Archive | January, 2009

The day liturgy began

I’m using the term liturgy loosely today, defined as the way Jews divide up time through ritual. That includes everything from how the service is structured to the the times at which Shabat arrives and departs to the way the Jewish year is constructed.

And so, the beginning of liturgy, of Jewish time, is contained in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. In it, God gives the first ever mitzvah regarding a fixed ritual that is to be repeated on a regular basis: Pesach. God also defines the current (unnamed) month as the first month of the year, one of four new years that will eventually come into practice (the others being the one in Elul for coronations, the politcal new year; Shvat, the beginning of the year with regards to tree taxes, though it’s been turned into Jewish Arbor Day; and of course the most familiar new year to us, Rosh Hashanah.)

Ah, you might say, but Shabat is established in Breishit. Shabat is made note of in Breishit 2, but it is not commanded until after the exodus. Shabat begins as universal time, the seven-day week, but does not become ritualized Jewish time until later. Rashi himself, in his commentary on Breishit 1:1, wonders why God begins the Torah with creation, rather than with this verse regarding the Pesach and the first of the firsts of the year, which he accurately calls out as the first commandment.

Anyway, for me, a liturgy-obsessed Yid, this is a moment in our narrative to be celebrated.

It’s been said that I can connect and will connect just about anything to liturgy. That’s probably true.

Shavua tov.

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Out here on the fringes, we wear the fringe

This rather long-winded post is crossposted to Jewschool, my first ever piece for them.

When the early Reform Jews of Germany set out to begin their Jewish Reformation, one of the first “arcane rituals” they tossed out was the practice wearing talit. They didn’t just stop a talit katan during the day, but the ceased to wear a talit gadol when they prayed. Tzitzit, in essence, left their lives completely.

The symbolism here is not lost on me. Tzitzit are a meta-mitzvah. The Torah tells us, once in Bamidbar and once in D’varim, to affix fringes to our four-cornered garments. The reason? We should see these fringes and be reminded of all of the other mitzvot that we must follow. And so, as the Reform Jews began their trek into the world of autonomy, abandoning mitzvot left and right, they saw fit to discard the most mitzvah-y of all mitzvot, the mitvah that reminds of all the other mitzvot.

I, however, wear tzitzit. And I am a Reform Jew.

I run, these days, in two Jewish circles. On the one hand, I write for RJ.org, the official blog of the Reform movement and I’ve spent the last two summers and will spend the next one working at a Reform summer camp. On the other hand, I run in the pluralist, trans-, multi-, post- and non-denominational Jewish, working for LimmudNY and exploring groups such as my usual prayer circle, the non-denominational Chavurat Lamdeinu and the Upper West Side’s Kol Zimrah.

And in both of these circles, I see tzitzit in increasingly shocking numbers.

David Singer, a blogger and friend of mine, once incite a whole slew of participants at a Reform summer camp to make their own tzitzit, charging them with the responsibility of making choices as Reform Jews, even if the choices aren’t the most popular choices within the movement. A few months later, I was in Israel and donned my first talit katan. I haven’t stopped since. A few months after that, I was a participant of NFTY’s nation biennial convention. There, I counted, amongst over a thousand Reform high school students, no less than fifteen wearing tzitzit. Two of them were girls. At that convention, NFTY elected its first tzitzit-wearing president.

And in the non-denominational world, tzitzit seem to have caught on as well. In the halachically liberal worlds of Reform and non-denominational Judaism, choices are made all the time. We must confront the fact that we have decided to find ourselves bound by only some of the mitzvot. That fact is one of the central struggles of my life.

Which brings us to the reasons I’ve been wearing tzitzit every day for nearly two and a half years. The first brings us full circle to the idea of tzitzit as the meta-mitzvah. I once declared that tzitzit are my anti-asshole fringes. I can be a mean person. I often say things without considering how they will impact the people around me. To that end, I think that on my best days, tzitzit keep the mitzvot about how to construct interpersonal relationships in the front of my mind. On my most thoughtful days, tzitzit encourage me to confront the challenging fact that I see myself as partially bound by mitzvot and to continue considering what that means and what its implications are.

On my most provocative, angry days, I revel in the act of putting on a garment that is a giant thumbed nose in the face of the Reform establishment that I’m still struggling to have a relationship with. I like being asked about my tzitzit, which happens to me daily, no matter where I go or who I’m around. I like giving liberal Jews something chew on. Many have never considered the idea that liberal Jews might wear tzitzit at all.

And on my worst days I worry that I’m wearing them only to get a rise out of people or only to let people know that I’m Jewish, reasons I see as superficial and false to the very notion of tzitzit.
I have been fascinated to bear witness to the slow rise in wearing tzitzit that both the Reform and non-denominational worlds have experienced in recent years.

But I’ll take my love affair with the fringe a step further: This obsession with kipot has got to end. The idea that keeping your head covered is universal amongst Jews and a normative sign of respect toward God is peculiar to European Jewry. Syrian, African, and even the Israeli communities late antiquity did not see keeping the head covered as normative. The Talmud itself commends the practice as an outward sign of piety, but does not require the practice.

Conversely, tzitzit are universal amongst Jews. All Jewish communities saw tzitzit as normative from antiquity and all understood and continue to understand their meaning in the same way. While kipot are some nebulous sign of respect for God, tzitzit remind us to follow God’s law and remind us of our connection to our desert-wandering ancestors who first donned them.

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Jewschool, hits in the 200s, and a great start to the semester [updated 2/1]

Kung Fu Jew, one of the many bloggers of Jewschool, asked me recently to write a post for them about tzitzit. So I did. And now it’s up. Jewschool is one of the major, big-deal, important jblogs out there. They kind of helped invent jblogs. This has me feeling pretty excited and pretty vindicated. And this is their motto: “Prying Judaism from the lifeless fingers of the Jewish establishment and serving it up to the public with the insistence, ‘This belongs to you.’”

Also, between two link this week from also important jblog Mah Rabu, a link from the LimmudNY homepage, and some pretty damn good posts, hits are up here at The Shuckle. Monday, 131 people saw this blog. On tuesday, 278 saw it! That’s over 100 more than my previous best day ever. Wednesday went down to 203 and Thursday popped back up to 220. So far today, 95 people have seen The Shuckle, which is much closer to my normal numbers.

In other news, my classes are great, I moved into a single room here in Spirituality House, I just put out a great Life & Arts section in this week’s issue of The Acorn, and I’ve got a new episode of Battlestar Galactica to look forward to tonight. 

To sum everything up, life is damn good. Shabat Shalom.

[Update as of Sunday afternoon, Febraury 2: This blog has now enjoyed a full seven days of over 100 hits per day!]

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Shabos Zmiros – Beit Habubot “Sigapo”

YouTube – בית הבובות – סיגפו Beit Habubot – Sigapo.

Probably my favorite Israeli band at the moment, Beit Habubot is pretty far off from Israeli groups we hear a lot of in the US, like Hadag Nachash. Beit Habubot uses a very sfarad-influenced guitar style. My favorite song of theirs is Shemesh, but I couldn’t find it on youtube. Instead, here is their biggest hit in Israel, Sigapo.

Their name means Dollhouse.

Shabat Shalom.

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The secret to keeping your tzitzit clean and untangled

Over a year ago, at LimmudNY 2008, Yoni, one of the caterers, wondered aloud to me about why I wore tzitzit, but no kipah. It was a pretty standard conversation. At Limmud, it’s a conversation I have four or five times daily. At school, it happens at least once most days.

But my conversation with Yoni took a different turn, pretty quickly. He remarked that my tzitzit were remarkably clean and untangled.

The other day, I was in the snack bar here at school. Some girl I’ve never spoken to in my life asserted to me that I must be a Super Jew because her dad is a Super Jew and he wears tzitzit. The conversation then took it’s normal turn, towards why I wear tzitzit, but no kipah. Then, she remarked that my tzitzit were remarkable clean and untangled. She said that her dad rarely washes his.

Yesterday, somewhere else on campus, this guy Josh, who I kind of know, says, “Since when do you wear talis?” I told him that I’d been wearing them for going on three years and that he just hadn’t ever noticed before. “Do you wash it?” he asked.

So here, at long last, is my secret to keeping your tzitzit clean and untangled:

I own about ten sets, all of mine are made of synthetic atheltic mesh material, but the material for the talit doesn’t really matter. I  never wear one set for more than three consecutive days. When I run out, I wash them in the washing machine. To keep the tzitzit from coming undone and getting tangled up with each other, I put each one in its own mesh delicates bag. But I don’t machine dry them. If you do that, the small tangles and kinks that do occur in the tzitzit in the washer will get stuck that way. I hang dry them after going through each fringe and making sure there are no tangles.

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The Rethinking Reform Think Tank

The most personal and most moving session I attended at LimmudNY 2009 was called Rethinking Reform and was advertised as being led by members of the so-called Rethinking Reform Think Tank. I do not know who else is in this group, but those leading the session were Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning Executive Director Rabbi Leon Morris, HUC rabbinical student Jill Cozen-Harel and former HUC student, current Ziegler rabbinical student, blogger and one of my many teachers, David Singer.

One year prior to this session, at LimmudNY 2008, the three of them came together for the first time from a place of frustration, loneliness, and excitement to create what they now refer to as The Reform Think Tank. I’ll let them speak for themselves in the following, their missions statement:

The “Rethinking Reform” think-tank is comprised of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who engage in study and sahring on issues of observance, obligation, mitzvah and halakhah in a liberal context. W sek to deepen the discourse within Reform Judaism and beyond with regard to what it means to be commanded, moving beyond a simple dichotomy of unbridled personal autonomy, on the one hand, and Orthodoxy, on the other.

Our discussions are aimed at effecting our own personal thinking on these topics, as well as influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance and away from marginalizing those who are drawn toward a greater traditional observance. The group is engaging these issues intellectually as well as personally, and is open to using this group as an experimental “community” that may determine some standards for itself.

Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not. Some have grown up in the Reform movment. Others have adopted the movement later in life. Some attend or have graduated from HUC. Others, in part because of these issues, have chosen different rabbinical schools. We come together out of a sincere desire to learn from one another and to begin to clearly articulate a way of being Reform Jews in the 21 st century that is more deeply grounded in Torah and mitzvot.

David, Leon and Jill began by sharing their personal stories of growing up Reform, feeling often far more observant than their peers. Because of that, then all mentioned ferquently feeling lonely and misunderstood within the movement. Internally, I reacted to this very emotionally. Though they are all cosiderably older than me and farther along in life than I, I felt a visceral association with that feeling of loneliness in the Reform movement. 

The mix of people in the session was interesting. There was me, quite a few Conservative movement refugees, several more HUC students who are not involved with the think tank, and a few others. Amongst the others were a young woman who grew up Orthodox and cited her opposite struggle to gain further autonomy within her community.

Another, an older woman, a Reform Jew in the pew, asked the first question of the session, rather aggressively suggesting that the purpose of this group is to influence or co-opt the Reform movement for their more observant ends. Though Leon quickly shot this idea down as a misunderstanding of the group’s purpose, his later words in the session seemed to betray him, not to mention the mission statement above. The mission statement says “Our discussions are aimed at [...] influencing the Reform movement toward a warmer and unequivocal embrace of observance.”

Leon also said later in the session, and here I paraphrase greatly, that as the movement stands, to be observant, one must justify the observance. For instance, I am constantly called upon to justify why on Earth, I, a Reform Jew, wear tzitzit. Leon experessed a desire to see the movement shift toward justifying non-observance. For instance, I would call on Reform Jews who do not wear tzitzit to explain why they choose not to. This desire of Leon’s dovetails with my constant struggle to systemtaize my own informed choice, but Leon runs in a conservative direction that I am hesitant to run in. I see that direction as conservative, by the way, in both the capital-C and lower case-c meanings of the word.

And here, it seems, is the biggest question I left the session with: Can the Reform tent be big enough for us on the fringe and wearing the fringe and big enough for members of factions like The Society for Classical Reform Judaism and the American Council for Judaism at the same time?

The tent seems to be getting bigger all the time, and I still regularly feel like I’m being pushed out of it. I sense that I share that feeling with members of the think tank, but question what their end goals are. I also question why this is an elite rabbi and rabbinical students-only club. Despite my deep respect for and friendship with David Singer, I question why those who have clearly exited the movement are involved with this project, especially this line from the mission statement: “Some of us currently identify as Reform. Others do not.” What then, can the stake of those who do not identify as Reform be in this group?

I invite Jill, David, Leon, and any other members of the think tank to comment here and clarify, or expand on any of this.

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Awakened who what project?

What the shit is this?

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Final shul-hop of my month in NYC: Kol Zimrah

Kol Zimrah is the premier progressive, non-denominational chavurah in New York City. They meet monthly for Kabalat Shabat and a veggie pot-luck dinner in an Episcopal church.

Overall, my impression was good. However, let us not forget that this is me we’re talking about and I can’t daven with any community without a few nits to pick.

First the good stuff: I counted about 80 daveners on this particular week with Kol Zimrah. We sat in a multi-layered circle, the innermost ring of which contained the leader and couple of the most spirited daveners as well as the holder of KZ’s innovative flipchart. The flipchart is a bound booklet, which says on each page, “The leader is on page 18,” or whatever page the leader is on. At each turn of the page, the flipchart operator hold it up and shows it around so that those who are lost can find their spot in the sidur.

The sidur is Chaveirim Kol Yisrael, an Friday night-only sidur created by the  National Havurah Committee. CKY is also the sidur that inspired my personal favorite sidur, Siddur Eit Ratzon, the first edition of which was a Shabat morning companion to CKY. The group also actively encourages people to bring their own sidurim. I counted about ten or so people who had done so. Their choices ranged from  the venerable Conservative Birnbaum sidur to the despicable ArtScroll sidur to the Israeli Reform sidur Ha’avodah Shebalev. I was giddy at the sight of a community the cares enough about liturgy that a full eighth of those present saw fit to bring their own sidur with them. I was content to use CKY.

The leader was Ben Dreyfus, otherwise known in the blogosphere as BZ and the proprieter of Mah Rabu, one of the jblogosphere’s best offerings. I was told by several regulars that I spoke with that Ben is the best of KZ’s many layleaders. He lead from the center of the room with a good voice and a guitar. The focus of the group, as the name indicates, is music. And it shows. The music is quote good, without lapsing into B’nai Jeshurun-like, performance-style concert-worship.

The prayers are in a typical progressive style. The imahot make all of their usual appearances along with Miryam in Mi Chamocha (my jury is still out on whether or not Miryam’s appearances are good or not). Meitim is the order of the day for G’vurot and L’cha Dodi is sung in its entirety to three different tunes, messianic verses intact. Structurally, I have no complaints about the service and I don’t feel that the music ever became distracting as I always feel it becomes at BJ.

There was a wonderful d’var Torah given by Jewschool‘s Kung Fu Jew, who, by the way, wears tzitzit and no kipah! Welcome to my club, Kung Fu Jew.

And now for the bad: There was dancing. I’ve figured out why dancing during services irks me so much. I should say, first of all, that dancing with the Torah is something I don’t mind. The Torah service is not a prayer service and revels in the joys of having Torah in our lives. Dancing is appropriate. During Kabalat Shabat, however, some of us are trying to pray. And I get that some people pray through movement, but for the rest of us it’s just distracting and awkward.

And that was really the only thing I disliked about it. Good job, KZ. You won me over.

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LimmudNY goes off with a few hitches

From October to mid-December I worked part time for LimmudNY. Since mid-December, it’s been a full-time occupation. I’ve made copies, field angry phone calls, fielded confused phone calls, registered people for the conference over the phone, co-ordinated our wonderful volunteers, handed out money to our student fellows, and done just about everything else that happens behind the scenes that no one else wanted to do. And I’ve loved it.

LimmudNY is the oldest American extension of the the nearly thirty-year-old British conference called Limmud. It is a grass-roots, fiercly independent move amongst Jews across the spectrum to connect for a weekend at a time all over the world to learn together and experience Jewish culture together. There are now Limmud conferences in the UK, Argentina, Atlanta, LA, Toronto, Chicago, Philly, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, France, Australia, Colorado, and at least a half-dozen other places.

I went last year as an ordinary participant and it was a life-changing experience, opening my eyes to the possibility for Jewish practice that exist in the grey spaces between denominational Judaism.

This year was the fifth LimmudNY and it looked to be our best. 900 people registered and our presenters included the heads of at least four major Rabbinical schools, which is a bit of a coup. Our volunteers worked for a full year to prepare the conference. For the first time, LimmudNY would be returning to the same hotel for a second year. Last year, the Nevele Grand Hotel and Resort, a sort of molding relic of the Borscht Belt, was nostalgic, if dingy. It was not the prettiest hotel in the world, but nothing went wrong.

This year, as I headed up to conference with a group of our volunteers, volunteers and staff members already on-site alerted us to the fact that the boiler at the Nevele was broken, but that is was being fixed. That was Thursday morning.

By 3am on Friday morning, we were all still awake and pretty freaked out. It looked as though the boiler would not get fixed in time for most of our participants to arrive on Friday and we weren’t about to put people up in a cold hotel. That night, we had shuttled the participants who paid for the four-night option, which begins on Thursday night, to a hotel next door, the Falls View. While they went to bed in a warm hotel, a very testy group of Steering Committee members, Board members, and staff members gathered in a hotel room heated by a couple of space heaters to discuss whether or not to cancel the conference. A major concern was Shabat, of course. If we decided to cancel at noon on Friday, would people have time to get home before Shabat? It was the most difficult meeting I’ve sat through.

But we trudged ahead. We communicated regularly to participants about the progress all day on Friday via e-mail and once via robocall. We kept preparing while wearing five layers of clothing. It was 7 degrees out and only maybe 35 inside. But we kept on. Some people didn’t come and other left after having come for a only a few hours or half a day. Those who chose to leave, we helped to leave.

There was one crisis after another all weekend. The programming team had to re-arrange rooms constantly to fit as many sessions as we could into the rooms that were bearably heated.

And the people who stayed the whole weekend are the most jazzed people I’ve ever seen. The prospect of Limmud being cancelled was the most saddening thing I’d ever heard. By the this harrowing fifth LimmudNY was over, I think most were able to depart in good spirits, with a renewed commitement to this amazing organization.

As we packed up on Monday afternoon, the hotel was finally warm all over and you could tell due to the unexpected water features appearing all over the decrepit hotel. As ice in the hotel melted, impromptu waterfalls sprang forth from the ceiling all over.

The best image I have of this disastrously wonderful weekend is the following: Most participants had already been shipped off to the Falls View, the hotel next door for Thursday night. Perhaps 20 or so were left in the frigid lobby, awaiting room assignment. A fairly typical looking chasidic guy, Josh Alpert, stage name Mr. Shabbos, whipped out his banjo and began playing Jewish songs on it and singing. People danced and sang along. And it looked as though, despite everything, Limmudnyks will be Limmudnyks and Limmud would go on.

Long live LimmudNY! Rest in peace, Nevele.

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Gaza. I’m gonna take a stand on it. For real this time.

I blogged earlier this week about the merits of praying for Israel’s military safety. But this evening, I’ll share my thoughts on the recent actions of both the Israelis and the Gazans.

 

I too am against the War in Gaza.

I too am against the War in Gaza.

 

This week, I welcomed Shabat at the New Shul, an innovative congregation in the Village. In lieu of a sermon this week, Don Sylvan, former professor of political science and current head of JESNA, shared his assessment of the situation. This was prefaced New Shul Senior Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s brief discussion of the Rambam’s thoughts on just war. It is with the thoughts shared by Don and Niles the other night and with the thoughts of fellow bloggers Daniel Sieradski and Jesse Paikin in mind that I’ve figured out just what I think about the situation in Gaza and Israel.

And I’ll say also that I’m not concerning myself with the particulars of the conflict, but with the implications for either side’s supposed moral high ground as well as the implications for either side’s identity.

An archetypal story, to begin: A boy grows up poor and destitute. As an adult, he becomes a very wealthy man by being smart and by studying and working hard. Rather than recall his youth and sympathize with the poor around him, he becomes greedy and never donates to charity.

Or how about this one? A little girl grows up kicked around and abused by her mother. When she grows up and becomes a mother herself, rather than recalling her youth and stopping the cycle of abuse, she becomes an abusive mother herself.

Or how about this: A great nation arises under oppression. They throw off the shackles of their oppresive adversaries and become a mighty and influential nation, millenia later gaining their own state and self-rule in their own homeland. Rather than recalling their own genesis, they find their own relatively new nation to oppress. The cycle begins again.

That people that I’m talking about have a great philosopher named Rambam. One of Rambam’s great achievements, the legal code called the Mishnah Torah, speaks of two types of war. There is a milchemet mitzvah (an obligatory war) and a milchemet reshut (an optional war). A milchemet reshut begins when your adversary attacks first and you act in defense, or when you know your adversary will soon attack, and you pre-empt them.

But when does a milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut? I would argue that when you’ve stopped the attacks on your sovereignty, but continue bludgeoning your opponent needlessly, you’ve exited your milchemet mitzvah and entered the realm of a milchemet reshut.

The Gazans are under attack. Though Israel pulled out of Gaza some time ago, Israel continues a hardline blockade of the tiny district, making life for the Gazans unbearbly hard.  Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. They’re being starved to death by a blockade. On the other hand, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not helping their cause. So has their milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut?

The Israelis are under attack. Though Israel pulled out of Gaza some time ago, the Gazans continue to shell southern Israel with smuggled rockets, making life for many southern Israelis unbearable. Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. Their homes and schools and business are being targeted along with their very lives. Rambam says they’re obligated to fight. On the other hand, it’s clear that what they’re doing in Gaza is not going to stop the rockets and that the civilian casualties in Gaza have become excessive. So has their milchemet mitzvah become a milchemet reshut?

We just had Chanukah, the story of our ancient oppression, in the very same land, and of our guerilla war to throw off oppression. And this very week, the Torah tells of Ya’akov’s family going down to Egypt to settle there, where they will become a great nation, under extreme duress.

There is a nation being formed under our noses in Israel today. There was no such thing as the Palestinian people when we got back to Israel, but there sure as hell is one now. We’ve got the opporunity to bring them into the world under better circumstances than we were brought into the world. We came into it in the shadows of pyramids and under the cracks of whips. The Palestinian nation is being born in fetid, decaying cities and under sniper fire.

No one has any moral high ground here. But Jews and Israelis have some moral experience. Why the hell aren’t we using it?

That’s why, if I was going to be in New York City next Sunday, I wouldn’t go to the pro-Israel rally. I wouldn’t go to the pro-Gaza rally. I’d go to the pro-Peace rally.

We may have a law about taking the eye of the man that took yours, but we have many, many more about peace.

Shavua tov. May this week bring us a little more peace than the last one.

[EDIT 1/11] The rally is TODAY, not next week. I’m an idiot. I still can’t go.

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