Sunday, December 25, 2011

Winter is coming

In honor of Rosh Chodesh Tevet.  (You'll see why!)

Every Hebrew calendar geek knows the "ATBaSh" parlor trick, where if you know the day of the week of (almost) any Jewish holiday, you can quickly figure out the day of the week of (almost) any other holiday that year.  As we have blogged before, this works only for the period from Adar through Cheshvan.  Fortunately, that period includes all of the major holidays, and a few minor ones too.  But it doesn't cover the minor holidays that fall during the winter, and that's what this post will seek to do.


The trick dates back at least to the Tur (14th century) and it works like this:  Take the first six days of Pesach in a given year (note that the period from Adar to Cheshvan spans two Hebrew years, so we're looking at a given Gregorian year), and write the Hebrew alphabet backwards, starting from the end.  You'll find that the corresponding holidays fall on the same day of the week as that day of Pesach.

1) תשעה באב = ת  Tish'ah B'Av is always exactly 16 weeks after the first day of Pesach.  (Also, 17 Tammuz is 3 weeks before 9 Av, and therefore the same day of the week.  When they fall on Shabbat, as they will in 2012, the actual observance is delayed to Sunday.)
2) שבועות = ש  Shavuot, by definition, is 7 weeks after the second day of Pesach.
3) ראש השנה = ר  Rosh Hashanah.  (Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are also on the same day of the week.)
4) קריאת התורה = ק  In communities that observe two days of Shemini Atzeret, this is "Simchat Torah" (on the second day of Shemini Atzeret).
5) צום כפור = צ  Yom Kippur (9 days after Rosh Hashanah, and therefore 2 days of the week later).  (Also, Tzom Gedaliah is 1 week before Yom Kippur and thus the same day of the week, except when it is delayed due to Shabbat.)
6) פורים = פ  Purim (in unwalled cities).

The original version just covered the first six days of Pesach, but the 7th day was added in the 20th century:

7) עצמאות = ע  Israeli Independence Day (at least before the Knesset starts mucking with the date).

It works so perfectly that one wonders whether this was the real reason that Ben-Gurion decided to declare independence a day before the British Mandate expired.

Other Israeli civil observances tied to the Hebrew calendar can also be located with this framework.  Yom Hashoah is always the same day of the week as Purim (again, before the Knesset reschedules it); to remember this, note that some have suggested that Yom Hashoah is the Purim story without Esther.  Yom Yerushalayim is exactly one week before Shavuot.

Finally, Lag Ba'Omer is also the same day of the week as Purim:  not hard to remember.

Rosh Hashanah can fall on only four days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Shabbat), and therefore all of these other days are also restricted to four days.  To figure out which four days, just use the relationships above.  For example, Shavuot is on the day (of the week) before Rosh Hashanah, so it can only fall on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.


During the winter months, it's not so simple.  This is because there are three variables that can cause the calendar to be different from one year to the next:
1) Cheshvan can have 29 or 30 days.
2) Kislev can have 29 or 30 days.
3) There can be one or two months of Adar.  (In leap years, Adar I is the "extra" month, and always has 30 days.)

In order to connect winter holidays to non-winter holidays, you need to know at least one of those three pieces of information.  To keep it as simple as possible, the mnemonics below will be for a year that goes from Tevet to Kislev.  (As a convenient and coincidental memory aid, this corresponds roughly to the Gregorian year, but not precisely:  10 Tevet can fall in either December or January.  Thus some Gregorian years have two Fasts of Tevet, and some have none.)  This way, you only have to know one additional variable: the number of days in Cheshvan (to expand forward into Kislev), or whether it's a leap year (to expand backward into Tevet and Sh'vat).

Let's start with days that depend only on whether it's a leap year, since that's something you're more likely to know off the top of your head.

Tu BiShvat:  In a leap year, it's on the same day of the week as Rosh Hashanah.  (Remember, this is the following Rosh Hashanah.)  In a non-leap year, it's on the same day as Yom Kippur.  Mnemonic:  New Year of the Trees.

Since Tu BiShvat is the same day as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, there are five possible days of the week when it can fall: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Shabbat.  (Neither Rosh Hashanah nor Yom Kippur can fall on Friday or Sunday.)

10 Tevet:  It's always one day (of the week) after Tu BiShvat. Mnemonic: Deuteronomy 20:19 says that when you besiege a city, you shouldn't cut down the trees.  Trees before siege.

Thus, 10 Tevet can also fall on five days of the week:  Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday.  As a guest post here discussed, this makes it the only fast day that can fall on a Friday.  As discussed there also, it can never fall on Shabbat, which makes the question of whether we would still fast purely hypothetical.


Finally, Chanukah.  It's complicated because whether Cheshvan has 29 or 30 days in a given year isn't something we're likely to know without looking up.  So here's a quick way to find that from information you're more likely to have handy (which just happens to also be the way it's determined in the calendar algorithm itself).

You need to know the day of the week of Rosh Hashanah this year and next year, and whether it's a leap year.  From the number of days in between, you can figure out how many days are in the year.  Non-leap years have 353, 354, or 355 days, and leap years have 383, 384, or 385 days, and it helps to remember that 350 and 385 are both divisible by 7.  If the year has 353, 354, 383, or 384 days, then Cheshvan has 29 days; if the year has 355 or 385 days, then Cheshvan has 30 days.

Once you know that, then you can find which day of the week Chanukah begins on.  If Cheshvan has 30 days, then Chanukah begins on the same day of the week as Rosh Hashanah (exactly 12 weeks later).  If Cheshvan has 29 days, then Chanukah begins one day earlier, on the same day of the week as Shavuot.  MnemonicApplesauce or sour cream?

Since Chanukah can begin on the same day as Rosh Hashanah or a day earlier, there are six days of the week when it can begin:  all of them except Tuesday, because years beginning on Tuesday can only have 354 or 384 days, so in those years, Cheshvan always has 29 days (so Chanukah begins on Monday).


To see this in action, let's use this year (5772) as an example.

Starting with Chanukah:  it's in 2011, so it goes with that set of holidays (Pesach on Tuesday, Rosh Hashanah on Thursday, etc.).  Did Cheshvan have 29 or 30 days?  Well, I know that Rosh Hashanah this year was on Thursday, and next year it's on a Monday, and this isn't a leap year.  From Thursday to Monday is a 4-day gap, so this year must have 350+4 = 354 days.  That means Cheshvan had 29 days.  So Chanukah began on the same day of the week as Shavuot (one day before Rosh Hashanah):  Wednesday.

For the minor holidays in Tevet and Sh'vat, we look instead at the upcoming holidays in 2012 (when Rosh Hashanah is on a Monday).  It's not a leap year, so Tu BiShvat is on the same day as Yom Kippur: Wednesday.  10 Tevet is one day later, on Thursday.

Chodesh tov!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The other question everyone is asking

Q: Is Parshat Mikeitz ever not read during Chanukah?

A: Yes, in 353- or 383-day years beginning on Shabbat.  The Shabbat start means that Bereishit isn't read until a full week after Shemini Atzeret (so the whole Torah reading cycle gets off to a relatively late start), and the deficient year (Cheshvan has 29 days) means that Chanukah comes sooner than otherwise.  In those years, the Shabbat during Chanukah (on day 2) is Vayeishev, and Mikeitz is the day after Chanukah ends.  (In 355- or 385-day years beginning on Shabbat, Cheshvan has 30 days, so Chanukah starts one day later, and contains two Shabbatot: Vayeishev and Mikeitz.)

Overall, this occurs in about 10% of years, but during the current decade, there's a drought.  The last time the actual haftarah for Mikeitz (the famous story of Solomon offering to cut the baby in half) was read was December 2000, and the next time will be December 2020.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Darkness falls across the land

Happy solstice festivals!  This year (as every year, but more so for some reason), a number of people have been asking this question: Why isn’t the earliest sunset on the date of the solstice? Indeed, the solstice this year is at 05:30 UT (12:30 am EST) on December 22, while the earliest sundown in many places (as many noticed, particularly Sabbath observers) was around two weeks earlier. (This depends on location, but here in the DC area, the earliest sundown was at 4:45 pm on December 7, while sundown on December 22 will be 4:49 pm.)

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “why”, and I’ll try to answer both interpretations of the question.

(I apologize to readers in the southern hemisphere that this post is written from a borealocentric perspective.  To apply it to the southern half of the globe, either change "December" to "June" (and switch around some of the specifics), or change "shortest" to "longest" and swap "earliest" with "latest".)

1) Phenomenological:  I thought the solstice was the shortest day! If the earliest sundown was on December 7, why don’t we call that the solstice?

The winter solstice is indeed the day with the shortest amount of daylight (i.e. the shortest time from sunrise to sunset).  But sunrise and sunset times don't move symmetrically.  During the fall, sunset times are getting earlier and sunrise times are getting later.  But after we hit the earliest sunset (sometime last fortnight), sunset starts getting later again (albeit slowly*), while sunrise continues getting later (somewhat faster).  Thus, the day is still getting shorter.  This continues until the solstice.  After the solstice, sunrise is still getting later but has slowed down, while sundown is also getting later and has sped up, so the day is getting longer.  Finally, sometime in early January, we get to the latest sunrise, after which sunrise starts getting earlier.

This is all easy to overlook since many of us, for a variety of reasons, are more attuned to sundown times than to sunrise times.

[* For those familiar with calculus, this makes sense if sunset time is a smooth function:  on the date of the earliest sunset time, its derivative is zero; therefore, near that date, its derivative must be small.]

For a concrete example:  Here in DC, sunrise on December 7 was 7:12 am (so the time from sunrise to sunset was 9 hours 33 minutes), and on December 22 it will be 7:23 am (so sunrise to sunset will be 9 hours 26 minutes, which is shorter!).  The latest sunrise in DC won't be until January 6, when it is 7:26 am.  (On that day, sunset will be as late as 5:00 pm, so sunrise to sunset will be 9 hours 34 minutes, longer than on the solstice.)

(Ok, technically the latest sunrise was actually 7:39 am the first weekend in November just before we "fell back", because this country is addicted to Daylight Saving Time and stays on it much longer than it should, but that's just a clock trick that's neither here nor there.)

2) Mechanistic: Ok, but why don’t sunrise and sunset move symmetrically?

Yeah, why?  It doesn't seem like they should be independent, because the same mechanism is responsible for the changes in both sunrise and sunset times, right?  The earth's tilt means that you get different amounts of light and darkness each day depending on where you're located in the annual orbit (the standard explanation for the cause of seasons).  And there's no reason this should affect sunrise and sunset differently (after all, we would expect the earth-sun system to look basically the same if we ran time backwards).

The answer is that, separate from the seasonal variation in day length, there is also variation in the time of solar noon (the time halfway between sunrise and sunset, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky).  This variation is known as the equation of time, and is the same everywhere on the planet (unlike day length, which depends on latitude).  That Wikipedia link explains it in more detail than you ever wanted, but here are the basics:

The equation of time is the result of two factors: a) the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, b) the earth's tilt.  So if the earth's axis were not tilted and the earth's orbit were perfectly circular, then there would be no variation in solar noon, and the earliest sunset (and latest sunrise) would indeed be on the date of the solstice.

a) Eccentricity: The earth's orbit is an ellipse, not a circle.  It's close to a circle (the eccentricity is only 0.0167), so the earth-sun distance doesn't vary substantially over the course of the year; contrary to a popular belief, this is not the cause of seasons.  However, the eccentricity has another effect:  As described by Kepler's second law (and explained by conservation of angular momentum), Earth's speed as it moves around the sun is not uniform:  it moves faster when it is closer to the sun, and it is closest to the sun in January.
Not every solar day is 24 hours: that's just the average over the entire year.  The solar day (time from one noon to the next) is equal to the sidereal day (the time it takes for Earth to rotate once on its axis, relative to faraway points such as other stars:  about 23 hours 56 minutes), plus the extra amount of time it has to rotate so that the sun is at its highest point again, to account for the fact that the earth moved a little bit during that day.  The earth moves through about 1/365 of its orbit every day, so this extra rotation should be about 1/365 of a circle, and should take about 1/365 of a day:  about 4 minutes.

But at times of the year when the earth is moving faster (e.g. close to January), it moves through more than 1/365 of its orbit each day, so this extra rotation is more than 4 minutes, and the time from one solar noon to the next is more than 24 hours.  Solar noon gets later each day, which is exactly what we see above, with the sunrise and sunset data.  At times of the year when the earth is farther from the sun and moving slower (e.g. close to July), it's the opposite.

b) Tilt:  Around the two solstices, part a is basically the whole story.  But around the equinoxes, Earth's rotation is at an angle (up to 23.5°) relative to its motion around the sun.  This means that the Earth's motion around the sun in a single day corresponds to less rotation around the axis, so it has the same effect as the earth moving slower: solar noon gets earlier each day.

Putting the two parts together, the combined effect is greater around the December solstice, since the two parts act in the same direction: both the solstice and the nearby perihelion cause noon to drift later.  Around the June solstice, the effect still exists, but is less pronounced, because the solstice and the nearby aphelion act in opposite directions.  (In DC in 2012, the summer solstice is on June 20, the latest sundown is on June 27, and the earliest sunrise is on June 13 or 14.  So there's still a difference, but it's not as big.)


Advanced section:

In thinking about this question, it occurs to me that sunrise time and sunset time, as time-dependent variables, can (like any other pair of functions) be decomposed into a symmetric and an antisymmetric part (or, if you like, a differential and a common-mode signal). The antisymmetric (differential) component is the length of the day (call it L), and the symmetric (common-mode) component is the time of local noon (call it N), relative to the average solar noon in that location. (There’s also a “DC offset” (call it D) representing the time of average solar noon, which is by definition constant throughout the year and depends only on longitude – essentially where you are within your time zone – but that doesn't tell us anything interesting.) I think this is a more natural choice of basis to understand what’s going on.

Sunrise time can be expressed as D + NL/2, and sunset time can be expressed as D + N + L/2. (This analysis requires the approximation that these variables change slowly enough that fluctuations on the scale of less than a day are negligible, so that on a given day, N and L have the same value at sunrise as they do at sunset.)

Then we can look at each variable separately to see what affects it.

L has two components:  L0 is constant, equal to 12 hours plus a few extra minutes to account for the refraction of light in the atmosphere (so in a vacuum, it would be exactly 12 hours).  L1 is a periodic function with a period of one year.  The amplitude of this function depends on latitude, while the period and phase are the same everywhere.  At the equator, the amplitude is zero (so the day length is 12 hours and change for the entire year), and the amplitude increases as you go up in latitude.  In the southern hemisphere, the amplitude is negative (or you could call it positive and call the northern hemisphere negative; you'd just have to shift the phase by 180°).  Inside the polar circles, it starts to break down, since there are parts of the year when the sun never sets/rises, so L isn't well-defined.  The minimum and maximum of L are on the solstices.

N is the equation of time (but with the reverse sign because of the convention of how the equation of time is defined).  As shown in the Wikipedia article (and its graphs), it has two Fourier components: N1 (for eccentricity) with a period of a year, and N2 (for tilt) with a period of half a year.  This function is the same everywhere on earth.  The two zeroes of N1 are at perihelion and aphelion, so the maximum and minimum are about halfway in between.  The four zeros of N2 are at the solstices and equinoxes, so the maxima and minima are about halfway in between those.

Putting this together, it becomes clear why the date of the earliest/latest sunrise/sunset depends on latitude:  you're combining functions with two different periods, and the extrema of the combined function will depend on the amplitudes of the components (set the derivative to zero and solve!), and the amplitude of L1 varies with latitude.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

This past weekend, the great city of Washington DC played host to Mechon Hadar’s fourth (approximately sesquiannual) Minyan Conference. Unlike the previous conferences, this one wasn’t called the Independent Minyan Conference (at least not exclusively). This wasn’t because the 10-1/2-year-old Kehilat Hadar is no longer an “independent minyan” by some definitions; it’s because the conference broadened its reach to other lay-led minyanim that are affiliated with larger institutions, such as synagogues and Hillels.

I was there representing Minyan Segulah (on the DC/Maryland border), and it was a great opportunity to network with organizers of other minyanim from San Francisco to London, discuss issues facing our communities, and yadda yadda yadda.

But I wanted to share one highlight. The prayer options on Friday night and Saturday morning included 5 local minyanim (including Segulah). For Shabbat mincha, there were two options at the conference location: a traditional egalitarian minyan downstairs, and a partnership minyan upstairs. Then during se’udah shelishit, they announced the same two options for ma’ariv. Some participants stood up and made another announcement: “We were also thinking about doing something alternative. If you’re interested, come to [location].” Multiple people shouted out “What is it?” They responded “Come to [location] and help figure it out.”

On the basis of no information beyond “something alternative”, 43 people showed up (out of around 120 participants).

As one might have expected from the announcement, there wasn’t a specific plan. A substantial fraction of the ~15 minutes allotted for ma’ariv was spent discussing what we should do. We also sang several niggunim (one of which had been taught at a session earlier that day, another of which was taught right then), and someone talked about transitioning from Shabbat into the week, and someone else connected Parshat Lech Lecha to her own recent experiences. And then it was time to join the rest of the group for havdalah.

A few of us were debriefing afterwards, and we agreed that this had been “Occupy the Minyan Conference”: get the people on board first, and the specific policy proposals come later. The significance of this event wasn’t the content, but the fact that so many people were attracted to it. There was a visible feeling of “We are the 36%”, and the excitement that we all knew from going to the first meeting of a new minyan, and a sense of empowered Judaism (two people spoke this gathering into being, and it was so). I don’t know what the larger message is (beyond the obvious – that anyone trying to generalize about the independent minyan organizer population (and, kal vachomer, the independent minyan participant population), by ascribing to them a particular religious outlook and style of practice, is being lazy and missing the mark). But it was a reminder not to let anything get stale.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Reform surrender

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Happy 5772! Another year, another blog post I don’t really want to write. But I’m writing it anyway, because who else will? Criticizing the Reform movement on its own terms (as opposed to either not criticizing it, or judging it by external standards) is a lonely beat.

An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts.

Some of the other blogs that have picked up this article have understood it a certain way: one blog gives it the headline “Reform Girl Tries Out Orthodox Judaism For a Week”, and another describes the experiment as “practicing Orthodox Judaism for a week”.

Had this been the actual stated objective of the experiment, I would have no objections. There are many streams in modern Judaism, and each one could stand to gain a better understanding of the others. One way to gain this understanding is by experience. (I’ve visited many types of Jewish communities myself, and occasionally I’ll pray out of a Yemenite siddur just to shake things up.)

But those who characterized the experiment this way didn’t read closely enough. Just as the word list in the famous psych experiment doesn’t include the word “sleep”, this article doesn’t use the word “Orthodox” even once.

In the author’s own words, the aim was different: “For seven days, I would do every Jewish ritual I could think of—big or small, no exceptions—to see whether rituals I had never tried or been mindful of would be meaningful to me.” This was done in order to “g[i]ve the informed choices I make as a Reform Jew renewed depth and meaning”.

Starting with this goal, there are a lot of different ways that this week could have gone. For example, it could have looked something like The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, an amusing read in which Jacobs chronicles his attempt to observe all the biblical commandments, including the more obscure ones such as shiluach hakein. Of course, modern Judaism (in all its forms) is more than just biblical, so one could envision a version of this that also includes practices originating in rabbinic literature and later. This experiment could have included a broad assortment of rituals (some still observed today, and others revived for this purpose) taken from all periods of Jewish history, and practiced in all parts of the Jewish world. Imagine shacharit from Kol Haneshamah, mincha from Nusach Ari, and ma’ariv from Seder Rav Amram, or the non-prayer equivalent of all that.

But that’s not how it ended up. (At least that’s not how it was described in the Reform Judaism article; the experiment may have included a wider variety of Jewish rituals, but we don’t have any written evidence for that.) Instead, the actual implementation looks a whole lot like a week in the life of a 21st-century American Modern Orthodox college student (albeit with more self-reflection). And not just any Orthodox college student, but specifically, a female one. Thus, “every Jewish ritual [she] could think of” didn’t include things like tefillin or tzitzit, which seem to be standard stops for people (of all genders) who are experimenting with Jewish rituals. Perhaps she didn’t think of those. But then in the discussion of “modest” clothing, the author mentions “male friends who wear kippot”. So if kippot count as a ritual (and I’m not sure I would classify them as such, but they certainly count at least as much as skirts do), then they are an example of a ritual that the author thought of (which we know because she wrote about it) but didn’t try (as far as we are told).

Thus the implementation involved Orthodox gender roles, contemporary Orthodox modes of dress, contemporary Orthodox views of kashrut (the author checks cookies for a hechsher – a practice that certainly originated after the Reform/Orthodox split), and apparently an Orthodox daily minyan (the author writes that “as a woman I simply did not count”). So the bloggers who characterized this experiment as “Orthodox Judaism for a week” can be forgiven for making that leap. Though it was framed as an exploration in informed autonomy, “Orthodox Judaism for a week” is basically how it turned out.

My point here isn’t to pick on some college student. As I wrote in Hilchot Pluralism Part VI, this result is typical when you bring together students from Reform and Orthodox backgrounds. When one group of students is brought up to self-identify as “not doing everything” and another group is brought up to self-identify as “doing everything”, the first group can hardly be faulted for believing the second group, when they haven’t been given any alternative paradigm. (Besides, as a Harvard alum married to a Princeton alum, I have low expectations for anything coming out of Yale, alma mater of George W. Bush and C. Montgomery Burns.)

Rather, my reaction is summed up (mutatis mutandis) by David Hammer, in his response to an article by an engineering undergrad who had volunteered to teach physics in a first-grade classroom:
I do not fault the author: He was new to thinking about science teaching, in a context that inspired presumption, and his intentions and enthusiasm were sincere. I would welcome Physics for First-Graders as an early paper in a science education seminar, hoping to see more sophistication later in the semester. But I cannot fathom the decision at Kappan to publish the ingenuous impressions of a novice, as if they represented an important contribution to the community. The Professional Journal for Education should have more respect for the profession.
Reform Judaism is an official publication of the Union for Reform Judaism, mailed out to every member of a URJ congregation. As such, I think it was irresponsible for them to print this article. The URJ is supposed to be “for Reform Judaism”, but by running this article, it is promoting the frame that being “more observant” is synonymous with Orthodox Judaism. In this frame, Reform Jews can make choices about their observance, but the menu from which they make these choices is contemporary Orthodox Judaism (rather than the full scope of Jewish practice from the past, present, and future).

At the end of “frum week”, this author decided that this lifestyle wasn’t for her, mostly because it was too difficult (plus one sentence on why it was ideologically problematic). But someone else might be inspired by this article to try out the same experiment, and might not come to the same conclusion of “Davening is hard. Let’s go shopping!“. Thus Reform Judaism finds itself in the position of doing recruiting for Orthodox Judaism, by promoting the frame that Reform is a sampler but Orthodox is the real deal. Even if many Reform Jews do indeed think of their Judaism this way, the movement’s official institutions and publications should be showing more leadership and presenting alternative options. Even if many Reform Jews have already surrendered their sense of authenticity, the movement shouldn’t be joining them in retreat.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's a trap!

This morning on the bus, I picked up a copy of the Washington Examiner (a free conservative local paper) that had been left on my seat.

On page 2, there is an editorial saying that the "debt-ceiling debate" "misses the larger point", because it doesn't address the long-term debt.  The editorial praises the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, "a concrete plan for avoiding default, getting federal spending under control and putting the federal government on the road to a permanent spending, taxes and debt settlement," [serial commas missing in original!] and attacks President Obama and the Democrats for "keeping the federal spending spigot wide open."

On page 4, there is an article with the lede "A new study shows Maryland's unemployment rate would nearly double ... if federal spending is cut by 22 percent as recommended by President Obama's deficit commission."

This is a preview of what the 2012 election will look like.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


In a democracy, the people are sovereign.  Our elected representatives work for us.  This org chart for the New York City government has it right:  the various city departments are underneath the deputy mayors, who are under the mayor, and at the very top of the chart, above the mayor, are "the voters of the City of New York".

Voting in an election is different from voting in a legislature, because elections are by secret ballot.  This is necessary and unavoidable.  As corrupt as our elections have become, the billions of dollars spent on political campaigns ultimately have no power over voters beyond the power of persuasion (often combined with deception and fearmongering).  The same is not true for the money spent on buying legislators.  And if we were to eliminate the secret ballot, electoral voting would become as corrupt as legislative voting, and possibly much worse.  Many opportunities would arise to coerce voters with carrots and sticks.  (Do you want to keep your job at Wal-Mart?)

So I'm not suggesting that we eliminate the secret ballot.  However, we should recognize that it has real tradeoffs.

Legislative votes are public, so legislators can be held accountable for their votes.  This can happen in the next election.  And even legislators who aren't running for reelection might be concerned about their legacies.  But voters have all the power (albeit diffuse over a large population) with none of the individual accountability that would ordinarily come with being at the top of the org chart.  The costs of bad decisions at the polls are completely externalized.

This is part of why systems like California's (with more direct democracy) are flawed.  Direct democracy sounds good on paper, but the secret ballot means that it lacks the safeguards that representative democracy has.  California voters can pass irresponsible initiatives like Prop 13, and then leave it to someone else to clean up the mess.

We can see the negative consequences of the secret ballot in the present debt-limit crisis.  If the unthinkable happens and we hit the debt limit next week, then (in the absence of 14th-Amendment remedies or other emergency solutions) President Obama and the executive branch will have to start making decisions about which bills the government will stop paying.  The most just way to proceed (if the secret ballot didn't make it impossible) would be to cut off Social Security checks to people who voted Republican in 2010.  Why should the innocent suffer along with the guilty?

In the absence of the data needed to implement such a solution, we'll have to settle for blunter instruments such as cutting off all Social Security checks to House districts represented by Republicans until the debt ceiling is raised.  Anyone who has a problem with this could contact their congressman.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Wedding...: omnibus edition

If you got here via the "Kiddushin Meets 21st-Century Egalitarianism" course, welcome!  Here are the links to Mah Rabu's wedding series, all in one place:
For everyone else:  This series of blog posts has been assigned for Talya Weisbard Shalem's course on "Kiddushin Meets 21st-Century Egalitarianism", at this year's National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, to take place August 1-7, 2011, at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire (though it would be indisputably in Massachusetts if it weren't for George II).

If you're interested in taking this class, or one (or two!) of the 20+ other fantastic courses, it's not too late to register for Institute!  You shan't regret it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One person one vote?

Like many jurisdictions across the country, the District of Columbia is redistricting this year, to make sure its 8 wards continue to have roughly equal populations following the 2010 Census.  This means Ward 2 (downtown) has to get smaller, Wards 7 and 8 (east of the river) have to get larger, and Ward 6 (located between Wards 2 and 7&8) has to shift over.

DC Councilmembers are elected to 4-year terms, with half of the Council elected every 2 years.  Thus, Council terms are staggered, much like the U.S. Senate (but with only 2 classes, not 3).

This combination of redistricting and staggering is unusual.  For example, the U.S. Senate is staggered, but is (unfortunately) not subject to redistricting.  Conversely, the U.S. House is redistricted every 10 years, but all representatives are elected at the same time.  (Any special House elections between now and November 2012 will be based on the old 2000 Census districts, even in states that have completed redistricting.)  Many state legislatures operate the same way.

This unusual combination leads to some strange consequences, which I haven't heard anyone else discuss.  Take, as an example, Wards 2 and 6, since they are mutually exchanging territory.  Ward 2 is currently represented by Jack Evans, who was last elected in 2008.  Ward 6 is represented by Tommy Wells, last elected in 2010.  This means that the people who live in the part of Ward 6 that is being transferred to Ward 2 got to vote for (or against) Wells in 2010, and then will vote again in the Ward 2 election in 2012.  Thus, for the 2013-14 term, they will be represented by two different ward-based councilmembers:  Wells (from Ward 6) and the councilmember from Ward 2.  The people who live in the part of Ward 2 that is being transferred to Ward 6 have the opposite situation:  they didn't vote in 2010, and they won't be able to vote in 2012 either.  Thus, from 2013-14, they will not have had the opportunity to vote for any current members of the Council (except the at-large councilmembers).

Does this violate the principle of "one person, one vote"?  Would the voters in these neighborhoods (Mt. Vernon Square and Shaw) have standing to bring a lawsuit?  Are there other jurisdictions outside DC with the same issue?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgment Day November 14?

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

So the world didn’t end yesterday. To be fair, they weren’t actually predicting the end of the world until October 21, at the conclusion of five months of torment for those of us left behind. Yesterday was supposed to be only Judgment Day. But that didn’t happen either.

Of course this is all nonsense, but we can check their math and see whether it is at least internally consistent nonsense.

Let’s start with the year:

According to the tract explaining the calculations, the world was created in 11,013 “BC”, so we are now in the year 13,023 from creation. (It’s one less than you think because there was no year zero; 1 BCE was followed immediately by 1 CE.) The biblical flood occurred in the year 4990 “BC”, 6023 years after creation. God says in Genesis 7:4 that the flood will come in 7 days, and since one day to God is like 1000 years to us (they cite a New Testament verse for this, but we have the same idea in Psalm 90:4), this means the world will be destroyed 7000 years later, which comes out to 2011 CE.

I was baffled at how they arrived at this year count in the first place. According to the Jewish calendar, we are now in the year 5771 from creation, and the flood took place in the year 1656 from creation (4115 years ago, or 2105 BCE). While the exact count of the number of years from “creation” is somewhat controversial (particularly at the interface between biblical chronology and real history), counting the years in Genesis from creation to the flood is very easy, since we have a detailed list of how long each ancestor lived before the next generation was born. Assuming they’re reading the same Bible (and I just checked the King James and the numbers are the same), it’s hard to see how the totals could be off by so much. At first glance I thought they were just applying the same principle that 1 day to God is 1000 years to us, so the six days of creation would add an extra 5999 years (subtract one because, according to the rabbis, humans were created on Rosh Hashanah of the year 2, so creation began on 25 Elul of the year 1). But that can’t be it, because the time from the end of creation to the flood has to be much more than 24 years.

So I did some googling and it turns out that they get this chronology based on a general principle that a generation is a lifespan, so in these biblical genealogies, we can assume that the son was born in the year that the father died. For example, since Genesis 5:11 says that Enosh lived 905 years, they ascertain that the time from Enosh’s birth to his son Kenan’s birth was 905 years. Thus they completely disregard the explicit statements in Genesis 5:9-10 that Enosh lived for 90 years and then fathered Kenan, and then lived 815 years after that. By this method, they arrive at a stretched-out chronology. If they hadn’t done this, then the 7000-year anniversary of the flood wouldn’t take place until 4896 CE, so the end would be far from nigh.

Now let’s look at the day of the year.

According to Genesis 7:11, the flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month. In the Hebrew calendar, even though the year begins in Tishrei (in the fall), the 1st month is Nisan (in the spring), and so we observe all the biblical holidays accordingly: Pesach (in “the first month”) in Nisan, and all the holidays of the “seventh month” in Tishrei. Based on this, the 2nd month would be Iyar, and yesterday (May 21, 2011) was indeed the 17th of Iyar, which would make it the anniversary of the flood by this count.

But it’s not that simple. First of all, yes, yesterday was 17 Iyar for the Jews, and that’s based on Rosh Chodesh Iyar having been on Thursday, May 5. But the actual astronomical new moon was on Tuesday, May 3. In our calendar algorithm, Rosh Chodesh is frequently observed later than the actual new moon due to various considerations: for example, Rosh Hashanah in the coming year will be on Thursday rather than Wednesday, so that Yom Kippur will not fall on Friday, immediately before Shabbat. By stating that yesterday was the 17th of the month, are these Christians endorsing rabbinic rules that were instituted centuries after the Jewish-Christian split?

Second of all, it’s not so clear that “the second month” in this context would be Iyar. In Exodus 12:2, God commands very clearly that “this month” (the month in which Pesach takes place, in the spring, understood to be Nisan) shall be the first of months. But the rabbis are split on which month was the first month before this command was given. In a baraita at Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a, Rabbi Eliezer says the world was created in Tishrei, and Rabbi Yehoshua says the world was created in Nisan. In another baraita at Rosh Hashanah 11b, it is made clear that in dating the flood, both of them count the months from creation. Since the flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month, Rabbi Eliezer places it on 17 Cheshvan (the 2nd month starting from Tishrei), and Rabbi Yehoshua places it on 17 Iyar (the 2nd month starting from Nisan).

The May 21 doomsayers seem to be following R. Yehoshua, so they have some support for their position, but it is R. Eliezer’s view that has survived in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei), not Nisan, is when we mark the anniversary of the world’s birth. The date 17 Cheshvan also comes up in Mishnah Ta’anit 1:4. The rainy season in Israel begins in Cheshvan, and the Mishnah says that if it hasn’t rained by 17 Cheshvan, individuals begin fasting for rain. The Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 64a) connects this date directly to the beginning of the flood. This is not a stretch, since both the biblical flood story and the theology of Masechet Ta’anit see rain as something sent by God in response to human actions. You can’t make the same connection for 17 Iyar, which is nowhere near the rainy season.

If the anniversary of the flood is on 17 Cheshvan in 2011 CE, then it won’t occur until Monday, November 14. Still, it’s not surprising that the Judgment Day folks went with May 21 instead. In yet another baraita at Rosh Hashanah 12a, it says that the sages of Israel date the flood according to R. Eliezer, and the sages of the nations of the world date the flood according to R. Yehoshua.

Finally, what’s up with October 21, 2011, as the end of the world?

They cite a verse from Revelation saying that people (excluding those who are raptured) will be tormented for 5 months after Judgment Day. Add 5 months to May 21 and you get October 21. Of course, this would be 5 Gregorian months, even though they got to May 21 in the first place by using the Hebrew calendar (and 5 lunar months after 17 Iyar would be 17 Tishrei, or October 15, 2011). But the Gregorian calendar is the Christian calendar, so we’ll give them that one.

But then they note that “October 21st of 2011 is also the last day of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles”, and see eschatological significance in this (which, to be fair, we do too — check out Zechariah 14, the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot). Except that they’re wrong. Depending on how you look at it, “the last day of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles” could refer to the 7th day of Sukkot (21 Tishrei) or to Shemini Atzeret (22 Tishrei). But October 21, 2011, is 23 Tishrei, the day that some Diaspora Jews observe as the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret, or “Simchat Torah”. Even though this is still a holiday for some, no one would consider it to be a day of Sukkot: e.g., even though some have the practice of still eating in the sukkah on 22 Tishrei, no one does on 23 Tishrei. And even if some did, they’re talking about the biblical festival. There’s no way that Christian eschatology incorporates yom tov sheini, and in any case, the apocalypse should be centered on the land of Israel, where all agree that 23 Tishrei is not a holiday. So instead, they should expect the end of the world anywhere between October 15 (the 3rd day of Sukkot, 5 lunar months after 17 Iyar) and October 20 (Shemini Atzeret, the latest day that could reasonably be considered “the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles”).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tax me!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

In the District of Columbia, the highest income tax bracket begins at $40,000. You read that right: a person making $40,000/year and a person making $40,000,000/year are taxed at the same marginal rate.

Like many states across the country, DC is in a budget crunch this year because the recession leads to both lower tax revenues and higher demand for safety-net services. As a result, DC’s social safety net is at risk. Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed budget makes the tax brackets ever so slightly more progressive, with an additional 0.4% tax on income above $200,000. This is a trivial increase for high-income earners (millionaires would owe another $3200 per year), and still would not prevent cuts to the safety set, but it is a step in the right direction. Yet some Councilmembers are opposing even this minor tax increase.

Enter the Jewish community. As the Washington Jewish Week reports this week, DC’s Jewish community, led by Jews United For Justice, has been at the forefront of efforts to tell the Council that the people of DC really wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes in exchange for a better city to live in. (91% of people in the affluent Wards 2 and 3 support a tax increase.)

The article also includes an obligatory quote from a (probably Jewish) libertarian representing midat Sedom (”What’s mine is mine”), riddled with factual errors (in addition to what ZT points out in the comments, I don’t think the DC Treasury actually accepts donations — this would run afoul of corruption laws).

Still, most of the Jewish community understands that we all have obligations to our society and to our neighbors. If you live in DC and want to make sure that this perspective wins out, get involved with JUFJ’s efforts.

In defense of autonomy

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The article making the rounds this week is Rabbi Leon Morris’s oped in the JTA, “Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’”. In past blog posts, I have both agreed and respectfully disagreed with Rabbi Morris; here I’m going to do the latter (from my usual perch as a Reform Jewish expat).

Rabbi Morris’s thesis is “A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have ‘personal choice’ as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever.” And I certainly don’t take issue with those other Jewish values, including “an increased commitment to Jewish study” and “committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts”. Yes, these are needed now more than ever. But I think he’s beating up on a straw man, and basing his argument on two unfounded claims:

1) “Personal choice” is the core principle of Reform Judaism.
2) “Personal choice” is to blame for the Reform movement’s ills.

I’ll address these points one at a time.

1) No, “personal choice” is not the core principle of Reform Judaism.

The core principles of Reform Judaism are the same as the core principles of any other stream of Judaism. “Personal choice” takes center stage only when Reform is contrasted with other denominations. Calling it the core principle of Reform Judaism is like saying that the 24-second clock is the core principle of NBA basketball. Yes, the 24-second clock is one rule that distinguishes NBA basketball from other forms of basketball, but the core principle of NBA basketball (like any form of basketball) is still getting the ball into the hoop.

But don’t take my word for it; take a look at the CCAR’s official platforms. The 1998 Pittsburgh Principles have God, Torah, and Israel as the three major section headings — what you would expect from any Jewish religious movement. Under these headings, there are 30 separate principles, and I count at least 22 (a solid majority) that people from all major Jewish religious streams would agree with. (And among the other principles, some of them are non-universal for self-referential reasons, e.g. “We are committed to promoting and strengthening Progressive Judaism in Israel…” and “We are committed to furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the world…”, which non-progressive Jews would disagree with because they already disagree with progressive Judaism.) “Personal choice”, “autonomy”, etc., do not appear explicitly at all. The closest approach is “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community”, and even there you can only find it if you know what to look for. So in the CCAR’s most recent platform, personal choice/autonomy constitutes less than 1 of the top 30 principles.

The previous platform, the 1976 Centenary Perspective, had a greater focus on autonomy. This is manifested in such statements as “Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual”, “Reform Jews respond to change in various ways according to the Reform principle of the autonomy of the individual”, and “We stand open to any position thoughtfully and conscientiously advocated in the spirit of Reform Jewish belief.” Still, this platform lays out principles under the subheadings of “God”, “The People Israel”, “Torah”, “Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”, “Our Obligations: The State of Israel and the Diaspora”, and “Our Obligations: Survival and Service”, and only one of those sections (”Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”) includes any mention of choice/autonomy. There, autonomy is a means, not an end.

The earlier platforms, before 1976, don’t have anything remotely close to personal choice; the tone was that the authors of the platforms knew what was best for everyone.

Ok, so even if “personal choice” isn’t the core principle of theoretical Reform Judaism as expressed in official platforms, is it the core principle of folk Reform Judaism as popularly understood by self-identified Reform Jews? I don’t have any scientific data on this, but I suspect that most Reform Jews, if asked to explain their religion on one foot to someone from New Guinea who had never met a Jew, wouldn’t start with personal choice, but would start with elements that are common to all Jewish denominations. Personal choice would only start to come up if they were asked to explain Reform Judaism to an Orthodox or secular Jew from Israel who had never met a Reform Jew. (And even then, I’m not sure that this is the tack that the typical low-information Reform Jew would take in distinguishing Reform from other denominations; I think many would instead say some version of “We’re Reform(ed), so we don’t do that.”)

And I do think Rabbi Morris is indeed talking about the core principles of Reform Judaism in the absolute, and not just the core differences between Reform Judaism and other types of Judaism, since the other principles that he proposes replacing “personal choice” with are not unique to Reform Judaism — they are embraced (at least on paper) by the other movements as well. On this absolute scale, it is not accurate to say that personal choice is the core principle of Reform Judaism, either in theory or in practice.

2) No, autonomy is not the problem.

I’m going to run the risk of spawning a completely off-topic comment thread and say this anyway: Rabbi Morris’s response to autonomy in Reform Judaism reminds me of the Right’s response to the Obama stimulus.

President Obama proposed a stimulus that many economists warned was insufficiently large (even before it was cut down further by Congress) to pull the economy out of recession. When, as predicted, unemployment remained high after the stimulus (albeit not as high as it would have gone without the stimulus), the Republicans drew the conclusion that the stimulus had failed, that the very principles of Keynesian fiscal policy were at fault, and that the solution was fiscal austerity.

I don’t dispute that much of the Reform movement is characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. But it is inappropriate to blame this on an ideology that has never been fully put into practice in the Reform movement, particularly in the more ignorant and uncommitted segments. I haven’t found Reform communities where informed autonomy truly exists as a way of life; I have only been able to find this in non-denominational communities.

The Centenary Perspective (the platform with the greatest embrace of autonomy) says “Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” This frames informed autonomy not as a privilege but as a responsibility. A Reform Jew who truly believes in informed autonomy has the obligation to study Jewish texts to the point where s/he can make educated choices about all areas of Jewish practice. In principle Reform Jews have the responsibility to become far more knowledgeable than Orthodox or Conservative Jews (who can defer to their rabbi’s p’sak) or Reconstructionist Jews (who can defer to their community’s consensus). Needless to say, this is not how it works out in practice.

Rabbi Morris would have us believe that this failure of informed autonomy qua responsibility to take root among the masses is an inevitable consequence of an ideology that lacks the power to motivate. I would respond that the experiment hasn’t been attempted. Reform institutions have not provided the tools necessary for individuals to carry out the demands of informed autonomy. It’s not like Reform synagogues across the country are offering advanced Talmud shiurim (or even introductory Talmud shiurim, in the original language) that no one is showing up to. And even if there are opportunities outside the movement for high-level Jewish learning, the Reform movement’s culture is not one that values this among laypeople. Individuals who express interest in learning more are told “You should become a rabbi”, not “You should become an educated Reform Jew”.

But it’s not just that the Reform movement hasn’t embraced the “informed” part of informed autonomy (which is part of Rabbi Morris’s point); it has never truly embraced the “autonomy” part either. The average rank-and-file Reform Jew may exercise autonomy in selectively opting in and out of Jewish life, but when he is in a Jewish context, he does what he is told. To take prayer as just one example, Reform synagogues are the Jewish worship contexts in which it is least socially acceptable for individual participants to have their own practices about when to sit and stand, or which siddur to use, or what to be doing at any point during the service. Instructions are given throughout, and everyone is expected to conform. Rabbis may have less power on paper in Reform Judaism than in other movements (in which they render binding p’sak), but in practice, they are granted more elevated clerical status by Reform Jews than anywhere else in the non-haredi Jewish world. Rabbis are considered indispensable to “officiate” at any sort of Jewish ritual; most laypeople do not feel empowered to do it themselves.

What we see is not informed autonomy gone too far, but rather a population that is neither Jewishly informed nor Jewishly autonomous.

While we don’t have empirical data on what the Reform movement would look like if informed autonomy were a large-scale reality, we do have data from another controlled experiment: Let’s say you start with a population that looks a lot like the American Reform Jewish population, and an institutional structure (synagogues, rabbis, etc.) that looks a lot like the structure of the Reform movement. But you take Rabbi Morris’s advice and remove personal choice from the stated principles of the movement, and replace it with something about communal religious standards. Then what you get, according to the data, isn’t the engaged and passionate liberal Judaism that Rabbi Morris and I would like to see — what you get is the Conservative movement! And outside of a few isolated pockets, the Conservative movement is also characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. Most Conservative-affiliated Jews aren’t familiar with their movement’s official principles, and much of what Rabbi Morris writes about the Reform movement applies there as well: “Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to [Conservative] laypeople … , gather dust in libraries.” The experiment yields the same result, but this time, it can’t be blamed on “personal choice”.

The answer is not to remove informed autonomy as a Reform Jewish principle and replace it with other values, but rather, to implement informed autonomy in truth so that these other values will come along with it. Create a culture in which informed autonomy is seen as a responsibility, so that individuals have to become knowledgeable in Jewish text and tradition and apply this knowledge creatively to meet the needs of the present age. Armed with this knowledge, individuals will be better equipped to form true communities.

I realize that this is a tall order. Many members of Reform congregations don’t have a strong ideological commitment to progressive religious Judaism, and won’t be interested in this project. But it’s possible to start smaller. Even if it won’t work to implement informed autonomy for an entire congregation at once, it can start with a committed core who can at least make informed autonomy a socially acceptable option. And if even that committed core isn’t attainable (yet) in every community, it can start in some communities that can be held up as role models and successful proofs of concept. And if those role models of informed autonomy are not to be found in the Reform movement, then the Reform movement can look to successful models elsewhere.

I hope that turning informed autonomy into a reality, and not just a slogan, will (as Rabbi Morris concludes) “allow us to experience a richer, fuller liberal religious life — one that is passionate, inspiring and moving, one that matters ultimately and allows ‘Reform Judaism’ to mean so much more.”

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Baby Boom

Baby Boomers are generally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964.  This graph illustrates the Baby Boom:

As you can see, the Baby Boomer population more than doubled in a single year, from 1946 to 1947, and increased more than fivefold from 1946 to 1950.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Post-Independence Day

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

On April 28, 2001 (Shabbat Tazria-Metzora), about 60 people crowded into an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to participate in a new egalitarian Shabbat morning minyan. This minyan would be named Kehilat Hadar several months later, and it has grown dramatically in both size and influence, becoming a household name around the world and inspiring many spinoffs and imitations. So today we congratulate Kehilat Hadar on reaching its 10th anniversary. (The community celebrated its anniversary several weeks ago, on Shabbat Tazria.) We wish it many more years of success if it continues to meet a need, or a graceful end if it ever outlives its mission.

But today marks an even more important milestone.  (And not just Mah Rabu's 800th post.) As of today, according to some (including Hadar founder Rabbi Elie Kaunfer), Kehilat Hadar is no longer an independent minyan.

How is this possible? Let’s look at the evidence.

The 2007 Spiritual Communities Study, sponsored by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar, restricted its sample of communities based on certain criteria. The report says “For the purposes of this report, we define a qualifying community as one with the following features:”, and among these features is “It was founded in 1996 or later.” (Other features of independent minyanim include “It exists independently of the denominational movements” and “It meets minimally once a month for worship”.) At first it seems like the 1996 cutoff (10 years before the study began) is just about defining the scope of the study and nothing more. But later parts of the report attribute more real-world significance to this categorization, such as the infamous bar graph which illustrates that “these communities … have grown in number more than five-fold”. (Of course you’re going to see huge growth after 1996 if you only include communities founded after 1996! If “synagogues” were defined as “synagogues founded after 1996″, then a graph of the “number of synagogues” in each year would also necessarily show some year x such that the “number of synagogues” increased fivefold between x and the present.) Agree with it or not, the idea here is that the period after 1996 is different in some way from the period before 1996. And because 1996 is in the past, you might think that whatever happened in or around 1996 already happened, and this historical cutoff isn’t going to change.

But you’d be wrong.

In Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism (published in 2010), he writes “What is an independent minyan? They are defined by the following characteristics:”, followed by a familiar list that includes “No denomination/movement affiliation” and “Meet at least once a month”. But there is one crucial difference between this list and the list in the 2007 report: instead of “founded in 1996 or later”, Kaunfer defines independent minyanim as “founded in the past ten years”. (At the time of publication, that meant founded in 2000 or later.) Since he has essentially adopted the definition from the S3K/Mechon Hadar study, he seems to understand the significance of 1996 not as a specific moment in time, but as 10 years before the study’s data collection. (For the Excel users out there, it’s the difference between E2 and $E$2.) On the next page is another version of the same bar graph, but this time it begins in 2000, and doesn’t claim to be linked to a particular sample, but is instead labeled “Total Number of Minyanim”. (This graph also features the humorous caption “Growth of independent minyanim in the United States, 2000-2009. Includes six minyanim in Israel.”)

So if we extend this dynamic definition of independent minyanim into the present time, then as of today, a community is only an “independent minyan” if it was founded after April 28, 2001. So Kehilat Hadar doesn’t make the cut.

If Kehilat Hadar, once viewed by many as the flagship independent minyan, is no longer an independent minyan, then what is it? Is it a synagogue? Is it a havurah? (Kaunfer writes that the purpose of the 10-year cutoff for independent minyanim is “distinguishing them from the havurah movement”.) Is it something else?

As Kehilat Hadar enters its second decade, it will have to figure out what it is. Either that or it can remain an independent minyan (after all, that’s what it’s good at), and we can stop pigeonholing communities based on an arbitrary chronological cutoff. We can acknowledge that independent minyanim (any way you define that) existed before 2001 (and even before 1996), and at the same time see that this takes nothing away from the significance of the work that a new generation of minyanim has been doing for the last 10.01 years. We can explore the substantive similarities and differences among independent Jewish communities, whether they were founded around the same time or decades apart.

Happy birthday, Hadar!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Is Pesach 7 or 8 days?

The question of 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov is a favorite topic here on Mah Rabu.  But while I have lots of posts addressing some of the more complex intricacies of this topic, I don't have a general post explaining the basics.

Until now.

If you're wondering what this is all about, check out my new post on, the Union for Reform Judaism's blog, on the question of 7-day vs. 8-day Pesach (and 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov more generally).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tazria-Metzora or Behar-Bechukotai?

A few years ago when I blogged about the question of what 1-day yom tov communities do about Torah reading in years (such as next year) when the 1st day of Pesach falls on Shabbat, I quoted Rabbi Solomon Freehof's CCAR responsum from the 1960s.  He wrote, in regard to non-leap years (such as next year):

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

I wrote in response:

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

And now it turns out that the plot has thickened.  I looked into this issue and found that the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah (both at 428:4) both say that there are two different minhagim in Israel in this situation:  separating Tazria-Metzora, and separating Behar-Bechukotai.

So there are actually 3 different possible calendars of Torah reading:

Shabbat   2-day yom tov     1-day yom tov #1  1-day yom tov #2
=======   =============     ================  ================
15 Nisan  1st day Pesach    1st day Pesach    1st day Pesach
22 Nisan  8th day Pesach    Shemini           Shemini
29 Nisan  Shemini           Tazria            Tazria-Metzora
6 Iyar    Tazria-Metzora    Metzora           Acharei-Kedoshim
13 Iyar   Acharei-Kedoshim  Acharei-Kedoshim  Emor
20 Iyar   Emor              Emor              Behar
27 Iyar   Behar-Bechukotai  Behar-Bechukotai  Bechukotai
5 Sivan   Bemidbar          Bemidbar          Bemidbar

For 1-day yom tov communities, the advantage of calendar #1 is that it minimizes the amount of time that 1-day and 2-day communities are out of sync (while doing so in a way that 1-day communities can maintain their integrity and self-respect, unlike some of the solutions currently in use in Reform congregations).  According to an article by R. Mordecai Kornfeld, the reason for calendar #2 is that "it is Behar and Bechukotai which are kept apart, because they were joined together not by virtue of a similarity between them but only out of necessity", in contrast to Vayakheil-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, and Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which all have thematic connections between the two parshiyot.  That article presents evidence for the thesis that "whatever the criteria are for deciding whether to combine two particular Parshiot or to read them separately, bridging the gap between the Jews of Israel and those of the diaspora does *not* seem to play a major role, if any at all."  And indeed, as far as I can tell, the modern Israeli calendars I have found use calendar #2.

So I'm full of questions:
  • Is it historically accurate that the two Israeli calendars once coexisted?  (The authors of the Magen Avraham and the Mishnah Berurah didn't live in Israel, so they wouldn't have had firsthand knowledge.)
  • Does anyone in Israel today use calendar #1?
  • If the answer to the first question is yes, then how, when, and why did calendar #2 become dominant in Israel?  (Kornfeld suggests a "why", but doesn't cite a source and may just be speculating.)
  • Do self-respecting Diaspora 1-day yom tov communities (i.e. those that don't read the "8th day of Pesach" reading on a Shabbat that they don't consider yom tov, and don't split a parashah over two weeks) use calendar #1, #2, or some of each?
Any answers would be appreciated.  Thanks!

The Humpty Hump Passover Guide

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Our coverage of the Humpty Dance continues.

Foods mentioned in the Humpty Dance that are chametz:
  • crackers
  • licorice
  • oatmeal
  • biscuits
  • Burger King (in most of spacetime)
Foods mentioned in the Humpty Dance that are not chametz:
  • a pickle
  • Hennessy
  • Burger King (in Israel during Pesach)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Welcome, Forward readers!

If you got to Mah Rabu from my oped in the Forward, welcome!  Here are some links to related resources.

Some of the recent articles I'm responding to:
Some of my longer-form responses:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lurie 2, straw men 0

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

I don’t really feel like writing this post. Instead of taking the bait and responding to Margot Lurie’s latest hit piece on independent minyanim, my time would be better spent on actually organizing an independent minyan. If you’re in the DC area this weekend, you’re all invited to Segulah on Shabbat morning. We’ll be meeting in the Tifereth Israel building, 7701 16th St NW (entrance on Juniper St), Washington DC, starting at 9:30 am. (Yes, we rent space from a synagogue, and no, that’s not a secret.)

But I’m taking the bait anyway, because I guess someone has to.

But before I do that, a number of people have asked me if I was going to respond to Noam Neusner’s oped in the Forward. (It seems to be Crap-On-Independent-Minyanim Month in the Jewish press.) The answer is that I already responded 4 years ago. And that’s all I have to say about that. (I would think that Neusner, as a former Bush speechwriter, would understand that independent minyanim aren’t taking away synagogues’ share of the pie, but are making the pie higher.)

Back to the story. Margot Lurie wrote a fanciful review of Empowered Judaism by Elie Kaunfer, in the Jewish Review of Books. I took it apart last fortnight right here on this blog. The review also got attention in other parts of the world, including from Shmuel Rosner on the Jerusalem Post website. Rosner then ran a letter from Kaunfer, correcting Lurie’s fabrication about “organized community money”. Then this week, Rosner did an interview with Lurie, asking some followup questions. (I don’t know whether either Rosner or Lurie has read my original fisk; neither of them reference it directly, though they both refer in general to criticism.)

In this interview, Lurie once again conjures up straw men, and then defeats them. She criticizes independent minyanim for failing to live up to goals that they never claimed to have in the first place.

From the top:

Let’s start with factual questions. You write that “There is an open secret about Hadar: like many other minyanim, it is funded by lots of organized community money, offered by institutions eager to keep young Jews connected to their heritage.” Hadar’s Elie Kaunfer writes: “Independent minyanim are overwhelmingly self-supported by the supposed slacker population that attends it.” Can you both be right?
“Shape of Earth: Views Differ”
I was referring to things like Hillel campus subsidies for leaders of independent minyanim which draw college students,
I’ve never heard of these subsidies, so I’m unable to respond to this. Does anyone know what she’s talking about?
as well as the subsidized rent and other in-kind contributions that most independent minyanim receive.
This is clearly a retcon (or in Aramaic, chisurei mechsera v’hachi katanei). There is no way that the plain sense of “funded by lots of organized community money” is “in-kind contributions”; by definition, “in-kind contributions” can be anything but money. Lurie got caught in an error, and then instead of saying “Oops, my bad” and printing a correction, she’s doubling down.

But addressing her claim at face value, I’m curious how she arrives at the figure of “most independent minyanim”. There are, roughly speaking, three types of independent minyanim: 1) Those that meet in participants’ homes or other “free” spaces. As a commenter pointed out in the previous thread, these spaces represent in-kind donations. However, that doesn’t involve the “organized community”. 2) Those that meet in non-Jewish spaces. These generally don’t receive any “subsidized rent”; their relationship with their host space is purely a landlord-tenant business relationship. 3) Those that meet in Jewish spaces. These include a) those that receive donations of space (and for you minyan entrepreneurs out there, I don’t recommend this: your host institution will want something in return; you just don’t know what it is yet), and b) those that pay rent. It’s hard to determine which minyanim in group 3b are receiving “subsidized rent” and which aren’t — they pay whatever level of rent they negotiate with their hosts, and the hosts don’t necessarily have a standard rate for renting out space, to which the minyan’s rate can be compared to determine whether they’re getting a subsidy. Lurie is claiming that 3a plus part of 3b adds up to “most”, and I’d like to see some justification for that.

I just did a quick back-of-the envelope estimate: I’ve been to at least 25 independent minyanim, so I listed the ones I could think of, and about half of those meet (or most recently met, if the minyan no longer exists) in Jewish buildings. That’s an upper bound for how many of them are getting “subsidized rent” from the “organized community” (since some of them may be paying full price, however you define that). So I don’t think “most” is correct.
As for Hadar in particular, the minyan is only one of its three affiliated institutions, the other two of which report receipts of funding from the organized community.
The minyan is also the only one of the three institutions that is a minyan! The original article said “Hadar, like many other minyanim”, suggesting that it was talking about a minyan named Hadar, not a yeshiva named Hadar or a star named Hadar.

The three (terrestrial) Hadars are two separate legal entities, with separate budgets (Yeshivat Hadar is a program of Mechon Hadar, but Kehilat Hadar is separate). If you want to accuse them of money laundering, then come out and say it.
You write that “It is no accident that of the three leaders of Yeshivat Hadar, both Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker are the sons of prominent Conservative rabbis, and Shai Held is the son of a late professor at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary.” Is this more proof that independent minyanim aren’t really “independent” or more indictment of the Conservative movement’s inability to retain its best and brightest?

The term “independent” suggests a self-sustaining body outside the traditional synagogue structure. But most minyanim are not independent in that sense.
I (inadvertently) had a central enough role in the popularization of the term “independent minyan” that I feel qualified to play Marshall McLuhan and say “You know nothing of my work.”

That’s not what “independent” (in “independent minyan”) ever meant. “Independent” means two things: 1) not affiliated with any of the Jewish denominations. (The denominations all have formal membership for congregations, so there’s no gray area here. None of the denominations accept being founded by the son of a rabbi of that denomination as a substitute for a membership application.) 2) not part of a larger organization, such as a synagogue.

That’s all. “Independent” doesn’t mean completely self-sufficient, with your own power generator and a basement full of canned food. The United States is an independent country, even though it imports goods from other countries, and even though its founders were originally British subjects. Independent candidates appear on the same ballot as other candidates. Rosner and Lurie are trying to play “gotcha” (and they’re not the first), but this stems from a misunderstanding of the claims that independent minyanim are making.
Or, more accurately, their independence extends only to serving the needs of their members for prayer and learning, and that’s it. As soon as someone wants to get married or divorced, or arrange for a funeral, then, well, no minyan is an island – it needs the resources of the larger community, on which it is very much dependent.
Independent minyanim don’t claim to be one-stop shops for everything Jewish in their participants’ lives. In many (most?) cases, they don’t even claim to be one-stop shops for prayer and learning: as Lurie noted in her original review, many (most?) independent minyanim don’t have services every week, so anyone who wants to pray with a community every week has to look elsewhere some of the time. No one denies this. Independent minyanim are very openly a-la-carte, intended to function as part of the larger Jewish ecosystem. They focus on the areas where they have a comparative advantage, and let other organizations do the rest. No minyan claims to be an island. This is in contrast to many synagogues, which do attempt to be one-stop shops for everything Jewish, regardless of whether they’re any good at it. This is understandable in places where one synagogue really is the only game in town, but wasteful in big cities with many Jewish congregations.

Tikkun Leil Shabbat is an excellent example of an independent minyan that engages strategically with the broader community. TLS is a community committed to social justice, and decided from the beginning that rather than putting together its own half-baked “social action programs” (with great effort and minimal impact), it would connect its participants with organizations that are already doing real social justice work, both inside and outside the Jewish community. This leads to the maximum benefit for everyone.

As far as the specific examples that Lurie cites:
Jewish marriage doesn’t require any institutional infrastructure; it just requires two witnesses. Lots of independent minyan participants have organized their own weddings.
Jewish divorce is a big mess, and that’s a problem that independent minyanim can’t solve, but apparently neither can synagogues.
Funerals and burials do, of course, require infrastructure. But most synagogues don’t operate their own funeral homes or cemeteries either. They work with funeral homes and cemeteries in the larger Jewish community, and there’s no reason an independent minyan couldn’t do the same. For example, the Newton Centre Minyan does its own funerals (led by participants), and has its own section in a local Jewish cemetery.
Independent minyanim speak to the portion of the Jewish community that is interested in traditional prayer and ritual practice, in progressive halakhah, in modernization, and in women’s full participation in services—in other words, Conservative Judaism.
Independent minyanim come in many flavors. Not all of them are “interested in traditional prayer and ritual” (depending on how “traditional” is defined), and not all of them are gender-egalitarian. So a good number of them don’t fit into even this overly broad definition of Conservative Judaism.

As for those minyanim that do display all these traits, it’s a logical fallacy to say “X has these traits, Y has these traits, therefore X=Y.” Conservative Judaism defines itself by other aspects besides these, including a structure for religious authority that independent minyanim do not recognize. (And by the way, not all Conservative congregations are gender-egalitarian either, so this isn’t a defining feature of Conservative Judaism.)
One Conservative rabbi has said that my problem with independent minyanim is that they aren’t Orthodox. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My interest is in having a vigorous liberal Judaism that can hold its own next to Orthodoxy. In my article I gave my reasons for thinking that the minyan movement doesn’t hold the answer.
“These do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change … and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, ‘I agree with your ends but not your means.’ They function as blankets whenever possible smothering sparks of dissension that promise to flare up into the fire of action.” –Saul Alinsky

If your interest is in creating a vigorous liberal Judaism, how is attacking the people who are trying to do something about it going to advance that interest? Early on in her review, Lurie writes that “the suburban mausoleum that is the liberal synagogue was, at best, built for a sociological reality decades out of date”, so surely she would agree that attempting incremental change within those institutions is not a recipe for success. Nor is it possible to have alternatives to those institutions descend from heaven in flames, fully built, like the Third Temple. So the remaining option is to start small and build from there, even if the alternative communities don’t start out fixing every problem in American Judaism from day one.
I moved to New York’s Upper West Side from Iowa, so I can attest to the fact that people in small or struggling Jewish communities see the minyan movement (to the extent that they’re aware of it at all) as largely irrelevant to their concerns. There are much more significant issues facing American Judaism, and much greater challenges for young and energetic leaders with big visions.
So what should these “young and energetic leaders” outside of Iowa be doing differently that would have a more positive impact on the Jews of Iowa? Bear in mind that most of us have day jobs.
Did you expect this article to become so controversial - did you think you’re going to be criticized in such way? Do you think independent minyanim have become the sacred goat [SACRED COW?] of contemporary Judaism?
Ok, that was weird. Is “[SACRED COW?]” a copy editor’s note that got left in by mistake? I’ve never heard of “sacred goat” before.
I knew I was going to kick up some dust. Still, the extent of the hysteria brought on by one person’s dissent is a little telling, don’t you think?
And if no one had responded, Lurie would instead have written “Still, the deafening silence brought on by one person’s dissent is a little telling, don’t you think?”
I’m certainly not calling—or capable of calling—for the dismantling of independent minyanim, which are, as I say in my article, a response to the spiritual bankruptcy and the organized failures of the Conservative movement.
The Conservative movement doesn’t have a monopoly on spiritual bankruptcy and organized failures. Independent minyanim are responses to the spiritual bankruptcy and the organized failures of all the movements.
But the tendentiousness of the independent minyan movement’s critique of synagogue life needs to be addressed, as it has real, and not unrelated consequences.
Here, Lurie (or Rosner?) links to an article about the shrinking membership numbers in the Conservative movement (and some inside baseball in the other liberal denominations). Is she really suggesting that these shrinking numbers are a consequence of independent minyanim? A few paragraphs earlier, Lurie wrote that minyanim are “largely irrelevant” to “people in small or struggling Jewish communities”, and now they’re the reason those communities are struggling.

According to the article, USCJ congregations lost 37,100 member families. Let’s conservatively (as it were) estimate an average of 2 people per family, for a total of 74,200 members. By all estimates, this is far greater than the total number of people involved in independent minyanim. There’s just no way mathematically that independent minyanim can be a significant factor in this decline.

Furthermore, these population trends began before the independent minyanim discussed in Empowered Judaism were founded. To the long list of problems that independent minyanim haven’t solved, add time travel. It seems that post hoc ergo propter hoc doesn’t even need the post hoc part anymore!
The elitism and uncritical self-regard of these communities are a big problem.
“Elitism” : independent minyanim :: “socialism” : President Obama

Think about it: they’re both self-perpetuating accusations that get thrown around repeatedly because everyone else is doing it, to the point that they have become almost completely divorced from the actual meaning of the word or the actual facts about the accusee.

Rather than debunk this yet again (not that that would be any more effective at staving off further accusations of “elitism” than asking what exactly is socialist about cutting taxes on millionaires), I’ll just link to my old comments here and here. There’s probably more too - bonus points for finding them.
For one thing, I don’t think it’s a random statistical point that independent minyanim are so age-specific.
No one has claimed that it was random. There are many causal explanations for it. All we said is that it wasn’t an intentional decision by the minyan organizers.

Some of the explanations: The founders of many minyanim were in their 20s and 30s, and the word spread first to their friends, and their friends’ friends, and people tend to be friends with people around the same age. Why were the founders in their 20s and 30s? There’s an age explanation and a generational explanation. Age explanation: people in their 20s and 30s have more time and energy to devote to this kind of thing. Generational explanation here. Why haven’t more people of other ages gravitated to these minyanim? In the case of older adults, many of them have been involved with other Jewish communities for years and are attached to their existing community. In the case of parents and children, there’s a coordination problem, since there’s a need to be in a community with other children. Finally, the most obvious explanation is that people in their 20s and 30s feel most out of place in establishment Jewish institutions, and therefore have the greatest motive to find (or found) alternatives.

These explanations apply to some minyanim and not others. The independent minyanim founded in the ’60s and ’70s may have been founded by people in their 20s and 30s, but their participants have aged, and now those communities have older (as well as younger) populations. And some of the new minyanim have attracted more multigenerational crowds. One successful example is Segulah, which has all ages from babies to over-70. See you this Shabbat!