Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgment Day November 14?

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

So the world didn’t end yesterday. To be fair, they weren’t actually predicting the end of the world until October 21, at the conclusion of five months of torment for those of us left behind. Yesterday was supposed to be only Judgment Day. But that didn’t happen either.

Of course this is all nonsense, but we can check their math and see whether it is at least internally consistent nonsense.

Let’s start with the year:

According to the tract explaining the calculations, the world was created in 11,013 “BC”, so we are now in the year 13,023 from creation. (It’s one less than you think because there was no year zero; 1 BCE was followed immediately by 1 CE.) The biblical flood occurred in the year 4990 “BC”, 6023 years after creation. God says in Genesis 7:4 that the flood will come in 7 days, and since one day to God is like 1000 years to us (they cite a New Testament verse for this, but we have the same idea in Psalm 90:4), this means the world will be destroyed 7000 years later, which comes out to 2011 CE.

I was baffled at how they arrived at this year count in the first place. According to the Jewish calendar, we are now in the year 5771 from creation, and the flood took place in the year 1656 from creation (4115 years ago, or 2105 BCE). While the exact count of the number of years from “creation” is somewhat controversial (particularly at the interface between biblical chronology and real history), counting the years in Genesis from creation to the flood is very easy, since we have a detailed list of how long each ancestor lived before the next generation was born. Assuming they’re reading the same Bible (and I just checked the King James and the numbers are the same), it’s hard to see how the totals could be off by so much. At first glance I thought they were just applying the same principle that 1 day to God is 1000 years to us, so the six days of creation would add an extra 5999 years (subtract one because, according to the rabbis, humans were created on Rosh Hashanah of the year 2, so creation began on 25 Elul of the year 1). But that can’t be it, because the time from the end of creation to the flood has to be much more than 24 years.

So I did some googling and it turns out that they get this chronology based on a general principle that a generation is a lifespan, so in these biblical genealogies, we can assume that the son was born in the year that the father died. For example, since Genesis 5:11 says that Enosh lived 905 years, they ascertain that the time from Enosh’s birth to his son Kenan’s birth was 905 years. Thus they completely disregard the explicit statements in Genesis 5:9-10 that Enosh lived for 90 years and then fathered Kenan, and then lived 815 years after that. By this method, they arrive at a stretched-out chronology. If they hadn’t done this, then the 7000-year anniversary of the flood wouldn’t take place until 4896 CE, so the end would be far from nigh.

Now let’s look at the day of the year.

According to Genesis 7:11, the flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month. In the Hebrew calendar, even though the year begins in Tishrei (in the fall), the 1st month is Nisan (in the spring), and so we observe all the biblical holidays accordingly: Pesach (in “the first month”) in Nisan, and all the holidays of the “seventh month” in Tishrei. Based on this, the 2nd month would be Iyar, and yesterday (May 21, 2011) was indeed the 17th of Iyar, which would make it the anniversary of the flood by this count.

But it’s not that simple. First of all, yes, yesterday was 17 Iyar for the Jews, and that’s based on Rosh Chodesh Iyar having been on Thursday, May 5. But the actual astronomical new moon was on Tuesday, May 3. In our calendar algorithm, Rosh Chodesh is frequently observed later than the actual new moon due to various considerations: for example, Rosh Hashanah in the coming year will be on Thursday rather than Wednesday, so that Yom Kippur will not fall on Friday, immediately before Shabbat. By stating that yesterday was the 17th of the month, are these Christians endorsing rabbinic rules that were instituted centuries after the Jewish-Christian split?

Second of all, it’s not so clear that “the second month” in this context would be Iyar. In Exodus 12:2, God commands very clearly that “this month” (the month in which Pesach takes place, in the spring, understood to be Nisan) shall be the first of months. But the rabbis are split on which month was the first month before this command was given. In a baraita at Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a, Rabbi Eliezer says the world was created in Tishrei, and Rabbi Yehoshua says the world was created in Nisan. In another baraita at Rosh Hashanah 11b, it is made clear that in dating the flood, both of them count the months from creation. Since the flood began on the 17th day of the 2nd month, Rabbi Eliezer places it on 17 Cheshvan (the 2nd month starting from Tishrei), and Rabbi Yehoshua places it on 17 Iyar (the 2nd month starting from Nisan).

The May 21 doomsayers seem to be following R. Yehoshua, so they have some support for their position, but it is R. Eliezer’s view that has survived in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei), not Nisan, is when we mark the anniversary of the world’s birth. The date 17 Cheshvan also comes up in Mishnah Ta’anit 1:4. The rainy season in Israel begins in Cheshvan, and the Mishnah says that if it hasn’t rained by 17 Cheshvan, individuals begin fasting for rain. The Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 64a) connects this date directly to the beginning of the flood. This is not a stretch, since both the biblical flood story and the theology of Masechet Ta’anit see rain as something sent by God in response to human actions. You can’t make the same connection for 17 Iyar, which is nowhere near the rainy season.

If the anniversary of the flood is on 17 Cheshvan in 2011 CE, then it won’t occur until Monday, November 14. Still, it’s not surprising that the Judgment Day folks went with May 21 instead. In yet another baraita at Rosh Hashanah 12a, it says that the sages of Israel date the flood according to R. Eliezer, and the sages of the nations of the world date the flood according to R. Yehoshua.

Finally, what’s up with October 21, 2011, as the end of the world?

They cite a verse from Revelation saying that people (excluding those who are raptured) will be tormented for 5 months after Judgment Day. Add 5 months to May 21 and you get October 21. Of course, this would be 5 Gregorian months, even though they got to May 21 in the first place by using the Hebrew calendar (and 5 lunar months after 17 Iyar would be 17 Tishrei, or October 15, 2011). But the Gregorian calendar is the Christian calendar, so we’ll give them that one.

But then they note that “October 21st of 2011 is also the last day of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles”, and see eschatological significance in this (which, to be fair, we do too — check out Zechariah 14, the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot). Except that they’re wrong. Depending on how you look at it, “the last day of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles” could refer to the 7th day of Sukkot (21 Tishrei) or to Shemini Atzeret (22 Tishrei). But October 21, 2011, is 23 Tishrei, the day that some Diaspora Jews observe as the 2nd day of Shemini Atzeret, or “Simchat Torah”. Even though this is still a holiday for some, no one would consider it to be a day of Sukkot: e.g., even though some have the practice of still eating in the sukkah on 22 Tishrei, no one does on 23 Tishrei. And even if some did, they’re talking about the biblical festival. There’s no way that Christian eschatology incorporates yom tov sheini, and in any case, the apocalypse should be centered on the land of Israel, where all agree that 23 Tishrei is not a holiday. So instead, they should expect the end of the world anywhere between October 15 (the 3rd day of Sukkot, 5 lunar months after 17 Iyar) and October 20 (Shemini Atzeret, the latest day that could reasonably be considered “the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles”).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tax me!

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

In the District of Columbia, the highest income tax bracket begins at $40,000. You read that right: a person making $40,000/year and a person making $40,000,000/year are taxed at the same marginal rate.

Like many states across the country, DC is in a budget crunch this year because the recession leads to both lower tax revenues and higher demand for safety-net services. As a result, DC’s social safety net is at risk. Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed budget makes the tax brackets ever so slightly more progressive, with an additional 0.4% tax on income above $200,000. This is a trivial increase for high-income earners (millionaires would owe another $3200 per year), and still would not prevent cuts to the safety set, but it is a step in the right direction. Yet some Councilmembers are opposing even this minor tax increase.

Enter the Jewish community. As the Washington Jewish Week reports this week, DC’s Jewish community, led by Jews United For Justice, has been at the forefront of efforts to tell the Council that the people of DC really wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes in exchange for a better city to live in. (91% of people in the affluent Wards 2 and 3 support a tax increase.)

The article also includes an obligatory quote from a (probably Jewish) libertarian representing midat Sedom (”What’s mine is mine”), riddled with factual errors (in addition to what ZT points out in the comments, I don’t think the DC Treasury actually accepts donations — this would run afoul of corruption laws).

Still, most of the Jewish community understands that we all have obligations to our society and to our neighbors. If you live in DC and want to make sure that this perspective wins out, get involved with JUFJ’s efforts.

In defense of autonomy

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

The article making the rounds this week is Rabbi Leon Morris’s oped in the JTA, “Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’”. In past blog posts, I have both agreed and respectfully disagreed with Rabbi Morris; here I’m going to do the latter (from my usual perch as a Reform Jewish expat).

Rabbi Morris’s thesis is “A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have ‘personal choice’ as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever.” And I certainly don’t take issue with those other Jewish values, including “an increased commitment to Jewish study” and “committed core of learned and deeply engaged liberal Jews whose lives revolve around the Hebrew calendar and who are immersed in the study and application of Jewish texts”. Yes, these are needed now more than ever. But I think he’s beating up on a straw man, and basing his argument on two unfounded claims:

1) “Personal choice” is the core principle of Reform Judaism.
2) “Personal choice” is to blame for the Reform movement’s ills.

I’ll address these points one at a time.

1) No, “personal choice” is not the core principle of Reform Judaism.

The core principles of Reform Judaism are the same as the core principles of any other stream of Judaism. “Personal choice” takes center stage only when Reform is contrasted with other denominations. Calling it the core principle of Reform Judaism is like saying that the 24-second clock is the core principle of NBA basketball. Yes, the 24-second clock is one rule that distinguishes NBA basketball from other forms of basketball, but the core principle of NBA basketball (like any form of basketball) is still getting the ball into the hoop.

But don’t take my word for it; take a look at the CCAR’s official platforms. The 1998 Pittsburgh Principles have God, Torah, and Israel as the three major section headings — what you would expect from any Jewish religious movement. Under these headings, there are 30 separate principles, and I count at least 22 (a solid majority) that people from all major Jewish religious streams would agree with. (And among the other principles, some of them are non-universal for self-referential reasons, e.g. “We are committed to promoting and strengthening Progressive Judaism in Israel…” and “We are committed to furthering Progressive Judaism throughout the world…”, which non-progressive Jews would disagree with because they already disagree with progressive Judaism.) “Personal choice”, “autonomy”, etc., do not appear explicitly at all. The closest approach is “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community”, and even there you can only find it if you know what to look for. So in the CCAR’s most recent platform, personal choice/autonomy constitutes less than 1 of the top 30 principles.

The previous platform, the 1976 Centenary Perspective, had a greater focus on autonomy. This is manifested in such statements as “Jewish obligation begins with the informed will of every individual”, “Reform Jews respond to change in various ways according to the Reform principle of the autonomy of the individual”, and “We stand open to any position thoughtfully and conscientiously advocated in the spirit of Reform Jewish belief.” Still, this platform lays out principles under the subheadings of “God”, “The People Israel”, “Torah”, “Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”, “Our Obligations: The State of Israel and the Diaspora”, and “Our Obligations: Survival and Service”, and only one of those sections (”Our Religious Obligations: Religious Practice”) includes any mention of choice/autonomy. There, autonomy is a means, not an end.

The earlier platforms, before 1976, don’t have anything remotely close to personal choice; the tone was that the authors of the platforms knew what was best for everyone.

Ok, so even if “personal choice” isn’t the core principle of theoretical Reform Judaism as expressed in official platforms, is it the core principle of folk Reform Judaism as popularly understood by self-identified Reform Jews? I don’t have any scientific data on this, but I suspect that most Reform Jews, if asked to explain their religion on one foot to someone from New Guinea who had never met a Jew, wouldn’t start with personal choice, but would start with elements that are common to all Jewish denominations. Personal choice would only start to come up if they were asked to explain Reform Judaism to an Orthodox or secular Jew from Israel who had never met a Reform Jew. (And even then, I’m not sure that this is the tack that the typical low-information Reform Jew would take in distinguishing Reform from other denominations; I think many would instead say some version of “We’re Reform(ed), so we don’t do that.”)

And I do think Rabbi Morris is indeed talking about the core principles of Reform Judaism in the absolute, and not just the core differences between Reform Judaism and other types of Judaism, since the other principles that he proposes replacing “personal choice” with are not unique to Reform Judaism — they are embraced (at least on paper) by the other movements as well. On this absolute scale, it is not accurate to say that personal choice is the core principle of Reform Judaism, either in theory or in practice.

2) No, autonomy is not the problem.

I’m going to run the risk of spawning a completely off-topic comment thread and say this anyway: Rabbi Morris’s response to autonomy in Reform Judaism reminds me of the Right’s response to the Obama stimulus.

President Obama proposed a stimulus that many economists warned was insufficiently large (even before it was cut down further by Congress) to pull the economy out of recession. When, as predicted, unemployment remained high after the stimulus (albeit not as high as it would have gone without the stimulus), the Republicans drew the conclusion that the stimulus had failed, that the very principles of Keynesian fiscal policy were at fault, and that the solution was fiscal austerity.

I don’t dispute that much of the Reform movement is characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. But it is inappropriate to blame this on an ideology that has never been fully put into practice in the Reform movement, particularly in the more ignorant and uncommitted segments. I haven’t found Reform communities where informed autonomy truly exists as a way of life; I have only been able to find this in non-denominational communities.

The Centenary Perspective (the platform with the greatest embrace of autonomy) says “Within each area of Jewish observance Reform Jews are called upon to confront the claims of Jewish tradition, however differently perceived, and to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” This frames informed autonomy not as a privilege but as a responsibility. A Reform Jew who truly believes in informed autonomy has the obligation to study Jewish texts to the point where s/he can make educated choices about all areas of Jewish practice. In principle Reform Jews have the responsibility to become far more knowledgeable than Orthodox or Conservative Jews (who can defer to their rabbi’s p’sak) or Reconstructionist Jews (who can defer to their community’s consensus). Needless to say, this is not how it works out in practice.

Rabbi Morris would have us believe that this failure of informed autonomy qua responsibility to take root among the masses is an inevitable consequence of an ideology that lacks the power to motivate. I would respond that the experiment hasn’t been attempted. Reform institutions have not provided the tools necessary for individuals to carry out the demands of informed autonomy. It’s not like Reform synagogues across the country are offering advanced Talmud shiurim (or even introductory Talmud shiurim, in the original language) that no one is showing up to. And even if there are opportunities outside the movement for high-level Jewish learning, the Reform movement’s culture is not one that values this among laypeople. Individuals who express interest in learning more are told “You should become a rabbi”, not “You should become an educated Reform Jew”.

But it’s not just that the Reform movement hasn’t embraced the “informed” part of informed autonomy (which is part of Rabbi Morris’s point); it has never truly embraced the “autonomy” part either. The average rank-and-file Reform Jew may exercise autonomy in selectively opting in and out of Jewish life, but when he is in a Jewish context, he does what he is told. To take prayer as just one example, Reform synagogues are the Jewish worship contexts in which it is least socially acceptable for individual participants to have their own practices about when to sit and stand, or which siddur to use, or what to be doing at any point during the service. Instructions are given throughout, and everyone is expected to conform. Rabbis may have less power on paper in Reform Judaism than in other movements (in which they render binding p’sak), but in practice, they are granted more elevated clerical status by Reform Jews than anywhere else in the non-haredi Jewish world. Rabbis are considered indispensable to “officiate” at any sort of Jewish ritual; most laypeople do not feel empowered to do it themselves.

What we see is not informed autonomy gone too far, but rather a population that is neither Jewishly informed nor Jewishly autonomous.

While we don’t have empirical data on what the Reform movement would look like if informed autonomy were a large-scale reality, we do have data from another controlled experiment: Let’s say you start with a population that looks a lot like the American Reform Jewish population, and an institutional structure (synagogues, rabbis, etc.) that looks a lot like the structure of the Reform movement. But you take Rabbi Morris’s advice and remove personal choice from the stated principles of the movement, and replace it with something about communal religious standards. Then what you get, according to the data, isn’t the engaged and passionate liberal Judaism that Rabbi Morris and I would like to see — what you get is the Conservative movement! And outside of a few isolated pockets, the Conservative movement is also characterized by ignorance and lack of commitment. Most Conservative-affiliated Jews aren’t familiar with their movement’s official principles, and much of what Rabbi Morris writes about the Reform movement applies there as well: “Volumes of thoughtful responsa and guides to Jewish practice, mostly unknown to [Conservative] laypeople … , gather dust in libraries.” The experiment yields the same result, but this time, it can’t be blamed on “personal choice”.

The answer is not to remove informed autonomy as a Reform Jewish principle and replace it with other values, but rather, to implement informed autonomy in truth so that these other values will come along with it. Create a culture in which informed autonomy is seen as a responsibility, so that individuals have to become knowledgeable in Jewish text and tradition and apply this knowledge creatively to meet the needs of the present age. Armed with this knowledge, individuals will be better equipped to form true communities.

I realize that this is a tall order. Many members of Reform congregations don’t have a strong ideological commitment to progressive religious Judaism, and won’t be interested in this project. But it’s possible to start smaller. Even if it won’t work to implement informed autonomy for an entire congregation at once, it can start with a committed core who can at least make informed autonomy a socially acceptable option. And if even that committed core isn’t attainable (yet) in every community, it can start in some communities that can be held up as role models and successful proofs of concept. And if those role models of informed autonomy are not to be found in the Reform movement, then the Reform movement can look to successful models elsewhere.

I hope that turning informed autonomy into a reality, and not just a slogan, will (as Rabbi Morris concludes) “allow us to experience a richer, fuller liberal religious life — one that is passionate, inspiring and moving, one that matters ultimately and allows ‘Reform Judaism’ to mean so much more.”

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Baby Boom

Baby Boomers are generally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964.  This graph illustrates the Baby Boom:

As you can see, the Baby Boomer population more than doubled in a single year, from 1946 to 1947, and increased more than fivefold from 1946 to 1950.