Sunday, August 26, 2007

מי יאכלנו בשר

On Friday night I got to participate in an experiment in hilchot pluralism. ASL (acting as a private individual, not on behalf of any organized community) put together the first known fleishig (meat) two-table potluck.

Meat potlucks (whether one table, two tables, or as we'll see below, four tables) are rare in general in Jewish communities that observe any form of kashrut. This is in part because keeping it veg makes it much easier to negotiate among different standards of kashrut, and in part (even in communities with a more uniform standard of kashrut) for cultural reasons -- the meat crowd doesn't tend to overlap much with the potluck crowd. There are some exceptions: KOE has meat potlucks on occasion. I've never been to one, so I can't report on what these are like.

For the most part, my Jewish scene is vegetarian, not because everyone (or, perhaps, even a majority of people) in it is vegetarian, but because vegetarianism is a social norm (as kashrut is in many contexts). I'm a flexitarian, meaning that I'm not really a vegetarian (though I am a meat reductionist), but I live a vegetarian lifestyle most of the time. I keep a dairy kitchen at home, and only eat kosher meat, and am rarely in an environment where kosher meat is present (since most people I hang out with either don't eat meat or eat non-kosher meat), so I end up eating meat very rarely (though I still eat turkey when I go to the old country for Thanksgiving, and won't say no to the occasional shwarma when I get to Israel), and I'm fine with that. Vegetarianism is enough of a norm in my world (and I am effectively vegetarian when in non-kosher contexts) that people are always surprised to find out that I'm not vegetarian.

So this is the context in which the two-table meat potluck arose. I think the organizer was trying to make the point that the overlap between the meat crowd (that is, people who would eat meat, regardless of how often they actually do) and the potluck crowd is larger than we are often led to believe.

This is how the two tables were defined in the invitation:

Table 1: Non-dairy vegetarian food. Eggs and fish with fins and scales are OK, but please be careful that there are no dairy ingredients.

Table 2: Non-dairy vegetarian or meat food in which all ingredients are marked with a hechsher (more than just "K"), prepared on pareve or meat dishes in a kosher kitchen that uses only hechshered products.

A number of observations just about the theory (before we even get into the implementation):
  • This is, of course, not the only way a two-table meat potluck might have been envisioned. Other variations might include non-kosher meat on Table 1, or kosher meat prepared on any dishes on Table 1.
  • People with all-hechsher dairy kitchens, who ordinarily prepare food for Table 2, must cook for Table 1 this time (even though it's conceivable that some of them might not eat from Table 1).
  • Unlike in the standard two-table system, there are now people (vegetarians who aren't concerned about dishes or hechshers) who will eat only from Table 1 and not from Table 2. In the standard two-table system, there are people who will eat from both tables, and people who will eat from only Table 2.
  • There are also people (vegetarians who are concerned about dishes and/or hechshers) who can't eat from either table.
  • Those last two points aren't precisely true, since the vegetarian items on Table 2 should be self-evident enough that vegetarians can distinguish them from the meat items. (Jews who keep kosher don't generally put clandestine meat in their cooking the way some cuisines do.)
  • Stringencies about kosher dishes and utensils are based on the presumption that hot (in temperature or flavor) food absorbs the essence of meat or milk from the dishes. Are there any vegetarians who take this presumption seriously enough that they won't eat anything that has been cooked on fleishig dishes?
And so we gathered at Joan of Arc Island for services followed by the potluck dinner. A number of things happened to depart from the plan:
  • Because it was dark out and hard to see precisely what was in each food item, someone suggested that, for the benefit of vegetarians (as discussed above), Table 2 be separated into two tables: Table 2 (for vegetarian items) and Table 3 (for meat items). And it was so.
  • After all that, Table 3 only had three things on it. So this meat potluck didn't actually have so much meat at it. I guess this isn't so surprising, since not many people in this crowd (even the meat-eaters) have kosher fleishig (or bipolar) kitchens -- a lot of people have either milchig kitchens or non-kosher kitchens. I suppose I could have picked something up at Gan Asia, but I didn't think of it; instead I was lame and brought fruit. (Initially I split the fruit up between Tables 1 and 2, since there was no "common denominator" table. After Table 2 was split into 2 and 3, I put all the fruit on Table 2, because the new Table 2 was now a common denominator.)
  • And then someone showed up who had heard about the potluck indirectly and hadn't gotten the message about what made this potluck different from all other potlucks, so this person brought something dairy! So they had to create a Table 0 (the numbering of the additional tables was based on their spatial positioning), from which the vegetarians happily ate. I don't know if anyone ate from both Tables 0 and 3, but that's their business.
So that's the report from the field. If you're familiar with two-table meat potlucks from elsewhere, let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: I should clarify that "common denominator" remark, lest I appear to be using Stage 1 discourse. I meant it in the "universal donor" sense. One-table potlucks (operating in some sort of framework of kashrut) generally have a "universal donor" table. Conventional two-table potlucks have a "universal recipient" table (that is, universal in regard to whose kitchens it can receive food from, though not necessarily universal in regard to what food it can receive) and a "universal donor" table. These are the most abstract and idealized definitions of Table 1 and Table 2. Any specifics about hechshers, etc., are just the implementations of those idealized definitions, and are dependent on the range of practices in the specific community. This is why no more than two tables are necessary, and why questions like "What about cheese?" are a distraction (except when a particular community is determining its implementation of "universal donor" and "universal recipient"). This fleishig two-table potluck (as originally conceived) was unusual in that no table was a universal donor. Though I suppose if we're looking at this on a theoretical level, then it's not so unusual, since any food allergy could be isomorphic to vegetarianism.

UPDATE 2: ASL points out that he sent out the Evite only three days before the event, and that lots of the people who replied no are people who would have brought meat. So as long as we're trafficking in cultural stereotypes (cf. the reference above to the overlap, or lack thereof, between the meat crowd and the potluck crowd), I wonder if there is a correlation between eating meat and making Shabbat plans more than three days in advance.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Culling the blogroll

If you haven't posted in 2007, you're gone. Let me know if you start blogging again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Whip it

This Sunday, 26 August 2007, 12 Elul 5767, at 11 am, ALG and I are making a siyyum on Masechet Makkot in the City, County, and State of New York. All are invited. We'll be in Central Park if the weather is clement, and indoors otherwise. Email mahrabu at gmail if you'd like to come and that information wasn't precise enough.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cracking the code

I'm in the old country, and found a notebook from when I was in high school, which included this poem that I had started to write. Though I had no memory of writing it, I instantly saw what the scheme was. 10 points to anyone who can figure it out, and 20 points to anyone who can write the next few lines, consistent with this scheme.

'Twas the night before Christmas when everything started
A check for only 13 bucks had made me downhearted
The train full of numbers gave me a fright
And the fat lady sang at the end of the night.
As I walked to the bridge, I neared my final hour
For there is no safety in nuclear power
"Bingo", they sang as the car drove away
With shocks all around, there was no need to pay
Trained men with balloons marched down the street
In search of the one who stole cupcakes to eat
The boxers fought and fought on the screen
Dodgeball, the blues, and a sullen preteen
The head of the statue was gone, yet he stood
While the football game was played, and the field goal was good
The young one lived with benevolent bears
"Is he human?" they wondered with scientific stares

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Institute blog roundup: 5767 edition

Once again, here's a roundup of blog posts about the 2007 NHC Summer Institute. If you've blogged about the 'tute and aren't listed here, leave a comment and I'll update the post.

UPDATE: More from magid.

UPDATE 2: Reports from ahavatcafe and The Wise Bard. ZT from Divinity Is In The Details writes about his morning class and his afternoon class.

We report, you decide

Some sleuthing on the blogosphere has revealed the identity of the musician who led the "jazzy" service at Kutz Camp. If you go to this link and click on "Jazz Shabbat", you can listen to samples and judge for yourself.

Monday, August 13, 2007


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

This Jewish Week article, which LastTrumpet already posted, is making my head explode for all kinds of different reasons. So I’m posting a line-by-line fisking of the article, to attempt to enumerate all the things wrong with it, though I’m probably just scratching the surface. Unlike previous articles I’ve done this for, where the problems were primarily with the frames invoked by the reporter, this article has at least five distinct categories of things wrong with it:

  1. Destructive framing by the Jewish Week reporter (inappropriate for a paper supposedly committed to objective journalism)
  2. Self-destructive framing by Reform movement personnel quoted in the article (inappropriate for an organization supposedly committed to Reform Judaism)
  3. The Jewish Week reporter creating a narrative unsupported by the facts
  4. Problematic attitudes and policies by Reform movement personnel
  5. Poor tactics by Reform movement personnel demonstrating a complete ignorance of adolescent psychology

I am particularly disturbed because I have written numerous apologetics for Reform Judaism (as I understand it), defending it from ideas that I believe to be misconceptions, and now official voices of the Reform movement are making statements that affirm all of those ideas.

David Kelsey has been posting about how OU/NCSY is pursuing an agenda of recruiting liberal Jewish teenagers to Orthodoxy. When I read articles like this, sometimes I wonder whether URJ/NFTY is stealthily doing the same thing. Maybe they’re not doing it on purpose, but if they were, it’s hard to imagine how they could be doing it more effectively than what they’re doing now: getting kids excited about Judaism, and then when the kids explore different options to build Jewish identities for themselves, responding with frames that affirm Orthodoxy as the standard against which all Jewish movements are defined. Every time a NFTY or UAHC/URJ camp alum ends up in the Orthodox world, it is viewed as an isolated incident (Rabbi Yoffie says “Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”), but the numbers are so great that it is time for the Reform movement to do some cheshbon hanefesh about this systemic phenomenon. I have already considered some of the sociological causes in “Profile of an ‘Unaffiliated’ Jew”, and this post points out some of the ideological causes.

A note about framing before we get started: Being careful about the frames we use isn’t just about words; it’s about ideas. It’s rarely just a question of replacing an objectionable word with a less objectionable synonym. For example, it would be offensive if I were to write “The role of chicks in the Reform rabbinate has come a long way since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first chick to be ordained by HUC-JIR. In recent years, chicks and men have been represented equally among new Reform rabbis.” But the problem could be completely remedied by replacing each instance of “chicks” with “women”, which refers to the same category of people in an unobjectionable way. In contrast, consider this example: “In recent years, many Reform Jews have become more religious, as demonstrated by such practices as wearing kipot, laying tefillin, singing Carlebach melodies, and keeping kosher.” The problem here isn’t only the use of the phrase “more religious” (though this phrase is problematic here, and “more observant” and “more traditional” would be similarly problematic), and the problem wouldn’t be solved by replacing “religious” with a different adjective. The problem is the idea that these four items can be meaningfully grouped into a category that makes sense from a Reform perspective. The assumption that makes this categorization possible is the truly destructive frame, not just the vocabulary used to describe it.

So here we go:

Warwick, N.Y. — The sun was setting at the Reform movement’s teen leadership camp in this picturesque upstate town, and in the dying light of a sweet summer day it was time for the evening prayer service.

In the lakeside pavilion that serves as Kutz Camp’s synagogue, the visiting musician who led the evening service on the Fourth of July, a Wednesday, set the prayers to an easy-listening jazz sound.

It was a musical style, played on an electric keyboard, that almost none of the campers connected with, many said later.

Shocking! Most red-blooded 16-year-olds LOVE “easy-listening jazz”, so if these campers didn’t, then big changes must be afoot in the Reform movement.

But some took their displeasure a step further, doing something unprecedented that night at Kutz that speaks volumes about a generation of Reform teens that is staking a new claim to Jewish ritual and tradition and posing a challenge for movement leaders.

As the musician played a jazzy version of the Barchu, a couple of campers got up and walked out. Over the next several minutes, other pairs of high school-age campers, one after another, got up and quietly left. It took awhile for the adults in the room to realize what was happening, but some 40 campers in all, about a quarter of those in attendance, spontaneously got up and left the service. The service was too untraditional, they later said, offensively so.

I wasn’t there and haven’t heard any firsthand accounts of what happened, but here’s my best guess based on my decade-old memories of what it’s like to be a teenager and my experience as a high school teacher: The campers reached a rapid consensus that the music sucked, perhaps using even coarser language (and I probably would have agreed with them). This alone would not have been enough to get most of them to “spontaneously” leave on their own. But once a few had left, this gave the rest of them cover so that they could simultaneously do what they wanted (get out of a service where they didn’t want to be), assert their individuality, and be part of a group. We don’t have enough evidence to judge whether all of the people who left felt that the service was “too untraditional”, or whether this was just the stated opinion of a trendsetting few. But it seems to me that the “untraditional” claim is a red herring — presumably if it had been music that they liked, they would have stayed regardless of how “traditional” it was or wasn’t. (Indeed, the style that has been prevalent at Reform camp services for 35 years, accompanied by acoustic guitar and influenced by American folk music, is no more “traditional” in the unfortunate way that word seems to be defined in this article, but I can’t imagine these campers would have walked out on Debbie Friedman.)

Turns out, it was their own spiritual Independence Day.

Once out of the pavilion, clusters of teens agreed to find different spaces so that they could continue their prayers the way they wanted to. Some ended up forming a minyan in a bathroom.

This is beautiful. Really. To the extent that the camp’s educational mission is about empowering people to create their own Jewish life, this should be viewed as a smashing success. To the extent that the camp’s mission is about training people to be docile members of Reform congregations who won’t challenge the professionals’ decisions, I can see how this behavior represents a threat. But that mission is flawed for a number of reasons, not least that if trends hold up, these campers aren’t likely to join Reform congregations for at least another 15 years (if at all), and they’ll need the tools to get by in the meantime.

If the Kutz administration were going to criticize the campers for anything here, it should have been on hachnasat orechim grounds — the campers were disrespectful to their guest. Turning it into an ideological struggle merely affirms the campers in their sense of righteous indignation, makes them feel that they are being persecuted for their beliefs and practices, and drives them away from the Reform movement. The message should have been “Walking out isn’t nice”, not “Your aesthetic preferences are unacceptable”.

“When the prayers were very nontraditional, they felt botched; the music was so distracting,” said Sarah Wolfson, a 16-year-old from Calabasas, Calif., who is social action vice president of her temple youth group. “It seemed so disrespectful. I’ve become quite attached to saying the prayers the way I was bat mitzvahed with. It’s something I find really powerful,” she continued.

Aha! Now we see what “traditional” actually means to the campers, not what the Jewish Week and Rabbi Yoffie would like it to mean so that they can write a story and make a political point respectively. I don’t know Sarah Wolfson, but we can be reasonably sure that the congregation where she “was bat mitzvahed [sic]” didn’t use Carlebach niggunim or yeshivish speed-davening or easy-listening jazz, but used one of the styles that are standard in the Reform movement. Thus, “nontraditional”, to her, means “not what I’m used to”, and carries no ideological valence. Depending on one’s perspective, this attitude of seeking the familiar might be seen as reverent respect for our heritage, or as narrow-minded inflexibility, but either way, this attitude can be found among people in all Jewish movements (including Classical Reform).

Wolfson was one of the campers who went to a girls’ bathroom to pray. “We were all able to create that connection together in our gathering. It was very moving and empowering.”

No doubt. Harnessing adolescent rebellion toward productive pursuits can be very powerful. A pivotal Jewish experience for me during my NFTY years was a retreat at camp where a small group of us from NFTY joined with a small group from an Orthodox high school for the beginning of Sukkot. On the first night, we had services together, organized by the adults. The services were basically what they would have been if the Orthodox group had been on its own, except that they threw us Reform kids a bone by reading some of the prayers in English, which we found condescending. As a protest, some of the people in my NFTY group stood at the back and started singing the Klepper/Freelander “Shalom Rav” at the end of the silent Amidah. Late that night in the cabin, some people from both groups decided that we were going to run services the following night the way we wanted, rather than let those adults do it for us when they just don’t understand. For several hours, we went through the siddur and found a way to do services that would be acceptable to both groups. The issue of 1-day vs 2-day yom tov wasn’t on our radar, since most of us had never observed even one full day of Sukkot as a full cessation from work (however defined), so this retreat was so far outside our experience that it didn’t occur to us that there was something off about the two-day thing. The issue of gender, which would ordinarily be a major sticking point in this sort of Reform-Orthodox pluralistic dialogue, also didn’t really come up, since the Orthodox group was all male, and there was just one girl in the NFTY group and she was apathetic. So the issues we were working out between us were mostly stylistic (and, in retrospect, superficial), but at the time they seemed important to our Jewish identities. In the end, we were proud of what we had accomplished on our own without the adults, and we felt Jewishly empowered and had our first meaningful experiences with creating pluralistic Jewish communities. The content was less important than that empowerment and that dialogue. And none of this would have happened if we had just accepted what the adults were feeding us and hadn’t rebelled.

These teens are part of what appears to be a growing number of young adults in the denomination more interested in conventional prayer and traditional Jewish observances than their parents are.

“Conventional prayer”? The Reform movement is the largest organized Jewish movement in the country, so there’s nothing more “conventional” than what goes on in Reform synagogues every week, and I don’t think these teens are more interested in the rabbi-cantor-choir services from back home than their parents are. “Traditional Jewish observance”? Oh yes, I remember my great-grandmother telling me about how she and her friends used to put on their tefillin and have a Carlebach minyan in the girls’ bathroom when they were teenagers back in the shtetl.

Rather, these teens are exploring Jewish practices different from what they grew up with, and I think it’s completely healthy for them to engage in this sort of exploration as they think about what it means for them to create their own Jewish experience rather than depending on authority figures to create it for them. And there’s nothing “more” or “less” traditional about that — it’s just a part of growing up.

Kutz Camp, which runs sessions from late June through mid-August, attracts the most-committed Reform teens from around the country and so, while what happens there may not be typical of what’s going on everywhere, it is a seeding ground for new leaders and a place where developing trends are evident.

In addition to demanding more traditional prayer, a small but growing number of campers and young faculty there are wearing yarmulkes or tzitzit, even tefillin along with prayer shawls.

Ok, so teenagers are looking for outward ways to display their Jewish identities. What’s the problem with that? This list might also include Tzahal T-shirts and chai necklaces. I think it’s harmless; it’s the adults who are turning this into an ideological movement, not the teenagers. The adults should stop projecting their own issues onto the campers and go read Erikson.

One of this year’s campers had shuckling — the rhythmic prayer-rocking usually done by fervently Orthodox men — perfected.

“Fervently Orthodox men”??? Here I’m at a loss for words.

For the first time, song leaders taught the chasidic songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach alongside more modern Reform tunes.

“More modern”??? Carlebach was writing his now-classic tunes in the ’70s, at the exact same time that Friedman and Klepper were writing theirs. And they were all doing basically the same thing — setting Jewish prayers to simple melodies influenced by an American folk idiom to enable people to join together in spirited musical prayer. Just because Carlebach had a bigger beard than Klepper and sang with an Ashkenazi accent doesn’t mean that his music is any more “traditional” or less “modern”.

There are even “rumblings” of interest in making the camp, which is now kosher-style, really kosher, said Kutz Director Rabbi Eve Rudin. “We first started seeing kids lay tefillin two or three years ago. Certainly we saw it last summer. It’s a handful of kids. Tzitzit are more widespread; quite a few kids are wearing them.”

It’s an ironic shift for Kutz, which has long been a site of creative experimentation, like the jazz service, in Reform worship.

Where’s the irony? These kids didn’t grow up wearing tzitzit or tefillin, so when they try them on at Kutz, it’s in precisely that spirit of “creative experimentation”, and should be encouraged as such.

It also seems to reflect a growing generation gap, with current leaders of the movement’s institutions not always fully ready to embrace the changes that its youngest constituents are calling for.

This sentence could have been written about any movement institutions in any generation.

Several young faculty members at Kutz this summer (where I taught writing during the first session) wanted to gather to sing the traditional Friday evening Psalms at the edge of the lake before camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services. Initially, said one faculty member who asked not to be named, they were given tacit permission as long as they didn’t invite camper participation. But then they were told they could not, since singing the Psalms — even though they’re contained in the Reform prayer book — isn’t a conventional Reform practice.

Wait, I’m confused! I thought you just said that the younger generation was more interested in “conventional prayer”!

Anyway, this policy blows my mind. Kutz, “a site of creative experimentation”, is taking the position that anything that isn’t done in most Reform congregations is out of bounds? Unless it involves easy-listening jazz? Is Kutz denying that these psalms are part of the Tanach, or for that matter, of Gates of Prayer?

For Rabbi Rudin, the issue was about faculty members separating themselves from the rest of the community in order to do something which “would be seen as ‘more religious,’ or ‘better,’ ” she said.

“We as a faculty are here to enable the experience for the kids, so if the kids see that the faculty are not pleased with the worship, what are they going to think about their own Jewish practice? I want every camper to feel proud of the Jewish choices they are making and not to feel that ‘more is better’ or ‘more traditional is better.’ ”

If the article is accurate that this was going on before (not during) camp-wide Kabbalat Shabbat services, then they’re not actually separating themselves from the rest of the community.

Rabbi Rudin, you are the one labeling these services as “more religious”, by forbidding them on those grounds. The people participating are doing so because they prefer that for themselves, for whatever reason, and are making no statement about what is objectively “better” for everyone. As I got older, one of the things I found frustrating about working at a UAHC camp was that any individually motivated Jewish practice (which someone did because s/he chose to, rather than because it was on the schedule) was viewed with automatic suspicion. If the faculty is pursuing their own prayer experiences to augment the camp-wide services, then the message this sends to the kids is that it’s ok (and perhaps even desirable) to make thoughtful choices about personal Jewish practice, and they have role models for doing this. That was the message I picked up when I was a camper and one of my counselors refused to say Aleinu on ideological grounds. Was his practice “more religious” or “better”? Who cares? That’s not the point. The point was that someone I respected was thinking for himself about what the prayers meant. If camp is supposed to be a laboratory for an ideal Jewish community, then the faculty can be better role models if they are living meaningful Jewish lives than if they are just putting on a show for the campers.

Since the practice of singing these psalms on Friday night dates back to the 16th century, and the rest of the Friday night service is much older, one could easily make the argument that it’s “more traditional” not to sing these psalms. (And as we see above, this is obviously true in the Reform movement’s history as well.) But that shouldn’t matter — including or not including these psalms seems like a morally neutral question that should be subject to individual discretion, regardless of which choice is “more traditional”. Anyway, Rabbi Rudin is falling into the Artscroll trap of identifying “more traditional” with “consonant with contemporary Orthodox practice, regardless of vintage”.

Top Reform leaders are equally concerned that those more inclined to classical Reform Judaism, which is less focused on ritual observance, not feel alienated by those interested in tradition.

Classical Reform Judaism made some strong statements on paper, but in practice, it is just as focused on ritual observance as any other stream of Judaism — you better make sure that the rabbi is wearing a robe, and that everyone stands or sits at the same time, and that everyone listens attentively to the choir, or else. The relevant distinction here is more between communal and individual ritual observance — “top Reform leaders” are concerned that individuals are pursuing ritual observance that is different from the ritual observances mandated by the institutions.

And anyone who bans something because it’s not a “conventional Reform practice” is “interested in tradition”. Congratulations.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, heard from many campers about the “botched” jazz service when he came to Kutz for a visit in mid-July. “They were so afraid of offending these kids [the more religiously inclined] that they were too intimidated to proceed in their desire to bring creative approaches to prayer, something we normally do in virtually any youth setting,” Rabbi Yoffie told The Jewish Week.

“The more religiously inclined”??? This was in brackets, so I’m going to blame the Jewish Week for this one, not Rabbi Yoffie. But come on. Anyone with a “desire to bring creative approaches to prayer” sounds pretty “religiously inclined” to me!

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the movement’s seminary arm, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview that “the Reform movement has to be tolerant and embrace classical Reform Jews for whom this embrace of tradition is not something they celebrate. I would hope it would remain sufficiently pluralistic to include both camps.”

I know some Classical Reform Jews, and they’re all about “embrace of tradition” and they can’t understand why what was good enough for 19th-century Germany isn’t good enough for today’s kids. (As I’ve written before, I think some Classical Reform practices “originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state”. But that’s beside the point.)

Otherwise, kudos to Rabbi Ellenson for his call for pluralism.

Some Kutz teens also viewed unity as the priority.

Grace Klein wrote in the camp newspaper after the jazz service that “as disturbed as I was throughout the service, I as well as everyone else who stayed, chose to place the unity of Kutznikim over personal satisfaction. The choice also had to do with respect” for the musician leading the service.

Ok, fine. I don’t place unity on as high a pedestal, so I think it would have been fine to have two parallel minyanim, one with easy-listening jazz and one without, but I agree that it would have been better to make this decision in advance.

“The fact is that many of us prefer the traditional aspects of Judaism, particularly in worship, more than previous Reform generations did,” she wrote. But “If anything, the schmaltzy, keyboard extravaganza was an experiment … the way to lead the movement towards tradition is not to balk at our predecessors’ choices but to basically keep on doing what we’re doing.”

While the tensions raised by this developing issue may have been more visible at Kutz than in other Reform-affiliated institutions, it is not the only place the interest in traditional observance is being seen.

Many young Reform rabbis are reversing choices made by their older colleagues, some of whom proudly eat shrimp and bacon.

David Singer, 24, is part of this new wave. Entering his fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the Village, he always wears a kipa and tzitzit, keeps kosher and doesn’t ride or use money on Shabbat.

But he does it all from a purely Reform perspective, which emphasizes personal autonomy in religious practice, a principle he regards as among the highest of values, he said in an interview a few weeks ago.

Why is the phrase “traditional observance” being used to refer purely to ritual observance (rather than to mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro), and purely to ritual observances that weren’t common in the Reform movement a few decades ago?

The spreading interest in traditional observance is creating “a tug of war between pluralism and uniformity” for the movement, said Singer, who was on the Kutz faculty.

“Maybe it’s a fear that ‘God forbid we become more like the Orthodox.’ It’s not about being Orthodox, but the exact opposite because we want to do it in a plurality of ways and are choosing to do it, which is not what Orthodoxy is about. It’s seen as a threat, but it shouldn’t be.”

I agree 100%.

Singer grew up in the Reform movement, in its summer camps and attending a Reform day school in his home city of San Diego, and now lives in Brooklyn.

“I’m definitely one of the more observant people in my [rabbinical school] class,” Singer said. But “I know that as a class we all struggle to find our place within the Reform movement.

Normally I’d take issue with the use of “more observant”, but it’s possible that he also means it in a way that would actually be accurate.

“Do any of us pray in Reform synagogues in New York City aside from small minyanim at Beth Elohim?” the Park Slope Reform synagogue where he works as rabbinic intern. “No. You’re more likely to find us at the independent minyanim” that in recent years have sprouted up around New York City, where the approach to prayer tends to be at once creative and traditional.

Props to Beth Elohim, which may hold a record among synagogues for hosting the most independent minyanim. So it seems like if it weren’t for the independent minyanim, the Reform movement’s future rabbis wouldn’t have anywhere where they want to pray as participants (rather than as leaders).

“We’re looking for things outside the box in which our generation feels comfortable experimenting and expressing our Judaism in ways that haven’t always fit into the established norms of Reform Judaism. At times it is seen as an affront to people who aren’t always ready for it,” Singer said.

This is a much more accurate frame that reflects the internal dynamics of the Reform movement. The Reform movement has “established norms”, and some people are “outside the box”. This makes more sense than the frame prevalent in the rest of the article, which labels practices as “traditional” when Orthodoxy happens to share them and “creative” otherwise, ignoring the motivations behind those practices.

So can these conflicting approaches to Jewish worship and observance be reconciled within the Reform movement?

Only if the Reform movement gives up homogeneity.

It’s a real-world challenge, said Rabbi Yoffie, who in 1999 called for “a Reform revolution” in worship, with more emphasis on lively prayer and text study. “There isn’t a shul in the world that doesn’t struggle to create a worship experience meaningful to everybody.”

Maybe they’d have more success if they weren’t trying to make it “meaningful to everybody”, and instead tried to pick one thing and do it well. “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”

Taking on Jewish observance should be embraced, said Rabbi Yoffie — to a point.

Again, this isn’t in quotes so it’s the Jewish Week’s fault, but “Jewish observance”??? Like loving the stranger, keeping honest weights and measures, and pursuing justice? To a point?

“No aspect of the tradition should be foreign to us. We should be prepared to explore everything. Even things that would have been unthinkable to parents and grandparents,” said Rabbi Yoffie.

Great. (And I hope that includes kabbalat shabbat psalms too, as an example that should be uncontroversial. I also hope it includes “aspect[s] of the tradition” that haven’t been invented yet.)

“Some people may want to go and become either Conservative or Orthodox. So be it.”

Generally that’s a final step, after they feel that they’ve exhausted their options in the Reform community where they came from. Are you interested in pushing people in that direction? Why?

There are limits to what the Reform movement can encompass, he said. “We’re a mitzvah-oriented tradition, not halacha-oriented,” he said, referring to Jewish law. “If you take it all upon yourself as an obligation rather than as a choice, you’ve reached the point at which you’re no longer a Reform Jew.”

Ok, let’s count all the things wrong with this statement.

  1. I honestly don’t understand the distinction he’s drawing between “mitzvah-oriented” and “halacha-oriented”. Is it that “mitzvah” refers to 613 imperative statements in the Torah (many of which are not followed today by anyone) and “halacha” refers to the specifics of how to observe them? If so, then how can the mitzvot be observed with no specifics? (That’s right, no specifics. He didn’t say “we disagree with Orthodox halacha”, he didn’t say “we don’t have a single uniform halacha”, he said “not halacha-oriented”.)
  2. If the Reform movement is “not halacha-oriented”, then has the CCAR Responsa Committee been informed?
  3. Whose official definition does Rabbi Yoffie use for “it all” (referring to Jewish law)? The Rif? Isaac Klein? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch? The CCAR Responsa Committee? Artscroll? An educated Reform Jew who is interpreting halacha autonomously? In the Orthodox world, only an extremist (and an ignorant one) would say that there is a single set of practices that can be identified as “the halacha”. So how can there be a single version of halacha of which Reform Jews definitionally don’t observe “it all”?
  4. The language of “take … upon yourself” implies that there is choice in the matter. The language of “mitzvah” implies obligation. Therefore, for these purposes, it seems that “choice” vs “obligation” is a false dichotomy — I think Rabbi Yoffie would agree that there are situations in which both apply.
  5. Are the ethical mitzvot a “choice”?
  6. Add your own!

Back at Kutz, as third-session campers arrived, many to participate in community service programs as part of the camp’s “Mitzvah Corps,” Rabbi Rudin reflected on the tensions playing out between those interested in greater observance and those who are not.

“Greater observance”…… I’ve said it all already. :(

“We do want there to be experimentation, and I do think there’s a place here for someone who keeps strictly kosher and to wear tefillin. This is supposed to be a very pluralistic place. But in the end, even though the Reform movement is about being pluralistic, there is a range” of accepted behaviors, she said.

“This is about the Reform movement coming to terms with the fact that there are boundaries, and what those boundaries may be.”

For sure. But why should those boundaries be anywhere in regard to personal ritual practice? I can think of many practices followed in parts of the Orthodox world (you know, the world that the Jewish Week uses as a standard for “religious”, “observant”, and “traditional”) that should be outside appropriate boundaries for the Reform movement (e.g. discriminating against LGBT people, excluding women from leadership roles, supporting West Bank settlements, encouraging all the men in the community to study full-time instead of getting a job), but nothing of the sort is being pursued by the Kutz campers. Of course, the first two would be happening in the Reform movement today if it restricted itself to “conventional Reform practice” as it was known in previous generations.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Al galgalim, al galgalim, al galgalim, TUTE TUTE

I'm back from a week in New Hampshire at Franklin Pierce University (known until recently as Franklin Pierce College) for the NHC Summer Institute. As always, re-entering the world is a culture shock, but blogging eases the transition. Like last year, I'll be posting an Institute blog roundup, but I'll give everyone a couple days to get home and write their post-Institute posts. In the meantime, you can look at Institute photos on Flickr, and add your own to the slideshow by posting them to Flickr and tagging them "nhcInstitute2007".

Some disconnected and unordered thoughts and highlights from Institute '07:
  • As I blogged on Jewschool, the city to watch over the next few months is Chicago. I had the opportunity to talk to a number of Chicagoans who are fired up to create grassroots Jewish community when they get home. In response, some people are saying that stuff is already going on there. Though Chicago is my hometown and I visit several times a year, I have no firsthand knowledge of what is or isn't going on in the independent Jewish scene, since I'm generally there at times like Thanksgiving and Pesach (when independent communities that don't meet every week won't be meeting if they can help it) or for family events. So I'll stay out of the fray and leave it to the Chicagoans to sort out for themselves what is or isn't happening, and hopefully to augment it substantially.
  • The NHC board voted this week to implement a new scholarship program (inspired by Limmud NY), beginning with the 2008 Institute, that will make Institute much more financially accessible so that no one is turned away because of the cost. This is contingent on meeting our fundraising goal by December 31, 2007, so that we'll know in time for the brochure deadline whether there are sufficient funds to offer the scholarships for the '08 Institute. This is huge. So if you're interested in making the Institute accessible to everyone regardless of financial situation, please consider making a donation, and if you're interested in participating in the Institute but have been deterred in the past by the cost, then I look forward to seeing you at the 2008 Institute!
  • Massive props to SF and the rest of the DC-based planning committee for throwing an excellent Institute! B'hatzlachah to Kung Fu Jew and ASB, who are co-chairing in 2008! (August 11-17, 2008, back in Rindge. Be there.)
  • After seven previous Institutes at Franklin Pierce, Institute kabbalat shabbat has finally found a worthy vessel to contain it, for the first time in this century. No more field house (2000-05) or tent (2006); the newly constructed Pierce Hall has enough space for the whole community and acoustics to properly harness the community's ruach. With the expanded dining hall, there's plenty of room for the Institute to grow in future years.
  • As usual, no matter how rainy it gets during the week, the weather always turns perfect in time for Shabbat. But if we're going to pray outside on Shabbat morning, there are some lessons to be learned. As Kol Zimrah once learned the hard way, sitting in a circle with empty space in the middle is no good when you're outdoors; everyone has to move closer together.
  • The folk version of the Humpty Dance wasn't my idea. I first heard it from someone at Hillel Leaders Assembly in 1999, but I never got his name, so I can't give him proper credit. If you're out there, please identify yourself so that you can be credited.
  • My morning class, "The Gospels as Midrash: A Jewish Reading of the New Testament", and my afternoon class, "Advanced Talmud: White Sheets and Groomsmen, or: The Wedding Night", were both fantastic -- so much that they inspired me to do violence to my sleep cycle, even more than Institute usually does. Joseph Sievers, who is a Catholic priest, a professor of Jewish studies, and the pope's top advisor about Judaism, was teaching a course at Institute about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and was also doing mass every morning at 7. Since my morning class dealt with related issues, we had an optional "field trip" to go watch mass. This was my second time seeing mass, and the first time was during the living wage sit-in, so both times were with lots of Jews. So I was up at 7 on Wednesday, not so many hours after going to bed the night before (when we had a Jewschool meeting), and after mass I popped in for the end of trad-egal shacharit, and then there was time for a brief nap after breakfast, but then I realized that I was leading a morning workshop, going to morning class (where we were discussing the field trip, and similarities and differences with Jewish texts), lunch, extended-format afternoon class, NHC board meeting, dinner, and musical maariv (led by LastTrumpet), with no chances for a break in between. I had had qualms about signing up for my first extended-format class, because it meant missing afternoon workshops every day, but went ahead with it because I didn't want to pass up the opportunity for advanced Talmud study. Once I got to Institute and got caught up in the frenetic pace, I realized that I should have been worried not about missing afternoon workshops, but about missing the ability to sleep through afternoon workshops. Since I didn't want to miss any of these things, but also couldn't see how I was going to stay awake the whole day, I did the unthinkable at lunch. Normally, I never drink caffeine. This means that I haven't built up a tolerance to it, so a little bit goes a long way. I had half a cup of (fair-trade "Havurah Roast") coffee at lunch (mixed with ice cream), and it successfully kept me up for the next 12 hours (my planned evening nap didn't materialize). Now I think I have a small glimpse into my students' lives. It's totally ok to skip activities and take naps when necessary (at 'tute, not at school!); I just didn't want to. Do as I say, not as I do.
  • The people working on the EJ project made a siyyum on the letter L. The Leo Baeck Institute got a shout-out. They're doing the letters out of order, and next year they'll be finishing the whole thing, concluding with V, W, Y, and Z (having done X already). Next step: Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. More on that coming soon.
  • I saw a copy of the new book, The Family Flamboyant: Race Politics, Queer Families, Jewish Lives, by Marla Brettschneider (who was at Institute), and the acknowledgements include Kol Zimrah! I think this is a first.
  • I also saw a copy of the new book, Inventing Jewish Ritual, by Vanessa Ochs, and it includes an extensive ethnomusicological case study on the three-part "e-o" round!
  • I saw a Perseid!
  • There are at least 11 people who were at this Institute who will be in Israel for the coming year. So for everyone else, this is a great year to come and visit!
That's all for now. More later.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Flyer for 'tute

The final siyyum on the Encyclopaedia Judaica is next summer. What’s next?

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah

Next year, 2008, marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (published in English as The Book of Legends), a compilation of stories and folklore from the Talmud and throughout rabbinic literature, from the creation of the world to the world to come. At next summer’s Institute, people throughout the extended havurah network will begin studying Sefer Ha-Aggadah, reading a little bit each day for two years, and completing it at the 2010 Institute. When young Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, who was the Egyptian and who was the Hebrew? Why is Israel compared to a sheep? Where does the sun go at night? We’ll read answers to all these questions and more. We’ll have an online discussion so that we can share our thoughts over the course of the project, and add our own interpretations to the chain of tradition. Sign up now to get more information!

Ok, so even though it's a year away, I'll open the voting on how to split this into 2 years. (These page counts are from the English version; I've already packed the Hebrew version into storage.)

Option A:
Year 1 = Parts I-II (329 pages)
Year 2 = Parts III-VI (486 pages)

Option B:
Year 1 = Parts I-III (500 pages)
Year 2 = Parts IV-VI (316 pages)

Option C:
Year 1 = beginning to Part III chapter 6 (400 pages)
Year 2 = Part III chapter 7 to end (416 pages)

Advantage of Options A and B: At the 2009 Institute, we can make a siyyum on a more coherent unit of text.
Advantage of Option C: The division between the two years is more equitable in length. (Also, the first year concludes with the messianic redemption, and the second year begins with Torah.)

Vote! Also, drop me an email if you'd like to get on the list.