Sunday, May 25, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
Here is the world-famous Hilchot Pluralism series. Reading in order is recommended, and there are some great discussions in the comments.
Kol Zimrah meets once a month for musical Friday night services and a potluck Shabbat dinner, and the next one will be on Friday, June 13, in a Manhattan park to be announced.
The 2008 National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, a multigenerational nondenominational egalitarian pluralistic gathering of Jewish living and learning, will be August 11-17 at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire (90 minutes from Boston). And yes, there are significant scholarships available. Register now!
Here's a piece about why Kol Zimrah, the NHC, etc., are important.
Sefer Ha-Bloggadah will begin this summer at the NHC Summer Institute and continue until the 2010 Institute. All are invited to take part in this international virtual group study as Sefer Ha-Aggadah celebrates 100 years, and you're also invited to start a non-virtual participating group in your community. To get updates on what's happening next, join the email list, and then starting in August, there will be postings and discussion every day on the blog.
Here's Twizzlers Pull-N-Peel, an important educational tool.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Thursday, May 15, 2008
It is a little-known fact that the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a teshuva in 1963 saying that observing 1 day of yom tov is a valid option (along with other teshuvot saying that it isn't). So consider this a public service announcement for anyone out there who accepts the CJLS as an authority (and sees him/herself as a mara d'atra, or doesn't buy into the whole mara d'atra thing): you now have 1 day of yom tov as an approved option.
I can't find the actual teshuvot online anywhere (including the RA website), but one site has summaries of the conclusions. And the conclusions are the important part: the set of classical sources about the essence of yom tov sheini is very limited, and familiar to anyone who has looked into this issue, so it's unlikely that the teshuvot disagree on which sources they cite or what the sources say; their disagreement is surely about what to conclude from the sources. So the most pro-1-day teshuva, by Rabbis Philip Sigal and Abraham J. Ehrlich, says: "We declare that yom tov sheni is not a hok, a permanent enactment, but a minhag, a custom. Congregations need not feel compelled to observe other than the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah. 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."
I hear that Rabbis Sigal and Ehrlich went on to say: "People need not feel compelled to put more than four fringes on their tallitot. On the other hand, those who desire to wear five fringes as an expression of personal piety, as a chumrah, might do so, vetavo aleihem berakhah, may God bless them." But seriously, come on! If someone has a personal minhag to observe 2 days and is in a community that observes 1 day, I can certainly empathize with their decision to uphold their minhag, since I've been in the reverse situation many times. But I don't understand the perspective that affirms keeping one day, but then says that keeping two days is praiseworthy. Would they hold that it's even more praiseworthy to observe yom tov for three days, or to observe yom tov for the entire year and never do any work? As I alluded to with the tzitzit analogy, observing a non-yom tov day as yom tov is not meritorious; rather, it may be a violation of the biblical commandment of bal tosif. If you have a minhag that that day is yom tov and act on that minhag, then that's just fine, but then you're not displaying "personal piety", you're just being true to your understanding of the calendar. (One could make an argument that it is "personal piety" to refrain from work on the 2nd day of Pesach or Sukkot, since it's chol hamo'ed, but that argument wouldn't apply to the 8th day of Pesach, etc.)
Furthermore, it's not entirely true, on a technical level, that keeping two days of yom tov is a chumra. We'll get to that later.
My thinking about how to frame the 1-day versus 2-day options is much more in line with a 1999 CCAR teshuva that doesn't rule out observing 2 days, but advises extreme caution. It says in part: "For when we declare a second day of yom tov, we are not simply making a statement of identity, planning a creative worship experience, or arranging an experiment in spirituality. We are declaring a festival. When we say that a day is a yom tov, we mark it as holy; we transform it from ordinary time into sacred time; we make kodesh out of chol. We arrogate to ourselves the power of the ancient Sanhedrin to announce to the Jewish world--indeed, even to God--that such-and-such a date shall be a festival. And when we declare a yom tov sheni, that is, a festival day on a date that according to the Torah is not a festival at all, we create an actual festival day with all its relevant duties and restrictions."
(Read on for even stronger language, which I'm not quoting only because it applies mainly to the specific case. The question at hand was about "stretching" Shavuot to two days when the "2nd day" is on Shabbat. But the CCAR's rebuke should also be extended to those Reform and Reconstructionist congregations that generally observe 1 day of yom tov but then celebrate "Simchat Torah" on 23 Tishrei, to be cool like the cool kids. Of course, "Simchat Torah" has no fixed date and can be celebrated on any day of the year (yom tov or not), though doing it on 9 Av might be tacky. But, for the reasons stated in this teshuva, it is problematic to treat 23 Tishrei as a yom tov, in a milieu that does not otherwise recognize two days of yom tov. I don't care if everyone else is doing it. As I've said before, unity should not come at the expense of authenticity.)
The (summaries of the) other CJLS teshuvot make it clear that (at least based on these teshuvot, not looking at actual practice) the Reform movement takes the concept of yom tov far more seriously than the Conservative movement does.
The second teshuva, by Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, calls for keeping 2 days of yom tov, and makes a slippery-slope argument: "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." Rabbi Shuchat appears to believe that leaping from correlation to causation constitutes "living proof". I won't deny that both claims are true (the Reform movement has eliminated the second day of yom tov, and yom tov is not a "significant factor" in the practice of many Reform-identified Jews), but the causal link between them is without basis, and smacks of the usual intellectually lazy "If we did that, we'd be Reform" argument. Even the correlation can be knocked flat with a simple and significant counterexample: has yom tov "fall[en] into desuetude" in Israel?
The summary continues, "Rabbi Shuchat concludes by saying that he would agree to the elimination of Yom Tov Sheni if it were to come from a recognized halakhic body in the land of Israel." Don't hold your breath for any halakhic bodies in Israel to say anything one way or the other on this topic. They are, of course, already observing 1 day of yom tov, and don't generally make pronouncements about what people outside Israel should be doing. Rabbi Shuchat appears to believe that, when it comes to issues such as this, Israeli rabbis have jurisdiction in the Diaspora, but Diaspora rabbis don't have jurisdiction in the Diaspora. EV has a new comic out about this phenomenon.
The third teshuva, by Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal, says "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... not feel that they are in violation of halakhah if they observe only one day. But we cannot condone the initiation of discussions about the second day in those Congregations which do have regular and meaningful services on it." The last sentence highlights a major failing of American liberal Judaism. Its emphasis is not on whether we should (as the CCAR teshuva says) declare a festival and "transform it from ordinary time into sacred time", nor on whether individuals and families should observe the positive and negative mitzvot of yom tov, but rather, on "services" in "Congregations". The implication is that regular people are insignificant sheep, with no independent motivation to pursue Jewish observance, and what really matters is what goes on in the synagogue. And of course, there is nothing preventing a congregation from having "regular and meaningful services" on 7 Sivan if it wishes (regardless of whether those services use the yom tov or the weekday liturgy), or any other day of the year. If congregational services are held up as the reason for keeping 2 days of yom tov, then this exactly is what the CCAR teshuva warns about when it says that declaring a day as yom tov isn't only about "arranging an experiment in spirituality" (even if the Conservative movement of the 1960s wouldn't have used the word "spirituality").
Neither of these CJLS teshuvot takes yom tov very seriously if they're willing to declare a day as yom tov in order to achieve short-term public policy objectives (maintaining "meaningful services" or, based on dubious evidence, preventing the apathy towards yom tov found in the Reform movement).
Furthermore, an underlying assumption in all three teshuvot is that keeping one day of yom tov is doing less, while keeping two days is more machmir (stringent). The argument in support of this assumption is self-evident, but I want to present some evidence against it (in addition to the bal tosif argument above). I've started making a list of ways in which keeping one day can actually result in practices that are more stringent than keeping two days, and you're invited to add to the list.
- The most significant one for me (albeit less technical than the ones below) is that "ששת ימים תעבד" (six days you shall work) is a positive commandment, and observing 1 day of yom tov means working on more of the six days of creation. Getting up at 5:30 AM (after staying up all night and then squeezing 2 nights' worth of sleep into a 22-hour period) to take the train back into the city from the Shavuot Retreat and go to work on 7 Sivan doesn't feel like leniency to me.
- Tefillin is the canonical example that comes up in discussions of 2-day yom tov observers visiting Israel. For those who wear tefillin, it's required on 23 Tishrei, 22 Nisan, and 7 Sivan for 1-day yom tov observers (and possibly on 16 Tishrei and 16 Nisan, but it depends on one's minhag), but not for 2-day yom tov observers.
When the first day of Sukkot or Pesach falls on Thursday, two-day yom tov observers may cook on Thursday for Shabbat (provided that they have set up an eruv tavshilin in advance), while one-day yom tov observers may not.[UPDATE: Never mind. See comments.]
- If someone is buried during chol hamo'ed, the shiv'ah clock begins ticking (for everyone) at the end of the biblical festival (i.e. the 7th day of Pesach or the 1st day of Shemini Atzeret), but mourners who observe 2 days of yom tov don't begin actual mourning until the end of the 2nd day of yom tov. Thus, 1-day yom tov observers observe an additional day of shiv'ah in this case.
- (This came up on the Hadar Shavuot Retreat last year.) At the conclusion of the 1st day of yom tov (assuming that neither day is Shabbat), 2-day yom tov observers may start ma'ariv earlier (to bring in the 2nd day of yom tov early), while 1-day yom tov observers have to wait until later. (The precise times are a matter of disagreement, but I think the relative times are accurate.)
- (One-day yom tov observers may be obligated in lulav when the 1st day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat, but that's a controversial position.)
- What else belongs on the list?
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
On Sunday, I found out I was wrong. It's still possible to blow my mind about this stuff, like finding out that there was a solar calendar (though not a very good one) that was fully compatible with the biblical holidays.
I heard a lecture on Sunday by Dr. Michael Segal, author of a new book about the Book of Jubilees. The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish sectarian text from the 2nd century BCE. It was written in Hebrew, but only fragments of the Hebrew original have survived (at Qumran). Since the book is part of the canon of the Ethiopian Church, the only language in which the full text has survived is Ge'ez, and it has since been translated back into Hebrew and other languages.
The calendar in the Book of Jubilees is a solar calendar, with a 364-day year. This means the year divides exactly into 52 weeks, so a given date falls on the same day of the week every year. Furthermore, the year is divided into 4 quarters of 91 days, or exactly 13 weeks. Each quarter is divided into 3 months, of 30, 30, and 31 days. Thus the calendar of each quarter looks exactly the same!
You're probably wondering what happens to the extra 1 1/4 days every year. And it's a good question; we're all worried about the Hebrew lunisolar calendar because it's off by 1 day every ~200 years, but an error of more than one day every year has to be much worse! But the answer is that no one really knows. It's an important feature of this calendar that dates fall on the same day every year, but they can't simply add a day or two at the end of the year without a day of the week (as in the proposed World Calendar), because we would have heard about it if there had been Jewish sects observing Shabbat on a different day! That would make Shavuot (a major concern for the rabbis) look like peanuts.
Like the rabbinic solar calendar which we use to determine the date of birkat hachamah, the Book of Jubilees solar calendar relies on the fact that the sun was created on Wednesday (the fourth day of creation) in the biblical narrative. Unlike the rabbinic solar calendar, you don't have to wait 28 years for the anniversary of the sun's creation to cycle back to Wednesday; since the year is a whole number of weeks, it happens every year! Nay, every quarter! Thus, the first day of each quarter falls on Wednesday, corresponding theoretically to the solstices and equinoxes (but, I imagine, having little resemblance to astronomical reality after a very short time, thanks to the aforementioned 1 1/4-day error). So the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th months always begin on Wednesday; the 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 11th months begin on Friday; and the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th months begin on Sunday; and that's all you need to know.
Now let's look at the holidays. Rosh Hashanah (1st day of the 7th month) is always on Wednesday, and Yom Kippur (10th of the month) is on Friday. That has to be annoying. (Our calendar is rigged so that Yom Kippur can never fall on Friday).
The 1st month (what we would call Nisan, but the Book of Jubilees, like the Torah, refers to the months only by number) begins on Wednesday, so the first day of Pesach (15 Nisan) is also on Wednesday. So when does the omer begin, to count 7 weeks toward Shavuot? The Torah says "the day after the sabbath", but what day is "the sabbath"? The Book of Jubilees agrees neither with the rabbis/Pharisees ("the sabbath" = the 1st day of Pesach, 15 Nisan) nor with the Sadducees/Boethusians (the Shabbat during Pesach, whatever date that may be); it understands "the sabbath" as the Shabbat after the end of Pesach, which is always 25 Nisan. So the omer begins on Sunday, 26 Nisan. Add 7 weeks (recalling that the 1st and 2nd month both have 30 days), and Shavuot always falls on Sunday, 15 Sivan! So all three pilgrimage festivals are on the 15th of the month! Ironic that this only happens in the solar calendar, in which the 15th of the month has no astronomical significance. BTW, the Book of Jubilees also has Shavuot as both the agricultural festival of the first fruits and the time of receiving the Torah, and is the earliest extant text that explicitly links Shavuot to the revelation at Sinai.
Monday, May 12, 2008
You might say that an inverse-square force is infinite when r=0, but I would respond that classical electromagnetism doesn't really allow point charges, but only finite-density charge distributions. This probably means we should be a little bit more careful about using point charges in all our examples, but they're useful approximations if we don't think too hard about it. But point charges can't exist because they would result in infinite electric fields, which results in infinite energy density, and if you integrate the energy over any finite volume containing a point charge, you get infinite energy.
So I certainly wasn't the first one with that idea. The Feynman Lectures, volume II chapter 8, does the same integral, gets an infinite result, and concludes:
We must conclude that the idea of locating the energy in the field is inconsistent with the assumption of the existence of point charges. One way out of the difficulty would be to say that elementary charges, such as an electron, are not points but are really small distributions of charge. Alternatively, we could say that there is something wrong in our theory of electricity at very small distances, or with the idea of the local conservation of energy. There are difficulties with either point of view. These difficulties have never been overcome; they exist to this day.
I'm going to go with choice B ("there is something wrong in our theory of electricity at very small distances"), where "our theory of electricity" means classical electromagnetism. In quantum mechanics, even "point charges" aren't really localized at a point. But then I wonder what Feynman meant when he said "these difficulties ... exist to this day", since he himself was one of the main people responsible for quantum electrodynamics. So I'll have to learn QED one day and get back to you.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Israel’s Reform Jews dedicated the first non-Orthodox synagogue to receive state funding on Monday, after a long court battle that accented the rift among streams of Judaism in Israel.
The Reform Yozma congregation fought for the better part of a decade for state funding equivalent to what Orthodox congregations receive. After arguing their case twice before the Supreme Court, they got what they wanted: a prefabricated, two-room building on a plot of land in the center of Modiin, a new town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“This is a substantial step in recognizing different streams of Judaism in the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, who leads the 240-family congregation. The government has long funded Orthodox synagogues, even paying rabbi’s salaries.
The Reform movement is trumpeting this as a huge victory. And I can see why it would feel good to finally get a piece of the pie. But I’m not feeling so great about it. I want to see a thriving liberal Jewish culture in Israel, but I fear that this development, insofar as it sets a precedent, is dangerous for liberal Judaism in the long run. (And if it doesn’t set a precedent, then it’s an insignificant anomaly.)
Yes, there are some potential positive results, even for those of us who want to see separation of church and state in Israel. The Supreme Court ruling could set a legal precedent that leads to other rulings weakening the Orthodox monopoly over government functions (e.g. government recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish marriages, or even better, establishment of civil marriage), and could sow seeds of chaos among the Orthodox factions (e.g. if they can’t countenance being part of an apparatus that funds Reform Jewish institutions, and decide to take their ball and go home) leading also to the weakening of state-sponsored religion. But these outcomes seem indirect and unlikely.
Suppose this ruling isn’t a freak occurrence, but rather leads to further funding of liberal Jewish institutions. Then a more likely outcome is, at best, that the Reform movement will find itself in the role of propping up a corrupt system. Yes, the Reform movement might continue to pay lip service to separation of church and state, but deep down, it’s going to have a vested interest in the continued existence of the institution that gives it its funding, so the Reform movement will wake up one morning and find itself allied with the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism.
At worst, the Reform movement itself will become part of the corruption. As liberal Jews, we can read every day in the newspaper about the unethical activities of the Orthodox establishment, and pat ourselves on the back for being untainted by these transgressions. But the real reason that liberal Judaism has steered clear of this rampant corruption isn’t because liberal Jews are congenitally predisposed to be better human beings, but simply because we haven’t been in power. The purpose of laws and governments is to protect us from the darker side of our human nature, and likewise, one purpose of separation of church and state is to protect us from the perversion of religion that inevitably occurs when religious authority is entangled with political authority.
Our tradition is full of warnings about the dangers of mixing religion and state. In the ancient Israelite monarchy, the king was NOT the religious authority; the prophets (who transmitted the words of God) were independent from the king, and were free to criticize the king openly when he went off the right path. One reason the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t stand the Hasmoneans was because they combined the priesthood with the monarchy, leading to corruption in both religion and government. And it is the prophets and rabbis who are our models today, not the kings.
And now in our time, the Israeli rabbanut has become a latter-day Hasmonean dynasty. If the Reform movement wants to maintain its moral authority, it has to steer clear of this system. A great and knowledgeable prophet (in another tradition) once warned that “all knowledge seeming innocent and pure becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed”. The motive of promoting liberal Judaism in Israel may seem innocent and pure today, but if it becomes entangled with the political authority that has thus far been under Orthodox monopoly, it will become just another deadly weapon.
Taking the high road and avoiding getting mixed up in the mess of established religion seems to me not only to be more moral, but also more convenient. Despite this groundbreaking ruling, the Reform movement’s quest to get government funding for more synagogues is going to be an uphill battle. Instead of starting this fight for funding, wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to just declare victory and go home, and score points with the public by saying “We don’t want any of your dirty money”?
It is no coincidence that liberal Judaism has prospered the most in the United States, where separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution. And it is no coincidence that the US is one of the most religious countries in the world, while European countries with established churches have populations that are apathetic to religion, and most Israelis are more interested in New-Age spirituality than in Judaism. Religion is most successful as a moral voice when it is decoupled from coercive governmental authority and patronage machines, and the liberal movements in Israel should be leading the fight to make that a reality, rather than simply trying to be admitted to the club.
As Israel celebrates 60 years, we can dream about what Israel can and should be. I want to see an Israel where Jewish culture is the majority culture (Jewish holidays are national holidays, Hebrew is spoken, etc.) and Jewish values are actualized (society doesn’t stand by while its members are living in poverty), but religion is not legislated or funded by the state, and people are equally free to pursue any religion (or no religion) and any religious stream without government interference.
Monday, May 05, 2008
The only entrance open to tourists is from the Jewish Quarter, next to the Kotel Plaza.
At the Kotel Plaza itself, they've clearly thought of everything. See #4:
This sign is of questionable accuracy:
There is no question that entering the Temple itself in a state of tum'ah / ritual uncleanness (in which we all remain, if we've ever been to a cemetery, until a red heifer is successfully bred) is forbidden, with a punishment of kareit. But the Temple isn't there anymore, and it's not so clear from the rabbinic sources that this also applies to the Temple's footprint in the post-Temple period. And even if it does, the footprint of the Temple is only a small fraction of the area of the Temple Mount. According to Mishnah Kelim 1:8, since I haven't had any unusual discharge or given birth (which would be even more unusual) lately, there's no problem with my entering the Temple Mount (though I shouldn't enter the next wall surrounding the Temple and its courtyard -- a wall that no longer exists).
In any case, in the interests of keeping the peace, I'm still glad that this sign is there, because many people who would be deterred by the sign are the people who it's a good idea to keep off of the Temple Mount. And anyone who is inclined to cause a ruckus on the Temple Mount who might be at all swayed by the previous paragraph should be aware, before acting on this inclination, that the author of this blog is a REFORM JEW.
Here's an older version of the sign:
Next to the ramp leading up to the Temple Mount, between the Kotel Plaza and the Robinson's Arch area, archaeological excavations are going on:
The Kotel Plaza from above. It was hopping with multiple celebrations (complete with ululations). The Monday morning after Pesach must be a popular time for bar mitzvahs (I'm guessing many of them were international visitors).
The Jewish Quarter, the new ramp, and the old ramp.
The Jerusalem Archaeological Park from above, and beyond.
The first thing that struck me about the Temple Mount is how big it was. Lots and lots of wide open space. It's a huge park with children in school uniforms running around on what seemed to be recess. If we were eventually to resolve our differences, there is plenty of room for multiple religions to have holy sites there. In the meantime, there is plenty of space for neutral archaeologists to dig it up without disturbing the two mosques.
Looking east toward the Mount of Olives:
The ablution fountain:
The Muslim cemetery just outside the eastern wall:
The Christian Quarter is in the background:
The Jewish Quarter in the background:
A gate leading out into the Muslim Quarter (where the Temple Mount is at street level):
Oops. "Al-Maghrib" means both "Morocco" and "the west". I'm guessing a better translation would be "Western Gate". (This gate is in fact on the Western Wall.)
The Dome of the Rock seen from many angles:
So if you've been to the Kotel, you've seen this minaret and this metal grate on top of the wall:
Now here they are from the other side:
כי ביתי בית תפלה יקרא לכל העמים.