Archive | July, 2008

A great back-and-forth

It’s time like this that I remember why I love the unique world of blogging.

A few days ago, an edition of Ten Minutes of Torah written by Lewis M. Barth appreared. This issue suggested (gasp) that Reform Jews might begin to observe Tishah B’Av.

Then, over at RJ.orga post written by Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman appeared expressing extreme discomfort with Barth’s ideas.

I found Rabbi Schwartzman’s thoughts interesting, but I disagreed. So today, also over at, you can read my vehement disagreement with Rabbi Schwartzman.

They say that when three people sit and excahnge words of Torah, the Divine Presence resides with them. I wonder if it counts if the three people are nowhere near each other pysically?

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Service Times: The Summer Solution

I was on Long Island most of last week. On Friday night, I attended services at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington. On Firday nights in the summer, they manage to lead services in a way that does not contradict the position of the sun. I’ll explain.

In most congregation, if Firday night services begin at 7:30, they always begin at 7:30, even during the summer when the sun doesn’t set until 8:15 or 8:30. At the Community Synagogue, however, they begin services at 7:30 on Firday nights. But it’s not an erev Shabat service. It’s weekday minchah, the afternoon service! They follow minchah with Kabalat Shabat, candles, and kidush. Then everyone goes home. Genius.

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The Blog of Legends

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for the next Jewblog to add to your list of rss feeds. Look no further for your next one; here comes Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. I’ll explain.

Beginning at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute on August 16th, a group of people across the world will begin their daf yomi-style study of Sefer Ha-Aggadah. To quote Ben Dreyfus, our fearless leader in this quasi-daunting venture, “Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), the collection of thousands of stories from the Talmud and rabbinic literature compiled by the Hebrew poet Hayim Nachman Bialik and the editor/publisher Yehoshua Ravnitsky, was first published in 1908, and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.” What better time to begin a two-year study of the work?

To facilitate this study and to tie the disparate members of this study group together, Ben has organized Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, a group blog where an article will appear daily exploring some element of the day’s selection from the book. Every other Friday, you’ll be able to read my thoughts on the day’s selection at that blog. I’ll also probably cross-post them here.

If you’d like to join us in the absurd voyage across the next two years, read Ben’s post at the bloggadah about how to get an English or a Hebrew edition of the sefer. The schedule for our study can be found at Google Docs here. Ben’s bacground write-up and explanation of the schedule is here.

Again, here’s Ben: “The Sefer Ha-Aggadah project will formally kick off on Shabbat afternoon, August 16 (Tu Be’Av), at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute, and then the schedule begins on Monday, August 25.”

I am very excited about the people I’ll be blogging with. The group has some veteran bloggers, some just starting out, and some who’be never blogged before at all. Some are bloggers the I read and greatly respcet and I’m honored to be part of this team of bloggers.  Iyov has a list of them along with links to their blogs. I hope some of y’all can join us on this journey.

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Cherokee, Kurdish, Palestinian, Israeli, Basque, and Tibetan flags

Three thoughts, which are, to me, self-evident:
1. Zionism is the belief that it’s good for Jews to live in Israel as an independent nation.
2. I am a Zionist.
3. All people are of equal worth.

The first two of those thoughts obviously go together. The third one didn’t necessarily enter into the equation in my brain until relatively recently. If people are equal, it’s not hard to make the leap that the entities that people comprise are equal. Therefore, not only are people equal, but nations are equal. (When I say nation, by the way, I don’t mean state. Rather, I mean nationality. I mean Jews, Palestinians, Tibetans, Cherokees, Basques, Kurds, etc. in addition to the more self-evident nationalities who live in normal nation states such as the French.)

And just like that, I came to a slightly startling conclusion. I am what you might call a pan-nationalist. I believe that every group with a distinct national identity has the right to self-determination. That creates a messy world, and I don’t picture it ever really happening, but it’s an ideal of mine nonetheless.

Someday, I’ll write about Labor [blank]ism, another idea I’ve been thinking about here at Kutz.

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Mi Shebeirach. WTF? II

You may recall my post from December called “Mi Shebeirach. WTF?” Here we are months later and a commenter called Bella has posted a fascinating and long comment about the halachah of the isse of praying for the ill on Shabat. Totally engaging, in my opinion, if a little dense. I recommend it.

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Meanwhile at…

Yesterday’s post, Foreign Prophets, Foreign Songs, has been crossposted to There’s a lively discussion in the comments there as well, which you should all feel free to check out.

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Tyler Benjamin on Reform Judaism @

I forgot to mention this when it happened the other day. The series continues at with the thoughts of Tyler Benjamin.

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Foreign prophets, foreign songs

Two summers ago, here at Kutz, a girls’ cabin led services one day. As we all entered the tron, they were standing at the front singing and clapping their hands. The song goes like this:

Lord, prepare me

To be a sanctuary

Pure and holy

Tried and true

With thanksgiving

I’ll be a living

Sanctuary for you

It’s a nice song. The message is fairly basic and unobjectionable. The tune is catchy and sounds slightly gospel. I like it. Since then, I’ve also heard a variation that incoporates a quote from Torah, “V’asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham” (“Build me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you”). I like that version even better. When people found out that this verse of song is actually part of a larger song from the wonderful world on contemporary Christian music, they went nuts. The rest of the song is not explicitly Jesus-centric or anything like that, though it does sound very Christian, talking about being led away from temptation. (Of course one could argeu that that’s our topic also, but that we’ve left by the wayside because Christians speak so much about it.)

All week, we were hearing about how upset people were about the use of this songs in a Jewish service. This week also happened to be the week of Parashat Balak. Balak, aside from being one of my absolute favorite Torah portions, details the story of Bilam, a foreign prophet of God hired by a Moabite king, Balak, to ride out to the Israelity encampment and curse them. When he goes to curse them, God changes the words in his mouth into a blessing and out comes a poem of blessing. The first line is familiar to us because it now appears in every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov mishk’notecha, Yisra’el!” (“How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”)

This coincidence gets even better. Not only did we have an uproar on camp about the use of a non-Jewish song in services coincide with a Torah portion including a foreign prophet’s song that we know use in services, not only did I notice this wonderful coincidence, but I was scheduled to deliver the d’var Torah that week. You can imagine what I spoke about that Shabat morning.

My point was that if we can take a poem uttered with the intent to curse us and make it into a regular part of a service, we can handle one verse of totally unobjectionable Christian song.

In retrospect, I’m not sure that I was right. I was given the chance to revisit this story this week. Friday evening services were led this week, beautifully, by the songleading major taught by Caryn Roman and Jesse Paikin. They began with “Lord prepare me.” If you’re paying attention, you know that this last Shabat was Shabat Balak once again. You can imagine what was on my mind during services that evening.

I got to thinking not just about this particular issue, but about one of the the popular tunes for Psalm 150, which is actually a Sufi melody (Alah hu, Alah hu, Alah hu, etc.) I thought about the Phish song “Wading in the Velvet Sea” and the Bob Marley song “Redemption Song.” In my four summers at Kutz, I’ve heard both used as tunes for Mi Chamocha. I thought about a half-dozen other secular and non-Jewish melodies used in services. And I wonder if it’s okay.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the melody itself is not the issue. It’s the text. We have the entire Tanach, two Talmuds, and about eight million other Jewish texts out there to choose from. I wonder if we need to go to other traditions to find what we want to say. I wonder if we can’t find it somewhere in one of our own texts.

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ציצת טליסמן

I first wrote about my practice of wearing tzitzit via a talit katan every day here. That was in November of 2006. It’s been over a year and a half since that post. I think it’s about time to do a little review of my practice of wearing tzitzit.

As noted in the first post about tzitzit, I (famously, in some circles) view the practice of wearing tzitzit all day as essentially wearing what one might call Anti-Asshole Fringes. That is not to say that they keep assholes away, but that they keep me from being an asshole. To be honest, I’m not sure that they’re doing the job any more. I think that tossing them on under my t-shirt every morning may have become so rote and habitual, that whatever they may have done for me at one time is gone.

To be even more honest, I’m not sure that they ever truly altered my behavior. I’ll explain.

I was having a chat with a faculty member here at Kutz earlier this week. She mentioned to me that one of her children, whom I think is no older than ten or eleven (probably younger than that, even) announced to her while they were on a family trip to Israel several months ago that he wanted to buy a talit katan and wear around every day. Being a good Reform Jew, she encouraged him to experiment with his personal ritual practices and bought him a talit katan.

All over Israel, for the rest of the vacation, he wore these fringes. When they came home, he continued wearing them. For months, he wore them to school every day. Apparently, there was some sort of bullying going at school druing this period. Get this: When the bullying ended, he stopped wearing the tzitzit. He didn’t stop wearing them because he was being bullied, as one might expect Rather, he stopped wearing them because the bullying came to an end.

His mother’s assessment of this situation was that perhaps the tzitzit had provided him with some sort of grounding, some sort of security blanket, if you will, to hold on to during a rough patch in life. This got me thinking about some of the more anthroplogical assessments of the reasons for tzitzit, as well as t’filin and m’zuzot. Some say, and I buy into this to some extent, that these rituals were originally essentially good luck charms or talismans that protected one’s body, or one’s home from phyisical and spirtual harm from outside evil forces. This child was, according to his mother’s judgement of the situation, using the tzitzit to this end.

This really got me thinking about my real original reasons for wearing tzitzit nearly two years ago.

I was in high school. I was in Israel. I was in the first real romantic elationship I’d ever been in. I was thinking for the first time very seriously about some of the things that plague me to this day. I was thinking about ritual and prayer and the future and end of the world and God and Israel and capital-L Love and I was about to go to Poland and see all of this Shaoh shit and I was just really mixed and feeling and thinking eight million things at once. Whew.

So, in retrospect, did I really feel a sudden need to better my own behavior towards other people through the wearing of goofy fringes under my t-shirt? Or was I reaching out for some sort of bodily protection from the confliction and confusion I was going through at the time?

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Leslie Bass on Reform Judaism @

The series continues at with the thoughts of Leslie Bass.

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