Sometimes when I go to Jewish events that I know will include a question and answer session, I make a chart that looks like this:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question ( __ )
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience ( __ )
# of rants by audience members ( ___ ) *
This chart has come in particularly handy at conferences, but can be applied on a holiday such as Shavuot, if you write. (It also makes an excellent drinking game.)
I spent Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which, if you have not attended a tikkun there before, can be really overwhelming. It’s super crowded, especially in the areas with the cheesecake and water and coffee. The offerings are pretty diverse: yoga, films, art, speakers, and more traditional learning situations with chevrutah. I came because I was in the neighborhood, and also for the 10 pm session with Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson (RKE in this piece, for the sake of brevity here), director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, called “Women of the Wall, Pluralism in Israel, and American Jews.”
RKE began by asking the audience about the values that motivate their activism (“I just don’t want someone to say that my voice can’t be heard,” said one woman,) and also about the values that they felt Israel should embody, which were no surprise in a liberal Jewish crowd: equality, democracy, justice, respect, Judaism, co-existence, pluralism. “I am worried by what I see in the news,” said RKE, before giving a brief history of the actions of Women of the Wall, beginning in 1988, when the group gathered at the Kotel for the first time. In 1993, the group attempted to read Torah for the first time at the Wall, resulting in the arrest and detainment of group members. (The Torah reading happened, outside the jail near Jaffa Gate, while members of the group and allies waited for folks to be released.) ”There was a feeling of being vulnerable, and yet so strong,” said RKE. The events continued to escalate after 1993, and American Jewish support for WOW grew. RKE: “Seeing Jewish women being taken away by Israeli police in a Jewish state? How can it be?”
(Question from an audience member: ”Should Israel Jews be able to interfere in American politics the way American Jews are interfering in Israel’s? Why should that be allowed?”
Friend I brought with me, under her breath: ”I don’t know, trillions of dollars in military aid?”)
It’s the opinion of the American Jewish community that RKE feels led Netanyahu charge Natan Sharansky with creating a solution to the “problem” of Women of the Wall and their goal of creating equal gendered space. (RKE-Robinson’s Arch is not so physically accessible, and can seem “like you’re praying in an archae0logical dig.”) There’s some confusion, however, as to who makes the ultimate decision. It’s not Naftali Bennett, apparently, but RKE encouraged the audience to email him and write him letters. It’s probably not Netanyahu, either. “Liberal Jews have given up on the Kotel,” said RKE. “They’re saying, this is not our place, we don’t need to be involved. I’m not interested in restoring the sacrificial system, but I don’t want to give (the Kotel) up. It’s ours, too. We’re liberating the wall again.” Citing the May 10th prayer service, which was the first time that Women of the Wall were protected by the Israeli police, RKE said, “We’re watching the ground shift, we’re not going to go back.”
*Tally, in case you’re interested, from this session:
# of times someone asks a question that is not actually a question: 3
# of times speaker is interrupted by someone in the audience: 4
Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, the organization of Masorti/Conservative rabbis.
The office of the Chief Rabbinate is established in law. The need for such an office is altogether another question.
Only the State and four cities are obligated under law to have a Chief Rabbi. Since there is no agreement as to who should hold the position – we have two; one Ashkenazi and one Sefardi. Except in Tel Aviv where the city council refused to allocate funds for two rabbis – so they have one.
Jerusalem has gone years without a Chief Rabbi. There is lack of agreement as to whether at least one of Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbis must be a Zionist.
All told there are thousands of employees “working” for the rabbinate and for the Ministry of Religions. Hundreds of millions of shekels are allocated.
Last week, for the first time, a decision was rendered that will require regional councils to employee non-Orthodox rabbis. This is an historic breakthrough in a country which, while not employing all Orthodox rabbis, has employed only Orthodox rabbis. As many as fifteen such positions for non-Orthodox rabbis may be filled. More »
In other news I'm topping the charts over at the Forward: The hed on my piece is 'What Would You Call Me?'
Right. So I wrote this op-ed for the Forward about how I underwent a Conservative conversion because I go to a Conservative shul these days, but I came from a patrilineal Reform background and so forth. And in it I suggested that it’s time for the Conservative movement to start accepting patrilineal descent.
Then the internet discharged platoon after platoon of Jew-baiting Jewish commenters with all kinds of nonsense on their minds. There were also some thoughtful comments and a ton of kind emails from friends and acquaintances.
Here’s one of the emails:
I so wanted to comment on your Forward article, but I simply could not wade into the aggravating mess of Jews baiting each other.
So for his benefit and yours, I waded neck-deep into the muck to pluck out the best of the comments — not only at forward.com, but on Facebook and twitter as well. And I’ll respond to a few too.
[I started writing this post yesterday so there are probably even more comments now that I haven't even looked at.]
An article that everyone has been commenting on lately is “Campus Life 201: Trying Out Frum“, from the Fall 2011 issue of Reform Judaism magazine. The author, a Yale undergrad “raised in a committed Reform household”, tells the story of a week in which she adopted various practices including kashrut, praying three times a day (apparently with a non-egalitarian minyan), praying before and after eating, and wearing long skirts. More »
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.
As you may have heard by now, the Union for Reform Judaism has chosen Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs of Westchester, New York, as its next president, to succeed Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is retiring after 16 years. Here at Jewschool, we wish Rabbi Jacobs the best in his leadership of the Reform movement, but we are left with one burning question: We are wondering whether he is related to Gregory E. Jacobs, aka Shock G, the former member of Digital Underground best known for his alternate persona Edward Ellington Humphrey III, aka Humpty Hump.
They share more than a last name: As a number of news reports have noted, Rabbi Jacobs is doing a Ph.D. in ritual dance, and Mr. Jacobs has “even got [his] own dance“. Rabbi Jacobs leads one of the largest Jewish congregations in America; both how Mr. Jacobs is living and his nose are large.
Whether or not they are related, we hope Rabbi Jacobs’s tenure at the URJ will be committed to the Reform Jewish values of informed autonomy (“No two people will do it the same”), inclusivity (“Anyone can play this game”), intellectual honesty (“Oh yes ladies, I’m really being sincere”), and social justice (“Peace and humptiness forever”).
Let’s legislate non-orthodoxy out of existence. OTOH I’d like to see what the law actually says. Maybe we could add a friendly amendment that since there are no streams of Judaism, therefore the Orthodox have no right to maintain their hegemony, because the Reform and Masorti are not (now, according to this new bill) streams, but exactly as legit as orthodoxy, since it would now all be “just Judaism”? FTW, right? Or we could counter-propose a bill that there is no such thing as Orthodoxy, and the true heir of Jewish practice is [name your favorite non-Orthodox movement].
Or maybe we could get the government out of the religion business, stop allowing the nuttiest of the nuts to determine who is a Jew, while simultaneously preventing people with good intent from converting (contrary to Jewish law, despite the fact that they keep claiming they’re the true inheritors, just like lots of other odd things they do, such as (my fave) prevent Jewish weddings unless their roster of rabbis is involved, despite the fact that one needs no rabbis at all halachicly speaking).
Hey, maybe we should just do that anyway.
Gene Simmons of KISS on Israel. It’s kinda weird, but I love it when Simmons/Witz tells Israelis to toughen up because Americans criticize everyone. So much for the tough-on-the-outside sabra? Maybe the real reason we don’t have peace in the middle east yet is because despite all the machismo of the Israeli image, Israelis aren’t really all that tough? Or maybe even because they are trying to live up to the image that American Jews on the right desperately want them to be? (Hey does that mean we can blame the occupation on all those kids who beat up Jewish kids in elementary school?)
First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.
However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »
I will not twist Mr. Beck’s brilliance to say anything besides what he said:
“Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It’s almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just — radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics. I’m not saying that they’re the same on … and they’re going to take it at that, but — stand in line.”
I will not take it “that way”…I will take it at face value. My religious experience is all about politics. Nothing to do with God, Israel (people and land) or Torah. Nope, nothing what-so-ever. More »
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Gavriel Meir-Levi who heads up Jewish Outreach for the Mark Levine State Senate Campaign for District 31 which runs along the Hudson River from the Upper West Side to North Riverdale. He worked on the 2008 Obama Campaign and is currently exploring the intersection of Democracy and Technology.
Tu B’Av with the Orthodox Avante Garde
One of the most interesting things about running Jewish Outreach for a state senate campaign has been re-discovering all of the technicolored streams within waves within movements of Jewish observance and identity that run from the Upper West Side to Washington Heights to Riverdale; Modern Orthodox meets Open Orthodox meets YU Orthodox meets Black Hat Orthodox meets Non-Traditional Chassidic meets Liberal Conservative Halachic meets Non-Pluralistic Egalitarian meets Zionist Traditional Reform meets Post-Zionist Israeli meets Meta-Judeao Eco-Zionist meets Activist Atheist.
Did I miss anyone? It’s impossible I did not, and even if somehow a complete list were compiled, no doubt crashing the Jewschool server in the process (not to mention our own heads), we would need but to wait a few minutes for a new movement to emerge from within the Brownian Motion of contemporary Judaism.
It was just such an emergence that my friend Mark Levine who is running for State Senate witnessed for the first time at the Bangitout Tu B’Av party in Riverside Park, the emergence of the Avante Garde Orthodox. Somewhat ironically, the Orthodox communities have been most welcoming of my candidate (who founded the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan) even though many of them have deep misgivings about President Obama. Intuitively the expectation was that the more liberal communities who are Jewishly closer to Mark’s level of observance and practice would be his strongest supporters, his “natural base” in political parlance. And yet the enthusiasm of the Avante Garde Orthodox has been astonishing to behold, even though they were far more interested in each other than in anything Mark had to say on Tu B’Av.
Despite their misgivings about Obama and progressive causes (of which many Mark supports) the Avante Garde Orthodox may be closer to Obama than they realize, albeit not in the strictly political sense. Many of them may have suffered through overbearingly Ultra-Orthodox childhoods and day school experiences during which year after year they were told, “No, you can’t!” Well, they are now discovering that as young adults living on the Upper West Side oh yes they can! Yes they can stay up all night flirting on Tu B’Av, yes they can appreciate a Broadway show, yes they can become active politically and yes they can figure out their own unique contribution to the multi-faceted multi-colored movements within contemporary Judaism.
In confronting these challenges, will the URJ look to a leader who champions, as Yoffie consistently has, Torah, prayer and the practice of mitzvot? Or will it, in keeping with American Jewry’s larger outward turn, select a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam? Whatever happens, the Yoffie era will go down as an important period in the history of the Reform movement. At a “critical juncture in Jewish history,” he made Reform Judaism more Jewish.
Lets ignore the final sentence of this and move on from my aneurysm. I do have some appreciation for what Yoffie has done. Despite Sarna’s point about him growing NFTY (I’m not prepared to give him credit for that anyway), he’s also been openly dismissive of NFTY presidents and overseen the total demolition of the URJ’s college programming and said stuffy nonsense like (I’m paraphrasing here) if you don’t wear a suit to a Reform congregations, you’re a putz.
So I don’t think too highly of him.
But at this point we’ve got a great opportunity to talk about what the right replacement for Yoffie will be like. Sarna’s article explores two possibilities: someone like Yoffie or “a leader who will take the movement in a new direction, perhaps seeking to expand Reform Judaism’s involvement in projects of tikkun olam.”
The new president needs to be able to do two things, neither of which involve being an ideological dogmatician.
Leave tradition and social action to a team of experts and let the new president be the face of a more well-written message. So the first thing the URJ needs is a charismatic salesperson who can tell American Jews why Reform Judaism is good because the URJ has a message/marketing problem.
Meanwhile, the administrative, structural and technological functions of the URJ have to come to forefront of the job of the president of the URJ. The URJ is teaching congregations how to blog, it’s tweeting, it has its own (dysfunctional) blog and it needs someone who understands these things and knows how to grow the URJ with these tools. It needs someone who can be like @daroff with his or her own heavy twitter presence. Last year, the URJ underwent a major restructuring effort. The next president of the URJ has to be an administrator to continue reconsidering the bloated infrastructure of the URJ.
As a Reform gay shul, we should expect a siddur that does not shy away from playing with the liturgy and rushes straight in to right perceived liturgical wrongs. Reform siddurim are adept at this and, if Siddur B’chol L’vavcha is anything to go by, so are siddurim created by LGBTXYZETC (LGBTQIQ, according to this siddur) communities. That’s exactly the kind of eclectic siddur we get here.
As with any thoughtfully constructed congregational siddur, SSZ is full of references to the history of the synagogue, unique minhagim and character. In terms of liturgical structure, it follows recent Reform liturgies such as Mishkan T’filah quite closely, while delving further into the gender politics of the liturgy than mainstream Reform siddurim do. At the same time, some of their theological gender posturing falls short, perhaps defeating the purpose of the liturgists. And as for the size and ease of use of the siddur, it is the largest, most unwieldy siddur I have ever seen.
Let’s deal with the physical nature of SSZ first. Like I said, it’s gigantic. I’ve heard older congregants complain till kingdom come about the size of Gates of Prayer or MT. I can’t imagine what they would say about this tome. It’s large enough to prevent me from using it. Praying the Amidah with this thing might send you to a chiropractor. As you can see in the image below, it is thicker than its Manhattan gay siddur counterpart (a Friday night volume anyway) by far and even noticeably thicker than the not-so-inconsiderably girthy GOP and Plaut Torah commentary. More »
This is a guest post by HUC 3rd-year rabbinical student Brian Immerman.
I am pleased to announce that Mishkan T’filah, the young Reform Siddur, is now available in Braille format via the Jewish Braille Institute. It is free to those who need it. Please order now, as they are expecting a 4-6 month delivery window. I hope that every Reform Synagogue will have at least one of the eleven-volume copies on hand in case it is needed. While this format is great, this copy is English while the Braille version of Sha’arei T’filah (Gates of Prayer) is Hebrew and English.
There are two reasons for this situation. First, the CCAR Press was unable to secure funding and had not budgeted for the siddur to be Brailled, and this was completed by an independent project of volunteers. Please read more about that story as it is great to see people, Jewish and of other faiths, coming together to help prayer be accessible to all. The second reason that it is not published in Braille, according to some of my sources, is because the format of Mishkan T’filah (four panes on a two page spread) is not easily adapted to the Braille format, which brings me to the issue at hand.
The creators of Mishkan T’filah were innovating and trying to create a more accessible siddur that reflected the changes in the Reform Movement:
“This is a way of having the best of both worlds,” said Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis, which is publishing the book. “You have the possibility of doing, if you want, an entire service in Hebrew, as traditional as you can be within the Reform movement. At the same time, you can do something extremely creative.”
However, it does not appear as though the editorial committee was aware of the challenges that these innovations would have on the seeing-impaired community. I have spoken with the new CCAR Press Editor in Chief Rabbi Hara Person about the challenges of creating a Braille version of Mishkan T’filah and she regrets that the choices to fund this project were not made earlier. The current economic situation has made it difficult to find funding. She was pleased to see it was taken up by another party and the CCAR Press has given the Jewish Braille Institute the license to publish as many Braille copies as are requested.
As we continue to innovate, specifically in the Jewish world where we hold the value of community high, how must we proceed? Should we forgo visual changes to a siddur at the risk of losing the small percentage of people who can’t follow along or should we simply try to find ways to include them after we realize that our progress will shut them out?
My initial reaction was the latter, of course we shouldn’t do something that will make Jewish prayer inaccessible to anyone, but then I thought of the positive reactions from so many people who feel they are more included due to the many alternative readings in Mishkan T’filah. I applaud the CCAR for trying to take a giant leap forward, but warn that this is reduced to small steps because they did not acknowledge their own short comings. There will never be a time when everyone will be able to access everything, but especially in the Jewish community we must take extra care to ensure that viable alternatives exist.
As my attempts at these regular Shabos Zmiros posts become increasingly irregular, I’m inventing Yom Rishon Zmiros (Yom Rishon is Sunday in Hebrew, if you were scratching your head about that one). Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.
A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:
Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.
This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn’t quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.
–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I’ll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Institutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it’s people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don’t mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.
Now I’ll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not. More »
Independent minyanim have been popping up all over the press lately. First of all, they make an appearance in this CNN piece on “New Jews”, but that deserves a whole snarky post of its own, so I’ll leave it alone for now.
Two articles focus on independent minyanim: one in the August/September issue of Hadassah Magazine (it’s old, I know, but it wasn’t available online when it first came out, so it seems to have slid under the blogosphere’s radar), and one (which is really four and counting) in the latest edition of the URJ’s Eilu V’Eilu. More »
Last week in Toronto, the Union for Reform Judaism held its biennial convention, and as in pastyears, URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie delivered a sermon laying out goals and initiatives for the next two years.
The sermon began with a great shout-out to the Biennial’s host country:
We Americans, it needs to be said, do not know Canada as well as we should. [...] I have a question for the Americans sitting in this congregation: How many of you can name the last three Prime Ministers of Canada?
Well, we Americans need to do better. The Canadian political system is far from perfect, but remember this: it has well-regulated banks; tough gun control laws; legalized marriage for gays; and an excellent, publicly-run health service – all matters of importance to Reform Jews and worthy of emulation by the United States.
This American (who can name the last three Canadian prime ministers and knows all the words to “O Canada”) says hear hear! (However, I was surprised that this was the only mention of health care, an issue that was featured so prominently two years ago, given that this sermon was just a few hours before the House passed the health care bill.)
The major initiatives are about food and technology. David A.M. Wilensky has already weighed in on the technology part, so I’ll leave that alone for now. There’s a lot to say about food; I’ll just focus on two points. More »
One of BZ’s long-time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right define them. BZ’s new op-ed in The Forward, Reframing Liberal Judaism, addresses the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.
And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:
[...] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.
The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.
This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.
Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.
Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.