Thursday, July 24, 2008

City, County, and State

It turns out New York isn't the only City, County, and State. There's at least one other: the City, County, and State of Oklahoma.

Are there any more? If so, then we can pinpoint the location of the next major terrorist attack and take preventative measures.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Deadly enemies

As promised, I looked through all the issues of the CCAR Journal from 1973 to 1979, and didn't find a review of The Jewish Catalog, by Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus or anyone else. However, I did find a review of The Second Jewish Catalog in the Summer 1978 issue, by my fellow Chicagoan Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. The highlight:

But bar mitzvah needs, in my view, not merely to be described but to be opposed. The American ceremony is one of the deadly enemies of Jewish education, and there is no way to bypass its malignant effect on growing up Jewish. To prettify the issue is, I believe, a disservice to the true needs of our community, which require its abolition instead.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah!

Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), the collection of thousands of stories from the Talmud and rabbinic literature compiled by the Hebrew poet Hayim Nachman Bialik and the editor/publisher Yehoshua Ravnitsky, was first published in 1908, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In celebration, people around the world will be reading and discussing Sefer Ha-Aggadah from start to finish, beginning in just a few weeks and completing it in two years.

Everyone is invited to participate! All you have to do is obtain a copy of Sefer Ha-Aggadah in Hebrew or English, and follow along each day with the schedule. It’s about a page or two each day. You can join the email list to keep up with administrative announcements.

We’ll be discussing each day’s reading on the blog, Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. We have an amazing and diverse team of bloggers who will be blogging each day, and all are invited to join the discussion in the comments. In addition to the blog, in-person discussion groups are being organized in some cities, and you’re invited to organize one in your area.

The Sefer Ha-Aggadah project will formally kick off on Shabbat afternoon, August 16 (Tu Be’Av), at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, and then the schedule begins on Monday, August 25.

We look forward to creating Torah with you!

On a personal note, I'll be using the copy of Sefer Ha-Aggadah that belonged to my grandfather, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus z"l, and dedicating my learning in his memory. One of the many things we found in the apartment was a collection of papers that he had written as an undergraduate at the Hebrew Union College (which used to have a joint undergrad program with the University of Cincinnati). Among these, he had translated a chapter of Sefer Ha-Aggadah into English. (This was in 1939, long before any English translation had been published.) I looked at the schedule to see when we would be reaching that chapter (the one about the destruction of the Second Temple, including the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza), and fortuitously, it turns out that it will be the week of his birthday. So we'll have an opportunity to remember him then, and perhaps compare his translation to the published edition.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus on the Jewish Catalog: unpublished notes

Since my last two posts were about my grandfather Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus and the Jewish Catalog, it makes sense in this post to combine them.

My grandfather had an incredibly extensive book collection, which includes an original folio Vilna Shas (i.e. printed in Vilna), a Hebrew-Latin Bible printed in Venice in 1551, and an edition of the Mishnah printed in Germany in 1814 with vowels and a translation and commentary in German written in Hebrew characters (not Yiddish, German) handwritten in the margins by Solomon Eppinger of Cincinnati (an original faculty member at the Hebrew Union College) around 1870. But I was mildly surprised to see that this collection also included The Jewish Catalog. But not so surprised, since many different views are represented in this library. It was located on the shelf with books about minhagim, marriage, and mourning.

Inside my grandfather's copy of The Jewish Catalog is a sheaf of small sheets of paper with his notes written on them. It appears that these notes may have been intended for a review of the book. I don't know whether this review was ever written or published (though I could check out whether the CCAR Journal ever ran a review of The Jewish Catalog when I'm back at the apartment -- I'm sure he had a complete set). I'm guessing the notes were written soon after the publication of the book, though there's really no way to know.

So here are Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus's notes on The Jewish Catalog (to my best ability to read his handwriting), with my attempts at commentary on this raw primary text. I wasn't surprised that his reaction was critical, but I was surprised to find myself, a do-it-yourself-type Jew, agreeing with many of his criticisms. I've never read The Jewish Catalog cover-to-cover, but this inspires me to want to write my own critique from a 21st-century grassroots-Judaism perspective.

The Jewish Catalogue [sic - of course he would go for the more British spelling], A do-it-yourself kit
Richard Siegel
Michael Strassfeld
Sharon Strassfeld

"A compendium of tools and resources for use in Jewish education and Jewish living in the fullest sense of those terms"

This is a direct quotation from the introduction, p. 8.

Expression of Jewish countercultural activity of late 60's in secular and Jewish world
Move toward communal living
Returning to the land
Relearning joys of "making it yourself"
Voicing social and political concern

This book undertakes
1) to provide immediately useful information
2) to direct those interested to additional resources
3) to present traditional dimensions of each subject covered
4) to open options for personal creativity and contemporary utilization

Ideal: personal responsibility
physical participation
These are also direct quotes and paraphrases from the introduction (p. 8-9), and the relevant paragraphs are marked off in pencil in the book. Here, he was just summarizing. Next, Rabbi Dreyfus's own reactions begin:

Disturbing aspects of book -- immediate hostile reaction

= Errors of fact

Tenaim תנאים - get
Tallit - worn by all males past age of B/M in Conservative & Reform syn, & by married men in Orthodox syn. p 52
Lulav on Shabbat

Responsibility of teacher

Here's what The Jewish Catalog has to say about tenaim (p. 162): "1. The betrothal is created by the writing of tenaim -- a legal document binding on both parties. 2. Because the tenaim are as binding as a marriage contract -- that is, they are dissoluble only through divorce or death -- the custom of signing tenaim a year before the wedding has, in general, given way to the custom of signing them immediately before the actual wedding takes place." And there isn't a section about divorce or gittin (until the second volume).

So I can't tell what Rabbi Dreyfus is getting at in his laconic note. Perhaps he's saying that a get is in fact not necessary for the dissolution of tenaim, and tenaim can be dissolved by other means? I don't know enough about tenaim to understand which part he's claiming is a factual error.

On p. 51 (not 52), it says "The tallit is the prayer shawl worn by married men in Orthodox synagogues, and by all males past the age of Bar Mitzvah in Conservative and Reform synagogues." Now which part is Rabbi Dreyfus taking issue with here? There are so many possibilities. First of all, the tallit is certainly not universal among post-bar mitzvah males in Reform synagogues, and was considerably less so in the 1970s. As a Reform congregational rabbi, this could not have escaped Rabbi Dreyfus's attention. Second of all, the custom of wearing a tallit only after marriage is not universal in Orthodox communities -- in particular, I believe it is specific to Eastern European communities. As an uber-yekke (at the very least by marriage and disposition, but his Alsatian-born father also spoke German), Rabbi Dreyfus would not have let this omission of German minhag go unaddressed. Finally, I don't know whether tallit use among Reform and Conservative women was common yet in the 1970s, but it may pose another problem with this sentence. (The Catalog takes the interesting position of "Women are not obligated to wear a tallit, nor are they prohibited from wearing one", leaving out any differences of opinion for either clause.)

On p. 73, the Catalog says "It is a mitzvah to wave the lulav on each of the first seven days of Sukkot. The proper time is in the morning -- either before the Morning Service or during the service immediately before the Hallel." (The first sentence sort of contradicts the next part about Shabbat, and the second is another factual error: according to the Mishnah, the proper time for lulav is all day.) P. 75-76 says "The lulav is not shaken on Shabbat -- because perhaps you may carry it (e.g., to the synagogue) and thereby violate the prohibition against carrying an object more than four amot (approximately eighty inches) in the public domain during Shabbat." Now this is an oversimplification of a complex issue, but I don't entirely see how it's an error. Thoughts?

I'm not sure what "Responsibility of teacher" refers to. There is a section called "Teachers", beginning on p. 292, which includes a list of "good people to talk to" ("a list of people whom the editors of this book coincidentally know"), but it doesn't say anything about teachers' responsibilities. Perhaps Rabbi Dreyfus is referring instead to p. 282, in the "How to Start a Havurah" section. This is a fascinating passage that raises questions about how truly egalitarian the early havurot were -- both in the unselfconscious use of the masculine pronoun and in the idea of a singular leader that seems to contradict havurah ideology. I'm not sure what the factual error is (or what Rabbi Dreyfus would have taken issue with, given that his own milieu at that time also consisted of Jewish communities with a singular rabbinic leader who was generally male), but it's a fascinating passage nonetheless:

"If at all possible, the group should have a committed, Jewishly learned leader
"a. whose leadership role is accepted;
"b. who fosters leadership potential among other members so as to eventually minimize or eliminate the need for his own leadership role;
"c. who does not have a holier-than-thou attitude toward other members and is thus open to criticism.
"Such a leader may be found among Jewish professionals in the city, or may be found in a nearby city. This leader should work directly with
"a. aiding work-group chairmen;
"b. changing community coordinators;
"c. teaching the entire community.
"As a teacher he should give members a sense of the geography of Jewish values as embodied in the tradition, as well as methods of access and inquiry into Jewish source material. Thus some members can eventually become teachers themselves."

Errors in balance, proportion

My own Judaism

a) kingdom of God on earth
Before Abraham, God only in heaven
Messianic era

b) Achieved by obedience to commandments
do justly
love mercy
walk humbly

c) advanced - made vivid by Jewish life style - poetry of life - & sancta as sign posts

As far as I can tell, this is in fact Rabbi Dreyfus outlining the ideas of his "own Judaism", in order to set up a contrast between his understanding of Judaism and what is presented in the Catalog. I feel like doing a much deeper analysis would be out of my league. Does anyone with a background in Jewish thought want to weigh in and place this section in context?

Part a is reminiscent of a midrash in which Abraham (and the generations until Moses) brought God's presence from heaven down to earth. I don't know whether this is an intentional allusion to that midrash. But the general idea seems to be that human action (exemplified by Abraham) establishes the kingdom of God on earth and brings the messianic era (which doesn't necessarily include an individual messiah -- a distinction that has long been present in Reform Judaism ever since ומביא גואל / "brings a redeemer" was changed to ומביא גאולה / "brings redemption").

This leads into part b - God's kingdom is achieved by obedience to the commandments, exemplified by Micah 6:8 (the haftarah from the week that Rabbi Dreyfus died, and the distillation of the 613 commandments into three according to Makkot 24a). Let no one (especially Reform Jews) make the claim that Reform Judaism is a non-halakhic movement, or doesn't believe in obligation: here we have a luminary of the Reform movement (and very much of the old guard) identifying obedience to the commandments as the essence of Judaism. Yes, the definition of which commandments are significant may differ from other Jewish movements, but that's just quibbling over the details. Doing justly and loving mercy are halakhah (not merely aggadah) and are obligations (not merely choices).

Part c: I don't think "advanced" is used here as an adjective (as in what comes after "intermediate") but as a verb -- i.e. "this is advanced by...". (What is advanced by the Jewish lifestyle, etc.? The kingdom of God on earth? Perhaps.) "Sancta" sounds Kaplanian, but I don't think that's entirely what he's going for - I think he's talking about "such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives". This is where the role of ritual comes in: it is the "poetry of life" and the "sign posts", and not classified with the "commandments", which are ethical.

Not as ends in themselves
Must be rationally acceptable

I.e. rituals should not be ends in themselves, but are a means towards living an ethical life and making vivid the kingdom of God on earth.

But I have to say that this "rationally acceptable" standard leaves lots of open questions. It seems that there is plenty of room for cultural relativism here. Who is to say that wearing a three-piece suit and tie is rational, and wearing tzitzit (see below) isn't? Cultural norms may be different in different cultures, but one isn't more or less rational than another. Particularly if we're talking about the "poetry of life", poetry isn't always rational.

Tallit knots
7 windings
8 "
15 = יה
וה = 11
אחד = 13

600 = ציצית
8 threads
5 knots

p. 53
These numbers indeed appear on p.53, and it looks like Rabbi Dreyfus was doublechecking the arithmetic. He appears to be presenting this as a counterexample to "must be rationally acceptable". I would respond by saying that, rational or not, tzitzit knots aren't hurting anyone. But this is listed as an error in balance/proportion. And it's true that the Catalog focuses much more on ritual than on doing justice. Perhaps the explanation is that there was less need for a gujde to doing justice than a guide to tying tzitzit knots, because the former can be obtained from sources that aren't specifically Jewish. But there are specifically Jewish perspectives on justice that, as Rabbi Dreyfus points out, don't get much attention in the Catalog. (It's the same problem as A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, which should be called A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Volume I: Bein Adam Lamakom.) This was remedied in the sequels, particularly The Third Jewish Catalog.

Must be relevant: justice, honesty, decency
I don't know. Tallit knots may not represent any of these qualities, but they are neither unjust nor dishonest nor indecent. And the social conventions of Classical Reform decorum didn't represent justice, honesty, or decency any better; what was important was that they were meaningful to their adherents.

This book -- Orthodox -- generally ignoring Reform
This is an interesting point, and I think it reflects the demographics of the 1970s havurah crowd, which primarily came from Conservative (and some Orthodox) backgrounds. One of the standard creation myths of the havurah movement is that it was created by people who came back from Camps Ramah and were empowered to start their own Jewish communities. Unfortunately, I don't think the Reform movement's educational system at this time was sufficiently empowering people to do this, so people who were disaffected with their home congregations either dropped out, frummed out, or became rabbis. More recent waves of havurot/minyanim have greater representation from people who grew up in the Reform movement, though the recent independent minyan survey shows that Reform self-identification is still low among this crowd. (In this post I tried to grapple with the frictions between Reform identity and grassroots communities.)

So it's interesting (and worthy of further study) that Reform cultural influence was lacking in the early havurah movement. So there has been a sort of convergent evolution -- if we look at communal prayer as one example, you have the older generation of havurot incorporating more English into the service than they grew up with in their Conservative and Orthodox upbringings, and you now have Reform-identified communities incorporating more Hebrew and congregational participation than were common in the Reform movement 30 years ago, leading to services that might look similar on paper or to someone looking in from the outside, yet sufficiently different (due to vestigial features left over from these very different evolutionary processes) that they appear unmistakably alien to each other's practitioners. (Then there's informed autonomy. The Reform movement talks about it but doesn't do it; havurot do it but don't talk about it.)

takes accepts every least custom uncritically
as if it were on par w/ Decalogue Except in dealing w/ women
Though it would have been anachronistic to use this term at the time (and Rabbi Dreyfus probably wouldn't have used the term more recently either, since that wasn't his frame of reference, though he did know the founder of Artscroll, whose brother is/was a Reform rabbi), Rabbi Dreyfus is seems to be accusing the Catalog of what I would call Artscrollization. This process does not belong exclusively to the Orthodox world; I have accused the contemporary Reform movement of engaging in Artscrollization by (for example) conflating kipot and tallitot into the same category.

Note the use of the word "custom". It is clear from this word, and the examples below, that Rabbi Dreyfus is not taking issue here with the idea (found to some degree on Berachot 12a, and the reason the Ten Commandments aren't included in the daily liturgy) that all 613 mitzvot are as important as the Ten Commandments (though, if asked, he probably would). He is taking issue with the implication that peripheral customs are as essential as the fundamental elements of Judaism. And the Catalog doesn't always make this distinction clear. However, to be fair, the Catalog has many authors, and some chapters do a much better job than others at making this distinction.

The comment that I have rendered above in italics was written in a different pen, and seems to have been added in later.

By today's standards, The Jewish Catalog really isn't so gender-egalitarian. God and people are referred to with masculine pronouns. On p. 111, a minyan is defined as "a quorum of ten men", and the description of the wedding ceremony on p. 161-164 is the traditional unilateral procedure without exception. Alternatives are presented in a separate section called "On mutualizing the wedding ceremony", and the possibility of egalitarian minyanim and such is mentioned in the chapter titled "A guide to Jewish women's activities" (p. 252ff.), but this is not included as part of the mainstream text. Still, I suppose this is sufficient to make these issues an exception to "accepts every least custom uncritically".

a) Trivia: Candy & raisins at aufruf - sweet life
fertility: but nothing said
Page 162, discussing the "oyfrufn" (Rabbi Dreyfus has emended this to the German spelling) says "After the groom [sic] recites the final blessings, it is the custom to throw candy and raisins at him to insure a sweet life to him and his bride." So I'm guessing that Rabbi Dreyfus is taking issue with the language of "it is the custom", which implies that this is the only custom and ignores the existence of communities where this is not the custom.

The second line seems to be saying "Actually, this custom is about fertility, not just a sweet life; why are they whitewashing the origin and leaving this out?". I've never heard that explanation before, but it's not surprising.

b) Hallah - sensitivity - cover during kiddush
as against
Cover knives at table
Pass bread on plate
But meaningful only if constantly reviewed

Page 38 says:
"10. Knives on the table may be covered before this blessing. There is a tradition not to use a hallah knife at all on Friday night as a reflection of Isaiah's prophecy: 'And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks' (Isaiah 2:4). In addition, the stone altar consecrated to God was not built of hewn stones, 'for by wielding your tools upon them you have profaned them' (Exodus 20:22). Rather than cut the hallah with a knife -- a weapon of war -- which thereby profanes the altar and the offering, the custom has developed to break the hallah apart with your hands.
"12. There is a custom not to hand the pieces of bread directly to those at the table, but rather to put them on a plate and pass the plate around, or to place each piece of bread on the person's plate. It is not from man that we receive our bread.
"13. When the blessing is made over the wine, the hallah should be covered. It is sensitive and may be offended by being placed second to the wine. A story is told about a famous rabbi who once visited a man for Shabbat. The man, trying to impress the rabbi, set out an elaborate meal in honor of Shabbat. He became annoyed when he noticed his wife had forgotten the hallah cover, and he began to berate her. The rabbi turned to the man and rebuked him, saying, 'The purpose of covering the hallah is to shield its sensitive feelings. This teaches us concern for the feeling of even inanimate objects. How much more so should we be sensitive to another human being!'"

(This last story brings to mind a great moment of bitter humor from Yisrael Campbell's show. In recounting the story of his journey towards converting to Judaism, Campbell tells about the time he first learned about this custom, and says that he thought "Wow! If Jews are this sensitive towards the feelings of the bread, imagine how they must act towards people!")

The phrase "as against" seems to be suggesting that the idea of protecting the hallah's feelings, even with the attached story, is rather tenuous, compared to the idea of eschewing weapons of war or remembering that our sustenance comes from God.

I'm not sure if this is what Rabbi Dreyfus is getting at, but I get annoyed with these sorts of explanations of the origins of customs (even if the ideas are nice) being presented as fact, since they are often post-facto explanations, and the customs often developed as mimetic traditions rather than as a drash.

So I'll take a middle position on whether these customs are "meaningful only if constantly reviewed". If they are in fact mimetic traditions, then they don't need to be either substantively "meaningful" or "constantly reviewed", since they are harmless. But if they are picked up from a book rather than received mimetically, then these (probably post-facto) meanings become more relevant. Still, the meanings are, in some sense, just mnemonics, and reviewing them by talking about them isn't necessarily the most effective way to achieve meaning. Rachel Adler writes (Engendering Judaism, p. 79), "The performative character of liturgical language (a notion that Reform Judaism in particular has found difficult to grasp) explains why 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts' is effective as liturgy while 'Through prayer we struggle to experience the Presence of God,' however morally edifying, is liturgically inert. In the performative 'Holy, holy holy,' the congregation has the power to make God's holiness present by naming it in a threefold incantation. 'Through prayer we struggle to experience the Presence of God' rationally describes the goal of prayer, but offers no process for achieving it."

c) Tumah/taharah
There is a chapter called "Tumah and taharah - mikveh" (p. 167-171), which offers anthropological and midrashic explanations of tumah and taharah, and a section on "Laws and customs" that focuses on niddah and mikveh. (The Catalog notes "NOTE: I have not discovered any book in English on the laws of niddah and mikveh which was written for people above the intellectual level of a cretin.") Without any further comments, it's hard to guess what Rabbi Dreyfus specifically had in mind in regard to this section, since there are so many possibilities. This chapter commits the common error of classifying contemporary hilchot niddah under tumah/taharah (which is not observed today, when everyone is permanently tamei) rather than under arayot, but I doubt that that was his concern.

d) Mystic mishmash
I think the next few items (which are on another page) are intended as subheadings under this heading. But Rabbi Dreyfus also underlined the paragraph on p. 146 that talks about understanding the days of the omer as combinations of sefirot. I suppose getting annoyed at this runs in the family.

1) Gematria
2 candles as groom led to huppah
2 x [neir] = 250 =
500 = [peru urvu] = 500
(Note: Rabbi Dreyfus's original notes rendered those words in Hebrew, but I couldn't get it to align properly with the numbers in the Blogger window, so I gave up and transliterated.)

Page 46 says "The attendants who bring the groom to the huppah should hold in their hands two lit candles -- because the word נר --candle-- in gematria, doubled, is equivalent to the numerical value of פרו ורבו 'be fruitful and multiple.' And this is a good sign." Here and below, Rabbi Dreyfus has done the math for himself.
But to take it seriously!

Yeah. It's hard to see how anyone can say some of these explanations with a straight face. Clearly most of these customs had non-gematria origins, and the gematria is a post-facto game (but a much less interesting one than midrash halacha, and I say that as a "math person"). It can be entertaining, but I wouldn't go much further.

Some don't eat nuts on RH because
[egoz] (17) + 1 for word =
18 = חטא sin
There is a whole page on gematria (p. 210), describing it as "one of the haggadic hermeneutical rules for interpreting the Torah". (I missed that one on Rabbi Ishmael's list.) This page says "Sometimes when this does not work out exactly, you have the option to add 'one' for the world itself. Example: Why some do not eat nuts on Rosh ha-Shanah -- because אגוז (nuts) equals (almost) חטא (sin)." Come on. If there are people who don't eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah, that can't have been the original reason.

2) Scribal arts
There is a whole chapter on scribal arts, much of it practical in nature, but I'm guessing that Rabbi Dreyfus is taking issue with the part that gives kabbalistic explanations for each of the basic strokes. Example: "In Kabbalah, the yod is the symbol for the origin of light in the world, a pinpoint, a nekudah, a beginning musical note of a niggun, a fine point within the human being that lives in the Holy Image, the pintele Yid." (p. 187)

3) tie/mattress symbolize God's arms
I'm not sure what this is, or where to find it. (Did I mention that The Jewish Catalog doesn't have an index?) Help?

Counter culture

Picture of stiebel
vs elaborate [illegible] in Sed. Terumah
On p. 7, before the introduction, there is a full-page picture taken inside the Havurat Shalom building. Is this what he's referring to, or a picture elsewhere in the book? He seems to be contrasting the simplicity of a shtiebel (of either the older or the newer variety) with the elaborate design of the mishkan/tabernacle described in Parshat Terumah. Is this comparison made explicitly anywhere in the Catalog, or is this Rabbi Dreyfus's own comparison?

Attack on institutional Judaism
Guilty as charged. :) Except not really that much. There is a chapter called "Using the Jewish Establishment -- a reluctant guide" (p. 262-274), which begins by explaining why it's reluctant, but then doesn't really attack the Jewish establishment as much as one might expect. It says "One of our assumptions is that hardly anyone should have to resort to organizations, professional 'experts,' or service agencies in the normal course of creating and enjoying a fulfilling Jewish life. With this book, a teacher, friends (perhaps in a real community), study, and imaginative effort, almost anyone can create a richer and more satisfying Jewish life than any organization offers. There are, however, many Jewish organizations, agencies, congregations, associations, and the like which offer access to tools and resources useful in the creation of a Jewish life....." I don't read this as an attack, but just as a statement that people should be empowered to create their own Jewish lives, which is a goal that Jewish institutions should also be supporting.

Well, ok, there are some jabs as the chapter goes on. "Many pulpit rabbis are disappointing people, but if one looks he will find some who will be helpful. If one is looking for deep religious experience, it is generally best to avoid large synagogues. Like anything else, there are good and bad synagogues. If you don't like any in your area, you and your friends should start your own congregation." (p. 264) But maybe the institutions in question should see this as an opportunity for self-examination (and some have, in the intervening decades).

Self righteousness - see Waskow p. 250
P. 250 is a chapter called "How to bring Mashiah." Parts of it seem to be intended whimsically. At least I hope so. Rabbi Dreyfus has underlined two paragraphs:

"3. 'The nations ... shall beat their swords into plowshares. ... They shall never again know war' (Isaiah 2:4).
"THEREFORE: Get together a minyan and travel up to West Point. Take along ten swords and a small forge. Put the small forge in the main entrance, start it glowing, and beat the swords into something like a digging tool. Dig holes for ten trees, and plant the trees in the roadway. Meanwhile, sing 'Lo yisah goy' and 'Ain't Gonna Study War No More' alternately, and if any West Pointers stop to see what's going down, offer them a reworked sword to dig with.
"4. 'Mashiah will come when one generation is either wholly innocent or wholly guilty' (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)
"THEREFORE; Analyze the tax system of the United States, and publish a detailed answer to these two questions: (a) Are United States taxes used largely for purposes prohibited by Torah (e.g. oppressing the poor, destroying trees, etc.)? (b) Are any Jews in the United States successfully avoiding payment of all taxes? If the answer to (a) is 'Yes' and to (b) is 'No,' proclaim that the entire generation is guilty in fact, regardless of their personal opinions. Ask all shuls to include the proclamation in their Shabbat prayers with strong kavvanah: 'HaShem, we are at last all guilty: send him!'"

I would like to think that progressive activists (including Waskow) have gotten smarter about their tactics over the last 30 years. Somewhere between Vietnam and Iraq, we learned that blaming the troops, rather than the government who sent them into war, is unfair and unproductive. The West Point cadets are not the problem. "Support the troops -- bring them home."

And is Waskow really advocating tax evasion??? The answer to (b) is certainly yes, and they don't tend to be the Jews who share our values. To the extent that ordinary citizens bear blame for oppressive government policies, it's not because they paid their taxes (after all, we've seen during the Bush administration that the government will spend money destructively without regard to whether there is tax revenue to pay for it) but because they voted for the elected officials who implemented these policies. Any responsible progressive should be supporting the idea that taxes are the dues we pay to live in a civilized society, rather than reinforcing the Republican talking point that taxes are evil.

Values of book:
Here we get to the positive parts.

Caste system
[le?] rabbin [fait?] tout
I can't read this. Is it French? "The rabbi does everything"? Is this an allusion to something? Google isn't helping. I guess he's saying that it's a value that the book is encouraging people to do things for themselves rather than depending on the rabbi to do everything for them.

bake hallah
make candles
build sukkah
Again, Rabbi Dreyfus finds value in the nuts-and-bolts how-to sections that constitute much of the book, which empower people to do things for themselves.
Devotional guide
The last chapter is called "A first step: a devotional guide" and is by Rabbi Zalman Schachter.

There is a section called "How to Start a Havurah" (p. 280ff.). It says "You begin with a shared dissent from existing Jewish institutions and their modes of participation, and a group decision to initiate an alternative model." What did Rabbi Dreyfus, who was committed to existing Jewish institutions, see in this? Unfortunately, we'll probably never know. These somewhat cryptic notes give us but a small glimpse into how much we have lost. For everything that he wrote down, there was so much that Rabbi Dreyfus knew and thought that was never written down, and now we can never ask him.

For now, if you have additional interpretations of anything here, please post it in the comments.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus z"l

My grandfather, Rabbi Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, died on Tuesday. The funeral is this afternoon in Brooklyn. Several reflections by his students have appeared on the blogosphere already, including two posts by Rabbi Andy Bachman and a post by Ravaj.

UPDATE: Other links include a response on Mixed Multitudes, a brief obituary in the JTA, multiple death notices in the New York Times, and a press release from HUC-JIR. The press release quotes his ordination address from June 1979, the day I became the first fetus in history to be ordained as a rabbi.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The 21st-century Jewish Catalog (alpha version)

The question is often asked, "I want to start an independent Jewish community in my city. How do I do it?". And in this age of social networking, there are certainly networks of people who can be of assistance with this. But there is no written repository of information I am aware of that meets the needs of today's independent Jewish communities, just a lot of oral Torah drawn from what we've learned through our experiences. Oral Torah is a wonderful thing, but there's a reason that the Talmud eventually had to be written down, and a reason that the printing press was so influential.

Another question often asked is "What will be our generation's Jewish Catalog?"

Perhaps the answer to both of these questions isn't necessarily a book, and isn't necessarily a single static document. Maybe the Jewish Catalog of the 21st century already exists in some sense, but is more like the British constitution (comprising multiple documents written at different times) than like the United States Constitution (a single document). To put these into a usable form, I'm collecting links to blog posts and other documents that could be considered to constitute the 21st-century Jewish Catalog. Perhaps the online format is preferable to the paper format, because it allows for rapid publication, frequent editing, and a dynamic conversation (for a number of the blog posts linked below, the discussion in the comments is at least as important as the post itself).

This is just a first stab at collecting this information into one place. This list focuses on topics that are relevant to running a grassroots Jewish community. The original Jewish Catalog and its sequels also contained lots of other content about Judaism and Jewish life in general, but that sort of information is generally available already in various places, so there's less of an acute need for it.

Please post in the comments if you have suggestions of other posts/pages that should be linked, and I'll add them to the list if I agree. Please also post suggestions of other documents that don't yet exist but should be written, and then our grassroots out there will take responsibility for writing these posts. The preponderance of Mah Rabu posts on the initial list isn't because I think Mah Rabu is more important, but simply because it's what I'm most familiar with off the top of my head; together, we can index the whole Internet.

Remember that the authors of each of the linked posts retain all rights to their work. All are welcome to read these posts, implement the ideas within them, and quote them within fair use, but not to republish them without the authors' permission.

  • BZ, Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism
  • BZ, Hilchot Pluralism series: I (the two-table system), II (more philosophical underpinnings), III (prayer, including the trichitza), IV (liturgy), V (counting a minyan), VI (the limits of pluralism), VII (musical instruments)
Prayer engineering:
Prayer melodies and texts:
  • from Kol Zimrah, a collection of melodies for Friday night services
  • from Mechon Hadar, a collection of resources for minyanim, including printed documents and recordings of nusach
Starting a community:

That's just a very basic start. What else goes on the list?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Henry Winkler... covered in bees

I have an apartment! So as promised, I'm returning to blogging, though other things are still in limbo, so this isn't quite a full return yet.

Last week we saw part of Little Nicky on TV. It may not be Adam Sandler's best movie, but it's certainly his most underrated; few people have heard of it. (Though maybe I'm biased because this was the movie that led to my 15 minutes of fame. Sorry, Jewish Week, but the Village Voice is way cooler.) It's also the movie that contains the best Hebrew subtitle ever. The line "Popeye's chicken is the shiznit" is rendered as "Popeye's chicken yoteir tov mi-schnitzel" ("Popeye's chicken is better than schnitzel").

This was my first time seeing Little Nicky since moving to New York 6 years ago, so I caught a lot of things that I missed the first time around. For example, the subway train that hits Nicky multiple times (in his travels between Earth and hell) is the K express. Now I understand that there is no K train. (The other letters not currently used in the subway system are H, I (for obvious reasons), O, P, T, U, X, and Y.)

So let's use the comment thread to think of analogous examples of nonexistent (but real-sounding) geographic features in New York or other real cities appearing in movies (or books, TV, etc.). The Royal Tenenbaums (another movie that I first saw in Israel -- the theater audience giggled at every mention of the bird named Mordechai -- and should really see again now that I'll get the New York references) is a gold mine, including the 375th Street Y (based on the 92nd Street Y; the highest numbered street in the Manhattan street grid is 263rd, and that's in the Bronx) and the Irving Island Ferry (based on the Staten Island Ferry; there is a real Irving Island, but it's off the coast of Antarctica).