Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Another president from the South Side of Chicago

I'm off to Israel for the installation of Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus of Homewood IL as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The Chicago Jewish News has a cover story with an extensive interview.

Some highlights:

Another consideration involves the younger generation of Jews. "The way the whole world and the Jewish community are changing, I'm concerned that we as a community, including the rabbinate, need to be more flexible and agile about how we respond to a generation that may not join brick and mortar synagogues in the same way their parents and grandparents did," she says. "If we are going to be relevant and serve the Jews of the up-and-coming generation, then we need to rethink who we are as a community and rethink the institutions of our community. These conversations are starting to happen and I want Reform rabbis and CCAR to be part of the conversation and not simply react."


"Outreach" is a Jewish community buzzword, but, she says, "it's not just a question of doing outreach to Jews in their 20s and 30s with the ulterior motive that they join our existing congregations. I think we need to be bold in rethinking what community means. This is a generation that has virtual communities. If we keep thinking that whatever has been sufficient in the last 150 years is going to be sufficient in this century, we have another think coming."

The fact that a significant percentage of the Jewish community does not affiliate with a synagogue "says something about them, but it also says something about synagogues," she says. "There are many things we're doing right but I don't think we can sit on our laurels."

Mazal tov and good luck to Rabbi Dreyfus!

It's happening!

Last year, I wrote, in anticipation of birkat hachamah on Erev Pesach: "Say the blessing over the sun, and then take out a magnifying glass and use it to burn our chameitz? Anything is possible!"

Then today, I got an email from Hazon announcing a birkat hachamah event at the JCC in Manhattan, and the description concludes: "As a finale, technology and sunshine permitting, we will symbolically burn chametz using the concentrated light of the sun." Cool!!!

Did they get the idea from Mah Rabu? (Doubtful; I'm sure lots of people came up with this independently.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Toward a Reform Jewish narrative myth

I foreshadowed this post quite a while ago:
Egalitarianism = halacha l'Moshe miSinai, and electricity = kitniyot; or, the other "Jewish continuity" (continuity of Judaism, not of Jews): toward resolving the contradictions between (ethnic) Reform Jewry and (ideological) Reform Judaism
This post follows on a number of previous posts that have addressed issues of Reform Jewish ideology and identity, including one that started to lay out some of the ideas in this post.

Ultimately the motivation for this post is personal. As I have mentioned here before, I am a fifth-generation Reform Jew (the one whom the "Jewish continuity" hawks claim doesn't exist), and descended from three distinguished Reform rabbis on three different sides of my family (i.e. none of the three are/were related to the others by blood). I say this not to boast about my lineage, but to explain where I'm coming from. Many people in situations similar to mine (who grew up in Reform settings and are now in Jewish communities that are not labeled as Reform), regardless of their ideologies and practices, no longer identify as Reform. For me, again regardless of ideology and practice, Reform is an important component of my ethnic heritage: I am descended from generations of Reform Jews, just as I am descended from American Jews and from German Jews (and of course there is overlap among these). As Rabbi Leon Morris said recently, Reform Jewry is my edah, analogous to Ashkenazi Jewry, Sephardi Jewry, etc.

Furthermore, while some people who went from a Reform background into non-Reform-affiliated communities (whether Orthodox, progressive nondenominational, or anything else) have a "ba'al teshuvah" mentality (some even using that term to describe themselves), signifying a sense of a clean break from their past. I do not share this mentality. There is an unbroken line from where I (and my family) came from to where I am now (even if I've ended up in a different place from some of my ancestors), and if it weren't for the Jewish upbringing I got from my family, I wouldn't be here writing this blog. Therefore, as I try to place my practices into a coherent ideology, one of the constraints (what we in the physics world would call boundary conditions) on this ideology, and therefore on the further evolution of my own practices, is that my ancestors' practices (as biqoret writes, "REAL PARENTS, not imagined eastern-european forebearers") are/were legitimate. (This is in fundamental opposition to the concept of "chazarah bitshuvah".) If this seems questionable, the mishnayot below from Masechet Zevachim will show that the rabbis did the same thing.

This post will not establish a complete and consistent Reform Jewish ideology, but is intended to raise some of the relevant issues and begin a conversation.


When we talk about Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish identity, we're really talking about at least three distinct elements that comprise this identity:
  • Halachah. Reform Judaism doesn't see halachah as a uniform fixed body of law (nor, arguably, does any denomination). There is no one "Reform halachah". (CCAR responsa do not have binding authority.) However, there are Reform meta-halachic principles, including informed autonomy (there is no living human authority with the power to establish religious law that is binding on others; rather, individuals are responsible for paskening for themselves), and the progressive reinterpretation of Torah in each generation (we can learn from each previous generation's Torah and add our own layer to Torah).
  • Aggadah. The underlying values that drive halachic development. In Reform Judaism these include but are not limited to tikkun olam (which I know has had many meanings over the years; I'm referring in particular to the social justice definition, which has had a prominent place in Reform Judaism), active engagement with the broader world outside the Jewish community, and seeing all humans as created in God's image.
  • Minhag. This is Reform "ethnicity", not derivable solely from first principles, but deriving from historical continuity with the set of people who have called themselves Reform Jews. These are the sorts of practices that some have labeled "path-dependent". Examples include the specific liturgical variations found in Reform siddurim, the observance of one day of yom tov (everywhere, not just in Israel), and the various musical genres associated with Reform Jewish prayer. While these minhagim are consistent with Reform halachah and aggadah, other equally consistent minhagim could have arisen if history had gone a different way.
In addition, there are at least two more things that people mean when they say "Reform", which I'll mention but dismiss as irrelevant:
  • Institutions. The Reform movement encompasses a number of institutions, including the URJ, CCAR, and HUC-JIR in North America, and their counterparts worldwide. These institutions do important things. But, like all institutions, they are created and run by fallible humans, and have no religious authority in their own right. Judaism does not have a concept of "The Church", established by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a Jewish religious ideology cannot be defined based on the policies of an institution; rather, the institution, if it is devoted to a particular ideology, should set its policies based on that ideology. This means that for any definition of Reform Jewish ideology, it is possible that individuals will pursue this ideology outside of Reform institutions, and it is possible that Reform denoninational institutions will take actions that are not in accordance with this ideology
  • "I'm very Reform." The word "Reform" has picked up a colloquial meaning of "not Jewishly active". This is reinforced not only by adherents of other Jewish denominations who use "Reform" to mean the opposite of what their own denomination stands for, but also by Jews who self-identify as "Reform" based on this definition. How many people respond "Reform" to Jewish population surveys not based on adherence to (or even awareness of) the halachah, aggadah, and minhag discussed above, or affiliation with a Reform congregation, but because they consider themselves "less observant"? While individuals may be "less observant" within the framework of observance that they see as normative, there cannot be a religious ideology or a religious movement dedicated to being "less observant" (any more than there can be a political party dedicated to not voting). Rather, each religious ideology sets its own approach to observance. So this definition of "Reform" has no value in any meaningful discourse about Reform Judaism.
Reform Jewish identity may encompass various permutations of these 5 elements, but I'm just going to focus on the first 3 as significant. Even within those 3 elements, it is possible for someone to have one or two without the other(s):

  • Halachah and Aggadah without Minhag: This includes many of the people I have encountered through the National Havurah Committee and other progressive nondenominational milieux. They engage in informed autonomy about halachah, and are committed to progressive Jewish values, but have not inherited Reform minhag (and generally do not self-identify as Reform). I have written about how old-line havurot and newer Reform communities have evolved convergently in some ways, but remain different due to path-dependence. An interesting case study, if someone wants to take it on, would be a detailed comparison between Siddur Eit Ratzon and Mishkan T'filah.
  • Aggadah and Minhag without Halachah: This includes many rank-and-file Reform members, who are committed to progressive Jewish values and uphold Reform minhagim, but are not committed to informed autonomy or evolving halachah. They may in fact be hostile to the exercise of informed autonomy, and may prefer more uniformity of practice in accordance with the way things have been done in their community.
  • Halachah without Aggadah: This is mostly a straw-man position, but is important as an intellectual exercise. Sometimes the objection is raised "If you say the mitzvah of tzitzit is open to autonomous interpretation, then can't you say that the mitzvah of 'do not steal' is open to autonomous interpretation?". And I would respond that the answer is yes, if you're only looking at halachah without aggadah. There are obviously problems with saying that someone might legitimately reinterpret "do not steal" in a way that weakens the prohibition, but these problems are substantive, not procedural. Thus this objection does not defeat the idea of informed autonomy, but highlights the point that halachah must be steered by aggadah. Another example might be a Reform congregation deciding to hold non-egalitarian services and defending it as an autonomous choice. Again, potentially compatible with Reform (meta-)halachah, but incompatible with Reform aggadah.
  • Minhag without Aggadah: There are some members of Reform congregations who identify as Reform and uphold Reform minhagim, but are not particularly committed to social justice, and may have even supported the Bush administration, or may have rejected the longstanding Reform principle of engagement with the broader society in favor of a narrow Jewish ethnocentrism.
In fact, combining all three may actually be difficult. Combining aggadah with the others isn't a problem, since aggadah should be steering the direction of halachah, and minhagim that conflict with aggadah should be tossed out. The issue is combining Reform halachah and Reform minhag. Beyond the practical difficulties (the communities that best actualize Reform halachah are not the ones with Reform minhag, and vice versa, and attempting this without a compatible community can feel like a solitary endeavor), there can be philosophical contradictions.

Reform halachah is inherently progressive; Reform minhag (like any other minhag) is inherently (small-c) conservative (and, for once, I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing). Reform halachah emphasizes evolution and creativity, and any minhag that we do because it's minhag is about preservation. If we were governed only by minhag, then our practice would be fixed in place, with no capacity for change from what has been done before; this is presumably the last thing our Reform ancestors would have wanted. (Neo-Classical Reformers are confused when they think that Reform minhagim are progressive by nature.) If we were governed only by Reform halachah, then we would have to derive our practice anew in each generation. This impermanence would have counterintuitively conservative results, because we would fail to leave a lasting legacy, so the next generation would have to rely only on earlier generations (rather than on more recent generations).

So there can be a tension between maintaining established Reform minhag and adopting new practices in accordance with Reform halachic principles. So this is an internal Reform-vs.-Reform tension, which comes down to Reform Jewry as ethnicity vs. Reform Judaism as ideology. And it's not the stereotypical "tradition and change" dialectic; one example of a practice based on minhag might be praying in English, while a practice based on informed autonomy might be praying in Hebrew.

Another source of tension is that engaging in Reform halachah (more so than halachah as defined by other movements) demands knowledge and active participation, while some Reform minhagim assume the opposite (as I have discussed in Hilchot Pluralism Part IV). In such a case, do our inherited minhagim still have a claim on us, or are they to be abandoned in the face of changing circumstances? (Yes, it's the same question asked at the beginning of the Reform movement, but now applied to the subsequent years of Reform Jewish history.)


To begin making sense of these tensions and these questions, we need to establish a myth to put contemporary Reform Judaism into a continuous narrative with the rest of Jewish history. And here (unlike here), I'm not using the word "myth" to mean "not factually accurate", but to mean a narrative, true or false, that has a foundational value for a community.

Plenty of foundational narratives already exist for the Jewish people as a whole, and for each of the modern denominations. The pan-Jewish narratives include the Exodus from Egypt and the exile from the land of Israel (though these have been given different meanings in different times and places). Classical Reform had its founding myth, forming the backbone of the Pittsburgh Platform: "We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine," but now that we're "in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect," we can transcend the particularistic ritual laws and focus on "the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men." Some strains of Orthodoxy have the myth that the Judaism that they observe today is essentially the same Judaism that has been observed since Sinai. The Conservative founding myth includes the colorful episode of the "treyfe banquet", with the message that the Reformers had gone too far and a new movement arose to "conserve" Jewish tradition. Judaism as a Civilization, a founding text of Reconstructionist Judaism, divides the history of Jewish civilization into three stages (henotheistic, theocratic, and other-worldly), and concludes that "Judaism is now on the threshold of a fourth stage in its development."

One of my favorites comes from the Mishnah, from the last chapter of Masechet Zevachim. The existence of Masechet Zevachim is remarkable enough on its own: It deals with the laws of sacrifices, yet the Mishnah was redacted 150 years after the destruction of the Temple (when these laws became inoperative), and includes halachic disagreements among rabbis who lived significantly after the destruction. Not only that, but there is Gemara for the entire tractate, completed another 300 years later. The party line is that this exists because one day the Temple will be rebuilt so we'll need to know these laws again. Fine. Whatever. Either you buy that or you don't. But that explanation doesn't cover the material in the last chapter, which (by its own admission) will never again become operative:

יד,ד עד שלא הוקם המשכן--היו הבמות מותרות, ועבודה בבכורות; משהוקם המשכן--נאסרו הבמות, ועבודה בכוהנים. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל מחנה ישראל.

יד,ה באו לגלגל, הותרו הבמות. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל מקום.

יד,ו באו לשילה, נאסרו הבמות. ולא היה שם תקרה, אלא בית של אבנים מלמטן יריעות מלמעלן; והיא הייתה מנוחה. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים ומעשר שני, בכל הרואה.

יד,ז באו לנוב ולגבעון, הותרו הבמות. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים, בכל ערי ישראל.

יד,ח באו לירושלים--נאסרו הבמות, ולא היה להן עוד היתר, והיא הייתה נחלה. קודשי קודשים, נאכלים לפנים מן הקלעים; קודשים קלים ומעשר שני, לפנים מן החומה.

יד,ט כל הקודשים שהקדישן בשעת איסור הבמות, והקריבן בשעת איסור הבמות בחוץ--הרי אלו בעשה ולא תעשה, וחייבין עליהן כרת. הקדישן בשעת היתר במות, והקריבן בשעת איסור במות--הרי אלו בעשה ולא תעשה, ואין חייבין עליהן כרת. הקדישן בשעת איסור במות, והקריבן בשעת היתר במות--הרי אלו בעשה, ואין בהן בלא תעשה.

14:4 Before the Tabernacle [in the desert] was put up, the bamot ["high places", i.e. private sacrifices outside the central worship location] were permitted, and sacrifice was performed by the first-born. After the Tabernacle was put up, the bamot were forbidden, and sacrifice was performed by the priests. Kodshei kodashim ["holy of holies" - sacrifices with a stricter status] could be eaten within the walls [of the Tabernacle courtyard], kodashim kalim [sacrifices with a less strict status] could be eaten anywhere in the camp of Israel.

14:5 When they came to Gilgal [and entered the land of Israel], the bamot were permitted. Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim could be eaten anywhere.

14:6 When they came to Shiloh [home of the Tabernacle], the bamot were forbidden. ... Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim and ma'aseir sheini could be eaten anywhere in sight of it.

14:7 When they came to Nov and Giv'on [other sites for the Tabernacle after Shiloh was destroyed], the bamot were permitted. Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls, kodashim kalim could be eaten in all the cities of Israel.

14:8 When they came to Jerusalem [and built the Temple], the bamot were forbidden, and they would not be permitted further [i.e. even after the Temple was destroyed]. ... Kodshei kodashim could be eaten within the walls [of the Temple courtyard], kodashim kalim and ma'aseir sheini could be eaten within the wall [of Jerusalem].

14:9 All sacrifices that one sanctified at a time when bamot were forbidden, and offered outside at a time when bamot were forbidden, are [violations] of a positive commandment [offer sacrifices in the central location] and a negative commandment [don't offer sacrifices elsewhere], and one is subject to kareit because of them. If one sanctified them at a time when bamot were permitted, and offered them at a time when bamot were forbidden, they are [violations] of a positive commandment and a negative commandment, and one is not subject to kareit because of them. If one sanctified them at a time when bamot were forbidden, and offered them at a time when bamot were permitted, they are [violations] of a positive commandment but not of a negative commandment.

If the rabbis were only talking about what could be relevant in the time of the Temple and later (i.e. their present, their future, and at least as far back into their past as anyone could remember), then they wouldn't need to define the rules for all 7 of these stages of history. The law would be simple: No sacrifices outside the Temple (whether or not the Temple is standing). If you do, here are the mitzvot you're violating, and here's the punishment. But that's not what they do. Instead, they define the rules applying to every period of Jewish/Israelite history all the way back to the first year of wandering in the desert, and retroject their rabbinic halachic categories back into those times. The last mishnah is particularly amazing in this regard: they go beyond generalities to rule on case law which (other than the first clause) last could have applied if one set aside a sacrifice before Solomon completed the Temple -- over 1000 years before the beginning of the rabbinic period! -- and will never apply again. Unlike much of the rest of the Mishnah, there is no possible way that this was an actual case that one of the rabbis ruled on.

So why are they doing this? I think they're trying to place themselves into a historical continuity with their ancestors. They have their halachic categories through which they view the world, but they know that their ancestors were not operating in ways consistent with those categories, yet they understand that their ancestors' practices were legitimate in their ancestors' own time. So they extend their categories into the past, but add conditions so as to get a continuous solution to the boundary value problem that includes both their ancestors and themselves.

Likewise, we need to tell a story that places us in continuity with the past, and includes the possibility of game-changing events, so that even apparent discontinuities are part of this continuity: entering the land of Israel, the destruction of the Temple, the Emancipation, the birth of the State of Israel, etc. (And it's ok if the way we relate to game-changing events in the past depends on 20/20 hindsight and has no predictive power; as you can see, the rabbis did the same thing.) We need to be able to tell a single narrative that encompasses the earlier and the later periods, while recognizing the differences between those periods. We need to be able to use the same terminology to discuss our ancestors (both Reform and pre-denominational) and ourselves, even if it's not the terminology that our ancestors would have used (you can be sure that all of the terminology in that excerpt from Zevachim is completely anachronistic). This continuous story can cover our journeys from the desert to Gilgal to Shiloh to Jerusalem to Yavneh to Tiberias to Sura & Pumbedita to Stuttgart to Youngstown, Ohio, to now.


I'm not going to come up with that narrative myth in this post (that's left to the reader as an exercise), but I want to begin sketching some broad outlines, and a few specific applications.

As Reform Jews (who either have Reform ancestors ourselves, or identify as part of a community with a Reform lineage, or both), we understand that our practices are different from other Jews' practices. But we began to diverge 200 years ago and continued on divergent paths (albeit with continued cross-pollination); we don't rewind and diverge anew at each point in history. So if our ancestors changed something from how it was done previously, we're not necessarily bound by that change forever, but that change has indeed been made and has become a part (one part among many) of our inherited tradition. We can explain why our ancestors changed it, but we aren't necessarily subject to a burden of proof for why we maintain that change. We have historical precedent for either maintaining our immediate ancestors' practices or for reverting to more distant ancestors' practices.

For example, we'll take tefillin, which seems to be a popular example in these discussions. If our parents don't/didn't wear tefillin, then we have a mimetic tradition of not wearing tefillin (from our parents), or a historical tradition of wearing tefillin (going back to earlier ancestors). Or if we'd prefer textual justifications, we can find those supporting either position: we can go with the rabbinic texts that outline hilchot tefillin and take a hyperliteralist reading of Deuteronomy 6:8 (and the other parallel verses), or we can go with the peshat (contextual) reading of these verses and understand it as making "these words" guide our actions and the way we look at the world, or some combination of both. There are two options here, each with solid justification.

Another example is writing on Shabbat. Again, if our parents write/wrote on Shabbat, then we have a mimetic tradition of writing on Shabbat, or an earlier historical tradition of refraining from writing on Shabbat. We can justify refraining from writing on Shabbat because there is an explicit mishnah that lists writing as one of 39 prohibited labors, and subsequent texts and traditions based on this premise. Or we can justify writing on Shabbat by reading this mishnah in its historical context: writing was considered skilled labor at the time; now that everyone can write, and now that nothing professional or permanent is handwritten (other than writing a sefer torah or other calligraphy), jotting something down may not be considered "work" and may not even be considered "writing" as the Mishnah understood it; the contemporary equivalent of the prohibited labor might be printing something on a computer. Whichever way we end up deciding for our own practice, we have to come to terms with the fact that we have inherited a mimetic tradition of writing on Shabbat, and that when we study the Mishnah and Gemara we come across the prohibition on writing on Shabbat. Again, we can go either way.

In contrast to these examples, there are some practices observed by other branches of Judaism that don't appear anywhere in our own history, because these practices arose after the modern denominations diverged. We might choose to adopt these practices, as a cross-cultural borrowing from other Jewish streams, but it is not a "return to tradition" (since it's not a tradition we, or our family tree, or our community's spiritual lineage, ever had before), and those of us who don't adopt these practices need no justification for not adopting them.

One example is refraining from using electricity on Shabbat (or, for that matter, defining "using electricity" as a meaningful category). I would liken electricity to kitniyot. Ashkenazim have a tradition of not eating kitniyot on Pesach. An individual Ashkenazi Jew might decide to maintain these tradition, or might decide to depart from it; there are plenty of justifications in either direction. In contrast, Sephardim eat kitniyot freely during Pesach, and no one would ever ask them to justify this. Sephardim never had a tradition of not eating kitniyot, so they're not departing from any tradition by eating kitniyot. This is because the prohibition on kitniyot in the Ashkenazi world began after the Ashkenazi/Sephardi split. Likewise, the existence of electrical devices (let alone the prohibition on using them on Shabbat) came after the Reform/Orthodox split. So Reform Jews have no lineal historical precedent for refraining from using electricity on Shabbat.


The Reform Jewish narrative myth also has to figure out how to incorporate gender egalitarianism. The facts: Our Judaism is egalitarian, our premodern ancestors' Judaism was not, and the transition between them has been more gradual than we would sometimes like to admit, even within the Reform movement (HUC was around for 97 years before they ordained a woman rabbi).

There are multiple ways to address this, and we can find an approximate analogy by looking at the narratives we impose on American history, which has also had a gradual evolution towards various forms of egalitarianism. Do we read "all men are created equal" (in the Declaration of Independence) the way the Founding Fathers did, referring only to men, and not really to all men? Under this reading, women, non-whites, etc., are not inherently equal in American tradition, and do not achieve equality until it is granted to them by constitutional amendments and such. Or do we read "all men are created equal" as referring to all people (not just men)? Under this reading, all people have been inherently equal all along, but it has taken a long time for our society to realize this and put it into practice.

The approach in much of the Conservative movement, and in the pockets of Orthodoxy that are moving in an egalitarian direction, is more like the first reading. In the state of nature, all historically non-egalitarian practices are non-egalitarian. Making each practice egalitarian requires a separate justification, which applies only to that specific issue and has no broader impact. Depending on which of those justifications are accepted, some practices become egalitarian and others don't. Women can lead pesukei dezimrah and read Torah, but can't lead shacharit or count in the minyan. Women can lead all services and count in the minyan, but can't blow shofar. Women can blow shofar, but can't be witnesses. There is no general principle of egalitarianism.

I think this piecemeal approach is not acceptable in the Reform Jewish narrative. Egalitarianism must be an overarching principle. As in the second reading of "all men are created equal" above, we have been moving more and more toward achieving this fundamental ideal. The aggadic basis for this is easy to establish (for example, the Torah says that man and woman were created in God's image), but how do we express this idea in halachic language? One possibility (though not necessarily the only or the best one) is "halachah leMoshe miSinai". This is a category that the rabbis use when they're talking about something that they consider fundamental enough to be at the level of Torah, yet doesn't have a strong textual basis in the Torah. For example, nisuch hamayim (the water libation on Sukkot) isn't found in the Torah, but the rabbis gave it the elevated status of halachah leMoshe miSinai (knowing full well that it wasn't really observed in the time of the Torah, but perhaps it should have been). Likewise, gender egalitarianism isn't found in the classical halachic texts, but we can make the statement that this principle is so fundamental that it is halachah leMoshe miSinai.


Again, this post is just the beginning of a conversation. Please add your own ideas to the discussion.


In memory of Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus (1921-2008), and in honor of Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus's installation as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Final election results and February Madness winners!

The soldiers’ votes are in, and the Knesset election results are final! Here are the rankings:

  1. Kadima 28
  2. Likud 27
  3. Yisrael Beytenu 15
  4. Labor 13
  5. Shas 11
  6. United Torah Judaism 5
  7. United Arab List - Ta’al 4
  8. National Union 4
  9. Hadash 4
  10. Meretz 3
  11. HaBayit HaYehudi 3
  12. Balad 3
  13. Green Movement - Meimad
  14. Gil
  15. Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf)
  16. Greens
  17. Strong Israel
  18. Tzabar
  19. Koach Lehashpia
  20. Da’am (Organization for Democratic Action)
  21. Yisrael HaMithadeshet
  22. Holocaust Survivors & Grown-Up Green Leaf
  23. Leeder
  24. Tzomet
  25. Koach HaKesef
  26. Men’s Rights
  27. HaYisraelim
  28. Or
  29. Ahrayut
  30. Brit Olam
  31. Lev
  32. Lazuz
  33. Lechem

You can compare this with the results from last time, and refer to this guide if you can’t remember which party is which.

February Madness was a hard-fought contest. We had a five-way tie for first place! BZ in New York (I made my picks before anyone else entered, so I couldn’t strategically base my predictions on other entries, but even so, I would have recused myself if I had ended up as the final winner), Daniel L in the United States, Dunash in New York, JXG in Jerusalem, and W Bayer in Petah Tikvah all correctly predicted 111 out of 120 Knesset seats (though not the same 111).

We do have two tiebreaker questions to deal with these cases. However, no one got either tiebreaker question right. No one picked the Green Movement - Meimad as coming in first among the parties who didn’t make it into the Knesset (though a number of contestants incorrectly predicted that they would win Knesset seats), and no one picked Lechem as coming in last.

So, to settle the tie, we’ll see who came closest. For the first tiebreaker question, 3 of the finalists picked Gil (which came in second among the parties that didn’t win Knesset seats): BZ, Dunash, and W Bayer. Among those, W Bayer did the best on the second tiebreaker question, choosing Koach HaKesef, which finished closest to the bottom among the finalists’ picks for this question.

So W Bayer is now the reigning February Madness champion! Congratulations!!!

Honorable mention goes to Brian Rosman in Newton MA and David Singer in Los Angeles, both of whom did the best overall on the second tiebreaker question, picking Brit Olam to come in last.

Thanks to everyone who participated! And if you didn’t do as well as you had hoped, or if you missed the deadline to enter, don’t worry — the way things are looking, you won’t have to wait long until the next one! (To start the speculation now, feel free to leave a comment with your guess for the date of the next Knesset election.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

99% reporting: split decision

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The results so far:

  1. Kadima 28
  2. Likud 27
  3. Yisrael Beytenu 14
  4. Labor 13
  5. Shas 11
  6. United Torah Judaism 5
  7. United Arab List 5
  8. Hadash 4
  9. National Union 4
  10. The Jewish Home 3
  11. Meretz 3
  12. Balad 3

On the one hand, this looks at first glance like an upset victory for Kadima, who appear to have defied all the polls and achieved a plurality. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how Kadima will get to 61 seats, while the Likud has a clear path to a right-wing coalition. Both Livni (Kadima) and Netanyahu (Likud) have declared victory, and we’re likely to see more drama over the next few weeks as this gets straightened out. Once again, all eyes may be on Shas. These results are not final, and some seats could still shift here and there.

It’s looking like we’re going to have all the same parties that were in the previous Knesset, with the exception of Gil, who is out. No new parties made it in. It looks like smaller parties on the left lost support in the final days as the anti-Netanyahu vote broke towards Kadima. Meretz is having its worst showing in years. It also looks like an Arab Israeli boycott didn’t materialize, and Arab voters may instead have been particularly energized — 5 seats (United Arab List) is the most I can recall seeing for an Arab party since I’ve been paying attention.

Monday, February 09, 2009

February Madness averages

Good luck to everyone who entered February Madness 2009! The contest is now closed. We should have preliminary election results by this time tomorrow.

Here are the average predictions among all the entries:
  1. Kadima 24.6
  2. Likud 23.7
  3. Labor 14.9
  4. Yisrael Beytenu 12.5
  5. Shas 10.4
  6. Meretz 7.3
  7. National Union (Ichud Leumi) 5.0
  8. United Torah Judaism 4.0
  9. United Arab List / Ta'al 3.0
  10. HaBayit HaYehudi 2.7
  11. Hadash 2.3
  12. Green Movement / Meimad 2.1
  13. Gil 1.9
  14. Balad 1.8
  15. Greens 1.5
  16. Aleh Yarok 1.4
  17. Holocaust Survivors & Grown-Up Green Leaf 0.6
  18. Strong Israel 0.1
  19. Lev LaOlim 0.1
  20. Tzabar 0.05
  21. Everyone else 0
(Note that these are means, not medians, so one outlier can throw off the average considerably.)

The most popular choice for coming closest but not quite making it was Gil, and the most popular choice for coming in last was Leeder.

We'll see how this compares to the actual results!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fiscal responsibility

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I am coming to realize that outrage over transliteration in the weeks leading up to it is actually the primary way I observe the holiday. I don't have any plans this year for Tu Bishvat itself.

This article in Zeek by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Victoria Finlay actually manages to include both of my top two Tu Bishvat pet peeves in the opening graf:

Wouldn't it seem strange if you discovered that April 15, Income Tax Day, had been transformed into a festival for celebrating God's reemergence? Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the sixteenth century when they recreated Tu B'Shvat, which Jews will celebrate this year on February 8-9.
The #1 pet peeve is, of course, "Tu B'Shvat". (I feel slightly bad that I'm helping out this spelling's PageRank by printing it.) The #2 is the analogy to April 15, a common analogy in explaining the "four new years" to Americans. Why April 15?

Tu B'Shvat, the full moon of mid-winter, had been important only in Holy Temple days as a tax day. It marked the end of the "fiscal year" for trees, the key capital investment in an agricultural society. Fruit that appeared before that date was taxed for the previous year; fruit that appeared later, for the following year.

This is an accurate description of the original function of Tu Bishvat (and 1 Elul, for livestock). And we do indeed have a date that serves as the end of the fiscal year for individual income taxes in the United States, but it's not April 15; it's December 31! April 15 is merely the deadline to file a tax return. So why does this flawed analogy get perpetuated? Because people hear "April 15" and think "taxes", which is not necessarily people's primary association when they hear "December 31" or "January 1". (Also perhaps because saying that one new year marks the beginning of the year and another one is like January 1 doesn't help elucidate the concept of multiple new years.) But that doesn't make it correct.

If we were to identify a date on the Hebrew calendar that would be a more accurate counterpart to April 15 (the deadline to pay taxes), then (according to Mishnah Ma'aser Sheini 5:6), it might be the 7th day of Pesach, which falls this year on... April 15!!! (Yes, I know this isn't the right year in the 7-year cycle for this correspondence to work out perfectly. Oh well.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009


  • Mazal tov to everyone who finished Book I of Sefer Ha-Aggadah! In celebration, I have posted an excerpt from my grandfather's English translation of the last chapter of Book I, which he translated in 1939 at age 18.
  • The February Madness pool closes on Monday at 11:59 PM Israel Standard Time (4:59 PM EST). Enter now!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

February Madness Cliffs Notes

The Israeli election is less than a week away! It’s not too late to make your predictions for the February Madness pool. Once again, here are brief descriptions of each of the 34 parties running in the election, along with links to their websites (English if available, otherwise Hebrew if available, otherwise Arabic).

Parties represented in the current Knesset:

  • Balad: One of the two major Arab parties, with a secular nationalist orientation. It was one of the parties banned by the Central Election Committee, then reinstated by the Supreme Court. Founding leader Azmi Bishara is out of the picture, having fled the country after being charged with treason and espionage in connection with allegations of passing information to Hezbollah, and has been replaced with the less controversial Dr. Jamal Zahalka.
  • Gil (Pensioners): This party advocates for retired people. It was a perennial also-ran until it became the big surprise of the 2006 election, winning 7 seats. It won support not only from senior citizens, but from younger voters who were disenchanted by the major parties and wanted to cast a protest vote, and were concerned about their grandparents and other members of Israel’s founding generation. Gil joined the Kadima-led coalition, but its tenure in the Knesset has been characterized by infighting, since this single-issue party has no unified position on other issues that come up, and the faction has splintered several times. Will Gil be elected again, or was it just a one-hit wonder?
  • Green Movement - Meimad: A new “green” party, not to be confused with the existing Green party (which Green Movement supporters would claim is not green at all). Its main focus is environmental issues, but its platform also addresses social issues. The Green Movement has joined forces with Meimad (the reason that it is listed as “represented in the current Knesset”), a left-wing Orthodox party led by Rabbi Michael Melchior that has run on a joint ticket with Labor in the past, bringing together secular and religious environmentalists.
  • HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home)- the New Mafdal: It used to be that the National Religious Party (Mafdal) had a moderate platform, and the far-right pro-settlement camp had religious and secular adherents. By 2006 it looked like Religious Zionism and support for the settlements had become one and the same, to the point that Mafdal and the National Union ran on a joint list in that election. This year the two parties were ready to take their relationship to the next level, and created a new combined party called HaBayit HaYehudi. But then the factions comprising the National Union pulled out one by one, in part because they wanted to keep secular folks around and in part because they saw Mafdal as too left-wing. So HaBayit HaYehudi is now basically a renamed Mafdal, with a new leader, Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz.
  • Hadash: This far-left party, which includes the Communist Party, is often lumped in with the “Arab parties”, but its Knesset faction includes a Jewish MK, Dov Khenin. It is the only majority-Arab party with Jewish MKs. They have put out a series of “Left vs. Left” ads inspired by the Mac vs. PC commercials, and their slogan is “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
  • Kadima:It’s the oldest story in politics: Then-PM Ariel Sharon pulls off the “Big Bang” in November 2005, founding this centrist party by drawing MKs from both Likud and Labor, calls new elections, and has a permanently incapacitating stroke in January 2006. Kadima won a plurality of Knesset seats in the March 2006 election, and ever since the Lebanon War of summer 2006, PM Ehud Olmert has spent much of his term with single-digit approval ratings. Olmert announced his resignation in July 2008 in light of a corruption scandal, and for various procedural reasons has been a lame duck for 6 months and counting. This election is Kadima’s first as a normal party, with primaries and such, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is running for prime minister as the new party leader.
  • Labor: The major center-left party lost a chunk of its Knesset faction to Kadima in the “Big Bang”, but reinvented itself for the 2006 elections with a domestic platform championed by (small-l and big-L) labor leader Amir Peretz, and did ok, coming in second and becoming Kadima’s main coalition partner. For reasons no one understands, Peretz became Defense Minister rather than taking a domestic portfolio, and presided over the disastrous Lebanon War, ending his political career for the moment. Former PM Ehud Barak became the new party leader and Defense Minister, and Labor’s success in this election will depend on public perceptions of Barak’s handling of the recent Gaza war.
  • Likud: Like Labor, the major center-right party lost MKs and support to Kadima in 2006, and fared considerably worse than Labor in that election. But the Likud appears to be on its way to bouncing back: under the leadership of opposition leader and former PM Bibi Netanyahu and his Obama-inspired campaign, the Likud has led in most recent polls for this election, perhaps in part because (unlike Kadima and Labor) it is untainted by the Olmert administration.
  • Meretz: The left-wing Zionist party supports a two-state solution with a negotiated peace agreement, along with progressive positions on social and economic issues. Its new leader Haim “Jumes” Oron is particularly popular in the kibbutz sector.
  • National Union (Ichud Leumi): The far-right pro-settlement party. Its website incorporates an orange theme, presumably not in solidarity with Daily Kos. See above under HaBayit HaYehudi for its recent history.
  • Shas: This Sephardi haredi party often wins enough support (from haredim and non-haredim) to make or break coalitions: it provided crucial votes to Olmert’s coalition, but then declined to join a coalition with Livni, forcing this election. Its website has the slogan “Mi lAdonai eilai” (”Whoever is for God, with me!”), evoking Moses’s zeal in the golden calf episode.
  • United Arab List / Ta’al: The other major Arab party, also banned from this election and then reinstated. Its constituent factions include the Islamic Movement. Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal) is basically a one-man faction consisting of outspoken MK Ahmad Tibi, who has also run on the Hadash and Balad slates in the past.
  • United Torah Judaism: The Ashkenazi haredi party, comprising Agudat Yisrael (Hasidim) and Degel Hatorah (Lithuanian misnagdim). Their platform promises funding for yeshivot and other haredi institutions, payments to families with many children, and a chicken in every pot.
  • Yisrael Beytenu: This right-wing party was originally primarily for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but has gained support from other Israelis as well. Its charismatic leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is a polarizing figure, with right-wingers lining up behind him while various parties on the left position themselves as the anti-Lieberman. His controversial plan involves ceding Israeli Arab areas (and people) inside the Green Line to the Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Parties not represented in the current Knesset:

  • Achrayut: Their platform promises to restructure the government, creating a bicameral Knesset in which candidates for the lower house are elected directly by the voters (rather than the current system in which voters vote for party lists).
  • Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf): This left-wing party’s signature issue is the legalization of marijuana.
  • Brit Olam: The video on their website features a man urinating (connected to their ballot letters, “pee”, though I’m not sure which came first), and the text below says “If you’re sick of being peed on too, click the button.” This Jewish-Arab party has a peace platform which includes, among other things, “teaching peace on the roads as part of driver education”.
  • Greens: This is the older Green Party, which has won local elections as well as tiebreaker #1 in March Madness 2006 (the most votes among the parties not elected to the Knesset), but has never made it to the Knesset.
  • HaYisraelim: This party promises more accountability for Knesset members, including electing half of the Knesset by geographic districts, and requiring Knesset members to hold weekly office hours for the public.
  • Holocaust Survivors & Grown-Up Green Leaf: As its name suggests, this party includes marijuana legalization activists who split from the Green Leaf party, along with Holocaust survivors, and the video says it all. Will the free media inspired by this outlandish combination be enough to consolidate the protest vote and make this party the next Gil?
  • Koach HaKesef (The Power of Money): The party formerly known as the Party for the Struggle with the Banks. “The bank is stealing your money!”
  • Koach Lehashpia (The Power to Influence): Focuses on disability issues. Their website includes a photoshopped picture of Livni, Netanyahu, and Barak in wheelchairs.
  • Lazuz: They want to set a maximum salary for elected officials and government employees, so there is more money available for other things. Until such a law is passed, their candidates pledge to donate 40% of their Knesset salaries to tzedakah.
  • Leeder: This party had the distinction of coming in last out of 31 parties in 2006. Will it place in the top 30 this time? The party leader is Alexander Radko, a fish merchant from Ashdod, and there are a lot of Russian names on their candidate list, but I can’t find anything about their platform.
  • Lehem: Anti-corruption agenda.
  • Lev LaOlim: Immigrants from central Asia.
  • Mahpach b’Chinuch (Revolution in Education): An education platform, including mandatory preschool, limits to class size, and higher teacher salaries. But they’ve apparently dropped out — they’re no longer listed on the Knesset website.
  • Men’s Rights: Angry divorced men who don’t want to pay child support.
  • Or: Secular and proud, advocating for separation of religion and state, and universal military or national service.
  • Organization for Democratic Action (Da’am): A Marxist workers’ party, mostly Arab Israeli, which publishes Challenge Magazine. Its leader, Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, is one of only two women running in their parties’ #1 spots (you know the other).
  • Strong Israel: Led by former MK Ephraim Sneh, formerly of Labor. Two-state solution, “Israel will not permit hostile nations to maintain nuclear weapons”, equality for all the Jewish streams, and getting tough on crime.
  • Tzabar: The “young people’s party”, headed by leaders of national student organizations. Higher pay for soldiers, mandatory national service for everyone, lower tuition for university students.
  • Tzomet: This right-wing party ran on a joint list with the Likud in 1996, but hasn’t been elected to the Knesset on its own since then. They want to cut taxes and cut spending.
  • Yisrael HaMitchadeshet (Renewed Israel): Originally a breakaway from Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’aliyah party (which merged with the Likud), headed by Michael Nudelman and representing Russian immigrants.

If you’re an Israeli citizen, vote! If not (or even if you are), enter the February Madness pool! Good luck!

Crowdsourcing the Torah

When I wrote "The liberal case against the triennial cycle", I made the claim that services using the triennial cycle aren't necessarily shorter than services doing the full annual Torah reading. (Of course, all things being equal, less Torah reading takes less time than more Torah reading, but all things are not equal.) After attending a service recently that provided strong anecdotal support for this claim, I decided to start gathering quantitative data, and I figured the best way to do this would be crowdsourcing: everyone is invited to gather data at whatever synagogue or minyan you go to (as a regular participant or a visitor) on this Shabbat or future Shabbatot, and post your data in the comments.

All you have to do is measure two quantities:
1) The total length of the Torah service (or, as my grandfather z"l would insist, seder keriat hatorah; he would argue that there is no Torah "service" in the way that there is a shacharit service and a minchah service), measured from the beginning of Ein Kamocha (or however your congregation starts things off) to the final closing of the ark when the Torah is put away. In addition to the actual Torah and haftarah readings, this includes other elements that are essential (blessings before and after each aliyah; hagbahah and gelilah), conventional (carrying the Torah around the room; Ashrei; prayers for various countries), and complete wastes of time (waiting for olim to make their way to the front of the room; rolling a sefer torah that hasn't been rolled in advance; assigning aliyot that haven't been assigned in advance; the gabbai repeating each name in mi shebeirach lacholim).

2) The length of time for actual Torah and haftarah reading, measured from the beginning to the end of each reading and added together. This will, of course, vary significantly based on the length of the parashah. However, subtracting #2 from #1 should yield a characteristic number that is relatively invariant from week to week in a given community.

My first set of data is from a visit to DC this past Shabbat, and seems like a good place to start, since it struck me as middle-of-the-road for American egalitarian services with full Torah reading: neither the most efficient nor the most inefficient. Please post your data in the same format. It would be great to get data from lots of different types of congregations. Thanks in advance!

  • Name and location of service: Adas Israel Traditional Egalitarian Minyan, Washington DC
  • Type of congregation: lay-led minyan within a Conservative synagogue
  • Type of Torah reading: full
  • Parashah: Bo
  • Length of Torah service: 57 minutes
  • Length of time for Torah and haftarah reading: 25 minutes
  • Difference in time: 32 minutes
  • Special circumstances: none