Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen has written an interesting piece on whether or not there’s real hope for an American Neo-Musar movement. The whole piece is here, and here’s a snippet:
…The pietistic Musar movement, led by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883), argued that the intellectual study of texts was necessary but insufficient for the development of virtue. He contended that the intellect, with its limited strength, cannot easily uproot the bad moral habits that are planted deeply in human hearts. Salanter and his disciples suggested that character education requires supplementing conventional study with a range of practices that can help a person to identify moral struggles and bring discipline, “musar,” to wayward appetites and emotions. Along with intellectual study, the leaders of the Musar movement advocated introspective meditation and journaling, conversations about one’s moral situation that elicit critical feedback, chanting and visualization exercises that engage the emotions, a deep commitment to the ethical and ritual requirements of Jewish law, and engaging in acts of kindness beyond what the law requires. Moreover, they encouraged individuals to design personalized exercises, tailored to their own natures and targeting their own problematic character traits.
The Musar movement’s leaders sought to focus the Jewish people on the cultivation of virtues—qualities including love, justice, compassion, generosity, reverence, faith, humility, equanimity, and patience—and they argued that such virtues are not easily acquired. They saw moral development as requiring constant labor—ongoing introspection and continual efforts to improve one’s character traits. But, as Salanter observed, all people resist making these sorts of efforts. Businesspeople may devote great energy to selling their products, he noted, and scholars may devote great energy to making sense of scriptural passages, but few people devote much effort to the “work of Musar”—to the work of improving moral character.
A large percentage of those who were committed to the practice of Musar in the twentieth century were killed in the Holocaust. Some teachers emigrated to the State of Israel or to North America, but the legacy of the Musar movement survived there only in a small number of insular, “ultra-Orthodox” academies. In the U.S., moreover, very few of those teachers emphasized the disciplined practice of Musar in their teaching; one prominent rabbi is said to have concluded that American students could not handle the immense effort that Musar requires.
It is, then, something of a surprise that the Musar movement has experienced a real revival in America over the past decade. ….This model of spirituality is decidedly counter-cultural. Growing numbers of Americans want religion to help them feel good about themselves, rather than demand self-criticism. We prefer to encourage our innately good instincts, rather than discipline our emotions and desires. We increasingly aspire to do away with guilt and shame, rather than acknowledge a place for such feelings. We like our friends to accept whatever we do, rather than offer reproof. We have created a religious marketplace that offers quick fixes for spiritual problems, and we shy away from requirements of relentless, demanding inner work. More »
Hey yall, this is the first part of 3 part series I’m writing for the Huffington Post about the Jewish food movement. I broke it down into 3 areas: sustainability, social justice, and religion/spirituality. I’m real excited to have this opportunity to get the word out about all the great things going in Jewish food to the Huffpo audience. What do you think I’m missing? What should I include in future posts? How does food, spiritual tradition, and social justice intersect in your life?
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 »
The March/April 2010 volume of Tikkun had a roundtable on God in the twenty-first century occasioned by the publication of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism. I was asked (along with fifteen other thinkers) to contribute to this roundtable. We each had 750 words. My contribution is here:
The God of a Talmudist
by Aryeh Cohen
The practice of Talmud — the documentation and interrogation, reading and constructing of legal difference and distinction — is not mythic storytelling, but it is grounded in this mythos. This practice, which splits hairs and has caused the hair-pulling of many mystics, is exactly what Akiva taught. The practice is grounded not only in the mythic encounter of Moses with God and Akiva but in Creation itself. Creation is separation and distinction — light from darkness, upper waters from lower waters, land from sea. This is the practice of law — distinguishing categories, creating new categories, creating the world of pure and impure, forbidden and permitted, just and unjust. It is in the practice of the shakla ve-tarya (the give and take of legal and intellectual discourse) that the Kingdom of Heaven, the province of the just and The Just, is created. The God of a talmudist, or at least this talmudist, is the God that generates and is claimed by law, the God that is implicated in and is therefore open to be judged by the categories of law writ large. Read the whole piecehere.
Before I get to the actual review of the Indie Yeshiva Pocket Siddur, it bears outlining some basic of my basic beliefs about Jewish prayer and how to make Jewish prayer accessible.
What is beautiful about Jewish prayer is the strucutre-poetry. There is the micro-poetry of the words, which is all well and good, but what’s so amazing, is the coherent structure of Jewish prayer, the macro-poetry. If you teach a Jew the strucutre, you can hang whatever you want on it and they will see the beauty in any service in any synagogue in the world.
PunkTorah, the organization responsible for this new entry into the siddur market, the Indie Yeshiva Pocket Siddur, begins from a different premise. Apparently, they believe that what is needed to make the siddur comprehensible to Jews in the pews is a punkification. They have punkified the siddur in two detectable ways. First, they have put a silly punk-looking cover on it. Second, they have stated in the introduction that they are punkifying it:
Who Are We?
Indie Yeshiva is a project of PunkTorah, a force for change by creating open source Jewish education…
This is a guest post from Rachel Silverman, 5th year Rabbinical student at JTS, and member of KICKS’ leadership team.
What do you call a new independent minyan that is neither new nor independent? The folks in Brookline, MA have decided to call it KICKS – Kehillath Israel‘s Community Kabbalat Shabbat. It fits few, if any, of the criteria that define the independent minyan movement – and yet it is, without a doubt, the place you are going to want to be on Friday nights in Boston – starting March 12.
We can’t claim to be independent because not only are we meeting INSIDE a Conservative synagogue, but we are actually becoming the Kabbalat Shabbat service FOR the synagogue. That’s right. Kehillath Israel has graciously handed over responsibility for their Friday evening service to a group of young, empowered Jewish leaders, straight out of Kehilat Hadar, Kehilat Kedem, and the Washington Square Minyan (all great and vibrant places from which we are regularly inspired and have learned a tremendous amount).
Just as if we were creating a minyan from scratch, the leadership team has been meeting diligently to confront the big questions of how to make this happen. How do we balance quality davening with a sense of inclusivity? How do we create a feeling of community outside of our prayer space? How do we make the chapel a warm and welcoming place to be? Our answers are nothing earth-shattering, but they are the result of thoughtful, careful deliberations which will hopefully produce the right atmosphere for a prayerful experience.
I’ve never been one to predict what is to come, but if I had to take a gander, I’d say this is the wave of the future. The combination of being in a synagogue that feels like an independent minyan is a win-win situation. The synagogue gets active, engaged, passionate, (mostly) young participants through their doors – a group of people who otherwise tend to avoid synagogues at any cost. The minyan-goers get the spiritual, energetic davening and the warm, welcoming, peer community – both of which they’ve been craving. As the minyan participants get older, they have a natural connection to a synagogue for lifecycle events, nursery schools, and movement specific opportunities, such as Israel trips, USY, etc. Put all together, we create a vibrant intergenerational community.
Sure, working within a synagogue structure has its challenges. Changes require buy-in from the existing community and rabbi – and there is only so much change that will, ultimately, be permitted. But that structure also means that we can focus on what we’re good at (amazing davening and creating community), and not get bogged down in questions of things we can’t change (the set up of the room, for example). In our case, KI and Rabbi Hamilton could not be more open to the change that we want to create – and I’m confident that their support is what will ultimately make us successful.
One of the unique features of KICKS is that we have created a davening leadership corps that will meet monthly to cultivate intentional leadership of our tefilah. We will work together to establish goals for our davening, to consider the arc and flow of the service, to think together about tunes that shape the arc, the give and take of leader and kahal, and the use of space, voice and body in shaping davening and inviting the energy of the kahal. It is also our goal to reach out and train new leaders. We look forward to offering sessions to help develop these skills among people who want to learn and join our team.
KICKS is kicking off (yes, pun intended) on March 12. We meet in the Rabb chapel of Congregation Kehillath Israel, 384 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. Mincha begins at 5:35, Kabbalat Shabbat will be at 5:55, and Ma’ariv will be at 6:30. We will meet weekly, but start times will vary depending on candle-lighting. We’re planning Shabbat dinners, both potluck and home hospitality, for future weeks.
You can join our facebook group here, and sign up for our mailing list (a google group) here. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or your desire to get involved.
This article was originally published on InterfaithFamily.com. Interfaith Family is “the online resource for interfaith families exploring Jewish life and the grass-roots advocate for a welcoming Jewish community.” I don’t think I’ve written about my family on Jewschool before, but I thought I’d give it a try by cross-posting.
My brother and I were raised by two Jewish parents. Ours was a liberal Jewish home: mezuzahs on the doorways, Shabbat dinner every Friday, holidays observed and celebrated. I grew up believing that my parents were both equally committed to our family’s level of observance. In recent years, long after my parents’ divorce, and as my father has formed a new family, I’ve learned that my outlook was perhaps naive.
My father believed that raising the kids with Judaism was the right thing to do. He went along with it. But while our family observed Passover, eschewed bread and other leavened products for the eight days, he would go to the deli by his office for lunch and privately enjoy a sandwich. Once I was old enough to go to synagogue on my own, he no longer went to Shabbat services. And when I wanted to start laying tefillin, he was more than happy to give me his set, which had been stashed in the back of his closet since before I was born.
As an observant Jew, I was taken aback by his deception. In hindsight, I understand, and appreciate, the decisions he made for our family. I was left wondering what type of religious life he would have, especially as he ages and talks about his will and funeral plans. But while I was wondering what his funeral might look like, balancing my future mourning needs with his probable want for a not overtly religious burial, another life-cycle event brought his religious views to the forefront.
My father started dating, moved in with, and became engaged to the woman who is now my stepmother. This raised a whole other round of questions for me. As far as I knew, he had only ever dated Jewish women. My stepmother is not Jewish. I didn’t have much opportunity to spend time with her before they were married; we lived on opposite coasts. My questions went mostly unanswered, and mostly unasked. More »
“I want to build a new type of religious Zionist,” said Lopatin, who believes that both Jews and Palestinians should be able to live where they want, be it Tel Aviv or Hebron. “I’m not talking about how many square kilometers can we touch, but how many people can we touch.”
It’s a noble and brilliant idea articulated with a precise slap. Jews and Palestinians should be able to live wherever they want? Niiiice. It’s not the amount of land, but the amount of hearts? Awww.
Settlement is an intensely political act burdened with the weight of our heritage and our future. Like in all Israel, Negev Palestinians have poorer but vibrant communities that aim to imbue their children with an identity and a vision of the future. Even if we set aside the troubled history of Bedouins in the modern State of Israel, the reality that Carmit abuts Al-Masadiyya and Hura, a series of townships of 10,000 Palestinians, stirs me a bit. How are the needs of Bedouins, who already suffered through forced settlement, met by the expansion of Jewish settlement? How are unrecognized villages, less than a 10 minute drive from Carmit’s cement foundation and without electricity or meaningful political representation, affected by the plan to increase Jewish settlement between Arad and Beer Sheva? How does a new, progressive Zionist community led by an American rabbi plan to confront the types of social and moral challenges that arise when you arrive in al-Naqab with a dishwasher, a prius and loads of seforim? According to Carmit’s wikipedia page, it will “include a community center with various amenities such as an Olympic size pool and gym facilities.” Will these facilities be open to all citizens in the Negev?
An article from way back in 2002 that details the lives of Bedouins only a few minutes drive from Carmit.
The website of Bustan, an organization working to promote sustainable development in the Negev.
An interesting article from a Palestinian perspective on the historical narrative of Bedouins in Israel.
Are you a Jewschool reader in Poland? If you are, Jewschool would love to hear from you! A member of Jewschool’s editorial board will be in Krakow this June-July for the Jewish Culture Festival and in Warsaw, Chmielnik, and Szczebrzeszyn for conferences, speaking gigs and collaborations. Want to help expand the trip, spread the love of Jewschool, and build Polish-American solidarity along the way? Get in touch by clicking Contact Us!
To define those terms a bit, by “religion” I mean those structures, dogmas, and practices which bind communities together, help people be a little less mean to one another, and provide pre-set ways to be a good, and even holy, person. By “spirituality” I mean almost the polar opposite. Spirituality transgresses existing structures. It doesn’t construct the self—it transforms it, even negates it entirely. And while it, too, is interested in goodness and holiness, its heroes are those who blazed their own paths, and were often deemed rebels in their day….Spiritual people don’t like organized religion because organized religion is someone else’s, and thus to some degree inauthentic.
But the biggest issue, I think, with our cultural moment is in the splitting of “spirituality” from “religion.” This bifurcated language has been around since the 60s or so, but I think it’s become more acute in recent years, as the schism has become more entrenched between a hyper-literalist fundamentalism and a feel-good panacea offering easy steps to enlightenment….It seems to be about the personal, individual journey of the brave individual self—one pictures Jack Kerouac setting out on the road, needing nobody and finding no use in external help.
Yet this picture belies 2,000 years of nuanced theology. The spiritual giants about whom we often talk—Heschel and Rebbe Nahman, St. Theresa and Gandhi, Thomas Merton, St. Francis, the Kabbalists of Safed, Rumi—these were people deeply embedded in a religious tradition. They were certainly brave enough to go deep into the dark, hidden corners of the soul, to meet their own naked heart and the soft murmur of Divine with an openness to hear whatever might be heard, but they did not do so as rogues beholden to no one. They did so as religious adherents, as people who prayed sometimes even if the experience was boring, or uninspired, who followed the tenets of their practice even when it was sometimes inconvenient, who took on strictures even if they weren’t always even sure why they were doing so. They innovated in their thinking and actions, to be sure, but their extraordinary transformation to the people who could offer up such depth came as a result of being pushed by their practice in ways that they might not have pushed themselves.
Check out the whole story here and here, and decide for yourself.
Let me start by saying that as excited as I was to fly the Jewschool flag, I was somewhat suspicious of the event itself. I tend to sneer at the kind of spirituality that comes with chanting and meditating and crystals and beads and what-have-you, and that’s sort of what I expected to be bombarded with here. After all, I know that Jay Michaelson is prone to running off to Tibet for a month of silent contemplation, and Seth Castleman has built his career on bringing the Dharma and the Torah together. I know that Danya holds a torch for the kind of traditional Jewish spirituality that I both crave and mock, although from reading her memoir I know that she’s adopted the lotus position herself on more than one occasion.
So let me be the first to say that the event was not that at all. Sure, Danya and Jay disagreed on whether aromatherapy bath crystals can really be considered spiritual tools, but the discussion was much more focused on the interplay between “religion” (i.e. the structures & strictures, rituals and communities of organized faith) and “spirituality” (what Danya calls the moments of feeling groovy). (Incidentally, if you were hoping for more of an exploration of how your boogers embody God, Jay is holding a series of conference calls for folks to come together in exploration of the non-dual Judaism he espouses in his book.)
The three speakers introduced themselves and their approaches but then quickly moved on to the Q&A portion of the evening. They did two rounds of four questions each. I tried to capture the entire Q&A session with my Flip Camera, but the darn thing crashed after Seth & Danya answered the first four questions and Jay had answered the first three. But the footage I did manage to get captures enough of the feeling of the event and many of the interesting points. I’ll lead with Jay’s answer to a question about the place of Judaism in his spirituality. (This is from the first round of questions, so I don’t have Danya & Seth’s answers to the same question.)
Behind the cut are more videos addressing the role of music in each person’s spirituality, the place of Israel in their spirituality, and approaches to balancing structured religion with a desire to “pick and choose” and get rid of bits of religion that don’t sit well with us. More »
I might have gotten that title mixed up a bit. Fuller report coming tomorrow, including video of most of the Q&A part of the panel. In the meantime, if you’re curious to know what it was about and you weren’t one of the lucky 120 or so people who made it in the room before the risk of fire hazard cut folks out, you can see tweets from me and Joanna Ware from the panel. (Scroll down to those with timestamps between 7:00 and 8:00 pm EST on Jan. 31st.) I took some snapshots of the Jewschool table and the crowd as well. My pictures of the panel didn’t come out so great (Danya talks with her hands too much for my crappy camera phone to focus!) so you’ll have to wait for the video to see Jay Michaelson, Seth Castleman, and Danya Ruttenberg in action.
Hey everybody out there in Jewschool-land! Sometimes it feels lonely up here in Beantown. Sure, The Wandering Jew and Danya are here with me, but so many of the events posted about here on Jewschool take place 300 miles south of us, it’s hard to feel part of the cutting edge progressive Jewish community that we hear so much about.
Ok, I kid a bit, but those of you who are also reading these words from somewhere in orbit of the Hub of the Universe know they ring true. So for this reason alone, I encourage you to clear your calendars for Sunday night and join me, and Danya, and hopefully hundreds of like-minded others at Everything is God: A Boston Spiritual Woodstock.
From the accounts I heard and read, the first EIG event (held in Central Park a few months ago) was the bee’s knees. Well, as we all know from The Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back, the second one will be even better. And the second one is happening on Sunday at 7 pm at Harvard Hillel. Facebook it.Buy your ticket. And then make sure you stop by the Jewschool table at the Jewish Organizational Hoe-Down to say hi to me.
All the official information (including, you know, what the event actually IS), in the form of a press release, after the cut. More »
Each week, over Shabbat dinner we engage in an experiment in mindfulness. Moving through the Shabbat table liturgy we are forced to think about two things: how does our wine and challah taste and where did then come from?
During the weekday, I eat akin to Homer Simpson, eating too much and beginning each bite before finishing the one before. On Shabbat, we are forced to take a step back. First we remember through blessing the wine and challah that food is a gift, and it is from God. (Of course it’s a law to bless our food on the weekdays as well even the most pious Jew would argue that there is something different and special about Shabbat blessings.)
In addition, the Shabbat liturgy forces us to follow an order. I’ll admit that I’m a fork loader. The more I can taste in a given bite the happier I am. But on Shabbat, we don’t mix. First we taste the wine. Then we taste the challah. Only then do we get to eat everything else. Shabbat is our chance to pause, taste our foods, and enjoy the difference in taste at each step in our ritual.
For this reason, it couldn’t be any more perfect that Tu Bishvat, the holiday where we usually celebrate the unique tastes of nature and look closely at how we relate to God’s world, falls on Shabbat. It is during this holiday that we are encouraged to go above and beyond what we do every week, to be mindful of our food in all aspects. This coming Saturday, at Congregation Beth Elohim when the clocks strike 6PM we will combine the best of Shabbat and Tu Bishvat.
Taste of Tu Bishvat will be an experiment in mindfulness. Like the Shabbat table liturgy we’ll take the time to really taste our food (through meditative practice) and to study and discuss where our food comes from by looking at issues of sustainability and eating. The night will end with a havdallah service as we say goodbye to Shabbat and Tu Bishvat. Cost is $18. To register click here.
A call for submissions was just sent out by Tamar Fox and her sister, Deena Fox, soliciting writing about the experiences of Jewish women in dealing with death and mourning.
The full submissions call is below, after the jump. They’re looking for all sorts of writing, but to show you the depth and breadth of the collection-to-be, I thought I’d include a little cut from Tamar’s bleak and wholly incredible blog, Blogging the Kaddish, which she wrote over a year of mourning for her mother:
It has been a pretty scary month since I stopped saying Kaddish. Two weeks ago the family gathered in Chicago for the unveiling of the headstone, and since then I’ve been feeling pretty strange. I’m calmer than I have been in months. I’m getting more sleep. I’m seeing more of the people I want to see more of. I’m riding my bike, and reading interesting books and staying up all night with friends drinking whiskey and laughing. I don’t think I’m better, really. I certainly have a lot more “grief-work” to do, but I think that ending Kaddish allowed me to settle into my grief in a way that I never could during the eleven months.
For me, saying Kaddish was really a struggle. It hurt, but it felt important. I guess it was like the intense ache you get in muscles after you work out really hard. The next day it’s painful, but also a sign of increasing strength. You’re not exactly glad for the pain, but you appreciate that it’s necessary for the work you have to do.
Editor’s note: The following guest post is by Rabbi Matt Carl. Rabbi Carl serves Congregation Mt Sinai in Brooklyn Heights and teaches and writes independently. His work and projects can be found at www.rabbimoshe.net.
My first Hazon Food Conference was a wonderful experience. Unable to make it due to scheduling for the last three, I was excited to participate this year, especially since my synagogue will be host to Hazon’s Avodah-AJWS CSA in Brooklyn. This year, I believe for the first time, the conference was held over a weekend that included Asara B’Tevet, a “minor fast” day. Yesterday was a strange experience, as the Food Conference ended with a very different relationship to food than it had the first three days.
I came to the conference with my own opinions and practices about the minor fasts. As a spiritual and contemplative practice, I am a big supporter of fasting on these days. As a Zionist and a realist, I question the practice in this era. That being said, I was quite interested to learn about the fasts from the perspectives of those teaching workshops at the conference. As Shabbat was ending, Rabbi Seth Mandel (the OU‘s head of shechita), Rabbi Ahud Sela (of Conservative congregation Temple Sinai in Los Angeles) and Julie Wolk (founding co-director of Wilderness Torah) presented a panel conversation on fasting, moderated by Dorothy Richman. Julie spoke of her experience on a vision quest and Rabbi Sela of his experience doing a “fast for Darfur,” while Rabbi Mandel spoke more generally of the role of fasting in Jewish spiritual life. Yesterday, during the fast, Rabbi Steve Greenberg taught “The Hunger Artist: Fasting as Body Cleansing” with Biblical, Rabbinic and contemporary texts on the experience, meaning and purpose of fasting. More »
Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from Yoni Stadlin, founding director of Eden Village Camp. Many of you celebrated at this summer’s Bereishit Festival or you may have justheard of them through the grapevine. As we look toward our next Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we invite you to hear Stadlin’s inspiring story. Oh yeah, and thanks to three huge Jewish organizations for investing millions in such an awesome project!
My name is Yoni Stadlin, and I am a redwood-tree-sitter. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, can grow up to 300 feet tall, and can live for two thousand years! I lived aloft in redwood trees for two months of my life. Tree-sitters are people who live up in trees that are slated to be cut down, on the wager that no one would cut down a tree with a person in it.
Tree-sitting has been effective in protecting huge groves and helping change many policies, but many of these ancient beauties have been logged nonetheless. Ninety-five percent of coastal redwoods in the northwest U.S. have been logged for making things like decks, playgrounds and tools. The practice of clear-cutting – leaving no trees standing – has turned huge, lush, vibrant and ancient redwood forests into eroded wastelands, destroying habitats, contaminating water, and massively increasing our species’ footprint on this planet.
Imagine, people in trees! One person, name Julia Butterfly, lived aloft for two and a half years on a suspended platform in a tree named Luna. Imagine where you were two and a half years ago, and imagine being held by a gigantic tree from then until now. Imagine seeing no doors, not one building, road or florescent light, and your feet never touching the ground. This is what I did for two months, and I loved it. More »