Thursday, July 19, 2007

The liberal case against the triennial cycle

This recent post, with its focus on the minutiae of the Torah reading cycle, reminded me that I still have one stock Jewish rant that I haven't blogged yet. Otherwise, one reason that I haven't been blogging much of late (even though I'm now on vacation until August 28, 2008) is that I'm out of ideas. (The Republicans continue to suck in new ways, but there are other blogs covering this better than I ever could.) So I'm taking requests.

This post is about the "triennial cycle" of Torah reading.

Background: Back in the day, the annual cycle with which we are familiar, in which the Torah is completed in one year, was standard in Babylonia, while the land of Israel used a triennial cycle, completing the Torah in three years. The old triennial cycle had no relationship to the annual cycle; a section of the Torah (on average, 1/3 as long as the average portion in the annual cycle) would be read one week, and then the next section would be read the next week, etc. Thus, both cycles involved reading the whole Torah sequentially. As Babylonia became the center of Jewish life, the annual cycle (starting and ending on the "holiday" of Simchat Torah) became standard across the Jewish world, including the land of Israel as Jews returned there.

Fast forward to modern times. For various reasons (which we'll ignore for now, but address later in the post), many liberal Jewish communities have decided that they would rather read a shorter Torah portion on Shabbat. The (AFAIK) universal way of doing this is by saying "This week's portion is Parshat Devarim", identifying the portion from the annual cycle, but then reading a subset of this portion. There are two different ways of selecting this subset.

One way (common in Reform congregations) is for the rabbi or congregation to select a chunk of the portion to read each week. This is often considerably less than 1/3 of the parasha. For a given parasha, the same chunk might end up being read every year (because it is perceived to be the best part), or the community might have minhagim to ensure that different parts of the parasha are read in different years. In either case, many parts of the Torah are never read in public in these communities. One can infer from this that these communities do not hold reading the entire Torah in public as a value. Though I would disagree, that's not the subject of this post.

The other way of selecting a subset of the Torah portion to read (more common in Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations) is the so-called "triennial cycle" that is the subject of this post. The basis for this is that these communities want to remain in sync with the annual cycle, while reading less per week than the annual cycle and reading the entire Torah. So they're on a 3-year cycle, which is intended to evoke the original Palestinian triennial cycle. In the first year of the cycle, they read the first third of Bereishit one week (while communities on the annual cycle read all of Parshat Bereishit), the first third of Noach the next week, etc., and then they loop around and read the second third of Bereishit, the second third of Noach, etc., and so on until the whole Torah is completed. The Conservative movement and the Reconstructionist movement each have standardized divisions of the Torah into thirds and into aliyot, each conforming to the rules (from Masechet Megillah) of how to split the reading into aliyot. (These charts differ not for ideological reasons, but simply because two different people sat down independently to hammer them out, and didn't have ruach hakodesh working for them the way the translators of the Septuagint did. Likewise, the two movements are on standardized schedules for their congregations that use the triennial cycle, but two different schedules: the Reconstructionist movement is currently on year 2, and the Conservative movement is on year 3.)

The traditionalist case against this practice is fairly obvious, so I'm not going to make that argument here. (That traditionalist argument could, of course, also be applied in response to the other style in which a small chunk of the parasha is selected each week, and would be even stronger but also less convincing, because if one doesn't agree that reading the entire Torah is a value, then there's not much to say.) As the subject line says, I'm going to state the liberal case against the triennial cycle.

First of all, let's agree that any connection between the modern triennial cycle(s) and the original one is purely superficial, and any attempt to use one to justify the other is a laughable shell game. They have the same periodicity, but completely different structure. Now that that's out of the way, let's examine the modern triennial cycle on its own merits.

Really this gets down to the difference between liberal Judaism and half-assed-Orthodox Judaism (whether of the "The synagogue I don't go to is Orthodox" variety or of the variety found in many liberal Jewish communities). What they have in common, of course, is that neither adheres to Orthodox practice, but they shouldn't otherwise be confused with each other. Robust liberal Judaisms seek to minimize the gap between belief and practice. Individuals and communities should act in accordance with their Jewish values, which should be internally coherent even if they clash with values held by other Jews. In contrast, the half-assed-Orthodox Jew believes that Orthodox practice is the most authentic way to practice Judaism (and that it's a darn good thing that there are still Orthodox Jews doing things the right way), but does not practice this way him/herself, and thus believes him/herself to be "less observant".

That's not to say that there is anything about the annual cycle (i.e. reading the entire Torah in one year) that is inherently Orthodox or antithetical to liberal Judaism. (In fact, I prefer it.) But if for some reason your community wants to read the entire Torah and believes that a shorter weekly Torah reading (~1/160 of the Torah each Shabbat rather than 1/54) is the way to go, then stand by the courage of your convictions and go on the original triennial cycle, which is suited to shorter readings and is internally coherent. Reading the first third of Bereishit, the first third of Noach, the first third of Lech Lecha, etc., has no internal coherence. (God has just finished creating the world, then immediately decides to destroy it! What changed all of a sudden? Then, as soon as the flood waters dry up, God starts talking to Abram. Who's Abram? And so forth. Not a problem if you see the role of public Torah reading as just presenting the highlights, but communities that use the triennial cycle have the public reading of the entire Torah as a stated goal.)

The only way it makes any sense at all is if there are communities elsewhere operating on the annual cycle. When someone says "The Torah portion this week is Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), but we're just reading the last third (2:31-3:22)," what does s/he mean by "is"? On what metaphysical level "is" the Torah portion Parshat Devarim? The implication is that the Torah portion this week is Parshat Devarim in some kind of Platonic ideal, but we're living in Plato's cave and just experiencing a shadow of the ideal. Thus the communities that use the modern triennial cycle are broadcasting the message: "The communities using the annual cycle are more authentic, and we are choosing to live in their shadow."

Yes, I understand that Kelal Yisrael may be a value that motivates wanting to be in sync with other Jewish communities. But as liberal Jews, our commitment to Kelal Yisrael must not come at the expense of our own independence or sense of authenticity. We cannot carry out a practice that leaves us dependent on other Jewish communities that we perceive as more authentic. If we can't find authenticity in our own practices, then we should reconsider them.

*****

Those are the main points. Now I'll question some of the assumptions taken for granted above. If these challenges stand, then the case for the modern triennal cycle is even weaker.

Assumption 1: A community using the modern triennial cycle can stay in sync with communities using the annual cycle.

In what sense is this really true? If community T uses the triennial cycle and community A uses the annual cycle, then a person from T can visit A for a Shabbat and hear everything s/he would have missed at home and still hear the entire Torah during the designated period (3 years in this case), but the reverse doesn't work: if a person from A visits T, then s/he won't hear the entire Torah during the designated period (1 years in this case). The only people who can visit T and vice versa with full compatibility are people from T', a community that uses the same triennial cycle. Indeed, this is probably why the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have each standardized their triennial cycles. But if the triennial cycle is really going to lead to full compatibility only with other communities on the same cycle, then why don't all the communities using triennial cycles decide together to go on the old Palestinian triennial cycle instead?

Assumption 2: Reading a shorter Torah portion is sufficiently desirable that it is worth sacrificing either Kelal Yisrael or (much worse, IMHO) internal coherence.

The most common stated reason for wanting a triennial rather than an annual cycle is "The service is too long." This is an aesthetic judgment that can't be argued with. But let's look more closely at this claim. Obviously, all things being equal, a shorter Torah reading takes less time than a longer Torah reading. But all things are not equal. Maybe I'm spoiled by Hadar, but communities that use the triennial cycle tend not to actually have shorter services (or even shorter Torah services) than the communities I'm familiar with that use the annual cycle. If the goal is to make services shorter, perhaps they should first look at other places where they can shave off some time. I'm not talking about cutting anything substantive (singing, divrei torah, etc.), I'm talking about pure inefficiency: long awkward pauses between aliyot while waiting for someone to come to the amud or figuring out who's getting the next aliyah; a separate mi shebeirach for each aliyah; unnecessarily verbose announcements during the service; "This week's portion begins on ....... anyone have the page in the Hertz?"; etc. Instead of cutting the Torah reading first, there are plenty of other areas that the community can cut first, and then decide whether the service is still too long.

Another reason for a shorter Torah reading, to which I am much more sympathetic, is that Torah reading is very preparation-intensive, and the community may not have enough available person-hours each week to do the full annual reading (let alone to do it well). That's understandable. But then frame your decision to do a triennial reading in practical terms (such that this decision could be reversed if the supply of person-hours were to increase) rather than as an ideological decision that you think makes you more progressive. And if it's only possible to prepare part of the Torah reading, it's always possible to read the rest from a printed book, which requires no preparation. While reading from the scroll is preferable, reading from a book is still better than nothing. This past Shabbat I visited Fabrangen, where they read a small piece of the Torah portion from the scroll (chosen, I believe, based on the topic of the devar torah and discussion) but then read the entire (double!) parasha from a book in English, showing that they weren't going to put themselves in anyone's shadow. (I would have preferred Hebrew, since every translation is an interpretation, but if the community isn't all proficient in biblical Hebrew, then English can be a more effective means of limmud torah in the short term.)

A third reason is that the community is unfamiliar with Hebrew and doesn't want to be subjected to a long reading in a language they don't understand. Then see above: reading in the vernacular is a (short-term) possibility, and is clearly a better use of everyone's time than listening to 7 mi shebeirachs in Hebrew.

*****

Postscript: Using the triennial cycle for ad hoc nondenominational gatherings makes no sense (even less than using it in general). When a permanent community goes on the triennial cycle, it is making a commitment to complete the Torah over the course of 3 years. When a group of people gets together for a single Shabbat, there is no such commitment. Let's unpack the statement "We're in year 2 of the triennial cycle", which someone might make in the context of such a gathering. Who's "we"? "We" weren't together for this parasha last year; we were all at home in our own communities, where some of us read the whole parasha, some read a third of it, and some read less than that. So how can "we" have reached year 2 already when we haven't done year 1 yet? And what's "the" triennial cycle? There are at least two in wide circulation, each identified with an institutional movement, and this is a nondenominational gathering. Are "we" identifying ourselves as part of the Conservative movement by placing ourselves in "year 2" because many Conservative congregations did year 1 last year?

Of course, there is rarely this much analysis going into the decision to say "Let's do a triennial reading. What year are we in?", but I think there should be.

22 comments:

  1. I'd always thought that the way trienniel gets done is silly, but I'd never considered the authenticity angle, just the incoherence.

    I wonder if one thing that prevents people from doing ordered trienniel is the question of what to do with simhat torah.

    Sure, you can always sing and dance with the torah, and yom tov is an excellent opportunity. But I'd find my simhat torah to be lessened if there weren't the completion element.

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  2. But completion of what?

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  3. reading all the torah

    with the current way of doing trienniel it's an illusion, and I wouldn't like it either.

    but people like illusions sometimes.

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  4. Shlomo naeh suggested that there *was* a simchat torah, twice every seven years, in Palestine, and that it was connected to the notion of Hakhel (on sukkot of the 8th year). So this could be a substitute for simchat torah.
    The bigger question is, is shortening the davenning worth abandoning not only finishing the Torah, and not only going "out of sync" with the great cosmic parsha calendar in the sky, but also tampering with the holiday schedule.
    For those who only celebrate one day, like BZ (and myself, but for different reasons), the disappearance of Simchat Torah, would, however, be a blessing. Then we could actually eat lunch on shmini azeret.

    On an aside about the big parasha calendar, you'll notice this is just another case where the C&R movements have their "sectorial" practices (like the siddurim only they publish, and the calendars only they have), while O practice - i.e. for most people "non-practice" is the "norm", since there are a million companies that print siddurim, and almost all Hebrew calendars have the "standard" parshiot printed in them (which is why there is such a thing as the great cosmic parasha calendar).

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  5. The bigger question is, is shortening the davenning worth abandoning not only finishing the Torah, and not only going "out of sync" with the great cosmic parsha calendar in the sky, but also tampering with the holiday schedule.

    How does this tamper with the holiday schedule? "Simchat Torah" takes place on a holiday that would (at least in theory) be observed anyway.

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  6. I know of one shul that follows the Palestinian custom of triennial reading. They observe Simchat Torah every year because Klal Israel is observing the chag, and they have an extra special Simchat Torah when they complete a consecutive Torah reading.

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  7. I know of one shul that follows the Palestinian custom of triennial reading.

    Cool! Where is this?

    They observe Simchat Torah every year because Klal Israel is observing the chag

    Meaning that they have a festive celebration on Shemini Atzeret (viz. the 2nd day thereof if they keep two days), or that they read the end and beginning of the Torah each year?

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  8. A question: How common is it for Conservative congregations to use the triennial cycle? Is it standard? Because I don't think I've ever been in a Conservative shul that uses that, at least not that I've been aware of. Anyone know?

    My blog

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  9. How does this tamper with the holiday schedule? "Simchat Torah" takes place on a holiday that would (at least in theory) be observed anyway.
    Becuase it would be taking away a big chunk of what the holiday came to stand for, and demote it into second day shmini atzeret.

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  10. One could make an argument, I guess, that the practice of reading from a section of the weekly parsha, chosen by the rabbi or ritual committee or other communal group, presumes that the people in the community have spent the week studying the whole parsha on their own time and in their own ways. In other words, it works best when the community is invested enough in their own learning that they engage with the full text on their own; in that case, reading an excerpt (3 aliyot, or 1 aliyah, or whatever) in shul on Shabbat morning is a kind of highlights session, a reminder of the text they've already been living with all week.

    Dunno how often that's actually the case, but it's an intriguing notion. :-)

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  11. I don't think we know exactly what the Palestinian tradition is. There is a mesorah for the breaks, but its a question of how many there are. We have various records of how many breaks there were, and it seems each community did their own thing.

    One very impressive solution I saw was that of Elchanan Samet. He theorized that just as we have double parshas today (see BZ's previous post), they needed them back then. And since you were talking about a 3 year reading period when there was no official calendar, its hard to do all the doubling ahead of time.

    SO - they would start reading, and get to the end about 3.5 years later. Then they would start again, this time paying greater attention to what needs to be doubled, and finish by sukkot. Thus, while each community did their own set of double parshas, every seven years everyone would finish reading it, which is when they would celebrate Hakel.

    Samet starts this whole essay with the question what is the zecher or remnant to Hakel. This whole explanation shows that we celebrate Hakel today as Simchat Torah, which I think is pretty cool.

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  12. I don't think we know exactly what the Palestinian tradition is. There is a mesorah for the breaks, but its a quesetion of how many there are. We have various records of how many breaks there were, and it seems each community did their own thing.

    we sort of do, since there are piyyutim for the sedarim, and the midrashim are arranges accordingly, and some more indicators.
    The hole in the hakhel suggestion - found by Ezra Fleischer ז"ל- is that there are no piyyutim for the tremendous occasion that would have been hakhel.

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  13. Today's "Simchat Torah" may be a recapitulation of the impulse to "Hakhel" without being a literal continuance of it (after all, S.T. comes out of Babylonia and the 3.5-year cycle we're discuss was practiced in Israel).

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  14. I thought your Postscript was brilliant btw, BZ.

    As for Farbrangen, I've been there a few times and always enjoyed the feeling of community - until someone would make an inevitable (and completely gratuitous) Orthodox-bashing comment, and I think "How is going out of your way to talk trash about people that [you assume] aren't even present helpful to your spiritual growth?"

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  15. "Cool! Where is this?"

    I will try to find out where that synagouge is and what it is called. I've never actually been there. It is a Conservative shul and I think it is somewhere in Maryland.

    "Meaning that they have a festive celebration on Shemini Atzeret (viz. the 2nd day thereof if they keep two days), or that they read the end and beginning of the Torah each year? "

    Meaning they dance with the Torah every 23rd day of Tishrei but the community feels that the celebration is extra meaningful when they complete a cycle.

    "I don't think we know exactly what the Palestinian tradition is... SO - they would start reading, and get to the end about 3.5 years later."

    You got me! It is not exactly the Palestinian minhag. It is only a 3 year cycle. My guess is they follow the Conservative movement's standard triennial aliyah breakdown but read the entire thing consecutively.

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  16. Look at some of the alternatives, though, and their implications for klal yisrael. A local "independent minyan" which will remain nameless claims that one of their raisons d'etre (pardon my non-french) is that the local Cons shul does triennial. This minyan, however, meets only every fourth week. Unlike Hadar folks, most of the attendants don't go to any other shul on the "off weeks." So they're too frum for a third of the Torah, but not for a quarter? Second, I have lived in places where the local shul doesn't always get a minyan on Shabbat (let alone M/Th). Are these shuls supposed to read two parshiyot the next week to satisfy our consistency concerns? They also have the "Simhat Torah" problem. In the end, the public reading of Torah is a communal hiyuv, not a personal one, whereas Limud Torah is a personal one that is to be done triply (2x bmikra, 1x btargum) each week. Nobody at a Triennial shul, a monthly indy minyan or even the Orthodox shul in Poughkeepsie that never gets a minyan should complain "Avram who?" (sometimes it says "Avram hee") unless they're not keeping up with their Judaism during the rest of the week, which I'm sure most people aren't, which is fine, but then why stop at Avram? Why not "turn to P. 36 in your siddur?" "what's a siddur?" Or "today's haftarah is the Book of Ovadya," "What's that?"

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  17. What do you consider a legitimate reason for wanting to do triennial? I think a synagogue needs to weigh its needs: would the people in that synagogue or minyan benefit more from lengthy tunes, a sermon, or a full Torah reading (if that's the choice that has to be made)?

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  18. I know one Conservative shul that reads rishon at Shabbat mincha, sheni on Monday, shlishi on Thursday, and then revi'i through the end on Shabbat. Theoretically this lets them shorten the davening time Shabbat morning while still reading the full parsha each week. Of course if you only show up on Shabbat morning you'll miss 1-3 every week.

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  19. MC writes:
    A local "independent minyan" which will remain nameless claims that one of their raisons d'etre (pardon my non-french) is that the local Cons shul does triennial. This minyan, however, meets only every fourth week. Unlike Hadar folks, most of the attendants don't go to any other shul on the "off weeks." So they're too frum for a third of the Torah, but not for a quarter?

    Yeah, this is an interesting problem that I didn't address in the post -- what of communities that don't meet every Shabbat? (And not all Hadar folks have another place to go on the off weeks either.) In theory, they're operating as part of a larger ecosystem, and participants have other places to go on other weeks, but it doesn't always work out this way. So I'm not sure I have an answer about the implications of this for the cycle of Torah reading.

    Second, I have lived in places where the local shul doesn't always get a minyan on Shabbat (let alone M/Th). Are these shuls supposed to read two parshiyot the next week to satisfy our consistency concerns?

    I think these shuls have a basis for saying that other communities elsewhere (klal yisrael, if you will) read Parshat Ploni last week (even if we weren't able to because we didn't get a minyan), so we can all move on to Parshat Ploni++ this week. So what's the difference between this and the "triennial cycle", where a shul says that k'lal yisrael read Parshat Ploni last week (even if we only read a third of it), so we'll move on to Parshat Ploni++ this week? I think everyone would agree that getting a minyan is better than not getting a minyan, and a community with a minyan is more fully actualized than a community without one, so there's nothing problematic about this community (without a minyan) placing itself in the shadow of other communities (with a minyan) for this week and trying harder to get a minyan for next week. It's much more problematic for a community to place itself permanently in the shadow of other communities, and I think a community that does this should question its identity. (Again, this raises tough questions about communities that don't meet every Shabbat. But perhaps they see themselves as part of larger local meta-communities as mentioned above, or perhaps they see their not-every-week status as temporary.)

    They also have the "Simhat Torah" problem.

    This continues to get a big yawn from me (setting practice for the entire year for the sake of dancing on one day), but maybe that's because I've had a conflicted relationship with Simchat Torah for my whole adult life (except the one year I lived in Israel).

    In the end, the public reading of Torah is a communal hiyuv, not a personal one, whereas Limud Torah is a personal one that is to be done triply (2x bmikra, 1x btargum) each week.

    You and rbarenblat make a good point here, and if individuals in the community are (even theoretically) learning the whole parsha on their own during the week, this might provide one answer to my question "On what metaphysical level 'is' the Torah portion Parshat _______?".

    Nobody at a Triennial shul, a monthly indy minyan or even the Orthodox shul in Poughkeepsie that never gets a minyan should complain "Avram who?" (sometimes it says "Avram hee") unless they're not keeping up with their Judaism during the rest of the week, which I'm sure most people aren't, which is fine, but then why stop at Avram?

    My point wasn't that individuals wouldn't be able to follow along with what's happening in the parsha. In that respect, a community that does the modern triennial cycle is no worse than a community where not everyone shows up every week (which isn't a problem for the purposes of this post, since as you note, Torah reading is a communal chiyuv, not an individual one). My point was that the modern triennial cycle could not possibly have evolved independently, because it only makes sense in the context of the annual cycle. If liberal Jewish communities want to be self-sufficient, then we should develop practices that don't require the existence of outside communities. (Likewise, the liberal Jewish world should have its own soferim/soferot, lulav dealers, etc.)

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  20. Ezra writes:
    What do you consider a legitimate reason for wanting to do triennial? I think a synagogue needs to weigh its needs: would the people in that synagogue or minyan benefit more from lengthy tunes, a sermon, or a full Torah reading (if that's the choice that has to be made)?

    I'm skeptical about the question, because Hadar manages to do all three (albeit keeping the "sermon" to 5 minutes) in under 2.5 hours. That said, after all the streamlining is said and done, there might still be reasons that a community would want a shorter Torah reading; time-based reasons might include wanting the total length of the service to be even shorter, or wanting tunes to be even lengthier, etc. In that case, it's not my place to say which of these reasons are more legitimate. I'm just suggesting that if a community wants a shorter Torah reading, then there are ways to do this (e.g. the old triennial cycle) that don't abdicate a sense of authenticity.

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  21. Avi writes:
    I know one Conservative shul that reads rishon at Shabbat mincha, sheni on Monday, shlishi on Thursday, and then revi'i through the end on Shabbat. Theoretically this lets them shorten the davening time Shabbat morning while still reading the full parsha each week.

    This isn't unprecedented: in a baraita on Megillah 31b, Rabbi Meir suggests exactly this, while Rabbi Yehudah supports the practice that is much much more common today. I don't see anything wrong with this in theory. On the other hand...

    Of course if you only show up on Shabbat morning you'll miss 1-3 every week.

    This would describe me and, of course, lots of other people. And I'm guessing that the same was true 1800 years ago, and that's why Rabbi Yehudah's practice is the one that caught on. But Rabbi Meir's practice seems like a good solution for communities that convene in significant force for Shabbat mincha, Monday, and Thursday.

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  22. Sorry for the necroposting, but I saw one VERY good file from the Rabbinical Assembly archives (via Wikipedia) on an "actual" triennial cycle. It lambasts the "fake" triennial cycle used by Conservative congregations, then goes on to attempt to reconstruct a usable triennial cycle patterned after the Eretz Israel minhag.

    http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/teshuvot/docs/19861990/moses_triennial.pdf
    (Warning: very long!)

    Perhaps I'll e-mail it to you if you don't see it.

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