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.