Everything you know about creativity might just be wrong

x-posted at Justice in the City

“Creativity” is the latest buzzword in education. The most watched TED talk ever is a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 called “How schools kill creativity.” It has had almost twenty million views.

Sir Ken’s main point (which is later joined by his second main point) is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and should be given the same status. His second main point is that children are not taught creativity, rather they are educated out of creativity. This means that all children are naturally creative and the educational system beats that creativity out of them, scaring them with the ideas that there are some things that are right and others that are wrong, and that it is important to know the difference between them.

The other fifteen minutes or so of the talk is filled with anecdotes, quotes, bashing of academics and schools (delivering the necessary truism that our educational system “came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”), and pithy good humor (the talk is definitely worth a listen for the jokes). The climactic anecdote is about the dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne. Gillian Lynne, who went on to become very accomplished and famous was having a hard time in school in the 1930s. She was characterized as not being able to sit still or concentrate. She might have been diagnosed today as having ADHD. Who knows. In any event, here is the turning point—she was sent to a doctor who listened to her mum’s complaints and then walked out of the room with her mum and left her by herself with some music. She then starting moving, dancing, jumping, etc. The doctor told the mother (according to Robinson): “Gillian isn’t sick she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” And her mother did.

Here, then is the important part which I would claim both skews the argument and, I think, explains the 29 million hits. I will quote from the transcript of the TED talk:

[Lynne said:] “We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. (15:50 and on)

There’s the thing. From ill-behaved child to wildly successful, pleasure-giving-to-millions, multi-millionaire in less than a paragraph. With a sentence left over at the end to bash the doctors who treat ADHD with medication. More »

Being Judged as Newborns — a Rosh HaShanah Intention

The dominant Rabbinic tradition is that Rosh HaShanah marks the creation of the world, as our liturgy reflects:  “This is the day, the beginning of Your creation, a memorial of the first day” —   “זה היום תחילת מעשיך, זכרון ליום ראשון” (introduction to Zikhronot in Musaf); “Today is the conception of the world” — “היום הרת עולם” (Shofar service).  Our Day of Judgment, our accountability, zeroes in not on reception of the Torah, but on our very creation as fragile human beings with clean slates.  

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the Haftarah of Hannah’s suffering over her barrenness, her prayer for a child, and the birth of her son Shmuel, the prophet — on Rosh HaShanah, according to the Rabbis.  Hannah, the outcast, is scorned by the religious establishment, which mistakes her sincere, vulnerable prayer for drunken blathering in violation of Temple decorum and public decency.  But the Rabbis in the Talmud (Berakhot 31 a-b), stylize her prayer as the legal paradigm.  To pray according to halakhah, we must bring out into the open our inner Hannah — our vulnerable, heartbroken, and rejected self, despite the fear.  

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read Jeremiah’s promise that exiled and broken Israel will see new life.  The current agony of exile is poetically personified as Mother Rachel, bitterly weeping for her lost children.  Rachel, like Hannah, suffered for years through barrenness, so the pathos of her wailing over her lost children rings especially intense.  There, too, the Rabbis see something else in the Matriarch’s emptiness.  She is not עקרה (barren, uprooted, maimed, hamstrung), but עיקרה, the essence, the chief, the core of her household (Bereishit Rabbah 71:2).

This Rosh HaShanah, let us create safe spaces for dangerous prayer, to be present as though our prayer is the most important thing for us to do at that moment, because healing the world requires perceptive and audacious consciousness, rooted in vulnerability, and believing in our ability, and each other’s, to be better than we have been.  The consciousness of our continual rebirth requires preparation, inclusivity, and support as we draw out the pain, regret, and joy of our inner Hannahs and Rachels.  Some scholars have suggested that “היום הרת עולם”  should be translated not, “today is the conception of the world”, but, “Today is pregnant with eternity”.  God sees us as newborns, with infinite potential.  Dare we see ourselves that way?

Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

 

I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.

 

Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot.

 

Men, however, take a different tone when they want to know about my tzitzit. Even if the interaction begins typically (“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?”), it always escalates to a confrontational tone, if not one of outright hostility. I’m consistently shocked by the way men — never peers, always older and better-educated due to their age — feel entitled to confront and debate me. It is as if my tzitzit suspend all of the courtesy, privacy, and in some cases the basic feeling of safety I should be entitled to in any interaction.

Sometimes, the way men use my tzitzit as an opportunity for harassment is obvious – my deviant body provides an opening for creepiness. On a recent evening on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, I was walking alone when I was approached by a man in a black velvet kippah and scruffy beard. He began (in Hebrew) with the usual: “Can I ask you a question?” I nodded unenthusiastically, and he said “are you wearing tzitzit?” “Yes,” I responded. “Are you a man or a woman?” (His use of the feminine “you” in Hebrew made it clear that he was not really confused about my gender.) “Woman,” I said curtly, and moved to walk away. The man then picked up one of my fringes and kissed it – in the process, brushing his hand along my leg. At that point, I began to walk away in earnest. “Wait!” he said, “I want to talk to you more!” “No,” I told him, and began to cross the street. “But I really want to talk to you!” “NO,” I said, and walked away as fast as I could. Later in the evening, I was subjected to a drunken pun from another man about “tzitzit” and “tzitzim” (the Israeli equivalent of “tits”).

Not all interactions I have with men about my tzitzit are as immediately recognizable as creepy. A few months ago, on a summer program for students in or recently graduated from high school, I was sitting in a common area in a college Hillel, studying my Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon. A male peer from the program, who was sitting opposite me, asked a casual question about my beliefs, with an apology if he had disturbed me and an assurance that I wasn’t obligated to answer if I was busy or uncomfortable with the question. I happily engaged in debate with him, but a graduate student sitting nearby soon interjected. Having not been party to any of the previous conversations I’d had over the course of the program during which I’d explained my conception of ritual obligation, the man began to assail me with a series of rapid-fire questions that assumed a familiarity with philosophy that I, as a then-seventeen-year-old with no particular extracurricular interest in the discipline who had for obvious reasons never taken Philosophy 101, lacked. Feeling attacked and uncomfortable, I answered as best I could, then cut him off and left the room to continue learning my leyning.

I sat down in an armchair immediately outside of the room, curled up with my tikkun. I could hear the man still talking to my peers about me. After about ten minutes of productive practicing, a middle-aged man (whom I had apparently not noticed enter the room behind me and join the still-raging debate about my personal practice) walked up to wear I was sitting, and looked me up and down.

“Are you the girl — oh, you are the one with tzitzit!” (It should be noted that because of the way I was curled in the chair and the way he was looking at me, this comment was made with his eyes directed at my ass.)

I nodded and returned to my tikkun, trying to learn one of the final pesukim. The grey-haired professorial-type, ignoring this obvious cue, plunked himself down in the armchair opposite me.

“Do you wear tzitzit to be like your brothers?”

“I don’t have brothers,” I said curtly, returning my focus to Parashat Pinchas.

“Do you want to be a brother?”

I gaped at him.

“No, it’s okay, you can talk to me about it,” he said, “I’m a psychotherapist.”

I gaped at him some more, angry but too thrown off-balance to think of a response. After an unrelated comment about some organization he ran, the man simply picked himself up and walked away. I sat there, confused, upset, and still two pesukim short of having memorized my leyning.

While I did learn the aliyah in time, this encounter (which, it bears mention, also smacked of transphobia) was simply a more extreme example of the ageist, sexist, entitlement unfamiliar men feel to engage with young women through the veneer of a discussion about ideology. Men should never feel like they can aggressively and confrontationally engage with young women about their beliefs or their outfits, and when  they do, their differences in education — what high school student will feel comfortable debating halakha with a rabbi or philosophy with a PhD candidate? — are used as a tactic to silence and overwhelm.

The entitlement of older men to comment on the religious beliefs and experiences of young women came to a head a few months ago in an appalling way. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an Orthodox congregational rabbi and blogger, somehow dug up a piece published by Eden Farber on the New York Jewish Week’s teen writing site Fresh Ink for Teens about her discomfort as a girl attending an Orthodox shul. (Full disclosure: Eden is a close friend of mine and long-time chavruta.) Rabbi Pruzanksy viciously attacked the article and Eden personally — ignoring that at the time of its publication, the writer was fifteen years old. His article deserves a full and angry rebuttal, but the following is a representative quote: “Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.”

In addition to the personal offense I take at comments like “We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine,” there is a deeper attitude of not only condescension, but what for me as a young woman sets off alarm bells of what can only be called creepiness. Why is a middle-aged male rabbi trawling teen sites for two-year-old articles to rebut?

Rabbi Pruzansky’s behavior echoes that of the man who asked me if I wished I was a boy. There is no respect for boundaries, for age dynamics, for differences in education; this disregard of boundaries easily becomes or blurs into outright sexual harassment. When older men appear to treat teenage girls as partners for debate, this is not an expression of respect. This is the most unequivocal display of sexism and entitlement.

Simply because we exist — sometimes, as in the case of my tzitzit, very visibly — and express and act on our beliefs, we are not philosophical cases to ponder or peers to attack (and, obviously, are not merely sexualized bodies). We are articulate, well-read, and confident in our knowledge and practice. We are often happy to publicly and privately speak about the things we believe in, and to risk criticism online and in person for this. This does not make us public property. We are young women. Those who act as if they do not see this factor are those who are most aware of it.

In Brooklyn Next Sunday? Come Make Shofar-blowing History

Calling all Jews with horns (and their allies)–

You are hereby welcomed to take part in a historical mass shofar-blowing gathering this       coming Sunday in Prospect Park. The event will consist of a shofar-blowing workshop, a  series of collective blasts, and a vegetarian potluck picnic.

At 5:30pm, we will meet at the corner of 15th St. and Prospect Park West and proceed to enter the park. Please arrive on-time so everyone can find each other.

If you own a shofar and/or a phone which can film, please bring it with you, as well as something for the potluck, if you can stay after.

Our rain location is the Park Slope Jewish Center (1320 8th Ave, located at the SW corner of 14th St and 8th Av).

This event is free, open to the public, family-friendly, and intended for experienced and novice shofar-blowers alike, so please do come and invite friends. We hope you can join us as we herald in the new year with great fanfare.

It will be…a blast

Seeing and Being Seen: Ask Big Questions

I contributed a blogpost to our friends at At Big Questions for this month’s theme of Seeing and Being Seen, which they encouraged me to cross-post here.  Check out more of their work!

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

– Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words.  But which words?  And how do we know?  And what is it, exactly, that we know?

To continue, click here.

 

TBT: Re-Revisiting The Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re revisiting this piece I posted a year ago, right before Tisha B’Av, on the mitzvah of rebuke.  I argued that one of the consequences of living in therapy culture is that we must be more confrontational and engage in more rebuke, since the Torah commands us to do so when we’re angry, and we now have the emotional technology to do so constructively.  ”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…In a culture of processing groups, conflict aversion is not piety and not even always chastened caution:  It’s reckless abandonment and sometimes it’s even mean. ”

We’re TBT’ing, because it’s still a live issue, and especially in this moment, when the Jewish community is rightly immersed in intense and urgent debate about Israel, it is all the more important not to back away from hashing out those conflicts, even as we must pursue the most constructive ways to do so.  However, I appreciate several responses I got critiquing my failure to explore the significance of power to this question.  Several respondents pointed out that when the person whom I feel violated me is someone who has power over me, it can be extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to perform rebuke; conflict-aversion may be self-protection.  Part of what makes processing groups and group therapy work is the external creation of a safe space, including the removal of the power dynamics that obtain in general.  Even if we have been trained how to speak critically and non-violently, that training is not so helpful if we don’t have control over the context.  These critiques are correct and I am grateful for them.  I also wonder whether power dynamics are actually much more prevalent in hurtful interactions than perhaps I considered a year ago.

Here is the article again.  I invite and welcome responses, especially on the question of power.

“Let Justice Rise Up”: On Prayer and Times of Crisis

by Danya Lagos

The first two chapters of the Book of Amos warn its reader that the Gaza and Jerusalem of that time might ultimately end up sharing the same shitty, terrible, catastrophic fate under the same sky that they uncomfortably share with each other. Because of certain injustices that have been allowed to continue, or be unatoned for, it is said that fire will be sent down from the sky and destroy them both (Amos 1:7, Amos 2:5). The wording in the original curses is exactly the same for both places – all you need to do is switch the names, and it becomes clear that the standards and are quite parallel: “I will send a fire upon (INSERT HERE) and it shall devour the palaces of (INSERT HERE).” There are other cities also cursed in these chapters for whom the same formula is applied (Damascus, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Basra, etc.), but the point that Amos is making is that when it comes to practical matters of justice and oppression, the Jewish people are not judged any differently or given any lesser punishment for non-compliance than their neighbors. More »

Torah-Bot: Kosher or Blasphemous?


When Tablet Magazine published this piece last week about a Torah-writing-robot, I was astounded and excited and generally freaked out. For those who don’t know, here’s my brief explanation of the art of Torah writing:

A sofer is the Hebrew name for the scribe who painstakingly writes Torahs. For those who don’t know, it can take over a year to write ONE Torah scroll. And it’s not like typing on your computer or writing in your notebook – if you mess up, you have to restart the page you’re on or sometimes carefully scrap the ink of the mistake off thepage. It’s certainly not as easy as pressing “delete.”

So when the Jewish Museum Berlin opened an exhibition called “The Creation of the World” featuring a robot that can write a 260-foot long Torah in THREE MONTHS, my jaw dropped. I thought it was brilliant! That would save time and animal hide and who knows what else. So why was I also totally uneasy about it?

Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of watching Battlestar Gallactica, but it seems to me the more power we give to robots, the more power we lose. Robotic devices already do plenty, from manufacturing food to cleaning; it seems to me having them do sacred tasks is a bit, well, blasphemous. Or is it?

I’m not really sure. If we don’t want robots writing our Torahs, what else don’t we want them to do? What do we want them to do? Are there any religious tasks that could be done with robotic aid?

I’m well aware that the process of writing a Torah isn’t just about the writing. According to tradition, a sofer must use a certain kind of pen and there are blessings that need to be said throughout the undertaking. Would it count if the robot read the blessings? Or if someone said the blessings on behalf of the robot? Or is this a task we should leave to the humans?

 

Photo from Tablet Magazine

“But Korach’s Children Did Not Die” — On Collective Punishment and Spiritual Creativity

As increased attention is being paid to the problematic incarceration complex in the United States, especially in light of Michelle Alexander’s sobering book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, policy makers, social service providers, educators, and law enforcement officials are also considering the vertical effects of criminal stigmatization on the children of the incarcerated.  Last year, Sesame Street even saw fit to release a segment on its web site about children with incarcerated parents, which aroused ire from some observers appalled that this normalized criminality.  Though it is unclear that children of incarcerated parents engage in any higher levels of criminality than their peers, stigmas often cling to such children from the outside.  In that context, it is instructive to consider a brief, four-word aside in this week’s Torah portion.  In the context of a  census taken after two brutal acts of Divine carnage, the Torah matter-of-factly claims  (Numbers 26:11),  ”And the children of Korach did not die.  וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ.  Why didn’t they die, why might that surprise us, and why does the Torah bother to mention it?  More »

Pinchas and “Connected Criticism”

by Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.

The people of Israel have sinned. The blood of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the innocent Palestinian teenager brutally killed by Israeli Jews, is on our hands, and we know it. Our centrist and right-wing friends are sending letters to the parents and posting outraged Facebook statuses. As the Torah says, Zimri was sinning, “while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.”

And we lefties find ourselves with the unwelcome, and frankly despicable task of reminding everyone that, if you have been paying attention, you know the occupation regularly takes Palestinian lives. That the latest futile escalation with Hamas will not bring safety to the besieged South, but it has killed eighty Palestinians, including children, and it will kill more (though to be sure, much of that blood is on Hamas’s hands). That Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically resurrected house demolition—an immoral, failed deterrence policy discarded by the Israeli military, and that his cabinet will use recent calamities to build more settlements. More »

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Honoring God, Who Gives Life to All Flesh

by Rabbi Ari Hart

Rabbi Ari Hart is a founder of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance and of Uri L’Tzedek.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), God is called “Elohei haruchot l’chol basar,” the one who gives spirit to all flesh (Numbers 27:16).

In that spirit of a God who gives life to all beings, I ask that those who, like me, support Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s civilian targeted missiles, stop and read the names below of the children who have died in Gaza since the fighting began. Know that the same God that breathed spirit into you breathed spirit into them.

Seraj Ayad Abed al-A’al, 8
Mohammed Ayman Ashour, 15
Hussein Yousef Kawareh, 13
Bassim Salim Kawareh, 10
Mousa Habib, 16
Ahmad Na’el Mehdi, 16
Dunia Mehdi Hamad, 16
Amir Areef, 13
Mohammed Malkiyeh, 1½ years old
Ibrahim Masri, 14
Mohammed Khalaf al-Nawasra, 4
Nidal Khalaf al-Nawasra, unreported age
Ranim Jawde Abdel Ghafour, a young girl

Though I hold Hamas responsible for this war and for the tremendous suffering they have inflicted on innocent Israelis and Palestinians, I also acknowledge that no matter how precise Israel’s strikes are, innocents will be killed as a result. Including children. Children who have the same goofy smiles, the same dreams, and the same fears as our children. Israel’s right to self defense is not free. It comes with a profound human cost that we, as a people who strive for moral grandeur, must face.

Some Thoughts on Chosenness: Toward a Non-Exclusivist, but Non-Colonizing, Particularism

Earlier today, a friend posted on Facebook asking for thoughts on the concept of being a/the Chosen People.   Some respondents affirmed chosenness as a call to duty, others commented on the problematic exclusive nature of Chosenness, the superiority in it, others asserted that many peoples are chosen and one simply posted the alternative, emended language of the blessing over Torah, “Praised are You…Who chose us WITH all the nations” (“אשר בחר בנו עם כל העמים”), instead of the traditional “Who chose us FROM all the nations (“אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים”).  The whole chain is on Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s Facebook wall.  My comments might interest Jewschoolers, so in the spirit of The Jeffersons, I’m spinning them off here.

“ברוך…אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו.”
Praised are You…Who chose us from all the nations by giving us Your Torah.  (The traditional blessing over Torah study and for receiving an aliyah at public Torah reading)

[Background premise: I do not believe that, on the whole, most people do the most good through universal humanism. For the most part, people live in stories and those stories shape their ability to do specific good. John Lennon's song "Imagine" is a dystopic nightmare to my ears.] More »

We’ve Been Waiting for You: A Retrospective with Maharats

Just about a year ago, the first class of Maharats graduated. For those of you who haven’t been following the various stories over the last year or so, the term Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, translated as one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. In other words, an Orthodox Jewish female rabbi. But, you know, without the title of rabbi. I was fortunate enough to be a part of a webinar hosted by JOFA entitled “The Maharats’ First Year: A Retrospective,” where three Maharats and one soon-be-ordained Maharat spoke about their experiences thus far. Part of me was hoping for anger: these women are basically rabbis, don’t they deserve the respect of earning the same title for the same job that men do? Even though I was hoping for angry women ready to lead the way for change in their fields, I’m also relieved that this was not the case. Instead, Maharats Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheir, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Rori Picker Neiss were enthusiastic, calm, and not bitter in the slightest.

Each woman spoke of the supportive nature her respective congregation and fellow clergy people. While there were minor displays of negativity, for the most part each Maharat was warmly welcomed into her community. Communities that for so long have denied women the opportunities to become leaders in their shuls. Now, these communities can see the full potential the women members of their synagogue have to offer. Maharat Abby spoke of how excited her community was to have her, and how interest in bat mitzvahs have increased since she began her position.  More »

The Scouts as Stubborn, Old Guard Leaders: The Torah’s Warning Tale

This week’s parashah (Shelach-Lekha; Bemidbar 13-15) focuses on the second of the Israelites’ two most devastating moments of collective failure in the desert — the mass rebellion and breakdown after the scouts overstepped their jurisdiction for reconnaissance by insisting that the land was unconquerable.  Before everything goes haywire, the Torah introduces the scouts by name and tribe, and describing them, saying that “they were all people, leaders of the children of Israel”– “כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה”.  Why this extraneous clause, “they were all people/kulam anashim“?  The Torah could have just said that “they were all leaders of the children of Israel/כלם ראשי בני ישראל”.   The Zohar records a fascinating midrash teasing out what might be hinted at in this emphasized clause:

“‘They were all people’:  All of them were worthy and were leaders of Israel, but they took bad council for themselves.  Why did they take this council?  They reasoned, ‘If Israel will be brought up to the land, we will be removed from leadership and Moshe will appoint other leaders, for we are worthy in the desert to be leaders, but in the land, we will not be worthy’.  Because they took this bad council for themselves, they died, along with everyone who took their word.  (Zohar III (Bemidbar, Shlach-Lekha, 156b) More »

Careless Communication and Social Dysfunction: Understanding Yitro’s Departure

The book of Bemidbar chronicles the difficulties of freedom, the always-looming hangover of redemption’s intoxicating inauguration.  Miriam and Aharon grumble about Moshe’s wife and power; the people rebel, demanding meat; Moshe starts to crack under the burdens of leadership, begging for help; the scouts stir up the masses to insist that entering the land is impossible; remorseful zealots, regretful at God’s decree that they won’t possess the land, try to conquer it without God’s sanction, and get routed; a brazen stick-gatherer publicly flaunts Shabbat violation; Korach, Datan, and Aviram join forces to stage an uprising against Moshe and Aharon; Moshe loses his grip, reacting aggressively to the people’s panicked cries for water; the masses succumb to temptation to a pagan orgy at Ba‘al Pe‘or.

This theme of breakdown of the social order stands in stark contrast to the beginning chapters of the book, which can read as almost mind-numbingly banal, if such a thing can be said, in their perfectly structured, utopian ordering of the camp and its leadership structure.  So, how did we get from point A to point B, from perfect structure to chaos?  Literarily, the turning point is the Israelites’ departure from their resting place near Sinai to march toward Canaan, so it is worthwhile paying close attention to what transpired in that transition.  Crucially, the Israelites’ departure is framed by the personal parting of ways of Moshe’s father-in-law, Hovav (aka Yitro), from the Israelites, suggesting that it was his absence or the process of his departure that led to communal breakdown.  What’s more, the depiction of this parting of ways is itself marked by halting, unclear communication and lack of closure, as if to suggest that it was communication failure itself that made the parting of ways, and the consequential breakdown, fait accompli. More »

Throwback Thursday: the Price of Jew$chool

Nearly all of the issues I raised in my 2011 post,The Price of Jew$chool,” which lamented the state of Jewish Day School tuition and the weaknesses of its alternatives in formal Jewish education, unfortunately remain quite relevant today.  Then again, statements such as the 25-year-old Greek Chief-Rabbi elect‘s recent reflection that the internet was his Jewish education, stand as sobering reminders that beyond the U.S. and Israel, Jewish education, even in its most modest forms, is a scare resourceAccording the 2013 Pew Report Forum findings on Jewish life in America, 23% of Jews report having attended Jewish Day School or yeshiva in their youth, and nearly 60% have attended some other form of (non-Day School) formal Jewish education. What does the future hold? How can we respond to this continuing crisis?

The Price of Jew$school

Before you panic, rest assured: we’re not about to start charging you when you read more than 20 posts per month.  No, we’re talking about the ever-skyrocketing expense of sending children to Jewish day school in the U.S.

With $7,000 you might be able to fly back and forth to Israel six times, but for the same price you could stay put in Overland Park KS and learn at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy for one year.  One thousand dollars more will buy you—show them what they’ve won—one year of 1-8th grade education at the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School. If you want to send your child to the Solomon Schechter of Atlanta, be prepared to shell out upwards of $17,000 per year starting with first grade.  $26,650 might be a fine price for a Toyota RAV4 Sport, but did you know that for the same price, you can ‘kaneh likha rav’—or maybe even four—and enroll for one year of high school at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, PA? $29, 955 would be a steal for a small, foreclosed apartment in a depressed real estate market, but it could also buy you one year’s education at Milken community high school in LA.  These numbers don’t even include the usual “give and get” $1,000+ minimums typically imposed upon day school families on a yearly basis. More »

Trampling Torah and perpetuating antisemitism on the 700 Club

Jews are more successful financially, Pat Robertson said on his TV show, because they are “polishing diamonds, not fixing cars.”

I’m not sure who is worse in this clip, Robertson or his guest, anti-gay wacko Rabbi Daniel Lapin. In the jaw-dropping segment of Robertson’s 700 Club , courtesy of Right Wing Watch, Lapin was stumping for his book about how the Bible wants you to get rich:

“When you correctly said in Jewish neighborhoods you do not find Jews lying under their cars on Sunday afternoons, no, I pay one of the best mechanics around to take care of my BMW, I’d be crazy to take my time doing it myself,” Lapin said. “Or for me to mow my lawn, I’m the worse lawnmower in the world, but the young man who lives down the street from me, he’s one of the best and he’s happy to do it and I’m happy.”  More »