new Congress will take office, entering the chambers of power with a mandate from the people to reverse the king's decrees. We rejoiced when their election rekindled hope, but now we fast in solemn solidarity, praying that their mandate will be successfully carried out.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part VI: The limits of pluralism

Previous episodes:
This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. This post, inspired by numerous comments on the previous posts, explores the limits of (Stage 3) pluralism. When is a pluralistic solution impossible or undesirable?


Before we get started, a few reminders (found in Part II):
  • A pluralistic community need not include everyone in order to be pluralistic. In fact, the examples in this post will show that if such a requirement were in place, then no pluralistic communities could exist.
  • If I say that Reuven's practice and Shimon's practice can't coexist in a Stage 3 pluralistic community, that's not a value judgment about either of their practices; it just means that they're mismatched for this purpose. They should live and be well in separate communities, or in the same community (in which one of them will not have his identity fully actualized within the community's practice). (I might separately believe that Reuven's or Shimon's practice is wrong, but I won't mention that in this post, because the purpose of this post is community engineering, not criticism of individual practices.)
  • It's ok for a community to take a stand on one side of an issue and thus be non-pluralistic on that issue. The community should just be honest that that's what's going on, and not claim to be a place for everyone.
With that in mind, let's look at some obstacles to Stage-3 pluralism.

The Meta-Pluralism Problem

Pluralism doesn't require meta-pluralism (pluralism about pluralism). Pluralism need not extend to encompass anti-pluralistic worldviews. You have to pay to play: if you want the protections of pluralism, you have to buy into pluralism yourself. This doesn't mean you have to believe that other positions are valid, but it does mean you have to respect their right to exist.

For example, during the recent controversy over the Jerusalem gay pride parade, supporters of the parade were accused of hypocrisy. The argument went something like "You liberals claim to be about pluralism and tolerance, but by having this parade, you're being intolerant of people who believe that homosexuality is wrong." The fallacy in this argument is that the anti-parade position was anti-pluralistic, and therefore did not warrant pluralistic protections. If the parade organizers had forced haredim to engage in gay sex, this would indeed have been intolerant and non-pluralistic. However, the haredi objections were directed at the very existence of the parade. No one can be expected to go out of existence in the name of pluralism. If the opponents of the parade want to maintain this anti-pluralistic position, they forfeit the right to use pluralism in support of their position.

More broadly, people who say "I can't be in a community where people are/do X" (where X = gay, Orthodox, pray, drive on Shabbat, whatever), and people who are/do X, can't coexist in the same pluralistic community (which sounds tautological as stated). Either the community decides to be pluralistic on this issue (in which case the former position is unwelcome, since it is anti-pluralistic), or the community decides not to be pluralistic on this issue and to place X outside the community norms (in which case people who are/do X can leave, or can stick around as guests but not as fully enfranchised members of the community).

The Classification Problem

Reuven and Shimon cannot form a Stage-3 pluralistic community together for a given purpose if Reuven's identity requires that the community formally recognize a classification among people that Shimon would perceive as making Shimon into a second-class citizen in violation of his own identity.

We have several examples of this from comments posted to past Hilchot Pluralism posts.

Sarah M comments on Part IV:
-what to do when there are community members who object to hearing kol isha, a woman singing?
If there is no singing at all in whatever this community is gathered for, then there's no issue. But if there is, there is no way to simultaneously be sensitive to people with kol isha concerns and avoid offending people who are operating outside of that paradigm. A policy that requires half the community to be literally silenced will not be perceived as benign by people who do not share the underlying worldview. Here again, the community must make a choice between two incommensurable policies, or demarcate space for both.

ALG comments on Part II:
There are Orthodox people who won't trust the kashrut of anyone who is not shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha, which means that even the two table system is impossible (you said it could be stage 3, not just stage 2, which would imply that it could work and no one could have to compromise).
The two-table system is about food, not about people. Anyone can bring food for either of the two tables as long as s/he follows the instructions correctly. For Table 2, some people can prepare the food in their own kitchens, while others have to use other people's kitchens or bring store-bought food, but anyone can find a way to do it if s/he wants. This is true even if the potluck is Table-2-only (or, of course, Table-1-only). There is no hierarchy of who is considered trustworthy; everyone is considered equally able to follow directions and make accurate statements.

If the community adopts a policy (even for just one of the two tables) that deems only some people as trustworthy, on the basis of their personal practices that take place outside of the context of this community and have no direct connection to the specific issue at hand (note that ALG's example is about people who are "shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha", not "shomer(et) kashrut", even though the issue at hand is about kashrut), then the community is implicitly adopting a particular set of personal practices as a communal norm. Even though people who don't hold these practices are equally able to participate in this hypothetical alternative two-table system that distinguishes among people (not just among food), the community has adopted a particular cognitive frame for "shomer(et) Shabbat" as normative. Establishing this frame means placing people with different frames outside the Stage-3 boundaries of this community. Therefore, the community must choose whether or not to adopt a norm about personal practice (even if this norm is not enforced and everyone is welcome to participate), and either way, someone will be excluded from Stage-3 participation.

The minyan check system (in any of its variations) doesn't share this problem, because any minyan definitions that arise, no matter how exclusive or offensive they may be to some individuals, emanate from other individuals, not from the community's policy. Once the community creates the infrastructure for the minyan check (and there is some disagreement about the proper infrastructure), it is completely impartial about the content of minyan counting.

The trichitza also doesn't share this problem, because people have a choice not to be classified at all.

The Aesthetic Preference Problem

This isn't actually a problem. But it's one answer to Sarah M's comment on Part IV:
-a discussion of when it might not be the best idea for everyone to be davening in the same room?
It's one thing if people want to do the same thing together, and are looking for a way to overcome their differences and make this happen. But if people aren't really interested in doing the same thing, then what's the point in doing it together? Someone is bound to be unhappy. Better they should do it separately, and come together for something more mutually agreeable.

To use davening as a concrete example (in response to Sarah M's comment), if you and I want to daven in the same basic style, except that we want to say slightly different words, or we want to wear different things, or we want to sit in differently composed sections, and so forth, then we've already discussed at length how to make this happen. But if Reuven wants a Classical Reform service with organ and choir, and Shimon wants a Carlebach-style service with lengthy communal "yai dai dai", and Dina wants yeshiva-style speed mumbling, and Tamar wants guided meditation, then it's unlikely that there is a way to achieve all of these goals while maintaining the integrity of each one. Beyond a certain point, each style gets watered down so that its quality (judged by its internal metric) suffers, and the people need to decide whether their desire to pray together outweighs the quality of their individual prayer experiences.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with answering "no" to this question. People can split up to pray in separate groups, or if the community has reasons that it wants to pray together, it can consider solutions such as alternating between different styles (as Tikkun Leil Shabbat does) without watering down each style. If the community decides based on aesthetic preferences to split for prayer (or something else), it can find other venues to come together.

The Education Problem

In economics, theoretical models of the market assume that people act like Homo economicus, operating rationally and with complete information. One way in which these models fail to predict actual market behavior, and in which markets fail to operate efficiently, is that real humans have incomplete information, so they are not able to make the decisions that would result in an optimal distribution of resources.

Jewish pluralism suffers from a similar disconnect between theory and practice. We can talk here in the ivory blogosphere about Stage 3 pluralism and creating a community that respects everyone's identity. But it doesn't work when people don't have enough education, experience, and/or self-confidence to have fully-formed Jewish identities that they can speak up for in the community's discourse.

One example is when the participants are at the stage in life when their identities overall are still in formation, let alone their Jewish identities. Mah Rabu correspondent EMM writes to us from the world of pluralistic Jewish schools:

“Pluralistic” Jewish schools welcome students whose families embrace substantially differing Jewish practices. Do any of these schools actually enact Stage-3 pluralism in their student communities? To the extent that a child’s Jewish identity does not satisfy BZ’s “robust and confident” criterion, it seems impossible in principle for these schools to be Stage-3 communities.

Consider the following situation: Peretz and Zerach attend a Jewish school with pluralistic ambitions. A teacher plans a siyyum celebrating the completion of a unit of study and invites students to contribute snacks to share with the class. The teacher, having read about the two-table system, sorts the food into hekhshered and non-hekhshered sets and informs the students about how the food was sorted. Peretz chooses to snack from the hekhsher-only table and Zerach chooses to nosh from both tables. Has Stage-3 pluralism occurred?

The answer depends on the degree to which the students’ decisions were informed and secure. Did Peretz snack confidently? Did Zerach nosh robustly? Perhaps Peretz and Zerach are somewhat precocious, and perhaps they have benefited from excellent instruction about kashrut, modern Jewish history, and Hilchot Pluralism. Even so, classical bar/bat mitzvah age notwithstanding, it would be a stretch to regard their decisions about religious observance as adult decisions unless Peretz and Zerach were at least 15 years old. More realistically, we might take our cue from the 26th amendment and regard the typical young person as capable of making informed decisions about nuanced issues only at the age of 18 years. Regardless of how one determines the precise cutoff age, most primary and secondary school students are not fully-fledged, confident, secure Jewish decision-makers.

Schools, therefore, are not Stage-3 communities of children. Perhaps, however, the students in such schools are merely surrogate decision-makers for their parents (or guardians). Are pluralistic schools Stage-3 communities of adults? To the extent that pluralistic institutions ought to value diversity and prepare students to make their own adult Jewish choices, the answer again is ‘no’.

Consider the following situation: A school maintains an enormous database of parent preferences about Jewish practice. The school requires parents to make these decisions for their children and requires students to abide by these decisions during school activities. Ignore the practical problems surrounding collection and implementation. In theory, such a school would include families with divergent home practices. Is this Stage-3 pluralism?

Maybe, but this school is failing to be pluralistic in the more profound sense of valuing diversity and preparing students to make their own confident adult choices. Parenting involves striking a balance between making decisions for children and letting children make their own decisions, with a gradual shift in emphasis to the latter as children get older. When a parent signs on the dotted line and enrolls a child in a school, the parent admits the school as a partner in the task of child-raising. A pluralistic school can be a safe place for a student to learn to experiment with their emerging adult Jewish identity within parameters defined by the school. If the parent makes every last decision about Jewish practice for a child, and if the school reinforces those decisions, who is teaching the child that diversity of confidently-chosen Jewish identities is a good thing?

The fact that Stage-3 pluralism is not strictly possible in these settings does not mean that these institutions should adopt a Stage-1 or Stage-2 approach or abandon pluralistic aspirations entirely. It does demand that they develop a vision of pluralism that honors the gradually emerging distinctness of parent and child. Jewish schools that aspire to fully-fledged pluralism will need to explicitly inform parents about the extent to which the institution will enforce the preferences of the parents (when they exist) and the extent to which it will promote the child’s development into an independent, informed, confident Jewish decision-maker.

Perhaps truly pluralistic Jewish education is impossible below a certain age, and it is necessary to gain a non-pluralistic foundation so that one can function later in pluralistic settings.

Though pluralistic Jewish schools are multiplying, the vast majority of active Jews continue to attend secular schools or non-pluralistic Jewish schools, while participating in non-pluralistic Jewish communities outside of school, and have their first exposure to Jewish pluralism in college. Hillel is an organization on campuses throughout the world that is committed to producing pluralistic Jewish communities. Some Jewish students are ready for that when they get to college, and others aren't. This disparity is a major reason why most Hillels are never pushed to move beyond Stage 1.

The root of the problem is not simply that 18-year-olds are at a wide range of levels of Jewish education and preparation when they get to college. The problem is that this disparity is correlated with denominational background (and yes, most active Jews get to college with some sort of denominational affiliation in their history, even if those labels are less meaningful in post-college life).

Many Orthodox 18-year-olds have a solid Jewish background. Often they've spent a year in yeshiva after high school. They have lived in a functioning Jewish community where Judaism is lived on a daily basis by regular folks, and they have an image of the type of community they want to emulate. They may not know much about non-Orthodox Jews or Judaism, but they know about themselves and their own form of Judaism. They know enough to be in command of their own Jewish lives during college and to express their preferences and needs in the wider community's discourse.

In contrast, many 18-year-olds from Reform backgrounds (even active ones) lack this solid foundation. Back home, Jewish life was centered on the synagogue, where it was the rabbi's job to know what was going on, so regular people never had to figure it out for themselves and become self-sufficient. Maybe they've had Jewish "peak experiences" at camp or at NFTY conclaves or on an Israel trip. But these experiences, valuable though they are, are so self-contained and dependent on a specific environment that is (by design) isolated from ordinary life that they fail to provide tools for incorporating Judaism into ordinary life. These students have always experienced Judaism in places where someone else was in control of the environment, and don't have experience creating these Jewish environments for themselves. But they're ready to try. Maybe. If they know where to begin. But it's confusing. They're just starting to figure things out.

So the two groups arrive at Hillel and collide. Two groups that together personify Erikson's fifth stage: identity vs. role confusion. One group confidently knows everything, in that way that only adolescents can, and one group is having an identity crisis, in that way that only adolescents can. One group is asking "What are the laws, precepts, and ordinances that our God has commanded you?" and one group is asking "What is this?". And they're broken down on lines of ideology and practice, with Orthodox Jews primarily falling into the first group and liberal Jews primarily into the second.

And somehow they're supposed to cobble together a pluralistic Jewish community where everyone's identity is respected. That's not going to happen when one group of students are confidently asserting their identity and another group of students are timidly trying to feel theirs out. So even though everyone has the best intentions, the result is frequently Stage 1, because the students with the most confidence and knowledge end up having the greatest influence on the discourse, so the Orthodox cognitive frames become the frames for the whole community.

My proposed solution will come as no surprise: create robust liberal Jewish communities so that children (and adults) can develop solid knowledgeable liberal Jewish identities, and will then be ready to take part in Stage-3 pluralism. Any attempt at pluralism without this foundation is putting the cart before the horse, and has little chance of success (if success is defined as Stage 3).

Coming in Part VII: ???


Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Back in September I wrote:
(I can't stand the appellation "young professionals", but that deserves a separate rant.)

An anonymous commenter responded:
please, please, please do your rant on the icky term "young professionals!" (we are what we do for money, and what we do for money is always very white collar??)

So here goes.

There are some instances when the use of "young professionals" is warranted: when career networking (and thus the actual "profession") is the explicit objective, or when referring derisively or jokingly to the "yuppie" stereotype.

But much of the time, the "professional" part is irrelevant. Really, people are just trying to refer to a particular age group, and the "professional" part is just incidental filler. This leads to one of two readings, both of which are offensive: 1) As Anonymous suggests, everyone is assumed to be a "professional". 2) There is no such assumption, but only "professionals" are invited.

If neither of these readings is intended and the goal is just to refer to an age group, then why does the phrase "young professional" have such traction?

I think it's like "Czech Republic".

We don't ordinarily refer to countries by their national adjective followed by their system of government. We don't say "Mexican Republic" or "Cuban Dictatorship" or "Iraqi Anarchy". We just use the noun forms of the countries' names.

But ever since Czechoslovakia split in 1993, the Czech part never had a noun name that caught on in English, just the adjective. (It was never an independent nation before; before World War I, it was part of Austria-Hungary along with much of central Europe.) Czechia has been suggested, but hasn't become popular yet. So in the meantime, we talk about the "Czech Republic", gratuitously mentioning its system of government for no good reason, all because of a grammatical constraint.

"Young professionals" is the same way. Really they just mean "young", but that's an adjective, so they need to find a noun to stick after it. "Young people" doesn't work, because that suggests children. What they mean is "young adults", but that doesn't work either, because that is a euphemism for adolescents has been used to refer to what we would now call adolescents since before adolescence was constructed. They're looking for a phrase that refers to the young end of the stage that our society now thinks of as adulthood. And someone thought that "professionals" would do the trick, since "professionals" can't be any younger than 21 or so. Except that this usage is problematic, as discussed above.

The solution: If you want to refer to an age range, refer to the age range explicitly, and don't look for descriptive labels, because our language isn't versatile enough to provide one.

Look back on those days when my life was a haze

This is a continuation of my goal to write all the posts that I said I would. (Hilchot Pluralism Part VI will be here ASAP, I promise!)

I already blogged about Shabbat at IT, and said:
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.

So here's the full story.

After over two decades together, Phish decided to call it quits, and convened a final two-day festival in August 2004. The festival was in Coventry, minutes from the Quebec border, in the serene Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the area where Trey Anastasio wrote some of Phish's earliest classics while living in a cabin there in the '80s. For a few days, Coventry was the most populous city in the history of Vermont.

IT, the previous summer's festival, in Limestone, Maine (minutes from the New Brunswick border), had been a logistical disaster on many levels. The site was 57 miles past the end of I-95, that's 57 miles on rural two-lane roads that were never meant to accommodate 70,000 people. And they somehow had to get 70,000 people into the venue in a short window of time, which might have been more feasible if it weren't for the RAIN which had soaked the area just before the festival and rendered some of the parking/camping areas unusable, forcing the organizers to scramble for new space. They pulled it off, but it wasn't pretty, and we sat through a 12-hour traffic jam on the way in, and spent the next few days wading through MUD. So much mud.

So they tried to get some of these things right for Coventry. This time, the site was much closer to major population centers (really, you have no idea how big Maine is), and was only 6 miles off of I-91, so most of the driving, even close to the site, was on interstates. The actual shows were on Saturday and Sunday nights. For IT, they had opened up the venue on Friday morning to allow plenty of time for people to get in. Even that wasn't enough time, so this time around, they opened the doors on Thursday at noon. But there was one factor that they couldn't control: the RAIN was even worse this time. There were murmurs about the worst flood that this area had seen in n years, yadda yadda.

I drove up with EAR and Crammed. Determined to avoid last year's madness, we went up early enough to avoid the worst of it. We drove up on Thursday, so we would get there well before Shabbat. Since we made a detour to the Ben & Jerry's factory (amid sheets of rain), we weren't on I-91 with everyone else, and headed toward the Northeast Kingdom on minor roads that we mostly had to ourselves. Until the last few miles, which took all night. But then it was Friday morning and we were there.

We had an unpleasant run-in with the authorities on the way in. Part of the bottleneck was caused by searches of every car, looking for illegal substances, stowaways (without tickets), and anything that looked like it was for sale (since it was important that no one buy anything other than from a licensed vendor, so that Great Northeast Productions could take its huge cut). We had two boxes of Pri Eitz Hadar CDs in the trunk of the car -- one opened and one unopened. We had been selling them at Institute, and had completely forgotten that they were still in the car. We were told that we couldn't bring the CDs in. We said (entirely truthfully) that we had no intention of selling the CDs inside the festival, and we just had them with us from something else. They said that we had a choice -- we could hand over the CDs, or we could turn around and leave them somewhere else. We asked if there was any place we could leave the CDs and pick them up afterwards, and they said no. So this wasn't much of a choice at all -- it wasn't like we could call up our buddy in Newport and ask if we could park the CDs at his house for a few days, and even if we could, we would have to wait in the 12-hour line again. After pondering the possibility of just going home, we decided to hand over the CDs, as I mentally prepared to explain to the Hadar gabbais what had happened, and to pay for all the CDs. I hoped that Hadar would have mercy and would just let me pay for them at cost rather than at the sticker price.

Once we got inside and got settled, we found someone with more authority than the people who had confiscated the CDs, and explained our plight. He was sympathetic to us, and retrieved the CDs from the area where they were storing all the contraband, and we lived happily ever after. But now we understood why it took so long to get in -- if there is this type of protracted negotiation with each car, and you multiply that by several thousand, it adds up quickly. And they weren't even going after the right people -- it was obvious that many people did get in with merchandise they were selling, and much more of it than 1.5 boxes, and much more appealing to the average Phish fan's tastes than not one but two versions of Ashrei.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about Shabbat.

Thanks to Shamir, I had scored Rav Shmuel's cell phone number. Rav Shmuel (not to be confused with Rav and Shmuel) is a Hasidic rabbi who teaches Torah by day and is "undercover as a singer-songwriter right here at the Sidewalk Cafe" by night. During the Phish years, he and his entourage used to follow Phish around, and make Shabbat happen on tour. I heard that he would be organizing some kind of Shabbat thing at Coventry, so I called him up on Friday afternoon to find out where the party was at. It immediately became clear that things had gone wrong and there was no party that night. Since this was the last Phish show ever, Rav Shmuel had cashed in all his connections and gotten VIP status, so he had been able to get into the grounds through the supersecret entrance with no hassle. But the RV carrying Rav Shmuel's disciples and all the food was not so lucky. They were still stuck in the endless traffic jam and were not going to make it inside in time for Shabbat. So there were no Friday night festivities, but he told us to meet at a certain location at 11 AM on Saturday, and they'd figure out what was happening.

So EAR, Crammed, and I made our own Shabbat dinner, with food from the on-site Vermont farmers' market, and we did kabbalat shabbat the best we could recall from memory (it started to rain again, and we didn't want to get our siddurim wet), had a Shabbat dinner that couldn't be beat, went to sleep (quite soundly, having spent the previous night in the car), and didn't get up until the next morning.

Coventry was abuzz on Saturday morning. Mike Gordon went on the Bunny and announced that due to the flooding, the festival site had reached its capacity, and they couldn't let any more cars in. He told everyone who was still in their car to turn around and go home, and their tickets would be refunded.

(Why Mike? Because he was the "good cop". Everyone knew that Trey Anastasio was the main force behind Phish's breakup, so the fans were pissed at Trey already. Some took this to extremes -- I saw signs that read "TREY = WILSON". Mike, on the other hand, was widely known to be opposed to the breakup, so he still had credibility with the fans, and got to be the bearer of bad news.)

Of course people weren't going to turn around after coming this far. (Sunk cost, shmunk cost.) Instead, they pulled their cars over into the shoulder of I-91, took out everything they could carry on their backs, and walked the rest of the way in, some of them walking 20 miles.

We went to the appointed meeting place at 11 AM and found some of Rav Shmuel's entourage. The RV had arrived early that morning, before they stopped letting vehicles in. It was in the RV area way back near the entrance to the site, so we started walking toward the outskirts.

Rav Shmuel's disciples don't drive on Shabbat, so how did they get the RV inside after Shabbat started? "We went through 4 or 5 non-Jewish drivers. We told them they could have all the fried chicken and marijuana they wanted." None of the vehicles were moving very fast, and they all had lots of passengers, so Rav Shmuel's disciples had recruited passengers from other cars to take shifts driving the RV, while they themselves walked alongside for the remaining miles, which, of course, wasn't any slower than driving.

We arrived at the RV, and there was a tarp on the ground next to it. People were bringing out food, and more food, and more food. There was cholent, and kugel, and of course fried chicken, and probably enough of it for 50 people, for 2 meals (since this was supposed to be Friday night's dinner too). There were about 25 of us there.

Rav Shmuel himself is a class act, but some of the people following him around (and following Phish around) seemed to be lost souls. They seemed relatively new to the whole Jewish thing, and this was the latest thing that they were experimenting with. Mostly boisterous men, with a few women who didn't talk. One of the men (we'll call him Ephraim) made kiddush on an overflowing cup of whiskey, followed by cheering from the crowd as he downed the whole thing. As we started eating, Ephraim shared a vort. "The word mayim has one yud, and the word lechayim has two yuds. When the goyim drink, they drink alone, one yud, like it's mayim. But when we drink, we drink together, two yuds, so it's more than just mayim, we're making a lechayim. Lechayim!"

Pause. We sat there uncomfortably.

Rav Shmuel said calmly "I'm not so into that." Ephraim turned around, confused. Rav Shmuel said "We should be thankful that we live in this country, and be proud to be Jewish, without putting down our neighbors." Ephraim got defensive, but not argumentative, since he wasn't going to question his rav. He said "I wasn't putting them down, I was just saying they have a drinking problem." Pause. Ephraim continued, "Of course, I have a drinking problem too."

Score one for Rav Shmuel.

Sava'nu vehotarnu. We were finished eating, and there were still mountains of food left over. Who would consume all of it? At this point, situated as we were near the entrance, we could see hundreds of people hiking in with tents on their backs -- that's right, the people who had parked on the side of I-91 were now arriving in bigger and bigger waves. One of Rav Shmuel's people yelled "FREE KOSHER FOOD!"

"Duuuude, I'm staaaarving!" The hikers came over and helped themselves to hot cholent. "You guys rock, man."

Now it was time for zemirot. Some people started "Baruch El Elyon", a Modzitz classic. But after a verse or two, the fresh-off-the-boat "BTs" realized they didn't know the words, and scrambled around looking for a bencher. Meanwhile, I (wearing my NFTY T-shirt with the letters of NFTY in the shape of the Phish logo) knew all the words, so I was able to keep it going (and I promise we didn't sing this song back in NFTY).

You can't make this stuff up, and sometimes I wonder whether any of it happened or whether it was just a strange dream brought on by too much Chunky Monkey back at the Ben & Jerry's factory.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The War on 4 Tevet

I don't drive a Mercedes-Benz, and
I don't desire to own one
I'd sooner watch a flower grow than the latest from
Sylvester Stallone
I don't have me a country club membership
I ride the Greyhound bus
I don't have a cabin two hours north of here
I don't celebrate Christmas

But it's my country too
Sometimes I gotta remind myself
It's my country too
I pay my taxes
Vote on election day
I stop at stop signs
Just like you

--Dan Bern

Friday, December 22, 2006

Establishing the mishkan

I just posted this devar torah for Chanukah on JSpot. It's a condensed version of the Lunch-and-Learn that I taught last Shabbat at Hadar. (If you can get your hands on a copy of Pesikta deRav Kahana, I recommend reading the whole story. It's section 1, and it's really good.)

That same morning at Hadar, General Anna gave this devar torah, inspired in part by this Arlo Guthrie concert that we both attended.

Tonight is both the winter solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tevet! So it really is the darkest time of the year: the shortest period of daylight, and the darkest night. It will only get brighter after this.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Us us us us us us us and them them them them them them them

I received not one but two (identical) solicitation letters in the mail today from the Union for Reform Judaism. I think the way I got on their "donor" mailing list is that I sent a contribution last year to the URJ's Katrina Relief fund. All denominational and non-denominational politics aside, the URJ and the Jewish communities of New Orleans and throughout the South did admirable work in assisting evacuees in the aftermath of the hurricane. If they asked for more money to continue rebuilding the Gulf Coast, I'd donate again.

But that's not what this letter was about. They're looking for contributions to the Fund for Reform Judaism to support "Outreach". The climactic paragraph says:

As our Movement continues to grow, so does our obligation as Reform Jews to reach out to the unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews, to intermarried couples, and to all those on the margins of the Jewish community, communicating to them the power and beauty of our Jewish heritage. We are committed to opening our arms as wide as possible to welcome the stranger into our sacred communities.

I filled out the reply card, writing $0 for the contribution amount, and writing this note at the bottom:

I believe this solicitation was misdirected. I am not a member of a URJ congregation; I am one of those "unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews", not part of the "we" who are welcoming "them". Asking for money is not the best way to start attracting "them".

And I'm sure I'm not the only non-URJ-congregation-member who contributed to the Katrina Relief Fund -- at the time, lots of people were looking for ways to make their Katrina donations through Jewish organizations. If they had done a more refined search of their database before sending this letter, they would have figured out that I'm not on any of their other mailing lists, and they thus have no way to assume that I'm part of the "us" who are taking up the white man's burden. When it comes to Jewish institutions, I think of myself as that "stranger", the huddled masses, the "them", not one of the people who are already in the door. Like many Jews my age who grew up in the Reform movement, I have not belonged to a URJ congregation since I moved out of my parents' house and went to college. If they insist on drawing this dichotomy between "us" and "them", they should be more careful about where they send the internal memos that are just intended for "us".

Another "us"/"them" gem from the same letter:
Today, about 1/3 of the interfaith couples in our midst choose to affiliate with synagogues, a number that continues to grow. These are families each of us knows. They are our friends, our relatives, our children and grandchildren -- and we cannot imagine our congregations without them.

Ok, it is correct that I am not part of an interfaith couple, and I have friends and relatives who are (no children or grandchildren). However, this phrasing assumes that the recipients of the letter do not include any interfaith couples -- "we cannot imagine our synagogues without them" -- which cannot possibly be true, especially given how indiscriminately the letter seems to have been sent. And I can't imagine that the interfaith couples reading the letter appreciate being addressed in the third person.

The URJ's heart is in the right place: they get credit for giving lip service to welcoming interfaith families, rather than talking about intermarriage as a boogeyman that is coming to eat us. However, this "us"/"them" mentality ensures that the people being "welcomed" are always the Other, always at arm's length.

Mi shebeirach

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) has been hospitalized. If he is unable to complete his term in the Senate (which goes through 2008), Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would appoint a replacement. Remember, Rounds is the one who signed the state abortion ban (recently repealed by a popular referendum), so he clearly wants a Senate who will approve Bush's wacko judicial nominees. If the replacement senator is a Republican, this will shift the balance of the Senate to 50-50 (assuming both independents continue to caucus with the Democrats), with Dick Cheney breaking the tie.

So all we can do is pray for Sen. Johnson's full and speedy recovery. Please add Tim ben Noach to your mi shebeirach.

Don't mess with Texas

Congratulations to Ciro Rodriguez, who has been elected in the runoff election in Texas's 23rd Congressional District! This makes it official: the new House of Representatives will have 233 Democrats and 202 Republicans. This means that the Democrats will have more seats than the Republicans have had at any time since 1949 (the famous "Do Nothing Congress") .

Saturday, December 09, 2006


This is the second post in a series on the ways that New York City synagogues fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orechim (welcoming guests).

This morning I was at a synagogue that I don't regularly attend (which describes every synagogue, I suppose), for a special occasion. During the kedushah, a fast-paced melody was used, and I was rhythmically hitting the pew in front of me, as did a number of other people. A gentleman of a certain age (who was later identified to be a Conservative rabbi, but was emphatically not the rabbi of the congregation), sitting behind me, nudged me and said quite loudly, "It's an idolatrous custom!" I stopped.

After the kedushah was over, I turned around and said to him "It's asur to speak during kedushah." He said "I know that, but it's a bigger aveirah to bang on a bench like that. I was trying to save you." I said "I appreciate it." He said "I know all the hilchos mafsik, and I don't need to learn it from you."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


The 2007 International Physics Olympiad will be in a country that has been making the news for doing physics research that other countries aren't so happy about. That's right... it's in Iran!!! The IPhO will be in historic Isfahan, Iran's third largest city, home of Persian rugs, Naghsh-i Jahan Square, and the Uranium Conversion Facility.

It would be cool if some of our students make it on to the U.S. Physics Team and get the rare experience (as Americans) of visiting Iran, under double-secret diplomatic protection. But that's looking not so likely, given the geopolitical situation. The American Association of Physics Teachers (sponsors of the U.S. Physics Team) says:

In view of the current international controversies surrounding Iran and the U.S. State Department’s travel warning, we have significant concerns regarding the travel of the U.S. students and coaches to the international event. We are very grateful for the hosts’ generous hospitality and recognize their collegiality, but we may be compelled to forgo competing in Iran for the international event unless the escalating political climate substantially improves.

I'm still encouraging my students to take the Preliminary Exam even though the odds aren't so good that they'll get to compete internationally -- only 5 students from the whole country get onto the U.S. Physics Team, so the odds were against them anyway.

Some positive developments for this year:
  • They're making the Preliminary Exam easier. There are still going to be only 200 semifinalists, so it will be just as difficult to make it to the next round, but the semifinalists will no longer be distinguished as the only 200 people in the country who were able to answer any questions at all.
  • Specifically, it's going to be mechanics only. Thus, people taking the exam in February after a whole semester of AP Physics C Mechanics (who are just starting the Electricity & Magnetism part of the year) don't have to get demoralized when they show up thinking that they pwn angular momentum and then run into a bunch of questions about inductance and blackbody radiation.
  • The teachers don't have to grade the Preliminary Exam anymore! And there is online registration!
The IPhO has not been isolated from international politics. The first one was in Poland, and it started as mostly a Soviet bloc thing ("international" because it involved multiple nations, not because it involved the whole world). The first Western Hemisphere nation to participate was Cuba. But the US has been participating for many years, and hosted it in 1993.

After this Iran mess is resolved, we can look forward to less controversial host nations in the future. Next year's Olympiad will be in... Vietnam!

The rainbow connection

Listen to Elizabeth Richman of Keshet JTS on NPR Morning Edition!