Archive | October, 2009

URJ President Yoffie booed at J Street, I smirk

Originally posted to Jewschool.

Maybe there’s some hubris involved when I chime in on the ongoing J Street conference. I’m not even there and we’ve got four or five Jewschoolers there covering it quite capably here and at Twitter. But when Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shows up at J Street and gets booed by a crowd, I’ve got to say something. After all, I’m the self-proclaimed URJ expert here at Jewschool. Indeed, one of our guest posters has already written about this beautiful moment in this post, but I’ll take a very different angle.

To recap the relationship so far between the URJ and J Street, though Yoffie and the Religious Action Center (a DC lobby affiliated with the URJ) were initially quite warm to J Street, Yoffie lost his cool with J Street during the Gaza shit early this year. He disagreed vehemently with J Street’s assessment that Operation Cast Lead was a bad idea in this Forward op-ed. Here is J Street’s response to the piece.

But now, it seems that Yoffie sees that J Street agrees with him on more than it disagrees. And it seems J Street sees the value in having the leader of the largest Jewish religious organization in America present at their inaugural conference.

Here’s the text of his address to the J Street conference yesterday. An excerpt:

This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report, which in my view was fatally flawed. There are many questions that one might legitimately ask about Israel’s conduct of the war: Why was it necessary for Israeli forces to use so much firepower? How do you carry out a war against a terrorist organization that attacks your citizens and hides amid a civilian population? What risks are Israeli soldiers obligated to take, beyond those inherent in combat, to prevent harm to civilians? The Israelis that I know are asking these questions; it is right for them to do so, and it is right for the government of Israel to deal with these issues.

“This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report”? Which Yoffie then spends several paragraphs going on about?

Here’s RJ.org’s horn-tooting celebration of the address. An excerpt:

Rabbi Yoffie is widely considered the American Jewish community’s leading “dove.” His address at J Street’s conference underscores both the maturity of the dialogue over Middle East peace and the Reform Movement’s commitment to peace.

And here’s what Tablet had to say about the address. An excerpt:

[...] the 1,500 progressive activists gathered in Washington for this week’s J Street conference really, really agree with each other. The only division we’ve seen on display, in fact, came this afternoon, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, that movement’s organizing body, showed up for a “town hall” discussion with J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben Ami. [...]

Yoffie drew boos from the crowd for suggesting that Gazans invited their current circumstances by voting for Hamas after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2006, and for defending Israel against accusations, particularly in a recent U.N. report by Richard Goldstone, that it may have committed war crimes in Gaza. [...]

(They all clapped at the end, though.)

This points to what it means to be pro-peace for the URJ and much of its membership. I grew up neck-deep in Reform politics, so I don’t doubt the URJ’s commitment to peace for Israel and the world. Unfortunately, the URJ is constantly treading a fine line where they want to be seen as pro-peace without willing to be as critical of Israel as such a position demands.

This cognitive dissonance is what leads to slight rift between J Street and the URJ. To summarize Yoffie, “The Gazans brought it on themselves. It’s no really Israel’s fault. But we want peace for both sides anyway.” This positions wants to have it too many ways for the positions to stay coherent.

If the URJ has a contribution to make to the pro-Israel pro-peace discussion, shit or get off the pot. Do it or go away. If J Street is right when they claim to represent a majority and if the URJ’s membership is as liberal as anecdotal evidence has proven to me that it is, the URJ should go full throttle for the J Street position if they want to do their members’ justice.

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The Koren Soloveitchik Siddur? Sign me up.

I’ve previously written about the Koren Sacks Siddur here. This post uses this JTA article and this Failed Messiah post as sources. This post has been crossposted to Jewschool.

My favorite siddur these days is the Koren Sacks Siddur. Busting ArtScroll’s liturgical monopoly for the first time in a long time, Israeli siddur and Tanach publisher Koren combined the elegant layout and typefaces created by Eliyahu Koren with the clear, concise English commentary and instruction of the British Sacks siddur to create the Hebrew-English Koren Sacks Siddur. The siddur came out this summer and quickly shook up the exciting world of Orthodox American liturgy.

One of the OU’s perennial complaints about the ArtScroll family of siddurim is their refusal to quote or cite modern sources. The OU has long sought to create a siddur that includes the commentary and teachings of the giant of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Koren loves it and is already working on creating this siddur, which they call the Mesorat HaRav Koren Siddur.

Amen!

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Toward an “indigengous Reform vision of halachah”

The other day, I had some nice things to say about this new op-ed in The Forward from fellow jblogger and Jewschooler BZ.

Over the course of the rather active comment thread on the version of that post at Jewschool, BZ shared a great chunk from his original draft of the op-ed that got cut for length. I’ll share it here because I think it just continues to hit the nail on the head.

When intra-Reform discourse touches on the subject of halachah (Jewish law), people on all sides of the issue tend to portray “the halachah” as a static body of law. Whether they are advocating for the position “Reform Judaism is not halachic” or “Reform Judaism should be more open to halachah,” the unspoken assumption is that Orthodox halachah is the normative halachah, and Reform Judaism should either reject it or incorporate elements of it. In other words, Orthodox Judaism is perceived as 100% halachic, and the debate is about whether Reform Judaism should be 0% halachic or somewhere between 0 and 100%. Instead, Reform Jews should steer clear of this linear scale and pursue an indigenous Reform vision of the structure and content of halachah.

Right on, BZ, as always!

Shabbat Shalom, jblogosphere. Selah!

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Dr. BZ is in–A prescription for fixing how liberal Jews talk about themselves

Crossposted to Jewschool.

I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.

One of BZ’s long time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right of them define themselves. BZ’s new op-ed in The Forward, Reframing Liberal Judaism, addressing the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial, is his new opus on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:

[...] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.

The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.

This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.

Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.

Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.

Check out the whole piece here.

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Become a Rabbi? Not with that attitude.

Crossposted to Jewschool.

New Voices, which bills itself as the “National Jewish Student Magazine,” is pretty hit-or-miss for me. Mostly, it’s miss. To be clear, for those unfamiliar with me, I’m a college student, so it’s not unfair for me to be critical of their writers, who are also college students. (Why, by the way, would a magazine targeted at college students even bother having a print presence at all in this day and age?)

This recent post, Become a Rabbi?, left me feeling a little off-put, but also a little sad for the author. As someone who is a whopping one year older than the author, but has given significant thought to the issues she raises in the post, I’ve decided to annotate the post.

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a rabbi?

Yes.

Depending on your religiosity, there are different rules for who can be a rabbi and what that process entails. The first female rabbi ordained in America was not until 1972. Since then, nearly 400 women have been ordained in the United States. It is possible for women to be ordained as a Rabbi in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. Becoming a rabbi is one of the many professions I have considered.

Depending on your religiosity? Or depending on your denominational preference? I would go with the latter. It’s insulting and sad for me, a Reform Jew, to hear this author, also a Reform Jew, buying into the notion that she has less religiosity than her Orthodox counterparts. As a mere point of interest, Sally Priesand was not ordained until 1972, but the Reform rabbinate have a responsa dating back to 1922, which states “that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” Further, women can also be ordained in the Jewish Renewal ALEPH Ordination Program and at non-denomination schools like the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew College. Not to mention the emerging field of Orthodox ordination for women, which stops just short of calling their female rabbis “Rabbi.”

Later today I am going to a presentation and dinner given by the Director of Admissions of the Jewish Theological Seminary at my Hillel. This school is where students go to become a Conservative rabbi; while I am Reform, I still think this will be an informative session.

Some Conservative Jews also go to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in LA, which is unaffiliated, but definitely Conservative, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, the author is operating under a notion of a highly segmented Jewish community. Conservative Jews go here. Reform Jews go there. But if I’m any kind of example, Reform Jews don’t have to be Reform Jews under the auspices of the official Reform Jews. For more on that, see this post, in which I declare my continued existence as a Reform Jew, while declaring independence from the URJ. There is a valid precedent for ascribing to a denomination or an ideology, but going elsewhere to study.

As I still am rather young, I know I do not have to decide what I want to do with my life right away. However, the profession of a rabbi seems to really have its benefits. Besides being able to embrace Judaism and to practice and to teach its principles for a living, there seems to be much more to being a rabbi.

Because it would be impossible “to embrace Judaism” in any other professional context?

Just on the outset, one of the most notable benefits seems to be the flexibility. As a rabbi, it seems you always get to interact with different people in different settings. Whether you are officiating a wedding or a funeral, it seems like you are always helping someone. Being able to teach and to give sermons also makes the profession look intriguing.

Ah, yes. The flexibility. The enormous debt in student loans. The wonderful job market. The well over 40-hour work weeks under a four-year contract at some suburban synagogue. Not that that’s the only thing to do as a Rabbi, but, let’s face it, the majority of rabbis have pulpits.

[...]

Clearly, all rabbis are respected and admired by their congregants. Therefore, it only makes sense that the application and selection process is so selective.

Yes, all rabbis are indeed respected and admired by their congregants. I had a relative (z”l) who used to assert loudly and frequently that all rabbis are ganifs. (Thieves, in Yiddish.) And, yes, HUC is so selective these days. They can’t get men to apply to their rabbinic or cantorial programs to save their lives! They’ll take anyone with a circumcision between their legs that they can get their hands on!

[...]

Additionally, it is unfortunate to mention, but with the poor economy and lack of jobs, I am even more concerned about my future after college. So, a bit of advice—don’t hesitate to be open to attending similar meetings that your campus offers, you may just stumble upon an unknown appealing career!

Again, I’ll refer you to this article at Tablet, which points out that the security if the rabbinic job market is just as screwed up right now as everything else.

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Shemini what?

I’ve previously written about Brooklyn’s Conservative Kane Street Synagogue here and here; I’ve written about Hadar here; and I’ve written about B’nai Jeshurun here, here and here.

Shabat Shalom and Chag Sameach, jblogosphites.

wordpress simchat torah

I grew up with one-day chag, that being the usual Reform custom. I maintain that custom with intellectual back-up from BZ. Because I only grew up with one day of chag, I grew up with Simchat Torah, but no Shemini Atzeret. BZ again:

Shemini Atzeret is the only yom tov that has no special mitzvot [...] beyond the mitzvot that apply to all festivals

[...] Therefore, to save Shemini Atzeret [...] some Babylonian Jews decided to make this the time when the annual cycle of Torah reading was finished and restarted. Thus, they created the ritual of Simchat Torah. This ritual was created for the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, specifically the second day thereof (since these Babylonian Jews observed two days); it is observed on the single day of Shemini Atzeret in communities that observe one day. There is no holiday of Simchat Torah separate from Shemini Atzeret [...]

With this added ritual, the second day of Shemini Atzeret has, of course, become much more popular than the first. Lots of people observe only the second day (which is d’rabbanan) and not the first day (which is d’oraita). Some communities that generally observe one day of yom tov still have their Simchat Torah celebration on the night of the 23rd of Tishrei (i.e. the night that others consider the 2nd night of Shemini Atzeret), to blend in or something.

What I’m pretty sure I grew up with at Beth Israel in Austin is was what BZ is describing. At CBI, we observed one day of chag, in this case Simchat Torah and not Shemini Atzeret. I’m not sure whether we did it on Tishrei 22 or 23. What I’d like to do at this point in my life is to observe the ritual of Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret, as it seems BZ wishes to do as well in the post that the above quotes are from.

To do this, I’d have to find what I imagine is a Reform community doing what I’m suggesting. I assume that non-Reform communities would do both days, waiting until the 23rd for Simchat Torah. So I assumed I’d just observe my one day of chag on the 23rd. I decided to look into three places where I thought I might go tomorrow for Simchat Torah–B’nai Jeshurun, Kehilat Hadar and the Kane Street Synagogue.

BJ and KH both had what I was expecting from them, but KSS is advertising on their website that Simchat Torah is today, the 22nd or Tishrei! This is surprising because KSS is Conservative-affiliated and the Conservative movement does not, as far as I know, advocate only one day of chag.

It’s confusing. And I still haven’t made up my mind about where to go tomorrow.

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Positive, independent self-definition: Something I can’t do at the moment.

Blogger’s note: The following post is only half of a real thought. I haven’t thought of/found the other half yet.

Required reading: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out and Reformim at the Conservative shul

In my junior year of high school (I’m estimating here), I think I can safely say that I was at my most entrenched position in the Reform Movement. I was on the board of trustees of a URJ synagogue, I was the president of a NFTY youth group, I was about to spend a second summer at Kutz,  I went to one of the RAC‘s L’taken seminars and I went to the URJ Biennial. I was really into this stuff.

And back then, one of my Reform obsessions was using positive statement to define Reform practice. I heard a lot of, “Reform Jews don’t do X” or “Reform Jews don’t believe Y.” And I was on a little crusade to come us with positive statements like, “Reform Jews do A” and “Reform Jews believe B.” The merit of such a crusade within the Reform sphere is a discussion for another time–though I won’t be surprised of the comments on this post get into that discussion anyway!

I find myself in the midst of two similar lines of thought now, one very different from the one I remember from high school and one only subtly so.

1. The one that’s only subtly different–Non-URJ Reform

Reform Jews began life (I’m talking 19th century Germany) by defining how they were not like other Jews, hence the negative statements of identity I discussed above. As time went on, we were able to move away from that and begin to define ourselves positively and independently, by what we do, rather than by what we reject. I think I’m facing that entire struggle all over again on a personal level. If, as I announced in this recent post, I am a Reform Jew, but not a URJ Jew, I am forced to go back to the beginning of the entire Reform endeavor. I must now begin again by defining myself in opposition to the URJ, through negative statements and must work my way up to the kind of ideological and intellectual self-sufficiency that will allow me two begin again the project of positive, independent identity statements.

2. The one that’s very different–Indie Minyans

I’m spending a lot of my time these days not only places that aren’t affiliated with the URJ, but in places that aren’t affiliated all. I’m talking about the organization I work for and I’m talking about places I pray, places like Chavurat Lamdeinu, Kol Zimrah and Kehilat Hadar. One of my problems in all of these places, as someone who is a little obsessed with ideology and intellectual honesty, is that I have trouble identifying the ideology. In many cases, there probably isn’t one, which I guess is okay, but it still troubles me. And in trying to articulate why I go to these places, I find myself relying on negative statements about traditionally-structured synagogues.

As Larry Kaufman pointed out in the comments on this post, “Half the fun of going to indy minyans is thumbing your nose at the shul you walk past on the way.” I recently met someone at a party who made me want to tear my hair about because this was essentially the level discourse that she achieved in explaining her love for indie minyans to me. Maybe it angers my because it hits close to home and I have some fun with thumbing my nose too. But that bothers me a lot and that’s a type of fun I want to get away from.

Whew. Moadim l’simcha.

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How is a portable sukah an innovation?

Crossposted to Jewschool.

So the sukah is a remembrance of wandering in the desert and living in portable structures, right?

Tablet suggested on Tuesday a remarkable invention–a portable sukah. Either this is the biggest “no duh” invention in Jewish history, or it’s truly innovative. Think about it. We build these structures to commemorate a nomadic existence, but then leave them in one place for the duration of sukot.

Tablet has this to say about their dubiously-innovative innovation:

In advance of Sukkot, we reached out to architects and designers and asked for contemporary reimaginings of the sukkah. Charles and Julian Boxenbaum, the father-and-son duo behind BUZstudios … [have] delighted us yet again—this time with their portable SukkahSeat.

I’ll admit. It’s pretty cool. I kind of want one. Full story here.

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The Reformim in the Conservative shul

I went to Kane Street Synagogue on Brooklyn for erev Sukot/Shabat services last night. It’s a Conservative shul, but they have a Friday night minyan that has the feel of being an indie minyan, though it is far from indie.  Rather, it is the Friday night service of this affiliated, mid-size Brooklyn shul. I’ve previously written about KSS here, during my month of NYC shul-hopping last winter.

While there, I ran into to other Reformim. One is a URJ employee and the other was an HUC student. Hm.

I ask the following without wishing to insinuating that there is some crisis where none exists. What does it mean for URJ Jews when Reform Jews, who, unlike me, continue to associate with the Union go to services regularly, but don’t go to URJ synagogues regularly?

Of course, it was just a good as I remembered it, though the crowd seemed a little smaller. Last time I went, I arrived a little late and was confounded by the cluster of people who all seemed to be kind of leading the service. This time, I was there early so I got see that at the beginning of the service, Joey, the leader, just invites up anyone who wants to (“Even if you have no idea what you’re doing”) come up and help lead. What a great minhag! It also introduces a low-level buzz of chaos to the service, which I love.

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