When the Chickens Went on Strike

kapores Although most modern Jews have abandoned the practice of Kapores, in some parts of the community, it is still common. I’m not sure what the Masorti movement thinks it will accomplish by joining with the SPCA -Tel Aviv, ince the parts of the community that are practicing kapores aren’t the parts likely to care what the masorti movement does, but all in all, it can’t hurt.

In the story from which I took this post’s name ( an adapted tale based on the original story by Sholom Aleichem) the author in fact points out that the practice of taking a chicken (male for men, female for women) swinging it over one’s head to “catch” one’s sins, and then slaughtering it, is not exactly halacha ( Jewish law). And while in general one ought not to depend on fiction for accurate portrayals of Jewish law, in this case, it happens to be correct. Not only is “Where is it written?” a good response, but where it is written, the rabbis aren’t too happy with it, considering it (Like many folk customs which have become embedded in Jewish practice) akin to idolatry, or at lest very improper.

And reasonably so, while it might be a midat chesed (act of mercy) to buy a chicken which one will then donate to the poor to eat (although that does raise some questions about how that came about… really? We’re giving our sins to the poor to eat? Hmmm. I hear a sin eater story in here somewhere for those of us familiar with that southern custom), the problems with the ritual as a whole are numerous. For now, let’s set aside the problem of tzaar ba’alei chaim – the requirement not to be cruel to animals (in this case, by packing them in itty bitty crates sitting around in the sun all day until it’s time for them to be grabbed and swung around by the feet) and concentrate on the symbolism of the custom itself.

While there seems to be some kind of yearning for authenticity as played by certain elements of the Jewish community which favor dress styles not native to Israel, but rather early modern Europe, I’ve never been able to fathom why people attach their sentiments to these kinds of customs (including within the community, but without it as well). There’s somehow a sense that it looks or feels more authentic – but how could it be? If Judaism and our peoplehood is based upon our connection to God through God’s commandments, as the Torah tells us, then one couldn’t possibly repent by swinging a chicken around.
I far prefer the formulation of the Talmud (Brachot 17a) (See the bottom of the post) which likens the fat that one loses during a fast to the fat offered as a sacrifice in the times when the Temple stood. That makes far more sense to me.

Most importantly, if w are repenting, we cannot hope to shed our sins elsewhere without the ful act of teshuvah that goes with it. Whether we are speaking of ourselves as individuals, our individual communities, or Israel as a whole, our own sins cannot be displaced by any symbolic act, whether we’re talking about swinging a chicken or saying that the other party involved has done bad things and so they have to repent first. NO, we are responsible for the sins of ourselves, and the sins of our people. If we wish for peace, we have to act first to recognize and admit our sins; to make reparation to those whom we’ve harmed; to confess to God – because in doing so, we humble ourselves and take into our hearts that our acts, whether accidental or intentional, whether preemptive or retaliatory, were wrong; and then to not do it again when the opportunity presents itself.
Stop building settlements, stop demolishing homes, stop blaming others for acts over which we have agency. Goldstone isn’t our enemy, and taking on against him, as the Rabbinical Assembly has just, entirely ridiculously, done, will not bring peace.
As long as we treat acts for which we need to repent as thought they were public relations bloopers which can be addressed if we only change our spin, there will not be kaparah, atonement, no matter how long we fast on Yom Kippur, no matter how many chickens we swing. We have to do the work ourselves.

(From the Yom Kippur Haftarah Isaiah 58:2-7)
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

When R. Shesheth kept a fast, on concluding his prayer he added the following: Sovereign of the Universe, Thou knowest full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him therewith. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Thy will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before Thee on the altar, and do Thou favour me.. (Brachot 17a)

Mishegaas for the Days of Awe

  • Barbra Streisand is selling off her stuff. You could own a piece of the legend. Better yet, proceeds benefit her foundation, which supports a bunch of progressive causes including environmental and economic policy groups.
  • Days of Awesome is a livejournal community for fanfiction themed around the Yamim Noraim. I once introduced Bible superstar Marc Brettler to fanfic to explain a theory I had about Shir HaShirim, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the overlap between Jewish Studies and fandom.
  • And speaking of said overlap, there’s also In the Beginning, a Hebrew Bible fanworks fest, coming soon to an internet near you. This one challenges fanfic writers to write “fanfic” about the Hebrew Bible… or, what others might call midrash. Pieces will be published beginning October 2nd, but until then the site gives some background to the project.
  • I meant to post this before Rosh Hashannah, but apparently StorahTelling held services in a winery? Maybe this makes more sense for those of you who live in New York. If this piques your interest, they’ll be back for Yom Kippur – more info here.
  • My facebook feed before the holidays was abuzz with discussions of this article from The Forward, decrying the lack of family-friendly policies in the Jewish professional world.
  • My twitter feed, on the other hand, was abuzz with folks retweeting Judith Rosenbaum’s consideration of What Patrick Swayze (z”l) did for Jewish women over at the Jewish Women’s Archive Jewesses with Attitude blog.

The Moment I Got the High Holidays

The High Holidays changed forever, for me, a few years ago when i prayed the neilah service with a friend and mentor who was fighting cancer. Stefan had taken me on to work at the ACLU while I was in high school and helped me think more systematically about the fight for justice.

When Stefan would learn that something awful and unjust had happened, rather than saying something snarky and cynical, he’d go to work. For instance:

Seth Kreimer got the call around 8 p.m. on a Friday night.

It was Stefan Presser, longtime legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Federal air marshals had just arrested and detained Bob Rajcoomar, a retired Army physician and naturalized U.S. citizen of ethnic Asian Indian descent, because they did not “like the way he looked” during a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia. Rajcoomar was held in a police cell at the airport for several hours and then released without being charged.

“We’ve got to do something about this,” Presser told Kreimer, a Penn law professor and Mt. Airy resident.

The two worked through the weekend, eventually filing a lawsuit in federal court against the Transportation Security Administration that accused the agency of racial profiling. The case ended in a landmark settlement that required TSA to pay $50,000 in damages to Rajcoomar and reform its policies and training procedures, in addition to making its director issue a written apology.

Stefan was always full of energy and had a wonderful artful ability to frame issues with moral clarity. He didn’t have that energy anymore when we sat together for neilah. Still in the prime of life, he had a grim prognosis. His cancer was bad enough that he could no longer litigate and had recently stopped working for the ACLU. Even though he could no longer do those things, he was committed to his causes. He mentored and taught young lawyers and law students through the anti-death penalty clinic he had founded. A few months after Rosh Hashanah his physical limitations grew so many that he could no longer teach.

The neilah liturgy, like much of the High Holiday liturgy, talks about gates closing and we plead to be included in the book of life. This had always been a vague metaphor for me, but here I was, signing the plaintive melodies with a teacher whose gates were literally closing and for whom one more year of being inscribed in the book of life would be miraculous and unlikely. He was courageous; I was not. Seeing him ask for another year made me question whether I was worthy of one, what I had done the previous year, and what I would do if by some (natural or supernatural) fluke I was given another year to live. Every year as I move towards the High Holidays, I try to refocus and try to break myself down and do honest repentance. Every year I have trouble, and every year Stefan helps me figure it out. This year was no different. As I sat in Rosh Hashanah shacharit services, I thought about Stefan and how doing just work doesn’t get one another year. It just makes the the years we live ones imbued with meaning and fulfillment. This coming shabbat, I will return to the synagogue where Stefan and I used to pray and, along with others who he mentored, we will talk about his legacy. It couldn’t come at a more appropriate moment. This shabbat is his yartzeit. He nearly made it to the next neilah.

[some of this text comes from a similar piece I posted in 2007]

High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Intro

This series will be crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

I don’t like Rosh Hashanah and I don’t like Yom Kipur. There are things I like about them–repentance (see Tshuvot!), shofars (see Where have all the shofarot gone? and Why I used a bullhorn last night) and pomegranates–but I have to admit that I’ve never been satisfied with either, no matter where I’ve been and no matter what my age.

So this year, I’m not going to go the same place twice during the season of repentance.

Sophomore and junior year of high school were the last two years I did the same thing twice for High Holidays–I went to the Reform synagogue I grew up at. Senior year of high school, I was in Israel. I spent  Rosh Hashanah that year at Kibbutz Lotan (see Shanah Tovah! Cleansing in the desert) and Yom Kipur at Beit Shmuel (see David sees Texans, still hates Yom Kipur, cries), with a brief YK morning stint at an Orthodox Italian synagogue. Freshman year of college I tried a Reconstructionist shul for RH (see I’m not a Reconstructionist, but I play one on Rosh Hashanah). And last year, I did RH and YK at my adopted congregation here in NJ, Chavurat Lamdeinu.

Though elements of each of these years of RH and YK have been fine, I’ve never been satisfied with the overall experience. Whether it has to do with where I go or with my willingness or unwillingness to repent remains to be seen.

I’ll begin tonight with Erev RH services at Chavurat Lamdeinu, my usual place of davening these days.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at a Unitarian Church where a certain gospel music composer I happen to know will be helping to lead a service that will incorporate a number of gospel tunes. As far as I can tell, this service is not listed anywhere online. If you’re interested in going, it’s at All Souls Unitarian Church between on Lexington between 79th and 80th at 10:30 a.m. Let me know if you’re gonna bet there so I can we can say hi.

If the gospel crowd isn’t doing a tashlich thing, I’ll head over to the Brooklyn Bridge or something else equally iconic and do tashlich.

I don’t do two days of RH (see everything BZ has ever written, this series in particular.)

On Sunday, I’ll kick off my ten days of repentance by heading into Manhattan for The New Shul‘s “The House of Awe and Repentance Cafe“, part of their new senior rabbi‘s season of installation festivities. It promises to be an art installation involving a variety of media and exploring the concept of repentance. Or something. We’ll see.

For Kol Nidrei, I’ll try my hand at an online service by staying in to watch Jewish TV Network‘s live streaming KN service.

And, finally, for Yom Kipur day, I’ll skew more traditional than my norm for a change. As noted, I’ve skewed to the left before when I tried out the Reconstructionist shul, but I’ve never tried something more traditional than what I’m used to. To that end, I’ll be heading back in to Manhattan for Kehilat Hadar‘s traditional-egal take on YK. As one fellow refugee of the Reform mainstream recently told me, “I like Hadar for YK because that’s the one time in the year when I want to feel as frum as possible.” Yeah. We’ll see how I feel about that when I’m still standing around in services trying not listen to my stomach.

Expect posts throughout this season of renewal and repentance chronicling my High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure.

Shanah tovah umetukah!

Don’t Apologize!

I apologize for being such a slacker this past year in posting. (New job and all that- not an excuse, but still).

Still, this morning I find myself with an embarrassment of riches, which I will try to cover over the next few days.

Today’s topic: a terrific post reflecting on tshuvah, and using the teachable moments recently offered us in public by politicians sports figures and musicians for how not to apologize.

I’ve noticed, myself, the spreading plague of people who “apologize” if I have hurt your feelings, implying that it is the victim who is oversensitive to a rather minor slight, or worse yet, implying that they have done nothing wrong at all, and the victim is to blame.

I actually blame the politicians for this one – the non-apology! It all started as a way for them to seem to apologize without actually taking responsibility for what was done wrong.

I would like to note that this is not really an apology. More »

Who Shall I Say is Calling?

This one should deepen your spiritual prep for High Holidays: Leonard Cohen performing his “Who By Fire” with able assistance from the great Sonny Rollins on shofar (I mean tenor sax…) I believe it was taped on “Night Music with David Sanborn” back in 1989.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

For Rabbis: social justice in Israel resources for High Holy Days

Today, New Israel Fund released rabbinical resources for the High Holy Days, from Israeli social justice activists fighting for religious pluralism, protecting Israel’s environment, empowering women, minorities and migrant workers, and safeguarding civil rights. Read it at www.nif.org/YamimNoraim, selected quotes below the fold.

More »

Spiritual Nourishment and Radical Religious Community for the Jewish High Holidays

North Carolina is not known as hotbed of Jewish political activism, or Jewish anything for that matter. It’s no Berkeley, and it’s certainly not Brookline, but this year we aim to bring a little radical reflection to your high holy days.

The NC Havurah will be hosting a wonderful Yom Kippur retreat at The Stone House. So if you live in the area (or you’re willing to travel), come join us in building a spiritual and radical religious community at a two day Yom Kippur retreat full of study, singing, fasting, and prayer.

We plan to create a spiritually uplifting, emotionally engaging, introspective, and welcoming space. In addition to focusing on our personal atonement we will be talking and reflecting critically about the teaching/meaning of Yom Kippur in the context of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and Palestinian people. We welcome people who identify in a diversity of ways. This will be an antizionist, nonzionist, diasporist, queer and trans positive space.
More »

Did you know the Jews control football, too?

So I’m sure many of us received the email a few weeks ago about the Boston Red Sox changing their schedule to accommodate passover, and of course, it was bogus.  But, as the New York Post has illustriously dubbed the affair, “Jewish fans jolt Jets, NFL”

So if in a couple of months you start receiving emails that the New York Jets are accommodating their schedule for Yom Kippur, it’s true.

The AP reports:

Jets upset about home games on Jewish holidays

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The New York Jets, upset about being scheduled for home games on consecutive Sundays in direct conflict with Jewish holidays, sent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a letter Thursday asking that one of the game times be changed.

The Jets’ home opener is Week 2 against New England at 1 p.m. on Sept. 20, which falls during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. New York then plays Tennessee at 4:15 p.m. the following Sunday, with Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, beginning at sundown.

In the letter to Goodell, owner Woody Johnson suggested the game against the Titans be changed to a 1 p.m. start to give Jewish fans time to arrive home before sundown.

“I am extremely disappointed with the league’s decision to schedule us to play at home on consecutive Sundays that are in direct conflict with the Jewish High Holy Days,” Johnson wrote. “There has long been an understanding that neither the Jets nor the Giants fans should have to bear completely the brunt of this issue since we are in the largest Jewish market in the country.”

Jets officials called the league offices first on Wednesday to express their concern, and Johnson followed with a formal letter Thursday.

“We were not contacted prior to this decision,” Johnson said. “We are flexible and would have been more than happy to work with the league to accommodate as many of our fans as possible.”

Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of corporate communications, said the league received the letter and was reviewing it.

The Giants are on the road for both weeks, with games at Dallas at 8:20 p.m. in Week 2, and at Tampa, Fla., at 1 p.m. in Week 3.

I think this is kind of awesome, but it also makes me stop and think why it is that such accommodations are made. I don’t know how one could track, really, the ethno-religious demographics of Jets fans, but looking at the larger perspective, there are what, 1.5 million Jews in NYC? out of around 8 million. that’s around 18%. Subtract from that 18% the number of people that are going to attend or watch despite it being Yom Kippur and those that are going to record it, and not to mention those that just don’t care about the game. That doesn’t seem like too many people. Interesting. It begs the question, do other minorities get such accommodations? And is this even really necessary? And do we, in fact, control football?

Happy Purim!!

Today was Shushan Purim Katan here in Jerusalem. That is, in a year with two months of Adar, the first month we don’t celebrate the full holiday, but we maybe drink a little bit, and a day later than non-walled cities.

I wanted to tell y’all about the new Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo Podcast – you can subscribe here, or click here to add the podcast to itunes.

So far, we have a special talk on R’ Shlomo Carlebach’s music with Ben Zion Solomon, probably the world’s most knowledgeable person on that topic, as well as Reb Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute giving over a teaching of Rebbe Nachman on Purim.

Soon to come, Kabbalistic and Chassidic Insights into Purim with Rabbi Avraham Aryeh Trugman.

I had no idea the depths of Purim until recently – and these talks should help you reach the heights of the highest day of the year.

Last week, one of my teachers remarked to me before class that he’d almost had a heart attack when he looked at my facebook page, due to one of my friends wearing a bikini in her profile picture. He then picked up the theme and taught this Torah from the Mei Hashiloach (at the end of the PDF) all about Purim and nudity. Gevaldt.

Purim sameach to everyone!

(also, there’s a shiur here from Aish Kodesh in New York on Purim Katan that’s probably worthwhile)

Hard Pill to Swallow

Hard Pill to Swallow

Annual Yom Kippur advisory

As usual:

Two important reminders for those who are fasting on Yom Kippur:
1. Hydrate! Drinking a lot of water right before the fast is a good idea, but not sufficient. It’s best to start hydrating a day or two earlier. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to drink a liter of water RIGHT NOW. This can make a big difference in being able to have a meaningful day me-erev ad arev (from evening to evening), and having the strength at the end of the day to appreciate Ne’ilah rather than count the minutes until dusk.

2. Fasting isn’t always a choice. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger encourages everyone to take the amount they would have spent on food and donate it to feed those whose fast is involuntary.

Soap character does tshuvah for YK

Is that allowed?

One of the main characters on “The Young and the Restless” for a Yom Kippur episode on September 21st is going to do tshuvah.

The character, Brad Carlton,who entered the Y&R scene about two decades ago as the gardener to the wealthy Abbott family in the fictional Genoa City, is not what you’d call a saint. He’s a womanizer who worked his way into the social elite in part by marrying a succession of rich women, the first of whom was the insecure Abbott daughter Traci.

But last year the soap dropped a bombshell: The upwardly mobile stud was actually a Hebrew hunk. It turns out that Brad had been hiding his Jewish identity to protect himself and his mother, who had drawn the ire of Nazis because of her work as a Holocaust art restitution investigator.

“For 20 years there was a complete mystery as to Brad’s background,” said Don Diamont, the actor who plays Brad, during a phone interview with JTA. “He knew that he was Jewish, but he lived as someone else a long time.”

Diamont says that in his mind the character had celebrated some Jewish holidays in secret, but this year Brad will have his first opportunity to celebrate one openly — and he will do so on the show’s Sept. 21 episode.

According to Y&R sources, Brad not only will attend services for Yom Kippur, which falls the day after the show airs on CBS, but will openly ask forgiveness from two characters he has wronged during the past year: his daughter Colleen, played by Tammin Sursok, and Genoa City’s wealthiest man, Victor Newman, played by Eric Braeden.

Full story (if it won’t spoil it for you)