From Gratitude to Praise; Occupy yourselves with Rosh Chodesh on Thanksgiving Weekend

Thanksgiving celebrators around the country, here ye.   Amidst all your holiday planning and travel, and your decisions on how to spend “Black Friday,” please consider how you might conclude this festive weekend.   On Saturday evening, Rosh Chodesh will be upon us.  On Sunday morning it is traditional to give praise to the Most High.  One way to do this is by Occupying Rosh Chodesh, as some of us are doing this Sunday at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.  All are invited.  For more information see below:

What is Rosh Chodesh? This Sunday November 27th we are entering into the darkest month of the year, Kislev. However, during the month of Kislev, we celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of light.

Why be Occupied with it? It’s easy to celebrate when life is pleasant, when victory has been achieved and when the weather is warm. Rosh Chodesh is a monthly celebration fueled by a historical memory of enslavement. No matter where we are in the struggle for freedom and justice, Jewish tradition commands us to find ways to join forces and sing together – to experience the feeling of what redemption will truly taste like.

How will we celebrate it? On the Thanksgiving Sunday, two days after Black Friday, we will welcome the Hebrew month of Kislev with song and praise. In contrast to the melodies used to urge us toward the season of ‘holiday shopping’ we will sing the traditional Hallel / songs of praise sung on Rosh Chodesh. As part of the service, there will also be a chance for some learning and reflection on how Rosh Chodesh connects to the wider Occupy movement. The whole service should last no longer than one hour.

Who is invited? We welcome people of all backgrounds, races, gender identities and religious/faith affiliations.

 

 

#OccupytheMinyanConference

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)

This past weekend, the great city of Washington DC played host to Mechon Hadar’s fourth (approximately sesquiannual) Minyan Conference. Unlike the previous conferences, this one wasn’t called the Independent Minyan Conference (at least not exclusively). This wasn’t because the 10-1/2-year-old Kehilat Hadar is no longer an “independent minyan” by some definitions; it’s because the conference broadened its reach to other lay-led minyanim that are affiliated with larger institutions, such as synagogues and Hillels.

I was there representing Minyan Segulah (on the DC/Maryland border), and it was a great opportunity to network with organizers of other minyanim from San Francisco to London, discuss issues facing our communities, and yadda yadda yadda.

But I wanted to share one highlight. The prayer options on Friday night and Saturday morning included 5 local minyanim (including Segulah). For Shabbat mincha, there were two options at the conference location: a traditional egalitarian minyan downstairs, and a partnership minyan upstairs. Then during se’udah shelishit, they announced the same two options for ma’ariv. Some participants stood up and made another announcement: “We were also thinking about doing something alternative. If you’re interested, come to [location].” Multiple people shouted out “What is it?” They responded “Come to [location] and help figure it out.”

On the basis of no information beyond “something alternative”, 43 people showed up (out of around 120 participants).

As one might have expected from the announcement, there wasn’t a specific plan. A substantial fraction of the ~15 minutes allotted for ma’ariv was spent discussing what we should do. We also sang several niggunim (one of which had been taught at a session earlier that day, another of which was taught right then), and someone talked about transitioning from Shabbat into the week, and someone else connected Parshat Lech Lecha to her own recent experiences. And then it was time to join the rest of the group for havdalah.

A few of us were debriefing afterwards, and we agreed that this had been “Occupy the Minyan Conference”: get the people on board first, and the specific policy proposals come later. The significance of this event wasn’t the content, but the fact that so many people were attracted to it. There was a visible feeling of “We are the 36%”, and the excitement that we all knew from going to the first meeting of a new minyan, and a sense of empowered Judaism (two people spoke this gathering into being, and it was so). I don’t know what the larger message is (beyond the obvious – that anyone trying to generalize about the independent minyan organizer population (and, kal vachomer, the independent minyan participant population), by ascribing to them a particular religious outlook and style of practice, is being lazy and missing the mark). But it was a reminder not to let anything get stale.

Kol Nidrei. Occupy Wall Street. Arthur Waskow. Be there.

Jewschool founder Daniel Sieradski is organizing a Kol Nidrei minyan in at Zuccotti Park, home base of the Occupy Wall Street folks, at 7 p.m. this Friday night.

I don’t believe it’s set in stone yet, but Rabbi Arthur Waskow may be delivering a devar and or leading the service. Sieradski is looking for knowledgeable service leaders. If you can help and you’re interested, get in touch with him on Facebook or twitter.

This will be a service, not to mention a Kol Nidrei, of once-in-a-lifetime coolness. Let me know if you’re coming so I can make sure we say get the chance to wish each other a Gemar Chatimah Tovah.

Check out the Facebook event for details and updates.

Updated, 10/5: Sieradski tell meWaskow is no longer coming for health reasons. Sad times.

Judaism without Borders? Or Judaism without Boundaries?

blended-frappes-1-400-877401011Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn’t exactly a novel occurrence – Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian “Passover seders” of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it’s worth considering how Jews should react to the “democratization” of Jewish practices.

Whether it’s the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.

To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. More »

In the Spirit of Adar

At 6:15am on Rosh Hodesh Adar Aleph, I stood at a bus stop on Derech Hevron by Tzomet Habankim. I watched Israelis get on and off the green public buses and waited until a blue and white mini bus pulled up. I boarded the Palestinian bus which runs from the entrance to Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, paying only 5 shekels instead of the regular 6.40 NIS.

shaharitIt was a quick ride with almost no stops until I rang the bell for Jaffa Gate. I was the only passenger to descend from the bus.

officerIn flowy green pants and a purple skirt, I made may way through the pouring rain toward the kotel. I was grateful to both fit into the hippy Jerusalem culture as well as the serious feminist activist group that was having their monthly meeting of worship, song, and taking a stand.

As I approached the plaza, I heard loud voices of men singing a Shlomo Carlebach niggun. Why were they singing so loud? Was it because of Rosh Hodesh? Was their joy pure? Or could it have been do drown out the women’s voices close by on the other side of the mechitza? Having been at the kotel the week before for Havdallah, straining to hear the words of the blessings, my instinct was that this loud singing was the latter.
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Shabbat morning @ Romemu… a month late

A picture I did not take–rather, I stole it from Romemu’s website–of some kid and Rabbi David Ingber.

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle

A month ago, I wrote about my experience with a Renwal-style service led by some of the leaders of Romemu–NYC’s premiere Renewal shul and one of the most prominent Renewal outposts there is. It was a Friday night service being led, not actually at Romemu, but at Limmud NY.

I gave the service three and a half ballpoint pens (|||-), and said that I’d be going to Romemu the following week for Shabbat morning. To me, one of the true tests of a shul with a reputation for spirited davening is the morning after. A reputation for spirited davening usually comes from a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat, so it’s always interesting to see if a community can maintain a good morning service as well.

This can be harder to do because people have to drag themselves out of bed–and when it comes to liturgy, it’s harder to make me happy because there’s more to do on Shabbat morning than on erev Shabbat.

So I went. As I said, it was about a month ago, so my memory is a tad rusty. But I took a lot of notes while I was there and I started drafting this the day after, so I think I’ve got most of my thoughts in order. This is the first review I’ve written since I refined the Five-Ballpoint Pen Rating System. What I’m going to try to do is go through the copious notes I took first, as bullet points. Then I’ll do a more concise write-up at the end using the new rating categories. In the service notes, the section on the Torah service may be the most interesting and insightful about Romemu as a community.

Shir Yaakov, Romemu’s [musical director/insert correct title here] provided me with a copy of the song list he was using that week, so I’ll be able to provide correct [read: coherent] descriptions of the music this time.

Getting Started

  • Began with “Hareini Mekabel Alai” by Gabriel Meyer Halevi, which I think I’ve identified as being by Kirtan Rabbi once before. That was wrong, although Kirtan Rabbi does a cover of it.

The Setup

  • There is a guy playing a cajon, Shir Yaakov is playing a djembe–though he also played guitar throughout–and a guy playing some very lovely classical guitar-type stuff.
  • Rabbi David Ingber, of course, is leading. He’s using a mic, which it doesn’t seem to me that he needs. He’s a loud-voiced fellow. I asked him about it later and he said he does need to keep his voice from getting destroyed every week. However, does he really need a flesh-tone pop star mic? And does he need to be so loud? And do we need a full-on sound guy in the back sitting at a control panel and everything? The whole things engenders and odd atmosphere, in my opinion.
  • There are, as we begin, about 20 people. They don’t fill the space at all. It feels quite empty. Ingber later told me that the previous night’s service had been one of the most packed they’d ever had. (This, mind you, was not the one I was at, which had been the previous week.)
  • The set-up is quite similar to B’nai Jeshurun, in that there is a rabbi leading from a podium, plenty of open space between the rows pews and the rabbi, and a semicircle of musicians behind and to the left of the rabbi.
  • Architecturally, the space is more similar in style to Anshei Chesed. I figure that they were probably built around the same time. Major difference: Romemu is in a church. It’s a wonderful space. If Romemu bought it from the church, they could turn it into a fantastic sanctuary for their purposes, but for now, I’m quite unsettled by the imagery around me. I’m actually a big believer in the notion that Jews ought now pray in churches. After services, I chatted with Ingber about this. He said that many in their community actually like that it’s a church. It’s a sign to many of the radical atmosphere of welcoming they want to engender at Romemu. I think you’ll all get my drift if I respond to that with an unenthusiastic “Whatever.” More »

A Prayer for Snow?

blizzasterHaving now dug out of the Chicago storm code-named Blizzaster, I’m hearing some interesting stories emerging beyond the spontaneous Parking Lot formed on Lake Shore Drive. So much parking so close to the lake is a miracle unto itself, but what about the snow?

One cool story is the Chuppah of Sarah Finkel and Shmulie Schochet (they had a Ketublizzard).

“It’s a happy occasion that the snow cannot deter. The snow does not change anything,” said Bernie Finkel, of Evanston, the bride’s grandfather. “There is thought in the Jewish religion about luck: the dew in the spring at Passover, the rain in the fall during Sukkot. And now I am saying snowfall is lucky too. This is a special time. There should be a special time to pray for snow.”

By now, most of us are pretty tired of snow. But Finkel (who hosts a local Jewish radio program) raises an interesting point. It is truly a wonder to get such an amount of snow. Surely we should acknowledge HaShem’s hand in such an event, yes? What would the text be for a Prayer for Snow (or its speedy removal)? I wanna hear it. Make it snow!

Shir Chadash–a new egal minyan in Crown Heights

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle. More liturgical minutiae from the first meeting of Shir Chadash here.

We were planning on heading out to the Kane Street Synagogue on Friday night, but a last-minute email from Jewschooler Kung Fu Jew had us heading out into unfamiliar territory–Crown Heights–for the first ever meeting of Shir Chadash, a new egal minyan. I called KFJ to ask for details. He didn’t have many. He didn’t know if musical instruments would be allowed. (He didn’t even know if my ballpoint would be allowed–luckily, no one seemed to mind.)

For future reference, my answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the first meeting of a new egal minyan?” is always yes.

A perfect storm of Jewschoolers, former leaders of Kol Zimrah and some former leaders of at least one DC minyan are now living way the hell out on the far reaches of the 2 and the 3. For a long time, folks have been talking about starting a new traditional egalitarian minyan for the area.

Finally, last week, after a lot of talk, one guy–Brian Immerman, a fourth-year Reform rabbinical student and a former teacher of mine–decided to just go for it. He e-mailed some people and by the middle of Lecha Dodi, about 20 Jews were in his living room to daven.

My notes on the first meeting of Shir Chadash: More »

Let’s do Stage 3 in the morning; P’sukei D’zimrah; Etc.

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle

Fellow Jewschooler BZ over at Mah Rabu has put up the long-awaited Part VIII of his Hilchot Pluralism series. HP is a series of case studies in what BZ calls Stage 3 Jewish pluralism. In Part VIII, he covers a novel solution to the issue of one and two-day yom tov observances. Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a DC group, celebrated Simchat Torah this year in such a way that people who believed it to be chag and people who believed it to be a weekday could participate equally within their own frameworks. It’s fascinating. You should read Hilchot Pluralism.

All of this had me re-reading all of HP. Re-reading it, combined with my slightly unsatisfactory recent experiences in a couple of different New York City prayer communities had me giving serious consideration to a big new project. I’ve also been thinking about less than a year from now when my NJ chavurah is not going to be an option for me every week.

HP paints such a perfect picture for me. The only place I’ve ever been (not that I don’t know of others) that lives up to BZ’s vision of Stage 3 pluralism is Kol Zimrah. KZ meets once a month and only on Friday nights. But I want what is on offer at KZ every Friday night. And then I want it again in the morning. And I want it in a daily minyan. And I want it on holidays. This is a tall order.

So this week, I began starting to think toward creating one more element of this.

For some, like me, what draws them to KZ is the pluralism. I like the singing, but I like the ideas more. However, most of the people who come are probably more drawn in by the singing and spirited atmosphere. The spirited singing is thanks to two liturgical developments. First, we can thank some Medieval Kabbalists for giving us Kabbalat Shabbat. And second, we can thank Shlomo Carelbach for giving us some great tunes to make Kabbalat Shabbat a fun, engaging prayer experience. In essence, KZ without a Carelbach Kabbalat Shabbat would be a shell of itself.

So maybe what we need to create is the same kind of big singing, big fun prayer experience on Shabbat morning.

Luckily, much like Kabbalat Shabbat, we have hefty section of psalms to sing in the morning too! P’sukei D’zimrah usually gets shafted in shul. Most people don’t even show up until its over. It’s also long, so if we actually sang all of it, we wouldn’t be done with services until it’s time for Minchah.

We’ve got tunes for all of these psalms, but some may not work for the kind of spirited experience I’m talking about here. Especially if Carlebach (or Carlebach-esque) music is what is needed, we’re in trouble. For Psalm 150 and for 92 and a few others, we’ve got no problem.

But for some pslams, this will take some work. I chatted with Russ, our chazan (OK, our JTS student chazan, but he’s our chazan) at Chavurat Lamdeinu here in Jersey, about it this morning. I’m a bit melodically-challenged sometimes, so the obvious hadn’t occurred to me. Russ pointed out that Carlebach (and others) have a gazillion nigunim out there that could be laid on top of some of these psalms. This will take some work, but it’s doable.

Of course, as others have pointed out to me as I’ve rambled about this idea off and on this week, there are also some significant practical challenges here. Getting a minyan together on a Shabbat morning is harder than on a Shabbat evening because you need a Torah. You also need people to read Torah. This stuff is infinitely surmountable, but it’s there nonetheless.

The biggest challenge would be time. At its fullest, by my count, P’sukei D’zimrah includes 16 full psalms, the entire Song of the Sea, two prayers and a whole host of ancillary biblical passages. This is a more than twice as much material as Kabbalat Shabbat, which only has 8 psalms and a few extra piyutim/songs (usually between one and three songs, though it depends on who you talk to).

So there would probably need to be cuts. Personally, I’d probably start with the ancillary biblical passages, but I wouldn’t want to make these decisions alone anyway.

There would also have to be some discussion of how to do the rest of the service, with very careful attention paid to the requirements of Stage 3.  Issues like the number of aliyot and the triennial cycle would certainly be up for discussion. Other parts of the service would need discussion too, such as the Amidah, where a Heiche Kedushah (leader does Amidah aloud through the Kedushah, everyone continues silently on their own, no leader’s repetition after) would probably merit discussion. And Birkot Hashacar etc, despite being a favorite of mine, would probably be right out because that can all be done at home before arriving or individually by people who arrive early.

That’s about as far as my thinking on this has taken me so far. Thoughts, anyone? Who’s with me?

This isn’t about guilt

Repentance shouldn’t be about wallowing in guilt.  In his sermon last night, my rabbi spoke about this at length.  It’s something I’ve thought about before, and it really speaks to me.

These days I’m pretty much never at synagogue.  Back when I was at school (I’m currently taking a year off), I participated in the Chavurah minyan each week, which I loved.  But here, I find that praying congregation-style just doesn’t do it for me.  And last night I realized for the first time that one of my personal sources of guilt on Yom Kippur comes from actually being at synagogue, precisely because I’m so rarely there.  I feel guilt for not being more a part of the community.  Guilt for being so unfamiliar with the liturgy.  Guilt that my Hebrew is so bad.  Guilt for not truly feeling that the path to repentance involves asking for permission to repent.

So, like last year at Brown, I didn’t go to services today, albeit for slightly different reasons.  I’m at home, on my own.  Here I can observe Yom Kippur guilt-free, thinking about ways in which I can repent for me, myself, and I.  My lack of belief in G()d in the traditional sense of an entity or concept that has at least some manifest control of my life or the world leads me to understand that I repent for my own benefit, and for that of those around me.  Repenting helps me become a better person.  I take responsibility for my flaws, my problems, my errors, and I ask those around me to understand them, and join with me as I try to grow past them.  That growth might involve additional involvement with the community.  Or it might not.

This approach to observance is a source of conflict with my family, who feel strongly that going to shul is a family operation.  And while I respect the desire to observe the day together, I can’t subvert my feelings on what it means for me to be a Jew to the family’s feelings on what it means to be a Jewish family.  The same holds for a congregation.  Yom Kippur is too important for me to follow anyone’s patterns of observance but my own.  I’m sure that those patterns will continue to change, and as they do, I’ll do my best to understand and remain true to them.

Rosh Hashanah Has Nothing to do with Comics

Jewish educator and comics critic David Wolkin digressed from his usual lampooning of graphic novel misfires to muse meaningfully on the new year. The post has, decidedly, nothing to do with comics and thus we happily repost it here.

Yesterday was the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It’s can be a weird thing to have to have two different New Years (yearses?), especially when the second one usually overlaps with the start of the school year. As someone who works in the Jewish community and in a school (this is what I do!), this is undoubtedly a stressful time for me. It can be a challenge to get into the celebration, to not have it feel like work, because for me, it is work.

So that’s one piece of this and I suppose I’ve learned to deal with it in my own way, by viewing it as a second opportunity per year for reflecting on what I’m doing right and what needs work in my life. Ultimately, this is a time of reflection for Jewish people and their loved ones. Rosh Hashanah begins the new year on the Jewish calendar, but it also is the first day of what we refer to as the Ten Days of Repentance, which ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is basically a ten day period in which we’re asked to reflect upon our sins of the past year and do whatever we can to repent for them.

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Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.

Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix:
1. Plan an expensive get-away.
2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways.
3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then…
4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship—
5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped.
6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure.
7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor.
8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’
9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness?
10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.

Summarized  (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.

In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year.   In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikinglyeat-pray-love-02 emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films  out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others.  Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others.  This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement.  In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of  crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency:  ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’

Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other.  And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based.  All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter.  All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.

Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein.  In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.

It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothingeat-pray-love-03 ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes.  EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst.  In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.

One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased!  Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.

Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but,  like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort.  Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.

According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question.  Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and eat-pray-love-04failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning.  This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable.  While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion.  If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker.  But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.

Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community.  As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others.  Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.

EAT PRAY LOVE
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??

Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man.  Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.

As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.

The article goes on to say

In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.
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Who Blocked the Sky?

There’s an article in the current Washington Jewish Week, of DC not the state, that addresses this week’s parasha, specifically those sticky parts we say in the daily Sh’ma. You know, the passage about God rewarding us or punishing us by manipulating the rain.

Written by Joelle Novey of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, it’s well worth reading. I’m just going to copy the whole thing here. You’ll thank me.

We are turning away from God’s command
by Joelle Novey
Special to WJW

I’ve been having a hard time with a passage in Ekev, this week’s Torah portion. Unfortunately, I’ll be reading it again soon, because the words appear in our daily liturgy, after the Sh’ma:

“If you heed my commandments, then I’ll grant your land’s rain in its season, that you might gather your grain, wine and oil. I’ll grant grass in your fields for your cattle, that you might eat and be satisfied.

“Take care that you not be seduced and turn away to serve other gods. Then God’s fury will turn against you. God will block the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce. You will quickly perish from the good land that God grants you” (Deuteronomy, 11:13-17).

It’s harsh, and some prayer books have omitted it, uncomfortable with divine judgment. But that’s not what concerns me.

For me, it’s hard not to notice that the threatened curse itself seems to be coming true.

The global average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees in the past 150 years, and is rising faster and faster. Spring is coming one to two weeks earlier across the Northern Hemisphere. We have just lived through the hottest April, May and June ever recorded.

Around the world, rain isn’t coming in its season. Draught and other climactic changes have caused $5 billion in crop losses annually for three decades. Many are finding it more difficult to eat or to be satisfied.

Why is this happening? We have blocked the sky. Coal-fired power plants, airplanes, cars and agriculture are generating greenhouse gases. They accumulate and trap the sun’s heat, causing the Earth to warm. The safe carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We’re near 400 already, and rising.

“Isn’t the weather God’s department?” writes Rabbi Julian Sinclair of the Jewish Climate Initiative. “In traditional Jewish theology, climactic conditions are part of the divine prerogative.” But now, “the natural climactic systems are responding to human actions … [that] are creating their own retribution.”

Some teachers of Jewish ecology have suggested that we understand “turning away” to describe people polluting. Then, the climactic punishment fits our crime. The text, at least, is fulfilled.

Unfortunately, what’s really happening isn’t anywhere near that fair. We have turned away, but it is others who find that there is no rain, and the earth won’t grant its produce. Those perishing from the good land have done least to contribute to the problem. Already, the World Health Organization estimates that 300,000 people around the world are dying from direct effects of climate change, most of them in developing countries.

In the weeks following Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, we seek consolation.

In this, what is our consolation? Maybe Americans will call on Congress to pass strong climate legislation. Maybe in our homes and communities, we will find ways to reduce our carbon emissions. Our society may yet come together to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Maybe this work will leave us ultimately with a better world.

But today, as I anticipate hearing that threat read from the Torah, I don’t feel ready for consolation. I’m just too sad to be living in a time when human beings have managed to cause, for ourselves, the most terrifying divine punishment our biblical forebears could imagine.

It’s lonely to be in uncharted territory, beyond even the harshest rebuke from nature that the Torah describes.

Who are we in this story? We are both those who heed the Torah and those who interfere with rain in its season.

No matter what we do next, we’re already partly too late. I grieve that even those of us who say the Sh’ma — who call on our people to hear, three times daily, about the unity of all — I grieve that we, of all people, haven’t been listening.

Joelle Novey directs Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, which works with local congregations to respond to climate change.

Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall Arrested

Anat Hoffman, who is often the most public face of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel), was arrested this morning during WoW’s Rosh Hodesh Av service. It’s not yet clear what the charges are.

WoW RH Av2The WoW gathering was huge this morning, and from the beginning, things were a little edgy. There was a lot of media present (which I might guess has been the case since Nofrat Frenkel was arrested, but this was my first time going since that happened, so I don’t know) and one of the police that works at the Kotel was assigned to the group–either to protect us from Haredi attacks or to keep us in line, as needed. We were positioned closer to the Wall than usual (because, naturally, there were so many people there that we had to move forward to give everyone space). Women were wearing tallitot as scarves, to which our assigned policeman did not object. He did, periodically, try to tell people not to sing too loud, and eventually another policeman came by with the same message.
WoW RH Av1
We finished Hallel and began to proceed, according to the terms of the Israeli High Court (Bag”tz) decision, to Robinson’s Arch to read Torah, with the intent to preserve the continuity of the service by escorting the Torah in song.

Now, it should be noted here that WoW has had a hard time lately getting the Sefer Torah into the Kotel area, even though Bag”tz permitted it in its ruling. I won’t reveal how they got it in this time around, but it took some maneuvering.

It is perfectly kosher, according to the Bag”tz ruling, to take the Sefer Torah out of its bag, as Anat did this morning, by the Kotel, to carry it to Robinson’s Arch. It is not permitted to read from the Torah in the women’s section, and we did not. We were singing and escorting the Torah, and things got more and more tense, with police trying to physically push Anat out of the women’s section and she (and those of us holding on to her) was trying to walk out, but at a more dignified pace. Eventually there was a skirmish involving the police trying to physically take the Torah out of her hands (we were now out of the women’s section and on our way over to Robinson’s Arch) and somewhere in all of that, they arrested her, and she was taken into custody (as was the Torah).

The rest of the group proceeded over to the police station by Jaffa Gate to stand outside and finish our service–we read the Torah portion for Rosh Chodesh (from a Chumash, as we had no Sefer Torah) and davvened Musaf. We then kept singing for some time, because, Nofrat said, Anat (who was inside the police station somewhere) would be able to hear us. (Nofrat knows from personal experience, natch.) Presumably Anat will be released sometime in the next few hours and we’ll see what happens from there.

Hodesh tov, everyone. The Temple was already destroyed once because of sinat chinam (baseless hatred). I think my mourning this Tisha B’Av might be more about things present than things past.

ETA: Hoffman was released after five hours of interrogation, is barred from the Kotel for 30 days, was fined 5000 NIS, and evidently the police are consulting about whether and for what to charge her.

Wake-up call

If you had told me three years ago, when I first came to Israel, that I would be spending my Friday afternoons protesting in East Jerusalem, I never would have believed you. If you had told me that the behavior of this country and its residents was going to make it difficult for me to feel comfortable practicing Judaism, I would have believed you even less.

Since I started attending the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, I’ve stopped going to shul on Friday night. In part, it’s logistics – I get home tired and sweaty at 6 or 6:30, and I want a break and a shower before dinner. Partially, though, it’s become uncomfortable for me. There’s something that Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli human rights lawyer who grew up in the Reform community outside of Boston, wrote once, which I increasingly feel in myself:

“Unless I’m with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression, I cannot comfortably honor the tradition, or even be sure I want to be part of it.”

Even in my struggle with Judaism itself, the past three years of studying gemara have oriented me toward the world through the lens of text and textual connections. So here’s the gezerah shavah I have to offer:

There is a liturgical similarity between Kabbalat Shabbat and the weekly protest. In L’cha Dodi, the line is “hitoreri, hitoreri, ki va orech kumi ori” – wake up, wake up, for your light has come, arise and shine. In the protest “liturgy,” one of the chants uses the same verb – “ezrachim lehitorer, hafascism kvar over” – residents, wake up, fascism has already passed (it works better in Hebrew).

I’ve been dwelling on those lines as representative of the tension that I’m feeling around typical religious practice (as opposed to, say, Heschel’s praying with his feet). More »

17 Tammuz – a snippet of liturgy

(Joint post from me and MarGavriel)

I don’t know about you, but when someone says “Selihot,” my heart sinks, because in my experience, selihot are Hebrew Text Walls of Doom, muttered incomprehensibly and far too fast, punctuated by wails of Divine Attributes which are the only bits I actually recognise. Sound familiar?

Apparently (who knew?) when done properly, they’re actually poems with actual meaning. Not just text walls of doom. More on one verse of one of them in just a moment, but first – liturgically, what exactly are selihot?

Selihot are poems originally recited by the cantor, in his repetition of the Amidah. On weekday fasts, they form part of the berakha סלח לנו, and on Yom Kippur, part of the middle berakha, the Yom Kippur one. Before, after, and between the poems, the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy (ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון) are recited, prefaced by either אל ארך אפים or אל מלך יושב.

In recent centuries, almost all our communities have removed the Selihot liturgy from its original context, and placed it after the whole Hazzan’s Repetition, presumably because of concerns of hefsek [thought-train derailment]. Some few communities resist the urge to destroy, and retain the original structure; if yours does, feel free to leave a note in the comments for the edification of others.

In recent years, communities have also removed the Selihot liturgy from the prayerbook and placed it instead on grubby photocopied handouts, but you can find this one (by Solomon ibn Gabirol) in Artscroll, on page 868. Here’s a sound file of the stanza.
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The siddur of the Golden Gate gays: a review

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle

I previously reviewed a siddur created by a gay congregation here

I’ve been sitting on this copy of Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, kindly sent to me for review by Congregation Sha’ar Zahav months ago. With my apologies for the tardiness of the review, here it is.

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 »