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.
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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 »

Does Musar Have An Inherently Hard Sell In America?

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 »

Judaism, Food and Social Justice

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?

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 »

The God of a Talmudist

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 piece here.

Indie Yeshiva Pocket Siddur: a review

I’m about to be not very complimentary toward this siddur. You can read a defense of it by one of its creators here.

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.

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…

Let’s dispense with the notion that this siddur is truly “punk”  right from the start. If it were punk, it would be open source. Despite the above quote, the previous page says, “ALL TEXT © PunkTorah, Inc. 2010.” More »

Preach Rabbi!

This is Rabbi Morris Allen, speaking to the two hundred thousand people gathered to rally for comprehensive immigration reform in America.

Brookline KICKS!

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 – Brooklineand 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 kikabbalatshabbat@gmail.com with questions, comments, or your desire to get involved.

Joining Traditions

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 »

Jewish Tension

Negev Desert

In recent days, the hype about the building of a new progressive Orthodox town in Israel has many people noticing. Led by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the town currently being built will be named Carmit.

As Lisa Pevtzow of the Chicago Tribune reports:

“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.

Jewschool in Poland

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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!

Religion and Spirituality

As the very good dlevy notes in his post about the recent Boston event, Jay Michaelson
and I have this ongoing machloket (Torah debate) about religion, spirituality, and a number of other things. As such, the nice folks over at Jbooks.com asked us to write it out–or, rather, for me to respond to a piece of Jay’s.

Here’s what he said:

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.

And I said, among other things:

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.

My Flip Camera May Not, In Fact, Be God

Okay, I promise this is my final post about Everything Is God: A Jewish Spiritual Woodstock, the event held Sunday night at Harvard Hillel. Jewschool doesn’t often cosponsor real, live events up here in Beantown, so you’ll forgive me for being a little more excited than usual at getting to represent us out there “In Real Life” as the kids say.

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.
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Everything in Boston is God

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.

Photos behind the cut.
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I’m Told These Words May be God.

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.
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