Sunday, October 30, 2005

Prayerful promiscuity

Whoa. I have somehow found myself serving as sheliach tzibbur at 6 different independent minyanim (in 4 different jurisdictions) in a two-month period. Viz.:

  • September 23 (Shabbat Ki Tavo): kabbalat shabbat, Park Slope Minyan (founded 2001), Brooklyn NY
  • October 8 (Shabbat Shuvah): musaf, Kehilat Hadar (founded 2001), New York NY
  • October 18 (1st day of Sukkot): pesukei d'zimrah, Highland Park Minyan (founded 1970s), Highland Park NJ
  • October 29 (Shabbat Bereishit): pesukei d'zimrah and shacharit, the new still-unnamed Brooklyn minyan (which I'm referring to as Hadrat Melech until they come up with a name) (founded 2005), Brooklyn NY
  • November 4 (Shabbat Noach): kabbalat shabbat and ma'ariv, Kol Zimrah (founded 2002), New York NY
  • November 11 (Shabbat Lech Lecha): kabbalat shabbat or ma'ariv, Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded 2005), Washington DC
My travels during said two-month period have also taken me to Techiyah of Harlem (founded 2005) on October 7 [though the rain, Jewish Standard Time, and my dinner plans conspired such that I had to leave during Psalm 95] and the Zoo Minyan (founded 1990s???) on November 12 [projected]. It's amazing to see so many grassroots communities flourishing, most of which have been founded in the last 5 years.

Update (November 8): Make that 7 independent minyanim in two months.
  • November 18 (Shabbat Vayeira): kabbalat shabbat, Techiyah (founded 2005), New York NY

Also, Tikkun Leil Shabbat on November 11 is co-hosted by DC Reform Chavurah, so it may be 8 independent minyanim if killing two birds with one stone counts. I am such a slut.

Update (November 10): Does Torah reading count? If so, I'm up to 8 independent minyanim (or 9 if TLS and DCRC count separately), still in the same two-month span:

  • October 13 (Yom Kippur morning): Kehilat Hadar (founded 2001), New York NY [already claimed above]
  • November 12 (Shabbat Lech Lecha): chamishi, Zoo Minyan (founded 1990s?), Washington DC
Wouldn't it be nice if there were a place where all of these independent Jewish communities could get together?

Update (November 12): The Zoo Minyan started in 1998.

Fall back

Today we changed back our clocks and gained an hour. Somewhere I'm sure people are still worshipping Chronos for the gift of this hour.

It used to be that I eagerly awaited going on Daylight Saving Time in April, so we would have the extra hour of daylight in the evening, and dreaded switching back in October. But now I'm excited about having an extra hour of daylight in the morning! When I wake up tomorrow morning, I won't have to drag myself out of bed while it's still dark.

Congress has passed a law extending DST for another month, effective in 2007. I can't fathom another month of trying to wake up in the dark. The extra hour on the other end is less significant; other than on Fridays (when this law will mean 4 weeks with slightly less rushing around), I don't care whether the sun sets at 4:00 or at 5:00. Either way, I'm probably still at work. The authors of this law seem to be in denial that there just aren't very many daylight hours in the winter, no matter how you distribute them. Let's hope that Congress comes to its senses before 2007, or I'll be having an unhappy November. Perhaps this can be a plank of the Democratic platform in 2006, by which we'll take back the House and Senate.

Eight days a week

Other belated Shemini Atzeret thoughts:

People always say "What's this holiday about anyway?". And the people who ask this question are people who keep two days of Shemini Atzeret (whether or not they know that this is what they're doing), and are asking about the first day of Shemini Atzeret. They know what the second day is about.

Both Shemini Atzeret and Shavuot (the other "atzeret") are biblical pilgrimage holidays tied to the agricultural cycle, with no specific biblical mitzvot surviving into post-Temple Judaism. Both have been transformed into holidays about Torah. In both cases, the Torah-related customs are concentrated on a single day in communities that observe those holidays for two days, while the other day is left mostly as generic yom tov with a few exceptions (Ruth, geshem). But the Torah-related day for Shavuot is the first day, while it is of course the second day of Shemini Atzeret. And this asymmetry means that people don't ask "What's the second day of Shavuot about anyway?" (Well, they do, but for different reasons. That's more procedural than spiritual.) ER suggests that the order is important to how people view the holiday. It's easy to see the 2nd day of Shavuot as a continuation of the first day. It's harder to see the 1st day of Shemini Atzeret as a continuation of something that hasn't happened yet. Also, the fact that the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret gets its own label may influence perceptions significantly.

Another question asked around that time is why Kohelet is read during Sukkot (or Shemini Atzeret, depending on the year and one's minhag). In addition to all the other suggested reasons, I would point to the beginning of chapter 12:

So appreciate your vigor [or "remember your Creator"] in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say 'I have no pleasure in them'; before sun and light and moon and stars go dark, and the clouds come back again after the rain.

And it goes on with many poetic metaphors. This is what Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are about: a final opportunity to appreciate and rejoice before everything goes dark and rainy and cloudy.

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt

I just sent the following email to a local synagogue:

To whom it may concern:

I have lived [in name of neighborhood] for three years, where I am involved in a number of independent Jewish communities. I observe one day of yom tov, in accordance with the Reform minhag, but most of last week's Simchat Torah celebrations in the neighborhood were happening on Tuesday night and Wednesday, when I was not observing the holiday. I saw on [name of congregation]'s website that you were having Simchat Torah services at 6 PM on Monday night, so I decided to go there so that I could celebrate Simchat Torah with a community on the day that I considered to be yom tov. This was all the information I had about the service, and I'm not very familiar with the congregation, but I figured I could just show up.

When I got there on Monday night, the guard at the door asked what I was there for. At first I was taken aback by the question -- I was showing up at a synagogue on a Jewish holiday, so it seemed self-evident that I was there for the holiday. I said that I was there for the service. He asked me which service. I wasn't aware of multiple services, so I said that I didn't know. Apparently the fact that I didn't know where I was going marked me as a suspicious character, so three other security personnel surrounded me and started asking me questions. They searched my bag (which I expected), asked me several times whether I was a member of the congregation (I said no), asked for ID, and had me sign a visitors' log (which presumably I wouldn't have had to do if I were a member). They asked me again which service I was going to, and I asked what the options were. They said that the consecration service was in the sanctuary, and there was a "private event" for members downstairs. (It wasn't clear to me that these were sequential, not simultaneous.) They asked again if I was a member, and I said no, so I went into the sanctuary and joined the service there. Once I was inside, I ran into someone I knew, who invited me to stay after the service for dancing downstairs. I went downstairs afterwards, but I already felt so unwelcome there that I found myself unable to stay for more than a few minutes, so I went home.

No lasting damage was done. I have been to enough other synagogues recently that I understand that this unwelcoming attitude toward outsiders is not typical of the Jewish community in general, or the Reform Jewish community in particular. I plan to remain involved with my Jewish communities (though I am unlikely to return to [name of congregation]). However, if I had been someone new to the city, or someone who hadn't been actively involved with Jewish life recently but who decided that this joyous holiday might be a good time to give a synagogue a try, it is likely that this experience would have been sufficiently alienating that I would have concluded that the Jewish community didn't want me.

I am bringing this to your attention because you claim on your website to be "a welcoming spiritual community", so I wanted to let you know about the public image that you present to visitors, in contrast to this ideal. The security guards treated me with suspicion because they thought I had just wandered in off the street. And I essentially had. But your service times are posted on the outside of the building, creating the (possibly inaccurate) impression that anyone is welcome to come to services, regardless of whether they are members. I understand the need in today's world for security at Jewish institutions. But surely there are ways to protect our communities from harm while still welcoming newcomers.

So then I danced on Tuesday night with the cool kidz (even though it wasn't yom tov for me) and had a much better experience.

I considered the possibility that this sort of interrogation was SOP for urban Reform megashuls (a species with which I lack experience, having grown up in a suburban Reform microshul). But then I found myself in another urban Reform megashul on Friday night, and they just looked through my bag and let me through, without asking any questions. So I'm happy to know that this practice wasn't standard. It will be interesting to see what reply I receive, if any.

The thing that's so bitterly ironic about this is that I sometimes hear the following critique of independent minyanim:

The difference between a synagogue and a minyan is that a synagogue is really open to all kinds of people and tries to stretch wide to make that accommodation. A minyan is most like a club only for its members and like-minded people. The truth is a synagogue is not just a broader version of a minyan. The synagogue cares about the whole Jewish people.
I have attended many independent minyanim, and have never once been asked whether I was a member, or had anyone suggest that I didn't belong there. In fact, most of the new wave of independent minyanim don't even have membership; their doors are always open to everyone. Certainly there are some minyanim that drive me away in other ways; specifically, the style of the service isn't what I'm looking for. But that's my problem, not theirs. No style will be perfect for everyone. But our doors are open to anyone who is seeking what we're offering. The same cannot be said for these supposedly "welcoming" synagogues.

UPDATE: I got a response from the president of the congregation.

[BZ], I am sorry for your experience at the synagogue on Simchat Torah. While we try to work with our professional security staff so that they understand the special nature of their work within the synagogue, sometimes the security side overpowers the welcoming community that we are trying to foster. I am sorry that there wasn't a member greeting at the door, as there is every Shabbat, who might have mitigated your most unwelcome reception. I will share your experience with our Caring Committee and others here, and hopefully we will be able to prevent other "strangers" from entering and feeling so unwelcome, which you know, would have been our preference.

Again, I apologize for this reception and hope you might try us again sometime, with different results.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Ho ho ho! Merry Fitzmas!

Irving Lewis "Scooter" Libby... INDICTMENT!!!!!!

No indictment yet for Rove, but he's not off the hook.

'Twas the night before Fitzmas

Did you ever see the faces of the children, they get so excited
Waking up on Fitzmas morning hours before the winter sun's ignited

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Pigs fly!

The White Sox win the World Series!!! South Side represent! This is Chicago's first World Series championship since the rise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. After 88 years, it's hard to wrap my head around it.

With the Red Sox and the White Sox winning in consecutive years, can the Cubs be far behind?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why I don't observe Simchat Torah

[The series concludes, for now.]

Because it doesn't exist! There is no holiday, biblical or rabbinic, called "Simchat Torah". There is, however, a biblical holiday called Shemini Atzeret. Some observe it for 1 day and others for 2 days. The kiddush and Amidah on all day(s) of this holiday refer to it as "yom hashemini, chag ha'atzeret hazeh" (or "yom shemini atzeret hechag hazeh", depending on nusach).

Shemini Atzeret is the only yom tov that has no special mitzvot (like blowing the shofar, or fasting, or dwelling in a sukkah, or eating matzah and retelling the Exodus, or bringing an offering of new grain) beyond the mitzvot that apply to all festivals. It is MAK's favorite holiday for this reason. But many people don't feel this way about it.

Therefore, to save Shemini Atzeret (just as others, in very different times and places, sought to save Shavuot by creating tikkun leil Shavuot and confirmation), some Babylonian Jews decided to make this the time when the annual cycle of Torah reading was finished and restarted. Thus, they created the ritual of Simchat Torah. This ritual was created for the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, specifically the second day thereof (since these Babylonian Jews observed two days); it is observed on the single day of Shemini Atzeret in communities that observe one day. There is no holiday of Simchat Torah separate from Shemini Atzeret any more than there is a holiday of Zeman Cheiruteinu separate from Pesach.

With this added ritual, the second day of Shemini Atzeret has, of course, become much more popular than the first. Lots of people observe only the second day (which is d'rabbanan) and not the first day (which is d'oraita). Some communities that generally observe one day of yom tov still have their Simchat Torah celebration on the night of the 23rd of Tishrei (i.e. the night that others consider the 2nd night of Shemini Atzeret), to blend in or something.

Since I observe 1 day of yom tov, I'll be taking Tuesday off and observing it as yom tov, then hopping around to various Simchat Torah celebrations on Tuesday night (even though it will be a weekday for me, there's nothing wrong with dancing on a weeknight), and going to work on Wednesday.

I did this last year, and it meant that I didn't really get to hear the end and beginning of the Torah. I had attempted to do so a few years ago, and went on Saturday morning (the day of Shemini Atzeret) to a synagogue that I thought would be doing this (I won't name the synagogue). When I got there, I found out that they had done all their Simchat Torah stuff on Friday night, and on Saturday morning they were just doing a Shabbat service (not a yom tov service) and reading a randomly selected chunk of V'zot Haberachah, and it was a bar mitzvah. After that, I gave up on doing Simchat Torah on the day that I believe to be yom tov. So last year I went to an excellent apartment minyan on Shemini Atzeret morning. This minyan presumed the existence of two days of yom tov, but they didn't do anything that I disapproved of. They read a different Torah reading than I would have read, but "Aser t'aser" (Deuteronomy 14-16) was quite relevant to the day (except that the Deuteronomist doesn't appear to be aware of Shemini Atzeret, but we'll ignore that and read the maftir from P). (Does anyone in the blogosphere know why the Torah reading on Shemini Atzeret starts with "Aser t'aser" (rather than just "Kol habechor") even when it's not on Shabbat? I don't.)

This apartment minyan isn't happening this year. So I welcome suggestions on where to go. Does anyone have recommendations of good places to go in New York City (preferably New York County) on Monday night or Tuesday morning that will do hakafot and/or read the end and beginning of the Torah?

Why I don't observe Hoshanah Rabbah

[The series continues.]

In theory I do. (Yes, it's pagan, but it's cool.) But it's not easy for working people.

Any way you slice it, it's a long service. On paper, it's as long as a Shabbat / Yom Tov service, or longer. Disregarding the special Hoshanah Rabbah stuff, you have everything in a Shabbat service (including full pesukei d'zimrah and full Torah service), except there's no haftarah, and the Torah reading is much shorter, but then there's hallel, and the shacharit Amidah is longer, and some add Psalm 130. And then add in 7 rounds of hoshanot, and extra piyyutim (the Koren machzor lists 5 with the lulav and etrog, and 3 with the willows), and beating the willows on the ground.

And I'm not complaining about the length. But this service doesn't really lend itself to being done before work. Back in college (when we had all the time in the world) it took about 2 hours.

I couldn't find any egalitarian service for tomorrow morning that is likely to get done before 8:00 (when I have to get on the subway for work). So I'll either go to the 6:15 minyan at OZ, or skip Hoshanah Rabbah once again this year.

Both BJ and the Carlebach Shul recognize that it's futile to do justice to the Hoshanah Rabbah service and be done in time for work, so they make no attempt to do so; their services last all morning. And I can't say I blame them -- it's probably better to do something totally rocking for a limited set of people than to do something quick and half-assed that is theoretically accessible to more people but most of those people (such as, quite possibly, myself tomorrow morning) won't actually make it out of bed.

Meanwhile, I look forward to a rocking all-day service, wherever I am, on October 7, 2012, the next time Hoshanah Rabbah falls on a Sunday.

UPDATE: Who was I fooling??? Of course I wasn't going to get up for any 6:15 minyan. But I did get up in time to shake the lulav one last time and beat my willows.

Also, Hoshanah Rabbah would have been on Sunday this year were it not for BeTUTeKaPoT.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Da'as torah

The semiannual Jews In The Woods shabbaton (which I have never attended and am not attending this time, though everyone assumes I have, and I suppose I fit the profile, but I hadn't even heard of JITW when I was in college, the primary demographic; anyway, I'm not annoyed by that assumption the way I am when people ask if I'm in rabbinical school) is happening this weekend, Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Sukkot.

The following appeared in the JITW email. This is priceless.

Creating A Safe Space:

We are a community that includes people with rather different backgrounds, practices, and beliefs – as well as strengths, challenges and loves. When we come together for a weekend, we are aiming to create something that each of us can identify with.

In discussions, it has emerged that the following would help to ensure that we are creating an inclusive space:

1. Drumming: no drumming on Shabbat (during davenning and in public spaces).
2. Nudity: no nudity in public spaces, except in specially designated changing rooms.

Thank you!!

I am certain that this is the first time in history that this pair of rules has been explicitly stated together.

Why I don't observe the 2nd day of Sukkot

(Latest in a series.)

Actually, I do... the same way that I observe the 3rd and 4th days of Sukkot.

Monday, October 17, 2005


It's Tropical Storm Wilma! For the first time ever, the alphabet has been completed! (There is no X, Y, or Z in the tropical storm/hurricane alphabet.) After Wilma, we go on to the Greek alphabet.

(If, chu"sh, Hurricane Alpha is really strong, can its name be retired? If so, will the Greek alphabet just start with Beta next time?)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Red Sox, Shmed Sox

Chicago goes to the World Series for the first time since 1959!!! Is this the end of the Black Sox curse?

Baby, you got the tzara'at

Now that we're between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I'm blogging about a masechet about Purim (Megillah 8b-9b) as it talks about Pesach.

The list of "ein bein" continues.

6a) This one is all about the metzora. If someone has a skin disease that appears to be tzara'at, s/he is quarantined for a week, like Schrodinger's cat. During this time, s/he has the status of a metzora musgar, who has the superposition of the wavefunctions of tzara'at and non-tzara'at. At the end of the week, the priest collapses the wavefunction, and if the patient is found to still have tzara'at, s/he becomes a metzora muchlat: a definite metzora. But, the Mishnah teaches here, there is no difference between the metzora musgar and the metzora muchlat, except that only the latter is required to tear his/her clothes and let his/her hair go loose (Leviticus 13:45).

This means that both the maybe-metzora and the eigen-metzora have to go sit in the corner by themselves (Leviticus 13:46), and they are both tamei until they take the requisite action to make themselves tahor. So the metzora musgar isn't really treated like Schrodinger's cat at all.

Why the distinction between the musgar and the muchlat? Because 13:46 says "kol yemei asher yihyeh bo hanega'" - "all the days in which the plague is in him", so this refers to the muchlat, whose status depends on his body (he is a metzora until his body heals), and not to the musgar, whose status depends on time (he is a metzora for 7 days, and then we'll go from there). In that case, why does the musgar still mostly treated the same as the muchlat? Because it says "kol yemei"("all the days"), not just "the days".

6b) There is no difference between the recently-acquitted metzora musgar and the recently-healed metzora muchlat, except that the latter has to shave and bring an offering of birds (Leviticus 14). But, in order to be tahor, they both have to dunk and wash their clothes.

7) There is no difference between [biblical] books (on the one hand), and tefillin and mezuzot (on the other), except that books can be written in any language, and tefillin and mezuzot must be written in Hebrew, specifically in the "Assyrian" script (not to be confused with the old-school Hebrew alphabet). But they all have to be sewn with sinews, and they all make the hands tamei (I've heard that this was a safeguard so that you don't store food near your books so that rodents will chew the books up).

The ensuing discussion about languages and scripts in biblical texts includes a catalog of all the Aramaic words in the Torah (yegar sahaduta, Genesis 31:47) and Esther (pitgam and yekar, Esther 1:20). The former is clearly intended as a foreign name, used by Lavan the Aramean, but the latter words are used as normal words, indicating that the rabbis weren't in the dark about the loan words that had been creeping into Hebrew.

Then the famous story about the Septuagint: Ptolemy gathered 72 elders to translate the Torah into Greek, and put each of them in isolation, and through divine intervention, they each came up with identical translations.

We go through a list of differences between the Septuagint and the original, and a number of these (it is claimed) were put in so that the non-Jews wouldn't get the wrong idea about the Torah. For example, "Bereishit bara Elohim" ("In the beginning created God") was changed to "Elohim bara bereishit" ("God created in the beginning"), so that they wouldn't think that something called Bereishit created God. "Let us make humans in our image" became "I will make humans with an image", so that God wouldn't appear to be plural or to have a physical form. "God finished on the seventh day and rested on the seventh day" became "God finished on the sixth day and rested on the seventh day", so it wouldn't look like God was breaking Shabbos. And so forth. Finally, Ptolemy's wife was named Arnevet (rabbit), so the animal that you're not supposed to eat (Leviticus 11:6) was changed from "rabbit" to "the one with small legs", so that Ptolemy wouldn't think that his wife was being mocked.

The rabbis clearly had a soft spot for Greek, which they trace all the way back to the lovefest between Yafet (representing Greece) and Shem (representing Israel) in Genesis 9:27.

8a) The high priest used to be anointed with the special oil (Exodus 30:30). Yeah, not anymore. The secret formula was lost, so in later times, the high priest was set apart from the other priests only by wearing lots of extra clothing (Exodus 28). But there's no difference between the high priest anointed with oil and the one with lots of extra clothing, except that only the anointed priest brings the bull mentioned in Leviticus 4:3 (a sin-offering when the high priest himself sins, as distinct from the goats that regular people bring). But they both bring the bull of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16 - hey, this is actually topical again!) and the daily meal offering of 0.1 eifah (Leviticus 6:13 - hey, 613! 613!!!). Anyway, not everyone agrees that they have even that one difference.

8b) The high priest might have to be subbed out, and then a new high priest is brought in from the bullpen (as it were). But then the old high priest might come back! Two high priests! There's no difference between these two, except the aforementioned bull of Yom Kippur and daily 0.1 eifah. Because jeepers, you can't have two copies of those, so only one of them can do it. Again, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Yosei holds that the relief pitcher, after the starting pitcher returns, can't serve as either high priest (because of jealousy) or a regular priest (because we ascend in holiness and don't descend).

9) The rabbis construct their halachic system so that it extends backwards and forwards in time to include all of history, and some of the rules are constructed to be time-dependent functions (on the large scale of history, not just on the usual daily, weekly, and yearly scales). Before the Temple was built, there was no ban on sacrifices outside the Temple -- sacrifices could be brought to the local bamah (altar). A distinction is made between big bamot (semi-centralized places, though nothing with the status of Shiloh or Jerusalem existed) and small bamot (in your backyard). Actually, according to this mishnah, there is no distinction between them, except for pesachim. The pesach offering (and any required offerings) could only be brought to the big bamot, and the small bamot were just for voluntary offerings.

According to a baraita in the Gemara (from Masechet Zevachim, which details this historical construction of halacha in a way that is as amazing as it would be if the Supreme Court were to rule next week on how the First Amendment applied to Native Americans before Columbus), even the large bamot could only be used for timebound required offerings, but non-timebound required offerings (such as the par he'lem davar shel tzibbur) just had to wait for the Temple.

Next time: the final mishnah in this "ein bein" series, and then over 7 uninterrupted dapim of Gemara, most of which will presumably deal with topics other than the difference (or lack thereof) between Shiloh and Jerusalem.

Idle thoughts on Yom Kippur

The cultural context can have a significant impact on our understanding of the liturgy. A phrase in one of the piyyutim originally described a God who is slow to anger, but now suggests that God responds to dishonesty by exposing it to the whole world.

That's right, "ma'arich af" will never have the same connotation after Pinocchio.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Back in July, I posted the article I wrote for CAJE's Jewish Education News to the URJ's Biennial Challenge Forum. No one responded there, so I figured no one read it.

Several months later, someone posted it to mail.liberal-judaism, and now everyone's talking about it! They're using it as a jumping-off point to discuss the deficiencies of many organized Jewish communities.

Monday, October 10, 2005

What's disgusting? Union busting

I don't blog much about work, mainly because I can find my students' blogs, and they're at least as Internet-literate as I am, so there's nothing stopping them from finding mine. But this post isn't really about the students, so it's ok. And I'm not really worried that anyone from the UFT will identify me from this blog and leave a horse's head in my bed.

Over two years after the previous contract expired, the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have reached an agreement about a new contract.

Ok, a number of things in that sentence require comment before even getting into the details of the contract.

1) For the last two years, the UFT has been saying "we don't have a contract!" While it may be technically true that the old contract expired on May 31, 2003, I didn't notice any difference between working with a contract and working "without a contract". That is to say, every provision in the contract has continued to be observed except for the part that says "expires May 31, 2003." We've been showing up to work every day and getting paid twice a month. The school day has been the length specified in the contract, and class sizes have been limited to 34. And I'm no lawyer, but I don't think everyone was going along with this out of the goodness of their hearts; I'm pretty sure that if the city had decided one day to stop paying the teachers, "We don't have to pay them, since there's no contract" would not have stood up in court. Now it's true that we haven't had a raise since the most recent contract was ratified in 2002, and the new contract will provide a raise. But "we haven't had a raise for 2 years" would have been a more honest complaint (and still a legitimate one) than "we haven't had a contract for 2 years".

2) The UFT's report about the new contract starts off "Resolving a two-and-a-half year battle". I don't think this "battle" frame is healthy. Yes, I'm pro-union in general. But I don't think the labor movement's usual us-against-them rhetoric is appropriate for teachers' unions. In this case, the "them" isn't a robber baron or an evil faceless corporation; it's the taxpayers of the City of New York, and their elected representatives. And sometimes it's the students. They're not the enemy. They're us and our children.

3) Gee, what are the odds that after over 2 years of discussion, this gets resolved right just in time for the mayoral election? Everyone involved has been quite overt about this. The UFT threatened to endorse Ferrer if Bloomberg didn't agree to a contract. Now that he has agreed to a contract, it would be awfully spineless for the UFT to endorse Bloomberg after calling him Satan for the last two years, but it looks like now they won't endorse anyone, which will help Bloomberg (as planned). I'm all in favor of the new contract, but Bloomberg isn't going to buy my vote this way. I'm still voting for Ferrer, though I suppose this contract agreement has made me a little bit more apathetic about this election. Note also that Bloomberg has required that the UFT's ratification vote won't take place until after the election -- he doesn't want any embarrassing surprises.

On to the contract itself:

It goes from June 2003 to October 2007. Though I'm sure we're going to have another "2 years without a contract" after that, with everything resolved to great fanfare just in time for the 2009 election. And that prospect doesn't really bother me.

The most important part is the raise, totalling 15%, in gradual increments over 4 years. This is a lot of money. It also means that those of us who have been in the system since 2003 or before can expect a fat retroactive check. No complaints here (though I recognize that I'm a single person with no dependents, so this salary goes a lot further for me than for those who are trying to put food on their families).

For first-year teachers, the total raise is only 9%. But I think that's fine. It means that teachers have an extra incentive to stick around beyond the first year, because they'll know that they have a 6% jump waiting the following year, so this might help make up their mind to stay. And even if they're feeling defeated after the first year, teaching gets so much easier after that.

Along with the raise, the contract also includes provisions that the union negotiators see as concessions, though I see all of these provisions as either positive or inconsequential, so it's a win-win situation. Clearly the union leadership thinks that, even if these are concessions, they are worth it to get the 15% raise. However, some teachers at my school think that these concessions outweigh the gains, and therefore the contract should be rejected. I think these people are insane.

What are these provisions?

  • The school day will be lengthened by 10 minutes. For multi-session schools like mine, this means the official day will go from 6 hours 40 minutes to 6 hours 50 minutes. But so what? I don't know what that really means until I see the new bell schedule for my school. It's only in elementary schools where the students and teachers are actually in class continuously from the beginning of the day until 6 hours 40 minutes later. In high schools like mine, this probably means that each period will be 1 minute longer. Ok.
  • Two professional development days will be added before Labor Day, and classes will start for real right after Labor Day. My colleague JA says "Labor Day for teachers is like New Year's Eve for alcoholics", meaning that we've just been on vacation for two months, so Labor Day weekend is nothing special. Also, Brooklyn-Queens Day will go from being a day off for Brooklyn and Queens and a regular schoolday for the other boroughs to being a professional development day for the whole city. I don't know what kind of "professional development" we'll be doing in June, but that's not my problem to worry about.
  • Some opportunities for grievances have been eliminated, so it will be slightly easier to fire teachers (which is currently near impossible). Good!
  • Teachers will no longer be able to use seniority transfers to bump other teachers, and all transfers must be approved by the principal. This is also good -- the system is broken if a bitter teacher with 30 years in the system can come in and bump a dynamic yet less experienced teacher, and no one can do a thing about it.
  • This "professional activity" thing. Come on, is 10 minutes of homeroom once a week really such a big deal?
I'm sure that a number of teachers are worried because they would have been fired long ago if the contract didn't make that so difficult, and now their time is coming closer. So it occurred to me that the good teachers and the bad teachers both need the protections in the contract, but for different reasons. The bad teachers need the contract so that they can't get fired. The good teachers need it because the administrators would love to have us teach 10 classes a day if the contract didn't cap this at 5.

Let's hope that the results of this contract are what is best for the students: attracting and retaining competent teachers, and eliminating incompetent teachers.

Nothing in between

Megillah 7b-8b:

The next chunk of the Mishnah in Megillah contains a long series of statements connected not by content but by structure. Inspired by the mishnah on 6b that said "There is no difference between Adar I and Adar II except the reading of the megillah and matanot la'evyonim [gifts to the poor]", we go on and riff on the theme of "Ein bein X v'Y ela Z" / "There is no difference between X and Y except Z." We got to 5 of these 10 little vignettes. For each of these, the Gemara assumes that Z is very well-specified, to mark a very sharp line for exactly where the similarities between X and Y end, so anything not specified in Z is assumed to be the same for X and Y.

1) Topical during this holiday season: There is no difference between [the prohibitions of work on] Shabbat and Yom Tov except ochel nefesh - the food for each person discussed in Exodus 12:16. You and I might read this to mean that building or plowing is prohibited on both Shabbat and Yom Tov, while any work related to food (to be eaten that day) is prohibited only on Shabbat. And Rabbi Yehuda would agree with you. But the opinion that the Gemara imputes to the Mishnah says that it's only ochel nefesh itself that is permitted on Yom Tov, and machshirei ochel nefesh (this might refer to peripheral work that is indirectly related to food, or might refer to tools that are used for food -- Rashi gives the example of sharpening a knife that got dull on Yom Tov) is prohibited on both. The resolution is that if it was possible to get it done before Yom Tov, then it should be done before (and not on Yom Tov), and if it wasn't possible before, then it can be done on Yom Tov.

2) Even more topical for this week: There is no difference between [the prohibitions of work on] Shabbat and Yom Kippur except that the punishment for Shabbat is by human hands (stoning!), and the punishment for Yom Kippur is by divine hands (the mysterious kareit). Therefore, Shabbat and Yom Kippur are equal in regard to payment: If you go on a destructive rampage on Shabbat and cause $100,000 of damage, then you would be liable for $100,000 (for the damage) and your life (for violating Shabbat). Except that you're already paying with your life, so you don't have to pay the $100,000. And the same is true for Yom Kippur, even though no human court can sentence you to death. So I suppose the lesson is that if you want to go on a destructive rampage, do it on Yom Kippur (if you're not afraid of kareit). We get some discussion of whether multiple punishments (humanly applied and divinely applied) can be applied for the same offense, e.g. kareit and makkot (lashes) - not everyone agrees.

3) Sort of topical this week, since we'll annul vows at Kol Nidrei: There is no difference between one who vows to get no benefit from someone, and one who vows to get no food from someone, except passing through on foot, and implements that aren't used for food. Thus, implements used for food are included under the "no food" vow. But what's with the passing through on foot? People usually don't care about who happens to walk through their hard. Ah, but when a vow is made, people start caring about things they wouldn't normally care about.

4) More vows: The difference between a neder and a nedavah. A neder is when I say "An olah is hereby [incumbent] on me." A nedavah is when I say "This is hereby an olah." The difference is that if the animal intended as a neder dies or runs away, I still owe one olah from somewhere, whereas if the nedavah dies or runs away, I don't owe anything. However, they are both subject to bal te'acheir (which we read all about back in Masechet Rosh Hashanah) - the idea that the vows have a due date after one festival, or three festivals, or the conclusion of this festival cycle (go to Rosh Hashanah to read all about the dispute).

5) There is no difference between a zav who has seen two sightings and one who has seen three sightings, except that the latter has to bring a sacrifice (see Leviticus 15:14). But otherwise, they're equally tamei, and have to wait 7 days before they can dunk and be tahor. This is based on a typically close reading of Leviticus 15 that I don't really have much to say about. Hint: count the instances of the root "zav", and you'll reach the same conclusion.

5765 on one foot

5765 has come to an end, and now we're in the airlock during this liminal decade, pressurizing, written for 5766 but not yet sealed. From this vantage point we can look backwards at 5765 and forward to the rest of 5766.

5765 began full of hope, when it appeared that we would soon wake up from our long national nightmare. It didn't work out. But a year later, the Republican regime is slowly but surely falling apart.

The Iraq War continues with no end in sight. The Darfur conflict continues.

We watched in horror as 280,000 people died in the tsunami, and the world opened their hearts and wallets to assist the survivors. Yet we knew deep down that we were in America, so this couldn't happen to us. Then came Katrina and Rita, and we saw that our government can do no better than Third-World governments in protecting us from natural disasters.

In happier news, Israel has removed itself from Gaza, so that it is no longer ruling over 1.5 million disenfranchised Palestinians, moving us closer to the day when Israel is a Jewish democratic state with defined borders, and the Palestinians have either a viable state or no one to blame but themselves.

Orange was the color of the year, from Ukraine to New York to Israel.

It has been a year of transitions, with the deaths and replacements of many long-serving world leaders: the pope who had been in office for my whole life, the Palestinian leader who had been in office for my whole life, and the Chief Justice of the United States who had been on the Supreme Court for my whole life.

In less consequential news, 5765 was the end of the Star Wars series and the Red Sox curse. So may 5766 be the end of all wars and curses.

As we'll say on Thursday toward the end of Ne'ilah:
"Yehi ratzon milefanecha shomeia' kol bechiyot / shetasim dim'oteinu benodecha lihyot / v'tatzileinu mikol gezeirot achzariot / ki lecha levad 'eineinu teluyot."
"May it be your will, the one who hears the sound of crying, that you put our tears in your flask, and save us from all cruel decrees, for our eyes are raised to you alone."

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The old country

I don't start paying attention to baseball until October. But now Chicago is in the postseason! And the South Side, no less.

If the White Sox and the Cardinals go to the World Series, then all Chicago fans will be united behind a common cause!

(It will be the equivalent of the Mets vs. the Red Sox.)

All shapes and sizes, Vincent

Tropical Storm Vince was born this morning! It is far out in the Atlantic, and due to low temperatures, it is unlikely to last long enough to hit land. Vince's significance is that it is the first "V" storm ever. Since the letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used, there is only one more name (Wilma) on the list of Atlantic hurricane names. So if there are two more tropical storms or hurricanes in the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, we have to go to the Greek alphabet. Hurricane Alpha!

Don't get me wrong. I think hurricanes are really bad. I'm not advocating for any more destruction like we saw from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But I wouldn't mind seeing a few more harmless storms like Vince appears to be so far, just so we can finish the alphabet.

Also, with all the attention that the National Hurricane Center is getting this year, it's too bad that the National Havurah Committee didn't register .

Update: That's Hurricane Vince now! And the farthest north and east an Atlantic hurricane has ever been recorded. Don't worry, it still doesn't pose a threat to land. Vince should break up before it hits Portugal.

18,000 dead in Pakistan