Sunday, September 28, 2008


Shanah tovah umtukah! A good and sweet new year!

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

ONE DAY ONLY! Part 1b: Reform

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

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

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

The question is:

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

The answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'll say the same thing that I said about the triennial cycle: "I understand that Kelal Yisrael may be a value that motivates wanting to be in sync with other Jewish communities. But as liberal Jews, our commitment to Kelal Yisrael must not come at the expense of our own independence or sense of authenticity."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Monday, September 22, 2008

Financial health

The Bush administration's $700 billion plan to bail out the financial industry with taxpayer money is in many ways consistent with the Republican philosophy that we have seen in action for the last 8 years and that John McCain promises to continue. Paul Krugman has already cited "others" who "are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq".

But perhaps another apt analogy is to the Republican health care plan. McCain has already made the comparison explicit. In an article this month, McCain takes credit for the situation in the financial industry and says: "Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation."

The Republican stance on healthcare is that the 47 million uninsured Americans don't actually have a problem, because they can go to an emergency room, where they will be treated. Thus, rather than provide universal health insurance that would give everyone access to preventative care, the McCain Republicans would rather let medical problems go untreated until they need to be treated in an emergency room, at much higher cost. Likewise, the current woes in the financial markets could have been prevented through the government regulations that McCain was instrumental in repealing during the 1980s and '90s. Instead, the market (like an untreated disease) has been allowed to go unregulated until the situation has gone catastrophic, and now the Republicans want us to foot the much higher emergency-room bill.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ONE DAY ONLY! Part 1a: Reform

The holidays are coming soon, and that means a lot of things: making an accounting of our actions (individual and collective) over the past year, asking for forgiveness from those we have wronged, working to change our actions for the new year, etc. But I don't have any unique blogworthy insights on those issues that other people couldn't do much better, so instead, I'm going to focus on issues of less urgency where Mah Rabu has a specialized niche, and continue this blog's one-track mind. After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, and the question of one-day versus two-day yom tov!

Back between Pesach and Shavuot, I wrote a post looking briefly at some Reform and Conservative teshuvot on this question. Now, as promised, I'm going to examine the teshuvot, and some other arguments, in greater depth. This first post will focus on Reform views, and the next post in this series will look at the Conservative movement teshuvot (which I have now obtained in full).

One day of yom tov has been standard practice in the Reform movement since the 19th century. Therefore, contemporary Reform discussions on this topic do not focus directly on the core issue of 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov (except in regard to Rosh Hashanah, for which the Reform movement is split down the middle, based on local custom; the URJ web site now lists two days of Rosh Hashanah and one day of everything else), but rather focus on side issues that result from living in a world where many Jews still observe two days. The Jewish calendar that you get at the funeral home (etc.) still lists two days of yom tov (and in some years, as we'll discuss, the schedule of weekly Torah portions that results from two days of yom tov), so two-day yom tov has not been forgotten in the Reform world, just as Christmas has not been forgotten in the Jewish world as a whole. As I see it, these side issues boil down to whether Reform Jews have any principles, or actually see themselves as less authentic than other movements.

In the previous post, I looked in passing at a CCAR teshuva from 1999, "The Second Festival Day and Reform Judaism", the most recent on this topic. Now let's look at it in greater depth. While the question is actually about one of these side issues, the teshuva uses it as a jumping-off point to look at the larger issue.

Here's the question:

Our Reform congregation normally schedules confirmation services on Shavuot, which this year (1999/5759) falls on Thursday night and Friday. Our Confirmation class prefers to have their service on Friday night so more of their friends, family and other Religious School kids can attend. Although Friday night is no longer Shavuot according to our Reform calendar, it is the second day of the festival which is traditionally observed in the Diaspora (yom tov sheni shel galuyot). Is it acceptable for us to "stretch" the festival to accommodate their request, observing Shavuot for a second day so as to observe confirmation along with the holiday?
To be clear, they're not asking about whether Shavuot should in general be observed for one or two days, or about whether it would be acceptable for this congregation to adopt the practice of observing two days, but about whether they can make a one-time exception. I find the very question shocking. And the CCAR Responsa Committee comes to basically the same conclusion that I do, but they convey it in more measured tones, demonstrating why they have the temperament to be clergy and I don't.

Still, they don't mince words. The first sentence of the responsum is "It is at first glance ironic that a Reform congregation should seek to restore a practice that our history has so clearly renounced." They go on to outline the history of the well-established Reform practice of one-day yom tov. Rosh Hashanah is explicitly treated the same as the other festivals, though the explanation of why it might be different does show up briefly later on. The number of days of Rosh Hashanah would be an interesting subject for a future teshuva (no pun intended).

The teshuva goes on: "Then again, perhaps this request is not all that ironic. In recent decades, many of us have reclaimed ritual observances abandoned by previous generations of Reform Jews, ..." followed by a list of such ritual observances, and a historical/sociological explanation (which I have used before) for the transformed role of ritual in post-Classical Reform Judaism:

If our predecessors regarded their acculturation into the surrounding society as a predominant objective, we who benefit from the social and political gains that they achieved are more concerned with taking active measures to preserve our distinctive Jewishness. Thus, where they may have viewed many ritual observances as barriers to social integration and as obstructions to "modern spiritual elevation," we may find them an appropriate and desirable expression of our Jewish consciousness.

Thus, two-day yom tov is (at least as an intermediate step in the logic) placed in the category of "ritual observances" that have historically been absent in the Reform movement and but may be appropriate for contemporary Reform practice. The teshuva does not question the existence of such a category, but has to consider the question of whether two-day yom tov properly belongs there. The framing of this question raises questions far beyond the issue at hand:

Accordingly, we cannot say that a Reform congregation is forbidden to observe the second festival day. The mere fact that our Reform ancestors abrogated a ritual practice is not in and of itself sufficient cause to prevent us from recovering that practice. On the other hand, the mere fact that a congregation wishes to restore it may not be a good enough reason to justify its abandonment of a teaching that has for so long characterized our movement. For though we are drawn to the traditions of our people, the tradition of our own Reform Jewish community also makes a powerful call upon us. We, the Reform Jews of today, are members of a religious experience that transcends the boundaries of individual congregations. To identify ourselves as Reform Jews is to acknowledge our participation in the historical religious enterprise that our predecessors founded. We look upon them, in a sense that is deeply significant, as our rabbis. Their conception of Jewish life has done much to shape our own; accordingly, their teachings demand our attention and our prayerful respect. That respect, we think, forbids us from discarding the instruction of our teachers in the absence of good and sufficient cause. In this case, the question of yom tov sheni, this means we ought to ask ourselves the following questions. What were the reasons for which our predecessors eliminated the observance of the second festival day? Do those reasons still strike us as powerful and persuasive, or have they lost their cogency in the context of our own Reform Jewish religious experience? And what sort of argument would count as adequate justification to depart from the widespread and long-standing minhag of our movement?
This paragraph brings up some fundamental tensions that can be attributed in part to the fact that Reform Jewish identity (as I have written before) is a convoluted mix of multiple elements that seem like they should be separable in theory but have become strongly linked. I have promised a future post that will attempt to start cutting through this intellectual thicket. In brief, the elements of Reform Jewish identity can be grouped into three major areas, which might be labeled as halachah (this is actually more of a meta-halachah, since the Reform commitment to internal pluralism (which is itself a part of that meta-halachah) means there isn't a unified Reform halachah; this includes principles such as informed autonomy and the progressive reinterpretation of Torah in each generation), aggadah (this includes principles of social justice and equality that motivate many Reform halachic positions), and minhag (historical continuity with the set of people who have called themselves Reform Jews; one might call this an ethnicity, and not only to annoy the Classical Reform types who think they've rejected ethnicity). And that's not even touching on the institutional elements of Reform Jewish identity. In that future post, I'll look at the contradictions that can arise when attempting to combine all three of these elements, and look for a way out. For now, let's just look at the question at hand.

The elements that I have classified as aggadah don't particularly come up here (though they could, insofar as the choice of one vs. two days is tied to a narrative about exile or the lack thereof); rather this is a conflict between Reform halachah (which theoretically should permit either one or two days of yom tov) and Reform minhag (which strongly favors one day of yom tov). (These are bound to come into conflict, because the Reform approach to halachah actively opposes granting too much authority to established minhag; I'll try to address this in my future post.)

So there's actually another potential reason for Reform Jews keeping two days of yom tov that gets mentioned later from another angle. (I know, I'm breaking character by presenting a case for two days.) The context in which a Reform Jew might want to do two days isn't only one of breaking with Reform minhag for the sake of "reclaim[ing] ritual observances." (In that context, I actually think two days is unjustifiable, at least for me (a fifth-generation Reform Jew) and anyone else from a Reform background. Unlike other ritual observances, keeping two days of yom tov in our time has no other purpose (anti-Diaspora apologetics aside) than "it's our minhag". So if it's not one's minhag, then what other purpose is left?) The Jewish population surveys show that the Reform movement is gaining members who moved there from other movements. This means that there are self-identified and affiliated Reform Jews, theoretically aligned with Reform halachah and aggadah, who are not inheritors of Reform minhag. (And that's not to mention the many people out there in independent communities, with progressive outlooks on halachah and aggadah, who do not identify or affiliate as Reform.) It seems to me that it would be reasonable for such individuals to observe 2 days of yom tov if that is their minhag that they brought with them, and if such individuals constitute the majority of the active participants in a Reform congregation, then it would be reasonable for the congregation to adopt 2 days as its minhag. As much as it pains me to say that.

Moving along, the teshuva then explains the origins of two-day yom tov, and the Talmud's reasons for preserving it in the era of the fixed calendar. Obviously the original reason for two-day yom tov no longer applies, and neither does the Talmud's reason of "lest you forget how to determine the calendar". But that's not the only reason -- the Rambam ignores this reason, but still holds that two-day yom tov is in force, because the rabbis established it as a takanah. (Because both the Mishneh Torah and this CCAR teshuva were written before 2006, the word "takanah" does not have a pejorative connotation.)

The teshuva then looks at different opinions on the circumstances under which a takanah can be overturned: does a modern-day beit din have to be greater than the Sanhedrin that established the takanah in order to overrule it, or is it sufficient that the reason for the takanah no longer applies? Unsurprisingly, the teshuva sides with the latter position. This is to be expected, since halacha's ability to adapt more rapidly to changing circumstances is part of what makes the Reform halachic approach progressive. This means that the Breslau rabbinical conference in 1846 was authorized to eliminate the second day of yom tov, as it did. This analysis is surprisingly process-oriented for a Reform teshuva. Did the rabbis in Breslau undergo this same analysis, or is this an interpretation that modern rabbis are imposing on the past? I'm not sure the answer to that question actually matters -- the rabbis of the Talmud excelled at creative anachronism, analyzing biblical narratives using rabbinic halacha in order to position themselves as lineal descendants of biblical Jews (despite having very different practices), and I'll argue in my future post that we would do well to adopt this technique in understanding our own more recent ancestors.

So the Breslau rabbinical conference was authorized to do what they did, but were they justified? The teshuva presents their reasons:

As our predecessors noted at the Breslau conference, the economic and other hardships imposed by the second festival day had already led the vast majority of our people to abandon its observance, and a community's inability to abide by a rabbinic enactment is itself a valid argument in halakhah for annulling the enactment. On the other hand, they suggested, the elimination of yom tov sheni would strengthen our religious life by allowing us to concentrate our efforts upon a more intense and meaningful observance of the first day.

It's somewhat surprising that the reasons given here don't say anything about Israel vs. Diaspora, not seeing ourselves as in exile anymore, etc. But maybe there were still so few Jews in the land of Israel in 1846 that the existence of Jews who keep 1 day because they're in Israel was simply not on their radar. I'm entirely unqualified to address the social realities in Europe at that time, in regard to how many days of yom tov Jews were keeping and whether this was a response to a grassroots movement. Of course, these reasons go alongside the fact that the Torah prescribes 1 day, we have a fixed calendar, etc. -- these additional reasons were simply the motivation for departing from estabished minhag. For the rabbis of 1846, 2 days was the inherited minhag, so these motivations were necessary to justify making a change. For me and others who have inherited 1 day, the burden of proof falls on the 2-day position, so these additional reasons for 1 day, even if they sound weak, aren't necessary.

The CCAR summarizes up to the present:

[W]e have therefore returned to the standard, as prescribed by the Torah, that each yom tov be observed for one day. This means that, for us, the "second days" of Rosh Hashanah, Shemini Atzeret, and Shavuot and the "eighth" day of Pesach are ordinary days (yom chol), while the "second" days of Sukkot and Pesach are the intermediate days of those festivals (chol hamo`ed). None of these days is a festival, and we do not treat them as such.
I like the use of scare quotes. This emphasizes that, for those on a 1-day yom tov calendar, there is no such animal as "the second day of Shavuot". Maybe they went a little bit far with the last set of quotes -- there is, of course, a second day of Sukkot.

It's interesting that Rosh Hashanah is not distinguished from the other holidays: they seem to be taking the position that, a priori, there is no second day of Rosh Hashanah, and it's something that might be added in for various reasons discussed below. The Rambam takes an analogous (though very different) position, in emphasizing that the second day of Rosh Hashanah (in Israel and the Diaspora) is derabbanan, just like the second day of other holidays (in the Diaspora).

Our Reform movement made a principled decision to nullify the ancient rabbinic takanah establishing the second festival day. Do these principles continue to speak to us? The growing number of Reform congregations which already observe the second day of yom tov, particularly the second day of Rosh Hashanah, answer this question in the negative. They reason, contrary to the argument just cited, that the recovery of yom tov sheni might improve rather than weaken the quality of our communal religious life.

I think lumping Rosh Hashanah in with the other holidays is unfair and misleading. They cite a survey saying that 38% of Reform congregations responding to the survey observe 2 days of Rosh Hashanah. But I highly doubt there are anywhere near 38% observing 2 days of any other holiday. This conflation is fair in that observing 2 days of Rosh Hashanah still represents a departure from both biblical and historical Reform practice, but the original reason for 2 days of Rosh Hashanah is entirely different from the original reason for 2 days of other festivals, so it is an entirely coherent position to evaluate them differently and come to different conclusions.

How might this happen? There is, first of all, the consideration of Jewish unity. We see ourselves as part of a larger Jewish community. By restoring the traditional Diaspora festival calendar, we can identify with this broader Jewish experience by uniting our sacred calendar with those of our Jewish neighbors.
Eek! I'll address this in greater detail when looking at the Freehof teshuva in the next post, but the short response is that unity shouldn't be one-sided, and you can be sure that the other denominations aren't thinking about how they can unite their sacred calendar with the Reform movement's. As I have written, "I understand that Kelal Yisrael may be a value that motivates wanting to be in sync with other Jewish communities. But as liberal Jews, our commitment to Kelal Yisrael must not come at the expense of our own independence or sense of authenticity."

Secondly, by instituting a second festival day we can accommodate the growing percentage of our membership who come to us from Conservative- or Orthodox-Jewish backgrounds and who are familiar with that observance.
As I said above, I think this is a legitimate reason for people to observe two days in a Reform context. BUT I don't think "we" should be doing any "accommodating", insofar as "we" refers to anyone other than the people from Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds, unless such people constitute a majority of a particular community. I think this reason is valid if it's really about preserving a minhag, but not if it's about marketing.

And then there are what we might call "spiritual" motivations: a second day of yom tov allows us to provide additional and perhaps creative worship services that speak to the religious needs of a number of our people.

I think this reason is the worst of all, but I'll hold my fire for the upcoming post about the Conservative teshuvot, which actually advocate for this reason, and not just as a straw man. For now, I'll just let the CCAR fire back:

Yet for all that, these considerations by themselves are insufficient. 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. On yom tov sheni, as on the first festival day, we recite the festival liturgy. We say kiddush over wine, praising the God "who sanctifies Israel and the festivals." The mitzvot which pertain to that particular yom tov are just as appropriate, and obligatory under tradition, on yom tov sheni. And just as we abstain from work on a festival, we are to refrain from those labors on the second festival day. In short, yom tov sheni is the ritual equivalent in virtually all respects of the first day of the festival. We are entitled to restore the observance of yom tov sheni and/or the second day of Rosh Hashanah, just as we are entitled to restore any number of ritual practices discarded by our predecessors. But if and when we do so, let us not forget that it is a festival that we are creating. If we do not treat the second day of yom tov as the ritual equivalent of the first, then we do not in fact perceive it as a true festival day. And if that is the case, it is dishonest for us to call it a festival.
All I can say is, hells yeah!!! We shouldn't be observing or even acknowledging yom tov sheni out of convenience, unless we intend to treat it (and the second days of other holidays, unless we have a coherent reason for making a distinction between holidays; Rosh Hashanah > Sukkot = Shemini Atzeret = Pesach > Shavuot) consistently as a full yom tov.

Now it's time to lay the smack down on the original question.

We do not think that the congregation which poses our she'elah truly regards the "second day" of Shavuot as a yom tov. Their request is prompted, not by the desire to observe yom tov sheni as a permanent religious institution to be equated with yom tov itself, but by the desire to "stretch" the holiday to Friday night for the benefit of this year's Confirmation class. They do not indicate any readiness to "stretch" the other festivals to a second day, to hold festival services and to close their offices on those days, or to do so again for Shavuot when that holiday does not fall on a Friday. They are not, therefore, departing from our movement's teaching on the dating of the festivals. They do not accept yom tov sheni as a true festival, a holy day, the equivalent of the first day of yom tov. They rather wish to move Shavuot to a day that as far as we--and they--are concerned is not Shavuot at all. To call that day "Shavuot," even out of the well-meaning intention to make the Confirmation service more meaningful for its participants and their families, is thoroughly inappropriate for a Reform congregation that does not observe yom tov sheni.

Oh snap! Again, not much more to say besides "I approve this message."

It is also unnecessary. The congregation need not "stretch" Shavuot to accommodate the Confirmation class, since it is perfectly acceptable to hold the ceremony on the Shabbat nearest Shavuot. Similarly, the text of the Confirmation service can reflect the theme of Shavuot, "the season of the giving of the Torah" (zeman matan toratenu), without the need to recite the actual festival liturgy.
I mean really. Confirmation? The requirement that Confirmation actually take place on Shavuot itself is as rigid and hoary as the requirement that the bar mitzvah candlelighting ceremony include exactly 13 candles. For this you want to make a mockery of the idea of sacred time?
Moreover, the congregation may read the festival Torah portion, the Sinai revelation (Exodus 19-20), on that day. As Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof has suggested, when the final day of a festival (i.e., the eighth day of Pesach or the second day of Shavuot) falls on a Shabbat, our Reform congregations may "simply reread on that Sabbath the special reading of the holiday that we read the day before." Although current Reform practice does not follow Rabbi Freehof's suggestion, his teshuvah offers an alternative that this congregation might consider.
In the next post, I'm going to look at the Freehof teshuva in question. In brief, I'm really not a fan.

Conclusion. In Reform Jewish tradition, yom tov is observed for one day, not two. This congregation gives every indication that it accepts and practices that standard. The congregation may therefore draw upon the symbolism and the message of Shavuot to lend liturgical power to a Confirmation service held on the day after the festival. The service, however, should not imply that the day is in fact Shavuot.
It is so ordered.

Because this post has gotten long enough, I'll publish now and put the other content in the next post. Part 1b will be on other Reform opinions (including Freehof on the Torah reading calendar), and part 2 will be on the Conservative teshuvot.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

orthodox vs. Orthodox

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Today’s Beliefs column in the New York Times, by Peter Steinfels, focuses on the journalistic use of the word “orthodox(y)”, particularly in regard to Christian denominations. Steinfels makes a compelling case that it is not the place of newspapers and magazines to label one side in a controversy as “orthodox”, in the sense of “what constitutes correct or true teaching within that particular tradition”.

In explaining the prevalence of this usage, he delineates between “orthodox” and “Orthodox”:

One obvious reason is the confusion between uppercase Orthodox and lowercase orthodox. Among Jews, it has become conventional to use the word “Orthodox” to designate one segment of the Jewish community adhering to a certain interpretation of what Jewish belief and observance require. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements within Judaism may joust with the Orthodox over many things, but use of that word has become a settled matter.

Likewise, among Christians it has long been conventional to use uppercase Orthodox as a term distinguishing the Christianity that shared forms of liturgy and theology rooted in the Byzantine, or Greek-speaking, part of the Roman Empire from those who took a separate path in the West. Again, Roman Catholics and Protestants may argue that they are as orthodox as the Orthodox (or more so), but they do not fight about the label.

Lowercase orthodoxy is quite another matter.

I have complained frequently about the way Jewish denominations are framed in the Jewish and mainstream press, and this column is a breath of fresh air. “One segment of the Jewish community adhering to a certain interpretation of what Jewish belief and observance require” is the most objective and least judgmental description of Orthodox Judaism that I have seen, and is a welcome respite from the usual question-begging descriptions along the lines of “Orthodox Judaism has the strongest adherence to Jewish law and observance.”

In the Jewish world, there isn’t precisely the same linguistic confusion between “Orthodox” and “orthodox”, because lowercase-o “orthodox” isn’t used so much in a Jewish context (though it’s hard to verify this other than anecdotally, since Google doesn’t allow case-sensitive searches). But there is often an implicit assumption that Orthodox Judaism is orthodox Judaism. People talk about “more Orthodox” and “less Orthodox” in such a way that they might as well be saying “more orthodox” and “less orthodox”. Now there is, of course, nothing wrong with Orthodox Jews believing that their path is the correct path. But it is highly damaging and self-defeating for non-Orthodox Jews to believe that about Orthodox Judaism.

So I think the Jewish world would be better off if we were all to fully internalize Steinfels’s approach. Capital-O Orthodox Christianity is a good analogy for how we should be talking and thinking about Orthodox Judaism. No one confuses Orthodox Christianity with orthodox Christianity. Everyone understands that “Orthodox” is just a label to refer to one of the branches of Christianity, and there is no meme out there that Orthodox Christianity is “more religious” or “more observant” than Catholic or Protestant Christianity. One could make a historical argument that Orthodox Christianity is “more traditional” (they still pray in Greek, use the Julian calendar, etc.), but Catholics and Protestants are secure enough in their own traditions that this is of no relevance to their self-understanding. Let’s get the streams of Judaism to that point too.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


1) Since posting last night about the New York primaries, this blog has received a number of hits from people Googling the Manhattan judicial candidates. That's not the pathetic part; it's great that people are seeking to be informed about the candidates. The pathetic part is that the available information is so sparse that a blog post that has been up for less than 24 hours, and says little more than "These are the candidates, but I don't know very much about them", can rise so quickly to the first page of Google hits. And yet somehow we voters are expected to make an informed decision.

But if you found your way to Mah Rabu this way, welcome! Kudos to you on your quest for knowledge, and please let us know what you figure out.

2) I voted at 4:45 pm today, nearly 11 hours after the polls opened. I was the 19th voter all day at my election district.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Primaried! Part 2

Yesterday I looked at some the races in tomorrow's New York primary that I won't get to vote in. This post will be about the few races that will actually appear on my ballot.

I'll be voting for New York County Surrogate and Civil Court Judge. I have complained in the past about the system of selecting judges in New York. This time there's actually a competitive primary, and democratic elections are better than "democratic elections" (in which the candidates are chosen by party bosses and run unopposed), but still very problematic. The voters (myself included) are not sufficiently equipped to make informed decisions about the candidates. And nor should we be, because taking stances on the issues (which would be the main focus in the best possible scenario for a more public campaign) would impair would-be judges' impartiality. (Yes, at higher levels such as the Supreme Court of the United States, competing legal philosophies come into play, so that these stances become relevant in selecting judges, but I don't think the New York City Civil Court is in the business of overturning laws.) The best alternative would be for judges to be chosen (as at the federal level or in some states) by the elected branches of government, which are accountable to the voters (perhaps more than we are accountable to ourselves). Failing that, and assuming no change in the system, I have a responsibility to get informed about the candidates and vote, because if I (and others in my position) don't, then the only people who will vote will be people with a vested interest in the result. So here's my attempt. Please add more information in the comments.

In New York, each county (in NYC, that means each borough) has one or more surrogates. According to the New York constitution, "The surrogate's court shall have jurisdiction over all actions and proceedings relating to the affairs of decedents, probate of wills, administration of estates ... , guardianship of the property of minors, and such other actions and proceedings ... as may be provided by law." Surrogate's Court appears to be very dirty, and people have been arguing for its abolition for as long as they've been trying to build the Second Avenue Subway.

The candidates in the Democratic primary for New York County Surrogate are Nora Anderson, John Reddy, Jr., and Milton Tingling.

The New York Times says:

This obscure but unusually powerful court oversees wills, estates and adoptions — and is badly in need of change. The retirement of Renee Roth after 25 years as one of the borough’s two Surrogate’s Court judges is an opportunity to improve the court’s reputation. Ms. Roth will leave behind a legacy of unconscionable delays in deciding cases, imperious behavior and a tendency to use her office to reward cronies and further her personal interests.

Voters need to decide which of the three candidates vying to succeed her — Milton Tingling, John Reddy Jr. and Nora Anderson — has the independence and know-how to work effectively with Manhattan’s second, reform-minded Surrogate’s Court judge, Kristin Booth Glen, to transform the court.

Mr. Tingling, an affable but undistinguished state Supreme Court justice, seems least up to the task. Mr. Reddy, Ms. Roth’s handpicked counsel to the office charged with handling estates of those who die without wills, has an appealing manner and is plainly capable. But his ties to Ms. Roth and tolerance for the old-style, back-scratching culture make us doubt he would be an aggressive agent of change.

Our endorsement goes to Nora Anderson, an experienced trust and estates lawyer and former chief clerk in the Surrogate’s Court. Her decision to accept a large campaign loan from a mentor — a prominent trust and estates attorney — gives us pause. But we take seriously her pledge that he will not appear before her and believe, over all, that she offers the best hope of positive reform.

I've gotten a few pieces of campaign mail for this race. One of them attacks Anderson and quotes the Times out of context, quoting only the penultimate sentence without noting that she is endorsed. Oddly, there is no indication of who the message is coming from - is this from another candidate or an outside group? This has to violate some sort of campaign finance law. A flyer from John Reddy says "Someone has to stop the Republicans: JOHN REDDY WILL. The Bush administration continues to use petty political schemes in their attempts to permanently alter the American Justice system. The administration has been summarily replacing prudent and impartial Judges with unqualified 'yes men' who will give a free pass to their Conservative agenda. We cannot afford to waste our votes on an inexperienced and politically ambitious candidate who lacks the strength and independence to stand against the administration's deplorable ends." Which of his opponents is he referring to? Or is he keeping it vague on purpose? Obviously I agree that we want to stand up to the Bush administration, but is there any evidence that Anderson or Tingling will "give a free pass to their Conservative agenda", or is this just a nonsequitur? Reddy also claims endorsements from Carl McCall, Geraldine Ferraro, and people I haven't heard of. Tingling's flyer notes that he is the only candidate with judicial experience, and provides some specific proposals, including satellite offices uptown, clerks for those who cannot afford an attorney, and translators and translated materials. I didn't get any mail from Anderson.

Some other endorsements: Ryan Davis of the Huffington Post for Anderson, and the Daily News and the New York Press for Tingling.

That's all I got. Further thoughts?

The New York City Civil Court (with branches in each borough) has jurisdiction over civil cases where the amount in question is under $25,000. Anything larger goes to the "Supreme Court of the State of New York" (which is not the highest court in the state -- that's the Court of Appeals -- but a trial court with branches in each county). The candidates in the New York County Democratic primary are Nancy Bannon and Michael Katz.

The Times writes:

In this race for a countywide seat, we favor Nancy Bannon over Michael Katz. Both currently serve as law clerks in State Supreme Court. Both are able and committed to making the legal system more accessible for less-wealthy litigants. But Ms. Bannon’s thoughtful manner and depth of legal experience give her the edge.

Bannon also has an endorsement from the New York Press. I can't find much more information about either of them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Primaried! Part 1

This Tuesday, September 9, is the New York non-presidential primary election. There are no statewide races, so the interesting elections are limited to isolated pockets. This post will just cover New York City.

Most of the incumbent U.S. representatives are going unchallenged in the primary, with a few exceptions. In the 10th District (Brooklyn), longtime Rep. Ed Towns faces a challenge in the Democratic primary from Kevin Powell. But the real insanity is in the 13th District (all of Staten Island plus the southwest corner of Brooklyn). The story in brief: Incumbent Rep. Vito Fossella (the only remaining Republican congressperson in NYC) has been reelected by smaller and smaller margins in recent elections, and even before this mess broke out, the district was considered a strong Democratic target for this year. Then Fossella was arrested for DWI, and then was bailed out by a woman in Virginia with whom he turned out to have been having an extramarital affair and who turned out to be the mother of his 3-year-old child whom his wife and children back in New York didn't know about. He announced that he wasn't running for reelection. The Republicans scrambled to find a replacement, and all the high-profile Republicans in the district said no. They came up with Wall Street executive Frank Powers. Then Powers's son (also named Frank Powers, much to the confusion of the voters) declared his candidacy as a Libertarian. Then Powers, Sr., dropped dead of a heart attack. Another round of scrambling ensued, and two Republicans are on the primary ballot: former State Assemblymember Robert Straniere and Dr. Jamshad Wyne. They've been fighting an ugly and ethnically charged race. (Money quote: "There is no reason he shouldn’t be proud to be a Pakistani and Muslim.") Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, 2006 candidate Steve Harrison (who won 43% of the vote against Fossella) faces off against City Councilmember Michael McMahon. McMahon has held some problematic positions, including support for the war in Iraq, but has picked up key endorsements, in part because he is from Staten Island, which makes up the bulk of the district, and there is a perception that Staten Island voters will not vote for a candidate from Brooklyn (Harrison). McMahon and Straniere are expected to win their primaries, and McMahon is expected to win the general election, so that New York City's congressional delegation will finally be entirely Democratic.

There are a number of competitive Democratic primaries (and no Republican primaries) for State Assembly and State Senate, but the most high-profile is in the 64th Assembly District (Lower Manhattan), where Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver faces challenges from Luke Henry and Paul Newell. Silver has held an inordinate amount of power in what has been called the most dysfunctional state legislature in the country. Along with our new governor and the anticipated Democratic majority in the State Senate for the first time in over 40 years, dethroning Silver will result in a progressive state government that is accountable to the people.

In my neighborhood in Manhattan, we're sharing none of this excitement. All of my legislators are unopposed in the primary, including Rep. Charles Rangel, despite recent scandals. If this were a jurisdiction where a Republican had any chance of winning, I'd consider it highly irresponsible to let a scandal-ridden incumbent coast by unopposed in the primary, leaving him vulnerable in the general. (I'm still bitter about Carol Moseley-Braun's loss in 1998. And I feel a twinge of guilt, because that was the first election in which I could have voted, but something got messed up with my absentee registration, so I wasn't actually able to vote. But she lost by more than one vote, so it's only partially my fault.) But this district, which includes Harlem and Washington Heights, has zero risk of going Republican, so I'm not losing any sleep over this. I have argued repeatedly that partisan control of Congress is far more important than any individual member, so I intend to vote for Rangel in November regardless of what happens, and then if there turns out to have been serious wrongdoing, then I will support his resignation, and he will be replaced in a special election by another Democrat.

So the only primaries I'll get to vote in are for New York County Surrogate and Civil Court Judge. I'll post more about these races tomorrow. In the meantime, I haven't made up my mind yet about who I'm voting for, so feel free to lobby me in the comments.

Big wheels keep on turning

Now that my 14-month vacation is over and the new school year has begun, I've been biking to work every day. I plan to do this for as long as the weather stays clement (I biked to work in December for one day of the transit strike, and it's not an experience I want to repeat), and now I realize that there's no excuse for not having done this (except in rare occasions) before. I live and work less than a block from the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, so I just have to cross Riverside Drive, and then there's no car traffic for the rest of the route. I guess the excuse is that I live and work two blocks from express subway stops, and the subway is just enough faster that in past years I haven't made the effort to get up slightly earlier to bike. But having a later class schedule this year has tipped the balance.

  • Twice-daily exercise without going out of my way.
  • Even if biking takes slightly longer than the subway, it's a completely predictable length of time, determined only by how fast I pedal. The subway often has unforeseen delays.
  • No more waiting on humid platforms or crowding in on rush-hour trains.
  • Saves money: I haven't bought an Unlimited MetroCard yet.

  • Have to change clothes upon arrival at school, adding to the effective door-to-door time even further.
  • Less convenient to go somewhere other than straight home after school (though not such a big deal since I can leave my bike at school overnight).
  • It might start raining during the day (not really a problem - see above).
  • The subway was where I did all my extracurricular reading, so that's not happening anymore. (Reading a book on a bike would be dangerous. So would an audio book, to a much lesser extent.)
The pros are ahead for now. I'll be back on the subway when the weather changes.