Sunday, April 30, 2006


We could have us a chai time, living the good life.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Chodesh tov!

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh Iyar, as is this Shabbat. The molad is tonight, at 6 days 9 hours 1027 chalakim (Friday 3:57:03 AM Jerusalem local time, or Thursday around 10 PM EDT). The astronomical new moon was today (Thursday) at 3:44 PM EDT.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The word fortnight derives from the Old English feowertiene niht, meaning "fourteen nights".

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Everett Fellowship application deadline May 1

Register TODAY for the NHC Summer Institute!

I've blogged about it here and here and lots of other places, and it's the triumphant conclusion to this article. And I'm co-chairing this year's Institute.

In a nutshell:
Jews have been creating independent grassroots communities ever since Abram and Sarai left Haran. But there has been particularly rapid proliferation of these communities over the last few decades, with a spike over the last 5 years that shows no signs of slowing down. For almost 30 years, the National Havurah Committee has run an annual week-long Summer Institute, a week of Jewish living and learning where grassroots communities from across the continent can gather and learn from each other, where individuals can become empowered to start their own grassroots communities, and where individuals can experience a model of what a truly participatory and egalitarian Judaism can be.

See more about "What is the NHC?", and read the full list of amazing courses.

If you're in your 20s (post-college-age) to mid-30s, you can apply for the Everett Fellows Program and go for under $18 a day!!! But the application deadline for the Everett Fellowship is MAY 1, so get cracking on that application right now.

Of course you can still register for the Institute after that (while space is still available), but the price will go up. However, don't let the price keep you away; there are scholarship and work-study opportunities available, and there is a generous subsidy this year to make it possible for families with children to attend.

Everyone's coming to New Hampshire this August! Don't let yourself be outside the "everyone"!


Today I am an omer.

Monday, April 24, 2006


A year ago, I posted "Why I don't observe Yom Hashoah", one of the first real posts on Mah Rabu. I guess this means that Mah Rabu is one year old on the Hebrew calendar. Happy blogversary!

For more Yom Hashoah thoughts, see these posts by Yossi Abramowitz.

In the meantime, let's prevent the next genocide.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


This omer goes to 11.


I got my ballot in the mail to vote for the Harvard University Board of Overseers (or, as it says on my diploma, "the Honorable and Reverend the Board of Overseers", with the classy double definite article). Usually I throw these out, but this year I was seized with the spirit of democracy and decided to send it back. Since some Mah Rabu readers are also eligible to vote, I'm putting together a list of endorsements, based entirely on the candidate bios provided with the ballot.

There are eight candidates, of which one can vote for up to five.

Sandra Moore Faber - Definite YES. She's an astrophysicist who studies dark matter and the formation of galaxies. We like all these areas of study. We also like the Hubble Space Telescope. Also, physics needs more women (and women need more physics).

Ricardo Hinojosa - Definite NO. "After graduating from Harvard Law School, he returned to his native South Texas where he has served nearly 23 years as a federal judge." By my calculations, 2006 - 23 = 1983, which makes him a Reagan appointee. No thanks!

Leila T. Fawaz - Historian of the Middle East. Wants "to foster cross-cultural dialogue and to promote tolerance among people of different backgrounds." Sure, I support that. YES.

Henry W. McGee III
- President of HBO Video. I don't get HBO, but I know that their videos and DVDs bring happiness to other people. He has also "worked to redevelop seven historic theaters and a studio providing low-cost rehearsal space in Times Square." YES.

Robert N. Shapiro - This is not the famous Robert L. Shapiro who defended O.J. Simpson, but he's also a lawyer, working at Ropes & Gray in Boston. His bio on the firm website says that he clerked for Judge Jon O. Newman, who was appointed by both Nixon (to the District Court) and Carter (to the Second Circuit), so there's not enough information to guess Newman's politics, let alone someone who clerked for him almost 30 years ago. So that's a wash. However, there's nothing else in his bio that jumps out, and I can only vote for five, so I'll have to go with NO.

Arne S. Duncan - CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. We like Chicago, and we like public schools. YES.

Ann S. Moore - CEO of Time, Inc. Time sucks! Like other newsmagazines, they're complicit in dumbing down the news and parroting Bush-administration frames and talking points. The top story on their website right now is "Can Josh Bolten Rescue the Bush Presidency?". How about rescuing the United States? Also, they interviewed me extensively and then I didn't even get in the story. NO.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer - Widow of Joseph Pulitzer Jr., and chair of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, as well as a former curator of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum. Responsible for lots and lots of money going to the arts. Who can argue with that. YES.

In conclusion, Mah Rabu's endorsements are Fawaz, McGee, Faber, Duncan, and Pulitzer. Comment if you see any reason to change this before I send it in.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


There are 10 types of people: those who count the omer in binary, and those who don't.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part IV: Microscopic prayer issues


Please read the series in order, so that the terminology will make sense. Thanks!

This ongoing series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. Part III addressed some macroscopic issues related to prayer (egalitarianism, musical instruments, separate vs. mixed seating), the types of issues that come up more often in the one-sentence (or even one-word) descriptions of minyanim, and that people use more often for advance screening of which minyan they attend. Part IV will zoom in on microscopic issues, focusing on the minute-by-minute experience of prayer.


Again, we'll start with the low-hanging fruit.

First up: the question of what people (whether civilian participants or prayer leaders) are wearing during prayer. Kipah? Black hat? Snood? Sombrero? Nothing on their heads? Tallit? Tefillin? And does the person's gender affect the answers to these questions?

The answer: WHO THE **** CARES? Worry about yourself, and let other people wear what they want, as long as they're not naked.

Peshita, mahu d'teima? (Aramaic for "Well duh, that's obvious, why did you have to bring it up in the first place?")

I think it's a generation gap. Previous generations saw more of a need for uniformity and making sure that everyone is doing the same thing, while our generation has more of a sense of e pluribus unum, recognizing that our differences make the community what it is, and are not a threat.

Thus, in the older generations, there were Classical Reform synagogues that insisted that people not cover their heads, and on the flip side, there are other synagogues (including some that claim to be egalitarian) that ask men to wear kipot, and even have a kipah patrol to enforce this. I hear that at Camps Ramah, there are separate minyanim that define their differences primarily based on whether girls (over age 13) are wearing tallit and tefillin. In our generation, these are much more likely to be non-issues; we don't understand why there should be any problem at all with praying with people who are wearing different things.

Ka mashma lan. (Aramaic for "That's why you might have thought otherwise. But no.")

One might think that the standards should be more stringent for the sheli(a)ch(at) tzibbur (prayer leader, or literally "representative of the community"), because s/he is a, well, representative of the community. To that I respond, what is the community? And I refer back to the axioms in Part II that define a Stage-3 pluralistic community. If the community in question is a Stage-3 community that includes both Reuven and Shimon, then both Reuven's and Shimon's practices are representative of (a slice of) the community, and therefore either Reuven and Shimon, when serving as sheliach tzibbur, can follow his own practices and still be faithfully representing the community. If Reuven wears a bowtie and Shimon doesn't, then when Reuven is sha"tz, his bowtie-wearing doesn't interfere with Shimon's prayer, except insofar as Shimon feels that he can't be in a community with bowtie-wearers. But if Shimon really does feel that way, then (by the definitions in Part II) Reuven and Shimon can't be in a community together that is Stage-3 pluralistic on this issue. Divisions happen (though in my opinion, this is a rather stupid thing to divide on, and it would be better for Shimon to rethink the issue).

Perhaps some exceptions should be made, where it is reasonable for a community to establish boundaries for what the sheliach tzibbur is wearing. Mishnah Megillah chapter 4 (also known as chapter 3 in the Gemara - don't ask) establishes some 2nd-century guidelines for this: if someone insists on wearing all white (refusing to lead prayers in colored clothes), or insists on being barefoot, then they shouldn't be allowed to be sha"tz. The reason for this is explicit -- it's to screen out members of some heretical sect. (Essenes? Jewish-Christians? Historians, help!) What are the 21st-century equivalents? Wearing a cross? A Yechi kipah? Perhaps. So I can see putting restraint on this type of speech. In that case, the Stage-3 boundaries of the community don't extend to include people with Christian or Meshichist beliefs, but that's a common place to draw a line anyway.

Even in this case, the restraint should only apply to the sha"tz and not to civilians. See axiom #3 in Part II. If you disagree with what someone is doing, tell them why and have a conversation about it; don't legislate it.


Next slam-dunk issue: Choreography of prayer. Some people have minhagim about when to stand and sit during the service. Others don't, and just follow what the people around them are doing. Among those who have personal minhagim, there are differences among these (Artscroll's attempts at homogenization notwithstanding).

The solution seems obvious: Don't tell people what to do! Abolish "Please rise" and "You may be seated", as well as the visual versions of these directions. "But then how will people know when to sit and stand?" You just have to have enough trust that people (if not everyone, then at least a critical mass) are sufficiently educated and intrinsically motivated that they'll make appropriate choices without instructions. This, in turn, requires that people actually be sufficiently educated and intrinsically motivated to make those choices. This is what I meant when I wrote (way back in "Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism"):
In order to make this kind of pluralism [Stage 3] possible, it is necessary for the various Jewish identities to be robust and confident. The insecurity and ignorance in some parts of the Jewish world would make those parts be swallowed alive under this model, which is one reason that this stage is not so widespread yet.

There is an irony in the fact that this particular type of pluralism (regarding prayer choreography) is more common in Orthodox congregations (which are supposed to be, um, orthodox) than in Reform congregations (which are supposed to be pluralistic). If you go into an Orthodox synagogue and stand when other people are sitting, or vice versa, then no one will look askance at you; they'll be too absorbed in their own prayers. I double-dog-dare you to attempt the same thing in a Reform synagogue. The source of the difference is that Orthodox communities can assume that people are intrinsically motivated, whereas Reform communities assume that people are only going to do what they're told to do. Liberal Jews need to find intrinsic motivations, so that this assumption will cease to be accurate. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: the leaders assume that the participants are dependent on directions (so that they provide directions), and the participants assume that the leaders will provide directions (so that they remain dependent). In case you haven't guessed, standing and sitting during prayer is only a microcosm of a larger issue. I challenge the Reform movement to come up with a vision of what Reform prayer services would look like, and what Reform communities would look like, if all participants were self-sufficient.


Liturgy (the words).

First of all, each individual can say whatever words s/he wants in his/her personal prayers. This is not a normative statement of how I think things should be; it's a statement of fact, since this is masur lalev (entrusted to the heart) and any rules would be impossible to enforce (whether by policies or by social norms). In a future blog post (outside of the Hilchot Pluralism series), I'll post about my own choices in what I say and don't say, in order to open up a conversation about the content, pursuant to axiom #3 of Part II.

So the pluralism question here is about what the sha"tz (leader) does. I'll discuss Kol Zimrah's practice as one example of a pluralistic approach to liturgy, but there are other approaches out there too.

Kol Zimrah's policy is that the service adheres macroscopically to the traditional structure of the liturgy, but the leader may make microscopic changes to the traditional text (at the word or phrase level).

What does this mean?

Macroscopic structure:

KZ has no "official" siddur. Any participant is free to bring whichever siddur s/he wants, or no siddur at all. Our community includes people who say every word of the liturgy, people who sing along with the parts that are being sung together but reflect silently during the non-sung parts, and people who don't say any of the words but hum along with the music. Maintaining the full macroscopic structure of the liturgy provides maximal freedom for all these people to participate, as long as everyone understands that they can individually opt out of any prayer. If Plonit (a participant) is opposed to saying Psalm 96, then while the community is singing Psalm 96, she can substitute another prayer in its place, or meditate silently. If Plonit is leading the service, then she doesn't have to sing Psalm 96 out loud, but she should still leave time between Psalms 95 and 97, so that those who want to say Psalm 96 can still do so. If the leader had the option of skipping straight from Psalm 95 to 97, then (a) someone who wanted to say Psalm 96 would be asymmetrically inconvenienced (compared to Plonit's inconvenience of waiting while others are saying Psalm 96), and (b) the macroscopic variations from one time to the next would make the participants much more dependent on paying attention to what the leader is doing, and would make it more difficult for them to find their own groove. KZ's rule of thumb is that a person familiar with the liturgy should be able to follow the service without directions, and the requirement to follow the macroscopic structure without deletions is for the purposes of inclusivity and clarity, not to make a unified communal statement that all of these prayers are required.

Microscopic changes:

Plonit may not skip Psalm 96, but she may say "mechayei hakol" or "mechayei hameitim" or "mechayei kol chai" as she chooses, or may include or exclude "v'al kol yoshevei teiveil" as she chooses. This may be more contentious than the other issues discussed above, but the principles underlying this practice have already been laid out in this post.

As discussed above, it is assumed that each participant is intrinsically motivated in his/her prayer. Therefore, if Plonit (leader) says one version of a prayer, this does not preclude Reuven (participant) from saying another version at the same time. With one exception, the leader never has exclusive responsibility for ensuring that participants fulfill their individual obligations.

[The exception is the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Individual participants aren't blowing their own shofarot, so the only way they can fulfill the mitzvah of shofar is by hearing the communal blasts. Therefore, our current practice is about covering all the bases.]

Anyone who believes in an individual obligation for prayer can fulfill that obligation on his/her own, even when praying with a community. Rather, the leader's role is to ensure that the community fulfills its communal obligation (in whatever way we understand that obligation). If Reuven believes that Plonit's version of the prayer is invalid, then the result is (according to Reuven) that Reuven is yotzei (= "has fulfilled his obligation") and Plonit is not yotzeit. (Meanwhile, according to Plonit, either Plonit is yotzeit or she doesn't have the concept of "yotzei(t)" in her system. And Plonit has no opinion on whether Reuven is yotzei, because he hasn't done anything in public, so she has no way of knowing.) However, according to axiom #2 of Part II, Reuven has no basis to object to this, because it's not his business whether or not Plonit is yotzeit.

Therefore, Reuven's only possible basis for objection is if he believes that the community is not yotzei. To address this, we'll ask again: What is the community? If the community includes both Reuven and Plonit in a Stage-3 way, then both Reuven's prayer and Plonit's prayer are valid expressions of prayer coming from the community (albeit not necessarily valid for each individual in the community). There just needs to be an explicit understanding that the prayer leader is praying on behalf of him/herself as a representative of the community, but does not necessarily represent every individual in the community. (This is no different from an individual giving a d'var torah that some people disagree with.) Afterwards, Reuven and Plonit can argue freely about why they disagree. If Reuven can't be in a community where Plonit's version of the prayer can be expressed, then he doesn't actually want to be in a Stage-3 community with Plonit (once again, not that there's anything wrong with that).

That said, perhaps a line can be drawn for prayers that are actually idolatrous. But I can't think of any practical examples of this that have come up (with the possible exception of Yechi, depending on one's view). In almost all cases, the variations that come up just represent different ways of praying to the One. We may disagree on whether it is permissible to include the phrase "Elohei Sarah" in the Amidah, or on (if it is permissible) whether it is desirable, but I don't think anyone disagrees that God was in fact the God of Sarah (whatever we mean by "God" and whatever we mean by "Sarah").


Coming in Part V: ???

What other problems and solutions should be documented? The line is open for requests.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hilchot Pluralism, Part III: Macroscopic prayer issues

This series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing. After a long delay (from February break to April break), here is the long-awaited Part III, focusing on communal prayer.

To end the suspense now, I'm not going to solve any major unsolved problems in this post.

As far as I know, there is still no way to have a minyan that is both gender-egalitarian (meaning that people are not classified by gender) and compatible with a version of halacha that requires that prayer leaders be of a particular gender. (Maybe Jews in the Woods will figure it out someday; they haven't yet, but not for lack of trying.)

Contrary to popular belief, minyanim in the style of Shira Hadasha (where men are poreis al shema and oveir lifnei hateivah (i.e. men lead shacharit/musaf/mincha/ma'ariv), and women lead peripheral services such as kabbalat shabbat and pesukei dezimrah, and people can read Torah and have aliyot without regard to gender) do not accomplish this. And generally they don't claim to. These minyanim are meeting a real need for a particular set of people (and, in some cases, providing a sufficiently high-quality prayer experience that people outside that set are willing to compromise their principles and pray there), 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. The reason they don't provide this solution is because they're not actually egalitarian (nor, generally, do they claim to be). The set of public roles that one can have in the community is still prescribed by one's gender. I can't ever lead kabbalat shabbat, my female friend can't ever lead shacharit, and 10 Jewish adults (of whatever gender) can't count themselves as a minyan. Yes, a service led by men and women is better (from the perspective of greater inclusion) than a service led only by men. But it is no more egalitarian. Being "mostly egalitarian" is like being "a little pregnant". That'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.

I'm also not going to solve the issue of instruments on Shabbat. A service either uses instruments on Shabbat or it doesn't; I can't think of any other options. Some people attend minyanim like Kol Zimrah, where the leader is playing instruments, even though they personally wouldn't use instruments. But I can see how that wouldn't work for everyone. I suggested a "live and let live" approach in Part II using the example of writing on Shabbat, but I can see how hearing instrumental music as an integral part of the communal prayer that you're participating in would be much more conspicuous and harder to ignore than being in the same room as someone who is writing.

In Stage 1 and Stage 2, some people insist that they "can't" pray or "aren't comfortable" praying in a service where instruments are used on Shabbat. Therefore, it appears that the pluralistic solution is no instruments on Shabbat. The people who want instruments on Shabbat are then backed into a corner, so we respond that we "need" to have instruments in order to pray, and make fools of ourselves in the process. Of course we don't "need" instruments, and shame on Stage-1 discourse for twisting us into making ridiculous statements like that. In limited circumstances, having a Shabbat service/event without instruments is a perfectly reasonable way to accommodate everyone. In Stage 3, the problem arises when looking at the long view. While it may be acceptable for everyone to go without instruments for any one particular instance, it becomes unacceptable (from a Stage-3 identity perspective) if people are forced to never pray with instrumental music. So the best achievable solution is what we already have: pray together (without instruments) some of the time, and pray separately (with and without instruments) some of the time. In my world, this is achieved by attending multiple independent minyanim that meet on different weeks.

That's as good as we can do, but maybe that's not so bad; maybe Stage 3 means having lots of options, and identifying with the big picture, not necessarily identifying with every option.


Now that I've listed the issues that I don't think can be pluralistically solved at the present time, let's start picking the low-hanging fruit.

The trichitza* should have appeared in the Year In Ideas. I'm not being sarcastic. It's an elegant idea that didn't exist, and then someone came up with it, and everyone said "Why didn't I think of that before?"

[Linguistic excursus on the word trichitza: Some have suggested that this word is problematically constructed, because the "tri" means 3, and the "chitza" means "half", so "trichitza" suggests three-halves or one-sixth, when a meaning of one-third is desired. This doesn't bother me, because chatzi can refer to any fraction less than a whole, not necessarily a half, so "trichitza" can still mean "dividing in three". Some have suggested meshlisha as an alternative. This also successfully carries the connotation of "three" while sounding like the source word mechitza. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, it runs into grammatical problems, because a Hebrew word cannot start with two shevas. This problem might be avoided with the word mashlisha, with a patach, which can be understood as a participle of the nonexistent hif'il verb l'hashlish, to divide into thirds. The word meshalesh(et) might also mean the same thing ("something that divides something into thirds"), using a verb form that already exists, but lacks the assonance to mechitza. Finally, some have suggested meshlitza as a hybrid. I don't really understand this one. In addition to the two-sheva problem, a shoresh (particularly one that is shelamim) can't really be split like that; a shoresh is an indivisible morpheme.]

I think the trichitza may have originated at Jews In The Woods, but don't know for sure; can anyone confirm the origin? (Disclaimer: I've never been to JITW, and never been to a minyan with a trichitza.)

The idea is simple: divide the prayer space into three sections, one non-gendered, one women-only, and one men-only. If people want to pray in a space where they are not classified by gender, they can do so, and if they want to pray in a single-gender space for whatever reason (because they believe that this is required by halacha, or because they would be distracted by the presence of the opposite sex, or because they believe in masculine/feminine "energy"), then they can do so. There's something for everyone, and no one is coerced.

The beauty is that it automatically shifts in response to consumer demand: if everyone wants mixed seating, then *poof*, the single-gender sections cease to exist (since no one is sitting there), and if everyone wants separate seating, then *poof*, the mixed section ceases to exist. And if Reuven feels lonely because he's the only person in his section, then, well, he's still getting the best outcome that he can reasonably hope for in the context of that community: the alternatives are either that Reuven prays in a way that he doesn't want to, or the rest of the community is coerced into praying in a way that they don't want to, both of which are suboptimal outcomes. If Reuven's loneliness outweighs his reasons for being in his section, then he can always switch to the other section. And if not, then he can either stay where he is and deal with it (knowing that he is in a community where his choice is respected albeit not shared), or find another community with more like-minded people. Life is about making choices, and taking responsibility for one's choices.

Now that the trichitza idea is out there, there's no going back. Any minyan that has constituents who prefer separate seating and constituents who prefer mixed seating, and that takes no official stance that one of the options is invalid, should have a trichitza. In particular, the minyanim [N.B. not the same as the Shira Hadasha-style minyanim discussed above] that combine egalitarian prayer leadership with separate seating (despite the preferences of many people in their communities for non-gendered seating) have no excuse. They may have started out with separate seating as a "compromise" (hello, Stage 2), but such compromise is unnecessary now that the trichitza option exists. It's possible for these minyanim to move to Stage 3 on this issue if they want to.

It distresses me that some supporters of these minyanim refer to them, tongue in cheek, as "separate but egal". This is no laughing matter. Comparing one's community to Jim Crow segregation should create some serious cognitive dissonance. If one believes that the two situations are analogous (full disclosure: I actually sort of do, and Brown v. Board of Education has taught us that "separate but equal" is inherently unequal) then one should strive to rectify this rather than accepting it cheerfully, and if one believes that they're not analogous, then the comparison to historical hatred and oppression isn't appropriate even as a joke.


Ok, this post has gone on long enough that it's time to publish, and there are lots of prayer-related issues that haven't been touched yet. This post hit some macroscopic prayer issues; Part IV (coming soon) will focus on microscopic prayer issues, such as liturgy. What topics do you want to see in Part V and beyond?


When I was Five, I was just alive.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Arba imahot,
sheloshah avot,
shnei luchot haberit,
echad Eloheinu Eloheinu Eloheinu Eloheinu Eloheinu shebashamayim uva'aretz


Shavua tov!

Friday, April 14, 2006

For the record

I just sent a letter to the New York Times newsroom:

A photo caption on page A3 of Thursday's Times says "Jews around the world last night opened the centuries-old holiday, which lasts eight days." In fact, all Jews in Israel (where the picture was taken) and Reform Jews around the world observe Passover for seven days.

Only a short, short letter

Mah Rabu's response time to its readers has been abominable. Sure, we can say that we have a day job plus two (unpaid) night jobs, but that's no excuse. It's been almost a month since we received this letter from Mah Rabu reader Jo. Now that it's vacation and we're in the old country with no distractions (including no email from all the people, Jews and Christians alike, who think today is yom tov), we have time to respond.

Here's the letter (dated March 20, 2006):

On last week's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!" NPR News quiz, Peter Sagal reported that when Senator Russ Feingold stood up to censure the president, "The Democratic senator from Wisconsin went down to the Senate floor to introduce a resolution censuring President Bush for what he called 'his illegal wiretapping' of American citizens. All of his Democrat colleagues ran away so fast that -- as per Einstein's theory of relativity -- they ceased to age. When the smoke cleared, the only thing behind Senator Feingold was a Ted Kennedy-shaped hole in the wall."

Can you explain the physics behind this joke? And why didn't more Democrats join in to censure the president? And are they continuing to age now that the censure is over?

The response:

In the classical mechanics of Galileo and Newton, space and time are understood to be absolutes. This means that observers in different inertial reference frames might disagree on the velocity of an object that they're both observing. If I'm on a train platform and you're on a train, I might observe the train to be moving at 20 meters per second (and I observe you to be moving at 20 meters per second along with it), while you observe the train not to be moving at all. Likewise, I might observe a beam of light to be traveling at 300,000,000 meters per second, but if you're moving toward it at 100,000,000 m/s, then you'll observe the light to be traveling toward you at 400,000,000 m/s.

Einstein's special theory of relativity postulates that the speed of light has the same value for all observers. In order for this to be logically consistent (given the paragraph above), something has to give. Turns out it's space and time. Objects traveling at speeds near the speed of light undergo time dilation and length contraction, meaning that we would observe them to be shorter in the direction of their motion, and aging at a slower rate. (They would make the same observation about us, but they underwent acceleration to get to where they are, and we didn't, so the two situations are not symmetric.) (This happens for objects traveling at any speed, but the effect is sufficiently negligible at low speeds. Something would have to go at 14% of the speed of light, or 42 million m/s, in order for you to notice a 1% difference in its length or its rate of aging.)

Therefore, NPR's news reporting is mostly correct. These senators would in fact age more slowly as a result of their high velocity, and they'd be thinner as well. Length contraction only occurs along the axis of motion, so they would only get thinner from front to back, not from left to right. Therefore, the hole in the wall of the Capitol should indeed be Ted Kennedy-shaped and -sized, and is unaffected by length contraction.

However, in order for them to cease entirely to age, they would have to be traveling at the speed of light. This is impossible, because unlike photons of light, senators have mass, and it would therefore take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate them to the speed of light. The Bush administration may have thought they would obtain an infinite amount of energy by invading Iraq, but their incompetent handling of the war has placed this beyond our grasp.

Perhaps "ceased to age" is an exaggeration. In order to make 3 years (the duration of the Iraq war so far) seem like 6 weeks (the time from the initial invasion until "Mission Accomplished"), one need only be traveling at 99.926% of the speed of light, which is possible with a finite amount of energy, costing only the amount that the federal government has lost by cutting taxes on incomes above the 99.926th percentile.

Yes, the senators should begin aging normally as soon as they come to a stop, but they are traveling so fast that they will be far beyond the Beltway by the time they can finish decelerating. Everyone outside should exercise caution, since the Democratic senators will need very large turn radii at these relativistic speeds. A collision could be fatal, allowing the governor (in many cases, including Ted Kennedy's state, a Republican) to appoint a replacement senator until the midterm election.

Other paradoxes may arise in explaining this anomalous behavior (e.g. "why didn't more Democrats join in to censure the president?"). When paradoxes come up in special relativity, the resolution is often that the object in question ceases to act as a rigid body. And there are few bodies less rigid than the spines of the Democratic senators who fear the political consequences of censuring a president with a 33% approval rating. Sen. Feingold, on the other hand, has a strong spine, thanks in part to all the calcium he has ingested in his home state of Wisconsin, America's dairyland.

Readers, keep the letters coming, and keep planting those carob trees! Your letter will be answered eventually.

The one-day-yom-tov person's guide to the second seder

I do one day of yom tov, and so does my family, but we still had a seder on the second night, because why not. There's no reason not to have a festive meal during chol hamo'ed Pesach, and eat matzah and maror and sing songs and tell the story of the Exodus. (Likewise, I've been to a number of great meals on the second night of Sukkot, when I considered it chol hamo'ed.) In addition to the required seder on the first night, a seder can happen on any night of Pesach. The Hillel haggadah, On Wings of Freedom, recognizes the reality that sedarim often happen during chol hamo'ed, and includes the omer counting text for all the nights of Pesach, as well as a note before kiddush saying "On the first or second night, say:".

The whole extended family has the big seder on the first night, but my parents want to host a seder too, so they've been having one on the second night for the last few years. And I think second seders can be useful for solving all kinds of dilemmas - e.g., having the seder with one side of the family each night, or having a different style of seder each night. That said, I would also be fine with one seder, since the second night has no special status.

While there are reasons that having two seders is beneficial, the second seder should perhaps ideally take place on the 7th night, when (a) it is yom tov, and (b) it is more feasible to be in an entirely different city than one is in on the first night. I have long lamented that I'll never get to have a seder with my non-Chicago friends, because we're all in our respective ancestral homes for the beginning of Pesach. But, in theory, (once I start actually kashering for Pesach rather than taking the easy way out) we could have sedarim with our families on the 1st night, and a seder in the city where we live on the 7th night. I'm not sure how well this would work in practice, because I'm not sure anyone (including me) has the energy for a seder after 6 days of this. But it's a thought.

What changes should a one-day-yom-tov person be aware of when attending a seder on the second night?
  • For the first cup, I just say "borei p'ri hagafen" and don't say the rest of kiddush, since it's not the beginning of a yom tov.
  • I (silently and inconspicuously) say havdalah for the end of yom tov (hamavdil bein kodesh l'chol) with whichever cup is appropriately timed. This year, the first and second cup happened while it was still light out, so this should have happened with the third or fourth cup. Except that it slipped my mind, so I did it after the seder.
  • I'm ok with saying the blessing ga'al Yisrael with the second cup. We always need redemption.
  • I don't say al achilat matzah or al achilat maror, since it's only a commandment on the first night.
  • I don't say yom shekulo tov in birkat hamazon. (However, ya'aleh v'yavo is still said during chol hamo'ed.)
  • There's no requirement about eating nothing else after the afikoman (other than the third and fourth cups), since it's not a "real" seder. So I noshed on the leftovers while we were cleaning up.
  • Otherwise, everything else, from "Arise My Love" to "Chad Gadya", is pretty much the same.
This year, for the first time, we used A Different Night on both nights, finally putting the old CCAR haggadah to rest. I endorse A Different Night, but note that it is Unix to other haggadot's Windows. The old haggadah was linear, so it was easy to pick up and go straight through, and do the same seder every year. The new haggadah can do much more, and there are opportunities to have varied seders each year with the same haggadah, but the leader should be cautioned that advance preparation is necessary in order to use it effectively. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I know which one I prefer.


It begins!

7 weeks until revelation!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

On selling chametz

I've only done Pesach in my very own kitchen once. The alternative is just too tempting.

It was the year I lived in Israel. I spent 10 days in March in the United States, traversing the country and interviewing for jobs for my triumphant return stateside, and returned to Israel just before Pesach. Everyone thought I was crazy (and in retrospect, perhaps I was) and should have stayed in the US for Pesach, since I was there anyway. But I stubbornly held onto the fulfillment of "Lashanah haba'ah bIrushalayim", and spent Pesach in a jetlagged funk. That Pesach sucked. That was the year of the seder bombing, and then more bombings every day. And it rained every day. Siman kelalah indeed.

Otherwise, I've never missed a seder in the old country. During college, I would hop into the old country for a day or two, then eat the rest of my meals at Hillel. Now that I work in the NYC schools, where we get the whole week of Pesach off, I don't spend any of Pesach in my apartment. This year I'll be with my parents for the beginning and middle, and with ER and her parents for the end.

So we're just selling off all of our chametz, having done a quarter-assed (at best) job of cleaning the apartment. The contract reads:

[BZ] and [NAF] hereby sell all leaven (and food containing leaven) in their apartment at [742 Evergreen Terrace], New York NY, as well as any leaven of which they are unaware (whether in the apartment, or owned by either or both of them in any other location), to [JN], for a sum of $5250.00. This transfer of possession of the leaven will go into effect at 10:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Wednesday, April 12, 2005, regardless of whether any money has been paid. [BZ] and [NAF] relinquish all claim to the leaven at that time.

If the full sum of $5250.00 has not been paid to [BZ] and/or [NAF] by 9:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time, Thursday, April 20, 2005, then all goods (leaven and money) will revert to their previous owners, and this transaction will be null and void from that time on.

This transaction will be valid upon the signatures of all three parties.

$5250 represents a 5% cost-of-living increase over last year's sum of $5000. Yes, the contract goes until Thursday night even though I observe 7 days of Pesach, so Pesach ends for me on Wednesday night. This is so that the chametz doesn't get the status of chametz owned by a Jew during (a time that some people still consider to be) Pesach, so that everyone can still eat in my kitchen afterwards. Not only is Thursday not Pesach for me, it's not even yom tov, so I won't go hungry that day even if I don't reclaim the chametz in my kitchen; I can buy whatever I need at that time (and leave no leftovers).

We didn't go through a rabbi to sell the chametz. I had an epiphany about this last year.

I come from rabbinic lineage, and was the first fetus in history to be ordained as a rabbi in utero. Last year, when other people were designating agents to sell their chametz, I said "When I was growing up, we never went to a rabbi to sell our chametz; my mother just sold it. Um. .... Oh. Right."

The epiphany:
One might look at my Jewish life trajectory (grew up as a rabbi's kid in a suburban synagogue; now involved only in independent grassroots Jewish life) and conclude that my embrace of do-it-yourself Judaism is a rebellion against my upbringing. In fact, it is a continuation and realization of my upbringing. Just as the rabbi's family (in a congregation where most people are dependent on the rabbi) does not defer to any external authority to be Jewish or do Jewish for them, so too do I as an adult seek to be self-reliant in my Jewish life.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The AP reads Mah Rabu!

After an Associated Press article about the Conservative movement (but touching on all the movements) got held up for ridicule on this blog (as well as a workshop at the NHC Summer Institute and one at the NHC Chesapeake Retreat), the AP finally appears to have done its homework (as did the Times before it) about issues of framing:

Conservative Judaism positions itself as a middle path between Orthodoxy's strict traditionalism and Reform's liberal approach to religious law. [emphasis added]

They've figured out that there's a difference between reporting the Conservative movement's founding myth as an important piece of its self-identity (like saying that Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected) and reporting it as objective fact. Yasher koach!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

They have a pope

The Jewish Theological Seminary appears to have chosen a new chancellor, in a process so secretive that it has often been compared to the process of choosing a pope. The College of Cardinals elected Benedict, and the JTS search committee appears to have appointed Arnold. Coincidence?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Severus, please

From the NYT:

An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of what is known as the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years. The text gives new insights into the relationship of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, scholars reported today. In this version, Jesus asked Judas, as a close friend, to sell him out to the authorities, telling Judas he will "exceed" the other disciples by doing so.

This gospel sounds just like a popular hypothesis about Snape and Dumbledore! Is this discovery real, or just hype for J.K. Rowling's next book?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Monday, April 03, 2006

Sunday, April 02, 2006

March Madness results

Now that all is said and done in the Knesset elections, and machinations are afoot to determine which parties will be able to form a coalition (and surprisingly, it's not 100% determined that Ehud Olmert will be the next Prime Minister), we're ready to announce the results of the Israeli election March Madness pool!

The latest news: Due to voting irregularities in Arab villages in northern Israel, one seat will shift from Labor to the United Arab List. But that won't affect the March Madness standings.

The final Knesset results:
  1. Kadima 29
  2. Labor 19
  3. Shas 12
  4. Likud 12
  5. Yisrael Beiteinu 11
  6. National Union - NRP 9
  7. Gil 7
  8. United Torah Judaism 6
  9. Meretz 5
  10. United Arab List 4
  11. Hadash 3
  12. Balad 3
  13. Greens
  14. Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf)
  15. Hayil (Jewish National Front)
  16. Tafnit
  17. Atid Echad
  18. Hetz
  19. Shinui
  20. Tzedek Lakol (Men's Rights)
  21. Da'am (Organization for Democratic Action)
  22. Herut
  23. Brit Olam
  24. Halev (Party for the Struggle with the Banks)
  25. Lev
  26. Tzomet
  27. Lechem
  28. New Zionism
  29. Oz La'aniyim (Strength to the Poor)
  30. National Arab Party
  31. Leeder
Let's start with the tiebreaker questions. Even though no ties had to be broken, these are still amusing diversions. Congratulations to Yitzchak Bleaman and Shmuel Cahn, both of whom correctly predicted that the Greens would come closest to winning seats in the Knesset, without meeting the threshold. In fact, if the election threshold had not been raised this year from 1.5% to 2%, the Greens would have been elected to the Knesset. Maybe next time. Congratulations also to JXG, who correctly predicted that the Leeder party would end up in last place. Leeder got 580 votes.

Now, the overall standings. Thanks to everyone who took the time to enter!

In third place, Ariel Schachter, whose predictions were, in some cases, right on the mark, including exactly 11 for Yisrael Beiteinu and 5 for Meretz.

In second place, Michael Rosenberg, who predicted the fall of Likud and the rise of Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, correctly predicting 12 seats for both Likud and Shas.

And the winner is......

Benjamin Fleischer, of the blogs Politics, Compassion, and Justice and Ask the Rebbe, who correctly predicted 111 out of the 120 Knesset seats! It was a close contest all around, but what put Benjamin over the edge is that he was the only contestant to predict that Gil (the Pensioners' Party) would make it into the Knesset (though many people answered Gil for tiebreaker question #1).

In addition to eternal glory (until the next Knesset election), Benjamin has won guest-blogging privileges on Mah Rabu for a week. However, he has declined this award (in order to focus on his own blogs), and has instead requested a post (or posts) on Mah Rabu, which will be coming soon.

See you in 2010, or more likely sooner!

The Olmert Report

The Daily Show's Israeli election coverage kept referring to Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmair. I wonder what influenced that pronunciation...