Monday, December 29, 2008

ONE DAY ONLY! Part 2: Conservative

Happy end of Chanukah! Sorry about the delay in getting this next installment posted, but it still seems timely -- even though the Tishrei holidays are long past, the book of Maccabees says that the 8 days of Chanukah were intended as a makeup for the 8 (not 9) days of Sukkot + Shemini Atzeret. After a general post that discussed several teshuvot on 1-day versus 2-day yom tov, this series began with Part 1a and Part 1b, which examined Reform teshuvot on the topic in greater detail. Now that we have obtained copies of the Conservative teshuvot (whose full text is not available online), we'll examine those more closely.

I'm open to suggestions for the next post in the series. I know the Reconstructionist movement includes both 1-day and 2-day options; is there a teshuva discussing this? Are there any Orthodox teshuvot that address the possibility of 1-day yom tov outside Israel? (I'm not so interested in the question of non-Israelis visiting Israel or vice versa, though maybe I should be, since that may be the clearest path to incremental change right now.)


Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal, "Yom Tov Sheni Shel Goluyot", 1963

This statement was passed unanimously by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1963. It's not a teshuvah per se, in the sense that it's not answering a specific question, but an article that opens the topic for discussion. It was answered with three teshuvot, including one by Rabbi Blumenthal himself, all of which were passed by the CJLS in 1969. These were the three teshuvot summarized in my original source, which I erroneously dated to 1963 in a previous post.

Blumenthal begins this introductory article with a history of yom tov sheini. Everyone who has been reading this blog for long enough knows the basic facts by now. This account of the history also focuses on the ways that calendrical controversies are actually manifestations of political jockeying between the land of Israel and the Babylonian diaspora, citing the stories of Rabban Gamliel vs. Rabbi Yehoshua and Saadiah Gaon vs. Aharon Ben Meir as parallel examples. The Babylonian Jews had the algorithm to calculate the calendar independently (which would make two days of yom tov unnecessary), but they were instructed by the Palestinian Jewish authorities to continue observing two days, to keep this practice around for the day when the Sanhedrin would be reestablished in Jerusalem and would once again set new months based on the testimony of witnesses, making two days necessary once again in the Diaspora. (I would note that, in our time, even if the Sanhedrin were to be reestablished and start accepting testimony for the new month, this would not make two days necessary, since we have near-instantaneous global communication. Or if the modern interpretation of the story of the Kutim is that email can be hacked, we have airplanes.)

Blumenthal then goes through various halachot regarding yom tov sheini, showing that it is treated as a distinct day inferior to the first day (and not part of a yoma arichta, as on Rosh Hashanah). "On the other hand, one may not read into these halakhic distinctions any tendency to abandon or abolish the second day. The problem of abolishing the second day seems to be purely a modern one. But is it really a modern problem?" Actually, it turns out that the question was raised during geonic times. A questioner, concerned about Karaite criticism, asked Rav Hai Gaon how to explain yom tov sheini in light of bal tosif concerns. The responses from geonim, among other arguments, retroject the origin of yom tov sheini to much earlier periods in history, to the prophets, Joshua, and even the revelation to Moses. More recently, but before the modern Reform movement, Rabbi Isaac Lampronti (1679-1756) recorded that he met a Sephardi rabbi who considered abolishing yom tov sheini, and responded to him that we don't have the authority to eliminate this minhag.

In the present time, Blumenthal sees only two valid arguments for observing two-day yom tov: 1) the need for a beit din greater in wisdom and number than the original beit din that established yom tov sheini, 2) minhag avoteinu.

Addressing the first argument first, Blumenthal takes the same approach as the CCAR teshuva, and notes that not all of the rishonim agree on the application of this principle (from Mishnah Eduyot). The Raavad says that a greater beit din is not necessary if the reason for the original takanah no longer applies. Since the original reason for yom tov sheini is long obsolete, Blumenthal finds the Raavad's precedent to be sufficient. This is accompanied by a display of self-confidence that would be unusual in the Conservative movement today:

We are not Orthodox rabbis, and the decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards are not intended for those Jews whose lives are moulded by the Orthodox interpretations of the Law. This Committee has been charged by the Rabbinical Assembly with the responsibility to interpret Law and establish standards for the Conservative Jewish community and those who wish to be guided by it. Had we, the Conservative rabbinate or the Conservative laity, wished to be guided by the Orthodox understanding of halakhah, we would not be here.

Next, Blumenthal addresses the question of minhag avoteinu. "One can assemble a whole arsenal of arguments in favor of the retention of any minhag per se and supplement it with a crushing onslaught against the subversive elements who would snatch the minhag from its sacred sanctuary. But what confers the exalted status of minhag upon a practice, and when is it permitted to tumble from its pedestal into the sea of neglect?" He brings sources that discuss cases in which two minhagim came into conflict, or a minhag came into conflict with a new situation, so the cases were adjudicated based on a subjective evaluation of the values behind the minhagim, as well as "intelligence and common sense." "The social, moral, ethical and esthetic values on which the scholar takes his stand, his sense of justice and propriety, his common sense, his understanding of the intent of takanot and of the altered circumstances which prevail in his day . . . all these and more are the tools with which the scholar pummels and pounds the mass of halakhic material to create a decision."

In other words, since there is precedent for overturning an established minhag, it is possible to eliminate yom tov sheini, and "the pivotal consideration is whether it is in the best interests of American Judaism to abolish it." So Blumenthal looks at some of the factors in his own time and place, which (along with the followup teshuvot) provide an interesting window into the sociological realities of American Conservative Judaism in the 1960s.

First of all, with the establishment of the State of Israel, we are no longer in "compulsory Galut", but are connected to Israel in various ways: "We have adopted the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew in our speech, in our schools and even in many of our synagogues." (I had heard that this was primarily a post-1967 thing, but I guess I was wrong.) "It seems all the more important to extend this process by having our religious calendar conform to that which prevails in Israel." This is a similar argument to one of the sides of the URJ Eilu v'Eilu debate that I blogged about (Rabbi Eric Wisnia also emphasizes the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew), and stands in counterpoint both to the amoraic idea (which Blumenthal discussed) that yom tov sheini is about the primacy of Israel in setting the calendar, and the modern idea that yom tov sheini is about retaining a consciousness that we're not in the land of Israel.

Next, the practical considerations:

Hallowing two days of Yom Tov, for many observant and would-be observant Jews, constitutes a serious hardship. Both for adults and university and high school students, the necessity to absent themselves from their regular employment or studies exacts a penalty which is very burdensome. A survey indicates that 80% of our congregations experience a drop in attendance on the second day of anywhere from 5% to 90%.

I understand that synagogue attendance is intended here as a proxy, albeit an imperfect one, for observance of the holiday in general. But this description seems very different from my anecdotal experience 45 years later. Looking at the people I know who recognize 2 days of yom tov and are in communities that recognize 2 days of yom tov, there are people who take off work/school for both days no matter what (and may or may not make it to services both days, but are observing yom tov at home either way), and there are people who, depending on circumstances, may take off 0, 1, or 2 days, balancing observance of the holiday with the demands of work/school. But if people in this latter category are taking off work for one day, it wouldn't necessarily be the first day. For Pesach, it's more likely to be the first than the second day (though synagogue attendance is low for unrelated reasons -- people are up late for the seders). But for Shemini Atzeret, it's more likely to be the second day, since that's when the fun happens, and people think I'm strange for taking off work on (the 1st day of) Shemini Atzeret and going to work on the following day, even when I explain that I don't consider that day to be yom tov. And I'm not sure there's any strong preference between the 7th and 8th days of Pesach that is consistent across the population, though maybe other folks here who think Pesach has 8 days can share their own ethnographic observations. The point is that, in my experience, most people who think there are two days of yom tov, regardless of whether they observe both days in a given year, don't think of the second day as having a fundamentally different status from the first (and may not even be aware of the halakhic sources Blumenthal cites indicating that it does have a diferent status). So it's interesting to see that, in 1963, there was apparently a substantial number of people who considered the 2nd day of yom tov less important than the 1st.

The suggestion to eliminate Yom Tov Sheni comes from two sources: 1. From observant Jews for whom the new status of the T'futzah and a yearning to invest Israel with greater spiritual influence are sufficient warrant for the change. Their religious life would not suffer. The elimination of unnecessary hardships and superfluous duplication would enhance the observance of the festivals in their homes. Yielding to their suggestion would stem from factors of strength in Judaism. 2. From non-observant Jews or at best from would-be observant Jews for whom the lesser demands of Judaism might contribute to a wider observance of the holidays, and from those congregations which find it difficult to assemble a minyan on Yom Tov Sheni. One hesitates to predict the measure of success that would follow from yielding to their suggestions, but it would derive from factors of weakness in contemporary Jewish life.
I don't understand the second group. Maybe I don't understand what "observant" and "non-observant" meant in this cultural context, but it seems to me that "non-observant Jews" would do whatever they do and wouldn't care whether other people are observing 1 or 2 days, whereas "observant Jews", who are committed to observing every day of yom tov that exists, would be the ones with a stake in how many days of yom tov are officially recognized.

The simple truth of the matter is that Jewish observance in America is not strong enough in depth to justify the assumption that elimination of the second day will enhance our religious life. On the other hand, its elimination will deny us the utilization of the second day for religious inspiration, instruction and exhortation. Large segments of our movement do conduct meaningful services on the second day.
So I already responded to this problematic idea. The emphasis on "meaningful services" creates a top-down institutional view of Judaism centered on the synagogue and the "us" (rabbis) who are engaged in "religious inspiration, instruction and exhortation", rather than on individually motivated observance. I'd be curious about what yom tov observance meant in Conservative communities in 1963. Was it just about going to services?

It is not necessary to eliminate Yom Tov Sheni for the sake of those congregations in which hardships prevent the conduct of religious services.

Well, yeah. That shouldn't be the reason. First it should be determined whether yom tov should have one or two days, and then congregations should set their schedule of services based on this and based on their human resources. If a community determines that yom tov has two days, but it doesn't have enough of a critical mass to hold services on both days, then the individuals who agree that yom tov has two days and consider themselves obligated are still obligated to observe both days regardless of whether there are services to go to. And if a community determines that yom tov has one day, then it could still have (chol hamo'eid or weekday, or Shabbat in some cases) services on the following day if there are enough people to make it happen.

So Blumenthal recommends "further study and experimentation with Yom Tov Sheni in an effort to render its observance more meaningful," and if that doesn't work out "within the next decade", then yom tov sheini should be reconsidered. This led to the three responsa passed in 1969, which we'll discuss next.


Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham J. Ehrlich, "A Responsum on Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot", 1969

Note the shift from "goluyot" to "galuyot".

Question: Is it permissible to cease observing the second days of Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and the second and eighth days of Pesach, treating all of as regular weekdays or as Chol Hamoed, as the case may be?

Rabbis Sigal and Ehrlich begin with some of the factors motivating asking the question: "Regrettable as we might consider it, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of our people do not observe the two days of Yom Tov." However, they note what I noted above, that people observing one day in two-day communities aren't necessarily observing the first day: "By a quirk of history, the second day of Shavuot and the last day of Pesach are now observed more fully than the Torahitically ordained first and seventh days of these festivals, because of the Yizkor service. The same is true of Simchat Torah, which is observed by more people than Shemini Atzeret because of the hakafot."

Next is the obligatory background material about the calendar and the origin of yom tov sheini. "Had our forefathers enjoyed the world-wide system of communications which we have today, such as telephone, telegraph and jet airplanes, each one more effective than bonfires, Yom Tov Shel Galuyot and even the 'continuous day' (yoma arikhta, encompassing two days) of Rosh Hashanah certainly would never have come into being." (Actually, that reflects an inaccurate understanding of the origin of yoma arikhta, but that's not the question at hand. Also, bonfires were fast enough; it was the requirement of human messengers that necessitated two-day yom tov.) Then the discussion of shtei kedushot versus kedushah achat (are the two days two separate entities or one long day like Rosh Hashanah?). Conclusion: yom tov sheini was just intended as an emergency ruling, and not permanent. Even the second day of Rosh Hashanah was eliminated in Israel until it was brought back. Also, it's just a minhag, not a law, and can be changed. Thus, Sigal and Ehrlich reach the same conclusion as Blumenthal, that there is a possibility to eliminate yom tov sheini.

They bring stories from the Talmud (which I hadn't encountered before) indicating that in Talmudic times, some Diaspora communities observed one day. Furthermore, Rashi says that even in the time of messengers, two days were observed only if the messengers didn't arrive in time. "This has tremendous implications for the modern age when some people are vitally concerned lest diversity in Jewish ritual upset the equilibrium of the Jewish community. As a matter of fact, conformity is too much with us and stifles experimentation and progress." Hear, hear!

Thus, they say that observing one-day yom tov would be "consistent with halakhah", and would "make our expectations for children to remain out of public school more reasonable by reducing the number of festival days in any given year." (Has this voice been silenced in the Conservative movement today, now that anyone who sends their children to public school is looked upon as less Jewishly committed anyway?)

In fact, two days of yom tov may lead to violation of yom tov:

In reality, through our insistence on keeping this second day as a Yom Tov, we become makhshilei harabim, misleading thousands of our congregants. Suburban congregations enjoy considerable attendance at services on the last day of Passover and on the second day of Shavuot because of the Yizkor service, but have barely a minyan on the seventh day of Passover and on the first day of Shavuot. Our synagogues are crowded on the eve of Simchat Torah or the hakafot, but empty on the eve of Shemini Atzeret. Thus, by trying to maintain a custom (minhag) we cause our people to disregard the law (din).

Next they consider and reject the procedural argument that we lack the authority to make such a change.

They discuss Rabbi Blumenthal's survey, and note: "Most significant was the fact that thirty-five colleagues, in Rabbi Blumenthal's words, 'not all from small congregations, urged the abolition of Yom Tov Sheni, some of them rather forcefully.'" Fascinating. So if this was being urged so forcefully, then why have the teshuvot permitting 1-day yom tov as an option been virtually ignored in the Conservative movement? After this teshuvah was passed in 1969, did 35 Conservative congregations begin observing 1-day yom tov? If not, why not?

There are those who argue that being permissive toward the second day will not improve the sanctity of the first day. They may be right. But value judgments can only be made with a historian's perspective many generations later. Above all, a decision should not be made on the basis of precarious predictions regarding the future success of the first day. A declaration on Yom Tov Sheni should be offered because the second day is halakhically indefensible. It is not crucial if the declaration utterly fails to increase piety or Jewish observance among those of little devotion. We should act for the sake of those who enjoy and observe one day, but regard the second day as repetitious and burdensome, although they observe it because of their loyalty to halakhah.

In other words, even though Sigal and Ehrlich note that many people already observe only one day and argue that bringing the official practice in line with the actual practice will have positive effects, they also argue that these potential positive effects are not the only reason for one-day yom tov (and therefore, the question should not be argued solely based on predictions about effects) -- one-day yom tov is also the right thing to do.

They also mention unity with Israel as a positive goal.

Of course, as I have often discussed on this blog, observing one day of yom tov leads to various ritual differences with two-day communities beyond the fact that the second day is not observed as yom tov. Sigal and Ehrlich note these issues, but ultimately punt (probably wise if they didn't want the merits of their specific recommendations to become the focus for CJLS members deciding how to vote on the teshuva):

Many questions concerning liturgy and congregational procedures will have to be solved. It is not the purpose of our teshuvah to outline a program for congregations. Generally, for perhaps a generation, each congregation will seek to solve these problems as best meet the local tone. In time we will evolve a consensus.

So I ask again, why didn't this happen?


While we reaffirm the inherent value of Yom Tov Sheni, in order to provide relief to those who no longer find in it spiritual satisfaction and enrichment, and to those who for socio-economic reasons find it is not feasible to observe the second day of Yom Tov, we declare that Yom Tov Sheni is not a chok, a permanent enactment, but a minhag, a custom. Congregations need not feel compelled to observe Yom Tov Sheni, other than the second day of Rosh Hashanah. On the other hand, those who still desire to maintain it as an expression of personal piety, as a chumrah, might do so, vetavo aleihem berakhah, may God bless them.

This conclusion is disappointing in some ways. Though one-day yom tov is officially stated as an option (which was a very significant breakthrough), they ultimately frame it as a concession, a kula, the same problematic way that the Conservative movement has often framed egalitarianism even when "permitting" it. This is somewhat of a retreat from stronger pro-one-day statements expressed in the body of the teshuva.

In my earlier post I discussed other problems with this conclusion: two days of yom tov isn't always a chumra, and isn't meritorious if you think there is actually one day. Now that I read it again, I see an ambiguity in the wording: does "those who still desire to maintain it" refer to individuals (as I had previously understood it, perhaps influenced by the phrase "personal piety"), or to congregations (the antecedent from the previous sentence)? The latter reading would seem more consistent with the Conservative philosophy of following one's local rabbi, though both readings suffer from the same problems I have mentioned.

Perhaps the affirmation of "the inherent value of Yom Tov Sheni" is part of the reason why the one-day option has never been significantly adopted in the Conservative movement, similar to the way that the Conservative movement's lukewarm acceptance of egalitarianism has led to true egalitarianism moving slowly.

Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, "Response to a Responsum", 1969

Rabbi Shuchat first makes the point that yom tov sheini was not merely a minhag, but was elevated to a takanah. (Blumenthal's original article addressed this, even if Sigal and Ehrlich did not.) However, he still asks: "What principle explains the fact that Yom Tov Sheni has spread to every corner of the Jewish world, and has been observed with sacrificial dedication for two thousand years?" His answer is the same principle mentioned by Blumenthal: "a tremendous well-spring of optimism, faith and hope that a Jewish State in Israel would some day be restored, climaxed by the re-establishment of a Sanhedrin." Given this, he questions whether even Jews in Israel should be observing one day in the present time (because how do we know it's the same day that the Sanhedrin would have sanctified?), and quotes Rabbi Jacob Emden (18th century) who considers this practice a major error. Shuchat adds: "Thus the observance of one day in Israel as presently practiced is also only a minhag, a takanah. The authority of the minhag for two days in the Diaspora is not less powerful than the minhag that decrees one day in Israel."

Emden promotes some extreme fringe views as a result: a Diaspora community that moves to Israel should continue observing two days forever. Thus, as he sees it, the minhag avoteinu being preserved isn't keeping two days in the Diaspora, but simply keeping two days. Shuchat stops short of endorsing this suggestion (which obviously was not followed by the waves of immigration to Israel in the 20th century), and instead heads in a different direction, making the apologetic arguments that have some basis in classical sources but have become much more popular in recent times: "a permanent reminder of the spiritual superiority of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish life"; "difficulty of observance ... to urge us to aliyah"; "galut means not only physical but spiritual exile". I would respond that yom tov is supposed to be happy (there is even a commandment to be happy), and if it is being seen as a penalty or a disincentive, then something is seriously broken with the whole thing. Likewise, teachers aren't supposed to give homework as a punishment if they want their students to learn the value of homework.

Shuchat then addresses the practical issues of two-day yom tov. He argues that the second day is valuable as a fence around the first day. "The State of Israel can afford to observe only one day of Yom Tov, since the entire apparatus of the State backs the national character of the holyday. If, however, the second day of Yom Tov were eliminated, it would not be long before the first day would fall into desuetude. We have living proof of this contention. A large and influential religious movement in Judaism has eliminated the second day of Yom Tov for the past two [sic] generations. De facto, if not de jure, the first day no longer exists as a significant factor in that movement." I already noted that this attack on the Reform movement involves serious confusion between correlation and causation. There is no suggestion of a mechanism for how the elimination of the second day would lead to the decline of the first day. And the only such mechanism I can think of represents a cynical approach to Jewish ritual observance: perhaps he is suggesting that people will always observe less than they are supposed to, thus if people observe one day when the official position is two days, then people will observe less than one day when the official position is one day. I hope this attitude has been proven obsolete in the intervening decades, with the rise of American Jewish communities (though, unfortunately for the liberal movements, primarily Orthodox communities) whose participants are "fully observant" in the way defined by their movements. If anything, I think Shuchat's attitude leads to the opposite of his desired effect. If it is clear that the official party line doesn't reflect actual expectations, then people will simply take the official party line less seriously. And if people are told that the second day is equal in importance to the first day, and they don't observe the second day, then they are likely to take the first day less seriously as well. (Similarly, synagogue A calls its services for x:00 and actually starts at x:00 sharp. Synagogue B calls its services for x:00, knowing that people don't come on time, with the goal of actually starting at x:15. Then, in the long term, synagogue A is likely to have more people there at x:00 than synagogue B has at x:15.)

Shuchat writes that the purpose of yom tov sheini is "to turn our eyes toward Zion." "Those Jews who do want to observe Yom Tov and who find the extra day a burden, already have an option, the only option that should be created: aliyah to Israel." This is ridiculous and can't be a serious suggestion. If people are concerned about burdens, then picking up and moving to another country, especially the Israel of 1969, is a more significant burden than any number of days of yom tov. In both cases, the burden may or may not be outweighed by the positives.

Shuchat then turns to these positives of 2-day yom tov: "[I]t might be in place to note that not all Jews find it a burden. Some find it a blessing. Some look upon it as replete with so much joy that they would like to find a reason for a third day of Yom Tov." If this were Wikipedia, I think that would get a big fat "[citation needed]". Has anyone heard such a suggestion before, other than as a reductio ad absurdum?

Shuchat mentions all the advantages of yom tov sheini, including Yizkor, Simchat Torah, and the second seder. (All of these, of course, can and do exist without yom tov sheini.) "One Jewish editorial writer has commented that if Yom Tov Sheni really possessed the kind of spiritual advantages its protagonists [sic] claim, it would have been adopted in Israel long ago. To tell the truth, we should not be too surprised if such a thing really happened." All right then.

Next we see a typical Conservative maneuver: defining the Reform movement out of existence. "The religious calendar ... has united the Jewish people in such a remarkable way that even unobservant Jews are influenced and guided by it. What a tragedy it would be if the calendar became a denominational battleground. The differentiation of the calendar between one movement of Jews and another has no meaning." As Shuchat was surely aware (given that he already made reference to it), the calendar was already a denominational battleground when he wrote this. The Reform movement had been observing 1 day of yom tov for over a century, and the Orthodox communities were observing 2 days with no sign of changing this. Therefore, nothing the Conservative movement did could possibly have increased or decreased the amount of unity in the American Jewish calendar -- no matter what, there would still be some movements observing 1 day and some observing 2 days. And since the Reform population in the US was significantly larger than the Orthodox population in 1969 (much more so than the disparity today), if the Conservative movement had been primarily concerned about Jewish unity, it would have officially adopted 1 day to join the Reform movement in creating a solid 1-day majority. But this argument isn't really about "the Jewish people" as a whole (including "even unobservant Jews"), it's about looking over their right shoulder.

"If we cannot even share Yom Tov with each other, how much more difficult will it be to preserve a feeling of fellowship in the broader areas of Jewish life!" 1) So Rabbi Shuchat is only interested in sharing yom tov with Orthodox Jews, not with Reform Jews. 2) Anyone who has been involved in Jewish pluralism knows that this argument is misguided -- coming together for ritual is actually much harder than "fellowship in the broader areas of Jewish life". This is why many Hillels have multiple prayer options but do everything else together.

Finally, Shuchat concludes that "the hegemony of Israel is paramount", and only an Israeli authority can make changes to the calendar. As I said in the previous post, Israeli authorities don't think or care about what Diaspora Jews are doing. But maybe he knows that, and is just finding another way to say that 2-day yom tov should never be eliminated.


Rabbi Aaron H. Blumenthal, "The Challenge of Yom Tov Sheni", 1969

Finally, Rabbi Blumenthal, who started the whole series with his initial article, finishes it off with a teshuva that responds to the other two. He says that either of the solutions "would be consistent with the traditional evolution of halakhah", and this should be decided based on what is "good for the future of Judaism". His original paper recommended that there be an attempt to find new values for yom tov sheini, but apparently that didn't work out: "Unfortunately, the leadership of the Conservative movement in the last five and one-half years has not even attempted to search for new values in Yom Tov Sheni. This failure has produced a predictable result in our Committee: a desire to return to the fork in the road, and to proceed along the alternate highway in a search for a solution to the problems of Yom Tov Sheni."

He agrees in part with Sigal and Ehrlich, "in permitting those congregations who experience extreme difficulty in conducting religious services on the second day, to dispense with it without placing themselves outside of the mainstream of our movement." But what does that mean? It's not just about canceling services. Should people in those communities put on tefillin on those days? If the second day is Shabbat (so that services are being held anyway) or Sunday (so that people could come to services without missing work), should the second day be observed in those limited cases? As I keep repeating, attendance at services is a poor way to determine the sanctity of time.

Blumenthal says that congregations that adopted the one-day option would end up with deep divisions, since some people would continue observing two days and would expect the congregation to support this by holding services. But why? Personally I don't have a problem with communities that embrace multiple practices (Blumenthal doesn't like the idea of a weekday minyan and a yom tov minyan on the same day, but I think it's just fine), but if they're going to be the Conservative movement and say that the mara d'atra is the final halachic arbiter for the congregation, then why not say "The mara d'atra has ruled that this congregation observes 1 day, so if you want to observe 2 days, you're on your own"? He adds: "On some Sabbaths there will be serious questions about the choice of kiddush and Torah readings." Agreed. It does make things more complicated. He also says that if there is one day of yom tov, grandchildren can go to seder at the house of only one set of grandparents each year. This reflects an interesting sociological reality, since attending seders at different sets of grandparents each night means that either the two sets of grandparents live in very close proximity or that people were traveling on yom tov to get from one to the other. Neither of those can be assumed in today's world. So if the goal is to visit both families for seder, it's probably better to have the two sedarim on the 1st and 7th nights, to facilitate travel from one to the other.

"The net result, however, will be that after one or two generations all of American Jewry will be left with the observance of only one day." Too bad this didn't happen.

"History has demonstrated the folly of attempting to shift the Jewish Shabbat to Sunday for some of the same reasons which motivate the suggestion to abandon Yom Tov Sheni." And here we see the enduring blood libel that the early Reform movement tried to move Shabbat to Sunday. It's not true. Reform congregations moved the main prayer service to Sunday, but never called it Shabbat; this was a weekday service (analogous to the practice of reading Torah on Mondays and Thursdays, which were market days when farmers came into town). Many Conservative and Orthodox congregations have services on Sunday too! But I can see the source of the confusion, since a number of these teshuvot fail to distinguish between holding services and sanctifying a day.

"It is ironic that precisely when America is moving towards an ever wider recognition of the value of leisure for mental and physical health, we should be forsaking the cumulative value of two successive days of Yom Tov." Spoken like a Jewish professional (who didn't have to make any special accommodations to observe two days of yom tov) and a man (who, in 1969, probably wasn't doing the cooking for all these days of yom tov).

"We conclude that it would be tragic for us to initiate a program which must lead inevitably to the abandonment of the second day of the festivals. Let those who have no alternative, because the condition of their communal lives is poor, not feel that they are in violation of halakhah if they observe only one day. But we can not condone the initiation of discussions about the second day in those congregations which do have regular and meaningful services on it." See comments above. Nobody has "no alternative" - it sucks to observe yom tov without a community, but it's still possible. And "regular and meaningful services" can happen on weekdays too.


So I'd be interested to know the subsequent history. After these teshuvot were passed, did any Conservative congregations or institutions start observing 1 day? Did the number of such congregations increase or decrease over time? (I imagine that the whitecollarization of the American Jewish population, and the increasing acceptance in the Conservative movement of the idea that all serious Jews send their kids to day school, took away motivation from the 1-day cause.) Why is the Sigal-Ehrlich teshuva such a well-kept secret in the Conservative movement?

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Sound of Silence

If (as the claim goes, to justify public displays even in milieux where it is acknowledged that not everyone does Christmas) little lightbulbs and "Jingle Bells" aren't about Christmas but are just about winter, it's never been clear to me why they are only to be seen and heard for the first five days of (astronomical) winter, and are absent in January and February.

But today, as I went grocery shopping and heard Simon & Garfunkel and the usual oldies station once again, I realized that I would much rather live among these blatant contradictions than be right and have to listen to "Frosty the Snowman" for another 2-3 months.

Season's greetings!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Independent Minyan Conference closing plenary

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

This post is the second in a series responding to sessions from Mechon Hadar’s Independent Minyan Conference last month. Thanks again to Mechon Hadar for placing all the audio online to make this ongoing conversation possible.

This time we’ll look at the closing plenary, “Minyanim and the Contexts of Contemporary Jewish Life”, a panel that included Prof. Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis), Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis), Rabbi Prof. Art Green (Hebrew College), and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (founder of the three Hadars).


Before looking at what each panelist said, let’s look at terminology. Sarna, a historian, referred repeatedly to the “independent minyan phenomenon”, a term that suggests a particular historical moment, which is the frame he used in his talk. Fishman talked about the “independent minyan movement”. Green avoided a single overarching term. Kaunfer mostly did too, but referred at one point to the “minyan crew” and explicitly said that we’re not calling it a movement.

I think “movement” would have been a fine word to use if it only had its secular meaning and not the meaning it has picked up in Jewish discourse. If we’re talking about social movements, informal grassroots actions along the lines of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement, etc., then the independent minyan phenomenon would qualify. But in the Jewish world, the word “movement” has come to be synonymous with “denomination”, and to imply two things that independent minyanim lack: a shared religious ideology, and a shared set of central institutions. (These are two different things, and I have warned that we shouldn’t conflate them.)

Sarna suggests that, even if those institutions don’t exist now, it’s only a matter of time. During the Q&A at the end, he says that there are two views: 1) denominations are in the past and we’re moving into a postdenominational future, 2) (his own view) the other movements won’t go away, but there will be more options. He says that today there’s a minyan conference, and next there will be the United Minyanim, and the Assembly of Leaders of Minyanim, and the Central Conference of American Minyan Leaders, and then you have one more denomination. He draws a parallel from the Reconstructionist movement: Mordecai Kaplan wanted to reconstruct all of American Judaism and ended up with one more Jewish movement.

I think he’s missing two key things here. First of all, in addition to starting a new denominations, Kaplan did reconstruct all of American Judaism; his ideas have taken root in all of the movements. Second of all, this denominationalization could take place for Reconstructionism because Reconstructionist Judaism represents a particular religious ideology that was distinct from the ideologies that the other denominations held at the time. In contrast, what the independent minyanim have in common is the way that the communities are structured, rather than the content of their Jewish belief and practice. The range of Jewish practices in independent minyanim matches the range of Jewish practices in synagogue denominations. In this regard, the “havurah movement” is in the same category as the “independent minyan movement”, insofar as there is a distinction — more on that later — and the Renewal movement is more like the Reconstructionist movement and other denominational movements. The fact that independent communities get together at events sponsored by the National Havurah Committee or Mechon Hadar to talk about their communities and share ideas does not mean that they are moving toward paying dues to a central institution, establishing uniform policies for their communities, or promoting a homogenized form of Judaism.

I would suggest a third view: The other movements won’t go away, but these independent communities do not and will not constitute an (n+1)th movement; there will continue to be movements as well as communities and institutions that exist outside the movements.


Sarna spoke first, and began by saying “When we look back on the minyan phenomenon, we will decide that it was the most exciting development in American Judaism since the havurah movement itself 30 years ago.” As I have written before, I take issue with the idea that the havurah movement is something in the past, or that the recent wave of new minyanim is something fundamentally different. The major havurot founded in the ’60s and ’70s still exist, and havurot/minyanim have been founded continuously from that time to the present. (There was another session at the conference all about precedents from the havurah movement, but I haven’t listened to it yet.) Sarna says that this phenomenon brings together many of the trends that have been building during the decade prior to 2001, the “generally stated beginning of the minyan phenomenon.” I would say that what happened in 2001 was not a radical break from the past, but a tipping point. There were independent minyanim/havurot founded during the ’80s and ’90s too, but they were more limited in number and scope, and didn’t have the same widespread impact that the post-2001 minyanim/havurot have had. The significance of the current phenomenon is its magnitude, and the way that it has become a realistic option for Jewish communal life for an entire age demographic, which wasn’t the case during the ’80s and ’90s. Speaking personally, I was fortunate to graduate from college in 2001, so that I could jump on the bandwagon at just the right time.

Sarna lists 7 trends contributing to the explosion of independent minyanim in the last decade:
1) The women’s movement, and the “desire to bring a certain feminist sensitivity into traditional Judaism”. He cites the statistic that the independent minyanim have a 2-to-1 ratio of women to men. (Fishman responds later that this is not unique to the independent minyan scene, but is true of non-Orthodox Judaism in general. It’s not as apparent in the membership rolls of conventional synagogues, because those are composed mainly of families headed by opposite-sex couples, but is apparent in the numbers of who gets involved. I would also respond that gender issues are a significant motivating factor for some minyanim (e.g. the partnership minyanim, as well as minyanim like the Zoo Minyan with a new liturgy) but not others — as I have written, independent minyanim aren’t necessarily more gender-egalitarian or feminist than synagogues.)
2) Jewish spirituality: emphasis on spiritual davening, music, singing, the experience of tefilah. (Agreed. Many of the newer minyanim put more thought into the content of prayer than some of the older ones.)
3) “Back to the sources” movement. Emphasis on high-level learning. The minyanim are now reaping the fruits of an increased emphasis on Jewish education during the 1990s.
4) A reaction against denominational infighting. The infighting between movements that was common during the ’80s and ’90s isn’t happening in the ’00s. Also, funders won’t fund groups that attack other Jews. The minyanim resist denominational labeling, and rather transgress the boundaries.
5) Creation of a new stage of life that didn’t exist before (for Jews and non-Jews): a long stage between college and marriage/children. Back in the day, 3/4 of Americans under age 30 had children. There are no institutions in Jewish life that fill the gap between college (Hillel) and marriage/children (everything else), and the minyanim fill that void.
6) The startup culture. Young people didn’t want to be staid Microsoft, but wanted to be the next Google. Minyanim modeled themselves on startups, and imagined that they would rise or fall like startups, so that something (e.g. KOE) that is the big thing one day might not be the next day.
7) Availability of money. The Jewish community may have made more money in the 1990s than the entire 20th century put together, and this has aided the independent minyan phenomenon. Whereas the havurah movement was anti-establishment and had trouble getting money from the funders, the minyanim became the darlings of the funders and the people they wanted to invest in. Now that the money made in the 1990s was lost in a few weeks in 2008, what will be the impact of the economic downturn on the growth of the independent minyan phenomenon? (Kaunfer responds later that, actually, most minyanim are operating on a shoestring budget, and most have not been successful at getting major grants. I agree that money, though it helps, has not been an indispensable factor — some minyanim operate on no budget at all, and just meet in participants’ homes. So I think independent minyanim will have an easier time than other Jewish organizations in weathering the recession. I would also add that, if some minyanim today have had an easier time attracting funders than the havurah movement of the ’70s, it’s not because today’s minyanim are less “anti-establishment” (after all, they’re still explicitly operating outside the establishment) but because the funders have changed: some of yesterday’s havurah Jews have become today’s establishment Jews, and are thus more inclined to be sympathetic.)

Sarna’s list bears similarities and differences to a list that I made a few years ago. On the occasion of Kol Zimrah’s 3rd anniversary, I listed 12 trends that Kol Zimrah encapsulates:
1) The proliferation of independent minyanim (this isn’t on Sarna’s list because it’s the overall heading of his list).
2) This generation is empowered to be Jewish entrepreneurs (a combination of 3 and 6 on Sarna’s list).
3) More activity outside the denominations (related to 4 on Sarna’s list, though not the same).
4) Communities with no membership or dues, more suited to transient populations.
5) Participatory experience in prayer through music (related to 2 on Sarna’s list)
6) Innovation and experimentation in prayer (also related to 2 on Sarna’s list)
7) Evolving Jewish pluralism, beyond the interdenominational kind
8) Options for educated liberal Jews who aren’t Jewish professionals
9) Filling the void for people in their 20s and 30s (5 on Sarna’s list)
10) The Internet facilitates rapid communication (within communities)
11) The world is flat - it’s also easier for this phenomenon to spread around the world
12) Growth of liberal Jewish communities in Israel (not on Sarna’s list because he’s just talking about America)


Fishman began by talking about distinctions within the independent minyan “movement”. She told a story about when Tova Hartman wrote a book about creating Shira Hadasha. Fishman had wanted to have a panel with people from different denominations as well as leaders of nondenominational independent minyanim. JOFA said no, it had to be Orthodox institutions, because they were advocating for Orthodox independent minyanim and wanted to see Orthodoxy move in that direction, and if non-Orthodox minyanim were on the panel, this would harm JOFA’s case in the Orthodox world. Fishman said they were missing the opportunity to look at the big picture. She said it reminded her of when “the havurah movement … no longer allowed the announcement of mechitza minyanim.” She characterized this as a “non-Orthodox orthodoxy” and a “fascinating mirror image”, saying that “even within a movement attempting to break down barriers, there are internal divisions”.

I would respond that of course there are internal divisions. Any time you set up a community or organization with certain values, you are making a distinction between yourself and other communities that don’t share those values. Sometimes communities that share some values and differ on others can work together on the things that they share, and sometimes they can’t. But I don’t think the examples that she cites are particularly problematic.

Those who are closer to this scene can correct me if I’m wrong, but it was always my understanding that the partnership minyan phenomenon has been primarily about the ritual inclusion of women and men in an Orthodox milieu, and about the “independent minyan” structure only as a byproduct. That is, the original teshuva that inspired many of these minyanim said that this type of service was permissible for new communities, but that existing communities should not change their established minhagim. Furthermore, the Orthodox institutions never would have stood for it. So that’s why this happened first in grassroots lay-led minyanim rather than in Orthodox synagogues. This has little in common with the motivating factors behind other independent minyanim — the issues in the non-Orthodox world, where educated young adults feel that they don’t have a place in established synagogues, etc., have not been such a problem in the Orthodox world. So it doesn’t surprise me that JOFA would want to associate with communities that share their primary mission, rather than with communities that share a structure but for unrelated reasons.

As for the other incident: Fishman isn’t talking about “the havurah movement” (which is a decentralized grassroots movement, not an institution) but about the National Havurah Committee, a specific organization, and specifically about prayer services at its annual Summer Institute (not about year-round minyanim). I’ve been involved in the organization since 2002 and on the board since 2004, so I wasn’t around when this cataclysmic event happened in the 1980s, but this event has clearly had a long-lasting impact on many people, both those who are still involved in the NHC and those who are now scattered all over the Jewish world. (Was Fishman herself involved in those days? Is she speaking from personal experience?) The policy that I inherited when I joined the board is that all services organized by the Institute planning committee are egalitarian, but individuals who want to organize their own services are free to do so and will be provided with a space. Many people (including people such as Fishman who seem critical of it, as well as people who support such a policy over the current policy) remember a different policy enacted during this cataclysm, involving a blanket ban on mechitza minyanim. I’ve heard this from enough sources that I don’t think they’re all hallucinating, so I can only conclude that the policy was changed sometime between the 1980s and when I came on board, but no one can identify a point in time when this change happened. So I think the NHC may have to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to figure out exactly what happened when and begin to heal the wounds; there’s no way we can have an intelligent discussion about this without knowing all the facts. As for what the policy should be, there are significant pros and cons to each. But I take issue with Fishman’s implication of hypocrisy. She refers to “non-Orthodox orthodoxy” as if it is problematic for a non-Orthodox community to set boundaries of communal practice, and such boundaries should only be for the Orthodox. If we were to take this attitude to heart, we would end up with the “liberal talk radio problem”. In addition to pluralistic Jewish communities, there also need to be communities that promote progressive Jewish values, and I don’t have a problem with the NHC being one (though the way it makes the most sense to implement those values has probably changed in the last 25 years).

Fishman then talks about how the minyanim define themselves in relation to synagogues. She says that synagogues are not appropriate places for the population attracted to independent minyanim because they have flaws. Synagogues are:
* too married. Single people are uncomfortable.
* too non-egalitarian, either through gender or financial issues. People who can’t contribute financially perceive themselves to be less important.
* too inexpert. Fishman considers this a big difference between the havurah movement and the independent minyan movement, saying that the latter has an emphasis on quality control and doing everything the right way. (I disagree. Hadar, one of the most prominent of the new generation of independent minyanim, has an emphasis on quality control, but many other new independent minyanim do not (much to my disappointment). And many of the older havurot/minyanim have/had their own standards of how things should be done, though these standards are along different axes than the newer minyanim’s standards.) Fishman gives this approach the unintentionally humorous characterization of “If you’re not ready for prime time, you’re not there on the bimah.”
* lacking in authenticity. This authenticity is “double-edged” - doing things in a way that feel authentic historically and Jewishly, as well as morally. This includes the attraction to social justice.
* too large. Part of the attraction of independent minyanim is praying with a group of people whom you know, and there is a desire not to be flooded with more people who are “from the outside”. (I disagree with this characterization of independent minyanim. Most of the newer independent minyanim serve a transient population, and welcome a constant inflow of people. They may not be taking out ads in the Jewish newspaper, but the doors are open. This is a meaningful distinction from the older havurot, with a defined membership.)
* too complacent. Not willing to upset the status quo.

Fishman says that the independent minyanim are a “movement that saved a generation”, and this “highly sophisticated generation, which might have found their spiritual fufillment in other ways” is “now intensely and passionately tied to Judaism” because of independent minyanim. I agree. Without the opportunity to be involved in these communities, we wouldn’t necessarily have stuck around patiently until we had children.

But then Fishman immediately contradicts herself, as she begins discussing the challenges facing the “movement”. She asks what is happening to denominational Judaism, and says that she sees independent minyanim as a commitment drain, attracting the young people who in another historical period would have become the “elite” of the Conservative and Reform movements. How can both this and the preceding paragraph be true? I think the preceding paragraph is more on the mark, and the denominational movements were wrong to take us for granted.

Another challenge she mentions is communities becoming cliques: there are many stories about people who showed up at independent minyanim, weren’t greeted, and were not made to feel they were part of what was going on. I would respond that this is not unique to independent minyanim, but can characterize Jewish communities of all shapes and sizes. It’s something for all Jewish communities to work on (while avoiding the whiff of desperation associated with being too friendly to newcomers).

The last challenge she discusses is the “rhetoric of disdain for conventional Judaism and conventional Jewish leaders”, and says that conventional Jewish leaders deal with lived Judaism through times such as childbearing, illness, and end-of-life issues.


Rabbi Green shared some stories about the founding of Havurat Shalom in 1968. He ran into Abbie Hoffman, who invited him to go stir up trouble at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, but he said he couldn’t, he was busy with this new Jewish thing (which didn’t have a name yet). Initially they were thinking about calling it “Kehilat Kodesh”, until Rabbi Dick Israel z”l said “That’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever heard”.

Green talked mostly about rabbinic leadership (which was also the topic of another conference session which I haven’t listed to). In the old days, he and his cohort didn’t believe in earning a living as a rabbi, and looked to Rabbi Yochanan haSandlar (the shoemaker) as a model. But he left Havurat Shalom (which had been more or less a full-time job for him) in 1973 because he couldn’t afford to stay. So he’s still been thinking about the role of rabbis, especially now that he’s training rabbis. He says that most non-Orthodox rabbis are there to reach out to the Jewish periphery, to keep people from falling off, and bring people at the edges to a greater interest in Jewish life. But at the same time, the “elites” reject that model and would rather be in do-it-yourself minyanim/havurot without rabbinic leadership. So he asked if there can be a balance. The role of rabbis in these communities has been the subject of an acrimonious conversation here at Jewschool.

I have to say that I don’t find Green’s arguments in favor of rabbinic leadership to be very convincing. I think there are more compelling arguments out there, such as the one that Fishman refers to: we need structures in place to deal with unanticipated emergencies, such as serious illness and death. We can do DIY weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs just fine, but funerals would be unrealistic.

Green refers first to the personal pain of rabbis “who feel rejected by the kind of Jews they’d like to be part of.” He says that his students ask “Am I going to wind up being rabbi of a synagogue I’d never join if I weren’t its rabbi? Can’t I be rabbi of a community I’d like to be part of, and be part of it at the same time?”. I would respond that that’s no reason for communities that have previously gone without rabbinic leadership to get a rabbi. If a community is going to have a rabbi, it should be because the rabbi meets a communal need, not because the community meets the rabbi’s personal need.

Green then tells a parable from his Havurat Shalom days. In those days, you had to apply to join, and a “serious young man” with all the right qualifications but an obnoxious personality applied for membership and was rejected twice. Green says that this was like a fraternity blackball, and feels that he failed by not saying that they couldn’t reject this person. If he had been the rabbi of the group, he could have said “This is a principled stand we have to take; we’re not just here to have fun,” but he didn’t feel that he could do that, because he was just one of the group, which didn’t believe in professional leadership. Green thinks that this demonstrated the need for a rabbi, someone who can combine chesed and din and can say “This is not about me; this is not about my needs” and can make sure that the community lives up to its values.

I don’t think this issue is really about the presence or absence of a rabbi. First of all, most newer independent minyanim avoid the specific issue from this anecdote by not having selective membership, and often not having membership at all, so this situation would never come up. Of course, there are other times when the community’s inclusive values come into tension with other concerns. But it doesn’t seem self-evident to me that rabbis are more likely than other people to stand up for these values. On the contrary, if a rabbi is brought in from the outside (the way rabbinic employment typically works), then the rabbi may be less in sync with the community’s values than are those who founded the community on those values. There is an argument here in favor of having a leadership structure that isn’t completely flat, and having some designated people whose role it is to make sure the community lives up to its values, but the job title that goes with this role isn’t necessarily “rabbi” — it might be “president”, or “gabbai”, or “steering committee”. It doesn’t take a rabbinic education or a salary to give someone a sense of responsibility for their community. I have been involved in internal discussions for a number of communities without rabbinic leadership, and these discussions often explicitly hinge on the community’s values.

Green then repeats the common charge that these communities are “elitist”, and not worried about people who need to have pages announced. He says that the fact that they don’t announce pages is a statement of who is welcome and who isn’t, and a rabbi could make these announcements so that the community is more welcoming. We’ve had another discussion here about stage directions during prayer. It’s a complicated question, but two things are clear: 1) Communities that don’t make these announcements aren’t necessarily trying to keep people away, and 2) If the community does decide to announce page numbers, this task doesn’t require 5 years of post-graduate education.

Finally, Green says that Jewish learning has become more democratized, and the difference between those with rabbinic education and those without has become smaller, but the rabbi has to foster the growth of the havurah/minyan as beit midrash. He says that Jewish life will not thrive if its central institution is primarily for davening on Shabbat, and there needs to be an active commitment to Jewish learning. I agree that the commitment to Jewish learning is essential. But this doesn’t need to happen through the same communities where we go to daven; in areas with a large enough Jewish population, Jewish community can be more a la carte, and Jewish learning can happen through separate organizations. Also, most liberal American synagogues cannot be characterized as batei midrash, even if they have a rabbi on staff, or multiple rabbis. Many independent minyanim (without rabbis) have more of a culture of serious Jewish learning than many synagogues (with rabbis). So having a rabbi is not sufficient.


Rabbi Kaunfer began by saying thank you to all the Jewish institutions and people who “paved the way for this moment in Jewish life”. He echoed previous speakers who said that this investment has paid off.

Kaunfer responds to people including ZT about the use of the word “independent” to describe minyanim. He says that it doesn’t mean we are independent of all other Jewish structures, history, and tradition. He draws an analogy to the American political system, with Republicans, Democrats, and independents: independents don’t claim that they invented the voting booth, and will reinvent American government as a parallel. Rather, it’s about seeking out our own place. He says that we don’t mean independent from the heritage that we come from, but we’re about being a next chapter in that book.

Kaunfer says that the minyanim themselves are means to an end. If we go out of existence in 15 years, he’ll say “Thank God” only if something better comes along. If we come back in 15 years and none of specific minyanim are around, but something has replaced them, that is the original Jewish way of moving through history. We’re in a world where it’s difficult to move beyond an institution, and that’s anathema to what the Jewish people are. (Is he channeling Rushkoff?) He hopes that the end result is not the specific communities, etc., but the idea that empowered Jews can stand up and build their own Jewish communities.

Kaunfer closes with two frames of analysis of what the minyanim represent:

1) The “narrow view”. The minyanim are reacting to a demographic space that didn’t exist before. It’s the new Hillel. Hillel has a constant inflow and outflow in a narrow age band, and no one would ask a Hillel student “What are you going to do at Hillel when you start to have kids?”. Now that people delay marriage for longer, minyanim step in at a particular demographic moment. This age band of people also cycles in and out. Due to economic pressures of real estate in urban areas, people can’t sustain families there even if they’d like to. So the question of “What happens when you have kids?” is irrelevant, because by the time you’re at that age, you’re out of those minyanim. (I’ve been saying this too.) As a narrow view, we’ve been successful, and this is an important step. It’s not threatening, because it’s just filling a void. (I would note that many have felt threatened anyway.)

2) Is there a larger frame? This is an unanswered question. Is there a legacy beyond creating community for people in a 10-year space? What happens when you move to new places? Will these minyanim offer an empowered model of Judaism for people who have cycled out of the original minyanim?

I say yes. We can look at the original havurot (which are now 30-40 years older than when they started) for precedents, both positive and negative. They’ve dealt with these issues before and have collected wisdom over time; on the other hand, there’s a reason why my generation started new communities rather than just joining the existing havurot. The question of how to keep this empowered model going is a question to keep working on — not necessarily for the specific minyanim that will continue to operate in their geographical areas, but for those of us who move to and already live in places where these communities don’t exist (yet).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

No child left behind?

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” –Mark Twain


Mechon Hadar has placed all the audio from their recent Independent Minyan Conference online, so those of us who weren’t there can listen and respond from afar. So we’ll be writing a series of posts here reacting to various sessions from the conference. And I’m starting with the keynote address by Professor Steven M. Cohen (not to be confused with Rep. Steve Cohen) on “The Groomed and the Bloomed: Varied Paths to Engagement in Independent Minyanim”. You can listen to the MP3 and view the PowerPoint presentation.

Cohen’s address is based on the data from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, about which we have already blogged at length.

The dichotomy in Cohen’s title is between the “groomed” — people who have a Jewish educational background (defined, as we will see, in very specific ways) — and the “bloomed” — people who do not.

I find myself in agreement with the overarching ideas with which Cohen bookends his presentation, but I find the methodology and classifications used to support this conclusion to be horrifying.

Cohen says that this study arises from conversations with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar about the difficulties of obtaining philanthropic funding for the independent minyan world. According to Kaunfer, funders are reluctant to support independent minyanim because they perceive them to be “an elite phenomenon” that is only for “the groomed”, while the funding environment is more favorable to projects directed at “the unaffiliated”. Cohen argues that “there has to be a place for elevating and mobilizing the large number of people in whom we have invested enormous sums and many hopes for the future of American Jewry.” If all of this human capital is not acted upon, then, he asks, “what was that all about?” He says that the expansion of Jewish education in the last several decades has led to an educated population who is seeking Jewish activity and high-quality Jewish community, and is now unable to find that in the established synagogues, so they have created new communities that meet their needs. I made a similar argument a few years ago in a widely distributed article, “Profile of an ‘Unaffiliated’ Jew.” Cohen concludes by saying that when historians write the story of early 21st-century American Jewish life, they’ll write about “the efflorescence of Jewish communities qua communities”, and the creation of these communities can only be accomplished by people who have some preparation. He says that the product is not the growth of the individual (which, he argues, is the goal of those funders who focus on “saving Jews from falling off the Jewish cliff”), but the production and activities of individuals when they get together.

I would go further and suggest that it’s not a zero-sum game. A rising tide lifts all ships. The creation of meaningful Jewish communities ultimately has the potential to benefit everyone (as long as the doors of these communities are open to everyone), whereas (e.g.) sending thousands of people to Israel on Birthright is insufficient if they have no community to be a part of when they return to North America.

So we definitely seem to be on the same page when it comes to the overall goals. But then we get into the methodology.

Cohen categorizes the 730 independent minyan participants who responded to the survey into four groups, based on what he describes as “when they could have turned on to Jewish life,” or as he labels his pie chart, “Earliest Sign of Intensive Jewish Involvement.” The first category is anyone who went to day school, which comprises 39% of respondents. The second category, “high school”, is people who didn’t go to day school, but went to Jewish camp AND participated in a Jewish youth group. This includes 25%. The third category, “college”, is people who aren’t in the first two categories, and were involved in a Jewish organization during college, totaling 23%. The last category, “bloomed”, is for people who are in none of the other three categories, and is 13% of the respondents. The rest of the presentation breaks down the responses to many of the other questions in the survey into how each of these categories answered them.

(By the way, the Jewish Week completely misinterprets the plain-sense meaning of these categories: “Cohen found that 39 percent of minyan-goers had attended Jewish day schools, 25 percent had experienced a Jewish connection in high school, 23 percent had been active in Hillel and other Jewish activities in college…”. If I had read only that article, I would have thought that more respondents had gone to day school than had been active in Jewish activities during college.)

Cohen uses these categories to construct his next chart: “Mean Levels of Jewish Educational Background for Selected Minyanim”. For all of the minyanim with significant samples in the survey, their participants were averaged together based on this formula: the “none of the above” category was assigned a score of 0, the “college” category was assigned 33, the “high school” category was assigned 67, and the “day school” category was assigned 100.

Just to make this scale perfectly clear: Someone who went to day school all the way through high school and has been Jewishly active her entire life would be assigned 100. Someone else who went to day school through 5th grade and has had zero Jewish involvement since then would also be assigned a “Jewish educational background” of 100. I come from a Jewishly active family, went to public schools from kindergarten through master’s degree (except for 4 years undergrad), went to Jewish camp, was active in NFTY, and was active in Hillel during college. I’m a 67. A friend of mine is going to be a rabbi in a few months, studied Talmud full-time for a year before entering rabbinical school, was active in Hillel, went to public school, and didn’t go to Jewish camp. She’s a 33. Another friend of mine comes from a family with strong Jewish traditions, grew up at a lay-led minyan within a synagogue, went to public school, didn’t go to Hillel during college because he preferred to go to the local synagogue instead, and is now active in the independent minyan scene. According to Steven Cohen, he’s a 0. Cohen talks about him as if he is a tabula rasa, with no previous Jewish involvement before he showed up at Kol Zimrah.

Based on this scale, Kol Zimrah (the community that I co-founded) is ranked lowest in “level of Jewish educational background”. Cohen specifically calls Kol Zimrah out during the presentation, saying “I was really interested to know why you guys are so low on this,” then qualifying this with “It’s not bad. You’re reaching out.” The reason Kol Zimrah is low on this scale is simple: most of us (including the real people described above) didn’t go to day school. (According to the survey, most independent minyan participants in general didn’t go to day school. But for Kol Zimrah, it’s a larger majority.) Does this mean that we’re less educated, or that we “turned on to Jewish life” later in life? Not necessarily.

Cohen’s categories suffer from three faulty assumptions: 1) Earlier education equals more or better education. 2) “Intensive Jewish involvement” is limited to a small defined set of experiences. 3) Education is equivalent to schooling. Let’s examine these assumptions one at a time.

1) Earlier education equals more or better education. I was talking about this with someone else, who noted that outside the Jewish world, the standard way to ask about education level in surveys (e.g. exit polls) is to ask about the highest level of education attained: high school, college, graduate school, etc. In that context, this is easier — someone who graduated from college can be assumed to have graduated from high school, and if for some reason they didn’t, it doesn’t matter. No such assumptions can be made with the categories of Jewish education that Cohen uses: someone who went to day school wasn’t necessarily involved in anything Jewish during college, and vice versa. But Cohen’s algorithm seems to make this assumption anyway: that people “turn on” to Judaism at a specific point in time, and their Jewish education continues at a uniform rate from that time forward, thus someone who starts later can never catch up. How else to explain the idea that someone who went to day school is always considered to be at a higher level of education than someone who didn’t, regardless of what they did afterwards? Or that in determining a community’s overall education level, one day school graduate (plus two people with no Jewish background) is equivalent to three people involved in Hillel? If you’re going to make the implicit claim that day school is that much more important than anything subsequent, you’ll have to back it up with evidence. And good luck sorting out correlation from causation.

2) “Intensive Jewish involvement” is limited to a small defined set of experiences. When the idea of “earliest” only includes items from a specific list, anything not on the list is discounted. Day school is one way to have “intensive Jewish involvement” before high school, but not the only one. I’ll join Steven Cohen in ignoring Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah. But other significant Jewish involvement before high school may include being part of a Jewishly active family (is Cohen really ignoring the value of the Jewish home and looking only at institutional experiences?), being part of an active Jewish community, and Jewish camp (which doesn’t only begin in high school). Cohen’s algorithm treats people with these experiences as equivalent to people with no Jewish involvement at that time. The same problems arise with the other life stages. Furthermore, as people get older, they can pursue Jewish education independently, in ways that wouldn’t show up on a survey.

3) Education is equivalent to schooling. All of the parameters used in determining level of education are about inputs, not outcomes. Back in the world of secular surveys, if you say that you’re a college graduate, that means that you had to fulfill some sort of requirements to graduate from college, and if you answer “some college”, you had to be accepted to college. But the categories in this survey indicate only that you had the opportunity to obtain Jewish education, and provide no assessment of whether you in fact did so. There is a whole field of educational assessment out there, and perhaps its methods would be helpful if one is really attempting to assess education. As anyone following the policy debates knows, standardized testing is highly imperfect; still, it would be a vast improvement over asking people whether they went to day school and what activities they participated in. (The 8th-grade standardized tests don’t ask “Did you go to preschool?” and then assign bonus points if the answer is yes. It may be the case that people who went to preschool perform better on the tests, but that should be tested, not assumed.) The only question on the survey that attempts to assess education (rather than schooling) is the one about whether you can understand a simple sentence in Hebrew. A single question, based on self-reporting, is grossly insufficient for any real kind of educational assessment.

So the methodology for this study has serious flaws. It may be that these assumptions are based on patterns from previous Jewish population studies, and Cohen left out the rigorous support because he was constrained by time and speaking mostly to non-academics. But if these minyanim and their populations are a new phenomenon, then we can’t assume that the old patterns still hold up; if we want to study these populations, we need to put our assumptions aside and test them objectively.

(Is Nate Silver Jewish? Can we bring him in to referee these studies?)


The presentation also included some discussion of denominational identification, much of which was already covered in the preliminary results of the survey (which we’ve already discussed), so I’m not going to write about it here. But Cohen also broke down the four new categories by denomination of origin and current identification. Unsurprisingly, a large number of independent minyan participants (in all categories) now consider themselves non-denominational. (The preliminary report didn’t list this separately, but included it within Other Jewish.) Also unsurprisingly, most people in the day school category grew up Orthodox or Conservative, with very few Reform. Some would see this as evidence that Reform Jews don’t take Jewish education seriously, but I see integration into the broader society as a positive value that Reform Judaism has long stood for. (The problem is the poor quality of supplementary Jewish education, not its existence.) This is a simple demographic explanation for why Kol Zimrah has fewer people who went to day school: Kol Zimrah has more people who grew up Reform (including its founders), and most Reform Jews don’t go to day school. While Kol Zimrah aims to be open to all who want to be there, going to the minyan that we founded does not constitute “reaching out”.

Cohen talked about the fact that very few independent minyan participants currently identify as Reform (while Conservative identification has a much smaller dropoff), and this time around, he said things that I agree with: The image of Reform has come to imply lack of Jewish activity, and therefore people who are Jewishly active are reluctant to identify as Reform. He quoted someone on an earlier panel who said “I grew up Reform, BUT [Jewishly committed]“, and marveled at the use of “but”. In my role as frame police, I crack down hard on this sort of use of “but”, so it stings doubly when it comes from the inside, indicating that some Reform Jews take Reform Judaism no more seriously than other movements take it. Cohen says that if he were speaking to the Reform movement, he would suggest that they capitalize on the passion generated in NFTY, etc., to create an “intent” form of Reform Judaism. I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to see this.

But let’s backtrack for a minute. This part of the presentation was one of several instances when Cohen demonstrated that his propensity to make unwarranted overgeneralizations applies also to his audience. What he actually said, before amending his remarks, was “If I were speaking to a Reform audience, which none of you are, so you don’t care…”. WTF? How does he know who was in the room, whether they identify as Reform, and whether they care about the future of Reform Judaism? If I had been there, I would not have let this go unchallenged. In other sections, when he talked about “groomed” versus “bloomed”, he addressed the audience as if they were all in the “groomed” category. This is despite the fact that his own charts showed that some percentage of “bloomed” people (albeit smaller than the percentage of “groomed” people) were in leadership positions in independent minyanim, and therefore might well have been at the conference representing their communities.


If Steven Cohen or anyone involved in the survey is reading this, you are of course invited to respond. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


א אָהַבְתִּי כִּי-יִשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קוֹלִי תַּחֲנוּנָי. ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא. ג אֲפָפוּנִי חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא. ד וּבְשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֶקְרָא אָנָּה יְהוָה מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי. ה חַנּוּן יְהוָה וְצַדִּיק וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם. ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהוָה דַּלֹּתִי וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ. ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי לִמְנוּחָיְכִי כִּי-יְהוָה גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי. ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִמָּוֶת אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי. ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה בְּאַרְצוֹת הַחַיִּים. י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי כִּי אֲדַבֵּר אֲנִי עָנִיתִי מְאֹד. יא אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב. יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַיהוָה כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי. יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. יד נְדָרַי לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה-נָּא לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. טו יָקָר בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה הַמָּוְתָה לַחֲסִידָיו. טז אָנָּה יְהוָה כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָאֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ פִּתַּחְתָּ לְמוֹסֵרָי. יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח זֶבַח תּוֹדָה וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. יח נְדָרַי לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה-נָּא לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. יט בְּחַצְרוֹת בֵּית יְהוָה בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָםהַלְלוּ-יָהּ.



Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote suppression

Like Tim Robbins, I went to my polling place this morning and found out that my name had been removed from the voter rolls, with no explanation. Yes, I moved away from New York for a year and moved back, but I re-registered (different address, same election district) upon my return, and voted in the September primary without a problem. When I called the Board of Elections, they confirmed that I am registered, and said that other people had been complaining about the same thing, and the person on the phone had no explanation for it. They said they couldn't do anything for me over the phone, and my options were to fill out an affidavit ballot or to go downtown and talk to a judge. Not having seen Tim Robbins's advice, I did the affidavit. I'm not 100% certain that my vote will be counted. And this is in New York -- what must be going on right now in Florida??? We are living in a banana republic.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Mah Rabu endorsements

Sorry about the silence here. One obstacle to blogging (the holiday season) is now over, and after the election and a few other things are over, I'll have more time to post.

In the meantime, here are Mah Rabu's entirely unsurprising endorsements for tomorrow's election: Obama for President, and Democrats for everything (on the Working Families Party line when possible, if you're in New York).

One exception: the procedure for selecting judicial candidates for the "Supreme Court" of New York is a travesty (even more so than judicial elections in general). (The U.S. Supreme Court agrees, though they didn't find it unconstitutional.) Four seats are up for election in Manhattan, and there are four candidates running: two who are in both the Democratic and the Republican column, and two in just the Democratic column. So I'll be voting for the two who are only nominated by the Democratic party; I don't trust judges who associate themselves with a criminal organization.

We don't have anything like the excitement surrounding Prop 8 in California, but we do have one ballot proposal in New York: The New York Constitution requires that state civil service positions be filled by examination, and (like federal law) gives disabled veterans a bonus on the exam score. A veteran is currently eligible for this bonus if s/he "was disabled in the actual performance of duty in any war, is receiving disability payments therefor from the United States veterans administration, and his or her disability is certified by such administration to be in existence at the time of application for appointment or promotion". The constitutional amendment before the voters would eliminate the second clause (so that the veteran does not need to be receiving disability payments to get the bonus, but only to have his/her disability certified by the VA) and would change the language from "United States veterans administration" to "United States Department of Veterans Affairs" (reflecting a name change from 1989, when it became a cabinet-level department).

This amendment seems uncontroversial. Obviously the name change part, but also the other part. I mean, disabled veterans -- who's going to campaign against that? (Other than John McCain, that is, but he's not so popular here in New York.) So I'm going to vote yes unless someone convinces me otherwise in the next 11 hours. But the proposition might run into difficulties anyway because of its confusing wording. I've heard one anecdote about someone who was voting absentee and couldn't figure out what the amendment was about, showed it to 4 people all of whom couldn't figure it out either, and finally voted no because they thought it would make people lose disability benefits. So we'll see what happens tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

והיית אך שמח

On the topic of Phish songs for the Tishrei holidays, does anyone else think that the sequence of notes from about 0:15 to 0:22 in this clip sounds a bit like a phrase from a certain popular Sukkot song?

(I was at this show!)

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Shanah tovah umtukah! A good and sweet new year!

(The video is all good, but the seasonally relevant part starts at about 4:05 in.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

ONE DAY ONLY! Part 1b: Reform

This is a continuation of Part 1a in this series on one-day versus two-day yom tov, still looking at Reform opinions on the issue. After looking at the most recent CCAR teshuva that has dealt comprehensively with the main issue, we'll look next at some views on a side issue: Torah reading. While the 1999 CCAR teshuva looked at the issue from all sides and considered the possibility of observing two days of yom tov, the voices in this post assume that Reform Jews observe 1 day of yom tov, full stop, but come to differing views about the side question of Torah reading.

We'll start with a teshuva by Rabbi Solomon Freehof, published in Current Reform Responsa in 1969. (As a side note, there is a shockingly large number of Reform responsa collections with instantly dated names, as if each new volume thought it was going to be the last: Contemporary American Reform Responsa, Recent Reform Responsa, Today's Reform Responsa, New Reform Responsa, etc. Hasn't anyone learned any lessons from New College? But the most laughable title, without question, is Teshuvot for the Nineties. Even though it's West Asia to the other titles' Middle East.)

It's not available online, and it's short, so I'll just post the text here.

The question is:

Since the Reform practice as to the length of the festivals is the same as the biblical and the Israeli, which Torah reading shall be used on the Sabbath of what would be the eighth day of Passover? What is the practice of Reform congregations in America?

The answer:

This question has been asked a number of times, and answered by the writer as Chairman of the C.C.A.R. Committee on Responsa, so the answer may be deemed official, or as nearly official as any Conference responsum is. That is to say, it is meant for guidance and not for strict governance. Yet in general, it represents a fairly universal practice among our congregations.

The actual problem is this: On the holidays, the regular sequence of weekly readings (the Sedras) is suspended and a special holiday Torah reading is provided. When the holiday is over, the regular sequence of Torah Sedras resumes on the first Saturday after the holiday.

But if, as happens fairly often, the eighth day of Passover is on a Saturday, then in Israel, which considers the eighth day a regular non-festival Sabbath, the regular cycle of Torah reading resumes. Therefore Israel is one week ahead of the rest of the Jewish world in the Torah cycle. But not for long! Israel continues ahead until they come to the first double portion. On Pesach, which usually takes place on the Sedra Tzav, the dislocation continues for only two weeks, when the double portion Sazria-Mezoro comes. That week Israel just reads Sazria separately, and the next week Mezoro separately, and thus the rest of world Jewry catches up with them.

Rabbi Freehof gets major props for the transliteration "Sazria". Explanation: The letters בגדכפת get a dageish kal when they are at the beginning of a word, but not if the previous word (within the same phrase) ends in a vowel letter. Since this Torah portion begins (after the standard intro) אשה כי תזריע, the tav in "tazria" loses its dageish. (This is, of course, irrelevant to those of us who pronounce tav the same with or without a dageish, but Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew was standard in the US Jewish community (and not just in frum and Yiddishist enclaves) before 1967.) See also: Vayakheil-Fekudei.

But I'm not sure this is an accurate description of Israeli practice. Or perhaps there are multiple practices in Israel (though that's a little bit hard to believe, with the pervasiveness of the Jewish calendar there), or the practice has changed. In my post on single and double Torah portions, I wrote (based on Israeli calendars) that in this case, Israelis read Behar and Bechukotai separately (not Tazria and Metzora), even though that's not the next opportunity to get everyone back in sync. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be supported by empirical evidence. Can anyone shed light on this?

In leap years (when all of these portions are already read separately), the two calendars are out of sync for substantially longer, for about 3 months until we get to Matot and Mas'ei. This last happened in 1995, and the next time will be in 2016. It also happened in 1965, which may or may not have been the year that this question was posed to the CCAR Responsa Committee. (There is no date on the teshuva. The "8th day of Pesach" also fell on Shabbat in 1961 and 1964, which were not leap years.)
This problem does not arise with regard to the ninth day of Succos because that cannot be on Sabbath.
Here I assume he's referring to the second day of Shemini Atzeret, or the day colloquially known as "Simchat Torah". But there is some precedent for calling it "the ninth day" -- the Talmud does so at Sukkah 46b.

The second day of Rosh Hashanah cannot fall on Shabbat either.

However, the second day of Shavuot can fall on Shabbat, and does slightly more frequently than the eighth day of Pesach (and much more frequently in recent years -- 5 of the last 10 years, in contrast to 0 of the last 10 years for Pesach, though this trend will soon reverse itself).

These details do not undermine Rabbi Freehof's conclusion; rather, the fact that the calendar disparities are longer and more frequent than the teshuva explicitly mentions makes the motivation for his position even stronger. So I bring these details up to make it clear that, even though I'm aware of these additional facts, I still disagree with the teshuva's conclusion.
Now this solution (of Israel being ahead one week until the next double portion comes) works well because of the fact that the different schedule of readings occurs in different countries

It seems to me that this distinction, between different countries and the same country, was more relevant 40 years ago than it is now. These lines have blurred. People are traveling between Israel and other countries much more frequently now, and the Internet makes communication instantaneous, so that American Jews can now think of Israel as part of "our environment" (see below). I have closer contact with a number of communities in Israel than with the Orthodox shul down the street in New York.

(although even in Israel it is still a problem for visitors who do not come there as permanent settlers, since they must follow their home schedule).
Is this still the case in Israel? I know there are second-day yom tov minyanim for visitors, but are there also minyanim on subsequent Shabbatot that read according to the corresponding Torah reading schedule? More to the point, I'd be interested to know about any such minyanim run by Israelis in the United States.

But the problem remains in the relationship between Reform and non-Reform congregations in America, England, etc. Here we are in the same country, and it is not convenient that for a number of weeks we should be in dislocation as to Torah reading with the rest of American Jewry. We have therefore arrived at the following practical solution: We simply reread on that Sabbath the special reading of the holiday that we read before, and take a Psalm as the supplementary reading, but the service that day is a regular Sabbath service. In this way, on the very next Sabbath we are in accord with all the Jews of our environment.

I assume that "supplementary reading" means "haftarah". A psalm seems like an unusual choice, but that's the least of the problems here.

Is there any chance that there has ever been a single Conservative or Orthodox congregation that considered even for a second that it was "not convenient" that, in certain years, they were reading a different Torah portion from their Reform neighbors, and that therefore it would perhaps be best to read the next regular Shabbat portion rather than the yom tov reading on the 8th day of Pesach or 2nd day of Shavuot, in order to stay in accord with all the Jews of their environment? If not, why not? Perhaps because they take their own practices seriously? And if unity is so important, why isn't Rabbi Freehof's first instinct to ask the other movements to work out a mutually agreeable solution, and why does he say instead that Reform congregations alone should adjust, and twiddle their thumbs for a week while waiting for the other denominations to catch up? It appears to me that he treats Conservative and Orthodox practices with more deference than Reform practices. That's not the way to win respect from others or from oneself, any more than voting for everything Bush asked for helped the congressional Democrats win elections in 2002.

I'll say the same thing that I said about the triennial cycle: "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."

Rather, whatever we do in the name of Kelal Yisrael must come from a position of strength. We must first figure out what we would do if we were the only Jews on earth, and let that be our starting point, and then, only after that, determine what (if any) adjustments should be made due to the fact that other Jews exist. This is certainly the way that Orthodox communities operate (at least in the United States; it's hard to imagine the economics of the Israeli haredi sector arising from this approach), and is a major factor in Orthodox Judaism's success. The Reform movement's failure to do this is part of the reason that Reform identities are steamrolled in pluralistic settings. There can be no one-sided "Kelal Yisrael", just as there can be no one-sided "bipartisanship".

It defies all reason to imagine how this teshuva's "practical solution" could be arrived at without making reference to non-Reform Jews and their two-day yom tov observance. In my post on single and double Torah portions, I explained the principles behind each configuration. How does one explain this teshuva's proposed algorithm without making reference to the concept of "the 8th day of Pesach" (a concept that, as this teshuva concedes, does not exist in the Reform calendar)? Here's an attempt: "The cycle of Torah readings on Shabbat is only interrupted by major holidays. When minor holidays, such as Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh, fall on Shabbat, the holiday reading is read in addition to the regular Shabbat portion, and does not replace it. The exception is when 22 Nisan or 7 Sivan, which are not holidays at all, falls on Shabbat, in which case the Shabbat Torah reading cycle is interrupted, and a special Torah reading related to a recently ended holiday is read instead. But if 22 Nisan or 7 Sivan falls on a weekday, then no Torah portion is read at all." Like I said, it defies reason.

Convenient or not, the only self-respecting solution is one that would make sense if everyone else followed it, rather than one that depends on other movements that are implicitly perceived as more authentic.

Again, this debate has nothing to do with the question of how many days of yom tov to observe, because all sides agree that the answer is one. (For Reform congregations that decide to observe two days of yom tov, this question is irrelevant.)

The list of Torah readings at the back of the Union Prayer Book Newly Revised follows this solution of the problem.

In contrast, the "Table of Scriptural Readings" at the back of Gates of the House (1977, the companion volume to Gates of Prayer) says: "When, in the Diaspora, the eighth day of Pesach or the second day of Shavuot falls on Shabbat, Reform congregations read the sidra assigned to the following week in the standard religious calendars." This apparently descriptive statement is a rapid reversal from what Freehof describes as a "fairly universal practice among our congregations". Perhaps the reality has been somewhere in between for a while.

Gates of the House goes on: "However, in order to preserve uniformity in the reading of the Torah throughout the entire community, it is suggested that on these occasions, the sidra be spread over two weeks, one portion to be read while traditional congregations are observing the festival, and another portion to be read the following Shabbat."

This solves some of the problems of the Freehof teshuva but not others. The cycle of Shabbat Torah readings is not interrupted for a day (22 Nisan or 7 Sivan) that is not a holiday, and no special Torah readings are inserted that appear to acknowledge the existence of the 8th day of Pesach or the 2nd day of Shavuot (in some years but not others). Spreading one parasha over two weeks is not a practical problem, since (unfortunately) I don't know of any Reform congregations in the United States that read the entire portion each week, or even the "entire" "triennial" portion. In my experience, most select one piece of the parasha to read, so spreading the portion over two weeks would simply mean selecting two pieces.

But it retains the problem of an incoherent calendar algorithm, or a calendar algorithm that only makes sense if it incorporates the concept of "8th day of Pesach"/"2nd day of Shavuot". The algorithm for Torah readings makes special exceptions for years when 22 Nisan or 7 Sivan falls on Shabbat, for no internally defensible reason. This is invisible to most people, since most people (including rabbis) don't know how the calendar is calculated and rely on published calendars. But the need for self-sufficient and coherent Jewish practices still stands even when the lack of self-sufficiency is less blatant.


The URJ's online Eilu v'Eilu feature addressed this question in 2006 in a four-part series: week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4. Rabbi Eric Wisnia takes the position that American Reform congregations should follow the Israeli calendar, and Rabbi Richard Sarason concurs with the various methods of being "in sync with the local community" (his words), though he doesn't express a preference for one of the two methods discussed above.

I would ask Rabbi Sarason why he thinks Reform communities should see local custom as something set in stone to react to, rather than something to influence. In fact, one letter writer does ask that in week 3, and Rabbi Sarason doesn't really answer the question. He punts and says "Ultimately, there is not a lot at stake here. (Indeed, the majority of North American Reform Jews will not care one way or the other about this issue since it doesn’t even register for them.)" Depressingly true, but I would argue that that's precisely what's at stake.

I agree with Rabbi Wisnia's conclusions (obviously) and with many of his arguments, but find his style somewhat grating. Some of it descends into gratuitous Orthodox-bashing: "I was born in Brooklyn. I know these people. Many of them are my relatives. They are all crazy!" The point isn't whether Orthodox Jews are right or wrong, or whether they're crazy or not. The point is that, right or wrong, Reform Jews have chosen a different path, and this issue is a test of whether Reform Jews really believe in that path.

Interestingly, Rabbi Wisnia focuses a lot on the fact that the 1-day yom tov calendar is the Israeli calendar, and argues that Reform Jews are being better Zionists by following this calendar in solidarity with the State of Israel. This approach certainly provides a significant counterpoint to some of the comments on the previous post.


Coming up next: the Conservative teshuvot about 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov.