Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Limmud NY: Reform halakhah panel: DVD extras

I blogged last fortnight about the panel on "The Role of Halakhah in Reform Judaism" at Limmud NY. Here are some other disconnected (and still somewhat raw and not 100% thought out) thoughts on the topic, which I was either prepared to say on the panel but the discussion never went in that direction, or which were clarified in other conversations over the weekend before and after the panel, particularly with LastTrumpet, ahavatcafe, and Saul.


None of the people who were actually on the panel would have taken this position, but I had been hoping that someone would say that they concur with the Pittsburgh Platform (which I also concur with on a meta-halakhic level, though not on a halakhic level) and that Reform Judaism means that we follow the ethical mitzvot (bein adam la-chavero) and not the ritual mitzvot (bein adam la-makom). To which I would respond, FINE. If your conception of Judaism doesn't include ritual mitzvot, that's up to you, I don't care. (It's between you and God, one might even say.) But then we could all stand to be more serious about the ethical mitzvot, the ones we all agree are important. Not just "doing a mitzvah", but letting these mitzvot pervade our lives. We should be studying and observing these mitzvot in the realm of halakhah (i.e. specific actions to put into practice) and not only in the realm of aggadah (i.e. more general statements about our values -- which are also extremely important, and which steer the ship of halakhah).

If one is going to make the claim that "Reform Jews are more makpid on the ethical mitzvot, since we're not expending all this energy on ritual mitzvot" (and I've heard various formulations of this claim, going back to the "apt rather to obstruct than to further" clause of the Pittsburgh Platform; I even saw an article that tried to use the rabbinic concept of ha-oseik b'mitzvah patur min ha-mitzvah to argue that Reform Jews are exempt from ritual mitzvot because they're so busy repairing the world that they don't have time to not eat shrimp or something like that, but Google is failing me - can anyone find it?), then this claim should be empirically verifiable. Reform Jews should in fact be more careful about ethical mitzvot than other Jews, and not just talk big. And for sure, the organized Reform movement is doing great things in this area (and it's an easy escape to find some self-identified Orthodox Jews who are violating these mitzvot and lowering the bar for everyone). But why did it take an Orthodox Jew to write this detailed article on calculating your tzedakah obligation? This type of halakhic analysis should be Reform Judaism's bread and butter. And are Reform Jewish businesspeople at the forefront of running their businesses according to ethical mitzvot? Why or why not? Reform Jews should be the ones writing the books on applying these mitzvot to contemporary practical situations, not just Orthodox Jews.

As liberal Jews, instead of just talking about how great we are (and I include myself in this tochecha), let's examine our actions and think about how we could be better at applying our big ideas to the real world. We shouldn't just say "tzedek tzedek tirdof", but we should be specific.


If Reform Judaism believes that halakhah is interpreted autonomously by each individual, then does Reform Judaism stand for anything? If you and I have different interpretations of halakhah, then do we have anything in common?

Yes. Not halakhah but aggadah. Despite diversity in Jewish practice, Reform/liberal Judaism has expressed a relatively coherent aggadah, so that liberal Jews can agree on Jewish values. (And if aggadah is going to steer halakhah, then this puts some constraints on how halakhah can develop, avoiding the "anything goes" situation that some fear.)

In contrast, perhaps Orthodox Judaism has (relatively) more uniformity in halakhah and less uniformity in aggadah.


"Patrilineal descent" was in the panel description, but didn't really come up except as a side point in a discussion of CCAR/URJ procedure. But if it had, I was just going to give my stock rant on the topic.

My personal position on the matter is that I (the only person I have any authority over) am Jewish, and if anyone else tells me that s/he is Jewish (and I have no reason to suspect malice), then it's not my place to question him/her -- how do I know his/her definition isn't the right one?


"Interfaith marriage" was also in the panel description, but didn't come up either. This is a complicated one, especially if we look at it through a halakhic lens (the topic of the panel) rather than as armchair sociologists or marriage counselors. I can think of reasons why a Jew might want to marry another Jew (preferentially or exclusively), and why a third party might want Jews to marry other Jews, but that's not the question. There are two related halakhic questions here: "Is a Jew permitted to marry a non-Jew?" and "Is a rabbi (or other officiant in a Jewish capacity) permitted to officiate at the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew?", and the fact that the questions are being asked presupposes that these two people want to get married. Let's also suppose for the sake of argument that the Jew in question has no potential Jewish partners (the alternative is staying single), so that we're assessing this marriage itself rather than its opportunity cost.

Of course, a rabbi (like any other clergyperson) is authorized by the state to perform a civil marriage between any two adults (with many states still imposing restrictions based on the genders of the parties, but not based on religious or ethnic identity). This civil marriage has no status in Jewish law, so it's no more or less permitted than living with a non-Jewish partner without any marriage. Many (most?) rabbis won't perform such a marriage unless both parties are Jewish, presumably because they don't see themselves as justices of the peace, and won't perform a civil marriage in the absence of a Jewish marriage, and won't officiate at a Jewish marriage unless both parties are Jewish.

So we're really not asking the question about civil marriage, but about Jewish marriage. Out of rabbis who won't officiate at this marriage, many probably have reasons based on social policy -- they don't think it's a good idea. Again, we're going to skirt the question of whether it's a good idea. If one comes to the conclusion that it is, is this marriage permitted? Is it valid?

Before we begin to answer the question (and I'm not going to answer it in this post), we have to think about what we as liberal Jews mean by "marriage" and by "Jewish".

Jewish marriage consists of two components: kiddushin and nisuin. Addressing them in reverse order: It's not 100% clear when and how nisuin takes place, but it takes place under the chuppah, symbolizing the home that the two partners create together. We already know that it is possible for a Jew and a non-Jew to create a home together; we have empirical evidence since it happens all the time. Nisuin requires a ketubah. Since this is a legal contract by which both parties agree to be bound, its terms are in effect regardless of whether the parties are Jewish. (It may or may not be enforceable, but the same can be said of a ketubah involving two Jews, if they live in a secular society.)

Kiddushin is more complicated, because what is it??? As liberal Jews, we don't understand it as a man acquiring a woman, but have we replaced it with another understanding (as distinct from nisuin)? Is it a mere "ceremony", or does it effect a real change in status? And what is that change? We have to figure out the big picture of what egalitarian Jewish marriage really means (not just weddings, but marriage) before we can address smaller details like whether it exclusively involves Jews.

Independent of figuring out what kiddushin really is, one might say that whatever it is, it can only apply to Jews, since it's "kedat Moshe ve-Yisrael", and only Jews are subject to that law. I would respond: As liberal Jews, do we believe that there are laws that are intrinsically binding on all Jews (regardless of what those Jews have to say about the matter) and not on non-Jews? (I'm not sure I do.) And if not, then if we use this argument to exclude non-Jews from kiddushin, then we should also exclude Jews who do not consider themselves bound by Jewish law (in any sense whatsoever -- as widely as you want to define this). But I have never heard of a rabbi who was not willing to officiate at a wedding of two secular Jews, even though (let us stipulate) their relationship to "dat Moshe ve-Yisrael" is no different from a non-Jew's relationship to it. So that can't be the whole picture.

In conclusion, there are some key unanswered questions (from a liberal Jewish standpoint):
  • What is kiddushin?
  • What is the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew (ceteris paribus)?
Until we answer these questions, any attempts to answer more advanced questions (e.g. "Can there be kiddushin involving a Jew and a non-Jew?") are futile.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Birds of a feather

The YU book sale is open! I go every year, sometimes more than once.

As seen in the picture above, the Oz veHadar (super deluxe) edition of the Talmud is complete! Get your chosson Shas, or kallah Shas as the case may be. Only $750! There's also a new (very incomplete) edition that is laid out like a regular Vilna page, but has vowels, including in Rashi and Tosafot! I couldn't believe it either. I'll take a picture next time.

I didn't buy anything, but on my next trip I totally want to get this book on Masechet Kinim (a masechet on quantum mechanics and the EPR paradox):

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Response from the "Democrat majority"

Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves "as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. "When comes the end?" asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way.

--Sen. Jim Webb

Sunday, January 21, 2007

21 years later...


Bait and switch

I posted this recently to an email discussion list:


Public service announcement: the debates on denominations vs postdenominations and institutions vs independents are two separate debates! (In fact, they were two separate panel discussions at Limmud NY last weekend.) Don't get baited-and-switched. E.g. if someone says "If there are no denominational institutions, then we'll just be an undifferentiated melting pot and no one will stand up for their core values" you can say "Dude, i can still stand up for my values even if I don't have an institution to lean on," and if someone says "If there are no movements, then who will take care of [x thing that movements do and independent minyanim don't]?" you can say "Dude, there can still be institutions to do that, and they don't have to be broken down by religious ideologies."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Limmud NY: Reform halakhah panel

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Hi from the Catskills (or should I say, the Catskill)!

On Shabbat afternoon I was on a panel on "The Role of Halakhah in Reform Judaism", moderated by Rabbi Leon Morris of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. The other panelists were Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue. (So yes, I was the token non-rabbi on the panel.)

By request, here is some of the discussion from the panel as best I can recall. I'm mostly just going to post what I said (because I'm not worried about misrepresenting myself, but might misrepresent others), but if other panelists or attendees want to post their recollections, please do so in the comments.

There was no one on the panel representing a "Classical Reform" perspective or a "Reform Judaism isn't halachic" perspective, but the views expressed were far from homogeneous.

Some personal information, since people are wondering whether I belong on the panel: I consider myself a Reform expatriate. I practice what I consider to be Reform Judaism (as an ideology), though I am not currently affiliated with the Reform movement (as a set of institutions). So I focused my remarks on the former, not the latter.

We started by sharing our thoughts on the relationship between Reform Judaism and halakhah. Here's what I said: Often when we get into discussions about identifying one's own movement or other movements as "halakhic" or "not halakhic", these distinctions are about identity and politics and semantics, and not necessarily about substance, since there is not a single agreed-upon definition of what halakhah is, and it's just a question of how you define it. If we define "halakhah" by the Orthodox definition, then Reform Judaism is obviously not halakhic by that definition; if we line the denominations up on a scale from 1 to Orthodox, then of course Reform will come up short. If, on the contrary, we define "halakhah" as binding religious obligations, then all Reform views would agree that there is halakhah in Reform Judaism -- even if you hold like the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which held that the ritual commandments in the Torah do not apply in our time, then you still would hold that the Torah's ethical commandments are obligatory.

So we can start from the assumption that there exists Reform halakhah, and that it is different in nature from Orthodox halakhah. I want to point out two significant ways in which the Reform understanding of halakhah is different from halakhah as understood by other movements:

1) There is a concept called yeridat hadorot (descent of the generations) that informs Orthodox halakhah. The idea is that the Written and Oral Torah were revealed at some time in the past, and each successive generation is farther and farther from the original revelation. This impacts halakhah because there is a mishnah in Masechet Eduyot that says that a beit din (Jewish court) cannot overturn a decision of a previous beit din unless the later one is greater than the earlier one in both wisdom and number. Since our generation is farther from revelation than previous generations, we are presumed to have less wisdom, and therefore we cannot supplant earlier halakhic decisions, but can only work within them. In Orthodox halakhah, the transmission of tradition can be compared to a game of Telephone, where the signal gets weaker each time it is passed on. Reform Judaism, in contrast, would compare this transmission to that game where you go around telling a story, and each person adds a word or a sentence. Instead of yeridat hadorot, the operative principle is, in Isaac Newton's words, "standing on the shoulders of giants". By this understanding, we are greater in wisdom than previous generations, because our generation knows everything that they knew, plus everything that we have learned since then. Therefore, the tradition continues to grow and develop. This is a small-p progressive rather than a small-c conservative understanding of halakhah.

2) Authority. All Jewish religious movements would agree that God is the ultimate authority, and would also agree that we cannot communicate directly with God. We have texts that were written (or Written) in the past, but all would agree that there are decisions to be made in the present time about our practice, and the question is about who has the authority to make those decisions. This is a case that challenges the way people typically line the movements up on a spectrum: the Conservative movement is at one extreme and the Reform movement on another, with Orthodox in the middle. (This is about the movement ideologies on paper, not necessarily about how people actually practice.) In the Conservative movement, there is a law committee that makes halakhic decisions for the movement. Even if they come up with multiple answers, they still define the range of options, and the local rabbi selects an option from this range, and the individual is supposed to follow halakhah as determined by this hierarchy. In the Orthodox world, there is no centralized committee, so this authority is more diffuse, but there are rabbis who render halakhic decisions, and individuals follow various rabbis' rulings. In Reform Judaism, the responsibility of interpreting Torah to determine the halakhah that is to be observed is on each individual.

Following up on this, Leon Morris asked a question about autonomy. He said he was talking about autonomy the way it should ideally work, since we all know how it works out in reality. I responded to this throwaway comment, saying that I'm not sure we do know how it works in reality. I don't think that informed autonomy has really been implemented in the Reform movement. One might look at Reform-affiliated Jews and say that they're acting autonomously, perhaps too autonomously, but I say we shouldn't confuse apathy with autonomy. Sure, people are choosing not to do Jewish things much of the time, but when they are doing Jewish things, they are entirely dependent on someone else to tell them what to do and to do things for them. Informed autonomy hasn't been implemented, because most Jews in the Reform movement are neither informed nor autonomous. Before we knock autonomy, first we should try it.

LM said that his view of how autonomy should work in Reform Judaism (and please correct me if I'm misrepresenting this) is that an HUC professor might say to a student "I noticed this morning at davening that you weren't wearing tefillin. Why is that?", and the student would respond with reasons why s/he doesn't wear tefillin. Thus, people should be familiar with the tradition, and autonomously define their relationship to it, and if someone wants to reject an element of it, s/he should have a reason. I disagree with this view of tradition. I said that to treat "The Tradition" as something static and monolithic is to commit an act of Artscrollization. Jewish tradition is something that has always evolved over time, and this tradition includes the last 200 years of Reform Jewish history, which have created their own facts on the ground for us to take into account, and the tradition will continue to evolve and develop into the future, and autonomy means that each of us is an active participant in that development.

We shouldn't assume that in the state of nature everyone is Orthodox, and that any difference from Orthodoxy requires justification. In the state of nature we're wherever we started, and we might change from that point. So for the first n years of my life I didn't wear tefillin, but I didn't have a specific justification for this; it was simply because I grew up not wearing tefillin, so that was the default.

One of the panelists asked me how I would define Kol Zimrah. I said that KZ is not affiliated institutionally with the Reform movement or any other movement, and doesn't identify itself with a movement label. It is the case empirically that people in the KZ community are exercising informed autonomy about their Jewish practice, but Kol Zimrah as an organization doesn't take an ideological stance about this. However, I have found that the independent Jewish communities I am involved in, like Kol Zimrah and the National Havurah Committee, are closer to what I would want in a Reform community (in that there is informed autonomy) than the actual Reform movement is.

LM asked about individuals giving up some of their autonomy for the sake of creating community. He gave the example of a community agreeing to adhere to some practice, even something that isn't when the community is all together, e.g. everyone agrees to daven mincha every day wherever they are, to connect them to the rest of the community.

I said that the Reform model of halakha should be not the Shulchan Aruch (a set of rules), but the Talmud (a conversation, where Rabbi X says this and Rabbi Y says that and they talk about their reasons). I think if the entire community in this example were engaged in a discourse about mincha, that would bring the community together just as effectively as everyone deciding to do it.

One attendee asked what the deal was with Kutz Camp having visiting day on Shabbat. I got to tell my story about visiting my brother at Kutz (both to address this question and illustrate what autonomous Jewish practice could look like), but said that it would have been more convenient if visiting day hadn't been on Shabbat.

Another attendee asked why this conversation was happening at Limmud NY, and not happening at the URJ Biennial. I said that we weren't the ones to answer that!

Someone pointed out the need for education for informed autonomy to be feasible, as well as for Reform Jews to operate in a pluralistic setting with other Jews. I agreed wholeheartedly, and said some of the stuff about education and identity from the end of Hilchot Pluralism Part VI.

That's all for now, since it's time to jam, but in a later post I'll say some of the stuff on this topic that I didn't get to say on the panel.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Begins with a single step

The House of Representatives voted today to raise the minimum wage (whose inflation-adjusted value has declined by over 20% since it was last raised in 1997) to $7.25 an hour, with support from all 233 Democrats as well as 82 Republicans. Next step, the Senate!

UPDATE: I know this is preaching to the choir, but this vote underscores the importance of partisan control in Congress, rather than positions of individual Congresspersons. This bill passed by such an overwhelming margin that it cannot be merely attributed to individual House seats shifting in the last election from anti-minimum-wage to pro-minimum-wage representatives. These 82 Republicans want to get reelected, so of course they can't go on record opposing a minimum wage increase. But thanks to their party leadership preventing this bill from reaching the House floor for the last decade, until now they never had to. Now let's see how fast the Republican senators flip-flop about the sanctity of the "up or down vote".

Born in 1989

Today when I walked into AP Physics, the lights in the classroom were off. I said "Darkness falls across the land / the midnight hour is at hand."

The students started to guess where it was from, and guesses included Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard IV [sic]. The only 20th-century guess was Black Sabbath.

Monday, January 08, 2007

RK survey results: free response

The multiple-choice results to the Reform rabbis' kids survey have been posted.

Here are some selected responses from the optional comments:

  • "While I am Jewishly active in a Reform context, I wouldn't go so far as to say I identify as a Reform Jew. I have serious issues with the movement."
  • "i am just like my father and have a wonderful relationship with him, except in terms of faith. he was never able to convince me that religion is anything more than a set of arbitrary rules and ideas for the weak-minded. i would have been a lot better served by taking philosophy classes at a young age instead of religious school. at least the breadth of view and critical thinking skills would have served me well."
  • "yiddish culture. birthright to czernowitz is what we need."
  • "I don't believe in god/religion."
  • "i hate jews"
  • "I, of course, belong to my father's synagogue, Temple ______ in [city]. however, because of so many Jewish experiences in [city] (even teaching at a modern orthodox day school) I really consider myself 'just jewish' if that is a catagory. My fiance would love to 'shul shop' but that is not necessarily politically correct. for reasons only an RK can understand." [Ed.: Wow. Even as an RK, I never thought about that scenario, since I haven't lived as an adult in the city where I grew up. --BZ]
  • "I participate in Jewish Traditions for the sake of quality time with my Family, otherwise I tend to identify more with the practices of Buddhism."
  • "I grew up in a Reform congregation and spent many, many summers at Reform summer camp. I am currently in Israel for my 4th visit. I have to say that after growing up strongly identified with Judaism and the Reform movement specifically, my time in college showed me that perhaps Reform is not where I will stay in the future. There are aspects that I love, especially the camp system, but the URJ is in disarray and I don't identify nationally with Reform services/worship. I love the congregation I grew up in, but find myself bored or angered at other Reform services nationally. I suppose things will depend greatly on where I decide to settle when I return to the US."
  • "I don't belong to a synagogue, but I consider myself a reform Jew."
  • "I am not religious per se, but am invovled in Jewish community although not through any official affliation."
  • "I am active in a Conservative synagogue. This is due to my wife's position as the Educational Director of the synagogue. It remains my preference to be affiliated with the Reform movement."
  • "i have been on staff at UAHC camps been to Israel for Eisendrath Exchange, taught religious school and do not like services conducted by any one other than my parent"
  • "Traditional Egalitarian Minyan - didn't fit into any of the buckets naturally, but a rising trend."
  • "I created a film about Israel, but wouldn't call myself a Jewish professional. I do identify strongly as a Reform Jew."
  • "I feel much more comfortable in a modern orthodox service than I do in a Reform service."
  • "If I had to pick a label, I would probably describe myself as 'traditional egalitarian.' Most of my friends are either Conservative or Orthodox. I prefer to daven in an egalitarian setting, but have little problem in an orthodox setting. On friday nights, we either daven at the conservative shul or orthodox shul. Since most of our friends in our neighborhood are orthodox, we tend to daven with them. I attended a Conservative day school through grade 8, then attended [pluralistic Jewish high school]. I feel comfortable in any Jewish setting, from Reform to Orthodox."
  • "I am the daughter of 2 rabbis, the niece of 2, and the granddaughter of 1. 4 of those rabbis are/were in the Reform movement (the other was ordained Reconstructionist but holds a pulpit at a shul that's not affiliated), but I was Bat Mitzva-d in the Conservative movement. I am most comfortable with Conservative liturgy and was involved in the Conservative/egalitarian minyan in college. But my most meaningful Jewish experiences have been in a pluralistic or nondenominational context. I am currently a member of a shul/minyan that's not affiliated with a movement."
  • "I have made Aliyah and will be a combat soldier in the summer."

RK survey results: multiple choice

The Reform rabbis' kids survey has been up for just 5 days, but has already gotten 136 responses! Given the small size of the eligible pool (I'm estimating around 600-700 in the world), this is a solid sample size, so I'm ready to publish results.

One reason I did this is that we hear a lot about Jewish demographics and population shifts, but these studies are rarely longitudinal, so we don't hear about what happens to individuals over time. I throw around anecdotal claims, but without statistics about the population. So the focus on Reform rabbis' kids of a particular generation allows us to isolate a group of people who had a relatively similar Jewish upbringing (compared to the general Jewish population), and (as the data confirms) ended up all over the map.

A note about methodology:
I posted the survey here and on Jewschool, sent it to friends and relatives (encouraging them to forward it on), my mother sent it to the HUC alumni list (for rabbis to send to their children, or answer themselves if they're eligible), and a friend sent it to the Bronfman alumni list.

A commenter wrote on Jewschool that this is "an unscientific poll that anyone can fill out". That's true -- the survey relies entirely on the honor system, and there is no way of verifying that the people who answered the survey are actually who they claim to be. There are also some sample biases: posting on Mah Rabu and Jewschool skews the sample towards people who are Jewishly active in some capacity, and posting on the HUC alumni list skews it towards rabbis (who got the email directly, instead of only getting it if their parent forwarded it to them).

With all that in mind, let's look at the results. For now, I'll just post the data, and leave the conclusions up to the readers.

The survey was restricted to people who are children of Reform rabbis (this wasn't defined further, but no one asked for clarification; we can assume that this means people who are HUC graduates and/or CCAR members) and were born between 1966 and 1984 (the younger limit was to restrict the survey primarily to people who are out in the world on their own, and the older limit was mostly arbitrary).

Three questions were asked: year of birth, country of residence, and Jewish self-definition. There was also a space for optional comments, which will go in the next post.

The Jewish self-definition said "Check all that apply about your current Jewish self-definition", and the choices were:
  • I am a rabbi, rabbinical student, or other Jewish professional (or Jewish professional student).
  • I am Jewishly active in a Reform (affiliated) context.
  • I am Jewishly active in an Orthodox context.
  • I am Jewishly active in a Conservative (affiliated) context.
  • I am Jewishly active in a Reconstructionist (affiliated) context.
  • I am Jewishly active in a nondenominational context.
  • I am not Jewishly active.
  • Other (please specify)
Note that all of the denominational labels specified "affiliated" except Orthodox. This was to reflect an asymmetry among the denominations: Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist identities are tied to movement institutions, while Orthodox identity is not (and there is not a centralized "Orthodox movement" parallel to the others).

Among the 136 respondents, 29% reported that they are rabbis or other Jewish professionals. This is a particularly meaningless number, because of the sample biases discussed above. So I separated the data into Jewish professionals and non-professionals, and analyzed the two groups separately.


Among the Jewish professionals (N=39):
  • 15% checked no other box besides "Jewish professional"
  • 67% checked Reform
  • 3% checked Orthodox
  • 15% checked Conservative
  • 5% checked Reconstructionist
  • 21% checked nondenominational
  • 0% checked "not Jewishly active"
This adds up to more than 100%, because some people checked multiple boxes (in addition to "Jewish professional"). 8 respondents checked two boxes (4 Reform/nondenominational, 2 Reform/Conservative, 1 Conservative/Reconstructionist, 1 Conservative/nondenominational). 1 respondent checked 3 boxes (Reform/Conservative/nondenominational).

"Other" choices (not included in the numbers above):
  • "I am a Chabad Lubavitcher Chassid"
  • "in an Israeli 'traditional' sense"

Among the people who didn't check "Jewish professional" (N=97):
  • 40% checked Reform
  • 10% checked Orthodox
  • 14% checked Conservative
  • 4% checked Reconstructionist
  • 20% checked nondenominational
  • 27% checked "not Jewishly active"
Again, this adds up to more than 100%. 8 respondents checked 2 boxes (2 Reform/nondenominational, 3 Orthodox/nondenominational, 2 Reform/Reconstructionist, 1 Reconstructionist/nondenominational), and 5 respondents checked 3 boxes (2 Orthodox/Conservative/nondenominational, 1 Reform/Conservative/nondenominational, 1 Reform/Reconstructionist/nondenominational, and 1 Reform/Orthodox/Conservative).

"Other" choices (not included in the numbers above):
  • "I am active in a cultural context as a writer"
  • "Traditional/spiritual"
  • "I consider myself a reform Jew, but am not currently active in a temple."
  • "I am a member at a conservative Synagogue although it is not affiliated with the movement."
  • "Although I celebrate shabbat and observe Jewish holidays with my family." [checked "not Jewishly active"]
  • "Havurah style/nonafilliated Conservative context"
  • "Hillel"

I broke the not-Jewish-professional group down further, into two age groups: born 1966-1975, and born 1976-1984.

The most striking result from this division is that all the respondents who checked more than one box were from the younger group. (This is also true in the Jewish professionals group, with one exception.)

Among the Jewish non-professionals born 1966-1975 (N=34):
  • 50% checked Reform
  • 6% checked Orthodox
  • 9% checked Conservative
  • 0% checked Reconstructionist
  • 3% checked nondenominational
  • 26% checked "not Jewishly active"
Among the Jewish non-professionals born 1976-1984 (N=63):
  • 35% checked Reform
  • 11% checked Orthodox
  • 17% checked Conservative
  • 6% checked Reconstructionist
  • 30% checked nondenominational
  • 27% checked "not Jewishly active"
So the active/inactive ratio is constant between the two age groups, and the largest shift is the increase in people who are "Jewishly active in a nondenominational context". There isn't enough information to tell whether this is due to a generational shift or just an age difference, since we don't know what the 1966-1975 crowd was doing 10 years ago.

Otherwise, I'll leave the interpretation of these results to the readers. Go to it!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Survey for Reform rabbis' kids born 1966-1984

Are you the child of a Reform rabbi? Were you born between 1966 and 1984? If so, please fill out this very short survey.

This isn't for any formal research project, just my own curiosity. We make lots of conjectures, but I'd like to see whether it matches actual data.

Though this is not the most scientific survey ever, please adhere to the honor system: don't fill out the survey more than once, and don't fill it out if you don't qualify (see above for qualifications). If you don't qualify but have something to say, please comment on this post, not on the survey. And please pass the link on to any Reform rabbis' kids (born 1966-1984) you know!

Hop on pop

I don't usually post these quizzes, but it's not often that one can have me pegged so well, and in just 13 questions.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Midland
The Northeast
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Hat tip: shamirpower

Monday, January 01, 2007

Thy rod and thy staff

In honor of the Gregorian new year, here is a post on technical calendar issues. It's not often that the details of the lunar calendar play a central role in a major international news story!

Back when the Jews still lived primarily in the land of Israel, the lunar calendar was based on observation of the new moon. When a set of witnesses saw the new crescent moon, they would testify before the Sanhedrin that they had seen it, and the Sanhedrin would declare the new month. All of the holidays would be set based on this declaration.

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8 deals with various cases when the content of the witnesses' testimony is questionable. In one case in the 2nd century CE, a pair of witnesses came to Yavneh and said that they had seen the moon on the 30th night (the night that could be the 1st of the new month if the new month was declared), but then didn't see it on the following night. Rabban Gamliel (the presiding officer of the Sanhedrin) accepted their testimony. Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas had a dissenting opinion: These witnesses are liars! How can they testify that a woman has given birth, and then the next day she is still pregnant ("her belly is between her teeth")? Rabbi Yehoshua joined in this dissent.

In the following mishnah (2:9), things start to get heated between Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua. You see, if they disagree about whether to accept these witnesses' testimony, then they'll disagree on the date of Rosh Chodesh (R. Yehoshua would put it one day later) and thus on the dates of that month's holidays. That month was apparently Tishrei, with lots of important holidays. R. Gamliel sent R. Yehoshua a message: "I order you to come to me with your staff and your money, on the day that would be Yom Kippur according to your accounting." R. Gamliel and R. Yehoshua would have agreed that carrying these things into the public domain was forbidden on Yom Kippur (but just fine on 11 Tishrei, a regular weekday). So R. Gamliel was in essence commanding R. Yehoshua to accept R. Gamliel's opinion about when the holidays fall, and to announce this in public by doing something he would never do on Yom Kippur. After some angst and soul-searching about this, R. Yehoshua capitulated and went to R. Gamliel.

Fast forward eight centuries. Most of the Jewish population now lived outside Israel, and there was no Sanhedrin. The system of declaring the new moon based on the testimony of witnesses was gone, and had been replaced by a mathematical algorithm. One of the features of this algorithm is the four dechiyot -- circumstances that require Rosh Hashanah to be moved 1 or 2 days later than the calculated date of the new moon. One of the dechiyot, called molad zakein, says that if the molad (lunar conjunction) happens later than 18 hours (= noon, since we start counting from sundown), then Rosh Hashanah is delayed to the next day. [There are several possible reasons for this, which could be addressed in another post upon request.] Aharon ben Meir, of Eretz Yisrael, proposed changing this rule to 18 hours 642 minutes (=12:36 PM instead of noon), and changing two of the other dechiyot by the same amount. [Again, there are several possible reasons for this change.] Saadiah Gaon, of Babylonia, opposed the change. The molad of Tishrei in the year 923 CE happened on Shabbat at 18 hours 237 parts (12:13 PM). Therefore, according to Saadiah Gaon, since this was after 18 hours, Rosh Hashanah was delayed by a day, and then delayed by another day since Rosh Hashanah can't fall on Sunday, so he (and those who followed him) observed Rosh Hashanah on Monday. Aharon ben Meir (and those who followed him) observed Rosh Hashanah on Shabbat. Similar issues applied to Rosh Hashanah of the previous year. Therefore, the parts of the Jewish world that followed Aharon ben Meir observed all the holidays in 922 and 923 CE two days earlier than the parts of the Jewish world that followed Saadiah Gaon.

Fast forward to the present time. The molad zakein stayed at 18 hours, and Jews around the world agree on how to calculate the calendar. The Muslim world, however, is a different story. Islam also uses a lunar calendar, and in many countries, Muslims still rely on witnesses who observe the new moon, rather than a calculation. (In North America, the system just switched over this year!) Of course, this system has gone high-tech, and the Internet and telephones are much more efficient and reliable ways of transmitting the information than signal fires or messengers.

There is no internationally recognized Muslim authority (just as there has been no internationally recognized Jewish authority since the Sanhedrin ended). This means that Muslim communities in different countries, and sometimes within the same country, will disagree on the dates of the holidays, because they disagree about using calculation vs. observation, or because they're using observation but simply have different witnesses providing different data.

This year, Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites disagreed on the day that the month of Dhu al-Hijjah began. (Does anyone know the details? Are they using different systems, or are there just different authorities accepting witness testimony?) As a result, the festival of Eid ul-Adha (which begins on the 10th of the month, just like Yom Kippur or 10 Nisan, or appropriately for this year, 10 Tevet), began on Saturday, December 30, for Iraqi Sunnis, and Sunday, December 31, for Iraqi Shiites (and in North America).

Saddam Hussein was executed on Saturday morning. All relevant parties agree that executions should not take place during Eid. But the Shiites said that Saturday was not Eid, so the execution was permissible that day. Saddam Hussein was secular except when he had to appear religious for PR purposes, but he was of Sunni heritage.


All three of these stories have something in common: while the controversy (Rabban Gamliel vs. Rabbi Yehoshua, Aharon ben Meir vs. Saadiah Gaon, Sunnis vs. Shiites) is formally about technical calendar issues, deep down it's really about power politics.

In the Mishnah, the root of the controversy was the authority of the Sanhedrin, particularly R. Gamliel's personal authority, vs. the freedom to hold dissenting opinions. R. Gamliel was not willing to brook dissent, a trait that would eventually get him impeached and removed from office (and R. Yehoshua would recall this calendar controversy on that famous day). In compelling R. Yehoshua to carry in the public domain on a particular day, R. Gamliel wasn't just asserting a particular stance about the procedure for declaring the new moon, but was asserting his own centralized rabbinic authority and was compelling R. Yehoshua to accept that authority. Winner: R. Gamliel in the short term, but R. Yehoshua gets the last laugh when R. Gamliel is overthrown. Today there is no Sanhedrin, so centralized authority loses in the long term.

In the 10th century CE, the controversy was about Israel vs. the Diaspora. Saadiah Gaon was asserting his own authority as the premier Torah scholar of his time (from the Diaspora, where Jewish life was centered), and Aharon ben Meir was asserting the primacy of Eretz Yisrael. Winner: None in the short term (since both have their followers), but Saadiah Gaon in the long term -- we still follow his opinion about the calendar (which will next become an issue in 2025 CE, not so far in the future), and until the last century, Judaism was Diaspora-based.

In our time, the controversy is about who controls Iraq in the chaotic post-Saddam era. By executing Saddam on the Sunni date of Eid, Iraq's Shiite majority was asserting power and authority that had been denied to it under the (secular Sunni) Baath regime. This was as clear a signal as R. Gamliel's order to R. Yehoshua, asserting R. Gamliel's authority. But Iraq's Sunni population is not going to respond as deferentially as R. Yehoshua did. Winner: The Shiites in the short term. In the long term, God help us all.


Mazal tov to Ban-Ki Moon, Eliot Spitzer, and Slovenia!