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.

What’s On the Menu?

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it’s getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they’re actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he’s generally aiming this for everyone) to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. More »

Everything Counts in Small Amounts

Those who are familiar with the oddities of the Jewish calendar may be aware that a largish holiday begins tomorrow night (called Passover). Fewer people may be aware that on the second night of Passover begins… well, it’s not a holiday exactly, but it is a holy period, called the Omer.

Beginning the second night of Passover, every adult Jew is supposed to count off the 49 days (seven times seven weeks) that make up the period between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. I have to say, it’s a bit of a pain. Not he counting, which is fine, but remembering to count properly, keeping track of which day it is, and so on. It’s enough of a difficulty that the Jewish legal code has instructions about what to do if you forget to count at the right time, or for a full day. You’ve got to count every day, or you lose your obligation to say the full blessing as you count.
The counting itself is a lovely tradition: each of the weeks represents one of seven traits of God, as does each day, so one develops a spiral of thoughts throughout the counting period (for example the trait of strength during the week of mercy… consider what that might mean as we approach the giving of the Torah… etc.)
Well, I decided that the best way to do this would be a sort of advent calendar, with little treats each day as you opened up the proper box to say the blessing for that day (hey, why should Christians get all the calendar fun?). At one time, I thoght the best way to do this would be through carpentry, but it’s been some time since I had any access to the proper tools,a dn I just didn’t want to wait anymore this year, so for pretty cheap I made one out of things that one could glue together – namely cardboard, cardboard, and , uh, some glue and glitter paper.

Almost everything came from the container store, and it took me about three days to make (including some glue drying time. Not labor intensive, but pretty sturdy anyway).
I’m happy to share instructions with anyone who wants to build one. I used a hard cardboard ornament storage box and three by three folded gift boxes (seven of which fit perfectly across, although you need two ornament boxes cut to size and glued together to get the height as only five rows tall fit, if you pop open the top edge of the ornament box).
The numbers for the days (written out in blue in Hebrew letters) as well as the blessing on the inside (which has the blessing, the day and date – in other words, everything you need for each day… no looking anything up!) are printed on clear sticky labels cut to size.

For your delectation:


(Not sure why the blessing box is shown on its side, just ignore that, it opens upwards (although you can make yours open any direction you want, of course)
I don’t think I”m quite done decorating it – obviously this is pretty simple, but the plus is that the boxes make it so that magic marker will write on them perfectly nicely, so if I go for color, that’s probably the way I’ll go. Stickers work fine too, but I’ll probably eventually go for a large picture that covers the entire front face of the Omer Counter. Happy counting!

XP Kol Ra’ash Gadol

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 »

The Last of the Landes/Green Debate (Perhaps)

As we’ve posted before, R. Art Green and R. Danny Landes have been having quite an intense back-and-forth debate about theology and other things over the last few months.

To recap: Last year, R. Art Green published a book, and R. Daniel Landes wrote a critical review of it in the Jewish Review of books. Green then responded to the review, and Landes responded to the response (on the same link). Green’s next response appeared here in Jewschool, and Landes responded on his own blog.

This is rumored to be the last installment, by Green:

Dear Danny,

I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.

Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.

It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.

I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. More »

Interviews with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Mona Eltahawy

Update: videos are now embedded in the post.  Enjoy!

As I mentioned in my brief first-day J Street conference round up post, I secured interviews with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative (best known for the Ground Zero Mosque, which is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque), and Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian journalist and activist who rocked the socks off the J Street conference.  Those videos are now online; the YouTube playlist is here.  There are three videos – Mona Eltahawy on social media in the Jasmine Revolution and its potential in the future of the Arab and Muslim world, my question for Imam Rauf on the religious justification for his work, and footage of a few other press-folk asking him questions.  Check them out!

Mona did a superb job of addressing the straw man argument made by most of the prominent critics of the social-media-as-organizing-tool theory (Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, etc.).  That is, she made a strong case for how Twitter and Facebook were essential in helping garner support for a mass meeting and demonstration of a kind that was quite rare under Mubarak.  Notably, she doesn’t claim that it was Twitter or Facebook that toppled the regime.  No, that distinction belongs to the brave Egyptians who risked their lives to claim their basic human rights of freedom of speech and assembly.  But if you look closely, most of us arguing for social media’s importance in democratic movements aren’t saying that it’s the Internet itself that overthrows regimes, just that it’s a tool for those who desire to do so.  The key to any organized resistance movement, especially one that aspires to nonviolence, is organization.  Today, the Internet is often one of the last places where free exchange of ideas can take place.  Its fast pace and adaptability mean that dedicated users can often stay one step ahead of those trying to shut down the flow of information.  This is what makes it important and in some ways game-changing.

Imam Rauf, who’s been one of my personal heroes for a long time, spoke beautifully about the religious underpinnings of his peace work.  I hadn’t planned to ask him about this – the question came about as a result of a topic of discussion on the panel on Jewish-Muslim community relations on which he’d just spoken.  One Jewish community leader explained a program called “Iftar in the Sukkah,” in which local Muslims and Jews gathered at an Orthodox shul to share the evening break-fast meal during Ramadan, which for the past few years has overlapped with Sukkot.  The image of Muslims and Jews taking part in this ritual together was, for me, amazing, and reminded me of the phrase “ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” – “spread over us your sukkah of peace.”  This is pretty much one of my favorite liturgical lines ever, and I felt that I just had to ask Imam Rauf about it.  So I mentioned that connection, and asked him what scriptural or Islamic theological justification he found for his work.  His answer, that it’s rooted in the very word “Islam,” coming from “Salaam,” was completely in line with his messages of peace and mutual understanding.

I continue to be inspired by the work that both of these courageous activists do every day.  Mona Eltahawy speaks truth to power, and Imam Rauf (and the Park 51 project overall) has handled himself with incredible grace in the face of one of the worst smear campaigns I’ve ever seen, and more generally in a climate of increasing American Islamophobia.  May they both continue their work and dedication, and may their efforts be rewarded.

And let us say, Amen.

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed.

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say — I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »

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 »

(Re) Reading Radicalism

Shaul Magid has an interesting discussion of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism together with the reviews of the book, asking the question: “What does it all mean?” Here’s the punch-line:

These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.”

But you should read the whole thing here then come back and comment.

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 »

Pardes/Hebrew College Theology Throwdown

(Full disclosure – I’m currently a student in a joint Pardes/Hebrew College MA program)

So, R’ Daniel Landes, Pardes Rosh Yeshiva, published this review of R’ Art Green’s new book, Radical Judaism. I’m not going to excerpt it, because you should just go read the whole thing.

Here’s a leaked response from R’ Green:

To the editor:

Rabbi Daniel Landes’ da’ mah she-tashiv (“Know what to answer the heretic”) approach to my Radical Judaism, protecting innocents from “the dangers lurking in the rhetoric that Green and like-minded thinkers employ,” represents a theological bankruptcy lurking in traditional Jewish circles. The forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other, taken more seriously by Jews, against Biblical criticism. It lost them both, quite decisively. These defeats, plus the Holocaust, are real parts of the baggage that any intellectually honest Jewish theology must confront. My book is an attempt to create a viable Judaism in the face of those realities. Landes may choose to live in a closed circle that pretends these uncomfortable facts do not exist, continuing to play by the old theological rules. For Jews living outside those circles, such an approach does not work. He should know; many of his students are among them. 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.

More »

Kohen – Not.

Recently there has been a little buzz about the not-really-so-new ideas at Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute (founded in 2006), which was founded Holly Shere, a folklorist, and Jill Hammer, a JTS ordinee and her co-director. Tablet ran a short article about it, reasonably even-handedly attempting to explain what they are and do.

The responses in the article, from Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school,“I don’t see how Kohenet, to judge from its website, is compatible with Jewish belief and practice,” and from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University, are, respectively, accurate and a bit over the top. Nevertheless, they both really miss the point anyway.
More »

Rethinking ‘stam yeinam’

My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.

Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”)
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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.”

Towing the Mehitza Line at Dan and Ris’ Wedding

This is a guest post by Rebez. For reasons of privacy, names of participants have been left out.

Even before the dancing began, one could sense this wedding was going to push boundaries.  The seating arrangement for the huppah was a tri-chitza.  Looking out from the huppah, on the right was a small woman’s section, on the left was a men’s section, and in the middle with 80% of the participants was mixed seating.  No signs for the different sections, just implicit understanding.  It was assumed that you would know which section you belonged in.  And dividing each of the three sections was a looming thick movable wall also known as the mehitza.

I’ve never seen this mechitza’s equal. The mehitza was a solid structure of four metal bars with a connecting crossbar and a piece of colored hanging plexiglass that was both opaque at eye level and translucent everywhere else.   The metal bars were shaped like a swing-set with the glass divider hanging down as the swing. Approximately 10 feet long and 9 feet high.  An intimidating presence.

By the time the dancing began, the room was transformed from a tri-chitza huppah space to a dance hall with one barrier in the middle.  As soon as the Chattan and Kallah were introduced and the dancing ensued, they parted ways to opposite sides.  The separate dancing began.

There are many ways to create intentional separated dancing space at a simcha.  You can have a physical barrier.  You can also have no barrier and still have separate dancing.   You can have a tri-chitza.  And then you can do what this wedding did, although I’m not sure something like this can be planned. More »