“Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid…”

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.

My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.

It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.

These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.

My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”

I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.

My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.

The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.

Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

by Ruben Rais

Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)

Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?

I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?

Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights. More »

Why Synagogue? A reply to a reply (a provocation)

What to do about shul? And about prayer? And about God?
The Jewish people are in crisis. The synagogue is in crisis. And, of course, Pew. One need not even remember the whole name of this latest diagnosis of the demise of our people. It suffices to just hint at it to strike terror in the heart of the terror-stricken.
Amichai Lau-Lavie has the latest salvo. He has put together something called Lab/Shul which is apparently the evolving answer to the problem. What however is the problem? It seems that the problem is shrinking synagogue membership or affiliation or some such. Why is this a problem? Because Pew said it was. Well, actually, Pew just said it was happening. Actually Pew (currently the reified voice of Jewish demise) said that just like the rest of America, Jews were affiliating religiously, or actually that they were identifying themselves as having a religion, at a lower rate than before. So this might just be a problem like rising tides is a problem. It is a phenomenon, but its only a problem if your house is close to the ocean at low tide. The solution then is not to try to stop the tide from rising. The solution probably has something to do with moving your house.
According to Lau-Lavie the problem is that there are too many bars to entry. The synagogue is a wonderful place, potentially, but the rabbis just prattle on and on, and people mention God. A lot. Lau-Lavie’s friends don’t like that. At all. The answer is a place where other terms are used instead of “God,” and maybe there is more music, and the translations are tweaked so that even if God is in the Hebrew, “source” or “creator” is in the English translation. So that, perhaps, a famous Israeli pop-musician will sing a beautiful unplugged version of Kol Nidrei—despite the fact that he is singing a bit of legalese that blessedly few people understand—and the emotion will suffice for the shul which wants “authenticity”. More »

Dispatches from the Other Israel Film Festival: “Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim.”

This is a guest post by Chava Shervington. A passionate and committed Jewish diversity advocate, Chava co-founded an organization which created opportunities for Jews of Color to connect in safe spaces across the East Coast.  Currently, Chava is honored to serve as president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, an organizational leader in a movement to make Jewish racial/ethnic diversity fully embraced in American Jewish life.

Anat Tel Medelovich‘s documentary, “Mom, Dad, I’m  Muslim” was featured at this year’s Other Israel Film Festival. It tells  the story of Maor, a  devout Muslim, who was born Jewish, converted to Islam at 18, and at 22 is in search of a Muslim husband.

(click here for official film website)

In recent years there have been a rash of documentaries of Muslim converts (or reverts as they are called in Islam), as there seems to be a particular fascination with white Westerners who decide to take on Islam.  Most of these documentaries focus on the motivation of the convert, the reactions of their families and communities, as well as their adjustment to adopting Muslim law and social customs.  ”Mom, Dad, I’m Muslim” is both a unique story and a missed opportunity.  While there have been many stories of converts to Islam, this one had the potential to explore an entire range of issues besides the usual family tension and personal struggle, but it barely scratches the surface of the story of Maor, a young Jewish woman in Israel who converts to Islam.

While there is definitely focus on Maor’s family (a hodge podge of characters, including an anti-religious brother, a Kahane supporting father, an increasingly observant mother and younger brother, a confused younger sister, and feisty grandmother), we only seem to get half of the story.  Everyone outside of her grandmother seems to be supportive of her religious choice and allows her to exist on the periphery of their traditional Jewish lives.  For the most part they seem to express apathy with her choice, but support her out of love.  Her grandmother is the only one who ever vocalizes strong opposition to Maor’s new religious conviction, although even though her mother vocalizes her support, under the surface their seems to be a genuine hope that this is only a phase. There seems to be a concerted effort not to ostracize her for her conversion.  While her family makes Kiddush and hamotzi for Shabbat dinner, Maor sits silent at the table in her hijab, at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony she stands silently while her family and others proudly sing Hatikvah, she’s obviously strongly connected to her family members, but at the same time completely disconnected from their Jewish identities.

Unfortunately, that disconnection is never truly explored.  Maybe it’s because as with many converts (to any religion) she finds the motivations for her conversion difficult to express.  When asked by her younger sister, the answer is couched in a metaphor of white roses, but essentially boils down to “because that’s what I think G-d wants from me”.  But for us as an audience it feels like we a) came into the story halfway and b) only get half of the story.

As a Jewish watcher I was left with so many questions:  What was Maor’s Jewish background prior to her conversion?; Did she ever explore Judaism further? How are the things that appeal to her about Islam-modesty and interactions between women and men-different from traditional Judaism? How does she relate to her Jewish identity?  Did she experience any emotional conflict with changing her identity? Has her conversion affected her relationship to the state of Israel? We learn of her strong connection with Arab Muslim classmates from an early age, and the death of one in particular seemed to affect her strongly, but because we know so little about her interaction with the Jewish community all we’re left with are questions.

There are so many topics introduced and barely covered, particularly those things that make this such a unique conversion story.  As a Jewish Muslim convert in Israel, Maor, must do more than take the shahada (Islamic creed declaring the oneness of Gd), she must undergo a formal conversion with the government so that she will be allowed to marry a fellow Muslim.  We learn absolutely nothing about what that  involves, how long it takes, or what she must undergo.  When she changes the nationality on her identity card, does she experience  hesitation or only relief?  (Spoiler—she does find a Muslim husband, but we learn absolutely nothing about the process and/or how her unique circumstances factor into her decision.) One minute she’s talking about starting to look for a husband, the next she’s looking at his picture online, two minutes later she refers to him as her fiancée.  It’s a completely unexplored whirlwind.

One thing we do understand throughout this film is how incredibly lonely Maor’s journey is.  When not at home or running an errand with her family, she’s shown walking and sitting alone.  No one in her community speaks to her; she is the constant subject of stares and is questioned by both Arab Muslim and Jewish communities. The story flows from one scene in a restaurant when she’s questioned by Muslim customers and workers: “Is she Arab, is someone in her family Arab, where does she live, is she married” to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony where she faces the same  questions from Jews,  along with assumptions such as that she must have grown up not surrounded by Jews, she must have no connection/relationship with her family, etc. It isn’t until almost three quarters through the film that we meet a friend outside of her family, Lital, another Jewish convert to Islam.

As the film ended, I was left with so many mixed emotions; I could only wish her happiness in her journey, yet feel sadness about her path, and continue to wonder how she got there.  I’m not sure it’s a story I as a committed Jew could ever feel completely comfortable with, but still wish I could appreciate her story and motivations, but this film left so many topics unexplored, I’m not sure we as the audience can get there.

 

“We wanted to be both inclusive to people who may not raise their hands as feminists”

The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”

Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status:  ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.

What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference?  We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.

 

Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years? 

Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »

5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Guest-post by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinical student (YCT) and writer based in New York City.  His writing on Jewish-Muslim architecture, medieval Hebrew art, and Rabbinic romance have been featured on Jewish Ideas Daily.

5 Tips for Leading High Holiday Services in Prison

Last week, a colleague and I led Rosh Hashana services at Rikers Island, the massive East River prison complex in which New Yorkers house some 14,000 of their more suspect neighbors.  We slept on the floor of a jail classroom, from which we withdrew to chat about the season, share kosher airplane meals, and attempt to serve some 60 Jewish and non-Jewish congregants.

1. Don’t bring glass bottles of Kedem grape juice.

A rookie mistake, quickly confiscated.  And while hardcover siddurim are OK for the chapel, don’t think that makes them safe enough for the cells.

One inmate requested I put in a good word about him receiving a pair of Tefillin.  While they’re usually permitted, he let me know why he is an exception. A few inches below the tail ends of his payos, two sunset pink scars slash across his neck.  The state is worried that he’ll hang himself with the holy black straps.

For Jews at Rikers, the sacred is in constant residence with the darkly violent. Tefillin is a noose, kiddush wine a shiv. One inmate seamlessly wove memories of studying in Old City yeshivot with troubled (hallucinatory?) visions of kidnappings in broad daylight and his desire to start a new life in Iran. At Rikers, comfortable symbols of Jewish life become morbid reminders of the new reality.  No glass bottles here.

More »

Two Prayers for Syria (and updated with more)

What can we pray about Syria? As the United States looks to enter the fray of a Syrian civil war, concerned American Jews and Israelis are penning responses in prayer. Shared here are two recent liturgical creations, by very different authors: The first is by Rabbi Barenblat, a Renewal rabbi at of Congregation Beth Israel in Massachusetts and the author of The Velveteen Rabbi. The second is by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leading figure in the religious Zionist movement and head of the Petach Tikvah hesder yeshiva.

Both rabbis ask for both sides to display compassion, mercy, humanity and brotherhood to forestall further loss of innocent life and unnecessary revenge upon the other. That said, the Cherlow prayer leaves me a mite uncomfortable by invoking Number 35:33, that killers be killed. Nevertheless, his draft is reportedly being read by the Bnei Akiva youth movement across the religious-national world. Movement secretary-general Danny Hirshberg said on settler media, “The Israeli public needs to look beyond the screen of hate and enmity to see the pain of those civilians being hurt by the Syrian tyrant.”

Read both below the fold… More »

Mishegaas, or more reasons why The Onion rules everything

NO, really:

Onion gets hacked by Syrian propagandists, responds with funny article. The Onion got hacked, sending out a bunch of nonsense tweets such as:

To which they responded with their usual aplomb. HT BoingBoing

Is Yiddish dying? Uh, no.

Is Jack Rosen hijacking the AJCongress? Does anyone care?

Dvora Myers on Unorthodox Gymnastics comments on the chutzpah it takes to thanks God for not being a woman ironically. What do you think?

Doctor Who is a Jew? Come on Tablet, can’t you do any better than that?

And here’s a kickstarter to translate for what sounds like a completely fascinating book. I can’t wait to read it.

If you can read Yiddish literature only in English translation, Joseph Opatoshu’s 1921 novel, In Poylishe Velder (In The Forests of Poland),is one of the most important works of world literature with which you’re probably unfamiliar. A vast panorama of Jewish life in Poland during the 1850s, Opatoshu’s novel concentrates on backwoods Jews who live among gentile peasants rather than in Jewish communities in cities or shtetlekh. Touching as it does on hasidism, heresy, pre-Christian Polish folk customs, wife-swapping, messianism, and Polish nationalism, this book will change the way you think about Jewish life in Poland. Those parts not set in the forests or on the road take place in the court of the Rebbe of Kotzk, the last of the classical hasidic leaders. The Rebbe and his court are portrayed so convincingly that even members of the book’s original audience often forgot that they were reading a novel and not an intimate history of hasidism in Kotzk. It’s the price that Opatoshu had to pay for writing some of the best prose ever published in Yiddish.

Of course, I consider myself the last of the Kotsker Hasidim, so perhaps it’s just me.

Hallel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Maintaining Distinct Identities

This guest post by Eliana Fishman is part of an ongoing dialogue, which starts with the original post by Eliana Fishman and continues with the response by Raphael Magarik.

Thank you so much, Raffi, for continuing this conversation with me. I respect the thoughtfulness and passion that you bring to your relationship with Israel.’

I work very hard (as I’m sure you do) to ensure that my halachic practice reflects my values. I am not always successful, but I try. Text helps me explore what my values are, and how they define my practice. Both Masechet Pesachim and Rav Ovadyah Yosef’s teshuva give voice to what many American Jews have forgotten is a possibility: We can live religiously authentic, meaningful Jewish lives without a direct relationship with the modern state of Israel because our redemption is not about Israel.

American Jews and Israeli Jews are, simply, different. Look at central coming-of-age experiences: Non-Chareidi Israelis come into adulthood through military or national service, while (and this is a generalization) the American Jewish coming of age experience involves a college education. Religious American Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards gender, while religious Israeli Jews subdivide based on praxis and attitudes towards Zionism. With different sets of values, shouldn’t our halachic practice also be different? Neither geographic practice needs to be defined as better or worse. They’re just different. We can use differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi halacha as a paradigm. Each community defined their practice based on their geographic and sociological norms. We can do the same. Israel should not dictate my religious practice, and vice versa.
More »

Be a National Havurah Committee Fellow at this Summer’s Institute

Previous NHC Fellows

Short of a J-Street conference or a Limmud event, you’d be hard-pressed to find an annual gathering that attracts as many Jewschool writers as the National Havurah’s Summer Institute. This, my friends, should be reason enough to register right this moment.

But a little context always helps, so here is some more description to further entice you:

Now in its 35th year of empowering local do-it-yourself, community-based Judaism, the National
Havurah Committee is gearing up for what promises to be an incredible Summer Institute. With
over two dozen courses, a social justice fellow, two extraordinary artists-in-residents, and
dozens of local havurah communities represented, the National Havurah Summer Institute guarantees you an unparalleled experience which is equal parts spiritually, intellectually, and culturally fulfilling.

Whether you enjoy midnight walks in the woods, guided meditations, heated (but respectful!)
theological debates, hands-on crafts, in-depth chevruta text study, late-night sing-alongs and
spontaneous jam sessions, alternative prayer experiences, early-morning hikes, community
discussions about social justice, or just meeting some of the most thoughtful and creative
individuals you will ever meet–all against the idyllic backdrop of breathtaking rolling green mountains and a sparkling lake  in Southern New Hampshire–the National Havurah Committee’s Summer Institute promises to deliver an experience that will both uplift and inspire.
As if this alone were not exciting enough—there’s more!

If you are a college student, we invite you to participate in our special college program, where
you will work together with your peers, guided by two talented facilitators,  to cultivate new
leadership skills. The College Leadership Program is specially designed to empower current college students to build and sustain Jewish communities on their campuses.

For recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 32, the National Havurah Summer Institute offers the NHC Fellows Program (formerly, the Everett Program).     This program offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with fellow young Jewish leaders in order to share and build your skills together. All NHC fellows will receive free tuition and room-and-board and will  participate in additional programming geared particularly to the specific interests and needs of participants in this group.

As a former participant in the Fellows Program, I can personally attest to the extraordinary impact that it  has had on my life.  In addition to introducing me to a cohort of wonderful new friends, the then-Everett Program helped me think critically and creatively about building vibrant, relevant local Jewish community and inspired me to return home (then Minneapolis) to start a new Havurah. Incidentally, one of this year’s institute’s planners met her now-fiancée when she was an Everett Fellow.  So apply now, and who knows where this simple act may lead you??

The deadline for the NHC fellows is May 1, so if any of the above speaks to you, apply right away! General registration can be found here.

 

Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish obligation

This guest post by Raphael Magarik is a response to Eliana Fishman’s post on why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Israel’s Independence Day. Raffi studies talmud, Hebrew, and dance as a Dorot Fellow in Israel.

I appreciated reading your articulation of why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut. It’s thoughtful and learned; we would be lucky to have more discourse like this around Israel.

I hear the depth of your personal and familial debt to America, and I think it’s important to honor that. I say parts of Hallel on Thanksgiving (as does the Spanish Portugese Synagogue); it might be a practice you’d like to adopt.

That said, I see things a bit differently in terms of Yom Haatzmaut. You think we shouldn’t say it because Hallel requires a situation in which “the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity.” We Americans weren’t redeemed by the establishment of the state: ergo, we shouldn’t say Hallel (with worthy detours through later interpretations).

Now, on textual grounds, I think you flatten the sources considerably. On Megillah 14a, R. Yehoshua b. Karcha is cited as implying that one could recite Hallel on the transition from slavery to freedom (otherwise the logical inference doesn’t work), and even in Pesachim, one of the examples cited (Chananya, Mishael and Azarya before Nebuchadnezar) does not seem to fit the rubric you’re describing (are three individuals representative of the whole people?). And I don’t think you’ve adequately accounted for Channukah here, either.  More »

Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish Story?

This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)

What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?

The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?

I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.

One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.

In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.

Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.
More »

“Liberating” the Western Wall — again

This morning in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall brought heavy Israeli symbolism along with 150 participants to their monthly peaceful protest — three of the IDF veterans who captured the wall in the 1967 war. All went uninterrupted for the first time in 22 months until they departed through security, where nine women were separated and detained. Those included Anat Hoffman, Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of comedian Sarah Silverman), and Rabbi Silverman’s daughter Hallel, and eight-month pregnant rabbinical student Lior Nevo.

Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, Ilon Bar-Tov, a paratrooper who fought in the Old City battles, “It’s unacceptable that the police are stopping women from wearing tallitot, it’s like Iran. I can’t believe they are stopping people from praying one way or another.”

Although the term “liberating” the Western Wall is hard to borrow, the symbolism is obviously aimed at Israeli mainstream ears. The iconic faces of these paratroopers grace every postcard stand and Jerusalem Day poster since the event itself. Their names are nearly household. Petitions submitted to the Supreme Court are challenging the all-haredi representation on the board of the plaza’s governing body, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. All denominations and the secular public should be able to participate in the decisions affecting the plaza, they argue.

And it’s working to force the Israeli government to pay attention. In late December, Prime Minister Netanyahu for the first time acknowledged the unsustainable status quo at the plaza. The American Reform and Conservative movements, along other diaspora women’s groups, have stood solidly behind Women of the Wall. The most previous arrests of Anat Hoffman pushed even the Jewish Agency board to demand a change. The Prime Minister asked Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky to “look into the matter” and report back after the elections. Hearing that, ultra-orthodox extremist groups deplored the presence of “Zionist occupation” and “whores” at the Wall.

Do the government utterances of “unsustainable status quo” and “look into the matter” strike you as similar to another conflict in the region?

A Prayer For Joining the Knesset

This is a guest post by Tova Serkin, the Director of Israel Operations for The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. She lives in Herzliya and is hoping for brighter political future in Israel.

Many of you have probably heard of Ruth Calderon, founder of Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture. This week she was sworn in as a member of the 19th Knesset. She posted a really beautiful prayer for the occasion which I have shared below in Hebrew and with my informal translation beneath it.

תפילה לכניסה לכנסת:

יהי רצון (מלפניך יהוה אלוהינו ואלוהי אמותנו ואבותינו) שאצא מהבית הזה כפי שנכנסתי אליו, שלמה עם עצמי ועם הבריות. מי יתן שמעשי יהיו לטובת כל תושבי מדינת ישראל ושאפעל לתקן את החברה אשר שלחה אותי למעון זה ולהשכין שלום ודק עם שכנינו. מי יתן ותמיד אזכור שאני שליחת ציבור ועלי להקפיד על נקיון כפיים ולב. מי יתן ואצליח בכל מעשה ידי. אמן

Prayer Upon Joining the Knesset

May it be your will (our God, and God of our ancestors) that I leave this house as I have entered it, at peace with myself and others. May my actions benefit all residents of the State of Israel, that I work to improve the society which has sent me to this position, and bring a just peace with our neighbors. May I always remember my role as a representative of the public and the importance of honesty and transparency. May I succeed in all my doing. Amen.

Though I didn’t vote for her party – I am inspired by her entrance to the Knesset, and by some of the other new people as well. Some interesting facts about this Knesset:

  1. 48 new members — a record!
  2. 4 more women than the last Knesset – but still only 27 out 120 are women
  3. Rabbi Dov Lipman — the first American in Knesset in many years — a self-defined Haredi who ran as part of a secular list…and gave up his
  4. American citizenship…
  5. The youngest member of the new Knesset is 27 — her fellow member of the Labor Party is the oldest at age 77 — a difference of 50 years
  6. The first Ethiopian woman was sworn in

Though generally quite pessimistic about Israeli politics — I find a few glimmers of light that give me hope. Now we are waiting for the negotiations between the parties to see what the make up of the coalition will be – and if Netanyahu will succeed in building a stable government.

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What would Henrietta Szold do?

While building up excitement for their Centennial celebration, Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Org of America was all abuzz about prayer services at the Kotel with Women of the Wall.

Today, following the arrest of several participants and the violent detainment of Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman, Hadassah isn’t saying much at all.

Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman arrested at the Kotel

Nobody attends a Women of the Wall service without knowing that being arrested for wearing a tallit or praying aloud is a distinct possibility. At the group’s monthly Rosh Chodesh services, some women choose to save their voices and their prayer shawls for the Torah service that takes place at a nearby location. Others take the risk. Regular participants advise first-timers regarding how to avoid arrest.

It stands to reason, then, that the Hadassah leaders who were building up anticipation for the joint Women of the Wall/Hadassah prayer service on Tuesday evening were prepared for possible police action against the group of 200 women. One might also imagine that they were set to offer a statement in the event that such action occurred. As of now, however, Hadassah has declined to take a public stand on this issue. Their website and Twitter feed (@Haddashorg) refer the public to JTA articles and Women of the Kotel statements. Hadassah leaders remain silent on the violent detainment of Nashot Hakotel leader Anat Hoffman, or the general mistreatment of women who pray at the Kotel.***

Meanwhile, Hadassah plans to present PM Netanyahu with an award named for Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.

What would Henrietta Szold do in such a case?

Given that she struggled to be admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was finally allowed to matriculate together with rabbinical students under the condition that she never ask to be ordained, in all likelihood she would have been at the Kotel, determined to find a way for women to pray there.

At the very least, no doubt Anat Hoffman is correct when she says that the Women of the Wall organization is more deserving of the prize than Bibi is. The vision of Henrietta Szold, whose unique brand of leadership encompassosed the social feminist movement of her day as well as an inclusive, diverse vision of Jewish peoplehood, was much more akin to the work of Women of the Wall than to any aspect of the current Israeli government’s leadership. In any case, the women’s Zionist organization should not be silent now regarding this violation of the rights of women in Zion.

Anat Hoffman in her own words:

Police Shackle Anat Hoffman for Saying Sh’ma at Kotel – The Sisterhood – Forward.com.

 

*** Update: Hadassah has published a one-sentence resolution regarding this:


In Jerusalem, at the National Business Meeting of the Centennial Convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, delegates unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to and support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.

It is worth following the replies to this by Hadassah members, which have a little more bite:

www.hadassah.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=keJNIWOvElH&b=8347749&ct=12246339&notoc=1

 

Gut yuntif, gut yor…shana tova….a good year

30 years ago my father died suddenly, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was 54 years old. I remember being unable to sit through services that year, refusing to hear the words of the u’netaneh tokef prayer; the ones proclaiming that who shall live and who shall die is all signed, sealed, and delivered. My father was an exemplar of teshuvah and tsedakah: his life’s work was about reconciling people who were hurt and angry at one another, and he believed, fiercely, in justice. And although as a self-defined agnostic, tefila, prayer, had not been a major part of his life, he went to shul every day to say the mourner’s Kaddish after his parents died. And then, because he saw how vital it was to have a minyan for those saying Kaddish, he continued to attend the morning service as often as possible so that others could recite it in a minyan. That is the kind of person he was, and I was devastated and furious that he died so young.

That year I also stopped sending New Year’s greetings wishing my friends to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. What did that superstition matter?

The Book of Life had no meaning for me for several years after that. Then I encountered a teaching by the renowned mystic Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (or Sfas Emes, meaning The Language of Truth), after the title of his signature book. This lesson was filtered through the eloquent translation of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green:

The human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins, our neglect of prayer and Torah study, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the life that life written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God having cleansed ourselves as best we can and ask God to write that word once again and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.

I understand this to mean that, regardless of how we understand God—or whether we believe in such a Being at all—we have the opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the grit that stems from guilt or grief and interferes with us feeling truly alive.

Perhaps the traditional Jewish spiritual practices of teshuvah, tefila, and tsedakah, when translated as “repentance, prayer, and charity”, do not sound life altering. Today, I understand this text to mean that we have the opportunity to return our truest selves; to find a path to prayer, meditation, or reflection that makes us mindful of life’s myriad gifts; and of using our own gifts to make the world a more just place.

This is what allows us to clean our own hearts and stand open and ready to have the word life engraved upon them once again.

In the year to come, may our hearts be open to the “life” that is written deep within our hearts.

Shana tova…Gut yuntif, gut yor….A good year.

Women of the Wall

By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.

Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.

It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.

Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.

She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.

Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.

When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.

“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”

Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”

Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.

Kaddish as Folk Religion

Scholars of religion have a term for the common practice of adherents to a religious tradition that do not always perfectly fit into the doctrinal teachings of that religion — folk religion. This is in contrast to the normative doctrinal teachings of a religion often dubbed “state religion.” This is most often noted in Jewish history as the drive by the ancient Jewish monarchy of the 6th century BCE to centralize worship in Jerusalem with an organized Temple worship and priesthood. The ‘folk religion’ of the time, however, preferred a sort of blending of local pagan customs and the normative priestly cult. If people were not worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food there would have been no need for the Torah to repeatedly warn against worshiping idols or eating non-kosher food. It’s as the old adage goes, society does not develop laws people are already following.

Since becoming an ordained rabbi, I have rarely been faced with needing to fulfill the role of mar d’atra (Aramaic for, literally, “master of the place”). In that role a rabbi acts as a posek (Hebrew for, literally, “arbiter”) and makes halakhic decisions for her or his community. However there is one topic about which I have been asked repeatedly by numerous people in my congregation — Mourners’ Kaddish. To contextualize this, let me say a few words about my congregation.

The average age in my community is probably around 65-70. I have regular attendees who are in their 90s and older. Needless to say, it is an aging congregation. To give you an idea, I recently buried three people in one week. My congregation is made up of many transplants — people who moved to this community from somewhere else. However, many of my congregants are 4th or 5th generation in this community. That being the case, almost everybody who is actually born and raised in this community is related to everybody else even if just as distant cousins. Even though halakhah dictates that people only say Kaddish for one one of the seven relatives whom they must mourn for — parents, children, siblings and spouses — people in my community will often come to shul to say Kaddish for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Kaddish has become so important in this community that during daily prayer services the names of those who left the world that day throughout the 120+ year history of the synagogue are read aloud and if someone knows who the person was and their story, that story is shared. On Shabbat, the names of those for the entire coming week are read aloud. Most days, although we try, we do not make a minyan — unless someone is observing a yahrzeit. Kaddish is truly the ‘folk religion’ of this little community. More »