Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

Bourbon Tasting as Jewish Community

It has been a very dark time for Jewish news over the past few weeks. War and war crimes, chants calling for our death, us calling for others’ deaths, and overall nastiness.  Often times, even on the storied pages of Jewschool, we simply ignore the rest of the Jewish world during the perennial security operations taking place in the name of the Jewish people.

Yet there are other things happening in the Jewish world and some of them are good.  In fact some are even fun.  While this post deviates from some of the hard hitting topics we often discuss in this forum, it is an important one for more than the obvious reasons. More »

What does it feel like to be a Jew in America?

What does it feel like
To be a Jew in America
Hearing the news of the Israeli army’s assaults on Gaza

Like a cancer, one part of my body attacking another
The cells do not listen to my cries:
You’ve got it all wrong
This body is one organism
Why can’t I cease this inside of my own skin?

Friends, colleagues, newspapers describe how “we” are attacking “them”
Since when am I this “we” you speak of?
Is it because I face occupied Jerusalem when I pray?
Because I say blessings over my food in the language of the oppressor?

I yearn to protect my edges
I long to strike a balance
How to stay safe while remaining open?
It’s actually a question I ask myself every day

And today, as a Jew in America, my voice is muffled
My opportunity to question is denied
Prayers for peace are welcome
And yet
Calls for justice
Perhaps equal access
…to electricity
…to medicine
…to healing

I ask my body again
It pauses for a moment
As if it somehow remembers that it is one body
And then returns to its task
Destroying the cells one by one

Shamir writes poetry in the Berkshire mountains and also on trains

7 Tammuz, 5774

 
Simplicity
Violence is bad.
Racism is always wrong.
Israel, wake up.

 
Strange
Thrown in a car. Burned.
Occupation and vengeance.
Strangers in strange land.

 
The Name
Not any design,
this profitable power.
Flags and flames throughout.

 

 

A. Daniel Roth is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth 

A People Without a Land

The new doc by frequent Jewschool guest blogger Eli Ungar-Sargon is premiering on July 3. If you are in New York go see it. The film is by turns saddening, angering, depressing, and hopeful. What more can you ask?

Details:
July 3rd at 3pm at the Quad Cinema 34 W 13th St. NY.
Tickets here.

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul

Tamar Fox is one third of the team that brings you  “Talking in Shul,” along with Mimi Lewis and Zahava Stadler. Tamar is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She has worked at MyJewishLearning.comHaggadot.comShma.com, and Jewcy.com, among others. Her writing has been published in the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, and Tablet Magazine. Tamar’s first book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013, and is a PJ Library selection.

Jewschool: Tell us about Talking in Shul and how it got started. 

Tamar Fox: Talking in Shul is a roundtable podcast featuring Zahava Stadler, Mimi Lewis, and me, talking about various Jewish political and cultural topics. It’s one of several podcasts in the Open Quorum family of podcasts–the other big one is SermonSlam, but there are many more forthcoming. David Zvi Kalman, who came up with the idea for OpenQuorum approached me about creating a podcast and I’m a total podcast fiend, so I was on board right away. I really love podcasts where a group of people bat around an idea for 10-30 minutes, so that’s the kind of podcast I wanted to create and we set about looking for other people to join the table, as it were.

Jewschool:  What do you think each of you brings to the podcast, in terms of background and perspective?

Tamar Fox: Zahava is pretty solidly modern Orthodox. Mimi comes from a Reform background, and I grew up going to Conservative and Orthodox day schools, and going to a non-denominational minyan, so between us I think we speak to a wide scope of Jewish experiences.

Jewschool:  How do you decide what to talk about?

Tamar Fox: We have a Google doc where we brainstorm ideas, and we sometimes come up with ideas for future tapings while we’re recording episodes. We also try to be at least a little newsy, and think about whatever stories are big in the Jewish news world.

Jewschool:  What do you think is unique about this podcast? Why should we listen to it?

Tamar Fox:  I didn’t set out to have it be only women, but I think it’s really wonderful that we are featuring women’s voices, and that’s not something that you see a lot in Jewish podcasts. Also, I think we’re really a fun, interesting crew, and it’s nice to have a Jewish news/culture discussion podcast. That’s not something that really exists otherwise, to my knowledge.

Jewschool: How can people find Talking in Shul? 

Tamar Fox: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, or you can list on the Open Quorum website.  Sermonslam is basically a poetry slam for sermons, where sermons are very loosely defined as “short performances on a preset theme.” They are similar to the Moth storytelling events, with winners chosen at the end, but we record all performances, and you can listen to them on the Open Quorum podcast stream.

Jewschool: Finally, what are you  excited about for  the future of the podcast? 
Tamar Fox: I don’t know for sure when we’re going to talk about it, but we’re thinking about doing a segment on Jewish social justice, and how sometimes Jews want to frame an issue as particularly Jewish, when really, it’s just a moral imperative, and maybe that’s Torah based and maybe not, but we should still act on it.

 

(P.S.  If you do a Google search for “Talking in Shul,” this comes up. Which apparently is the inspiration for the song “Don’t Talk, Just Daven,” by the Miami Boys Choir. When I did a search on You Tube for that song, I found this.)

Goodbye, Reunions; Hello, Laboratories: On Social Media and Communities in the Flesh

Hey, Jewschoolers.  Check out my piece in Sh’ma Journal considering the consequences for community building and relationship nurturing of social media and virtual life.  I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Sh’ma.

————–

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration:

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?
For the rest of this article, click here and check out Sh’ma.

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »

Not Good for the Jews

Donald “I am not a racist” Sterling gave an interview to Anderson Cooper on CNN last night and boy it was just a beautiful example of Asshatery.

“Jews when they get successful, they will help their people, and some of the African Americans – maybe I’ll get in trouble again – they don’t want to help anybody.” – Sterling.

Simply this guy is just horrible. He needs to stop talking and go away. I am ashamed to have him as member of the tribe and hope he fades into obscurity.

However, he isn’t alone.  We all know that and won’t talk about it. More »

Throwback Thursday: Remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch

Many Jewschool readers probably saw a video making rounds on their social media this week, that could be described as “sick like malaria”, or at least, “cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce”:   four Buddhist monks (or, apparently, four young men dressed as Buddhist monks) shaking their rumps in money-makin’ Manhattan’s Union Square to put on a breakdancing show in anticipation of the 2nd anniversary of the death of rapper, bassist, film director, music producer, social activist, and Jew-turned Buddhist, Adam Yauch, aka MCA from the Beastie Boys, aka Nathanial Hornblower, aka, Praying Mantis, who died on May 4, 2012 of cancer, at age 47.

Two years ago, on MCA’s sheloshim (when I was still a guest-poster at Jewschool), I posted this piece trying to capture the depth of grief that some of us otherwise rational and well-balanced adults experienced over Brother Yauch’s passing.  Every word still feels raw and fresh to me.  For the man who put TiBeT in the popular American discourse, here’s today’s TBT for  MCA.  Namaste.

TBT: Blogging the Homer DOH!

Rabbi, I forgot what day of          the omer it isWaaaay back in 2003, Mobius posted about Counting the Homer, a Simpsons Omer counter. To see the brief post in its original formal, click here.  Good find Mobius… It was, and remains, a popular counter, but no matter which of those links you click, you may be disappointed. The original JVibe host has since gone belly up.  And so if you’d like to keep up with the count, click here.

For those counting, last night was a Baker’s Dozen and two Donuts, 15 Donuts of the Homer (add one for tonight’s number).  In addition to the proper Sefira bracha, you might also need to say a mezonos. Apparently you can also follow the Homer on twitter.

 

Deserving of a Chumra

Normally I wouldn’t step up to diss, ‘cuz all the haters and commentators will be quick to hiss-

But when these cheder dropouts came on the scene, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or clutch my spleen.

The rhymes were ill, real sick- as in “the mind,” stereotypical sexism we should leave behind.

Not to mention the appropriation of a form most crude, and getting rap backwards, using thought for food.

Do we need to mock ourselves in these ridiculous ways? Does this help bring Moshiach, may it come soon, in our days?

Its little better than the minstrelsy of Two Live Jews and shouldn’t be surprising when it draws out boo’s.

Maybe I’ve lost my humor. Maybe I’ve lost my mind. Or perhaps I don’t appreciate hip hop of this kind.

ICYMI: Passover Songs of Centuries Past

On March 27th, the National Post’s Religion blog ran a piece on Passover songs that had been briefly lost to history. Teens from the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy recently performed Passover music that had been translated into Latin in the 17th-century by Christian scholar Johannes Rittangel. It’s likely this musical arrangement hasn’t been performed in more than 300 years.

You can follow the path of the music’s revival from the post that captured the attention of Tanenbaum head of school Paul Shaviv, the On the Main Line followup post (with video!) of the music, and the National Post article.

Throwback (belated) Thursday: The dawn of Jewish hipsterdom

I have to applaud Aryeh Bernstein for this idea. This blog has covered the first sparks of many Jewish movements before they were worth reporting by others. And looking back 10 years later, we can see how the debates of last decade are, largely, over. Intermarriage acceptance? Won. Independent minyanim? In every major city. (Come check out Selah in Seattle.) Pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace? Now a real force in Congress.

But what about Jewish “hipsterdom,” perhaps better expressed as the burst of hybrid Jewish arts, culture, music, creativity and expression in the early 2000s? Remember the early days of HEEB, Jewcy, JDub Records, Kavod House, the Jewish Fashion Conspiracy, and Storahtelling? Simultaneously, the first waves of philanthropy aiming to “fight” intermarriage washed ashore. Nine years ago (oh yes, nine) this community was debating the pros and cons of accepting “continuity” funding for our new ideas.

Just take this post back from December 29, 2005, by Dan Sieradski, “NY Jewish Week Knocks Jewish Hipsterism.” Said Sieradski,

All of the grant money available to Jewish cultural projects fall under the auspices of Jewish continuity — recently rebranded “renaissance & renewal.” These are merely euphemisms for getting Jews to shtup other Jews. It seems to be the only thing big-wig Jewish philanthropists find themselves concerned with, with the few exceptions of those focused on Jewish education and social action. In this climate, the only way for innovative Jewish projects to get funded is if they present themselves within the context of Jewish continuity. It’s a dirty game, but it’s the reality.

The landscape is different. Some of these initiatives stand tall: Hadar has spawned an successful institute, Mechon Hadar. And the field features notable graves: JDub Records (z”l). But the big picture matters more than the specific instances: emergent groups are institutionalizing into permanent features, displacing and replacing older ones. No accident that the very term “emergent” was coined by Jewish Jumpstart, whose Shawn Landres you can see there in the comments of Sieradski’s post.

Take a trip in the wayback machine and read it here.

A Few Thoughts on the Roots of the Identity Discourse

The Roots and Structure of the Identity Discourse in Contemporary Jewish Life

by Rokhl Kafrissen, a journalist, attorney, and Jewish world gadfly in New York City.  This article was given as a paper at last weekend’s Rethinking Jewish Identity and Jewish Education conference at Brandeis and is cross-posted at Rokhl’s blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan: Dynamic Yiddishkayt for the New Millennium

The question of identity has both personal and intellectual interest to me. Unpacking the identity discourse is part of my larger personal project of situating my experience as a born again Yiddishist within the larger context of American Jewish history. Why do I need Yiddish? and why didn’t I have Yiddish?– those have been two of my guiding questions. It’s impossible to answer these without stumbling over the related question of identity.As I’ve written elsewhere, studying Yiddish brought me to a deeper understanding of my own family and the Jewishness transmitted within my home. Similarly, the study of American Jewish sociology has helped me understand the larger Jewish American milieu in which I grew up, and how I ended up with my middle class, suburban, Conservative Hebrew school, shma and hatikvah, bacon is ok but ham isn’t, 1980s Long Island Jewish identity. You only have to look at the Pew study to see that for the majority of American Jews, that kind of minimal observance, minimal education, maximal pride, is very much the de facto American Jewish identity today. More »

Thoughts on Amalek from the Jerusalem Sermon Slam

For anyone trying to hold on to those last breaths of Purim, here is my piece from the recent Jerusalem Sermon Slam on the theme of Amalek, in which I consider a bizarrely persistent custom about about language, Amalek’s relationship to sexual violence and degradation, and how we capture that dystopic reality theologically.  It was a provocative evening — a safe space for dangerous Torah (h/t for that phrase to my student, Rabbi Eric Woodward).  Check out the other videos from the event, as well.  My personal favorites are by Charlie Buckholtz (Amalek, predatory housing corruption, and more), Candace Mittel (remembering so that there’s no room left for Amalek), Bonna Haberman (how we produce Amalek), and Julie Seltzer (finding Amalek through its physical letters).  To find out more about Sermon Slam and to support its next steps, you can check out the Kickstarter campaign.  Check out upcoming Sermon Slams March 24 in Philadelphia, March 27 at Brandeis University, April 3 triple-header in Berkeley, Boston, and NYC-Washington Heights, April 7 in Philadelphia (Interfaith), and April 10 in Providence.

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

a freylikhen shushan purim!

Wishing you and yours a most joyous Shushan Purim from New York!

The following Purim schtick video is brought to you by some of your favourite Jews from the Jewish Theological Seminary: