Thursday, October 21, 2010

Snow Shabbat's ripple effects

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Back in February, we blogged about how Segulah’s and other Mid-Atlantic Jewish communities’ Shabbat plans were affected by what some called “Snowmageddon”. It turns out that that snowy Shabbat has had more profound impacts on one family. Go and read Washington lawyer Viva Hammer’s inspiring story about it, published in the Jerusalem Post.

Two lessons of this story (beyond the explicitly stated ones) include:
1) When we build communities, they can have powerful effects on individuals beyond what anyone expects.
2) It’s always a good idea not to be intimidated by the snow, and to let life (and Shabbat) go on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Vote early and often

Election Day is a mere fortnight away, and early voting is already open in 25 states, and opens here in Maryland on Friday. So it's time for Mah Rabu's endorsements: in all partisan races, as usual, I endorse Democrats for everything. (Except in the Florida Senate race, where I endorse instant-runoff voting, which I also retroactively endorse for Florida 2000.) I can't say I'm thrilled with how the congressional Democrats have used (or, more precisely, not used) their once-in-a-generation supermajorities. Still, the Democrats are better than the Republicans on every single issue (we recently saw a unique exception when the Obama administration voluntarily appealed the decision in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, but that's irrelevant to this election, since neither Obama nor the Log Cabin Republicans are on the ballot), and a Democratic Congress that does nothing at all (which is a close first-order approximation to the current Democratic Senate) would be vastly superior than a Republican Congress that does anything at all. Withholding your vote to "send a message" to the Democrats will accomplish nothing; a resounding defeat will be merely interpreted as proof that the Democrats have "overreached" and need to "move to the center". (Funny how everything seems to be interpreted that way.) And at the state level (in the 43 states with multiple congressional districts), this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections will have an impact on redistricting following the 2010 Census, and therefore on the makeup of state legislatures and the U.S. House for the next 10 years. So go vote!

So that's the partisan elections, but I also need to figure out how to vote in the nonpartisan elections and ballot questions here in Maryland and Montgomery County, so I'm posting the information I've gathered so far, and inviting input from readers.

Circuit Court (Circuit 6):
The Circuit Court is the higher of the two trial courts in Maryland, with jurisdiction over felonies and major civil cases. (The District Court handles misdemeanors and minor civil cases. As far as I can tell, they seem to be roughly parallel to the two levels of trial courts in my former state of residence, with the Circuit Court parallel to the New York "Supreme Court" (which, confusingly to everyone, is not the highest court in the state), and the District Court parallel to the NYC Civil Court and the NYC Criminal Court.) Judges are elected for a term of 15 years or until they reach age 70. However, when a vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a replacement who serves until the next biennial election. (Since 15 is an odd number, it seems to me that this means that this would happen almost all the time.) This year, 6 judicial positions are up for election in the 6th Circuit (which includes Montgomery and Frederick Counties). Six candidates are running for these six positions, and all 6 (Sharon Burrell, Cynthia Callahan, Richard Jordan, Cheryl McCally, Joseph Quirk, and Steven Salant) are incumbent judges. If I understand the system correctly, this means that 6 positions opened up in the 2 years since the last election, and all 6 judges appointed to fill those positions have chosen to run for full terms. Does anyone know anything about any of these judges? Given that this isn't a competitive election, in the absence of further information I think I'm going to sit this one out, as a protest against judicial elections. (I can't vote for myself, since Maryland judges have to have been Maryland residents for 5 years.)

Court of Appeals (Appellate Circuit 7):

As in New York, Maryland's highest state court is called the Court of Appeals (though Maryland doesn't have a lower court called the Supreme Court to confuse everyone). The Court of Appeals consists of 7 judges, one from each Appellate Circuit, and the 7th Appellate Circuit is just Montgomery County. Judges are appointed by the governor to a term of 10 years (or until age 70) and confirmed by the Senate, then are put before the voters at the first election thereafter for a retention vote. Judge Mary Ellen Barbera took office in September 2008, apparently too close to the 2008 election to get on the ballot that year. What do we know about her?

Court of Special Appeals (At Large):

The Court of Special Appeals is the intermediate state appellate court, and its judges are appointed by the same system as the Court of Appeals. There are 13 judges, one from each Appellate Circuit, and 6 at-large. Judges Peter Krauser (the Chief Judge, appointed in 2000 and up for a second term), Albert Matricciani, Jr. (appointed in 2008), and Alexander Wright, Jr. (appointed in 2008), all at-large, are up for retention this year. Thoughts?

Montgomery County Board of Education:

The Board of Education has at-large members as well as members representing districts, but all of them are elected at-large (except the student member, who is elected by students in the county's middle and high schools). They are elected to staggered 4-year terms, so half are elected every 2 years. The candidates already ran in a nonpartisan primary in September, and the top two candidates for each seat went on to the general election. The at-large candidates are Shirley Brandman* and Lisa Lloyd; in District 1, Judy Docca* and Mike Ibanez; in District 3, Patricia O'Neill* and Karen Smith; and in District 5, Mike Durso* and Martha Schaerr. (The incumbents have asterisks. Did they all win because they were first in the alphabet?) The teachers' union endorses all 4 incumbents, as does SEIU Local 500.

State Question 1:

The Maryland Constitution says that every 20 years (non-presidential election years ending in zero, so this is the year), there has to be a ballot question asking whether there should be a state constitutional convention, which can then propose constitutional amendments (or a new constitution) to be submitted to the voters for approval. There seem to be several websites advocating for such a convention, though not openly advocating for any particular constitutional amendments. In the absence of any specific proposed amendments that I'd like to see, I'm inclined to vote no. I'd be too worried that a convention would be dominated by crackpots and/or corporate money, and that we'd see California-style amendments that would abridge civil rights and/or make the state ungovernable. (I don't think Prop 8 would pass in Maryland, but I'd rather not find out; I didn't think it would pass in California either.)

State Question 2:

Most people know that the 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury for any civil suit in which the amount in controversy exceeds $20. Since the $20 has not been adjusted for inflation, that's not so much in today's dollars, so a jury option is available for basically any civil trial. However, this only applies to federal cases. The corresponding amount in the Maryland Declaration of Rights is $10,000 instead of $20. The proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot would raise this amount to $15,000.

I'm not sure I have enough information to know how to vote on this. How common are civil trials where the amount in controversy is between $10k and $15k, and how often do the litigants exercise their right to a trial by jury? Is there a systematic difference in the outcomes of civil trials tried by judges and by juries? Is the reason for this proposed amendment to save money (because jury trials cost the state more), or to help corporations (because juries are more likely to rule in favor of the plaintiff), or something else?

State Question 3:

This proposed constitutional amendment would require that judges of the Orphans' Court in Baltimore City be members in good standing of the Maryland Bar. I think I'm going to abstain on principle; this seems to be a matter entirely internal to Baltimore City (with no impact on the state budget), so I don't see why it should be up to me.

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter raises a good point: in order to become law, the amendment must be passed by a majority of statewide voters AND a majority of Baltimore voters. Therefore, a yes vote is a vote to let Baltimore decide. So now I think I'm voting yes.

County Question A:

This law, charging an ambulance fee of around $400, was passed by the Montgomery County Council in May, then referred to the voters by petition. The ballot question asks "Shall the Act to require the collection of an emergency medical services transport (ambulance) fee from: (1) County residents to the extent of the resident's insurance coverage; and (2) non-County residents subject to a hardship waiver become law?" Again, I'm not sure I have enough information. The county claims that the fee is only charged to insurance companies and not directly to patients (and is waived for uninsured County residents), but how does this interact with copays, deductibles, etc.? Is it true that people don't have to pay anything? If it really is charged only to insurance companies, it seems harmless enough, but if not, it seems like a highly regressive tax, and there are better ways to make up the budget shortfall. It also seems to screw over non-residents (and there are many DC and PG County residents who work in MoCo and could have emergencies there). Thoughts?

UPDATE: Here's the actual law that is up for a vote. No amount is specified for the ambulance fee; it is to be set by the County Executive. It looks like the county indeed covers everything for county residents that isn't covered by insurance (including copays, deductibles, etc.), so residents indeed don't have to pay anything out of pocket. (And lifetime coverage limits are now illegal under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.) Non-residents are on the hook for whatever their insurance doesn't cover, but can request a waiver if their household income is less than 3 times the poverty line. (It's not clear how simple or complicated this process would be.) The ambulances are required to transport people regardless of their ability to pay. County Executive Leggett has proposed significant cuts to county programs in anticipation of the ambulance fee being voted down. I can't say I agree with his quick dismissal of the possibility of raising taxes, but whether I agree with it or not, that doesn't seem to be on the table right now, while the ambulance fee does. So to avoid all these cuts, from firefighters to road maintenance to mental health services, I'm now inclined to vote YES.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Overton window for 1-day and 2-day yom tov

This is another followup to Hilchot Pluralism Part VIII, which used Tikkun Leil Shabbat's Simchat Torah celebration as a case study to explore the possibility of pluralism regarding 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov.

The previous post talked about 1-day and 2-day individuals vs. 1-day and 2-day communities. This post is just here to clarify that there are far more than two possible stances that a community can take on this issue.

For example, Tikkun Leil Shabbat (featured in HP8) has explicitly not taken a communal stance on the issue. (Explicitly not taken a stance, as distinct from simply not taking a stance by default, like any community in the state of nature, or like TLS as of a few month ago.) You might think this is unusual, even unique. And perhaps it is, among prayer communities that meet for prayer on 16 Nisan, 22 Nisan, 7 Sivan, 16 Tishrei, or 23 Tishrei. But there are other types of Jewish communities out there, such as Hillels (which contain multiple prayer communities under one roof), or non-denominational Jewish organizations that are not ritual-focused. Such groups can and do take neutral stances on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov (though the implementation is not always given enough thought).

And among those communities that have either 1 day or 2 days as the norm, there are different ways of approaching this. There are communities for which "1 day" or "2 days" is the answer to the question "How many days of yom tov should we do?", and there are communities in which the question is never asked in the first place. For example, (and people who know otherwise can correct me if I'm wrong) when the first Hadar Shavuot Retreat was being planned, I suspect there was not an initial gabbai meeting at which they discussed (or even rubber-stamped) whether it would be 1 or 2 days.

A useful way to think about the range of possible stances on this issue is the concept of the Overton window, which incorporates not only the actual position of a given community, but the range of other positions that are considered acceptable within that community's discourse (which is generally smaller than the range of all possible positions).

The Overton window is named after the late libertarian activist Joe Overton. The classic example is on the issue of education, in which he ranked different public policies from "least government intervention / most freedom" to "most government intervention / least freedom". (As a public education advocate, I obviously disagree strongly with Overton on the framing of the various policies. I'm citing him here for the structure, not the substance.)

His ranking was:
No government schools
Parents pay for only the education they choose
Private and home schools monitored, not regulated
Tuition tax credits
Tuition vouchers
Private and home schooling moderately regulated
Charter schools
Public‐school choice
State‐mandated curricula
Private and home schooling highly regulated; parents pay twice
Home schooling illegal
Private schools illegal
Compulsory indoctrination in government schools

The point is that in addition to the status-quo policy, there may be a "window" on either side of it containing other policies that are considered within the realm of possibility.

So if we arrange the possible communal stances on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov on a spectrum, it might look something like this:
  • 2 days as the unquestioned communal standard
  • 2 days as the unquestioned communal standard, but individuals who observe 1 day can be open about their practice
  • the number of days of yom tov is a question, and the answer is 2 days
  • the number of days of yom tov is a question, and the answer is no official communal stance
  • the number of days of yom tov is a question, and the answer is 1 day
  • 1 day as the unquestioned communal standard, but individuals who observe 2 days can be open about their practice
  • 1 day as the unquestioned communal standard
Where does your community fall on this spectrum, and where is your community's Overton window?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ontology of yom tov

This is a followup to Hilchot Pluralism Part VIII, which used Tikkun Leil Shabbat's Simchat Torah celebration as a case study to explore the possibility of pluralism regarding 1-day vs. 2- day yom tov.

To address this issue more deeply, we have to look at the ontology of yom tov, and where it is situated: with the community, or with the individual? SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to claim that it's some of each. (These thoughts are relatively raw, and refinements are welcome.)

In that post, I wrote "This is an issue that will become more and more relevant in the future, due to various trends resulting in more intermingling between 1-day and 2-day people," and one of the trends mentioned (hat tip to JGN for this one) was:
the increased incidence of "shulhopping" (individuals participating regularly in multiple Jewish communities, and thereby having a greater need to define their own practice and identity rather than adopting a single community's practice)
If people are part of just one Jewish community (particularly if it is the only Jewish community they have ever been part of), they are less likely to have to give any thought to their personal minhagim, on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov or any other issue, since they are more likely to just go along with the community's practice, whatever it is. Now that people participate in more communities, whether simultaneously or serially, it leads many of them to be more thoughtful about their own practice. I think this is mostly a positive development, since it contributes to a world in which people are more deeply engaged with and invested in their Judaism. But when taken to certain extremes (in either direction), it can become incoherent, as I'll discuss in this post.

The extreme manifestation of this individualization of Jewish practice can be found in the discourse of Stage-1 pluralism. (Just to be clear, when I say "individualization", I'm not talking about Sheilaism. What I mean is that if you find yourself in the desert for Shabbat with no other people around, you still keep Shabbat, without a community.) In Stage 1, the discourse is about what is forbidden, permitted, or required for the individual, and various properties of communities become projected onto the individual. For example, rather than talking about egalitarian and non-egalitarian communities, we can now talk about egalitarian and non-egalitarian individuals, even though this concept is mostly meaningless outside the context of a community, and even though the specific communal practices in question have their roots in concepts such as "kevod tzibbur" (the dignity of the community). Stage 2 is fundamentally similar in this regard, but more toned down.

The opposite extreme is in some non-pluralistic communities, where the community is seen as the source of all Jewish practice. This is manifested most not in the Orthodox world (where the concept of individual minhagim is alive and well), but in the allegedly individualistic Reform movement. Perhaps the most extreme example is in those Reform communities that do havdalah before dark on Saturday. The underlying assumption enabling this is that Shabbat exists only in the context of the community, and therefore the community has the power to determine when Shabbat starts and ends. There is no consideration that an individual might have a Shabbat practice that transcends the community (and therefore is not subject to the communal decision to end Shabbat at this time); that simply isn't the conception of Shabbat as understood by that community.

I think a happy medium can be found in Stage 3, in which the identity-based discourse includes individual identities, communal identity, and the interaction between these.

So with that in mind, let's look at the ontology of yom tov. Yom tov is an aggregation of multiple elements, some of which are situated with the individual, some with the community, and some are ambiguous. Here are some examples (looking only at the 3 pilgrimage festivals), but this is not a complete list; other examples are welcome.

Elements of Yom Tov Incumbent on the Individual
  • the prohibition on work
  • kiddush and havdalah
  • the yom tov prayers
  • dwelling in a sukkah (on Sukkot)
  • eating matzah and maror (on Pesach)
  • not eating or owning chameitz (on Pesach)
  • not wearing tefillin
What these have in common is that an individual who observes yom tov would do them even if s/he were spending yom tov in a desert with no other people, or in a foreign city with no other Jews. In some cases, their inverses are obligatory on days that are not yom tov (e.g., if you're praying on a day that is not yom tov, you should use the weekday or Shabbat amidah, and not the yom tov Amidah), and in some cases they're not (e.g., just because it's not Pesach doesn't mean you have to eat chameitz).

Elements of Yom Tov Incumbent on the Community
  • "Simchat Torah"
  • Torah/haftarah reading
  • reading of megillot
These are things that only happen in the context of a community, that individuals can't do on their own. For example, an individual who observes Shemini Atzeret (whether for 1 or 2 days, it doesn't matter), who finds him/herself in rural Djibouti when the holiday rolls around, would say kiddush and refrain from work activities, but wouldn't really have anything called "Simchat Torah".

I think this dichotomy among elements of yom tov is useful in thinking about 1-day and 2-day communities, on the one hand, and 1-day and 2-day individuals, on the other. An individual who observes n days of yom tov should hold on to the elements in the first category (as applied to n days of yom tov) wherever s/he happens to be, whether in a Jewish community that observes n days, in a Jewish community that observes (3-n) days, or not in a Jewish community. See, for example, the one-day-yom-tov person's guide to the second seder.

On the other hand, the elements in the second category don't follow individuals around in the same way. For example, it doesn't make any sense for a 1-day individual located in a 2-day community to say on 22 Tishrei, "Today is Simchat Torah for me." If there's no community doing the ritual of Simchat Torah, then there's no meaningful sense in which it "is" Simchat Torah. (If a Torah falls in the woods...) To take a more obscure and convoluted example, many communities read Kohelet on Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Sukkot. In years in which there is no Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Sukkot (because yom tov falls on Shabbat), 2-day communities read Kohelet on the Shabbat that is (the 1st day of) Shemini Atzeret. In order not to make the long Simchat Torah service even longer, 1-day communities read Kohelet on the Shabbat that is the 1st day of Sukkot instead. But if a 1-day individual is spending the 1st day of Sukkot (in a year when it falls on Shabbat) in a 2-day community, it doesn't make sense for him/her to say "My minhag is to read Kohelet today", or conversely, if a 2-day individual is spending that day in a 1-day community, it doesn't make sense for him/her to say "My minhag is not to read Kohelet today". This is because there is no individual minhag to read Kohelet (in a ritual context); this is only something that communities do.

Ambiguous Elements of Yom Tov
  • yizkor
Does yizkor belong to the individual or the community? I'm not sure. Specifically, if a 1-day individual is spending the 7th day of Pesach and/or (1st day of) Shavuot with a 2-day community (which does yizkor on the following days, when this individual is back at work), should this individual do yizkor in some form on the day s/he considers yom tov, or not do it at all?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Learn by teaching, teach by learning

Do you have something to teach?

The National Havurah Committee is now accepting course proposals for the 2011 NHC Summer Institute! The Institute will be August 1-7, 2011, at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire. It is a week of Jewish learning and living in a pluralistic and multigenerational community comprised of people from grassroots Jewish communities across the continent.

We’re looking for proposals for four-session courses, whether connected to this year’s Institute theme “Y’hi shalom b’cheileich - May there be peace within your walls”, or on any other topic of interest. Teachers whose courses are accepted receive free registration, room, and board for the week, and get to participate fully in the Institute when they’re not teaching.

At the Institute, every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. As someone who is a teacher in real life and has taught Institute courses, I have found teaching at Institute to be one of my most rewarding teaching experiences, thanks to the productive contributions of everyone in the class. Teachers at Institute include people who work professionally in the field they’re teaching about, as well as people pursuing an “extracurricular” interest who are excited to study something in depth and share it with others.

The deadline for course proposals is November 17. Learn more, and download a course proposal form. See you in August!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Hilchot Pluralism, Part VIII: Simchat Torah

The Hilchot Pluralism series documents and analyzes the pluralistic practices that independent Jewish communities are developing.

Read this first:
Back in January 2008, Part VII concluded:
Coming in Part VIII: I don't know. Maybe something with an actual concrete solution?
And it's taken almost 3 years to find something, but now here we are!



We look at Tikkun Leil Shabbat's first ever Simchat Torah celebration (last week), which successfully avoided taking a communal stance on whether or not it was yom tov.

The Broader Issue

This represents an attempt to achieve Stage-3 pluralism on the question of 1-day versus 2-day yom tov. (As we'll see, this solution is of limited generalizability, but still valuable.) This is an issue that will become more and more relevant in the future, due to various trends resulting in more intermingling between 1-day and 2-day people:
  • cross-fertilization between Israel and the Diaspora (including Israelis living in the Diaspora and retaining their 1-day practice, and 2-day Diaspora Jews going to Israel and picking up the 1-day custom there)
  • greater empowerment and education among people coming from 1-day backgrounds who may be more likely to retain their practice when making contact with 2-day Jews
  • potential shifts in practice catalyzed by the upcoming calendar patterns
  • the increased incidence of "shulhopping" (individuals participating regularly in multiple Jewish communities, and thereby having a greater need to define their own practice and identity rather than adopting a single community's practice)
  • the more general trend of pluralistic communities defining themselves along lines other than the established denominational boundaries

Background on Simchat Torah

Contrary to popular belief, there is (technically speaking) no holiday called "Simchat Torah". Simchat Torah is the celebration of the completion of the Torah that typically takes place during the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. (Similarly, there is no holiday called "Seder"; seder is a ritual that takes place on the holiday of Pesach.) Shemini Atzeret is observed on 22 Tishrei (by those who do 1 day of yom tov), or 22 and 23 Tishrei (by those who do 2 days of yom tov). In most cases, communities that observe 1 day have their Simchat Torah celebrations on that one day (22 Tishrei), and communities that observe 2 days have their Simchat Torah celebrations on the second day of Shemini Atzeret (23 Tishrei). Of course, the day on which the Simchat Torah celebration takes place (whichever day that is) is often colloquially referred to as "Simchat Torah", but in more formal contexts (e.g. the kiddush, the Amidah), it is still called "Shemini Atzeret".

While the timing of Simchat Torah celebrations is highly correlated with a community's stance on 1-day vs. 2-day yom tov, there are some exceptions: Some Chasidic communities (and the Carlebach Shul in New York), which do 2 days of yom tov, do hakafot (dancing with the Torah) on both nights of Shemini Atzeret. And for various reasons, some communities that do 1 day of yom tov have their Simchat Torah celebrations on the night that would be the "2nd night", even though it is no longer yom tov for them. In some cities in Israel, you can find "hakafot shniot" (second hakafot) on the night of 23 Tishrei, originally for the benefit of visiting Diaspora Jews who were keeping two days, with musical instruments played by Israelis (who wouldn't play instruments on yom tov, but for whom it is no longer yom tov).

Background on Tikkun Leil Shabbat

Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS) is an independent minyan/havurah in the District of Columbia, founded in 2005. As its name suggests, it meets primarily on Friday nights. TLS has also had non-Shabbat services on several special occasions: Purim, selichot, and the second night of Rosh Hashanah. However, before this year, TLS never met on any of the three pilgrimage festivals, and therefore never had to take a stance on 1-day versus 2-day yom tov. (Yes, TLS has had Rosh Hashanah services on the 2nd night, but for reasons beyond the scope of this post, Rosh Hashanah is a separate question from the other holidays.)

TLS is an extraordinarily diverse community, with participants originating in all of the Jewish denominations and non-denominations, and TLS embraces pluralism. One of the constituent communities that merged into the current incarnation of Tikkun Leil Shabbat was the DC Reform Chavurah, which identified as Reform. Though the post-merger TLS has retained no denominational identification, TLS continues to have more participants from Reform backgrounds than most independent minyanim of its vintage. Combined with participants from Reconstructionist and other backgrounds, this means that the TLS community includes a number of 1-day-yom-tov people. They dwell alongside 2-day-yom-tov people, as well as people who don't have a firm position on 1 day vs. 2 days (but would go to a Simchat Torah celebration wherever and whenever the party is happening).

So all this means that the question of 1 day vs. 2 days was an actual question for TLS, unlike for many communities in which the answer is self-evident. It was a question that TLS never had to ask for its first 5 years, but it finally came up this year when TLS decided to do Simchat Torah. And the decision was made to avoid taking a communal stance on the issue.

The easiest way to do this might have been to hold the Simchat Torah event on the night of 22 Tishrei, which everyone agrees is yom tov. This would have been out of the ordinary for the 2-day people, but not objectionable in principle (cf. the Chasidic communities mentioned above that do hakafot on both nights). But among the people who had preferences on this question, more preferred to do it on 23 Tishrei. (And of course, 1-day people are already well-accustomed to compromising on this if they want to go to the happening Simchat Torah events.) And so the decision was made to do "Simchat Torah" on 23 Tishrei, but not take a position on whether or not this night was yom tov.

Here's how it played out in practice:


The event began with the evening service: a yom tov service for some, and a weekday service for others. Everyone davened together, and a packet was made up that had all the prayers for yom tov and for weeknights. The logistics were made immeasurably easier by the fact that the vast majority of liturgical differences between yom tov and weekday ma'ariv are in the Amidah, which is said silently at TLS. There are also a few minor differences in the parts said out loud:
  • "Vehu rachum", at the beginning of the service, is said only on weekdays.
  • Hashkiveinu has different endings for weekdays ("shomeir amo Yisraeil la'ad") and yom tov ("haporeis sukkat shalom...").
  • "Vaydabeir Mosheh", before the Amidah, is said only on yom tov.
  • [Some communities add an extra berachah before the Amidah on weeknights. However, TLS had already established a precedent, through several years of Purim services, of not being such a community.]
And so there was one primary sheliach tzibbur who led only the parts of ma'ariv that are common to both weekdays and yom tov (i.e. everything except the pieces noted above). There were also two helpers in the kahal, one for weekdays and one for yom tov, who loudly said the pieces specific to weekdays and yom tov respectively, leading whoever wished to join them.

What of nusach? The musical modes associated with the time of the day, time of the week, and time of the year situate the entire service in Jewish time. Since the sheliach tzibbur was representing the entire community, neither yom tov nor weekday nusach would have been appropriate, since this would have framed the communal prayer as a yom tov or weekday service. Instead, the sha"tz (when not leading non-nusach melodies) used High Holiday ma'ariv nusach, which some communities use for "Simchat Torah". This is associated with "Simchat Torah" as an event, not with a particular date on the calendar, and so it did not break the calendrical neutrality. (No one in attendance actually believed it was a High Holiday.) The weekday and yom tov helpers used weekday and yom tov nusach for their pieces, as appropriate.

Alternate proposals that were not implemented:
  • Have two simultaneous leaders for the entire service, one for yom tov and one for weekday, diverging when the liturgy diverged and converging the rest of the time. This would have had the advantage of each leader leading a coherent service from start to finish. However, having co-leaders tends to be clunkier, since the leaders can't make adjustments in the moment without conferring with each other, and the differences between yom tov and weekday ma'ariv (listed above) were not significant enough to warrant this layer of complexity.
  • Have one leader lead the whole service according to his/her own custom (weekday or yom tov), and one helper fill in the pieces for the other custom. After all, one might say, isn't this consistent with the principle in Part IV that the sheliach tzibbur need not represent the entire community, but simply one facet of the community's diversity? No, I think this case is different, because the framing of the service as a weekday service or a yom tov service (even if the differences in the words are small, outside the Amidah) is an act of much greater magnitude than differences here and there in the words of a service that has a communally agreed shared framing (e.g. as a Shabbat service). Furthermore, since almost no one there had any prior experience participating in a service where it was explicitly unstated whether or not it was yom tov, it would be much harder to convey this message through mere explanations than through actions. If the sha"tz led a [weekday | yom tov] service, people would walk away with the impression (correct or not) that the community was acknowledging [1 | 2] days of yom tov. It's not like going to a service where you hear the imahot included in shacharit and excluded in musaf, and you come to the conclusion that the community doesn't have a stance on the issue; in this case, the next opportunity to correct this impression wouldn't have been until next year.

Everything Else

After ma'ariv, there weren't really any other times when the yom tov / weekday issue had to be finessed; the rest of the event was fully compatible with both. The Simchat Torah celebration took place in one of TLS's regular Shabbat locations, so it was in walking distance for whomever TLS is usually in walking distance for.

Some of the hakafot were accompanied by musical instruments, and some were not. However, this wasn't explicitly a compromise between the 1-day and 2-day yom tov positions. After all, TLS's Friday night services alternate between instruments and a cappella, and everyone agrees that it is Shabbat. There are some people who attend only one type of service, but most attend both (though they may prefer one over the other). Thus, the yom tov vs. weekday question didn't really come up in the deliberations over instruments, except in that some people thought it was yom tov, and some of those people wouldn't go if there were instruments on yom tov (or would prefer no instruments on yom tov), and this was a reason for having some of the event without instruments. (I'm not aware of anyone who wouldn't go if there were instruments on yom tov, but didn't think it was yom tov that night. But maybe there were such people.) But, given that instruments are already not expressly forbidden at TLS on Shabbat, there were many other arguments both for and against instruments that had nothing to do with whether or not it was yom tov, and in the end this resulted in splitting the difference.

Torah was read. Yes, it's weird for 1-day yom tov people to read Torah on a day that isn't yom tov (or Shabbat, or Monday, Thursday, Rosh Chodesh, etc.). On the other hand, Simchat Torah is weird in general. There's a sense in general that this celebration of Torah is so exuberant that many of the usual rules and conventions of Torah reading are suspended. The most prominent example is that many communities never read Torah at night, except as part of their Simchat Torah celebration. (TLS is one such community. In fact, since TLS has only had evening services, this was TLS's first time reading Torah!) In this spirit, reading Torah on that night was entirely appropriate (or festively inappropriate) for everyone.

The evening didn't include any official kiddush or havdalah, but could have included both if desired, whether simultaneously, sequentially, or interwoven (and there were drinks available, and people could have done either for themselves).

Scope and Generalizability

A number of factors conspired to make this solution feasible, and at the same time limit its generalizability to other communal events on days with disputed status:
  • Davening wasn't the focus of the event; it was just a warmup for the main event (hakafot and Torah reading).
  • It was an evening service, so the Amidah is silent, and the overall structure of the service is almost identical for weekdays and yom tov.
  • "Simchat Torah" allowed for a creative resolution to the nusach question.
  • TLS does not meet every Shabbat, and does not meet on most holidays; this was a special event.
So the specifics of this solution are generalizable to other Simchat Torah celebrations on the night of 23 Tishrei, and with some adjustments, to other ma'ariv services and perhaps minchah too (particularly with a "heicha kedushah"). Beyond that, it gets more complicated. Communities that meet regularly for yom tov services (particularly morning services) and want to maintain a neutral stance on the number of days of yom tov have a more difficult task ahead of them (though the 2nd days of Sukkot and Pesach are a little bit easier because of the shared material between yom tov and chol hamo'ed services). Options might include offering multiple simultaneous service options (particularly if the disputed day is on Shabbat, when the community would be having services whether or not it is yom tov), or having a service on the 2nd day but making it clear that this represents only a segment of the community (while the 1-day observers are presumably going to work anyway). Other creative solutions are yet to be developed, but are likely to see much exploration in the years to come. Please leave a comment if you know of others.


Now taking requests for Part IX.

Monday, October 04, 2010

History repeats itself

Yesterday's post attracted the notice of Alan Brill, who asks:

So, I have a historical question. When modernizing Jews gave up the second day of yom tov in the 19th century was the push from certain professions or certain districts?

Jacob Katz, following his method of relying on Mannheim’s concept of ideology, presents the issue as an ideological battle between Reform and Orthodoxy (See, “Orthodox defense of Second Day of Yom Tov in Divine Law in Human Hands). But has anyone checked- did the push to get rid of yom tov sheni occur after a series of 3 day yom tovs pushed people to feel a need for the change? Was it more in certain professions? Maybe it was not ideological but a social push from ordinary businessmen? Was there a need to do manual labor or more likely to check the European stock market? Someone want to check the 19th century dates and determine if there was a decade like the next decade with many 3 day yom tov’s in a row? Does it coordinate with the push for the change?

I totally never thought to look into this before, but it appears that the answer is yes. Yom tov sheini was repealed by the Breslau Conference of 1846. The days of the week for Rosh Hashanah in years leading up to that were:
1830 Sat
1831 Thu
1832 Tue
1833 Sat
1834 Sat
1835 Thu
1836 Mon
1837 Sat
1838 Thu
1839 Mon
1840 Mon
1841 Thu
1842 Mon
1843 Mon
1844 Sat
1845 Thu
1846 Mon

(See this post for a key to what each configuration contains.)

So their time was much like ours: they had recently gone from a weekend-holiday-rich era to a weekend-holiday-poor era.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hasty generalization

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

A wise person I know says “Whenever I read articles where I know something about the content, I always find mistakes or misunderstandings, which makes me wonder how many mistakes there are in articles where I’m not familiar with the topic.” We get to see this principle in action as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz tackles American independent minyanim.

Over the last 10 years, the massive surge in independent minyanim has attracted media attention from both the American Jewish press and the American secular press. (After a while, this has converged so that they seem to write the same article over and over.) But this Ha’aretz piece might be the first time this phenomenon has reached the Israeli media.

The author of the piece, a self-identified secular Israeli, visited DC Minyan, and apparently did little or no research or fact-checking beyond what she saw and heard there. Thus she arrived at the unsupported conclusion that all or most independent minyanim (which in reality display a great deal of diversity) are similar to DC Minyan.

(However, on the plus side, this may be the first news article on 21st-century independent minyanim that doesn’t include a quote from Jonathan Sarna!)

To set the record straight, I’ll give the article a mild fisking:

At present, some 20,000 people are paying members of independent minyanim

The actual number is probably far less than this (especially since the article seems to adopt the “founded in the last 10 years” definition of “independent minyanim”, which is problematic in itself, of course). The vast majority of this wave of independent minyanim have NO members at all, let alone paying members. DC Minyan (profiled in the article) is on the extreme fringe of post-2000 independent minyanim in this regard, in that they have wholeheartedly embraced a synagogue-style membership structure, with membership dues, activities that are restricted to members or have different prices for members and non-members, etc.

(The havurot of the late 1960s and the ’70s may have been an early precursor of the independent minyanim, but they tended to be more counter-culture in style, and their latter-day heirs are more likely to be found in the Renewal movement.)

In reality, many havurot of the late ’60s and ’70s still exist, and many of their participants are still found in those havurot. “Latter-day heirs” may not be well-defined (and therefore not falsifiable), but the havurot of the ’60s and ’70s rejected rabbinic authority, as do many of the newer independent havurot/minyanim, while the Renewal movement embraces it.

Like many of the independent minyanim, DC Minyan defines itself as a “traditional egalitarian” community; the men and women sit opposite each other, without a partition - but still separately.

Both statements here are true, but the semicolon (suggesting that this is the usual definition of “traditional egalitarian”, and that this practice is “like many of the independent minyanim”) is highly misleading. DC Minyan is one of only two minyanim I know of with this precise set of practices (equal ritual participation by men and women, separate seating); most communities that define themselves as “traditional egalitarian” have mixed seating.

This makes it possible - unlike at typical Conservative and Reform congregations - for Jews of all denominations to take part.

Yeah, try again. The number of self-identified Orthodox Jews who would attend a service led by men and women that has separate seating but no mechitza (but wouldn’t attend such a service with mixed seating) is tiny, and probably much smaller than the number of non-Orthodox Jews who would be put off by the separate seating.

However, DC Minyan’s website does stipulate that people who identify with a different sex from that written on their birth certificates are invited to sit in the section designated for it. “No one will ask what gender you are,” Zuckerman adds.

They’re mixing up sex and gender here, though I wonder if this article was first written in Hebrew and then translated.

UPDATE: The Hebrew version has a number of differences from the English, which seems not to be a direct translation. Did the same writer submit articles in both Hebrew and English, or did a translator exhibit significant editorial license? “Paying members” and the disclaimer about early havurot appear only in the English. The line quoted above about “traditional egalitarian” is even worse in the Hebrew: “DC Minyan defines itself as an egalitarian community, and therefore the men and the women sit side-by-side and without a mechitzah, but separately.”


(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The holiday season is now over. And something about it may have felt a bit out of the ordinary, unusual, abnormal. And based on recent experience, that feeling is accurate. But in the 2010s, abnormal is becoming the new normal.

In the last decade, as often as not, the Jewish calendar has followed the pattern in which all the fall holidays (except Yom Kippur) fall on weekends. This pattern is both loved and hated. People who work for Jewish organizations and observe 2 days of yom tov (so that the holidays are on Saturday and Sunday) dread this pattern because (unlike in other years, when the Jewish holidays are days off) they go from workweek to holiday to workweek to holiday, without a break to do laundry. People who work and go to school outside the Jewish world, whether they do 1 or 2 days, find this pattern easier, since it doesn’t require taking any days off of work/school, except for Yom Kippur (but that’s the one that your boss has heard of, and is much easier to explain than Shemini Atzeret).

Love it or hate it, we won’t see this pattern again until 2020. This Mah Rabu post from a couple of years ago covers all the details.

In its place, we see a new popular pattern emerging. This year, Yom Kippur was on Shabbat, but all the other holidays were on Thursdays (continuing into Friday for the 2-day people). This means that the 2-day people got a string of what are colloquially known as “3-day yom tovs”: when a 2-day yom tov falls immediately before or after Shabbat, resulting in 72 straight hours away from whatever one doesn’t do on Shabbat or yom tov. People working in the Jewish world appreciate all the 4-day weekends. Other people have to miss a lot of work or school: 3 or 4 days for 1-day-yom-tov people (depending on their stance on Rosh Hashanah), and 6 days for 2-day-yom-tov people, and that’s not including travel days.

Love it or hate it, this pattern is here to stay. We’ll do it all over next year, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2017: half of the years in the 2010s.

The other half of the decade will see a different pattern that we haven’t seen in quite a while: Rosh Hashanah on Monday, with all the fall holidays falling on weekdays. This pattern also includes Shavuot starting on Saturday night, leading to another “3-day yom tov” for the 2-day crowd.

All told, the half-decade from 5771 to 5775 will include a total of 14 “3-day yom tovs”, and the decade from 5771 to 5780 will include 21. (But don’t worry, there’s only 18 more to go!)

This leads to my prediction (awaited since the title of the post): This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.

In a few years, we can come back and check this prediction and see whether the 1-day majority has gotten any larger. In the meantime, back to work.