Archive | March, 2009


If you watch Battlestar Galactica and haven’t seen the finale yet, stop reading now. If you think that you might ever start watching BSG, you too should stop now. This is not an abandonment of this blog’s usual topic. This post is all about religion, just as BSG has often profoundly been.

battlestar - raptor appraoching africa and earth

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the two hour long finale of Battlestar Galactica. It seems that people who saw it fall into one of two camps: Either they like God and they like the episode, or they are the angry-at-God atheist sort of sci-fi fan and thus, they do not like the episode. I liked the episode a lot. I think it’s probably one of the best finales a tv show has ever had.

battlestar - tigh, cottle, adama, hoshi and lee looking at the natives

There is a claim being made that the solution to three problems (Who is Kara Thrace? What exactly are the Head Baltar and Head Six characters? What’s the deal with Earth?) was lazy writing because it was Deus Ex Machina. To claim this is to misunderstand the meaning of Deus Ex Machina. This is like claiming that the parting of the read see is Deus Ex Machina. Deus Ex Machina is when a god comes out of nowhere at the end of a story to save the day. That’s no what happened in this story. As with the Exodus of the Bible, God has been in this story all along. It’s just that we assumed that because the show was sci-fi, we would be given a “better” explanation for certain moments in the show.

battlestar - destroying all their colonial tech, anders pilots the whole fleet into the sun

The truth is that BSG has always reflected reality in a sort of fantastic way. The people on the show react to impossible situation in ways that we can imagine ourselves reacting. They often abandon heroism at key moments or take up drinking to deal with their problems, making the show’s characters the most real characters that have ever graced our television screens. And in the final moments of the show, the religious reality of Battlestar’s world turned out to be pretty similar to the way I think most contemporary Americans view religion.

battlestar - the future mitochondrial eve, hera, a human-cylon hybrid with her parents

We think God or gods or whatever–or, as Head Baltar says, “It doesn’t like to be called that”–exist, but we sometimes struggle to see him-them-her-it-[insert pronoun here] in our daily lives. But we’d really like to believe, and I think most of us do, that in the end, when all that is within us fails, that something will step in to save us. And in the final moments of Battlestar, that’s what happened.

battlestar - six and baltar wander off. balter think he knows a thing or two about farming.

So, those who fall in the “I like God so I liked this finale” camp, you missed the point. This isn’t a confirmation of monotheism, but a mere confirmation of theism. There are angels or demons or spirits or whatever Starbuck and the Head characters turned out to be and there is cyclical, Eastern spiritual notion of time and history as cyclical. On the other hand, maybe Starbuck was a messiah character and led us out of the cycle and into a new one where we wouldn’t destroy ourselves.

battlestar - with roslin dead, adama sits down where he thinks he'll build his cabin

And for those who fall into the “I don’t like God so I didn’t like this finale” camp, there’s nothing more fantastic about God than there is about FTL drives and Cylon replication and all that.

battlestar - this image of manhattan with this title card blows the balls right off of lost's 30 years earlier title

And thought the show’s dialog ended on an up-beat note about breaking the cycle of history, Ron saw fit to throw is that little robot montage at the end just to tell us, “Hold on a sec. We’re not that good yet. Let’s all just calm down.”

Read full story · Comments { 2 }

Breaking idols with Rabbi Morris

I know that Rabbi Leon Morris is my kind of guy because when commenting on how nice the spring weather was Friday afternoon, we both said, “Pesach must be coming.” Discussion of seasons in Israel and of the line in G’vurot that will shortly change followed.

sanctuary at temple emanu-el in new york city

I first met Rabbi Morris, one of the most important Liberal Jewish thinkers of our times, a few months ago at Limmud NY 2009. Read about that meeting here.

We were both eager to get to know each other a little better than we’d gotten the chance to at Limmud. A few things got in the way, but we finally managed to get together for lunch on Friday.

He works at the Skirball Center, which is housed in an nominally run by Temple Emanu-El. Emanu-El, if you know anything about Reform Judaism, is the premiere symbol at Classical Reform in the northeast, if not the entire country. It’s sanctuary is awe-inspiringly cathedralesque (if we can pretend that’s a word, for a moment) and they’ve got a tremendous organ. Downstairs, in their social hall, is a huge marble memorial to Isaac Mayer Wise.

And there I was, sitting on the roof, eating lunch with a Rabbi who makes motzi and birkat hamazon with every meal, discussing tradition and increased observance and a sense of commandedness in Reform Judaism.

I felt like I was in Terach’s idol shop, breaking everything.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

Same story in two movements

Crossposted to Jewschool.

The JTA brings us this today: “Figuring out why promising Conservative alumni set up ‘indy minyans.'”

The article is basically a summary of the Conservative movement’s mostly ineffectual attempts to draw in former members who have left for the indie minyans, or the emergent scene.

The most interesting qutoe in the article, to me is this:

“They live precisely as we told them to, but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement,” Epstein wrote. “They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue. If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.”

This is the same challenge that I and many of my friends face with our own Reform movement. The Reform world has educated some of us so well and so effectively taught us how to be engaged in some sort of active personal reformation and now we’re so into it that all the “normal” Reform Jews think we’re nuts.

Meanwhile, according to this article, the same thing is going on in the Conservative movement. Jews who want to live as true ideologically Conservative Jews have no real home in their movement because everyone else thinks they’re nuts for being true to the ideals of the movement.

Read full story · Comments { 15 }

Shabos Zmiros – Jews at SXSW

Shabos Zmiros is my weekly attempt to bring a little song into the space between the week and Shabat.

SXSW–South By Southwest, for the uninitiated–is currently underway in my hometown of Austin, Texas. It’s one of the largest music, film and multimedia conferences in the country. The sheer scale of the music festival never ceases to amaze me: hundreds of bands at hundreds of venues across the city.

And reprsenting the Jewish people, Shemspeed is there to showcase some of the NY area’s talented yids.

Here are their videos from Wednesday and Thursday, the first two nights of music at Southby.

Amen. Selah. Shabat Shalom.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

The Nadlerisms continue

I shall now paraphrase Professor Alan Nadler in class today. The following is a tangent regarding the halachic loophole of “selling” your chametz to a goy and then buying it back at the end of Pesach.

This was a big thing in Poland back then because Jews were not only the vast majority of the producers of alcohol, but they were also tavern-owners so they distributed all the booze too. So they would sell their entire factory to some goy and buy it back at the end of Pesach.

I know this still happens because I actually helped the Bronfmans out with this for a few years. Seagram’s, which is based in Montreal, where I was Rabbi, is owned by the Bronfmans and the Bronfmans were members of my synagogue.

Every year, a day or so before Pesach, Mr. Bronfman himself would come to my office, I’d write out a little legal document, hold out a handkerchief. Bronfman would accept the handkerchied and that was that. Then I’d take this document that he’d signed and give it to my building’s superintendent.

He was some Quebecois goy and he couldn’t read the damn thing. Nice guy. He’d just hold onto it till Pesach was over and then I’d take it back. Little did he know that owned Segram’s for a few days every Spring.

Goodness gracious.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

HaMelachim b’Malchut Gilboa

Meanwhile, at Jewschool, I’ve written a bit about the new biblically-inspired NBC series, Kings.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

Worse things have happened to the Jewish people

Professor Alan Nadler, in class yesterday:

Of course, false messianism and figures like Shabetai Tzvi led to all sorts of the catastrophes for the Jewish community. Such as Chasidism.

I just about died.

On a related note, an exchange from Limmud NY 2009:

Getzel Davis: I’m a Neo-Chasid.

Dan Sieradski: Well, I’m a Neo-Litvak.

In other news, for those wondering when I will post the third a final part of me exploration of Miskhan T’filah and Siddur Eit Ratzon, it’s coming. I promise. I’m just back at school and busy so it may be a while.

Read full story · Comments { 7 }

LIVE! The URJ restructures itself!

Cross-posted to Jewschool.

urj logo

Curious to hear an insider perspective on the Union for Reform Judaism‘s new resturcture, I got in touch with a friend on the URJ Board of Trustees. He sent me the following in his e-mail response.

The Union is required by its constitution to operate on a balanced budget, and given current income projections, downsizing was a mandatory, not an option. But even if the dollars were flowing in, we have been delivering service to our constituencies on mid-20th-century models.

The Board meeting yesterday at which the restructuring was approved was the first salvo in the new era — I was one of some 4 dozen Board members who participated without being in Jersey City, where the corporeal meeting took place. The missing piece of the virtual Board meeting was webcams, but that will come — not only to URJ Board meetings, but to serving congregations.

If the folks in Austin need a consultation on, say a worship issue, a worship specialist can meet with the Board in a matter of days by webinar/conferenvce call. There will be more specialists, less bureaucracy, faster and more expert service. [emphasis mine]

I had assumed that the restructure was a knee-jerk reaction to new money troubles. According to another source, MUM dues (the annual dues paid by URJ member communities) are down 20% this year. Some congregations in the Union are hurting so bad for money that they may have to pull out of the Union because they can’t afford their MUM dues.

But this trustee seems to suggest that the restructure has been in the works for a long while. I’m skeptical about the closing of all but four super-regional offices (Atlanta, Chicago, LA, and NYC). It seems benficial to have the small regional offices where, as Cheers says, “Everybody knows your name.” What are the chances that the head of a super-region based in Atlanta will know the name of the Reform Rabbi in Plano, Texas, a suburb in North Dallas?

However, as this trustee points out, there will be better use of techonology to fill in the personnel gaps. That sounds good, right?

He goes on:

On my list of Words I Live By, one favorite maxim is that the only person who enjoys change is a wet baby. The URJ Board was somewhat resistant to the inevitability of progress as long as the diaper was dry. I suspect that at least a dozen of my friends will get laid off this week. It appears, by the way, that NFTY and the camp system will be least affected. But aside from the human turmoil, I think this will be good for the Jews.

I suspect that many people I know will get laid of this week as well. The youth division, with it’s well-funded camps and high school programs and under-funded college departement will remain mostly unaffected. The youth division is the URJ’s sacred cow, after all.

I fear, however, that with this loss of regional personnel, we will lose some of the personability. But that is always the fear when we replace people with technology, I suppose. And as a big proponent of things like blogs and video and terms like New Media, I should probably sit down and shut up and just be glad that the Union even has a blog!

But yes, trusted trustee, as you say, I think this will be good for the Jews.

More on Wednesday, as we hear about the coming layoffs, I suppose.

Read full story · Comments { 1 }

Shabos Zmiros – Kirtan Rabbi

Crossposted to Jewschool.

Though I usually scoff at anyone attempting to meld Jewish and Eastern spirituality, Kirtan Rabbi caught my ear. An e-mail promoting an upcoming Kirtan Rabbi event I recieved from Andrew Hahn, the Kirtan Rabbi himself, today explains Kirtan Rabbi like this:

Kirtan is call-and-response devotional chant, originally developed in India; it is a practice where you are the performers. It is at once meditative, ecstatic, and – most of all – simply fun! Bring your voices and dancing socks.

Hareini M’kabel Alai:

While working for Limmud NY, I was given a copy of a Kirtan Rabbi live at B’nai Jeshurun CD. Though I feel that I probably would scoff if I ever attended an actual Kirtan Rabbi event, the recording itself is great. It makes a perfect addition to my Shabos Zmiros playlist, the playlist I listen to all day every Friday in preparation for Shabat. Enjoy.

Hashivi Li S’soneich (with vocals by Ariel Rosen):

And that event the e-mail was about? More about that here.

Shabat Shalom.

Read full story · Comments { 5 }

Meanwhile, at Jewschool

I’ll let Jewschool speak for itself:

“The most important thing happening online in the Jewish community
today.” –Noted Jewish sociologists Ari Kelman & Steven M. Cohen

Rated “the third most influential faith blog” by The Times of London

Jewschool is the web’s leading source for alternative Jewish views and
culture. Winner of eight Jewish & Israeli Blog Awards, Jewschool has
been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post,
The New York Post, Gothamist, and countless Jewish publications for
its coverage of the cutting edge of Jewish community today.

And now I’m a contributor for Jewschool. It gives me a real sense of vindication. Many of the people that write for Jewschool are friends or associates of mine, people I look up to and respect. And so I’m proud to add my name to the list of Jewschool contributors.

My first post is up at Jewschool now.

Read full story · Comments { 4 }