Monday, October 29, 2007

Current standings

World Series won by the Red Sox in this millennium: 2
World Series won by the Yankees in this millennium: 1 (I'll be nice to Yankees fans and use the non-pedantic definition of the millennium; I don't care whether there was a year 0, since it's all arbitrary anyway)

Message to Yankees fans: HA HA!
Message to Red Sox fans: An even bigger HA HA! You're now officially just another baseball team!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

זמרו לה' בכנור

This Friday, there will be independent musical kabbalat shabbat and ma'ariv (with guitar accompaniment) in an apartment in Jerusalem תובב"א. All are invited. Email for details.

The Zionist narrative... now in Arabic!

This exercise from my Arabic textbook is to practice writing numbers. (Arabic is ironically one of the few living languages that doesn't use "Arabic numerals".) So, to practice, they give us some dates, which were clearly chosen completely at random!


For balance, we have this practice sentence to read and translate:

It says "Albayt biTal Abib li'abi walbuyut biNatanya libanati", or "The house in Tel Aviv is my father's, and the houses in Netanya are my daughters'." Welcome to the magical land of Arabic speakers who own houses in Tel Aviv and Netanya!

(To be fair, we had only learned 7 letters at the time -- alif, ba, ya, waw, nun, ta, and lam -- and now that we've learned a few more, we're getting place names like Beirut.)

The new moon of Cheshvan

This is obviously a couple weeks old, but I'm catching up on old stuff now. Anyway, it's the same moon visible from everywhere.

More graffiti

We weren't so creative this time, but nonetheless, we saw another one the next day, so someone either thought of it independently or copied us.

Speaking of which, does anyone know what this is about? I've been seeing אז everywhere.

The galaxy we call the Milky Way

What was the native language of the person who made this sign?

The new "Where are you learning?"

The last time I lived in Israel, 6 years ago, the most frequent question I would get asked was "Where are you learning?". I didn't have the type of answer that people were expecting, and as I got tired of saying "Actually, ...", I started coming up with creative answers, like "On the bus to work." The reason the question grated on me so much was the underlying assumption that anyone in the world of 20something non-oleh liberal Jewish Anglos living in Jerusalem must be learning at some institution. Since I wasn't, I was a landless alien.

This time around, I have a more conventional answer to the question (which I still get asked, but now it's of no deeper significance to me).

This means that I have to nominate a new question for Question I Never Want To Hear Again. I'm going to flip if I have to come up with another answer to "What is your Talmud background?". And this time, the people asking the question are doing their job and my answer could have consequences, unlike the old days when the question was asked in shallow social interactions that I didn't have to take seriously. Just like in the days of the old question, life would be simpler if I could just produce the name of a yeshiva.

In related news, one thing I like about taking Arabic is that (unlike in Hebrew or Talmud) I know exactly what level I belong at, and have never questioned this for a minute.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Question answered?

In addition to writing an extended rant in response to Eilu V'Eilu volume 20 week 1, I sent in a much shorter and calmer version as a question, and it was answered in week 3. You can decide for yourself whether my question was actually answered.

Rabbi Moffic writes that we should ask “As Reform Jews, how can we best live out our principles and bring more American Jews and their families into the synagogue?” This question sets up a dichotomy between the “we” who are concerned with how to bring people into synagogues—presumably Jewish professionals and other leaders—and the “they” who need to be brought in, whom he describes as “the vast majority of American Jews who do not speak Hebrew." Where is the place for Jewishly educated laypeople in Rabbi Moffic’s vision of Reform Jewish community?


New York [sic -- I didn't include a city, and I guess this was the last address they had for me]

Dear [BZ],

Thank you for your careful reading and parsing of my essay. My intent was not to set up a dichotomy between professional and lay Jews. Since I imagine that most of the readers of Eilu V’Eilu are synagogue members, I directed the essay toward the affiliated. While one does not need to be a synagogue member in order to be a good Jew, I believe that synagogue membership is essential for every person who cares about and is committed to the Jewish community. I also hope that all members of Reform synagogues do become educated in Jewish practices and ideals. Even those who know Hebrew, however, can and still do appreciate saying some prayers in English. A greater Jewish education does not automatically translate, I think, into more traditional observance and worship.

I really thought I was pitching a softball. If he had a vision of the role of educated laypeople, this was his chance to lay it out. Is there really no more compelling reason to join a synagogue than that it's "essential for every person who cares about and is committed to the Jewish community", i.e. "because I said so"? And I've already said that I don't care what "more traditional" means; however, a greater Jewish education does translate into making more independent decisions, and into a feeling of "I don't belong here" in an environment that is explicitly geared to those with little or no education.

Much better than the IBL: Part 2

This is the second half of my post about my trip to the Knesset last Wednesday, dealing with the part that was actually inside the Knesset.

I got to the visitors' gallery, and it was almost completely full. It turns out that 90% of the people there were with some sort of organized group (of older adults), which I didn't know until later on, when someone gave a signal and they all left together.

I have been following enough Israeli news for the last 15 years that I was able to identify many of the Knesset members by sight -- the unmistakable visage of MK Binyamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, MK Effi Eitam towering over his chair that looked tiny in comparison, MK Rafi Eitan sitting next to a fellow Pensioner and looking collectively like Statler and Waldorf, and of course the prime minister himself. Some of the other household names, like Amir Peretz and Bibi Netanyahu, did not appear to be present.

Speaker Dalia Itzik presided over the session at times, tag-teaming with someone who may have been Deputy Speaker Ahmad Tibi, as well as someone who may have been Deputy Speaker David Rotem. Though the Speaker of the Knesset is not a party leader the way she is in the US, presiding over the Knesset plenum itself is a much more hands-on job than anything that can be imagined in the US Congress, because it carries with it the role of kindergarten teacher. None of this "I yield to the gentleman from Minnesota"; Knesset members are continually shouting at whoever is speaking, so that the presiding officer has to keep telling MKs to sit down and/or be quiet, often calling them out by name. "Chaver ha-Knesset Ploni, Chaver ha-Knesset Plonit, Chaver Ha-Knesset Almoni, CHAVER HA-KNESSET PLONI!"

The visitors' gallery is behind glass (and for good reason -- even if we've been screened for weapons, they probably don't want us throwing our lunches at the MKs), with sound played through a speaker. This means that we could only hear the people who were miked (whoever was speaking at the podium at the time, and the presiding officer telling everyone else to sit down), so unfortunately I couldn't hear what the others were yelling, only that they were yelling. I think they should give all the MKs microphones, and play those on a separate audio track, so that those who wish can listen to that track on headphones if they want the deluxe experience. Also, when the MK at the podium got particularly loud, they sent the sound system into overdrive, so that what we heard was distorted. As a result, the most impassioned parts of the speeches were the most difficult to hear clearly. These are issues that need to be dealt with in order to make the Knesset the best spectator sport experience it can be. I refer the question to MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, chair of the committee on Education, Culture, and Sports.

Disclaimer: I'm still working on my Hebrew. It's decent (I'm in level vav), but I still have some trouble understanding when it's spoken quickly, and/or with distortion (see above). Therefore, there are no guarantees of accuracy in the transmission of any of these Knesset discussions, except regarding the general topic of each bill, since the title of each bill was up on the TV screens during the whole debate, so I had plenty of time to read it.

When I got inside, they were debating Israel's response (or lack thereof) to the Darfur refugee crisis. Specifically, there had been a petition by 40 MKs for the Knesset to discuss the government's failure to address the situation of the Darfur refugees in Israel. As I arrived, an unidentified be-srugah-ed MK was giving a historical overview of past instances when Israel had absorbed large groups of (Jewish) immigrants -- from Ethiopia, India, etc. I couldn't tell which side he was arguing for. Later I realized that it was quite easy to figure out which side someone was on by their choice of words: the people who had arrived from Darfur were referred to either as פליטים (refugees) or מסתננים (I had to look this one up: infiltrators, which is related to "filter" in both Hebrew and English).

Next, MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) gave a fiery speech in support of absorbing the refugees. She said "Have we forgotten that we are all refugees???", and appealed to the principles on which the state was founded. In fact, everyone seemed to do this -- every issue was cast as a struggle for the soul of the state. I didn't catch the name of the MK who spoke next; if I had to guess the party, I would say Yisrael Beiteinu, but I have no idea. He said that 90% of the "infiltrators" weren't really refugees anyway, and were just coming into Israel because they wanted to, and Israel doesn't have the capacity for them. On the other side, others spoke who may have been MK Taleb el-Sana (United Arab List) and MK Dov Khenin (Hadash). All of these speeches were interrupted by outbursts from the floor; sadly, as noted above, I couldn't hear the interruptions.

Finally, PM Olmert got up to speak. It was clear that he was attempting to add gravitas -- his tone was more subdued than any of the previous speakers, most of whom got very excited, and he started by saying that it was important that the Knesset was having this discussion, since there were 40 MKs who thought it was an important discussion to have and submitted a petition. Then he started talking about how the infiltrators were here illegally, and large groups of them had crossed the border in the Sinai in the dead of night. As an American, I found both sides of this debate to be eerily familiar. He said that Israel can't just take whoever wants to come in. MK Ran Cohen yelled at Olmert repeatedly, and I really wish I could have heard what he said.

They called for a vote, and the vote passed overwhelmingly, and many of the MKs left. Unfortunately, I didn't hear what they were voting on. Perhaps a motion to table the discussion and continue it another time? Given the divisions that were apparent in the debate, I don't know what else could have passed so easily.

Voting in the Knesset is craaaaazy! Everyone has electronic voting devices at their seats, which I think is also true in the US Congress. The difference: Anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN knows that each house of Congress allows plenty of time (5 minutes? 10 minutes? I forget) for a vote, during which time C-SPAN cuts off the sound and plays classical music, while the numbers on the screen slowly increment and the cameras show members of Congress milling about on the floor. In the Knesset, they get 10 seconds! A number of times, the person speaking last had to run from the front of the room back to his seat so that he could vote before time ran out. So the TV screens in the front show a big yellow countdown: "10, 9, 8...", and then the results appear instantly. Eric Mazur would be proud. In addition to the numbers of ayes and nays, the screens also show a picture of the Knesset seating arrangement, with each seat colored green or red based on how they voted. During the various votes that I saw, I definitely noticed clusters of green and red, suggesting that they're sitting by party. Does anyone know what the Knesset's seating arrangement is? Obviously, it's more complicated than in a two-party system, where each party gets one side of the aisle.

After this, the Knesset considered a series of proposed bills. All were proposed by opposition MKs, all were subject to an upperdownvote, and all failed by a comfortable margin. So it's the sort of thing that would never make it to the floor in either house of the US Congress, since these bills would be held up in committee. The Knesset has committees too, so I guess I don't understand the Israeli "how a bill becomes a law" process.

The first proposal was from MK Avraham Ravitz (United Torah Judaism). For some reason I found Ravitz's Hebrew to be the easiest to understand. Perhaps he was speaking slower? Perhaps Hebrew isn't his native language (leading to speaking slower)? Perhaps his yeshiva background meant that his vocabulary/syntax/etc. was more familiar to me from the study of Jewish texts? Unclear.

Ravitz started by invoking the principle of equality. (When a UTJ representative starts talking about equality, keep one hand on your wallet.) He said that it is increasingly common in Israeli society that there are couples who are living together for many years but not legally married, and it's not fair that they should be treated differently from married couples. (A surprising thing to hear from a haredi MK!) Then he got into the specific situation: War widows are entitled to an IDF pension iff they are not remarried. If they get married, they forfeit their widows' benefits. Therefore, (Ravitz claims) some women have gotten wise to this, and are not marrying their longtime partners, so that they can still get their pensions. Some of these women are "traditional" and don't want to live together as a couple without marriage, and are therefore getting private kiddushin without getting formally married through the rabbanut. (Aha! So the "principle of equality" is a vehicle to avoid undermining the power of religious authorities.) To prevent these incentives not to get married, Ravitz proposed that married and unmarried widows be treated the same in regard to military pensions. He didn't mention any specifics.

Minister of Agriculture MK Shalom Simhon (Labor) got up to rebut the proposal, on behalf of Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. This led to an outcry from the floor and much gavel-banging, though as always, I couldn't hear what the outcry was about. Was it controversial that Barak was not present himself? Since Barak is not a member of Knesset himself, is it standard for him to address the Knesset anyway when relevant matters come up, or for him to send someone else? Simhon (on behalf of Barak; he may have been reading from prepared remarks) addressed the financial details of Ravitz's proposal (none of which Ravitz had addressed himself). I couldn't understand much of what he was saying, but I think it may have been that giving pensions to married widows would require reducing the pensions of unmarried widows (in order to balance the defense budget), and I think he may have used a Hebrew phrase corresponding to "adding insult to injury". Ravitz had 3 minutes to respond, and then the proposal came to a vote, and lost.

Next proposal: MK Effi Eitam (National Union) on "protection of soldiers". Since his voice frequently sent the sound system into overdrive, I couldn't figure out what the actual proposal was; all I could make out was the rhetoric. He was talking about how the soldiers serve in dangerous situations in Gaza and the West Bank. Given what I know about Eitam's politics, there's no chance that this was a "support the troops; bring them home" type of measure. Since this was another defense issue, Simhon got up again on behalf of Barak, and I caught the phrases "war crimes" and "international law". Eitam got up to respond, shouting even louder (if that's possible), and I heard "international law" again, but this time in a sneering tone. The proposal came to a vote, and lost. (Perhaps he was suggesting that IDF soldiers should have immunity from prosecution for war crimes? I have no idea.)

Next, MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) proposed an employment non-discrimination law. I didn't hear him specify what types of discrimination would be prohibited, but as a model he cited a California law banning discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and more. Wikipedia says that Sa'ar "has proposed bills to jail employers who fire pregnant women". So it's interesting to see that anti-disengagement Likudniks can be all over the map when it comes to domestic issues. There was no rebuttal or vote. Perhaps it was tabled for later discussion?

The last proposal I heard was from MK Benny Elon (National Union), and would require every student in public schools to visit the Kotel and the Old City of Jerusalem at some point during their education. He had proposed this a number of times before, with no success, and now had an axe to grind. He started off by railing against various MKs who had opposed it. He said it couldn't possibly make such a major dent in the budget if each student only has to go ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS. He must have repeated the phrase "ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS!" at least ten times, as he emphasized that his proposal was really not such a big deal (yet such a big deal). Elon is shocked, shocked, that 50% of incoming army recruits have never been to the Kotel before.

Minister of Education MK Yuli Tamir (Labor) responded, and clarified that she is still against the proposal, not only for budgetary reasons (as Elon had suggested) but for principled reasons as well. "Don't teach me what Zionism is! Don't teach me what love of Jerusalem is!" She said that the government shouldn't be legislating school trips, and this decision can be left to individual schools. She also said something about visiting the Knesset and Supreme Court (possibly along the lines of "If you're going to do that, then why not have everyone visit the Knesset and Supreme Court too?", but I'm not sure).

Elon got up again and said fine, they can visit the Knesset and Supreme Court too, what do I care. Then he said "ONCE IN TWELVE YEARS" many more times. The proposal came to a vote, and lost.

Then I left. In conclusion, I would totally go back. Free entertainment for hours on end!

On the way home I passed the youth center and thought "Don't these kids ever go to school?". And then I realized... the strike!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Arabic: Day 1

When you're learning Arabic in English with an Israeli teacher, it still helps to know some Hebrew!

"Alif is the letter A. Alif can be either a consonant or a vowel, just like in English: A can be a consonant, as in 'I am', or a vowel, as in 'father'."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Much better than the IBL: Part 1

Quite separate from having actual opinions (usually strong ones) on political issues, I must confess to enjoying politics as a spectator sport, going all the way back to watching the 1988 debates ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy") on TV during elementary school.

I've been to DC 22 times, but most of those trips have been during weekends and/or congressional recesses, so it wasn't until summer 2004 that I finally had the opportunity to see Congress in session. After going to Sen. Clinton's office to get a gallery pass and waiting in a long line, it turned out to be a disappointing day to be there. The Senate chamber was silent most of the time, and empty except for pages sitting on the sides trying not to fidget, and a series of back-bencher Republicans taking turns sitting in the front with a gavel wishing they were somewhere else. (The actual President of the Senate was presumably on a hunting trip, and the President Pro Tempore was surfing the series of tubes.) Sens. Dorgan and Bingaman, in turn, gave speeches to the empty chamber, addressing a variety of topics, and left. I think the trick is that the TV cameras and the Congressional Record don't know that the chamber is empty. It's not like it was a slow week either -- it turns out that I missed, by one day, the floor debate on a number of Bush's controversial appellate court nominees. (Yes, those nominees -- you may recall that the cloture vote failed, leading to threats of the "nuclear option". But in the end, the filibuster survived, making it all worthwhile.)

So this week, since it was my last week of retirement before classes start (even if there is a strike next week, neither Rothberg nor Havruta is participating), I decided this was an opportunity to go visit the Knesset. On Tuesday afternoon, after visiting the Museum on the Seam with feygele, LastTrumpet, KC, and SL (dude, that was some disturbing shit, but you have to check out the view of East and West Jerusalem from the roof), I went over to the Knesset, which (according to the website) was to be having an open session at 4:00. As I approached the visitors' entrance, the first security guard stopped me and asked what I was doing. I said I was just going to visit. He said tours are only on Sundays and Thursdays. I said I wasn't going on a tour, just going to watch. He let me go on ahead. I had a similar conversation with the second guard (still outside), but the third guard said the Knesset was only open to visitors on Sundays and Thursdays. No matter how many times I tried to tell him what the website said, he wasn't convinced, and I wasn't going to press it too much, since he had a gun. So either the website lied, or the guard wasn't aware of the schedule (and a possible corollary is that they don't get a lot of visitors outside of scheduled tours and organized groups). With tears in our eyes, we rode off into the sunset, and I went down the street to the Bible Lands Museum instead, where I had the whole place to myself apart from an American father and two children. (The Israel Museum would have been the more obvious choice, but I've been there done that.)

I decided to try again on Wednesday, when they were supposed to have a public session at 11. (EAR says that I should mention that the most direct route from my apartment to the Knesset involves a dirt path. I guess I've adjusted so much to Israel that this didn't even strike me as odd! But, as she correctly points out, can you imagine this with the U.S. Capitol?) Once again, I was dressed in accordance with the Knesset dress code as I understood it (no shorts, jeans, or tank tops), but this time I came more prepared: I brought a printout of the "Visit the Knesset" page from the website, clearly stating that the Knesset was supposed to be open to visitors at that time. This time I was stopped by the first guard again, I showed him the printout and said I was going to the visitors' gallery, and he let me go ahead, and no one else stopped me between there and the actual entrance. I'm sure there's lots of profiling going on, so it probably also helped that I wasn't carrying a backpack this time and wasn't wearing a T-shirt.

When I got to the door, the guard was arguing with a family of American tourists (mother, father, and son) who were wearing jeans. He was saying it was against the dress code, and they were saying it was their third attempt in three days, and the previous day they had been told to come back the next day and weren't told anything about a dress code, and they had lots of nice clothes back at the hotel but they didn't know, and he was saying it was against the dress code. As I approached, I was about to feel all superior for following directions, when the guard told me I couldn't go in wearing sandals.

WHAT? It doesn't say anything about sandals on the website! I brandished my printout, which had the dress code on it.

Sorry, no sandals.

The Americans asked me if the website said anything about jeans. I averted my eyes apologetically.

At almost the exact time that I showed up, an Israeli showed up wearing sandals (but otherwise conforming to the dress code) and was also turned down. The Americans continued arguing, saying that they had traveled 9000 miles. "We can't come back tomorrow, we're going to Tzfat tomorrow." The guard said he couldn't do anything about it, but they could talk to the general manager of the Knesset. They said fine. He made a phone call, and they waited. The Israeli put on a pair of socks, and offered me an extra pair. (Always carry around not one but two pairs of socks -- you never know when you might need them!) I said thanks, and put them on. I went back toward the door and attempted to enter, and was turned down again. Sandals with socks are still sandals. Meanwhile, some other Israelis approached wearing jeans, were turned away, and left.

Some important-looking people walked in. The guard said something to one of them. The Americans asked her "Are you a member of Knesset?". (This was all in English.) She said "Yes, I am." They said "Can you let us in?" She said to them "No, you can't go in dressed like that", and said to me "and you can't go in wearing sandals." It turns out that it was MK Colette Avital herself, a runner-up for the Presidency of Israel, who told me I couldn't go into the Knesset wearing sandals. She said "This is a working day; we are legislating. I couldn't go into the US Congress dressed like that." They said "Well, we can, and we have!" They're right (regarding the visitor's gallery, anyway, not the actual floor); I'm sure I wasn't wearing anything particularly presentable when I visited Congress.

Given that, can we pause for a moment and note how ridiculous it is that the KNESSET has a dress code? In ISRAEL???

Thank you.

Finally, the call came in from the proper authorities, and the guard got permission to let all five of us in, and we entered the Knesset grounds. Presumably for security reasons, there is a large buffer zone between the Knesset building itself and the fence that goes all the way around, so there was a long plaza to walk across. We passed a perpetual fire that serves as a "גלעד" in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers. If there was another sign labeling it as a "יגר שהדותא", I didn't see it.

So then I got into the Knesset visitors' gallery, and it was AWESOME. But it's getting late, so I'm just going to post this, and tell the rest of the story in the next post.

Monday, October 15, 2007

פסיק רישיה ולא ימות

In our Hilchot Shabbat class, the theme of last week and this week is פסיק רישיה ולא ימות(literally "cut off its head, and it won't die?!").

Some background: Intentionally doing work (we'll leave aside the definition of "work" for now, since it's not relevant) on Shabbat is forbidden. However, דבר שאינו מתכוון (a thing that one doesn't intend) is permitted according to Rabbi Shim'on (or the stam's generalization of Rabbi Shim'on's opinions in various tannaitic sources dealing with specific situations) and forbidden according to Rabbi Yehudah (ditto).

Example: Rabbi Yehudah says you can't drag a bench across the ground on Shabbat, since it might make a furrow in the ground, and is thus too close to the forbidden labor of plowing. Rabbi Shim'on says it's ok, because you're not intending to plow, you're just intending to move the bench. (See discussion on Shabbat 29b.)

However, there's an exception: In a case where the forbidden work is an inevitable consequence of the action, then even Rabbi Shim'on agrees that the action is forbidden. The canonical example: Slaughtering an animal is forbidden on Shabbat. You cut off an animal's head, and you say that you weren't intending to kill it, you were just intending to cut its head off. In that case Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shim'on would agree that cutting its head off is forbidden, since killing the animal is an inevitable consequence: "Cut off its head, and it won't die?!"

Anyway, that's just a long introduction to this video, which MJS has proposed as a literal example of פסיק רישיה ולא ימות (with no special punctuation at the end), starring the unmistakable voice of Adam Sandler:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eilu V'Eilu: do over

Clearly we failed to live up to expectations in last month's Eilu V'Eilu, because they're asking the same question again this month: "This lively debate was conducted by two knowledgeable laypersons and sparked so much commentary that we decided to continue the discussion this month, led by two young, dynamic Reform rabbis." Ok, a less self-deprecating (and probably more accurate) explanation was that there were few points last month on which we directly disagreed, so I had to resort to talking about framing. This time around, the debate promises to be much more of a debate. Rabbi Leon Morris squares off against Rabbi Evan Moffic. Despite the similarity of their names, their positions have little in common. I agree about 95% with Rabbi Morris and about 10% with Rabbi Moffic.

Rabbi Morris and I have disagreed on the pages of this very blog. But our disagreement was mostly philosophical, and doesn't necessary lead to significant differences about practice or policy. I suppose this is as good a time as any to link to Amit's series on mimetic tradition (Part I and Part II), which I think supplements that conversation, particularly the part on "forcing oneself to at least acknowledge a departure from one’s parents’ observances (REAL PARENTS, not imagined eastern-european forebearers) and respect those observances for what they are – and in most cases, to accommodate changes within the mimetic framework".

As far as this Eilu V'Eilu piece goes, I am in agreement with all of Rabbi Morris's main points, including:

  • the change in American culture from a melting pot to a multicultural society (as I discussed in week 1). He writes "Although we don’t like to say it, there is no escaping that yet another basis for the rejection of ritual was driven by a desire to assimilate into American life." Though I didn't use the pejorative connotations of "assimilate", I wouldn't have even put in the "Although we don't like to say it" disclaimer -- as I have written elsewhere, I think this was a necessary move in its time, even if it doesn't make sense in the present time.

  • ritual and ethics are not mutually exclusive (as I discussed in week 3).

  • "Even as it spoke of ethics as the central component of religious life, classical Reform never produced a radically different ethical Jewish way of life that was as strict about interpersonal ethics as other Jewish streams were about Jewish ritual law." This painful truth (which I have mentioned before) hits the Reform movement right in the gut, and should give pause to all Reform Jews, regardless of their views on ritual.

  • "There still seems to me to be a very wide gap between 'the talk' of informed choice and 'the walk' of conventional Reform practice." - YES.

  • "First, there is a fear that a new generation of Reform Jews may not feel comfortable in conventional Reform synagogues." If anyone is in fact fearing that for the future, then they're trying to close the barn doors after the horses have escaped. "But such discomfort will be a source for renewal and change that should be welcomed." Should be, yes. I don't have the patience to stick around for it, but maybe someone else does.

  • "We need to re-define Reform Judaism as an approach (or set of approaches) to Jewish life and law, rather than to continue to define it as a mode of practice." YES. Reform is not an aesthetic, and is not an alternate orthodoxy. Autonomy and diversity are essential to the Reform approach(es), and therefore it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will (or should) arrive at the same practices.
Where I disagree is (unsurprisingly) mostly about framing. Rabbi Morris writes "Personal autonomy must be increasingly applied in ways that allow individuals to 'opt in' and not just 'opt out' of mitzvot." While I'm sure I would agree about whatever specific policies he's suggesting, I would steer clear of this binary yes-no view of mitzvot and would focus instead on the "how". I would also avoid equating the "Jewish traditions" in the question with "mitzvot": often we're talking about mere minhagim without the force of mitzvot, and I think there's nothing wrong with that -- people should be able to observe the minhagim they want without having to claim that they are mitzvot.

Now for Rabbi Moffic's column. I'm not going to respond to the first paragraph, because I'm no more interested now than I was a a month ago in discussing what practices Reform Jews and Reform congregations are and aren't doing. I'll leave that to Steven Cohen. The second paragraph is an important point, which I also alluded to in week 1 - the Classical Reformers saw themselves as recovering the essence of Judaism, such that Classical Reform itself was a "return to tradition".

The appearance of more traditional Jewish practices in Reform congregations today, as well as the inclusion in Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform prayer book, of traditional prayer language like michayei hamatim (reviving the dead), cannot be called a “reclaiming” for Reform Jews because Reform Judaism never embraced such practices.
Setting aside the question of defining "more traditional Jewish practices" (especially in light of the previous paragraph, where we just read that prophetic ethics are traditional Jewish practices), this is a good point too, and one that I tried to argue in my exchange with Leon Morris - our starting point has to be where we are now, rather than some (real or mythical) time in the past. (To take an example from another conversation I was involved in a few years ago: For those of us who grew up in the Reform movement in recent decades, it's not a question of whether or not to "add" the imahot to the amidah -- the imahot are already in the amidah, so it's a question of whether or not to remove them.) HOWEVER, though both the statement quoted above and the previous paragraph are true, they are logically inconsistent as currently stated. Either we're defining "reclaiming" such that it can include practices that predate the beginning of the organized Reform movement (in which case both the Classical Reform emphasis on "the ethical core of Judaism" and Mishkan T'filah's inclusion of מחיה המתים could qualify), or we're defining it such that it only includes practices that have been embraced by the Reform movement (such that the sentence quoted above is correct, but the truth value of the previous paragraph becomes DOMAIN ERROR, and we'll have to use L'Hopital's Rule to figure out whether the founders of the organized Reform movement were claiming practices that historically belonged to Reform Judaism). The logical problem can be solved by using two different words for the two concepts, instead of trying to overload one word ("reclaim").

One could argue that it is a reclaiming of “traditional Judaism,” but traditional Judaism implies a comprehensive way of life and a sense of obligation to Jewish law.

Is he suggesting that Reform Judaism doesn't imply a comprehensive way of life? Even a purely ethical understanding of Reform Judaism (with no ritual practice at all) should be a comprehensive way of life! And is he suggesting that Reform Judaism doesn't require a sense of obligation to the ethical laws, or that "Jewish law" refers primarily to ritual law? If the latter, then he is undermining his own point that ethics are the core of Judaism.

Few Reform Jews, I would argue, feel an obligation to follow traditional Jewish norms like the dietary laws, donning of ritual garments or regular immersion in the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath).
Suppose for the sake of argument that this is true. What this may mean is that, as Reform Jews, their "comprehensive way of life and ... sense of obligation to Jewish law" brings them to different conclusions than your idea of "traditional Judaism". Not everyone holds the same static Kitzur Shulchan Aruch worldview that you do.

I have several concerns. First is the loss of focus on what makes Reform Judaism unique. As Reform Jews, we believe that worship needs to be accessible to the vast majority of American Jews who do not speak Hebrew.

So Rabbi Moffic is equating Reform Judaism with "Judaism for beginners", and is not treating this as a stopgap measure to address a suboptimal situation, but as a fundamental principle of Reform Jewish belief. If this is what "[a]s Reform Jews, we believe", then what makes Reform Judaism different from, or better than, Chabad, Aish, or any other organization that makes Judaism "accessible" to those with limited Jewish background? A key difference is that Chabad and Aish have a long-term plan of what happens to their recruits after their Jewish education reaches the point that they no longer need "accessibility" (viz. they become integrated into haredi communities), while the only plan anyone in the Reform movement seems to have come up with (other than rabbinical school or leaving the movement) is to make sure people never become quite educated enough that this becomes a problem. Much of the time this plan is successful, though there is the occasional spectacular failure. To Rabbi Moffic's credit, he never suggests that Jewish education is a priority or an objective, so in some ways he's being more honest than the rest of the movement, since he's not making any promises he can't deliver on.

And we believe that worship should reflect the openness that Reform has shown to the intermarried, the unaffiliated and other groups whose only home is Reform.

While it is true that the Reform movement is the only one of the three major institutional denominations where intermarried families are fully welcome, one could draw precisely the opposite conclusion from this. Given that many intermarried Jews end up in the Reform movement out of necessity, and don't necessarily have much in common with each other aside from being married to non-Jews, this could be an argument for welcoming greater diversity in Jewish practice within the movement.

As for "the unaffiliated": First of all, unaffiliated Jews come in all shapes and sizes. Second, by definition, unaffiliated Jews' home isn't Reform -- if it were, then they wouldn't be unaffiliated!

Rather than focus on promoting greater observance, we can use our freedom and creativity to meet the needs and aspirations of American Jews.

"Greater observance"??? Gah! If you don't agree with the Orthodox Jews and the Leon Morrises of the world, then why are you letting them define "observance" for you? If you believe that ethics is the core of Judaism, then why not say that greater ethical observance is greater observance? Or do you think that "we" shouldn't be "promoting" greater ethical observance either?

Those scare quotes bring me to my next point: What's with the dichotomy between "we" and "American Jews"? Who does Rabbi Moffic think his audience is? I thought it was "American Jews", but he seems to think that he's addressing the CCAR or other people in leadership positions. Speaking as one of those American Jews (albeit living outside the US at the moment) and not as one of the "we", I find the attitude elitist, since it suggests that "American Jews" have no independent motivation to pursue any sort of "observance", unless "we" "promot[e]" it.

To put it differently, the question that concerns us should not be, “How can we bring more Jewish traditions into Reform synagogues?” Rather, we should be asking, “As Reform Jews, how can we best live out our principles and bring more American Jews and their families into the synagogue?”

There it is again with the "we" vs. "American Jews". Both of these questions (the straw man as well as the one presented as favorable) presume that Judaism exists only or primarily in the synagogue. And both questions are inside baseball, intended for people leading synagogues rather than for ordinary Reform Jews. The questions that concern me are "How can I best live my life as a Jew, and in what kind of community can I do that?"

Where is the place, in Rabbi Moffic's vision of Reform Jewish community, for those who are neither part of the "we" whose job it is to bring people into synagogues nor part of the "majority of American Jews who do not speak Hebrew"?

Many Jews today do not feel the need for commitment to a synagogue or Jewish community. They feel out of place and unwelcome.

No argument there.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Adventures at the misrad hapnim

June 27: Go to the Israeli Consulate in New York and apply for a student visa.

July 18: Get a phone call from the Israeli Consulate saying that they can't give me a visa, because I have had a long-term visa before (a work visa in 2001-02) so I have to go to Israel on a tourist visa, and apply for a student visa at Misrad Hapnim (Ministry of the Interior) when I get there.

July 25: Retrieve my passport from the consulate.

September 5: Arrive in Israel. The person at passport control is confused, because I'm in the computer as having a student visa, but there's no student visa on my passport. (My guess is that the consulate in New York approved the visa before they denied it.) He makes some phone calls, and I'm not in the computer at misrad hapnim. "I've been working here 7 years and never seen anything like this!". He gives me a tourist visa and tells me to go to misrad hapnim (which I was going to do anyway).

September 16: Go to misrad hapnim. An appointment is needed, so they give me one for October 9.

September 25: Leave Israel.

October 2: Arrive in Israel again. The person at passport control is confused again, and makes some phone calls, but doesn't explain the situation to me. I tell her I'm going to misrad hapnim next week, and I get another tourist visa.

October 9: Go to misrad hapnim. My acceptance letter from the university, my student ID, and my transcript are insufficient documentation that I am a student there -- they need to see a letter from the university addressed to misrad hapnim (rather than addressed to me). They give me a new appointment for October 30.

[UPDATE: October 15: Obtain a letter from the university "to whom it may concern". It's a form letter, with my name handwritten in.]

October 30: ???

Monday, October 08, 2007

Eilu V'Eilu week 3

Update since the last time I blogged about this: Eilu V'Eilu week 3 (in which we respond to "questions" from readers) has been posted, completing the set.

To address the questions (no scare quotes this time, since he got actual questions) that Larry Kaufman answered:

I totally agree with his answer to the first question, especially the sentence "To retain that which you miss from the Classic period, you have only to assemble a community of those who shares your preferences," which is a much more polite way of saying "The reason it's not around anymore is because nobody wants it, and if you disagree, then quit whining and do something about it."

As for the second question, I agree with Larry Kaufman's reasons for why a merger probably won't happen. However, I think I would support such a merger precisely because the combined movement would contain so much diversity that it would become impossible to set policy and practice at the national level, freeing individual communities to set their policies locally, and thus leading to far greater diversity than the current bimodal distribution, while retaining the institutional advantages that the pro-movement people claim exist.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Something new under the sun

Everyone knows that most of the lyrics of the song "Turn Turn Turn" come from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), with the refrain (and title) "turn turn turn" as a notable exception, right?


SDB, an expert on this song and its textual roots, pointed out (during the annual gathering on the Shabbat of Sukkot) that the title comes from Kohelet 1:6:

הוֹלֵךְ אֶל-דָּרוֹם וְסוֹבֵב אֶל-צָפוֹן; סוֹבֵב סֹבֵב הוֹלֵךְ הָרוּחַ, וְעַל-סְבִיבֹתָיו שָׁב הָרוּחַ.

Goes to the south and turns to the north, turns, turns, goes the wind, and on its turnings returns the wind.

Next step: Find a source for "I swear it's not too late."

(Also, I would fully support a triennial cycle for the reading of Kohelet.)

Sefer Ha-Bloggadah is live!

The actual project of reading (and blogging about) all of Sefer Ha-Aggadah doesn't start until August 2008, but in the meantime, people wanted to get started earlier, so we're doing an optional preliminary project: writing (and discussing) our own aggadot, following the weekly Torah portion.

All of these aggadot are being posted at Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. We started this past week with two new midrashim on Bereishit, by chillul Who? and Jonah Steinberg. Looking forward to Noach and beyond!

Eilu V'Eilu week 4

(Previous episodes: week 1, corrections to week 1, and week 2.)

For some reason, they never posted Eilu V'Eilu week 3 (in which we responded to "questions" from readers) on the website; they only sent it to the email list. However, week 4 is up! It contains our closing statements, and includes a reformulation of a lot of stuff that regular Mah Rabu readers have seen before. There's also a supplement, with comments from readers.

Return to blogging

I've been away from the blog for a fortnight now -- I was in the US, traveling around the tri-state area without a computer for a week (mazal tov ABN and LW!), and then back in Israel, where it was erev chag, chag, erev Shabbat, and Shabbat, so there hasn't been time to blog. Now that I'm back, there are lots of things to post, and I'll get to them in due time.

In the meantime, this picture was taken last week in a public sukkah in the Bronx:

Clearly, this plastic decoration is supposed to represent fruit on a tree. Can someone direct me to this magical tree where I can find bananas and grapes on the same branch???