Archive | November, 2008

So sayeth Larry

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love and generally agree with Larry Kaufman (North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism, National Board of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Executive Committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s North American Council, other impressive things). 


Larry Kaufman

Larry Kaufman


Larry recently posted on the URJ’s iWorship listserve:

How can we pride ourselves on counting wormen for a minyan, if a minyan doesn’t count?

He was referring to a discussion about whether or not Reform Jews should care about making a minyan or whether we should plunge ahead with 1, 5, or 10 in the same way, as though there was a minyan.

Right on, Larry.

You can find more Larry Kaufman at and here.

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The Forward 50

I just browsed the Forward 50, the Forward’s annual list of 50 influential American Jews. The list gives us many reasons to be proud and a few to be disappointed. Here are my faves.



At the top of the list, Rabbi Morris Allen, the Conservative Rabbi responsible for the creation of the first heksher dedicated to certifying food as produced under socially and environmentally responsible conditions, the Heksher Tzedek.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, head honcho at J Street, the new Israel lobby in DC. J Street has a leftward bent and in a single year of operation have proved to be an influential part of the inevitable fall of AIPAC’s monopoly in Israel in American politics.

Rabbi David Saperstein has been the director of the Reform movment’s DC lobby, the RAC, for 30 years. In that time, he’s become a prominent religious voice in our country’s politics. This year, he became the first Rabbi, the first non-Christian clergy, to give the invocation at a national party’s convention: Democratic National Convention in Denver.

I met Nigel Savage at Limmud NY this January (register now for Limmud NY 2009 at He’s the british founder of Hazon, a Jewish food ethics group. He’s also a fantastic teacher, as I found out at Limmud. You’ll notice a foody trend with the list this year.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, another Conservative Rabbi, gets a nod on this year’s list partially for her insistence on the Conservative movement adopting a halachic position in support of a living wage. She’ll be at Limmud NY this year. I’m just saying.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is one of the founders of the Hadar phenomenon, including Kehilat Hadar (flagship of the indie minyan movement) and Mechon Hadar (the first liberal, egalitarian yehivah in the US). He was ordained at JTS, but hovers far to their right, but to the left of the OU. I also met him at Limmud NY. He’ll be there again. He alone is reason enough to go.

To continue with the food theme, I’m happy to see Shmarya Rosenberg on the list. Shmarya is yid behind the powerful hareidi whistle-blowing blog Failed Messiah. He blew the top of the continuing abuses at Agriprocessors. He continues to report on the various shenanigans and bullshit going on Postville.



Aaron Rubashkin may have grown his family’s kosher food manufactuirng business into the first name-brand kosher food, but they’ve also gotten into the business of royally fucking a lot of people a lot of the time. Remember the name Agriprocessors from earlier this year? Yeah. That was the Rubashkin family.

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Sefer Ha-Bloggadah 1:5:112

Over at one of the other of the blogs I write for, Sefer Ha-Bloggadah, a daf yomi-style exploration of Sefer Ha-Aggadah, I wrote this on today’s reading:

Like prominent Jblogger DovBear, I’m all for reversing negative perceptions of minor character traditionally cast as villains. Today’s selection from Sefer Ha-Aggadah is a perfect chance to do just that.

We have been told that Balaam is a villain. In this agadah, he is compared to cheating moneychanger.

And Goc came upon Balaam, whosaid until Him: “I have prepared seven altars.” […] Balaam was like the moneychanger who gave false weights. The chief of the market, becoming aware of it, asked the moneychanger, “Why are you cheating by giving false weights?” The latter said, “I have already taken care of you with a gift sent to your home.” So too Balaam.

We know that much of the specificty of sacrifice laws is designed simply to set apart the practices of the Israelites from their neighbors. No less than Rambam, corroborated by archaeological evidence in the 20th century, asserted that the prohibition against meat and milk (don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk) is designed to keep not from eating cheeseburgers, but from participating in a particular pagan ritual where a calf is literally boiled in milk from its own mother’s udder.
The point isn’t necessarily that the pagan practice is wrong, but that it is wrong for Jews. We are to be set apart through our unique ritual practices.
All of that being said, I prefer to envision Balaam not as an evil man, but as an unaware man. He clearly has a relationship with God–not everyone talks to God with regularity that Balaam does. Indeed, the text describes him as a foreign prophet. A prophet! Is he a prophet of some evil foreign god? Clear not, given his aforementioned relationship with our own God.
Are his seven altars then to be interpereted as some evil pagan machination? No. Though not a Jew, he’s also, by definition, not a pagan, given his relationship with God. Is it evil? No. He is unaware of the special nature of the Jews he’s been sent to curse and he’s baffled at God’s insistence that he cut it out.
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Shabos Zmiros – The Northwoods

This guitar work is crazy cool and definitely qualifies as Shabatstic in my sefer! This is Elijah Palnik. He and my cousin, Jeremy Shanas, met at Camp Ramah in the north woods of Wisconsin. Now they have an awesome band together called The Northwoods.

via YouTube – Drumming on the guitar – Eli from the Northwoods

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Shabos Zmiros – Fleet Foxes

So, OK, this has nothing to do with Shabat. But if this band, Fleet Foxes, and this song, Ragged Wood, isn’t Shabatastic, I don’t know what is. Enjoy

Shabat Shalom.

via YouTube – Fleet Foxes “Ragged Wood” Music Video

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24 hours later

24 hours later and I haven’t woken up. It must be true. The next president of the United States is a black man and his middle name indeed Hussein. And it looks more and more like his chief of staff, arguably a more influential role than that of VP, is gonna be a Yid.

I’ve essentially grown up under Bush. Much of elementary school may have been the Clinton years, but by the time I was politically aware, I was barely old enough to follow the Floridia recounts.

And I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years downplaying my American identity, while playing up my Jewish one. I don’t think my Jewish identity has lost any of its primacy over the last 24 hours, but I feel excited about America, enthusiastic about this country, and downright patriotic for the first time I can remember.

And here at Drew, the excitment is palpable. People are walking tall.

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The sound of enfranchisement

I’ve heard a lot of sounds on campus tonight.

When Virginia came up blue, I heard a surging mass of privelaged white liberal arts students bounce off the walls screaming and hollering with victory.

I heard the rolling waves of my fellow students surge out of a multi-purpose room, onto the paths of Drew University, joined by students running from their rooms, literally baning on pots and pans.

And I heard a thunderous “Boo!” when McCain’s acceptance speech turned to thanking Sarah Palin.

But, back when Virginia came up blue, I was sitting with a group of black students, five of them. And from them I heard a differenet sound, a quieter sound. They sat down and cried. And one of them, a tall guy, stood up, tears streaming down his face and shouted, “All this time! All this time! All waiting for this moment!”

I had underestimated the role of race in this election. But I finally understood its roll listening to that guy and watching his friends cry. I heard at that moment the sound of enfranchisement. And it is a beautiful sound.

I heard a lot of sounds on campus tonight, but the sound of enfranchisement is the one that will stick with me till the day God comes down to get me.

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Voting booth t’filot

There has been much heming and hawing across the Jewish blogosphere about prayers to be said at the voting booth. It may seem an odd notion to Americans, so dead set are we on seperation of religion and government. Yet it is a classically Jewish thing to do to sanctify a seemingly mundane act by reciting a prayer.

Some have composed, as the links above show, special voting booth prayers, drawing cleverly on a variety of textual sources about government and wisdom and the like. Yet, I would like to suggest a simpler and briefer alternative.

If we open up our sidurim, we will find in the weekday Amidah the following prayer:

Hashiveinu shofteinu kvarishonah, v’yo’atzeinu kvat’chilah, v’haser mimenu yagon va’anachah, umloch aleinu atah Adonai l’vadcha b’cheser uvrachamim, v’tzadkeinu bamishpat. Baruch atah Adonai, Melech ohev tz’dakah umishpat.


Restore our judges as in the past and our officials as they were, remove from us sorrow and groan, and reign over us. You, Adonai, alone with kindness and compassion and justify us through judgement. Blessed are you, Adonai, a ruler who loves righteousness and justice.

This prayer seems to me a catch-all prayer for God to guide our elected officials on a path of justice, which is the best we can hope for from them.

So go vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already.

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David goes to Yale, has an interesting conversation

An old Kutz friend of mine is now a freshman at Yale. In high school, she lived in Florida and I in Texas, so we hadn’t seen each other in a while. I paid her a visit this weekend, spending one very strange Halloween at Yale.

Saturday afternoon, after a gorgeous walk in some gorgeous weather, we sat down in the gorgeous courtyard of her residence, Silliman College, and had a very interesting conversation. She put into words something that I’ve felt, but had been unable to articulate.

After we spent the Summer together at Kutz on 2005, I was completely sucked into the Reform movement. I went on to go to Israel as a senior in high school on the Union’s EIE semester program, spent another summer and spent another summer as a participant at Kutz, not to mention two years as president of my synagogue’s youth group.

Her story is rather different. Though she is a product of the movement through-and-through (her father is a Reform Rabbi), she kind of fell out of the movement, and became involved in a couple of eye-opening pluralistic programs. First, she spent a summer at Brandeis University on a program called Genesis, which she described as being like Kutz, but not. Genesis has more of a college feel, a focus on text study, and includes participants from all walks of Jewish life, from black hats to no hats and everything in between. The following summer, she was accepted to the prestigious Bronfman Fellowship summer program in Israel, also a pluralist program

I eventually made it to the world of pluralism, but it took me until my first year of college to do it. I attended the Limmud NY conference in January of last year (register here for the 2009 conference, where you will have the time of your life) and, though I enjoyed the conference greatly, came away from it very frustrated with the Reform movement, but unable to say exactly why.

My friend at Yale explained that at Genesis she became very frustrated with Reform as well. She said that at Genesis, all the program participants planned Shabat every week. Her eyes were opened by the more observant students, for whom planning Shabat involved a slew of minute details and considerations, which she had never been exposed to.

I realized that Shabat at Limmud was a similar experience. Limmud NY also draws a very denominationaly (or lack thereof) diverse crowd. It was the first Shabat I had really spent around a considerably large group of people, many of whom were far more observant than I. In the Reform movement, I’m used to being one of the most observant people in the room.

What frustrated us both about these experiences was that the movment that had raised us and educated us and made Judaism dear to us hadn’t explained that there were other Jews out there. Obviously, there aren’t any Reform Rabbis out there claiming that Orthodox Jews are is imaginary as the Easter Bunny, but they are certainly an ignored, or sometimes even obnoxious, fact of life to the Reform institution. My friend and I both noted considering, if only for a fleeting second, joining their ranks.

But in the end, I think we’re just glad that our experiences with pluralism have taught us that there people out there for whom a strictly observant Jewish life isn’t seen as a burden. Instead, it is that observant life that gives their lives its meaning, in just the way that my Reform choice process gives my life meaning.

Though I’m not even remotely willing to say that our movement’s excellent relationship with the American Muslim communiyt is bad thing, it is certainly a shame that we may have a better relationship with members of other religions than we do with our own coreligionists. It is a shame that we are often so insular in the Reform movement.

Shavua Tov.

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