The tagline of this year’s Jewish Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th annual gathering on Dec 7-8 has sparked a conversation: “It’s not just for feminists anymore.”
Long time JOFA supporter Jennifer Moran’s Facebook feed blew up when she posted this status: ”Just received an ad for the 8th International JOFA Conference, which proclaims, ‘It’s not just for feminists anymore…’ How I wish that I could convince my fellow women’s rights activists to stop disparaging, diminishing, or distancing themselves from feminism.” Others wondered if JOFA’s mission had changed, if social norms in the Orthodox community had led JOFA to shift its recruitment strategy away from the “radical” notion of feminism.
What’s the motivation behind this tagline and what’s happening at the conference? We spoke with Sarah Blechner, Marketing Chair for the upcoming conference. Blechner was raised in an Orthodox feminist household and has attended JOFA conferences since she was in high school.
Jewschool: What can we expect from this year’s JOFA conference that’s different from previous years?
Sarah Blechner: Whereas many of the past conferences have focused on the Orthodox community writ large, this year, while we will still be tackling those large, community issues, we are also talking in a much more personal way than ever before. We are really looking forward to bringing many of the “big” issues down to an individual level and discussing how many of these issues impact the everyday, the individual, and the quieter moments. More »
Aviva Richman is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America, where she teaches Talmud, Jewish Law and midrash. She is also pursuing doctoral studies in rabbinic literature at NYU, as a Wexner fellow. Other interests include niggunim, classical piano, and making all manner of soup!
We live in a world where many people offer conflicting advice about what to eat and how. Should meat be a crucial part of my carbs-free diet or should I avoid meat because it is unhealthy – or unethical? Is fresh, organic, and local the way to go – or does that make food too expensive and less accessible? In this whirlwind of food movements and media, there is perhaps no better time to engage the complex discourse around food in our own tradition. To use the words of a fifth-century midrash, “Is there such a thing as Torah in the gut?” (PDRK, 10)
The idea of “Torah in the gut” arises from a puzzling verse where the Psalmist turns to God and says: “I desire to do you will, my God; Your Torah is in my gut.” (40:9) The midrash can’t make sense of this visceral image. Torah is made of written words, not food; it is processed in our minds, not digested in our stomachs. What kind of Torah resides in our digestive tract?
Hey, Jewschoolers. Check out my piece in Heeb about Lou Reed, z”l. I’ll tease it here, and you can click on the link to read the rest on Heeb.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Lou Reed died. So, I’m not going to write a newspaper obituary. This is the internet; you can find betterones on your own, and learn all about why The Velvet Underground was such an important band and all that. I’m also not going to write one of those “Hey, Lou Reed kicked ass and Lou Reed was Jewish, so see? Judaism can kick ass too” kinds of pieces, nahmean? Let’s not stretch the Jewish thing, but take him at his word: “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”
But I’m Jewish and Jewy and I do want to reflect about why I think Lou Reed’s artistry is so vital, how it reaches me, through my prisms, or as the case may be, mirrors.
“I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home” (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”)
More than anything else, Lou Reed was our mirror, reflecting what we are, in case we didn’t know.
We are terrified of freedom, but deny it. Shaking off the effects of sterile Long Island and forced, adolescent, electro-convulsive “therapy” to “cure” him of his bisexuality (it didn’t work), Lou Reed grabbed a rock and roll public by the collar, spit in its face, made it stop averting its eye from anyone fearful, and look hard at what liberation really looks like.
To read the rest of this article, follow this link.
This Shabbat, Jews the world over read Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-25:18), opening with the detailed narration of Sarah’s death and Avraham’s negotiated purchase of the Cave of Machpela from local Hittites as a burial ground. Thousands of Jews will converge upon the contemporary city of Hebron, for a sort of annual, National-Religious Woodstock packing in with the several hundred Israeli citizens who have maintained a settlement there since the first few refused government orders to leave after Pesach of 1968. This festival takes place annually on this parashah, which is seen by the organizers as the proof of the sole and eternal Jewish ownership over Hebron. The basic thrust of the Torah at the heart of the claim is something like this: Avraham bought this land for a lot of money before lots of witnesses and the Torah is the contract to it. Therefore, it’s ours, always. Others who may reside here — ie the Palestinians — are trespassers. This argument justifies the violence to which the 177,000 Palestinian Hebronites are regularlysubjected.
I think that this Torah argument is pretty peculiar: even if the Torah is accepted as a legally-actionable historical record of contract law, it’s entirely unclear why it would preclude any future contract transactions in the area; or why the purchase of the Cave environs would be taken to cover a whole, much larger, metropolitan area 3500 years later; or why all future descendants of the purchaser would be equal and exclusive inheritors to that plot; and by “all future descendants” we mean the descendants of one of his sons, Isaac, and not the other son, Ishmael. I would like to explore a richer and fuller picture of the legacy of the city of Hebron as we have learned it from the Tanakh and our Sages. This piece should be viewed as a part of a larger effort called Project Hayei Sarah — a several-years-old initiative of a number of Torah educators disturbed by the disgrace done in the name of Torah that is today’s Hebron — to teach a more responsible and truthful Torah about this historically rich city.
The 35th chapter of Bemidbar legislates that six cities be appointed as cities of refuge, three cities on the east side of the Jordan River and three on the west side of the Jordan. Open to Israelites as well as for resident aliens, these six cities were to be a refuge for anyone who kills someone accidentally, so they could to flee there and be safe from vengeful relatives of the victim. More »
We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight. The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty. The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha. This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.
“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)
We live in a conflict-averse world. Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked. In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words: true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence. The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b). Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”. If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.
This summer, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College is introducing an exciting new pre-college summer program focusing on service learning. Inspired by the success of its undergraduate program in social and entrepreneurial initiatives, List College wants to extend its resources to a wider audience of rising junior and senior high school students from across the country looking for a hands-on combination of Jewish traditional text study and internships in social change agencies in New York City.
Participants will have the opportunity to choose from a wide array of internship sites, including government NGOs, sustainability and environmental non-profits, interfaith groups, and education and youth organisations. Before beginning the internships, which will include direct mentorship, students will participate in an orientation, in which they will be trained to work as service professionals in social change agencies. Throughout the program, participants will reconvene together regularly to engage in facilitated Jewish text study, focusing on the theological and historical underpinnings of social action. Additionally, participants will enjoy a guest lecture series and a college prep workshop series offered by Barnard College.
According to Aliyah Vinikoor, assistant Dean of List College and director of their Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, JustCity hopes to empower pre-college students to engage in direct service while also building Jewish community across denominational lines. The program also aspires to reach out to other faith-based groups to help build a multi-faith social change network.
The program dates this summer are from June 30-July 28; participants have the option of living on JTS’ campus. Partial need-based scholarships available. Registration is currently open and applications are due May 1. You can learn more about Just City here. You can also email JustCity at firstname.lastname@example.org
My latest post on Justice in the City.
It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
Elul is a busy month for Storahtelling founder Amichai Lau Lavie. He’s returning from Israel, is knee deep in studies, and on Sunday he began his 3rd annual 40 day blog leading up to the High Holidays, Prepent! It should be a good read.
This comes on the heels of an announcement from the decade-old Torah ritual theatre company that it is restructuring and that Lavie alsos assume the Interim Executive Director role following Executive Director Isaac Shalev’s departure after just 18 months.
“This transition comes at a time of important growth and transition for Storahtelling. Isaac, the Board and the Executive committee have all agreed that the best interests of the organization are to scale back, spend time rethinking our capacities, programs, operation and scope of mission and vision rather than continuing in the same model.”
Programs will continue and High Holidays services will happen, but how the organization will survive long term? Like other darlings of the emergent Jewish sector, the organization has faced difficulties during the economic downturn.
This guest post was first given as a dvar torah at Shir HaMaalot, Crown Heights’ first trad-egal havurah, by Amy Schiller on Friday, July 13, 2012. Shir HaMaalot meets next Friday, August 3 in partnership with Altshul at Mount Prospect Park (across street from Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway) at 7 pm.
Amy Schiller writes about politics, feminism, philanthropy and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, Alternet, Heeb, and other publications. She previously worked for five years as a political organizer and non-profit fundraising consultant. You can read more at amybessschiller.com and follow her at @justaschill.
I want to start with a disclaimer that this d’var Torah contains references to adult content and is recommended for mature audiences. And if you think I’m being gratuitously provocative, let me assure you that the Torah started it. But we’ll get to that momentarily.
This week’s parsha, Pinchas, contains a great proto-feminist anecdote, the story of the daughters of Tzelophechad — Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. To summarize, Tzelophechad dies with no male heirs to receive his portion of land in the Promised Land. His daughters go to the tribunals to plead their case, that they should inherit their father’s share in the absence of any sons to claim it. Their case is decided favorably, with God instructing Moses that they are indeed entitled to the land inheritance. Rashi praises these five women, noting they are each named individually to reflect their stature and righteousness. Furthermore, Rashi notes that their legal arguments were of such strength and quality that they perceived the Torah with greater acuity than Moshe himself. So here we have a success story of women’s agency, intelligence and early strides towards equal citizenship within the Jewish people. This interpretation is popular, affirming, and uplifting — and it is not the dvar Torah I can give tonight. More »
This guest post was first given as a dvar torah at Shir HaMaalot, Crown Heights’ first trad-egal havurah, by Brandon Bernstein on Friday, June 8, 2012. Shir HaMaalot meets next this Friday, July 13 at Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, at 7 pm.
Brandon is a 4th-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College in New York who spends his free time reading and taking improv classes in a vain attempt to be well-rounded.
I’d like to start tonight by turning to a source of perennial wisdom in my life – the Simpsons.
There’s a Halloween special of the Simpsons in which Homer sells his soul for a donut. And after eating this forbidden donut, Homer winds up down in hell, tortured by a demon in the Ironic Punishments division. The demon torturing him says, “So, you like donuts, do you?! Have all the donuts in the world!” and then proceeds to force feed him, two at a time, all the donuts in the world. The scene cuts forward to days later, a very pudgy Homer is finishing up the last donuts, the demon is completely baffled, and Homer just says, “More please.”
So…what’s this have to do with our Torah portion? Well, this week is Beha’a lotcha. InNumbers 11, the Israelites are complaining (what else is new?), reminiscing about all the good, tasty eats they had back in Egypt instead of this plain, oily manna that’s the same thing. Every. Single. Day. They miss meat – בָּשָׂר (basar) — flesh. So they whine to Moses, and Moses whines to God, and God…well, God gets spiteful. More »
So Leon Wieseltier got a little pushback for his review of The American Haggadah in the Jewish Review of Books. To recap: In the review, in addition to criticizing the translation and the commentaries (except for Rebecca Goldstein’s commentary), he also went to town on the cultural and linguistic illiteracy of American Jews. In any event, Wieseltier gives again as good and better than he gets. His style is pedantic, rude and snobbish, but some of his points are spot on. What do you think? (The letters he is responding to are here. You might want to read them first, but I’m not sure its necessary)
I am sorry if I ruined anybody’s Pesach. The eight days are hard enough without such polemical nastiness, I know. I had hoped to welcome the New American Haggadah to the world, not least because its editor is (or perhaps was) my friend, and its translator, with whom I have enjoyed cordial relations, seemed well equipped for his task. But I take these things—Hebrew, English, my duty as a scholar, my duty as a critic, my duty as a Jew—very seriously, and in my view the fault for any unpleasantness lies not in my insistence upon demonstrating the inadequacies of this Haggadah but in the inadequacies themselves. Presenting a new version of a central text of Judaism, and making large claims for its superiority to previous versions, is not a trifling matter, and the standard by which it must be judged is not Maxwell House, unless of course everything Jewish is to be prized mainly for its ethnic cuteness. Nathan Englander is no more “defenseless” than any writer or translator who puts a book before the public. Indeed, too many American Jewish readers are defenseless against his mistakes and misrepresentations. More »
By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.
Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.
It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.
Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.
She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.
Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.
When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.
“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”
Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”
Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.
This is a guest post by Marisa Harford. Shir HaMaalot is a new monthly Friday night havurah with full Hebrew liturgy services and musical instruments, followed by vegetarian dinner, socializing and singing. Our next service is Friday, March 9th at 7 pm at Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway. RSVP with your potluck contribution here or email email@example.com to join the listserv.
We’ve just named our new havurah Shir Hamaalot, Song of the Heights, a new traditional, egalitarian havurah in Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I’m honored to be able to share some information about the meaning of the phrase in context in the Bible and how its significance might help us reflect on the goals and the sacred work of this new community.
The 150 hymns in the book of Psalms are divided into different sections, usually by introductory phrases, some of which are very familiar to us, such as “mizmor l’David” (meaning “a song of David”). “Shir hamaalot” is one. There are 15 consecutive “shir hamaalot” psalms, numbers 120-134. Shir means song or poem, and ma’al can mean ascents, stairs, or anything that is above or over. For example, in Sukkah 5:4, the Mishnah explains that there were 15 stairs between the men’s and women’s courts of the Temple where the Levites would stand to sing these psalms during Sukkot. More »
This is a guest post by Joshua Schwartz, editor-in-chief for Uri L’Tzedek’s “Ve-Nahafoch Hu: Making Your Way Through an Upside-Down World.”
It with great pride and attendant humility that I announce the release of Ve-Nahafoch Hu: Making Your Way Through an Upside-Down World, a collection of essays, reflections and calls-to-action on the theme of Purim, published by Uri L’Tzedek. I was privileged to serve as the editor-in-chief on this publication, and I am deeply grateful for all of the amazing work my teammates and fellow contributors donated to its production.
“…these days, on which the Jews had rest from their oppressors, this month in which sorrow was turned to joy, mourning to festivity, to make them days of feasting and celebration, sending gifts to friends and giving to the poor.” (Esther 9:22)
Would it be so weird to take Purim seriously?
After all, Purim is that most confusing of conflations. On one hand, Purim is the craziest day of the Jewish year, a day on which we are encouraged to indulge ourselves. But on the other hand, Purim is the only holiday in which giving to others is a central practice. What does it mean when the day on which we let ourselves go is the very day on which we are commanded to provide for others?
I am something of a Jewish education crumudgeon. In many years in the trenches working with teens, I saw lots of failed attempts by well-meaning innovators to marry Torah content with 21st-century technology. But while Second Life classrooms have turned to ghost towns and the web is littered with class-project blogs that stopped after one post, G-dcast is going strong.
Perhaps the real strength of G-dcast is that it doesn’t try too hard, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. G-dcast works because the concept is simple: invite creative people to narrate a bit of Torah (or a bit about a Jewish holiday), illustrate their narration with animation, and release them for free on YouTube. (Once they got established, G-dcast added some smart extras like a DVD version and complementary curriculum for use in classrooms.) But really, the magic formula of short, entertaining, and free should be studied (like Torah!) by anyone else hoping to break into this field.
And speaking of breaking into the field, that’s where G-dcast’s latest innovation gets me all tight in the pants. They’ve announced plans for Studio G-dcast, a six-day intensive workshop this summer for emerging writers, poets, singer/songwriters and animators who are currently in college or graduate school. This has the potential to be the artistic beit midrash of the future today, where people who tell stories through words (& music) pair in chevruta with those who tell stories through pictures and motion to uncover meaning in our sacred texts. See why I’m getting all tight in the pants?
Application deadline is Friday, March 9, so get crackin’.
The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.
The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition. More »
There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric. More »