Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fit to be tithed

Today is the last day to make donations in 2006, so I'm finalizing my list (and expecting to get an automated call from Visa any minute saying "Did you really mean to make all these credit card payments?"). ZT has a great post on tithing, and I fully endorse the general contents (though I have a different list of organizations). Thanks also to ZT for bringing this article to my attention -- how much better would the Jewish world be if we could apply the same obsessive-compulsiveness to tzedakah that we do to cleaning for Pesach?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

10 Tevet

Esther prepared to enter the king's chamber on behalf of her people, with the hope that she could reverse the king's evil decree. Three days before she went in, Esther and all the Jews of Shushan began to fast, praying for success and underscoring how much was at stake.

In three days, a new Congress will take office, entering the chambers of power with a mandate from the people to reverse the king's decrees. We rejoiced when their election rekindled hope, but now we fast in solemn solidarity, praying that their mandate will be successfully carried out.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part VI: The limits of pluralism

Previous episodes:
This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. This post, inspired by numerous comments on the previous posts, explores the limits of (Stage 3) pluralism. When is a pluralistic solution impossible or undesirable?


Before we get started, a few reminders (found in Part II):
  • A pluralistic community need not include everyone in order to be pluralistic. In fact, the examples in this post will show that if such a requirement were in place, then no pluralistic communities could exist.
  • If I say that Reuven's practice and Shimon's practice can't coexist in a Stage 3 pluralistic community, that's not a value judgment about either of their practices; it just means that they're mismatched for this purpose. They should live and be well in separate communities, or in the same community (in which one of them will not have his identity fully actualized within the community's practice). (I might separately believe that Reuven's or Shimon's practice is wrong, but I won't mention that in this post, because the purpose of this post is community engineering, not criticism of individual practices.)
  • It's ok for a community to take a stand on one side of an issue and thus be non-pluralistic on that issue. The community should just be honest that that's what's going on, and not claim to be a place for everyone.
With that in mind, let's look at some obstacles to Stage-3 pluralism.

The Meta-Pluralism Problem

Pluralism doesn't require meta-pluralism (pluralism about pluralism). Pluralism need not extend to encompass anti-pluralistic worldviews. You have to pay to play: if you want the protections of pluralism, you have to buy into pluralism yourself. This doesn't mean you have to believe that other positions are valid, but it does mean you have to respect their right to exist.

For example, during the recent controversy over the Jerusalem gay pride parade, supporters of the parade were accused of hypocrisy. The argument went something like "You liberals claim to be about pluralism and tolerance, but by having this parade, you're being intolerant of people who believe that homosexuality is wrong." The fallacy in this argument is that the anti-parade position was anti-pluralistic, and therefore did not warrant pluralistic protections. If the parade organizers had forced haredim to engage in gay sex, this would indeed have been intolerant and non-pluralistic. However, the haredi objections were directed at the very existence of the parade. No one can be expected to go out of existence in the name of pluralism. If the opponents of the parade want to maintain this anti-pluralistic position, they forfeit the right to use pluralism in support of their position.

More broadly, people who say "I can't be in a community where people are/do X" (where X = gay, Orthodox, pray, drive on Shabbat, whatever), and people who are/do X, can't coexist in the same pluralistic community (which sounds tautological as stated). Either the community decides to be pluralistic on this issue (in which case the former position is unwelcome, since it is anti-pluralistic), or the community decides not to be pluralistic on this issue and to place X outside the community norms (in which case people who are/do X can leave, or can stick around as guests but not as fully enfranchised members of the community).

The Classification Problem

Reuven and Shimon cannot form a Stage-3 pluralistic community together for a given purpose if Reuven's identity requires that the community formally recognize a classification among people that Shimon would perceive as making Shimon into a second-class citizen in violation of his own identity.

We have several examples of this from comments posted to past Hilchot Pluralism posts.

Sarah M comments on Part IV:
-what to do when there are community members who object to hearing kol isha, a woman singing?
If there is no singing at all in whatever this community is gathered for, then there's no issue. But if there is, there is no way to simultaneously be sensitive to people with kol isha concerns and avoid offending people who are operating outside of that paradigm. A policy that requires half the community to be literally silenced will not be perceived as benign by people who do not share the underlying worldview. Here again, the community must make a choice between two incommensurable policies, or demarcate space for both.

ALG comments on Part II:
There are Orthodox people who won't trust the kashrut of anyone who is not shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha, which means that even the two table system is impossible (you said it could be stage 3, not just stage 2, which would imply that it could work and no one could have to compromise).
The two-table system is about food, not about people. Anyone can bring food for either of the two tables as long as s/he follows the instructions correctly. For Table 2, some people can prepare the food in their own kitchens, while others have to use other people's kitchens or bring store-bought food, but anyone can find a way to do it if s/he wants. This is true even if the potluck is Table-2-only (or, of course, Table-1-only). There is no hierarchy of who is considered trustworthy; everyone is considered equally able to follow directions and make accurate statements.

If the community adopts a policy (even for just one of the two tables) that deems only some people as trustworthy, on the basis of their personal practices that take place outside of the context of this community and have no direct connection to the specific issue at hand (note that ALG's example is about people who are "shomer(et) Shabbat according to Orthodox halacha", not "shomer(et) kashrut", even though the issue at hand is about kashrut), then the community is implicitly adopting a particular set of personal practices as a communal norm. Even though people who don't hold these practices are equally able to participate in this hypothetical alternative two-table system that distinguishes among people (not just among food), the community has adopted a particular cognitive frame for "shomer(et) Shabbat" as normative. Establishing this frame means placing people with different frames outside the Stage-3 boundaries of this community. Therefore, the community must choose whether or not to adopt a norm about personal practice (even if this norm is not enforced and everyone is welcome to participate), and either way, someone will be excluded from Stage-3 participation.

The minyan check system (in any of its variations) doesn't share this problem, because any minyan definitions that arise, no matter how exclusive or offensive they may be to some individuals, emanate from other individuals, not from the community's policy. Once the community creates the infrastructure for the minyan check (and there is some disagreement about the proper infrastructure), it is completely impartial about the content of minyan counting.

The trichitza also doesn't share this problem, because people have a choice not to be classified at all.

The Aesthetic Preference Problem

This isn't actually a problem. But it's one answer to Sarah M's comment on Part IV:
-a discussion of when it might not be the best idea for everyone to be davening in the same room?
It's one thing if people want to do the same thing together, and are looking for a way to overcome their differences and make this happen. But if people aren't really interested in doing the same thing, then what's the point in doing it together? Someone is bound to be unhappy. Better they should do it separately, and come together for something more mutually agreeable.

To use davening as a concrete example (in response to Sarah M's comment), if you and I want to daven in the same basic style, except that we want to say slightly different words, or we want to wear different things, or we want to sit in differently composed sections, and so forth, then we've already discussed at length how to make this happen. But if Reuven wants a Classical Reform service with organ and choir, and Shimon wants a Carlebach-style service with lengthy communal "yai dai dai", and Dina wants yeshiva-style speed mumbling, and Tamar wants guided meditation, then it's unlikely that there is a way to achieve all of these goals while maintaining the integrity of each one. Beyond a certain point, each style gets watered down so that its quality (judged by its internal metric) suffers, and the people need to decide whether their desire to pray together outweighs the quality of their individual prayer experiences.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with answering "no" to this question. People can split up to pray in separate groups, or if the community has reasons that it wants to pray together, it can consider solutions such as alternating between different styles (as Tikkun Leil Shabbat does) without watering down each style. If the community decides based on aesthetic preferences to split for prayer (or something else), it can find other venues to come together.

The Education Problem

In economics, theoretical models of the market assume that people act like Homo economicus, operating rationally and with complete information. One way in which these models fail to predict actual market behavior, and in which markets fail to operate efficiently, is that real humans have incomplete information, so they are not able to make the decisions that would result in an optimal distribution of resources.

Jewish pluralism suffers from a similar disconnect between theory and practice. We can talk here in the ivory blogosphere about Stage 3 pluralism and creating a community that respects everyone's identity. But it doesn't work when people don't have enough education, experience, and/or self-confidence to have fully-formed Jewish identities that they can speak up for in the community's discourse.

One example is when the participants are at the stage in life when their identities overall are still in formation, let alone their Jewish identities. Mah Rabu correspondent EMM writes to us from the world of pluralistic Jewish schools:

“Pluralistic” Jewish schools welcome students whose families embrace substantially differing Jewish practices. Do any of these schools actually enact Stage-3 pluralism in their student communities? To the extent that a child’s Jewish identity does not satisfy BZ’s “robust and confident” criterion, it seems impossible in principle for these schools to be Stage-3 communities.

Consider the following situation: Peretz and Zerach attend a Jewish school with pluralistic ambitions. A teacher plans a siyyum celebrating the completion of a unit of study and invites students to contribute snacks to share with the class. The teacher, having read about the two-table system, sorts the food into hekhshered and non-hekhshered sets and informs the students about how the food was sorted. Peretz chooses to snack from the hekhsher-only table and Zerach chooses to nosh from both tables. Has Stage-3 pluralism occurred?

The answer depends on the degree to which the students’ decisions were informed and secure. Did Peretz snack confidently? Did Zerach nosh robustly? Perhaps Peretz and Zerach are somewhat precocious, and perhaps they have benefited from excellent instruction about kashrut, modern Jewish history, and Hilchot Pluralism. Even so, classical bar/bat mitzvah age notwithstanding, it would be a stretch to regard their decisions about religious observance as adult decisions unless Peretz and Zerach were at least 15 years old. More realistically, we might take our cue from the 26th amendment and regard the typical young person as capable of making informed decisions about nuanced issues only at the age of 18 years. Regardless of how one determines the precise cutoff age, most primary and secondary school students are not fully-fledged, confident, secure Jewish decision-makers.

Schools, therefore, are not Stage-3 communities of children. Perhaps, however, the students in such schools are merely surrogate decision-makers for their parents (or guardians). Are pluralistic schools Stage-3 communities of adults? To the extent that pluralistic institutions ought to value diversity and prepare students to make their own adult Jewish choices, the answer again is ‘no’.

Consider the following situation: A school maintains an enormous database of parent preferences about Jewish practice. The school requires parents to make these decisions for their children and requires students to abide by these decisions during school activities. Ignore the practical problems surrounding collection and implementation. In theory, such a school would include families with divergent home practices. Is this Stage-3 pluralism?

Maybe, but this school is failing to be pluralistic in the more profound sense of valuing diversity and preparing students to make their own confident adult choices. Parenting involves striking a balance between making decisions for children and letting children make their own decisions, with a gradual shift in emphasis to the latter as children get older. When a parent signs on the dotted line and enrolls a child in a school, the parent admits the school as a partner in the task of child-raising. A pluralistic school can be a safe place for a student to learn to experiment with their emerging adult Jewish identity within parameters defined by the school. If the parent makes every last decision about Jewish practice for a child, and if the school reinforces those decisions, who is teaching the child that diversity of confidently-chosen Jewish identities is a good thing?

The fact that Stage-3 pluralism is not strictly possible in these settings does not mean that these institutions should adopt a Stage-1 or Stage-2 approach or abandon pluralistic aspirations entirely. It does demand that they develop a vision of pluralism that honors the gradually emerging distinctness of parent and child. Jewish schools that aspire to fully-fledged pluralism will need to explicitly inform parents about the extent to which the institution will enforce the preferences of the parents (when they exist) and the extent to which it will promote the child’s development into an independent, informed, confident Jewish decision-maker.

Perhaps truly pluralistic Jewish education is impossible below a certain age, and it is necessary to gain a non-pluralistic foundation so that one can function later in pluralistic settings.

Though pluralistic Jewish schools are multiplying, the vast majority of active Jews continue to attend secular schools or non-pluralistic Jewish schools, while participating in non-pluralistic Jewish communities outside of school, and have their first exposure to Jewish pluralism in college. Hillel is an organization on campuses throughout the world that is committed to producing pluralistic Jewish communities. Some Jewish students are ready for that when they get to college, and others aren't. This disparity is a major reason why most Hillels are never pushed to move beyond Stage 1.

The root of the problem is not simply that 18-year-olds are at a wide range of levels of Jewish education and preparation when they get to college. The problem is that this disparity is correlated with denominational background (and yes, most active Jews get to college with some sort of denominational affiliation in their history, even if those labels are less meaningful in post-college life).

Many Orthodox 18-year-olds have a solid Jewish background. Often they've spent a year in yeshiva after high school. They have lived in a functioning Jewish community where Judaism is lived on a daily basis by regular folks, and they have an image of the type of community they want to emulate. They may not know much about non-Orthodox Jews or Judaism, but they know about themselves and their own form of Judaism. They know enough to be in command of their own Jewish lives during college and to express their preferences and needs in the wider community's discourse.

In contrast, many 18-year-olds from Reform backgrounds (even active ones) lack this solid foundation. Back home, Jewish life was centered on the synagogue, where it was the rabbi's job to know what was going on, so regular people never had to figure it out for themselves and become self-sufficient. Maybe they've had Jewish "peak experiences" at camp or at NFTY conclaves or on an Israel trip. But these experiences, valuable though they are, are so self-contained and dependent on a specific environment that is (by design) isolated from ordinary life that they fail to provide tools for incorporating Judaism into ordinary life. These students have always experienced Judaism in places where someone else was in control of the environment, and don't have experience creating these Jewish environments for themselves. But they're ready to try. Maybe. If they know where to begin. But it's confusing. They're just starting to figure things out.

So the two groups arrive at Hillel and collide. Two groups that together personify Erikson's fifth stage: identity vs. role confusion. One group confidently knows everything, in that way that only adolescents can, and one group is having an identity crisis, in that way that only adolescents can. One group is asking "What are the laws, precepts, and ordinances that our God has commanded you?" and one group is asking "What is this?". And they're broken down on lines of ideology and practice, with Orthodox Jews primarily falling into the first group and liberal Jews primarily into the second.

And somehow they're supposed to cobble together a pluralistic Jewish community where everyone's identity is respected. That's not going to happen when one group of students are confidently asserting their identity and another group of students are timidly trying to feel theirs out. So even though everyone has the best intentions, the result is frequently Stage 1, because the students with the most confidence and knowledge end up having the greatest influence on the discourse, so the Orthodox cognitive frames become the frames for the whole community.

My proposed solution will come as no surprise: create robust liberal Jewish communities so that children (and adults) can develop solid knowledgeable liberal Jewish identities, and will then be ready to take part in Stage-3 pluralism. Any attempt at pluralism without this foundation is putting the cart before the horse, and has little chance of success (if success is defined as Stage 3).

Coming in Part VII: ???


Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Back in September I wrote:
(I can't stand the appellation "young professionals", but that deserves a separate rant.)

An anonymous commenter responded:
please, please, please do your rant on the icky term "young professionals!" (we are what we do for money, and what we do for money is always very white collar??)

So here goes.

There are some instances when the use of "young professionals" is warranted: when career networking (and thus the actual "profession") is the explicit objective, or when referring derisively or jokingly to the "yuppie" stereotype.

But much of the time, the "professional" part is irrelevant. Really, people are just trying to refer to a particular age group, and the "professional" part is just incidental filler. This leads to one of two readings, both of which are offensive: 1) As Anonymous suggests, everyone is assumed to be a "professional". 2) There is no such assumption, but only "professionals" are invited.

If neither of these readings is intended and the goal is just to refer to an age group, then why does the phrase "young professional" have such traction?

I think it's like "Czech Republic".

We don't ordinarily refer to countries by their national adjective followed by their system of government. We don't say "Mexican Republic" or "Cuban Dictatorship" or "Iraqi Anarchy". We just use the noun forms of the countries' names.

But ever since Czechoslovakia split in 1993, the Czech part never had a noun name that caught on in English, just the adjective. (It was never an independent nation before; before World War I, it was part of Austria-Hungary along with much of central Europe.) Czechia has been suggested, but hasn't become popular yet. So in the meantime, we talk about the "Czech Republic", gratuitously mentioning its system of government for no good reason, all because of a grammatical constraint.

"Young professionals" is the same way. Really they just mean "young", but that's an adjective, so they need to find a noun to stick after it. "Young people" doesn't work, because that suggests children. What they mean is "young adults", but that doesn't work either, because that is a euphemism for adolescents has been used to refer to what we would now call adolescents since before adolescence was constructed. They're looking for a phrase that refers to the young end of the stage that our society now thinks of as adulthood. And someone thought that "professionals" would do the trick, since "professionals" can't be any younger than 21 or so. Except that this usage is problematic, as discussed above.

The solution: If you want to refer to an age range, refer to the age range explicitly, and don't look for descriptive labels, because our language isn't versatile enough to provide one.

Look back on those days when my life was a haze

This is a continuation of my goal to write all the posts that I said I would. (Hilchot Pluralism Part VI will be here ASAP, I promise!)

I already blogged about Shabbat at IT, and said:
Then there was Shabbat at Coventry. This time around, we weren't stupid, and left on Thursday and arrived on Friday morning (after a similarly awful traffic jam), well before Shabbat. We did kabbalat shabbat in the rain, and had a sumptuous tailgate Shabbat dinner on the hood of the car. Others weren't so lucky (or didn't plan ahead), but this story (involving the disciples of Rav Shmuel) deserves its own post.

So here's the full story.

After over two decades together, Phish decided to call it quits, and convened a final two-day festival in August 2004. The festival was in Coventry, minutes from the Quebec border, in the serene Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the area where Trey Anastasio wrote some of Phish's earliest classics while living in a cabin there in the '80s. For a few days, Coventry was the most populous city in the history of Vermont.

IT, the previous summer's festival, in Limestone, Maine (minutes from the New Brunswick border), had been a logistical disaster on many levels. The site was 57 miles past the end of I-95, that's 57 miles on rural two-lane roads that were never meant to accommodate 70,000 people. And they somehow had to get 70,000 people into the venue in a short window of time, which might have been more feasible if it weren't for the RAIN which had soaked the area just before the festival and rendered some of the parking/camping areas unusable, forcing the organizers to scramble for new space. They pulled it off, but it wasn't pretty, and we sat through a 12-hour traffic jam on the way in, and spent the next few days wading through MUD. So much mud.

So they tried to get some of these things right for Coventry. This time, the site was much closer to major population centers (really, you have no idea how big Maine is), and was only 6 miles off of I-91, so most of the driving, even close to the site, was on interstates. The actual shows were on Saturday and Sunday nights. For IT, they had opened up the venue on Friday morning to allow plenty of time for people to get in. Even that wasn't enough time, so this time around, they opened the doors on Thursday at noon. But there was one factor that they couldn't control: the RAIN was even worse this time. There were murmurs about the worst flood that this area had seen in n years, yadda yadda.

I drove up with EAR and Crammed. Determined to avoid last year's madness, we went up early enough to avoid the worst of it. We drove up on Thursday, so we would get there well before Shabbat. Since we made a detour to the Ben & Jerry's factory (amid sheets of rain), we weren't on I-91 with everyone else, and headed toward the Northeast Kingdom on minor roads that we mostly had to ourselves. Until the last few miles, which took all night. But then it was Friday morning and we were there.

We had an unpleasant run-in with the authorities on the way in. Part of the bottleneck was caused by searches of every car, looking for illegal substances, stowaways (without tickets), and anything that looked like it was for sale (since it was important that no one buy anything other than from a licensed vendor, so that Great Northeast Productions could take its huge cut). We had two boxes of Pri Eitz Hadar CDs in the trunk of the car -- one opened and one unopened. We had been selling them at Institute, and had completely forgotten that they were still in the car. We were told that we couldn't bring the CDs in. We said (entirely truthfully) that we had no intention of selling the CDs inside the festival, and we just had them with us from something else. They said that we had a choice -- we could hand over the CDs, or we could turn around and leave them somewhere else. We asked if there was any place we could leave the CDs and pick them up afterwards, and they said no. So this wasn't much of a choice at all -- it wasn't like we could call up our buddy in Newport and ask if we could park the CDs at his house for a few days, and even if we could, we would have to wait in the 12-hour line again. After pondering the possibility of just going home, we decided to hand over the CDs, as I mentally prepared to explain to the Hadar gabbais what had happened, and to pay for all the CDs. I hoped that Hadar would have mercy and would just let me pay for them at cost rather than at the sticker price.

Once we got inside and got settled, we found someone with more authority than the people who had confiscated the CDs, and explained our plight. He was sympathetic to us, and retrieved the CDs from the area where they were storing all the contraband, and we lived happily ever after. But now we understood why it took so long to get in -- if there is this type of protracted negotiation with each car, and you multiply that by several thousand, it adds up quickly. And they weren't even going after the right people -- it was obvious that many people did get in with merchandise they were selling, and much more of it than 1.5 boxes, and much more appealing to the average Phish fan's tastes than not one but two versions of Ashrei.

But that's not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about Shabbat.

Thanks to Shamir, I had scored Rav Shmuel's cell phone number. Rav Shmuel (not to be confused with Rav and Shmuel) is a Hasidic rabbi who teaches Torah by day and is "undercover as a singer-songwriter right here at the Sidewalk Cafe" by night. During the Phish years, he and his entourage used to follow Phish around, and make Shabbat happen on tour. I heard that he would be organizing some kind of Shabbat thing at Coventry, so I called him up on Friday afternoon to find out where the party was at. It immediately became clear that things had gone wrong and there was no party that night. Since this was the last Phish show ever, Rav Shmuel had cashed in all his connections and gotten VIP status, so he had been able to get into the grounds through the supersecret entrance with no hassle. But the RV carrying Rav Shmuel's disciples and all the food was not so lucky. They were still stuck in the endless traffic jam and were not going to make it inside in time for Shabbat. So there were no Friday night festivities, but he told us to meet at a certain location at 11 AM on Saturday, and they'd figure out what was happening.

So EAR, Crammed, and I made our own Shabbat dinner, with food from the on-site Vermont farmers' market, and we did kabbalat shabbat the best we could recall from memory (it started to rain again, and we didn't want to get our siddurim wet), had a Shabbat dinner that couldn't be beat, went to sleep (quite soundly, having spent the previous night in the car), and didn't get up until the next morning.

Coventry was abuzz on Saturday morning. Mike Gordon went on the Bunny and announced that due to the flooding, the festival site had reached its capacity, and they couldn't let any more cars in. He told everyone who was still in their car to turn around and go home, and their tickets would be refunded.

(Why Mike? Because he was the "good cop". Everyone knew that Trey Anastasio was the main force behind Phish's breakup, so the fans were pissed at Trey already. Some took this to extremes -- I saw signs that read "TREY = WILSON". Mike, on the other hand, was widely known to be opposed to the breakup, so he still had credibility with the fans, and got to be the bearer of bad news.)

Of course people weren't going to turn around after coming this far. (Sunk cost, shmunk cost.) Instead, they pulled their cars over into the shoulder of I-91, took out everything they could carry on their backs, and walked the rest of the way in, some of them walking 20 miles.

We went to the appointed meeting place at 11 AM and found some of Rav Shmuel's entourage. The RV had arrived early that morning, before they stopped letting vehicles in. It was in the RV area way back near the entrance to the site, so we started walking toward the outskirts.

Rav Shmuel's disciples don't drive on Shabbat, so how did they get the RV inside after Shabbat started? "We went through 4 or 5 non-Jewish drivers. We told them they could have all the fried chicken and marijuana they wanted." None of the vehicles were moving very fast, and they all had lots of passengers, so Rav Shmuel's disciples had recruited passengers from other cars to take shifts driving the RV, while they themselves walked alongside for the remaining miles, which, of course, wasn't any slower than driving.

We arrived at the RV, and there was a tarp on the ground next to it. People were bringing out food, and more food, and more food. There was cholent, and kugel, and of course fried chicken, and probably enough of it for 50 people, for 2 meals (since this was supposed to be Friday night's dinner too). There were about 25 of us there.

Rav Shmuel himself is a class act, but some of the people following him around (and following Phish around) seemed to be lost souls. They seemed relatively new to the whole Jewish thing, and this was the latest thing that they were experimenting with. Mostly boisterous men, with a few women who didn't talk. One of the men (we'll call him Ephraim) made kiddush on an overflowing cup of whiskey, followed by cheering from the crowd as he downed the whole thing. As we started eating, Ephraim shared a vort. "The word mayim has one yud, and the word lechayim has two yuds. When the goyim drink, they drink alone, one yud, like it's mayim. But when we drink, we drink together, two yuds, so it's more than just mayim, we're making a lechayim. Lechayim!"

Pause. We sat there uncomfortably.

Rav Shmuel said calmly "I'm not so into that." Ephraim turned around, confused. Rav Shmuel said "We should be thankful that we live in this country, and be proud to be Jewish, without putting down our neighbors." Ephraim got defensive, but not argumentative, since he wasn't going to question his rav. He said "I wasn't putting them down, I was just saying they have a drinking problem." Pause. Ephraim continued, "Of course, I have a drinking problem too."

Score one for Rav Shmuel.

Sava'nu vehotarnu. We were finished eating, and there were still mountains of food left over. Who would consume all of it? At this point, situated as we were near the entrance, we could see hundreds of people hiking in with tents on their backs -- that's right, the people who had parked on the side of I-91 were now arriving in bigger and bigger waves. One of Rav Shmuel's people yelled "FREE KOSHER FOOD!"

"Duuuude, I'm staaaarving!" The hikers came over and helped themselves to hot cholent. "You guys rock, man."

Now it was time for zemirot. Some people started "Baruch El Elyon", a Modzitz classic. But after a verse or two, the fresh-off-the-boat "BTs" realized they didn't know the words, and scrambled around looking for a bencher. Meanwhile, I (wearing my NFTY T-shirt with the letters of NFTY in the shape of the Phish logo) knew all the words, so I was able to keep it going (and I promise we didn't sing this song back in NFTY).

You can't make this stuff up, and sometimes I wonder whether any of it happened or whether it was just a strange dream brought on by too much Chunky Monkey back at the Ben & Jerry's factory.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The War on 4 Tevet

I don't drive a Mercedes-Benz, and
I don't desire to own one
I'd sooner watch a flower grow than the latest from
Sylvester Stallone
I don't have me a country club membership
I ride the Greyhound bus
I don't have a cabin two hours north of here
I don't celebrate Christmas

But it's my country too
Sometimes I gotta remind myself
It's my country too
I pay my taxes
Vote on election day
I stop at stop signs
Just like you

--Dan Bern

Friday, December 22, 2006

Establishing the mishkan

I just posted this devar torah for Chanukah on JSpot. It's a condensed version of the Lunch-and-Learn that I taught last Shabbat at Hadar. (If you can get your hands on a copy of Pesikta deRav Kahana, I recommend reading the whole story. It's section 1, and it's really good.)

That same morning at Hadar, General Anna gave this devar torah, inspired in part by this Arlo Guthrie concert that we both attended.

Tonight is both the winter solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tevet! So it really is the darkest time of the year: the shortest period of daylight, and the darkest night. It will only get brighter after this.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Us us us us us us us and them them them them them them them

I received not one but two (identical) solicitation letters in the mail today from the Union for Reform Judaism. I think the way I got on their "donor" mailing list is that I sent a contribution last year to the URJ's Katrina Relief fund. All denominational and non-denominational politics aside, the URJ and the Jewish communities of New Orleans and throughout the South did admirable work in assisting evacuees in the aftermath of the hurricane. If they asked for more money to continue rebuilding the Gulf Coast, I'd donate again.

But that's not what this letter was about. They're looking for contributions to the Fund for Reform Judaism to support "Outreach". The climactic paragraph says:

As our Movement continues to grow, so does our obligation as Reform Jews to reach out to the unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews, to intermarried couples, and to all those on the margins of the Jewish community, communicating to them the power and beauty of our Jewish heritage. We are committed to opening our arms as wide as possible to welcome the stranger into our sacred communities.

I filled out the reply card, writing $0 for the contribution amount, and writing this note at the bottom:

I believe this solicitation was misdirected. I am not a member of a URJ congregation; I am one of those "unaffiliated and disenfranchised Jews", not part of the "we" who are welcoming "them". Asking for money is not the best way to start attracting "them".

And I'm sure I'm not the only non-URJ-congregation-member who contributed to the Katrina Relief Fund -- at the time, lots of people were looking for ways to make their Katrina donations through Jewish organizations. If they had done a more refined search of their database before sending this letter, they would have figured out that I'm not on any of their other mailing lists, and they thus have no way to assume that I'm part of the "us" who are taking up the white man's burden. When it comes to Jewish institutions, I think of myself as that "stranger", the huddled masses, the "them", not one of the people who are already in the door. Like many Jews my age who grew up in the Reform movement, I have not belonged to a URJ congregation since I moved out of my parents' house and went to college. If they insist on drawing this dichotomy between "us" and "them", they should be more careful about where they send the internal memos that are just intended for "us".

Another "us"/"them" gem from the same letter:
Today, about 1/3 of the interfaith couples in our midst choose to affiliate with synagogues, a number that continues to grow. These are families each of us knows. They are our friends, our relatives, our children and grandchildren -- and we cannot imagine our congregations without them.

Ok, it is correct that I am not part of an interfaith couple, and I have friends and relatives who are (no children or grandchildren). However, this phrasing assumes that the recipients of the letter do not include any interfaith couples -- "we cannot imagine our synagogues without them" -- which cannot possibly be true, especially given how indiscriminately the letter seems to have been sent. And I can't imagine that the interfaith couples reading the letter appreciate being addressed in the third person.

The URJ's heart is in the right place: they get credit for giving lip service to welcoming interfaith families, rather than talking about intermarriage as a boogeyman that is coming to eat us. However, this "us"/"them" mentality ensures that the people being "welcomed" are always the Other, always at arm's length.

Mi shebeirach

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) has been hospitalized. If he is unable to complete his term in the Senate (which goes through 2008), Gov. Mike Rounds (R) would appoint a replacement. Remember, Rounds is the one who signed the state abortion ban (recently repealed by a popular referendum), so he clearly wants a Senate who will approve Bush's wacko judicial nominees. If the replacement senator is a Republican, this will shift the balance of the Senate to 50-50 (assuming both independents continue to caucus with the Democrats), with Dick Cheney breaking the tie.

So all we can do is pray for Sen. Johnson's full and speedy recovery. Please add Tim ben Noach to your mi shebeirach.

Don't mess with Texas

Congratulations to Ciro Rodriguez, who has been elected in the runoff election in Texas's 23rd Congressional District! This makes it official: the new House of Representatives will have 233 Democrats and 202 Republicans. This means that the Democrats will have more seats than the Republicans have had at any time since 1949 (the famous "Do Nothing Congress") .

Saturday, December 09, 2006


This is the second post in a series on the ways that New York City synagogues fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orechim (welcoming guests).

This morning I was at a synagogue that I don't regularly attend (which describes every synagogue, I suppose), for a special occasion. During the kedushah, a fast-paced melody was used, and I was rhythmically hitting the pew in front of me, as did a number of other people. A gentleman of a certain age (who was later identified to be a Conservative rabbi, but was emphatically not the rabbi of the congregation), sitting behind me, nudged me and said quite loudly, "It's an idolatrous custom!" I stopped.

After the kedushah was over, I turned around and said to him "It's asur to speak during kedushah." He said "I know that, but it's a bigger aveirah to bang on a bench like that. I was trying to save you." I said "I appreciate it." He said "I know all the hilchos mafsik, and I don't need to learn it from you."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


The 2007 International Physics Olympiad will be in a country that has been making the news for doing physics research that other countries aren't so happy about. That's right... it's in Iran!!! The IPhO will be in historic Isfahan, Iran's third largest city, home of Persian rugs, Naghsh-i Jahan Square, and the Uranium Conversion Facility.

It would be cool if some of our students make it on to the U.S. Physics Team and get the rare experience (as Americans) of visiting Iran, under double-secret diplomatic protection. But that's looking not so likely, given the geopolitical situation. The American Association of Physics Teachers (sponsors of the U.S. Physics Team) says:

In view of the current international controversies surrounding Iran and the U.S. State Department’s travel warning, we have significant concerns regarding the travel of the U.S. students and coaches to the international event. We are very grateful for the hosts’ generous hospitality and recognize their collegiality, but we may be compelled to forgo competing in Iran for the international event unless the escalating political climate substantially improves.

I'm still encouraging my students to take the Preliminary Exam even though the odds aren't so good that they'll get to compete internationally -- only 5 students from the whole country get onto the U.S. Physics Team, so the odds were against them anyway.

Some positive developments for this year:
  • They're making the Preliminary Exam easier. There are still going to be only 200 semifinalists, so it will be just as difficult to make it to the next round, but the semifinalists will no longer be distinguished as the only 200 people in the country who were able to answer any questions at all.
  • Specifically, it's going to be mechanics only. Thus, people taking the exam in February after a whole semester of AP Physics C Mechanics (who are just starting the Electricity & Magnetism part of the year) don't have to get demoralized when they show up thinking that they pwn angular momentum and then run into a bunch of questions about inductance and blackbody radiation.
  • The teachers don't have to grade the Preliminary Exam anymore! And there is online registration!
The IPhO has not been isolated from international politics. The first one was in Poland, and it started as mostly a Soviet bloc thing ("international" because it involved multiple nations, not because it involved the whole world). The first Western Hemisphere nation to participate was Cuba. But the US has been participating for many years, and hosted it in 1993.

After this Iran mess is resolved, we can look forward to less controversial host nations in the future. Next year's Olympiad will be in... Vietnam!

The rainbow connection

Listen to Elizabeth Richman of Keshet JTS on NPR Morning Edition!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part V: Quorum call

The story so far:
This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. Since the series has gotten popular, I should emphasize that I should get no credit for the actual innovations described therein; I'm just collecting and blogging them (albeit not just as a disinterested anthropologist, but as a proponent who wants to see Stage 3 pluralism spread).

Like Parts III and IV, Part V (or should that be Part not-V?) will address issues of communal prayer.


Certain parts of the prayer service (most notably, barechu, kedushah, kaddish, and Torah reading; see Mishnah Megillah 4:3) require a minyan of 10 members of some set M. In the absence of a minyan, those parts are omitted. This is agreed upon by pretty much all Jews (who are praying in the first place). The disagreement is about the composition of M.

The major split is between two schools of thought:
  • M1) M includes all Jews over age 13
  • M2) M includes all male Jews over age 13
And there are additional border cases with room for disagreement: Who is a Jew? What about 12-year-old girls? And so forth.

This post deals only with approaches to the binary question of "Is there a minyan in this room right now?", separating it from the question of "Now that there is a minyan, who can do stuff?". In communities above a certain size, this binary question rarely has a practical impact, because a minyan is always present (by anyone's definition). However, in communities where people don't show up on time, this question can mean the difference between stalling and proceeding, and in smaller communities, it can determine whether Torah is read at all.

In most Jewish communities, there is no internal disagreement on this question. The community generally agrees on either M1 or M2 above. Sometimes there are questions about the border cases, but this is generally framed as an issue of communal standards rather than an issue of pluralism. The pluralism question arises when people who adhere to M1 and people who adhere to M2 want to pray together in a Stage 3 setting where both of these identities are respected.

Some communities, for a variety of reasons, require the presence of 10 men and 10 women for a minyan. This ensures that a minyan is present by the M2 definition (and, it goes without saying, by the M1 definition, which may or may not be a consideration in these communities), while ensuring that both men and women have indispensable roles. As I said about other practices in Part III, "[t]hese minyanim are meeting a real need for a particular set of people ... but they're not providing a permanent solution that will make it possible for everyone to pray together in Stage-3 harmony. And again, they're not claiming to." This policy is problematic for people who are looking for (many understandings of) an egalitarian community, because roles are still assigned based on gender, even if this is applied symmetrically to both genders. Also, the way this policy is usually implemented, these minyanim wait (if necessary) for 10 men and 10 women before starting the parts of the service that require a minyan. It is assumed that 10 and 10 will eventually show up. But what happens if they never do? (I'm asking because I don't know.) If only 10 men and 7 women show up, will these minyanim really forgo reading Torah (etc.)? If the answer is yes, then this is problematic for people who count by M1 and for people who count by M2, since they all agree that a minyan is present, yet they are skipping something that many would consider an obligation on the community when a minyan is present. If the answer is no, then the policy isn't even truly symmetric. (UPDATE: This isn't just hypothetical; here's one real-life account.) To quote again from Part III, "[t]hat's not to say that these minyanim don't have an important place among all the other types of minyanim. But they are not a Stage-3 solution that includes people who seek to be in a community that is fully egalitarian."


There is (at least) one solution at the communal level that can encompass a multiplicity of individual identities: define a minyan communally as "10 consenting adults", i.e. 10 people who count each other as a minyan. Does anyone know the origin of this practice? (You haven't let me down on the history of the trichitza or the two-table system.)

Jews In The Woods's fall 2006 mid-Atlantic gathering devised an ingenious method of implementing this definition: before each point in the service where a minyan is required, call "minyan check". At this point, raise your hand if you believe that a minyan is present in the room that includes you. Count the hands. If the number is greater than or equal to 10, proceed as if there is a minyan. If not, proceed as if there is not a minyan. Thus, the presence or absence of a minyan is determined on the spot by the grassroots, rather than by a contentious policy.

(A variation has been suggested in which you raise your hand if you believe that a minyan is present in the room, whether or not it includes you. I have not yet been able to understand this one. It seems to me that any cases in which this method yields a different result from the other one involve some kind of logical contradiction.)

The minyan check method accords with the principles established in Part II: no one is compelled to violate his/her own core values, and no one is prevented from carrying out his/her own practices.

Let's look at two thought experiments to illustrate this:

1. Bilhah believes a minyan is present, Zilpah believes a minyan is not present, and the count is less than 10. In this case, the parts of the service requiring a minyan are skipped. Bilhah may be unhappy about this, because she believes a minyan is present, but she has no right to count Zilpah or anyone else toward the minyan without their consent. The minyan is formed by voluntary participation, and there aren't 10 people who are willing to constitute themselves as a minyan, so no minyan can be formed. Bilhah misses the opportunity to say certain prayers with a minyan, but she would miss that opportunity anyway if Zilpah et al. weren't there.

2. Bilhah believes a minyan is present, Zilpah believes a minyan is not present, and the count is greater than or equal to 10. In this case, the service proceeds as though there is a minyan. Zilpah may be unhappy about this, because she believes no minyan is present, but she has no right to prevent Bilhah and 9+ others from constituting themselves as a minyan and praying accordingly. If she doesn't want to take part in these parts of the service, she can leave the room or close her ears at those times, and she would still be missing no more than if everyone agreed with her that a minyan was absent.

Bilhah (in case 1) or Zilpah (in case 2) might prefer that the community take a pause and wait until a minyan (of consenting adults) is present by her definition. Sorry, but that's not a right that anyone is entitled to. If you (as a participant or a communal leader) want to be sure that a minyan (by your definition) is present for a certain part of the service, then make sure 10 people whom you count and who count themselves as a minyan show up on time; don't expect everyone to wait.

There are a few practical complications with the minyan check method, but nothing that sinks it entirely. First of all, each of the parts of the service that require a minyan also require a shaliach/shelichat tzibbur -- a prayer leader, but literally "a representative of the community". The sha"tz should be chosen from within the minyan. But in practice, the sha"tz is generally chosen in advance, before the composition of the minyan is known. So it's possible that the minyan check will yield a positive result, but the designated sha"tz doesn't consider him/herself part of this minyan, and therefore can't serve as sha"tz. In this case, the community can appoint a new sha"tz to pinch-hit for these parts. (The original sha"tz isn't missing out on anything, since s/he wouldn't have led those parts anyway, given that composition of people.) Ok, that's easy enough to do on the fly for barechu and kaddish, but what do you do about Torah reading when the people who prepared the parsha don't believe that a minyan is present? That presents a larger practical challenge.

Another possible complication is that, if all logical possibilities are considered, a positive result from the minyan check does not necessarily mean that there is any set of 10 people all of whom count themselves and each other as a minyan (the desired result). However, in practice, the set of minyan-definitions that people actually hold isn't all that complicated. The Venn diagram would be made up almost entirely (if not entirely) of concentric circles. For example, I don't think there is anyone on earth who doesn't count women in a minyan, but counts men who have had Reform conversions. (Yes, as ZT points out, there are people (like lame-duck Sen. George Allen) who are considered Jewish by Orthodox standards and not by Reform/Reconstructionist standards, because they have Jewish mothers but don't have Jewish identities. However, in practice, anyone in this situation with enough of a Jewish identity to be present in this pluralistic Jewish community and to honestly raise his/her hand during the minyan check would be considered Jewish enough by all standards.) If all minyan-definitions are concentric, then there are no weird paradoxes.

A third issue is imperfect information when it comes to some of the less obvious (i.e., non-gender-related) questions of personal status. However, this is not a complication specific to the minyan check system; it can be dealt with (or not dealt with) in exactly the way it would if the community had a single minyan definition.


Coming in Part VI: The limits of pluralism. In what circumstances is there no pluralistic solution?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The never-ending story

The Democrats have an unquestioned majority in both the House and Senate of the 110th Congress, but the 2006 election isn't over yet in three districts. Here's a summary for those who haven't been obsessively following political blogs:

  • Florida 13th District: We knew that electronic voting without a voter-verified paper trail would result in a crisis, and now that it's happened, it's no surprise that it happened in Katherine Harris's old district, with a candidate named Buchanan on the ballot. The campaign between Vern Buchanan (R) and Christine Jennings (D) was ugly, with the Republicans making harassing robocalls that voters thought were coming from Jennings. Based on the votes that were counted, Buchanan is ahead by 369 votes. However, the count includes about 18,000 undervotes -- ballots showing that the voter didn't vote for anyone in this race. Any "recount" would show an identical result, since there is no further information beyond the data stored in the electronic voting machines. These 18,000 ballots voted predominantly Democratic in other races, so it is likely that if their votes for the congressional race had been counted, Jennings would have won. The fight continues (again) in the Florida courts. The only fair outcome is to call a new election, along with legislation preventing this from happening again.
  • Louisiana 2nd District: In Louisiana, candidates from all parties compete in an open primary on Election Day, and if no candidate receives a majority, there is a runoff in December. In this district covering most of New Orleans, the candidates in the runoff are incumbent Rep. William Jefferson (D), subject of a federal bribery investigation, and challenger Karen Carter (D). The seat will be Democratic one way or the other, but now that the corrupt Republican majority has been overthrown, the voters have the opportunity to clean up the Democratic party too and throw out the corrupt incumbent.
  • Texas 23rd District: This was one of the districts redrawn in Tom DeLay's 2003 redistricting, and then it was redrawn again in August 2006 following the Supreme Court's ruling in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry that the district violated the Voting Rights Act. Since this was after the Texas primary, the re-redrawn districts had open primaries on Election Day, and the 23rd District, in southwest Texas, is going to a Louisiana-style runoff. Incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) goes up against former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), a victim of DeLay's redistricting.
When the dust settles, the Democrats will hold 233-235 seats in the House, and the Republicans will hold 200-202.

Greatly exaggerated

Several readers have brought to my attention that Mah Rabu was down for several days, and expressed concern that this was the end. Thanks for the alerts! This was just a technical issue with Blogspot, nothing more, and it's fixed now. Since I was in the old country for Thanksgiving, I didn't catch it quickly.

If Mah Rabu ever has to go down for good, I promise this will happen with more fanfare, and that it won't just suddenly disappear. But I don't see any reason it would have to. I'm not worried about writing anything that would get me into trouble: I don't intend to look for a job in the organized Jewish community or (l'havdil!!!) the Republican party, and I don't really post about work or my personal life. So we're here to stay!

Coming soon: Hilchot Pluralism Parts V and VI.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Everyone got crazy and nobody got harmed

And somewhere in the distance
An orchestra shows its face
With Natalie on the oboe
Ty on double bass
John plays the viola
Slik the tenor sax
James he blows harmonica
In vanilla skintight slacks
Hugo oozes alto sax
Ivory the trombone
Masuda squawks the trumpet
Andre xylophone
Ron he shreds the violin
In a green Italian suit
Mike talks on the telephone
On a tape with an endless loop
Geoff he blows the clarinet
With an old-time rockin' feel
Charlie dings the triangle
Dave the glockenspiel
Chris puffs on the tuba
H a big bass drum
Alfonso throbs the cello
Like he would a woman, with his thumb
And high up on the podium
In tails with his baton poised
Banksy leads the orchestra
In a glorious, awful noise
And on a float of dripping oil paint
The orchestra, it played
Kissing the whole universe
In the Thanksgiving Day Parade

הַלְלוּ-יָהּ:הַלְלוּ-אֵל בְּקָדְשׁוֹ; הַלְלוּהוּ, בִּרְקִיעַ עֻזּו
הַלְלוּהוּ בִגְבוּרֹתָיו; הַלְלוּהוּ, כְּרֹב גֻּדְלו
הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֵקַע שׁוֹפָר; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּנֵבֶל וְכִנּוֹר
הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּתֹף וּמָחוֹל; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּמִנִּים וְעֻגָב
הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי-שָׁמַע; הַלְלוּהוּ, בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה
כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ: הַלְלוּ-יָה

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

We'll have to bring our own tunes

And Michelangelo finally came down
After 4 years on the ceiling
He said he'd lost his funding
And the paint had started peeling
And he told us that his patron
His Holiness, the Pope
Was demanding productivity
With which our friend just couldn't cope
And he rode off on his skateboard
With his brushes and his blade
Muttering something 'bout some food
And the Thanksgiving Day Parade

--Dan Bern

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Monday, November 20, 2006


Here at Mah Rabu, there have been lots of posts where I've said "I'll talk about that in a post of its own", and then never gotten around to it. So now, one by one, I'm going to try to write those posts. If you can think of any Mah Rabu posts that were supposed to have been written and haven't been written yet, say so in the comments.

As promised, this is the post where I list the microscopic differences between the prayers that I say and the prayers printed in the traditional siddur that I use, in order to encourage others to do the same and open up a conversation.

I don't claim that this is entirely self-consistent, and it's certainly subject to change.

The siddur that I use most often on Shabbat is the Koren chumash with the Shabbat (and immediately pre-Shabbat and post-Shabbat) services in the back, so I'll just use that and go in order.

[UPDATE: I should have specified nusach Ashkenaz rather than just assumed that it was the default; Koren comes in both flavors. I apologize for the ethnocentrism. Thanks to JewDot for indirectly bringing this to my attention.]

p.3: In the first blessing of the Amidah, I use the version in all Reform siddurim of the last 15 years:
בא"י א-להינו וא-להי אביתינו ואמותינו, א-להי אברהם, א-להי יצחק, וא-להי יעקב, א-להי שרה, וא-להי רבקה, א-להי לאה, וא-להי רחל, ... וזוכר חסדי אבות ואמהות, ומביא גאולה ... בא"י מגן אברהם ועזרת שרה.

So this version includes both the patriarchs and matriarchs, lists both groups in chronological order, but doesn't put the group as a whole in chronological order (probably to maintain "א-להי אברהם, א-להי יצחק, וא-להי יעקב" as a unit, based on Exodus 3:15), and talks about redemption rather than a (single) redeemer.

Some argue that 1) avoteinu is inclusive to cover both genders, 2) if you say "avoteinu v'imoteinu" here, then you've made it be uninclusive in all other cases, 3) if you say "avoteinu v'imoteinu" here, then you have to do that in all other cases. I respond 1) maybe, but there's no harm in doing it this way here, 2) I don't think this kind of consistency really exists (outside the Gemara's games) where if a word means something in one place then it must mean that in all other places, 3) in hachi nami.

In the second blessing of the Amidah, I also use the version in Reform siddurim, changing מתים to הכל in all four places. God does not revive the dead, but God gives life to everything. Living in the US (with all Ashkenazi lineage, AFAIK) but having lived in Israel and picked up some Eretz-Yisrael minhagim, I'm agnostic about מוריד הטל.

p.5: In the extra blessing that was added to the Amidah, I use the version from Ha-avodah Shebalev, the Israeli Reform siddur:

התועים אליך ישובו, והרשעה כרגע תאבד, והזדון תכניע במהרה וימינו. בא"י שובר רשע ומכניע זדון.

This version focuses on destroying evil, not destroying evildoers.

p.6: For the antepenultimate blessing, I use the version in Gates of Prayer:

רצה ה' א-להינו בעמך ישראל, ותפלתם באהבה תקבל, ותהי לרצון תמיד עבודת ישראל עמך. א-ל קרוב לכל קראיו, פנה אל עבדיך וחננו. שפך רוחך עלינו, ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים. בא"י המחזיר שכינתו לציון

Also, on this page and anywhere else it says אבותינו, I add ואמותינו.

p.8: Kaddish. I add ועל כל יושבי תבל in each of the last two lines (I don't understand why many people add it only to the last line).

p.9: Aleinu. Like most siddurim until recently, I don't say the line "שהם משתחוים להבל וריק". But I like one thing about that line: the particle "she-", which introduces a subordinate clause, rather than "va-", which introduces an independent clause. Both this line and the next line ("ואנחנו כורעים") are supposed to be part of a subordinate clause, but when the first of those lines is eliminated, then "ואנחנו כורעים" appears to be an independent clause. So I change one letter in the usual text of Aleinu and say "שאנחנו כורעים". I think this version is less problematic. Instead of saying "You have separated us from everyone else. [full stop] We bow down to you...", it says "You have separated us from everyone else in that we bow down to you", and "we" can be defined as broadly or as narrowly as you want.

Kabbalat shabbat: pretty straightforward and uncontroversial.

p.17: I don't say Bameh madlikin. And I'm almost never at services where anyone does.

p. 21 (in Ge'ulah): משה ומרים ובני ישראל

p. 22 (end of Hashkiveinu): הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל כל יושבי תבל ועל ירושלים

Amidah: same issues as above, and for all other Amidahs.

p. 28 (Me'ein sheva): avot v'imahot as usual. I should probably say מגן אבות ואמהות and find a way to squeeze this into the melody. מחיה הכל

Aleinu and kaddish as above.

p. 31 (kiddush for Shabbat day): my family's minhag (German, I think) is to say just Veshameru and then the al kein line.

p. 33 (Yigdal), which, in my cultural context, I am almost infinitely more likely to sing on Friday night than before shacharit: I follow the Reconstructionists. The word משוחנו in the penultimate line becomes גאולתו (with the added bonus of a rhyme within the line), and מתים יחיה א-ל becomes חיים מכלכל א-ל in the last line (grabbing a different piece of the Gevurot in the Amidah).

p. 35 (birkot hashachar): Following all liberal siddurim I'm aware of (and, I hear, some old manuscripts too), I say שעשני בן-חורין and שעשני ישראל. Following Siddur Sim Shalom and Siddur Eit Ratzon, I say שעשני בצלמו.

p.36-45 (other preliminary material, up through Rabbi Ishmael and kaddish derabbanan): I pretty much never have occasion to say this stuff.

Pesukei dezimrah: I don't change what it says in the psalms.

p. 61-63 (Nishmat through the chatimah): אביתינו ואמותינו when appropriate

p. 65 (Yotzeir Or): Right before El Adon, לתחית המתים becomes לחיי עולמים, following one option in Siddur Eit Ratzon.

p. 70 (Ge'ulah): Following Siddur Eit Ratzon,
אמת שאתה הוא ה' א-להינו וא-להי אבותינו ואמותינו
מלכנו מלך אבותינו
גואלנו גואל אמותינו

p. 71 (Ge'ulah): משה ומרים ובני ישראל again

Amidah: mostly same as before. In the intermediate blessing, ערלים changes to ערלי לב, in reference to Deuteronomy 10:16, Deuteronomy 30:6, etc. (similar to changing בבשרנו to בלבנו in birkat hamazon).

p. 82 (Berich Shemei): I don't usually say this. Not for any principled reason.

p. 86-87 (Yekum Purkan): Usually this is my bathroom break, but if I happen to be saying this, I obviously take out ונשיא and ונשיהם. (In Siddur Sim Shalom, they fix it in Hebrew but not in Aramaic. Is this dog-whistle politics? Are they assuming that anyone who understands Aramaic is ok with women being less than full members of the community?)

At this point, my main Shabbat morning minyan says the "prayer for our country". So yeah, I guess I say it without modification for the moment. Let's hope for the best. In the prayer for the state of Israel, I say שתהי ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, following Soloveitchik.

p. 88 (birkat hachodesh): I follow the minority of siddurim in saying החודש הבא (not הזה), because it makes logical sense. And I like the longer Eretz Yisrael version of יחדשהו.

p. 89 (Av Harachamim): Skip! I'm not into martyrdom or revenge.

Musaf: Yes, I say musaf. I'm not convinced by the usual Reform arguments for taking it out. It goes something like "The musaf prayer is said in place of the additional sacrifice that was offered on Shabbat and holidays in the Temple, and we're not interested in rebuilding the Temple, so we don't say prayers that are based on Temple offerings." To which I respond "Is that so? Then WHAT ABOUT SHACHARIT AND MINCHA?" The whole large-scale structure of Jewish prayer as we know it is modeled after the structure of Temple worship (yes, I'm siding with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi on Berachot 26b; what are you going to do about it?), so it seems arbitrary to eliminate musaf while maintaining the rest of the structure.

p. 93 (the middle blessing of musaf): I keep it in the future tense. I understand it metaphorically, and hope for future redemption, rather than fixating on the literal animal offerings of the past.

Shabbat mincha: mostly the same as everything else

p.111 (the middle blessing of mincha): Anyone know a version of this that includes the imahot?

p. 114 (end of the mincha amidah): Yeah, I like the Eretz Yisrael minhag of doing Sim Shalom here on Shabbat (and Shalom Rav on weekdays).

Weekday maariv: mostly the same

p. 137 (Baruch Adonai Le'olam): I don't say this (as in Eretz Yisrael and many other minhagim). How is it ok to add an extra berachah here?

And that's about it. How about you?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Memo-RANDOM of agreement

I don't understand this.

A brief history of recent collective bargaining between the United Federation of Teachers and the New York City Department of Education:

Just before I started teaching in the NYC schools in 2002, a contract agreement was reached. This coincided roughly with a general upheaval in the school system, as Mayor Bloomberg took over the Board of Education and turned it into the Department of Education. The previous contract had expired at some point in the past, and the new contract began retroactively at the time that the old contract expired, and lasted until May 2003.

May 2003 rolled around, and no new contract was signed. For 2 1/2 years. Not that this really mattered, since the old contract was fully enforced: the teachers kept showing up to school, and the city kept paying us. In October 2005, the UFT and the city reached a contract agreement. This was transparently timed to happen right before the mayoral election. As a result, the UFT made no endorsement, instead of endorsing Ferrer against Bloomberg. The current contract goes from June 2003 (retroactively, of course) to October 2007. We all got retroactive pay raises, as well as future ones (which are now in the past), and in exchange, the school day and school year were slightly lengthened, which I think is just fine.

In conclusion, recent history shows that the nominal dates of contracts are mere formalities, and contract agreements tend to be retroactive and timed for political expediency. I predicted that the next contract would be signed several years after the current one expires.

Then we got some strange news last week. The UFT and the city have reached a tentative contract agreement, for a new contract going from October 2007 to October 2009. You read that correctly -- they're agreeing to a contract before the contract even begins! This contract includes a one-time $750 bonus in January 2007, a 2% raise in October 2007, and a 5% raise in May 2008. There are no changes to the length of the school day or school year, and no significant changes in any other contractual provisions.

So obviously I'll vote to ratify this contract -- it's more money in exchange for no extra work. But my question is WHY? What motivated Bloomberg and Klein to agree to this now? Bloomberg isn't up for election (as in 2005) and doesn't need to buy support for his reorganization of the schools (as in 2002). The recent national and state elections have no effect on the city, which holds elections in odd years. They still have another year before the current contract "expires". The new contract will expire just before the next mayoral election, which is sure to elect someone other than Bloomberg, who is term-limited. (Thompson? Weiner? Who knows.) So what gives? I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but does anyone have insights on what's really behind this?

Just and rightful authority

On Shabbat mornings for the last several years, I have been chanting the "Prayer for Our Country" in the mournful Eicha trope. Yes, I understand that it's supposed to be aspirational, so that if our "leader and advisors" are not "administer[ing] all affairs of state fairly", we should pray that they will. But it seems to me that as long as the Bush Republicans are in power, this is a tefilah lashav (vain prayer), like asking God for something whose outcome has already been determined, and saying this prayer without an implied disclaimer would be a mockery. Therefore, I have been using Eicha trope to indicate that this prayer (expressing currently unattainable ideals) serves as a lamentation for the dire situation in this country.

(Yes, I generally get the phrasing right; no, it's not 100% rigorous with all the third-level disjunctives and such, per Jacobson et al. ASL has attempted to cantillate it more precisely. The problem is that pazeir doesn't exist in Eicha trope; all the pesukim in the book of Eicha are too short for it ever to come up. Also, making it possible to chant this in unison with other people who are just reading it requires liberal use of the makaf.)

Last week, "citizens of all races and creeds ... banish[ed] all hatred and bigotry." WHEEEE!!!!!!!!! A number of people have asked me whether I would continue chanting this prayer in Eicha trope. For now, the answer is no. That doesn't mean that I think that everything is suddenly better due to a mere election result. The Democratic majority hasn't even taken office yet! But it does mean that I no longer think that it is a tefilah lashav to even think about the possibility of change. This past Shabbat, the first since the election, I was visiting a minyan in a city where Bush placed third in 2000, and when we got to this prayer, there was a sudden groundswell of enthusiasm throughout the room, as people read the words as if for the first time, filled with hope that this country could indeed be "an influence for good throughout the world".

Now I'll just have to turn my attention to other pressing questions about this prayer, such as:
  • At minyanim that otherwise pray entirely in Hebrew, why are we saying this prayer and only this prayer in English?
  • At minyanim that identify as non-denominational (viz. Hadar and its progeny), why are we using a specific version of this prayer that is otherwise exclusive to the Conservative movement?
  • Why are we saying petitionary prayers on Shabbat?
  • Why only "citizens"?
  • "...ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country"!

Leo Baeck: 50 years later

(crossposted to Jewschool)

I just got back last week from a very quick trip to Israel. I was at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa for the commemoration of my great-great-grandfather Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck’s 50th yahrtzeit. My parents and I were there as special guests — my father and I are two of only 7 living descendants of Leo Baeck (the others are my grandmother, my two younger siblings, and my two younger cousins).

Leo Baeck was born in 1873. He studied in all three major Jewish movements as well as the University of Berlin, and was ordained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. As a rabbi, he served congregations throughout (what was then) Germany, ending up in Berlin. His two major works were The Essence of Judaism (1905), in which he contrasted Judaism with Christianity and argued that Judaism was distinguished by the inseparability of faith and action/commandment, and This People Israel (1955), which he wrote in the concentration camp and published after the war.

Baeck was a liberal rabbi who was highly respected by all streams of German Jewry. So when the Nazis came to power and life got worse for the Jews, Baeck became the recognized leader of the German Jewish community. After Kristallnacht, Baeck’s 13-year-old granddaughter (my grandmother) emigrated to London on a Kindertransport, and her parents (Baeck’s daughter and son-in-law) followed soon after. (Baeck’s wife had died before the war.) With his stature and connections, Baeck had many opportunities before and during the war to flee Germany to safety, but he chose to stay behind, pledging that as long as any Jews remained in Germany, he would be their rabbi. After being arrested several times, he was finally deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. In the concentration camp, Baeck would teach classes at night to the other inmates, providing inspiration in the most adverse circumstances. Baeck survived Theresienstadt, and was reunited with his family in London after the war. He died in November 1956, 50 years ago this month.

One of the many places where Leo Baeck’s legacy endures is in Haifa. In 1938, one of Baeck’s students, Rabbi Meir Elk, made aliyah. Baeck gave Elk a Torah scroll from the synagogue in Berlin, to start his community in Israel. (That Torah scroll now resides in the Ohel Avraham synagogue at the Leo Baeck Education Center. On Friday night, they asked us, the descendants, to come up and hold it.) Elk founded a progressive Jewish school in Haifa, combining secular and Jewish studies. It started out as the Hillel School, and was renamed the Leo Baeck School after the war.

Today, the Leo Baeck Education Center is affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and is more than just a school. It includes a junior and senior high school, a fledgling elementary school, the Ohel Avraham synagogue, the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies, and the Leo Baeck Community Center which serves the surrounding mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods. The Leo Baeck curriculum emphasizes Jewish values from a progressive perspective, and thus fills a niche that often goes unfilled in an Israeli educational system split between secular and Orthodox schools. The school includes a fully stocked beit midrash where students study Jewish texts in chavruta, alongside a rigorous secular curriculum. (I got to see part of a physics class, and as a physics teacher all I can say is watch out America!) The school’s understanding of Jewish values includes engagement with the broader community. Some of the essential social services provided by the community center are there because Leo Baeck high school students took the initiative to start them. During this summer’s war with Lebanon, when rockets were being fired at Haifa, the Leo Baeck school converted its underground parking garage into a day camp, where children could be out of harm’s way.

Many people in the United States and Jerusalem (the two places where I have lived my entire life) are under the impression that the Israeli Reform movement is dominated by “Anglos” (people from English-speaking countries). This is because their exposure to the Israeli Reform movement is limited to HUC-JIR (the Jerusalem campus of an American university) and Kol HaNeshama (a Jerusalem congregation founded by Israelis who made aliyah from the United States).

[Side note: I don’t mean to suggest that Anglo communities are any less legitimate or less Israeli than any others. Israel is a nation of immigrants, where Jews from all over the world retain elements of their cultures of origin, while participating in and contributing to the broader Israeli culture and identity. If Iraqi Jews and Lithuanian Jews and Ethiopian Jews can be considered fully Israeli while maintaining Jewish traditions that originated elsewhere, why are American Jews any less entitled?]

But this impression is shown to be inaccurate as soon as you step outside of Jerusalem. There are vibrant progressive Jewish congregations in cities like Tel Aviv, Modi’in, and Ra’anana, all populated primarily by native Israelis. And the Leo Baeck Education Center, whose community includes people of all ages, may be Israeli progressive Judaism at its finest, and most of its students and faculty are Israeli-born. The headmaster is a Leo Baeck graduate himself, and the rabbis were born and ordained in Israel.

This was my first time spending more than 24 hours in Haifa, and I highly recommend it. Haifa is a beautiful city, and much more chill than Jerusalem; there’s a reason that no one has been diagnosed with Haifa Syndrome. And it makes sense that Haifa is fertile ground for the development of Israeli progressive Judaism. It’s not weighed down by the baggage of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodoxy or Tel Aviv’s ultra-secularity. My Israeli cousin said “In Jerusalem, people pray. In Tel Aviv, people play. In Haifa…. people live.” Haifa has a culture of religious pluralism; though things got off to a rough start, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations now live together peacefully, as well as the Bahá’í World Centre. Perhaps Haifa will be the beginning of the rebuilding of Israel on progressive Jewish values.

May the life and teachings of Rabbi Leo Baeck continue to be an inspiration to us 50 years later, as we combine faith and action in working toward better societies.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Democracy in America

WOO HOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Democrats win EVERYTHING! Majorities in the House, the Senate*, and the governors! And the Republicans have been completely shut out, not picking up a single Democratic seat! Even in the Republican blowout of 1994, the Democrats still picked up a few seats.

(*Yes, Allen is eligible to request a recount, and Burns might or might not be, but based on their past statements, we can safely assume that they're not going to. "We'll need to move America forward as soon as these votes are cast." --George Allen, November 8, 2000)

This is the first election since I started voting that every candidate I voted for won. And Rumsfeld is resigning!

YIPPEE!!!!!! Let's make America live up to its ideals!

UPDATE: Goodbye Mr. Burns!

UPDATE 2: Allen concedes! It's over! Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Borough of Churches

This Friday night, Kol Zimrah is having its fourth Friday night service and dinner in Brooklyn! The Brooklyn branch of KZ is neither a spinoff (like KZ Jerusalem) nor colonization by Manhattanites -- it's a bottom-up grassroots effort from Brooklynites who have been and continue to be active in Kol Zimrah west of the river.

KZB will be at Congregation Beth Elohim, which to my knowledge holds the current record for hosting the largest number of independent minyanim (three: Kol Zimrah, Park Slope Minyan, and Altshul, never meeting at the same time). Kudos to CBE for their support of independent Jewish life. Kudos also to Kol Zimrah's Manhattan hosts, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism and the Jewish Home & Hospital.

This Friday is particularly exciting for me personally, because I have been to 57 out of 57 Kol Zimrah services, and after almost 4 years, number 58 is the first one I'm going to miss. When KZ is rocking the house in Brooklyn, I plan to be sound asleep in Haifa (where it's 7 hours later). It seems like ancient history now, but I can remember a time when Kol Zimrah depended on a few key people to keep it running. Since then, an amazing group of people has stepped up to provide leadership to KZ, and there are no indispensable individuals; leadership is distributed throughout the community. After this Friday, no one will have been to every single KZ service.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A legendary figure in educational disbursement

With the revelation of ethics violations, the shit has hit the fan for NY State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Gubernatorial heir apparent Eliot Spitzer has withdrawn his endorsement of Hevesi, and the New York Times has endorsed Hevesi's Republican opponent.

I already voted for Hevesi before these violations made the news. (I guess they had already made the news a little bit, but I had missed the story, since this wasn't a race I was following carefully. Oops.) I can't say I would endorse him now, and I did note that comptroller is the rare type of office where party affiliation doesn't trump everything else in deciding whom to vote for. (I'm also not entirely convinced that the state comptroller should be popularly elected. At the federal level, we don't elect the Secretary of the Treasury. But I could be swayed either way.)

However, I want to point out to people who haven't voted yet that there are other options if you don't want to re-elect Hevesi but also can't bear to vote for a Republican for statewide office.

1) Vote for a third-party candidate, such as Julia Willebrand (Green) or Willie Cotton (Socialist Workers). Yes, this is probably an ineffective protest vote, but there's less at stake than usual.

2) Vote for Hevesi anyway (preferably on the Working Families Party line), taking the gamble that he'll resign or be removed from office before he begins his next term. Heck, this might even happen before Election Day. This way, his replacement will be selected by the state legislature, which has a Democratic majority, so it's the only way to make it likely that the next comptroller will be a Democrat. (It's not ideal -- it's too bad that this story didn't break in time for there to be a competitive primary.) (Note to FL-16 voters: do not pursue this strategy. Just look at the names on the ballot.)