Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Choice through knowledge

[UPDATE: Some people were confused about this, so I should clarify that "really" in this post is used in the sense of "actually", not in the sense of "very".]

Mazal tov to Yeshivat Hadar on getting their year-round full-time program up and running! This article in the New York Jewish Week is chock full of things to comment on, but I'll leave the full-scale fisking to someone else. Rather than discuss the inaccuracies in the article ("the entire Hadar movement", "l'shma") or the dreadful framing (do the men wear pants too? it doesn't say), I'm going to focus narrowly on one point, and in the process piss off just about everyone.

Look at this paragraph:

Making decisions about practices that are in accordance with normative Jewish law and with contemporary egalitarianism is “not as simple as opening a Shulchan Oruch,” the Code of Jewish Law that serves as a basic reference for many observant Jews, Rabbi Kaunfer says. The yeshiva’s students, he says, are encouraged to seek their own answers, in consultation with their teachers at the yeshiva, not to simply ask a rabbinic authority to make rulings for them. “Our gedolim [recognized authorities] are the rabbis of the Talmud and the Mishna.”

We'll ignore the "observant Jews" framing, which I'll assume isn't a direct quote from Kaunfer, and the juxtaposition of the reporter's transcription of "Shulchan Oruch" with "not the Ashkenazi pronunciation heard in most Orthodox yeshivot", and focus on the substance.

I've spent much of the last few years fending off the allegation that Kehilat Hadar is "really Conservative" (see, e.g., here and here and here and in the comments here and here and here), so now I'm going to do something truly irresponsible and suggest that, based on this paragraph, one could argue that Yeshivat Hadar is "really Reform". After all, this paragraph provides a succinct formulation of the Reform doctrine of informed autonomy. And even if that bears little similarity to what goes on in Reform communities, a central piece of the "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" argument is "They're practicing true Conservative Judaism even if most Conservative congregations and their members aren't", so this is no different, mutatis mutandis.

Ok, I don't entirely believe that myself (not least because I don't think it's useful or meaningful to say that someone or something is "really X" when they don't identify themselves as such, but not only for that reason), and was just throwing it out there to play devil's advocate. But even if it's not true, I think it's still a valuable intellectual exercise to have to argue why it's not true. (And when you're done, I leave it as an exercise to figure out why I don't think it's true, which may not be the same reasons as yours. E.g., it certainly isn't because they daven in Hebrew. See this post for some hints.)

But there's another reason I'm introducing this meme (albeit immediately retracting it). The "Kehilat Hadar is really Conservative" meme, though problematic, is useful for one purpose: it gets Conservative communities to look in the mirror and say "There's no reason we couldn't try that here." Likewise, I hope a "Yeshivat Hadar is really Reform" meme might prompt some Reform communities to do the same. Serious text study to enable laypeople to make informed decisions about their individual practice should be the bread and butter of the Reform movement. It should be an embarrassment to the Reform movement, with all its buildings, staff, money, and longevity, that it's being beaten at what should be its own game by a 3-year-old startup organization operating in rented space. So perhaps Yeshivat Hadar's proof of concept will inspire others to think bigger.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Framing in the Forward

This week's issue of the Forward includes an oped on framing and liberal Judaism:

For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

If you got to Mah Rabu via the Forward, welcome! Here are some other posts that address framing issues.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Outer planets update

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Back in January, we posted about the contest to come up with Hebrew names for the planets Uranus and Neptune, as part of the International Year of Astronomy. Some of you may have submitted entries. The finalists have now been announced!!!

The two contenders for the planet hereunto known as Uranus are:

  • Oron - “The name means ‘little light’ , and it hints at the faint light of the planet as seen from Earth due to its great distance from the sun. The name Oron sounds similar to the foreign name [Uranus] and helps in remembering it.”
  • Shahak - “The proposal follows the meaning of the name Uranus, the name of the god of heaven. In Hebrew tradition there is no parallel name for the god of heaven (besides the name of the Supreme God). The word ’shehakim’, in rabbinic literature, indicates one of the seven firmaments, and is also found in our Hebrew, and thus the singular form Shahak is appropriate as a proper name for the planet.”

And for Neptune:

  • Rahav - “The proposal follows the meaning of the name Neptune - the name of the god of the sea. The name parallel to it in Jewish tradition is Rahav - the name of the master of the sea. Thus, for example, the Babylonian Talmud explains the verse [JPS translation: 'By His power He stilled the sea; By His skill He struck down Rahab'] (Job 26:12) as describing the victory of the master of the sea. The name Rahav bears mythological connotations like the Latin name.”
  • Tarshish - “This is the name of one of the stones of the breastplate [Exodus 28:20] whose Aramaic translation (Onkelos) is ‘the color of the sea’ (among other opinions) — and this is also Neptune’s color as seen from Earth — bluish-green. ‘Tarshish’ is also connected to the sea in its other biblical use: the name of a place on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, whose identification is not certain (recall the flight of Jonah the prophet to Tarshish). And on the phrase ‘the ships of Tarshish’, Rashi says ‘Tarshish - name of a sea’. In rabbinic literature and in liturgical poetry ‘Tarshish’ is a synonym for sea, and also a name of angels. Thus the name Tarshish combines the connection to the sea (like the Latin name) and the mythological foundation (angels).”

I was one of 25 entrants (including an 8th-grade class in Netanya) who submitted “Shahak” for Uranus, and congratulations to ADDeRabbi, one of 15 people who submitted “Rahav” for Neptune!

So the next step is voting! The vote is being conducted online. Unfortunately for those of us outside Israel, the ballot asks for a te’udat zehut (ID number), so only Israeli citizens can vote. If you’re eligible, vote!!! The fate of two planets is in your hands. The winners will be announced in December at the conclusion of the International Year of Astronomy.