Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The last refuge of a scoundrel

When those who would suppress the expression of other opinions adopt the rhetoric of pluralism to defend their positions, it means they already know they've lost, and are making a final desperate stand before they join the Sadducees and the Essenes on the losing side of history.

"There will come a time when Lord Voldemort will seem to fear for the life of his snake."
"For Nagini?" Snape looked astonished.
"Precisely. If there comes a time when Lord Voldemort stops sending that snake forth to do his bidding, but keeps it safe beside him, under magical protection, then, I think, it will be safe to tell Harry."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Good Friday

On the first day of the Purim Triduum, after megillah reading and a siyyum, we went to the Old City to watch the Good Friday procession. Christian pilgrims from all over the world walk the Via Dolorosa, following the Stations of the Cross.

(Actually, this was just the Catholics and the Protestants. Orthodox Christians (which include a number of the Christian groups with a significant presence in Jerusalem, including the Greek, Armenian, and Russian churches) observe Good Friday and Easter next month, at the end of Pesach. Jews and Christians intend to observe Pesach/Easter at the first full moon after the vernal equinox / chodesh ha-aviv. Catholics and Protestants have fixed their calendrical errors; Jews and Orthodox Christians haven't. Really it should be Pesach right now, but I can't complain. I couldn't have asked for better Purim weather.)

People were wearing all sorts of dress, not only the expected priest and nun uniforms, but clothing that looked like military uniforms and scout uniforms.

These pictures and videos are of a group identified as being from St. George's Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral in East Jerusalem. Apparently there used to be a lot of British missionaries in what was then Palestine (during the mandate period and earlier), and as a result, here is a congregation of Palestinians singing what sound just like Protestant hymns, in Arabic.

End of an era

Here in Jerusalem (and theoretically in other cities that were walled at the time of Joshua), we just completed Purim Meshulash, a 3-day Purim celebration (Friday-Saturday-Sunday) that occurs any time the date of Purim falls on Shabbat. Since 14 Adar never falls on Shabbat but 15 Adar sometimes does, this is only relevant in walled cities (and practically speaking, only in Jerusalem).

We just had another Purim Meshulash 3 years ago, but there won't be another one for another 13 years! Because you see, we're on the cusp of a major transition in the Hebrew calendar.

Some background information: (Licensed calendar geeks can skip right to the data.)

There are three variables that make one Hebrew year different from another:
1) Cheshvan can have 29 or 30 days.
2) Kislev can have 29 or 30 days.
3) There can be one or two months of Adar.

This means that the 9-month period from Adar to Cheshvan (which just happens to include all the biblical holidays plus Purim; forget about Chanukah though) is completely fixed. If you know the day of the week of any holiday in that period, you know them all.

Therefore, since Rosh Hashanah can only fall on four days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), there are only four types of years if we're just looking at the period from Adar to Cheshvan. (Since this period spans two Hebrew years, I'm using Gregorian year numbers below for clarity.)

The four types, in order of frequency, with their distinctive features:
  • Rosh Hashanah on Thursday, 31.9% of years. This means there is a "three-day yom tov" for Rosh Hashanah, and for those who observe 2 days of yom tov, there are two more "three-day yom tovs" for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Yom Kippur is on Shabbat. Purim begins on Saturday night. We just had this in 2007.
  • Rosh Hashanah on Shabbat, 28.6% of years. Most of the fall holidays are on weekends. Pesach starts on a Wednesday night, leading to a "three-day yom tov" for those who observe 2 days of yom tov. Shavuot is on Friday, leading into (or including) Shabbat. This causes a disparity between 1-day-yom-tov and 2-day-yom-tov communities regarding Torah reading for several Shabbatot.
  • Rosh Hashanah on Monday, 28.0% of years. Pesach begins on Shabbat. This also causes a disparity regarding Torah reading, because the 8th day of Pesach (if one exists) is also on Shabbat. Shavuot begins on Saturday night, yet another "three-day yom tov" for people who swing that way. Tisha B'Av falls on Shabbat and is delayed to Sunday.
  • Rosh Hashanah on Tuesday, the least common by far with only 11.5% of years. This is what we have in 2008. Pesach begins on Saturday night, leading to all manner of hijinks. Tisha B'Av also begins on Saturday night. Purim is on Friday, leading to Purim Meshulash in walled cities.
You may notice, thinking about recent years, that some of these descriptions sound more familiar than others, and that this doesn't necessarily match their statistical frequency. That's because, as recent and upcoming years demonstrate, the year patterns are NOT AT ALL distributed homogeneously.

Let's look at the days of the week of Rosh Hashanah in recent years (and next year):

1996 Sat
1997 Thu
1998 Mon
1999 Sat
2000 Sat
2001 Tues
2002 Sat
2003 Sat
2004 Thu
2005 Tues
2006 Sat
2007 Thu
2008 Tues
2009 Sat

So what do we have here? A lot of Saturdays (50% of the years in this sample, including 4 years out of 5 for one 5-year span there), more Tuesdays than would be statistically expected (you'd expect about one a decade), and no Mondays at all for over a decade.

But that's about to change drastically:

2010 Thu
2011 Thu
2012 Mon
2013 Thu
2014 Thu
2015 Mon
2016 Mon
2017 Thu
2018 Mon
2019 Mon

Yes, that's right -- the entire decade of the 2010s will be nothing but Thursdays and Mondays! The convenience to working people of having the fall holidays on weekends, which we have grown accustomed to, will be wholly alien for the new generation. Mechon Hadar's new page about Purim on Friday will be a purely academic exercise, as will all the guides to Shabbat Erev Pesach that will see a lot of use this year.

After that, things will start to stabilize:

2020 Sat
2021 Tues
2022 Mon
2023 Sat
2024 Thu
2025 Tues
2026 Sat
2027 Sat
2028 Thu
2029 Mon

So that's the long-term forecast!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Texts on intoxication and Purim: Beyond עד דלא ידע

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Talmud Bavli, Megillah 7b:

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא

Rava said: A person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai”. [This is where most people stop reading.]

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira had a Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, he prayed for mercy and revived him. The following year, [Rabbah] said to him “Come, let’s have a Purim feast together.” Rabbi Zeira said to him, “A miracle doesn’t happen every time.”

Ran, ad loc.:

ומחיחייב לבסומי עד דלא ידע מאי קאמר וכתב רבינו אפרים ז”ל מההוא עובדא דקם רבה ושחטיה לר’ זירא כדא’ בגמ’ אידחי ליה מימרא דרבא ולא שפיר דמי למעבד הכי

“A person is required to become intoxicated until he does not know” - what does this mean? Rabbeinu Ephraim wrote: From the incident in which Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira (as we have said in the Gemara), Rava’s statement is rejected, and it is not appropriate to act thus.

The Ba’al Hama’or quotes the same statement of Rabbeinu Ephraim, adding the line “ולית הלכתא כוותיה” = “the halacha is not like him [Rava]”. (Rabbeinu Ephraim may not be such a big name, but the Ran and Ba’al Hama’or don’t cite any other opinions on this issue, so they are agreeing at least implicitly.)

So even if you think that drinking on Purim is a “mitzvah” (a highly dubious claim), if you’re going to observe a Purim mitzvah to excess this year, my recommendation is matanot la’evyonim.

Happy Purim!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Return of the King

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)



Haftarat Zachor (which is read twice this year here in Jerusalem) + Megillat Esther = The Lord of the Rings. One of them is totally plagiarized.

After winning the war with Sauron, Isildur is supposed to destroy the One Ring. He declines to do this, and as a result, his royal line ends and he is killed in battle, and the Ring continues to cause trouble. Many years later, when the Ring is finally destroyed, Isildur’s distant descendant Aragorn becomes king, and the monarchy is restored.

After winning the war with Amalek, Shaul ben Kish is supposed to kill Agag. He declines to do this, and as a result, his royal line ends and he is (eventually) killed in battle, and Agag’s descendant Haman continues to cause trouble. Many years later, when Haman is finally executed, Shaul’s father’s descendant Mordechai ben Ya’ir ben Shim’i ben Kish (one of the Men of the West, living in exile) becomes second to the king.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Mother, did it need to be so high?

Sorry to beat a dead horse, but with Purim coming up, I'm curious: Are there other cities besides Jerusalem where Purim is observed on 15 Adar in our time? (Are there any Jews in Shushan nowadays?)

I have in my hands a luach for Eretz Yisrael for this year that gives three sets of Purim practices. This is my translation. All (parentheses) are in original; [brackets] are mine. In quotes are the original; outside of quotes are a paraphrase.
  • "villages that were not surrounded by walls at the time of Yehoshua bin Nun" - Purim is 14 Adar. "The moshavot and the new cities, their rule is like all the unwalled cities and their Purim is only on the 14th."
  • "the old cities in Eretz Yisrael like Jaffa, Lod, Akko, Tiberias, Tzefat, Haifa, Beersheva, and Hebron (Shechem and Gaza) (even though not all of these cities have a source for this rule, as we have explained in מק"א [?] -- leave Israel alone with the minhag that they have practiced) they are in a doubtful status of having been surrounded by walls from the time of Yehoshua bin Nun" -- do everything on 14 Adar. They used to also do Al Hanisim and the Torah reading on 15 Adar, but don't anymore. [Presumably because it's Purim Meshulash this year], do another seudah and mishloach manot on Sunday, 16 Adar. [It doesn't say whether they would read megillah again on 15 Adar in a normal year, since that's a moot question this year. Does anyone know?]
  • "Jerusalem, which was definitely surrounded by walls at the time of Yehoshua bin Nun" - [normally 15 Adar. This year,] Purim Meshulash.
But this strikes me as more prescriptive than descriptive. In that middle group of old cities, what is/was their actual minhag that this luach was reacting to? Is it that they've historically kept the 15th and are now being told to keep the 14th, or vice versa, or they've historically done something on both days? What, e.g., did the Jewish community of Tzefat do in the 16th century, or Hebron in the 19th century? When do secular Jews in Haifa and Beersheva do Purim today?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kol Zimrah by the numbers

A few months ago, we saw the preliminary results from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study. Now we're starting to see results for some of the individual communities. In this post I'm going to note some of the interesting results from Kol Zimrah in New York. If you have a blog and access to your community's results, please post them!

36 people took the survey and identified Kol Zimrah as one of their communities. This is about half the number of people who are at a typical KZ service, so I think it's a large enough sample to be meaningful (even if it's weighted toward people who identify strongly enough with Kol Zimrah to fill out the survey -- 78% of respondents have a strong sense of belonging to the community).

  • Unsurprisingly, most people first heard about Kol Zimrah from a friend.
  • One person attends Kol Zimrah services several times a month. That's a neat trick! Maybe it's the same person who claims to have paid membership dues.
  • Nobody said "I have not been given an opportunity to be very involved and I am not happy about this."
  • Most popular reason for attending Kol Zimrah: "I want to participate in meaningful prayer." Least popular reasons: "I want the community to provide a Jewish experience for my children" and "My parent or child or another close relative attends."
  • Most valued aspects: "Music/melodies in worship" and "Sense of community".
  • A majority of respondents have attended services at 7 or more places in the last year.
  • Raised: Conservative 24%, Orthodox 3%, Other Jewish 29%, Reform 44% (compared with Conservative 46%, Not Jewish 4%, Orthodox 20%, Other Jewish 12%, Reform 18% for independent minyan participants overall)
  • Currently identify: Conservative 18%, Orthodox 0%, Other Jewish 68%, Reform 15% (compared with Conservative 37%, Orthodox 15%, Other Jewish 45%, Reform 3% for independent minyan participants overall)
  • Less diversity than we might have expected: All KZ respondents were raised Jewish and have Jewish mothers (some have non-Jewish fathers), all have been to Israel, and all were born in the United States.
  • 94% say being Jewish is very important in their lives (compared to 90% of independent minyan participants and 69% of synagogue members). 74% say religion is very important (compared to 69% of independent minyan participants and 50% of synagogue members).
  • The majority of respondents went to (part-time) Hebrew school as their primary form of childhood Jewish education.
  • Among Jewish educational experiences polled in the survey, Hillel (or other college organization) was the most popular (91%), followed by Jewish camp, then youth group, then 4 months or more in Israel, then day school, then day high school (6%). This is almost exactly the same ordering as the independent minyan population at large (except that camp and youth group are flipped), but the extremes are less extreme in the general population: Hillel (or other college organization) is at 80%, and day high school is at 29%.
  • 88% agreed with "Any Jewish community that I am part of should welcome non-Jews", and the rest said "not sure". This is higher than any of the populations in the survey.
  • 100% said "I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people" (compared with 84% of the independent minyan population overall).
  • 88% said "I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world" (compared with 55% of the independent minyan population), and 97% said "I have a Jewish responsibility to care for people in trouble (as with Darfur or Katrina)" (not listed in the main survey results).
  • 32% are concerned that the Jewish population will diminish (compared with 63% of independent minyan participants and 76% of synagogue members).
  • No one said they were proud of Israel always (though the vast majority said sometimes or often).
  • 94% have been invited to a Shabbat meal by someone in the community (compared with 95% of the independent minyan population; I'd say this is within the margin of error).
  • Political self-identification was Democrat 82%, independent 15%, Republican 3%, with the exact same breakdown for liberal/moderate/conservative.
  • Median age: 25.5
  • 65% of respondents are female and 35% are male, identical to the overall independent minyan population in the survey.
  • 9% of KZ respondents are married, compared to 51% for independent minyan participants overall.

Synagogue and chumus reviews: the next generation

Back in the old days of RRRR39, a popular feature was "Synagogue and Chumus Reviews". Now that I'm back in Israel, having new synagogue and chumus experiences, I felt it was time to bring this feature back. And there's some coherence to it: most of the synagogues where we've done armchair ethnography in recent weeks, and all of the chumus (perhaps by definition), have been eidot hamizrach (communities of the east).


Who would have thought that I would hear Aramaic targum for Parshat Ki Tisa two years in a row? But this time around, it wasn't just for one aliyah during an emergency situation; it was for the entire Torah (and haftarah) reading, and they do it every week. We went to a Yemenite synagogue in Katamon where we had been a few times before, but never in the morning (and therefore we hadn't heard Torah reading before).

We had heard that the service started at 7:30 am, so we got up early to arrive at what we thought would be on time, and they were on Shirat Hayam. Given that they chant the psalms out loud in unison (with amazing unique Hebrew pronunciation, many of them from memory), we figured that they had in fact been going at least since 7:00. Due to the Aramaic translation after every verse and an already long Torah reading, the Torah service was very long, so the whole service ended at 10:20, leaving plenty of time to take a two-hour nap before lunch. Perfect!

They auctioned off all the aliyot and other honors. Some went for 10 shekels, but one high roller bid 90 shekels for his aliyah. (When do people actually pay up?) They followed the original practice in which the person called up for the aliyah actually reads that portion. Some of them read it flawlessly, while others needed to be fed each verse while the previous verse was being translated. Given that, at least by appearances, it wasn't known in advance who was going to get which aliyah, we were trying to figure out whether this meant that a number of people knew the whole Torah by heart and could have read any aliyah on the spot (quite possible) or whether they knew in advance which aliyah they were going to bid for and prepared it.

The targum mysteriously cut out for a few verses, and then we realized they were upholding the rule in Mishnah Megillah 4:10:

מעשה העגל הראשון, נקרא ומיתרגם; והשני, נקרא ולא מיתרגם.

The first story of the calf is read and translated, and the second is read but not translated.
The first one is the story of the golden calf as told by the narrator of Exodus (from the beginning of chapter 32), and this was read and translated as normal. The second is when Aaron retells the story to Moses (Exodus 32:22-24), and this was indeed read without translation.

They were also mehadrin about the rule in Megillah 4:4 :

ולא יקרא לתורגמן יתר מפסוק אחד, ובנביא שלושה

Don't read to the translator more than one verse [from the Torah], and from the prophets [no more than] three.

Three-verse chunks during the haftarah would have been the maximum allowed, but they went beyond the letter of the law and continued to read one verse at a time, as during the Torah reading.

At the end of the service, they read aloud from something I couldn't identify until someone handed me a copy of the book, which I still hadn't heard of. It seems that each week they read a chapter from Menorat HaMa'or. According to the old Jewish Encyclopedia:

It can hardly be said that the division of the matter treated is very logical and systematic, nor indeed does the work lay any claim to originality; but in presenting the beautiful moral and religious truths of Judaism in homely form, Aboab supplied to the average reader a great need of the time. Its skilful arrangement of the various Biblical and rabbinical topics and its warm tone of deep earnestness and sincerity could not fail to appeal to the popular heart. And as in the course of time the sermon, then still in use among the Spanish Jews, ceased to be a part of the divine service because the preacher had to give way to the ḥazan, or precentor, the "Menorat ha-Maor" became a substitute for the living voice of the preacher.

The following Friday night we went to a Syrian synagogue in Nachla'ot, The Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community, Est. 1901. We considered making conversation by asking people if they could show us their fragments of the Aleppo Codex, but decided against it.

The order of the service was different from what we were accustomed to in the Ashkenazi world, and also different from what was printed in the (generic eidot hamizrach) siddur. As best I can recall, it was something like: Psalm 29 (sung together, standing up and facing the entrance from here to the end of Lecha Dodi), Lecha Dodi (only selected verses), Psalm 92 and 93 (said mostly individually), Bameh Madlikin (surprisingly this was a place where the ḥazan, or precentor, did some fancy precenting), Psalm 92 and 93 again (sung together), Shir HaShirim, (at least the end of) Psalm 93 for a third time, ma'ariv. There may have been a kaddish here or there too.

EAR reports that the women's section was small but packed.

Unlike the Ashkenazi tradition, where there is a standard Friday night nusach for every Shabbat of the year, the Sephardi cantorial tradition has a different maqam (musical scale) for each week, corresponding to the parasha. Since we were there for Vayakhel, they used Maqam Husseini, associated with the beauty of the mishkan. (Or that's what a table at the beginning of the book, confirmed by the Internet, says they were using. My ear for quarter tones is not nearly good enough to confirm this myself by listening.)


Functionally, there are two types of chumus: the kind that you keep in a tub in your refrigerator, and the kind that you go out for (often ornately landscaped and accompanied by a full host of trimmings). My experience of both types has changed drastically between my previous sojourn in Israel (2001-02) and the present one, due to the "security situation". In those days, I didn't go anywhere that I thought might be a terrorist target, whereas this year (recent events notwithstanding) there hasn't been an atmosphere of fear. So in 2001-02, the first type of chumus mostly came from the supermarket or makolet (Hebrew for bodega) and the second type didn't exist so much in my life. This year, in contrast, the shuk is considered safe, so the first type of chumus can be obtained there for much cheaper than at the supermarket, and is much better chumus as well.

In addition to the neighborhood fixture Bein Azah leVerlin, in the last few weeks I have been to two new places for the second type of chumus: Humus Asli in Tel Aviv (not affiliated with Hoomoos Asli as far as I'm aware), and the world-famous Abu Shukri in the Old City. Thumbs up to both.


On a recent Shabbat morning, we went to a Kurdish synagogue, also in Nachlaot. Now there are lots of Kurdish synagogues in Nachlaot, each one associated with a different part of Kurdistan, and most of them start very early, like the Yemenite synagogue discussed above. This one, instead of having a particular geographic focus, is apparently for all the late risers.

We had been told "they start at '9' but don't seem to hit nishmat until like 10:20". When we arrived at 9:40, they were still saying korbanot (which took a while, since it was all recited out loud), and they got to Hodu (the beginning of pesukei dezimrah in the Sephardi liturgy; Baruch She-amar doesn't come until later, so that the berachot surround only the essential core) at 9:53. Nishmat was at 10:28, and when we left at 11:40, they had just finished the Torah reading (no haftarah yet). This kind of timing may be normal in the US, but not so much in Israel, particularly among eidot hamizrach. I certainly had no complaints! (If it weren't on the other side of town, you could leave the aforementioned Yemenite place at the end of musaf and still make it to this Kurdish place for shacharit.)

The atmosphere was refreshingly chill. People were dressed in jeans, and some even had shirts with writing. (Likewise, the Syrian synagogue may not have had so many jeans, but definitely had more sweaters than suits.) When we arrived, there were about 5 men and no women. The men were sitting on upholstered benches around the periphery of the room, each with a table in front of them and a cup of coffee or tea. They directed me to the rows of benches in the middle of the room (presumably for guests who don't have their own regular spot).

Since there were no women at the beginning, EAR asked if there was an ezrat nashim. They pointed her to the stairs and gave her a key, since the door to the balcony was locked. Soon a woman with a cane came into the main part of the sanctuary and had a loud conversation with one of the men before going to a corner near the entrance and sitting down. So we figured she sat there because she couldn't go to the ezrat nashim because of the stairs. But later, more women (without canes) came in, and also sat in the same corner of the main sanctuary. And then we realized that the reason the ezrat nashim had been locked was because they don't use it - the women sit downstairs with the men (albeit off to the side). So when EAR asked for the ezrat nashim, they must have thought it was because she was extra frum!

Here too, they auctioned off the aliyot, and did them all before the Torah service began. However, there was a preassigned Torah reader, and the people who purchased the aliyot just said the blessings, as is more common nowadays. They were also more discreet about conducting financial transactions. Instead of announcing actual shekel amounts, they said "chai", "2x chai" or "3x chai". (Except for one person who bid 26, presumably because it is the numerical value of the tetragrammaton.) It was a small enough community that everyone seemed to know everyone, so the auctioneer announced the winner of each auction by name (and by his father's name). The 6th aliyah is called "samuch", and the 7th is called "mashlim".

They did the mi shebeirachs, the prayer for Israel, birkat hachodesh, and all other public business before the Torah reading began, so once it began, it was strictly business. No Aramaic this time.

On the way out, they invited us to come back every Shabbat. They also offered us hot drinks multiple times.


Last Friday night, for a change of pace from the communities of the east, we visited a synagogue with strong influences from the communities of the far far west. Not that there's anything wrong with that. American Jews are just as much a part of the Israeli tapestry as Yemenites, Russians, and Ethiopians.

A few months ago I wrote in a comment on Jewschool:
Also, we should avoid using any of the words “independent”, “transdenominational”, “pluralistic”, “havurah”, etc. (each of which differs in meaning from the others) as a synonym for “good” (regardless of what correlations, or even causations, we may see). If we could stop doing that, then perhaps people will stop trying to apply those terms in cases where they don’t belong (”Yes, technically it’s a denominationally-affiliated synagogue with a rabbi and a staff, but it’s a really wonderful community that’s doing great things, therefore it’s basically a pluralistic independent havurah.”). These terms should be descriptions, not value judgments.

On behalf of all the independent and/or pluralistic Jewish communities that I have been involved with, I do find it flattering that these attributes have become synonyms for "good" (it certainly beats becoming synonyms for "bad"). But this trend is dangerous because it pollutes the language. There should be a way to talk objectively and substantively about the properties of different communities without having "You're not pluralistic" misinterpreted as "You suck." I don't actually think all communities should be pluralistic, nor do I think that pluralistic communities are always better than non-pluralistic ones. (Also, as usual,
#include <hilchotpluralism.h>
. )

Last Friday night we saw this trend taken to extremes. We went to the Yachad Minyan, a monthly (?) service billed as "pluralistic" that takes place at Moreshet Yisrael, the mother church of the Conservative movement in Israel.

What does "pluralistic" mean in this context? It's not clear. The service was egalitarian, took place in the main sanctuary of the synagogue (and I believe it was the only service happening there that Friday night), used the Hebrew liturgy from Siddur Sim Shalom (out of which pages were announced), and was followed by a one-table (Table 2) potluck which we didn't attend, etc. Now there's nothing wrong (or inherently unpluralistic) with any of those things. But it's hard to see how this is any more pluralistic than what happens at Moreshet Yisrael on other weeks. (Does this mean that Moreshet Yisrael is always pluralistic? That's a hard sell.) Now I'm no Moreshet Yisrael regular (this was my first time there in about 6 years), so maybe there's crucial information that I'm lacking (e.g. perhaps on ordinary weeks everyone who wants to attend services has to sign (BEFORE SHABBAT) a loyalty oath to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and this requirement is waived on Yachad weeks, which would indeed make Yachad much more pluralistic), but this seems farfetched.

So what makes Yachad different from other weeks at Moreshet Yisrael? Again, I don't have enough direct experience with Moreshet Yisrael to make a strong comparison, but it seemed to me that Yachad was trying to achieve 1) spirited davening, 2) a welcoming and friendly community, and 3) a diverse set of participants (or at least diverse within the Americans-studying-in-Israel-for-the-year set; the service was advertised to a wide range of denominational and nondenominational educational institutions). And my impression was that they successfully achieved all three. So this post should not be construed as a criticism of Yachad's content, or as a suggestion that they should be doing anything differently.

But these goals have nothing to do with pluralism. Diversity does not equal pluralism; if it did, then Chabad events would actually be pluralistic, as would the Kurdish synagogue mentioned above on the week that we attended (since EAR and I are American Ashkenazim). And the first two goals are a classic case of using "pluralistic" as a synonym for "good". Believe me, I'm all in favor of good davening and friendly communities, but I've certainly been to independent pluralistic havurah (insert more adjectives of your choice) services where the davening sucked, and I think if institutional denominational synagogues want to have good davening, they're entitled to do so without labeling themselves as anything else. It would be a shame if the word "pluralistic" became a barrier such that non-pluralistic communities felt that they couldn't make their davening better or their communities more open. The melodies were also far more diverse than one might typically expect at an American-influenced Conservative synagogue, but again, that shouldn't require any sort of special permission.

(I acknowledge that there may have been political considerations behind labeling Yachad as "pluralistic". Whoever came up with the idea probably realized that it wouldn't go over so well with the synagogue's longtime members if s/he had said "How about if, once a month, we have good davening?", so s/he had to come up with a different descriptor to explain how this service would be different, and "pluralistic" seemed like a crowd pleaser. Another baffling approach to the same concern can be seen in the synagogue bulletin, which lists Yachad as a "young person's [sic] minyan". I don't think I met the young person whose minyan it was.)

So I don't think Yachad is doing anything wrong by not being pluralistic (and really, who would expect anything outside of the Conservative box at the Conservative flagship?), and they're doing a lot of things right. But they should rethink the way they label and advertise themselves, so that "pluralism" doesn't lose all meaning.

(And to make it clear that I'm not knocking Yachad or Moreshet Yisrael, I'll praise Moreshet Yisrael for the fact that the giant chandeliers in the sanctuary are now filled with compact fluorescent lamps.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Please remember not to add Al Hanisim

As in previous years (this is now the 8th time in a row), I will be leading ma'ariv on Purim (viz., the first night of triple Purim). Suggestions for wacky tunes are invited (though I may recycle more than usual this year, being in a new city and continent).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Chodesh tov!

In happier news, hundreds of Jerusalem restaurants are about to become kosher again!

For some reason, the rabbanut was apparently not doing any supervision during Adar Rishon. Can anyone explain it?

I'm ok

I wasn't at the Mercaz HaRav tonight.

This sucks.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The first Republican

With the recent death of William Buckley, there has been a lot of talk about how he was the "father of conservatism". But if we look at Bava Batra 10a, we can see that this movement goes back much earlier.

(Note: It's not clear that Turnus Rufus was an actual historical figure. Most of his Google hits yield references to rabbinic literature. But that doesn't matter.)

וזו שאלה שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר"ע אם אלהיכם אוהב עניים הוא מפני מה אינו מפרנסם א"ל כדי שניצול אנו בהן מדינה של גיהנם

The wicked Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva this question: "If your God loves the poor, why doesn't [your God] provide for them?" [Rabbi Akiva] said to him: "So that we can be saved through them from the judgment of Gehinnom." [I.e., so that we have the opportunity to give tzedakah.]

This isn't the main point of the post, but I'll interrupt for a second and say that, even though Turnus Rufus is asking a tough theological question that anyone would have an understandably difficult time answering, I find Rabbi Akiva's answer to be especially lame. People in the world are suffering so that I can get mitzvah points? What kind of self-centered worldview is that? This sounds like something we'd expect to hear from a late-seasons Ned Flanders on a day when the writers are feeling particularly bitter towards religious hypocrisy. (Though to be fair, given what we know about Rabbi Akiva's encounters with the Roman authorities, he may have been answering the question under pressure, and his thoughts may have been unusually focused on otherworldly matters.) But anyway.

א"ל [אדרבה] זו שמחייבתן לגיהנם אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שכעס על עבדו וחבשו בבית האסורין וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו ושלא להשקותו והלך אדם אחד והאכילו והשקהו כששמע המלך לא כועס עליו

[Turnus Rufus] said to him: "On the contrary, this makes you liable for Gehinnom! I'll tell you a parable. What is the thing like? Like a king of flesh and blood who got angry at his servant and locked him in prison, and ordered that he not be brought food and water, and another person went and brought him food and water. When the king heard, wouldn't he get angry at him?"

And here we have conservative philosophy in a nutshell. The supreme being (called God in the "religious" manifestations of political conservatism, or called the free market / invisible hand in the secular manifestations) determines everyone's position in society, and messing with this is a sin. Thus, government intervention in the economy is wrong, except insofar as it helps to bolster this preordained social / economic / educational / etc. hierarchy. (In the latter case, government intervention is acceptable, because it is carrying out the will of [fill in the blank].) Even individual intervention is questionable, and should be very limited in scope so as not to arouse the anger of "the king".

The Talmud places this philosophy into the mouth of the wicked Turnus Rufus. Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Back in the bullpen

My next post is about Turnus Rufus, 2nd-century Roman governor of Judea (at least according to the Talmud). But the streak is over. As I'll show in the post, I think he'd get along pretty well with John McCain.