Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The winners: Oron and Rahav

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

We’ve been reporting about the contest to name the planets Uranus and Neptune in Hebrew, as part of the International Year of Astronomy.

As ADDeRabbi reports, the winners were announced today at a ceremony at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (As a finalist, I was invited to the ceremony, but was unable to attend since I was in the wrong country.) And the winners are…. “Oron” for Uranus, and “Rahav” for Neptune! Mazal tov (as it were) to ADDeRabbi, who was one of the entrants who submitted Rahav! My submission, Shahak (for Uranus) had to settle for runner-up; I suspect that Meretz stuffed the ballot box.

To infinity and beyond!

Monday, December 28, 2009

A hill of beans in this crazy world

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

nullBefore 1948, both the Jewish and the Arab populations of Jerusalem were scattered throughout the city. At the end of the War of Independence, when the city was partitioned into Israeli West Jerusalem and Jordanian East Jerusalem, a major population redistribution took place. The Jews in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the Arabs throughout West Jerusalem had to leave for the other side. As the old Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem were filled in with new Jewish residents, the municipality gave the neighborhoods new Hebrew names in an attempt to erase their history. So Talbiyeh became Komemiyut, Katamon became Gonen, and Baka became Geulim. Was this attempt successful? Yes, in the sense that the current residents of the old Arab mansions of Talbiyeh are still primarily Jewish. But in a linguistic sense, no: No one has heard of Komemiyut, Gonen, or Geulim, and everyone still uses the Arabic names (or Greek, in the case of Katamon).

And now history repeats itself. If you’ve been to Jerusalem in the last couple years, you’ve seen Rechov Yafo and other major streets all torn up for the construction of the new Jerusalem Light Rail, which runs through both West and “East” (actually north) Jerusalem. Now, as the project nears completion, and the engineering challenges of constructing new transportation infrastructure in an ancient and hilly city have all been met, the city faces what may prove to be a greater challenge: naming the stations.

The committee tasked with naming the stations received a proposal from linguist Dr. Avshalom Kor, who proposed giving all of the stations Hebrew names, regardless of how the locations are actually known. Haaretz reports:

The proposal most likely to prove controversial is the station in Shoafat, a neighborhood next to French Hill. The specific location of the station is known to the locals as Tel El Ful. Kor sneers at the name and proposes calling the station Givat Binyamin (Benjamin Hill), after the tribe of King Saul. Kor dedicates about half of his proposal to explaining the name change.

“Tel el Ful is the Arab name of our capital in the days of King Saul,” writes Kor, underlining the words “Arab” and “our”. “The Hebrew name was Givat Shaul or Givat Binyamin, after the king’s tribe. The name Givat Shaul is already taken by a neighborhood in West Jerusalem, therefore the station will be known as Givat Binyamin.”

Kor says that giving the station an Arab name would encourage illegal construction by Palestinians. “When we returned to this historic hill after the Six-Day War, it was bare except for King Hussein’s then unfinished villa at the top,” Kor says. “All the houses covering it now have been built, to my knowledge, illegally.”

He adds: “If it were not for the extensive illegal construction there, the hill today would bear the prestigious name of Givat Binyamin” - and he underlines the words “not” and “prestigious.”

Kor says: “Therefore, any potential request by the residents to give the station an Arab name would mean not just eradicating the Jewish past of the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel, but also acknowledging (yet again) the illegal construction in the area.”

We have obtained a copy of Kor’s memo, and he lists three more reasons for naming this particular station Givat Binyamin:

  • Lebanon and Jordan are known to the world by their biblical names, and not by the local names Lubnan and Urdun.
  • Quoting Genesis 26:18, “Isaac dug the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he called them by the names that his father had called them.” (Is Kor going for a double entendre with the reference to Philistines?)
  • “In Paris, for example, they would clearly name a station after an early French king’s capital, and not ‘Hill of Beans.’ And likewise we will name the station in honor of King Saul’s capital, and not ‘Tel al Ful’.”

Though Kor appears to be drawing an incendiary contrast between the cultured Europeans (or fictional versions of them whose views on kings are different from the actual French) and the residents of East Jerusalem, even the Europeans are not spared in his crusade for Hebrew names. He proposes naming the station on King George Street “Bikkur Cholim”, after the hospital whose name means “visiting the sick”, “an important site in the city’s history and an important mitzvah in Judaism”, rather than naming it after a British monarch.

And if you thought these stations could have both Hebrew and Arabic names, Kor’s proposal rules out that possibility. The proposal begins by saying that the Hebrew name will also appear in Arabic and Latin letters. “This way it is easier for tourists to find their way. If a tourist asks a Jerusalemite, for example, about ‘Ammunition Hill’, it is reasonable that the Jerusalemite will not know how to direct him. Therefore, in the three languages will be written, for example, ‘Givat Hatachmoshet’.”

Will Kor succeed in occluding Jerusalem’s diversity (and Israel’s multiple official languages) in favor of a Hebrew-only light rail, or will the unveiling of this proposal prompt a public backlash?

Ride the Purple Line this Shabbat!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Purple Line

The short version: Segulah! DC’s newest independent minyan, with “full-liturgy, energizing, songful, and participant-led egalitarian davening in a warm and welcoming neighborhood community”. Shabbat morning services this week, January 2, 2010, 9:30 am, Shabbat Vayechi, Reamer Chapel at Tifereth Israel Congregation, 16th & Juniper St (7701 16th St NW; enter off Juniper), Washington DC, two-table potluck to follow at a nearby home. All ages are welcome. RSVP to segulahminyan at gmail or on Facebook, and/or join the email list.

The longer version:
DC Boundary Stone

All the way in the northernmost reaches of our nation’s capital, in the very last alphabet, is the neighborhood of Shepherd Park, and just over the Maryland line is the unincorporated urban area of downtown Silver Spring (home of NOAA, the American Film Institute, and the Discovery Channel). (The picture at right shows the north boundary stone marking the border between DC and Maryland.) This multistate (or one state and one something else) neighborhood is more affordable than central DC but more walking- and transit-friendly than the burbs, and therefore it’s no surprise that it contains one of the most diverse and fastest-growing Jewish scenes in the Washington area.

The Jewish epicenter of the neighborhood is upper 16th Street, or “Sheish Esrei Elyon”, where a single two-block stretch contains three congregations that are exceptional in different ways: Fabrangen is a historic first-wave havurah that started in 1971, born out of the activism of that time, and continues to this day. Ohev Sholom is an Orthodox synagogue that has reached out to the LGBT community. Tifereth Israel is home to JuggleK, a kashrut certification that certifies both conventional kashrut standards and ethical standards, whose first and only client is a vegan soup subscription service. Other Jewish highlights of the neighborhood include Moishe House Silver Spring, the offices of KOL Foods, and the former synagogue building that is now the Ethiopian Evangelical Church.

Segulah is the latest addition to this constellation, and meets in various locations on both sides of the state line. In addition to its other meanings, “Segulah” means “purple”, a reference to the Purple Line (pictured above) that will one day link Silver Spring to the other loose ends of the Washington Metro (and which Jews United For Justice is working on making fair). Attention New York: we challenge the Second Avenue Subway to a race!

In addition to being purple, Segulah is also a treasure! And we’ll be meeting this Shabbat to complete the book of Genesis, share song-filled prayer, and eat lunch. Details are at the top of this post. See you there!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It was 20 years ago today

What were you doing 20 years ago tonight? I was watching The Simpsons Christmas Special, the half-hour episode that started it all. I was Bart's age in those days; now I'm closer to Homer's age. Twenty years and 449 episodes later, The Simpsons is still going strong. Congratulations on completing two decades!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Chanukah!

Over half of all Chanukah candles are used on the last three nights of the holiday.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


I blogged previously about the URJ's Eilu V'Eilu series on independent minyanim. Now the series is complete. In week 3, Rabbi Sydney Mintz and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer responded to questions and comments from readers. Week 4, with their closing statements, was sent out on the email list but not (yet?) posted online.

In week 3, Rabbi Kaunfer responds to one question about education with an extended answer that appears to be an excerpt from his upcoming book. Rabbi Mintz responds to several questions, and one of them in particular highlights how many misunderstandings are still out there about independent minyanim and about Reform Judaism.

The questioner asks:

In general, Rabbi Mintz is right in saying that we need to blow our own shofar. But even a cursory look at the halachic think tank at Mechon Hadar demonstrates that some of the differences between the minyanim and Reform Judaism will make the gap somewhat hard to bridge.
The fundamental error here is assuming that structure and content are perfectly correlated, i.e. that because independent minyanim share an approach to the structure of Jewish community, they must also share views about Jewish ideology and practice. And I can see how someone might arrive at this assumption, since it's much more true in the synagogue movements. But as I showed in a recent post, "independent" Jewish individuals and communities come in all shapes and sizes, and as ZT showed, ideological categories and structural categories are often orthogonal. So comparing "the minyanim" and "Reform Judaism" is comparing apples and oranges, since the former is a structural category with diverse ideologies, and the latter (in the context it's being used here) is an ideological category.

The secondary error is the implied syllogism "Mechon Hadar sees itself as providing resources for all independent minyanim; Mechon Hadar holds X views on halachah; therefore, all independent minyanim hold X views on halachah." This is along the lines of the famous "All men are mortal; Socrates is mortal; therefore, all men are Socrates." Mechon Hadar is just one organization, and is doing good work in the world, but has no authority to speak for all independent minyanim, nor does it claim to speak for all independent minyanim (not even for Kehilat Hadar). It provides resources that are there for whoever finds them useful.

Among the many flavors of independent minyanim, there are in fact some that take approaches that can be characterized more as "Reform" (for various values of "Reform"). Of course, there are still significant differences between those minyanim and conventional Reform synagogues, but the "conventional synagogue" part is more significant to those differences than the "Reform" part.

The questioner continues:

Specifically, Reform Judaism is affirmatively not a halachic movement (even though our rabbis have the capacity to provide responsa grounded in halachah) and the Conservative Movement that minyanim members are fleeing in droves still claims to be halachic. The egalitarian nature of Reform Judaism will appeal to minyan'iks but they will ultimately reject our lack of halachah.

First of all, minyan participants are fleeing the Reform movement in droves too (survey results show that 44% of Kol Zimrah participants and 18% of independent minyan participants overall were raised with a Reform identity), and the Reform movement ignores these statistics to its peril. Fortunately, the existence of this dialogue indicates that some people in the Reform movement aren't ignoring it anymore.

Second of all, I have addressed the "not a halachic movement" claim in previous posts, so I'll just link there and not reinvent the wheel. All I'll say here is that this letter represents an extreme (small-c) conservative view of the nature of halachah. There is a growing grassroots movement out there to think about halachah as a "language of applied values" (or "critical common sense" or one of the other ways of referring to it). This approach positions itself in opposition to "formalism" -- viewing halachah as a formal system, focusing on the application of procedural rules and the "halachic process". So on the spectrum from critical common sense to formalism, the view of halachah in this letter appears to be waaaaay off the far end, past formalism. That is, the only way I can make sense out of "not a halachic movement (even though our rabbis have the capacity to provide responsa grounded in halachah)" is to understand halachah not merely as a process (which at least can continue to develop over time, even if this development is highly constrained) but as a fixed static set of legal texts. Thus, according to this view, Reform responsa can be "grounded in" that set of texts, but do not themselves constitute halachic works, and what Reform Jews do isn't halachic because it doesn't follow the conclusions of those texts. Of course, I think Reform Judaism should hold a progressive view of halachah, not an extreme conservative one. I hope I'm arguing with a straw man, but fear that I'm not.

On balance, then, I think Rabbi Mintz is correct that we should view and respond to minyanim as a challenge and an opportunity. One possible way would be to help unaffiliated minyanim with space and try and provide links for our members to participate in their worship. But here's an interesting thought experiment: Suppose a minyan wants to meet at our synagogue but refuses to count women as part of the minyan? What if it forbids musical instruments in the service? What if it wants to exclude our some of members from participation (or at least, from counting as part of a minyan) because they are Jews of only patrilineal descent? How would we deal with those issues?

This is neither interesting nor a thought experiment. It's not a thought experiment because it has been tried as a real experiment: Darkhei Noam and Kol Sasson are two examples of non-egalitarian independent minyanim that meet or have met in Reform synagogue buildings, successfully as far as I know. And it's not interesting because if an independent minyan (as distinct from a synagogue-sponsored minyan) makes an arrangement to meet in a synagogue (whether that arrangement includes paying rent or whatever other agreement they reach), the relationship between the minyan and the synagogue is one between sovereign entities, and therefore it shouldn't matter to the synagogue what exactly the minyan is doing as long as it doesn't interfere with the synagogue's own services or other activities. The independent minyanim that meet in churches are never asked whether their ritual practices conform to the church's principles.

The musical instrument question is particularly ill-posed (and I say this as a big supporter of musical instruments). "Forbidden"/"permitted" is almost never the right frame to think about musical instruments in services, since musical instruments played by people other than the service leaders are almost never "permitted". Generally, musical instruments are either used by the service leaders or not used at all. But if an independent minyan's practice is for the service leaders not to use musical instruments, this doesn't mean that the minyan holds that musical instruments are "forbidden". This is because independent minyan generally make decisions about policy (i.e. what they do), not about halachah (i.e. what everyone should do). There are all kinds of reasons why a minyan might decide not to use instruments, which need not involve taking a stance on whether instruments are forbidden. (For that matter, I suspect most independent minyanim don't have an official stance one way or the other on patrilineal descent.) And certainly, there is no fundamental Reform ideological opposition to having a service without instruments (I have been to many Reform services without instruments in my lifetime).

Yet this questioner seems to think there might be a problem with having a service without instruments using space in a Reform synagogue. What's the problem? They're not stopping anyone from using instruments in the sanctuary service. Is there a concern that the minyan participants are somehow going to take over the synagogue and mold it in their image? This is generally the last thing on a minyan's mind when it looks for space -- the minyan is operating much lower on Maslow's hierarchy, just looking for a place to hold services to maintain its existence, not thinking about future coups.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Blogging from the Bolt Bus on the way, appropriately, to the National Havurah Committee board meeting:

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight wrote this insightful post last fortnight following the elections:

Why did Democrats lose in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday? Because independent voters moved against them, say the pundits.

This is true [... b]ut it doesn’t really tell us very much. It’s a lot like saying: the Yankees won the Game 6 last night because they scored more runs than the Phillies. Or: the unemployment rate went up because there were fewer jobs.

It’s worth a read in its own right, but I want to focus on one section and draw an analogy to the Jewish community:

Part of the problem is that ‘independents’ are not a particularly coherent group. At a minimum, the category of ‘independents’ includes:

1) People who are mainline Democrats or Republicans for all intents and purposes, but who reject the formality of being labeled as such;
2) People who have a mix of conservative and liberal views that don’t fit neatly onto the one-dimensional political spectrum, such as libertarians;
3) People to the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, who consider the Democratic and Republican parties to be equally contemptible;
4) People who are extremely disengaged from politics and who may not have fully-formed political views;
5) True-blue moderates;
6) Members of organized third parties.

These voters have almost nothing to do with each other and yet they all get grouped under the same umbrella as ‘independents’.

Similarly, many overlapping terms are used for Jewish individuals and communities who are not affiliated with any of the major denominations: independent, unaffiliated, nondenominational, postdenominational, Just Jewish, etc. Each of these terms connotes somewhat different shades of meaning, but even so, within each such category, and certainly within the union of all those categories, there are people who “have almost nothing to do with each other” except for what they aren’t. And so when we try to talk about people and communities outside the denomination, we suffer from the same confusion and conflation that Silver writes about, conflating essentially the same six categories that he lists (among others).

American political discourse often assumes incorrectly that all “independents” are in category 5, with positions right in between the Democrats and the Republicans (and so the way for a party to pick up these voters is to adopt some of the other party’s positions), when in fact there are other types of independents too. Similarly, until very recently, “unaffiliated”/”Just Jewish” was associated strongly with category 4: “People who are extremely disengaged from [Judaism]“. (It was recently enough that I had to write this article to explain to a mainstream Jewish audience that this isn’t always the case, though I think the other types of “independent”/”unaffiliated”/etc. Jews have gotten enough attention since then that maybe the points in that article are now obvious to everyone. But maybe not.) The survey results seem to indicate that this is still true of most people who check “Just Jewish”, though I wonder how much those results are contaminated by active independent/nondenominational/blah Jews who also think of themselves as “Just Jewish” and aren’t survey geeks and therefore don’t know that “Just Jewish” isn’t the option they’re supposed to pick.

Even worse, category 4 is sometimes conflated with category 3: Some think that people who are extremely disengaged from Judaism are on the extreme left! This is the idea behind phrases like “very Reform” and “ultra-Reform”. The analogy to American politics shows this conflation to be ridiculous: you can’t have extreme-left views if you don’t have fully-formed [political | Jewish] views. There are also people who hold extreme-left Jewish views (along one or more axes in n-dimensional space, some of which can be classified as left-right spectra), but this is a very different population from the apathetic masses.

Participants in independent minyanim and other unaffiliated/nondenominational communities are often mischaracterized as falling into just one of these categories, when the reality is that there is great diversity within and among such communities, so they can’t be neatly placed into just one. One common characterization of independent minyanim, particularly those of the “traditional egalitarian” style, is that they are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, i.e. Conservative in everything but name, placing them in category 1. Another common characterization is that they fit between two denominations on a linear left-right spectrum (category 5), e.g. “to the right of Conservative and to the left of Orthodox” or “to the right of Reform and to the left of Conservative”. (The former is wrong on the facts in many cases, while the latter is simply incoherent.) And indeed, there are some individuals who see themselves as Conservative (or Orthodox or Reform) in everything but name (or even in name too) and are involved in nondenominational communities, and other individuals who identify as “Conservadox” or some other hybrid of multiple denominations. But independent/nondenominational communities also include plenty of people from category 2: those whose approaches to Judaism can’t be placed on a one-dimensional spectrum.

In the comments, feel free to add to the list of types of “independent” Jews.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More press for independent minyanim

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Independent minyanim have been popping up all over the press lately. First of all, they make an appearance in this CNN piece on “New Jews”, but that deserves a whole snarky post of its own, so I’ll leave it alone for now.

Two articles focus on independent minyanim: one in the August/September issue of Hadassah Magazine (it’s old, I know, but it wasn’t available online when it first came out, so it seems to have slid under the blogosphere’s radar), and one (which is really four and counting) in the latest edition of the URJ’s Eilu V’Eilu.

What do all three pieces have in common? The obligatory quote from Jonathan Sarna, of course. Seriously, is it the law that he has to be quoted in every single one of these stories?

Anyway, the Hadassah piece is in some ways the usual story about independent minyanim, but it does a good job presenting the diversity of independent minyanim, discussing the wide range of different practices within and among minyanim. It also presents independent minyanim mostly in their own words and own ideas, defining them by what they are rather than what they’re not: “pluralism, egalitarianism, social justice and song-filled prayer”, “to take responsibility for our own Jewish lives”, “joy, reverence, inspiring prayer, high-level educational programming with support for beginners, a culture of cooperation and openness”, etc. Unlike other articles on this topic that have appeared in the Jewish press, there is no worrying about Jewish continuity or intermarriage or the future of the denominations, and there is a quote from a pulpit rabbi saying that independent minyanim are swell, since it is “exciting to see people serious about their Judaism and seeking to come closer to God in an active way.” There are a few glitches here and there: this article propagates the error (which was quickly fixed) from the initial release of the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study, saying that “more than half [of independent minyan participants] spent over four months on an Israel program”. (The actual survey question asked about spending more than four months in Israel, not specifying anything about a program.) In a closing section about what happens when minyan founders move out of a neighborhood, there is a sentence about some Tikkun Leil Shabbat founders that is technically correct yet amusing: “Novey and her husband travel to Tikkun Leil Shabbat on Friday nights from their Maryland home.” This makes it sound like they’re trekking into DC from deep suburbia or Baltimore or the Eastern Shore, when in fact their apartment (like my apartment down the street) is just a few feet from the DC line, in a Maryland neighborhood that is more urban than the adjoining parts of DC, and is much closer to TLS than (for example) the distance from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. (We’ve even walked home from TLS, though it’s not a short walk.) Anyway, props to Hadassah for running this article (and a network of hospitals in Israel).

Eilu V’Eilu is a weekly email sent out by the Union for Reform Judaism, in which two writers each month debate some question, in the style of The Onion’s popular Point/Counterpoint feature (except that the writers are real people). And sometimes the two sides even disagree, but it seems that they don’t always check to see that the panelists actually have opposing views, so other times (such as when I participated) the two writers basically agree on the main points, and then are forced to search for minor points to rebut. (The best example of this was when the presidents of the Men of Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism faced off about whether there should still be single-sex congregational organizations. This is like the chairs of the DNC and the RNC “arguing” about whether there should be a two-party system.) This month’s dialogue fits into the latter mold. The question is “Are the growing numbers of independent minyanim a challenge to the movements?”, and the interlocutors are Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. As it turns out, both are supportive of independent minyanim. It might have been more fun, in a demolition derby kind of way, to see Rabbi Kaunfer go up against the old (hopefully straw-man by now) “Independent minyanim are destroying American Judaism by luring young adults away from the synagogues they would otherwise join” argument, but oh well.

In Week 1, Rabbi Kaunfer argues “Independent minyanim are not a challenge to the movements — the Internet is.” The point is that one-size-fits-all (or three-sizes-fit-all) movements are on the way out, since the Internet “allows people to organize into groups with very few start-up costs”, making it easier for communities to serve niche markets. Independent minyanim (independent of the major denominations) thrive in this new reality.

This is a positive development for Jewish life. When people care enough to stake out their own nuanced, complex relationship to Judaism, and reject broad labels in the process, they demonstrate that being Jewish matters deeply to them. If you claim to be “nondenominational,” people can’t make assumptions about your Jewish identity like they can when you claim a traditional denominational label. Instead, you have to explain what about Judaism you connect to—forming the baseline of a robust Jewish conversation.

Rabbi Kaunfer makes a solid argument that more segmentation is actually a good thing. I agree with the overall message, but unfortunately, there are a number of distracting minor issues with the article (though I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume based on past experience that some of these errors may be due to editing). Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot. It goes on: “The lines between the big-three movements also blurred: what is the fundamental difference between the right wing of Reform and the left wing of Conservative, or between the right wing of Conservative and the left wing of Orthodoxy?” As I have argued before, the wing of Reform that he’s talking about (where one finds Hebrew, kashrut, etc.) is actually the left wing when viewed within an intra-Reform frame (rather than projecting frames of other denominations onto Reform); the right wing of Reform is the small-c conservative wing that holds onto tradition for tradition’s sake (aka Classical Reform). It’s the lefties of both movements that find common ground. (Cf. the advocates for the peace process are left-wing Israelis and left-wing Palestinians.)

Rabbi Kaunfer writes: “At Mechon Hadar, we have tracked the growth of independent minyanim (see In the past ten years, they have exploded. In 2000, there were three of them; in 2009 there are more than sixty.” Here he is using the definition of “independent minyan” that was used in the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study. That study was only looking at communities founded since 1996. So what he means is that three independent minyanim were founded between 1996 and 2000 (and, possibly, still existed in 2007 — I’m not sure whether or not these figures include minyanim that ended before then), while many more were founded between 2000 and 2009. Yes, it’s true that the growth of independent minyanim has exploded in the last ten years, but this is a misleading way to show it. By this definition, no independent minyanim at all existed in 1995! This isn’t true, of course. For example, the Newton Centre Minyan qualifies as an independent minyan by most definitions, but it was founded in 1973. Rabbi Kaunfer links to this Zeek article which identifies differences between the minyanim founded in more recent years and the havurot founded in the ’70s, and as a general trend, these cultural differences are real, but it’s not a sharp line by any means. While Hadar and some other post-1996 minyanim may focus on “quality control”, plenty don’t and are included in the statistics nonetheless. The somewhat arbitrary cutoff of 1996 may have made sense for the survey, just so that there would be some boundaries in which communities are being studied, but I don’t think it makes sense going forward to define every community founded before 1996 as automatically not being an “independent minyan”.

Rabbi Mintz’s opening piece (which spreads the same inaccurate claims from the Spiritual Communities Study, inflating the growth rate of independent minyanim and repeating the “Israel programs” claim) is a very welcome voice to hear from the synagogue movements:

If independent minyanim can appeal to those who may not at this point in their lives step into a synagogue, why should we be threatened? Why shouldn’t we pay attention to where these young Jews are heading and strengthen our movement by creating vibrant minyanim of our own? No one is stopping us. [...] The Reform Jewish community needs to not only blow our own shofar, but also to listen closely to the new voices that are blowing our ancient instrument. They are showing us the possibility of a new engaged, immersed, committed generation.

Instead of suggesting that independent minyan participants are doing something wrong by building meaningful Jewish communities, or that it doesn’t matter because they’ll come crawling back when they have children, Rabbi Mintz is saying that synagogues and movements can look inward and learn from the successes of independent minyanim and use this to strengthen their own communities. This message is particularly welcome coming from the Reform movement, which thus far has not appeared to be as aware of the independent minyan phenomenon as the Conservative movement has been. Let’s hope this is where things are headed in the future.

In Week 2, Rabbi Kaunfer apparently didn’t see anything to dispute, so instead he asks and answers the question: “what is the future of the ‘alumni’ of independent minyanim?” And the answer is fantastic; you should just go and read it. The key point is that there’s not just one path that everyone takes when they get priced out of the old neighborhood, but many possibilities:

  • More independent minyanim
  • Minyan-synagogue hybrids [not to be confused with human-animal hybrids]
  • Minyanim as training grounds for future synagogue members
  • Rabbis who bring independent minyan ethos to their communities
  • Minyan participation as a deviation from an otherwise unengaged Jewish life

Rabbi Mintz responds to something that isn’t actually what Rabbi Kaunfer said. She says she disagrees with his statement that the Internet is threatening the movements, and gives examples of how synagogues (not just independent minyanim) are using the Internet successfully to build community. But Rabbi Kaunfer wasn’t talking about synagogues, he was talking about movements. It’s important to keep the synagogue-vs.-minyan/havurah axis separate from the denominational-vs.-nondenominational axis separate in principle, even if they’re not entirely uncorrelated. And if anything, Rabbi Mintz’s examples support Rabbi Kaunfer’s claims: one of the examples she provides of a thriving synagogue is New York’s B’nai Jeshurun, which is not affiliated with a movement!

Coming next, in Week 3, they’ll respond to questions and comments sent in by readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rabbi Yoffie endorses flexitarianism, the "kashrut establishment"

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Last week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in past years, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next two years.

The sermon began with a great shout-out to the Biennial’s host country:

We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. [...] I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?

Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service - all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.

This American (who can name the last three Canadian prime ministers and knows all the words to “O Canada”) says hear hear! (However, I was surprised that this was the only mention of health care, an issue that was featured so prominently two years ago, given that this sermon was just a few hours before the House passed the health care bill.)

The major initiatives are about food and technology. David A.M. Wilensky has already weighed in on the technology part, so I’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to say about food; I’ll just focus on two points.

First, kudos to Rabbi Yoffie for endorsing flexitarianism (though he didn’t use that word). “Flexitarian”, the American Dialect Society’s 2003 Word of the Year, refers to someone who isn’t fully vegetarian but eats mostly vegetarian. There are different reasons for not eating meat, and a flexitarian lifestyle makes sense under some of these but not others. If you’re vegetarian because of a categorical opposition to eating meat, then being flexitarian doesn’t make sense, since eating any amount of meat is wrong. But even if you’re not opposed in general to eating meat, there are solid reasons for eating less meat than the standard American diet, mostly based on the effects of meat consumption. And if two people cut their meat consumption in half, that has the same effect as one person becoming fully vegetarian.

Rabbi Yoffie lays out some of the reasons for meat reductionism:

My proposal is this: let’s make a Jewish decision to reduce significantly the amount of red meat that we eat.
[M]eat consumption in North America has doubled in the last fifty years, and we can easily make do with far less red meat than we currently eat. And contrary to what many think, Jews are not obligated to eat meat on Shabbat and holidays. The Talmud suggests that fish and garlic are the foods that we should serve to honor Shabbat (Shabbat 118b); it also instructs us to eat meat in modest quantities (Hullin 84a). Remember too that in biblical Israel, the common diet consisted of barley bread, vegetables, and fruit, along with milk products and honey. My point is this: for the first 2,500 years of our 3,000 year history, Jews consumed meat sparingly, and we can surely do the same.

And we must. The meat industry today generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change throughout the world. According to a U.N. report, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all transportation sources combined. And the preparation of beef meals requires about fifteen times the amount of fossil fuel energy than meat-free meals.
Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing our collective meat consumption by twenty percent would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. And this twenty percent reduction is something that every one of us - every Jew, every family, every synagogue - can do.
Perhaps we can begin by offering some Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders that will delight with their variety, creativity, and taste, and that will be a model for our members of healthy, festive, meat-free meals.

This is a way that non-vegetarians can make a real difference in our environmental impact and our use of resources. Vegetarian meals are already standard at public functions throughout much of independent progressive Jewish culture; this would be a welcome shift if the URJ brings it into mainstream Jewish institutions as well.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon goes downhill after that:

What about kashrut? This is not about kashrut. There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part, and we deeply respect their choice. But it is not a choice that the great majority of us want to make.

In fact, the rejection of kashrut was long a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism. Kauffman Kohler, an early leader of the Movement, proclaimed that “Judaism is a matter of conscience, not cuisine.” Ours is an ethically-based tradition, and Reform leaders saw no connection between the intricate rules of kashrut and ethical behavior. Sadly, for too much of the kashrut industry, this disconnect still exists; in recent years, kashrut authorities have failed in their duty to treat workers, immigrants, and animals with compassion and justice. For that reason, we applaud the Conservative movement for creating a new system of kosher certification that takes ethical factors into account.

Nonetheless, we - as a Movement - have put kashrut aside, and kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment, and its problems are for others to resolve.

What is he trying to accomplish here? Is this just a “No Ortho” disclaimer to preempt reactions along the lines of “I’m Reform, so you can’t tell me what not to eat”? Or is there something more to it?

The reason I find this problematic is, of course, framing. One could advocate for the exact same practices, but frame it differently, and the way Rabbi Yoffie framed it seems like a big missed opportunity.

He does note that ethical eating is about “what is proper and fit to eat”, a translation of “kashrut”:

But we do now realize that we need an approach of our own–our own definition of what is proper and fit to eat. Because our ethical commitments remain firm, and we understand - as we did not a century ago - that Jewish eating has a profoundly ethical dimension. We now know that God cares what we eat, and that eating can be an entrance to holiness. We now see that when we eat with mindfulness, even the humblest meal can become a sacred act.

But rather than framing this sacred eating as a form of kashrut (cf. the framing of “eco-kashrut” and the “Hekhsher Tzedek”), he frames it as “not kashrut”, with no connection to the dietary laws in the Torah and Talmud (which are part of the textual heritage of all Reform Jews, regardless of practice). He could instead have framed it as a modern application of those laws — not only in the general category of sacred eating, but in some of the specifics. For example, I see a strong connection between my kashrut observance and my meat reductionism, and find that one reinforces the other. Kashrut sharply limits what meat I can eat (I can’t just pick up a McDonald’s hamburger, or french fries for that matter), makes meat less accessible and more expensive (more accurately reflecting the true cost of meat consumption), and makes me think twice about eating meat even when I have kosher meat available to me (since it means no dairy concurrently or for a while afterwards). The original kashrut in Leviticus 17 restricted meat consumption even more, limiting it to sacrifices (until Deuteronomy came along and loosened the rules). (To have a brief “No Ortho” moment of my own, I find that these restrictions on meat, which I think of as being at the center of kashrut, lose some of their power if everything, even vegetables, can be considered “not kosher” based on where it was cooked or whether it’s broccoli. But that’s not an important point.) So when Rabbi Yoffie cites texts supporting meat reductionism, it’s strange that he doesn’t include the Torah’s most obvious example of a structure limiting meat consumption. This structure can be an inspiration for modern efforts at meat reductionism, whether or not those modern efforts incorporate specifics of that classical structure.

Rather than framing kashrut as something that has multiple approaches (which might include vegetarianism, eco-kashrut, the inaccurately named “Biblical kashrut”, etc.), Rabbi Yoffie says “There are many Reform Jews who find meaning in the observance of kashrut, wholly or in part”, suggesting (again) that there is a well-defined external definition of “wholly” observing kashrut, and that other kashrut practices are merely “in part”, and everyone’s kashrut practice is on a linear spectrum from 0 to 100.

Of course I agree with his condemnation of Agriprocessors et al., but when he (as the leader of the largest Jewish denomination in North America) implicitly equates kashrut with “the kashrut establishment” (see the parallelism in “…kashrut is not the issue for us. We do not accept the authority of the kashrut establishment…”), he also grants power to that establishment and in a sense does accept its authority, in the sense that he does not challenge the connection between kashrut and that establishment.

Also, the frame of “rejection of kashrut” is strange in the 21st century. As Rabbi Yoffie notes, the majority of Reform Jews don’t keep kosher. This means that the majority of Reform Jews in this generation (unlike in Kaufmann Kohler’s generation) can’t “reject” kashrut, since they didn’t have it in the first place. See this post and this post for more discussion of this point.

Oddly enough, if Reform congregations follow Rabbi Yoffie’s recommendations and hold more vegetarian events, they’ll actually be more accessible to people with various kashrut practices, though this is apparently just incidental.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

One year later

So show us why we came here
Before we lay on the ground
Give it to us loud and clear
Make the devil turn around

The world around me’s turning
I’m just standing still
The time has come for changes
Do something or we will

--Phish, "Crowd Control"

(This is directed not only to the Obama administration, but to the "filibuster-proof" U.S. Senate majority, the Democratic majority in the New York Senate, and anyone else I helped elect on promises of change.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Choice through knowledge

[UPDATE: Some people were confused about this, so I should clarify that "really" in this post is used in the sense of "actually", not in the sense of "very".]

Mazal tov to Yeshivat Hadar on getting their year-round full-time program up and running! This article in the New York Jewish Week is chock full of things to comment on, but I'll leave the full-scale fisking to someone else. Rather than discuss the inaccuracies in the article ("the entire Hadar movement", "l'shma") or the dreadful framing (do the men wear pants too? it doesn't say), I'm going to focus narrowly on one point, and in the process piss off just about everyone.

Look at this paragraph:

Making decisions about practices that are in accordance with normative Jewish law and with contemporary egalitarianism is “not as simple as opening a Shulchan Oruch,” the Code of Jewish Law that serves as a basic reference for many observant Jews, Rabbi Kaunfer says. The yeshiva’s students, he says, are encouraged to seek their own answers, in consultation with their teachers at the yeshiva, not to simply ask a rabbinic authority to make rulings for them. “Our gedolim [recognized authorities] are the rabbis of the Talmud and the Mishna.”

We'll ignore the "observant Jews" framing, which I'll assume isn't a direct quote from Kaunfer, and the juxtaposition of the reporter's transcription of "Shulchan Oruch" with "not the Ashkenazi pronunciation heard in most Orthodox yeshivot", and focus on the substance.

I've spent much of the last few years fending off the allegation that Kehilat Hadar is "really Conservative" (see, e.g., here and here and here and in the comments here and here and here), so now I'm going to do something truly irresponsible and suggest that, based on this paragraph, one could argue that Yeshivat Hadar is "really Reform". After all, this paragraph provides a succinct formulation of the Reform doctrine of informed autonomy. And even if that bears little similarity to what goes on in Reform communities, a central piece of the "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" argument is "They're practicing true Conservative Judaism even if most Conservative congregations and their members aren't", so this is no different, mutatis mutandis.

Ok, I don't entirely believe that myself (not least because I don't think it's useful or meaningful to say that someone or something is "really X" when they don't identify themselves as such, but not only for that reason), and was just throwing it out there to play devil's advocate. But even if it's not true, I think it's still a valuable intellectual exercise to have to argue why it's not true. (And when you're done, I leave it as an exercise to figure out why I don't think it's true, which may not be the same reasons as yours. E.g., it certainly isn't because they daven in Hebrew. See this post for some hints.)

But there's another reason I'm introducing this meme (albeit immediately retracting it). The "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" meme, though problematic, is useful for one purpose: it gets Conservative communities to look in the mirror and say "There's no reason we couldn't try that here." Likewise, I hope a "Yeshivat Hadar is really Reform" meme might prompt some Reform communities to do the same. Serious text study to enable laypeople to make informed decisions about their individual practice should be the bread and butter of the Reform movement. It should be an embarrassment to the Reform movement, with all its buildings, staff, money, and longevity, that it's being beaten at what should be its own game by a 3-year-old startup organization operating in rented space. So perhaps Yeshivat Hadar's proof of concept will inspire others to think bigger.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Framing in the Forward

This week's issue of the Forward includes an oped on framing and liberal Judaism:

For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

If you got to Mah Rabu via the Forward, welcome! Here are some other posts that address framing issues.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Outer planets update

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Back in January, we posted about the contest to come up with Hebrew names for the planets Uranus and Neptune, as part of the International Year of Astronomy. Some of you may have submitted entries. The finalists have now been announced!!!

The two contenders for the planet hereunto known as Uranus are:

  • Oron - “The name means ‘little light’ , and it hints at the faint light of the planet as seen from Earth due to its great distance from the sun. The name Oron sounds similar to the foreign name [Uranus] and helps in remembering it.”
  • Shahak - “The proposal follows the meaning of the name Uranus, the name of the god of heaven. In Hebrew tradition there is no parallel name for the god of heaven (besides the name of the Supreme God). The word ’shehakim’, in rabbinic literature, indicates one of the seven firmaments, and is also found in our Hebrew, and thus the singular form Shahak is appropriate as a proper name for the planet.”

And for Neptune:

  • Rahav - “The proposal follows the meaning of the name Neptune - the name of the god of the sea. The name parallel to it in Jewish tradition is Rahav - the name of the master of the sea. Thus, for example, the Babylonian Talmud explains the verse [JPS translation: 'By His power He stilled the sea; By His skill He struck down Rahab'] (Job 26:12) as describing the victory of the master of the sea. The name Rahav bears mythological connotations like the Latin name.”
  • Tarshish - “This is the name of one of the stones of the breastplate [Exodus 28:20] whose Aramaic translation (Onkelos) is ‘the color of the sea’ (among other opinions) — and this is also Neptune’s color as seen from Earth — bluish-green. ‘Tarshish’ is also connected to the sea in its other biblical use: the name of a place on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, whose identification is not certain (recall the flight of Jonah the prophet to Tarshish). And on the phrase ‘the ships of Tarshish’, Rashi says ‘Tarshish - name of a sea’. In rabbinic literature and in liturgical poetry ‘Tarshish’ is a synonym for sea, and also a name of angels. Thus the name Tarshish combines the connection to the sea (like the Latin name) and the mythological foundation (angels).”

I was one of 25 entrants (including an 8th-grade class in Netanya) who submitted “Shahak” for Uranus, and congratulations to ADDeRabbi, one of 15 people who submitted “Rahav” for Neptune!

So the next step is voting! The vote is being conducted online. Unfortunately for those of us outside Israel, the ballot asks for a te’udat zehut (ID number), so only Israeli citizens can vote. If you’re eligible, vote!!! The fate of two planets is in your hands. The winners will be announced in December at the conclusion of the International Year of Astronomy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fifteen minutes

The Jewschool version of my last post was linked from the official Talk Like A Pirate Day website!!!

Also, the Howard Dean town hall I went to the other day has been making the news, particularly his harsh words for the ridiculous Baucus bill.

Speaking of Baucus: Today I got to see President Obama at a health care rally at the University of Maryland. (Living in the DC area is great!) As DailyKosTV reports, the crowd wildly cheered the public option, and booed the Baucus bill. I think I was the one who initiated the Baucus-booing! But as you can hear from the video, it took just a fraction of a second to spread around the whole arena, so there is overwhelming sentiment in favor of real health care reform.

Obama's speech at the rally had much of the same content as his speech last week to Congress, but he threw in other stuff specific to the college student audience, including a nod to the bill passed today by the House to fix student loans and financial aid. Obama was introduced by a UMD student who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was able to receive treatment that has been successful so far because she was on her parents' insurance, but will need expensive medication for the rest of her life and is going to be shit out of luck when she's out in the world trying to buy her own insurance (due to her preexisting condition) if we don't fix health care now. Let's do it!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Shanah tovah, matey!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Here at Jewschool, we have covered many calendrical confluences, from the total lunar eclipse on Purim to Birkat Hachamah on Erev Pesach to Ice Cream For Breakfast Day on Tu Bishvat. But all of those pale in comparison to the big one that we’ve been awaiting for years: Rosh Hashanah on International Talk Like A Pirate Day!!!

The 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah fell on September 19, 2001, but that was before The Onion gave us permission to laugh again, so talking like a pirate was the last thing on our minds at the time. Other than that, this year is the first combined Rosh Hashanah / TLAPD since TLAPD was founded in 1995. The next time will be in 2020.

So, to help us prepare for this rare conjunction, here are 10 ways to incorporate Talk Like A Pirate Day into the Rosh Hashanah liturgy:
1) (the obvious one) sound the shofARRRRR!
2) …made from rams stolen from another ship
3) (in communities that read Genesis 21) read the story of HagARRRRRR!
4) (in communities that read Genesis 22 on the first or only day) …al echad heHARRRRRim … vaYARRRRRR et hamakom meirachok.
5) Apples and honey can prevent scurvy.
6) …et yom hazikARRRRRRon hazeh…
7) Throw your enemies overboard for tashlich.
8 ) The HadARRRRR CD is sold out, so get a PIRATED copy.
9) Show up without a ticket.
10) Who shall live and who shall die, who by sword and who by walking the plank! ARRRRRR!!!

If you can’t wait until 2020 to do it all over again, Talk Like A Pirate Day 2013 is the first day of Sukkot; start practicing your lulav swordfights! Also it will be none other than Yom Kippur in 2018; I totally want to lein Jonah that year.

Marriage in generalized coordinates

As I mentioned, wedding-related posts are coming at some point. In the meantime, some meta notes on the topic: liberal/egalitarian Jewish marriage is in a period of ferment. If our evolving civilization is characterized by punctuated equilibrium, we are very much between equilibria at least in this particular area. In a few decades or so, I think things may settle down, but in the meantime, there's no universal standard of how to effect an egalitarian Jewish marriage, either practically or conceptually, and the options are multiplying. This means that everyone who gets married has significant decisions to make. The other night I was speaking to someone else who recently got married, and they were talking about the decisions they had made about these ritual matters, based on the specific constraints of their situation.

I should note that my day job currently includes thinking about Lagrangian mechanics. That night, I got up to use the bathroom, but was still mostly asleep, and in the moments my thoughts were adrift, with the Kiddushin Variations intermingling with the calculus of variations, I had an insight that seemed profound at the same time, and in the morning seemed less profound but still worth blogging:

Devising an egalitarian Jewish wedding ceremony is a variational problem. We each have different constraints, and the goal is to find a trajectory that gets us from the initial point to the final point and (at least locally) extremizes the action. Part of the task that each couple undergoes is choosing the appropriate generalized coordinates that take these constraints into account, and then formulating their Lagrangian. Unfortunately, at that point there are no Euler-Lagrange equations to simplify the calculations (and in any case, the equations of motion aren't solvable analytically), so instead we just have to choose and compare possible trajectories by hand.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Tonight I got to see Gov. Howard Dean at a health care "town hall meeting" at Busboys and Poets, where he was answering questions about health care from host Kojo Nnamdi and the audience, and signing his book.

This is the question I would have asked, but by the time I thought of it, the line to ask questions was too long, so I didn't bother:

A major argument for the public option is that it provides more competition. Some opponents of the public option have argued that it's not a fair competition, because the government has the ability to subsidize the public option to make it more attractive than private insurance. I want to ask the opposite question: Assuming the public option passes, how do we prevent a future Congress (beholden to the health insurance industry) from deliberately crippling the public option in order to benefit private insurance companies?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Recombobulation Area

Sorry I haven't been posting. My only excuse is that I've been busy with just about every type of life transition. A few months ago I was an unmarried high school teacher living in New York, and now I'm a married graduate student, college TA, and rebbetzin living in Maryland (a few feet, or a few inches, from the District of Columbia, depending on where in the apartment I'm standing). And the last time I spent two straight weeks in one place was in May, and (as weddings give way to chagim) the next time won't be until (at least) October.

Now that relative stability is in sight, life feels like this picture I took on Sunday at the Milwaukee airport (immediately after going through the "security" line):

So more regular blogging may return at some point. I know some readers were hoping for posts about weddings, and at some point we'll write up what we did, how, and why. In brief: bilateral kiddushin bishtar with tenaim making each kiddushin dependent on the other, symbolic shutafut-style lifting of a bag of rings, and bilateral kinyan sudar with the rings to acquire the obligations of the ketubah. To learn what all those terms mean, stick around for future posts.

In the meantime, with the holidays coming up soon, a related update on a topic near and dear to Mah Rabu: Under the chuppah, in addition to the rings that belonged to my great-great-grandparents Natalie (Hamburger) and Rabbi Leo Baeck (who were married in 1899; the story of how the rings got out of Nazi Germany is undoubtedly spectacular, but no one is alive to tell it), we used two family kiddush cups, one that belonged to my wife's grandfather Abe Richman, and one that belonged to my great-great-great-great-grandfather Rabbi Adolf Wiener (1811-1895). (Yes, in my family tree a Wiener married a Hamburger, foreshadowing their great-great-great-grandson's vegetarian home.) I was inspired by this to google Rabbi Wiener. I knew he had written some books, so I thought he might turn up somewhere, and sure enough, he shows up in the old public-domain Jewish Encyclopedia.

According to his article there, "he advocated ... the abolition of all second days of festivals". So it turns out that, in past posts when I explained my practice of one-day yom tov as minhag avoteinu by describing myself as a "fifth-generation Reform Jew", I wasn't telling the whole truth. I am actually (at least) the seventh generation of my family that has held one day of yom tov!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Overheard at Institute

"What are we going to do on Thursday night?"
"Rock the fuck out!"
"Pshita! But..."

Jeremiah was a fellowship, he was a good friend of mine

If you're in the DC area and meet the qualifications, this new fellowship, named after one of our greatest prophets, is a fantastic opportunity! Here's the blurb:


Jews United for Justice is proud to partner with the Progressive Jewish Alliance to bring an exciting new social justice training program to DC!
The Jeremiah Fellowship educates and trains a select cohort of young adults (ages 25-35) to become the next generation of Jewish social justice change makers.

  • Empower yourself through in-depth training in professional and leadership skills .
  • Expand your knowledge of what Jewish text, tradition, and history have to say about putting ethics into action.
  • Acquire tangible organizing and activism skills within a Jewish context.
  • Explore pressing social, political, and economic issues facing our region.
  • Become a member of a lasting community of vibrant and engaged leaders.
  • Access a dynamic network of organizers, advocates, rabbis, artists, and renowned scholars.

During the nine-month course, Fellows come together twice monthly to learn different models of putting ethics and values into action, for intimate conversations with leaders in Washington's Jewish and social justice worlds, and for intensive study of Jewish history and texts. Two Fellowship retreats during the year offer in-depth training in professional and leadership skills, study of Jewish tradition and history, and intensive community-building activities. Participants leave the Fellowship with concrete skills in community organizing, activism, and grassroots fundraising, better equipped to pursue their own volunteer work and careers in the social justice field.

We are seeking creative, dynamic, and engaged young Jews who are:

  • Already volunteer leaders or have leadership potential
  • Passionate about making our community better
  • Actively interested in building community
  • Committed to using the skills gained through the Fellowship

The Fellowship is committed to the diversity of each cohort, and believes that a breadth of experience adds to the richness of the program. People of all Jewish backgrounds are encouraged to apply, and prior knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish texts is not required.

Applications for the Jeremiah Fellowship will be considered on a rolling basis, with a final deadline of September 8th. Submit your application as soon as possible for the best chance of acceptance. For more information and to download an application, go here.

You can also call the JUFJ office at 202-408-1423 or email jeremiah at jufj dot org.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Desperate measures

One solution to not having the kitchen fully set up yet:

Fast for 25 hours!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Goodbye New York, hello Maryland!

This is Mah Rabu's first post from its new home just a few feet away from the District of Columbia!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Still no Bacon number, though

Today's xkcd inspired me to investigate my own Erdos number, and I have determined that it is at most 7!

According to this site, Rudolph Marcus (winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) is 4.
Therefore, John R. Miller is 5, Andrew R. Cook is 6, and I'm 7!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cesspool on the Potomac

This summer, Mah Rabu is relocating its base of operations to the DC area! More precise details on when and where are still to be determined.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

על ידי חופה וקידושין

Assuming an egalitarian* Jewish paradigm, what do you see as the conceptual differences between kiddushin (eirusin) and nisuin? Should there be a difference?

* defined here as one in which there is no substantive distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex marriage

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


The new Koren Sacks Siddur (which is, apart from the nitpicking in this post, an impressive work) has a section in the back entitled "A Halakhic Guide to Prayer for Visitors to Israel". Among other things, this includes the various opinions regarding what 2-day-yom-tov observers should do about yom tov when they're in Israel. One of these opinions is (in part):
On the day after Shemini Atzeret (Simhat Torah in the Diaspora, Isru Hag in Israel), one abstains from labor, but says weekday (or Shabbat) prayers (putting on tefillin in the morning, if not Shabbat).

5 points to the first person who catches the error.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Conspiracy Unmasked

For the last four years, I've been certain that my students had never discovered this blog. The reason I was so certain was that I figured if the students had seen it, they wouldn't keep quiet about it (but, rather, would be quick to show off their sleuthing). Therefore, by the contrapositive, since I hadn't heard any students talking about the blog, I could be sure they hadn't found it. QED.

Then today, my last day teaching high school for the foreseeable future (last day of classes, that is; we still have exams and such), two students (graduating seniors) told me that they had been enjoying my blog. As in, they've been aware of it for some time (they may even be reading this post) and hadn't mentioned it until now. So I had underestimated their self-control, and/or forgotten that seniors aren't the same as freshmen.

There isn't actually anything incriminating here. As I've said from the beginning, there has always been a possibility that students would find this blog, and even though I don't use my real name on the blog, it's not particularly anonymous (there are plenty of places elsewhere on the Internet that connect my name to this blog). So I don't talk smack here about my students, colleagues, or supervisors, and I don't discuss anything personal that I would worry about falling into the wrong hands. So the biggest consequence of this discovery is that it means the students will find out that teachers have lives outside of school. But it's ok, since they're about to graduate anyway.

Lesson for teachers: Never underestimate your students.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Soon by you

Being engaged means that, at family weddings, when people say "You're next!!!", it doesn't come off as obnoxious anymore, but just as factual.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Phish 6/4/09 Jones Beach: commentary

So first of all, my predictions were completely off. It seems that my whole premise (picking songs that hadn't been played since the second hiatus) was off; I only got 3 songs right, and 2 of them were among the 3 I chose that had been played since the hiatus. In the actual setlist, the only songs that hadn't been played since the hiatus (besides Drowned, which I nailed) were Dirt and Meatstick.

Even my realtime predictions were wrong; during Ghost, I could have sworn that they were teasing Seven Below, but they didn't go there.

I was right about the ocean/beach theme, though wrong about the specifics. In addition to Drowned ("Let me get back to the ocean / Let me get back to the sea"), there was Squirming Coil ("Tried yesterday to get away and hitchhiked to the beach"), NICU ("A slipper of sand dollar day at the shore"), Punch You In The Eye ("I come from the land where the oceans freeze /
Spent three long months on the open seas", etc.), and Water in the Sky ("Rising tides and ocean walls"; this song was also no doubt connected to the rain that fell throughout the first set, though by the time they played it to open the second set, the rain had stopped).

Anyway, beyond this little game, it was an amazing show. Phish is really back! Since they've been gone for almost 5 years, I wasn't sure what to expect as far as the scene. I've always had an arm's-length relationship with the scene. I'm into veggie quesadillas, but I don't use drugs or alcohol. (Though if I had to choose between being surrounded by drunk people or stoned people, I'd definitely pick the stoned people. And I'd choose the smell of pot smoke over the smell of cigarette smoke.) The people who changed our flat tire at Coventry get a thumbs up; the people who push and litter get a thumbs down. Anyway, as soon as we arrived in the parking lot, I couldn't get over my shock. It was as if the last 5 years had never happened -- everything was back as it always was (for good and for ill, though probably not as much for ill). I was sort of expecting everyone to be 5 years older (and certainly, many of us are), and figured that the 18-year-olds wouldn't be there, since they were 13 when Phish last played and wouldn't have heard of it. Nope - they were there, and fully acculturated. How did that happen? Have they been selling grilled cheese in the lots of other bands during the interim?

As far as the music, my relationship is not so arm's-length. And all five members of the band were really on. They went to 11 on Divided Sky, which seems to be continuing to develop in that direction - that was how I felt about the "last Divided Sky ever" at the Tweeter Center 8/11/04. Drowned is by The Who, which already went to 11 on everything, so I'd have to say that Phish took it to 13. (So much that the Live Phish release split it into "Drowned" and "Jones Beach Jam". This seems arbitrary, since Ghost also had a Type II jam, but is just listed as a single track. I think it's for copyright reasons -- Drowned is a cover of someone else's song, but Phish can claim Jones Beach Jam as their own composition.) I approve of the two new songs (Ocelot and Time Turns Elastic), and I'll have to listen to them more (especially the latter) to really get them.

Next stop Maryland 8/15/09!

Phish 6/4/09 Jones Beach: setlist

The Divided Sky
Squirming Coil
Punch You In The Eye

Water in the Sky
Birds of a Feather
Drowned >
Time Turns Elastic
You Enjoy Myself

Rock and Roll

* glowsticks

Commentary to come later. For now, just wow.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Phish 6/4/09 Jones Beach: predictions

A Song I Heard The Ocean Sing
The Wedge
Fast Enough For You
Scents and Subtle Sounds
The Divided Sky

Walls of the Cave
The Lizards
Billy Breathes
Col. Forbin's Ascent
The Famous Mockingbird
Run Like An Antelope
Golgi Apparatus

The Mango Song

(All but three songs on this list have not been played since the second hiatus.)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Chicken over rice

I'm a frequent enough patron of the halal food truck near where I work that they recognize me and know my order (falafel). I don't eat the meat, but I find myself wondering about it as an intellectual question. I don't have enough information to answer the question, and even if I were to answer it in the affirmative, I'm not sure I would actually act on it -- as a flexitarian meat-reductionist, I don't feel like I need to give myself more opportunities to eat meat. But it's still an interesting question to ponder.

As I understand it, kosher meat and halal meat both must be slaughtered by a particular process and the processes are similar, and both must have the blood removed. So the question is: can someone who keeps kosher eat halal meat (from a kosher species)?

The most obvious answer is "No, of course not!" This is because kosher meat must be slaughtered by a Jew, a requirement that is obviously not met by halal meat. But what if we weren't concerned about this particular requirement? This change might be motivated by a sense of inclusion: Muslims are "people of the book" (as it were), and their slaughter is also performed in the name of the One God, and not idolatry. Or it might be motivated by the opposite sentiment: outside of Hazon conferences, liberal Jewish communities generally don't do their own slaughter, and so the Jews who slaughter the meat that we eat are far outside our communities, and are so alien that it wouldn't make much of a difference if they were Muslim. Or some linear combination of both reasons. So if this requirement were to be lifted, would it be ok to eat halal meat?

For beef or lamb, the answer is still no. In mammals, the gid hanasheh (sciatic nerve) and cheilev (the fats that would have been offered on the altar) are not kosher and must be removed. (This is done by the butcher before selling the meat.) Halal meat has no such rules, and therefore must be under the presumption of containing these forbidden parts. Most of us casual meat-eaters can't look at meat and identify what part of the animal it comes from (especially when it's in shwarma form).

But what about halal chicken? Gid hanasheh and cheilev don't apply to birds, and my recollection is that the regulations for slaughtering birds are less strict than for mammals. So the question is whether the procedure for slaughtering halal birds would qualify under the rules of slaughtering kosher birds, and likewise for the procedures for removing blood from halal/kosher meat. I can't answer these questions; I haven't studied shechitah in any depth (beyond the Mishnah, and that was a long time ago), and don't know the specifics of halal slaughter. (And if I'm going to study any masechet in the next few months, it's going to be Kiddushin.) So can anyone with more knowledge on the subject weigh in on this question?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fallen tabernacle

I returned today from the 8th (my 6th) Hadar Shavuot Retreat, and I have a couple questions about the davening culture at Hadar that I've been meaning to ask for a while.

  • When the Carlebach Mi Chamochah is sung at Hadar in the morning, the standard way it is broken up into lines is:

    Tehilot le-Eil Elyon, baruch hu umvorach
    Mosheh uvnei Yisraeil
    Lecha anu shirah
    Besimchah rabah ve-ameru chulam
    Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai
    Mi kamochah ne'dar bakodesh

    Nora tehilot oseh fele
    Shira chadashah shibechu ge'ulim
    Leshimcha al sefat hayam
    Yachad kulam hodu ve-himlichu ve-ameru
    Adonai yimloch le'olam va'ed
    Yai dai dai dai dai dai dai...

    And the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the last three lines has always mystified me. Why jam lots of syllables into the antepenultimate line, only to have extra beats left over for yai dai dai? Why not just

    Yachad kulam hodu
    Ve-himlichu ve-ameru
    Adonai yimloch le'olam va'ed

  • Melodies go through cycles of popularity. This is in part influenced by ordinary use -- if a particular melody is used successfully, it might be emulated by other shelichei tzibbur and slowly gain popularity; on the other hand, it might also become overused and then (silently) deprecated. A melody can also be placed on the fast track through mass exposure if it is taught in a large-group setting such as the Shavuot Retreat or the melody classes preceding the High Holidays. When a melody becomes popular, it's often possible to trace a mechanism by which it spreads. But I was away from New York and Hadar for a year (2007-08), so whatever happened during that year is outside my firsthand experience. So can someone explain what the deal is with "Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim"? Don't get me wrong, I like it and I use it. But I generally use it only in instances that call for a specific mood, e.g. the Three Weeks, and that's the type of situation where I had previously encountered it in davening (e.g. selichot). And then I come back to Hadar in summer 2008, and Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim is everywhere! It's just become a stock "slow" niggun, seemingly stripped of its specific associations. So I'm just curious how and when this happened.

And another question that isn't specific to Hadar:

  • I noticed a few weeks ago that Amos 9:11 says "sukkat David hanofelet". And "hanofelet" has an etnachta, so if there were a special pausal form of this word, it would already be there. So why do some benchers say (in birkat hamazon) "hanofalet"? Is it just a hypercorrection? The actual Tanakh text is presumably authoritative.

    A quick survey of some of the benchers in my apartment shows that the bencher population is distributed fairly randomly:

    Nofelet: B'Kol Echad, B'Osher Ashir, L'chu N'ran'nah, Livnot, Mizmor Shir, UJA, Yedid Nefesh, Zimrat Yah
    Nofalet: Ain Sof, Anim Zemirot, Artscroll, Eit Hazamir Higiyah [sic], Kolot, Limmud, Nevarech, Zemirot Yomeiru

    And that's just benchers; I didn't even get started with siddurim.

This last item isn't really a question:

  • At havdalah on the Shavuot Retreat, everyone got an individual teabag for besamim. At that point, everyone in my section simultaneously got the idea that this havdalah felt like it had been sponsored by Fox News. Of course, this probably wasn't Hadar's fault, because Hadar plans things well in advance, so this had likely been in the works before it had been usurped by the astroturfers. But it plays into a larger trend, since it is reminiscent of the fiasco at the 2005 Shavuot Retreat, when Hadar gave out free Nalgene-style bottles. A great souvenir, with just one problem: the bottles (and the folders for that retreat) were orange, so we couldn't be caught in public with them for many months afterward. Again, not Hadar's fault: the color scheme was inspired by The Gates, and the bottles and folders had been ordered well before the anti-disengagement movement took root. The point is this: time and again, the Hadar Shavuot team has shown an uncanny ability to predict the next inane right-wing meme (or at least the superficial symbols associated with it). They should start thinking of ways to capitalize on this. Does Intrade have a category for what color or prop will be waved in the protests against Obama's second-term agenda in spring 2013?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hanhu chavurata #6

We've gotten word of many more stories in the independent minyan world since last fortnight's column!

  • This week's top story is Los Angeles's newest prayer community, the Westside Minyan. Founded by people who moved west from New York, it is modeled after Kol Zimrah: full liturgy, guitar accompaniment, mostly singing, two-table potluck, etc. The Westside Minyan is actually the second minyan in LA that can claim lineal descent from Kol Zimrah: Minyan Malei Shirah was inspired by Kol Zimrah Jerusalem z"l (which was founded by people from the original Kol Zimrah in New York, but had a different style from the beginning, hence the two styles now coexisting in LA). As far as I know, there is no connection to the West Side Minyan on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (the minyan founded in the '70s that later became a part of Congregation Ansche Chesed and spun off Minyan M'at).
  • In my hometown of Chicago, this past Friday night was the first meeting of the brand-new apartment minyan in Lakeview, a neighborhood with a hopping Jewish scene. It's so new that it doesn't have a name yet, but one of the founders wants to call it Mitzpeh Yam (i.e. Lakeview, or perhaps Seaview, but it's a Great Lake).
  • We also hear that there are new minyanim in Charlottesville, Virginia (home of the University of Virginia) and Princeton Junction, New Jersey (home of the Dinky). That's all we know so far.
  • Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a "10+10" minyan: they define a quorum as 10 men and 10 women. (This requires twice as many people as either an egal minyan or a conventional non-egal minyan.) For large minyanim that have this policy, such as Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, a quorum is always present anyway. Smaller "10+10" minyanim can be put to the test when they have to decide what it means for them if they don't have 10 of each: Do they continue as if there is a minyan? Do they continue as if there is no minyan? Do they wait indefinitely? We have previously linked to an account of one minyan's struggle with this issue (the Mission Minyan in San Francisco). Because Tehillah has not always had 20 people of the appropriate genders, they called a town hall meeting for last night to determine what to do in this case. No word yet on the results.
  • What we reported last time about the bike ride home from the Hadar Shavuot Retreat was too good to be true; the bike ride was cancelled due to insufficient registration. The same cannot be said for the retreat itself; as usual, it has sold out and there is a waiting list. For some reason, people don't seem to want to bike 50 miles so soon after staying up all night.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Hanhu chavurata #5

After a long hiatus, the independent minyan gossip column is back!

  • The next big thing in the Boston area is the temporarily-named JP Minyan (not affiliated with JP Morgan), in the southern Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. JP is a booming area where many young Jews are moving but where not much organized Jewish activity has been happening yet. The new minyan, which has met twice so far, meets on the first Friday night of the month in participants' apartments for services and a potluck Shabbat dinner, and people are explicitly invited to come for either or both.
  • Moving further south, to the demilitarized border region between DC and Maryland known to (some of) its residents as "Sheish Esrei Elyon" (Upper 16th St): Minyan Segulah will meet for the first time this coming Shabbat morning. This new project's name alludes to the inchoate Purple Line (currently locked in a tight competition with New York's Second Avenue Subway; which will be finished later?). Segulah will be meeting three times over the next few months in participants' homes for full-liturgy egalitarian services and Shabbat meals. Unlike JP, the neighborhoods of Shepherd Park and Silver Spring have a wide array of Jewish congregations of many flavors, and this adds another option to the mix.
  • Further down the pipeline, we hear that a new Friday night thing is starting up in Vancouver. That's all we know for now; let us know if you hear anything.
  • There's also something in the works for Shabbat morning in Center City Philadelphia, aiming to start on Shabbat Noach 5770 (October 2009).
  • Here in New York, Techiyah of Harlem has been a victim of its own success, attracting not only Harlem residents but people from Morningside Heights, the Upper West Side, and elsewhere. We hear that this has led to communal soul-searching, since the minyan strongly identifies with Harlem (the name means "Renaissance") and meets in apartments, but there is now a shortage of hosts who actually live in Harlem. Techiyah has begun exploring its boundaries and occasionally meeting west of Morningside Park or south of 110th St (though not both, rachamana litzlan).
  • People from all these communities and elsewhere will be gathering in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, which is 3 months away and filling up faster than ever. In a year when everyone predicted that attendance would be lower due to the economy, Institute registration has been counterintuitively countercyclical: 205 people have already signed up, and 4 courses are full. The Institute could actually sell out Franklin Pierce University this year! So if you're thinking about going, register ASAP if you want to guarantee a spot.
  • Not to be outdone, the Hadar Shavuot Retreat, in cooperation with Hazon, is offering a 50-mile bike ride as one option to get back from the retreat to New York City. I'm so there (and, given today's rain, glad in the end that I didn't register in time for the Five Boro Bike Tour).