Archive | December, 2009

Standing (or not) for the Shma, Part II

A little incident at the URJ Biennial earlier this fall incited all kinds of consternation amongst those who don’t like to sit for the Shma. Apparently a rabbi told everyone to stay seated, just to try it out, and suddenly people were claiming this rabbi had ruined their Shabat. Whatever, folks.

But then an interesting debate erupted on the iWorship listserve about it and I wrote about that here.

And then, today, HUC-JIR friended me on Facebook. (Why they have a profile and not a fan page, I will never know. The movement is not as on top of how to use social media as it thinks). And I flipped through their photos and saw this:

Clearly, the movement’s soon-to-be-ordained leaders know what they want to do during the Shma. I wonder how many of them will take that with them to the congregations they’ll soon be leading?

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Jeff–My first Reform Shuckler

The first Reform shuckler I ever saw was a guy named Jeff. When I was new in NFTY-TOR (North-American Federation of Temple Youth – Texas/Oklahoma Region), Jeff was one of those intimidatingly well-regarded, well-liked older-than-me NFTYites that I felt miles away from in coolness.  And he shuckled. So naturally, I was very suspicious of him.

This was back when I framed Reform for myself in negatives, things we don’t do. And shuckling, I felt quite certain, was one of those things. I knew that Jeff had been to Kutz (NFTY’s high school leadership summer camp) and that he’d been on EIE (NFTY’s high school semester in Israel program). I felt quite certain that Kutz and EIE were ill-advised programs if they were turning out shucklers like Jeff.

But eventually I went to Kutz and started shuckling. There, I met a lot of overzealous recent EIE alumni, who convinced me to go on EIE, which I was still pretty certain was a terrible program that turns out anything but Reform Jews.

So I went on EIE and started wearing tzitzit. Obviously, my viewpoints have changed and shifted–and will continue to change and shift–over time.

Just a little thought for the day.


By the time I was on EIE, Jeff was in Israel, living a totally secular life, going to ulpan on a kibutz. Go figure.

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A great new bencher–Yedid Nefesh

Crossposted to Jewschool.

I’ll begin by being up front about the fact that I’m far less a bencher aficionado than I am a sidur aficionado. But I was asked if I’d review this new entrance into the bencher market and I said yes. I hope I do it justice.

You could pretty easily divide the world of benchers into two categories. On the one hand, there are totally perfunctory versions that exist as a mere vehicle for what their editors consider a fixed collection of blessings and prayers and a smattering of songs. On the other hand, there are a few benchers that are not mere vehicles for your embossed name and the date of your wedding, bris, bar mitzvah, or whatever. These are generally more liberal in their attitude toward the content and tend to contain some amount of commentary.

Yedid Nefesh, a new bencher from Joshua Cahan, a rabbi from the Conservative tradition, falls into the latter category.

The bencher itself has a larger page size and ends up a tad thicker than your average bencher, but not so big that it becomes useless as a highly portable collection of songs and blessings. The page size is larger to accommodate Hebrew text, translation, transliterations and a lot of original commentary from Cahan himself, which far exceeds the bits of commentary and functional instructions that normally permeate a bencher.

Most interesting to me, as a self-proclaimed cataloger of liberal liturgies, is that the bencher proclaims itself to be egalitarian. According to the YN website, this means that “in some places additions or alternatives are provided that counter some of the gender imbalance of the traditional texts.” Unfortunately, these attempts are marred by the usual Conservative discomfort with doing that. For instance, on page 15, in the middle of the Birkat Hamazon, we get this:

…our ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…
The parenthetical formulation repeats in the Hebrew and in the transliteration. If you want to include the mothers, fine. If not, fine. But if you’re going to do it, why leave them as some sort of parenthetical afterthought?

On the other hand, the bencher does call the section for a brit milah “For a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat,” reflecting the increasingly common contemporary practice of having a celebration eight days after the birth a baby girl and, where appropriate, offers alternative Hebrew that correctly addresses the gender of the girl.

At the other end of gender equalizing, the bencher includes Eshet Chayil as well as an alternative for a wife to read to her husband, Ashrei Ish (Psalm 112).

The bencher also includes the order of blessings etc for Erev Shabbat in the home, all sorts of simchas, kidush for every occasion, ushpizin, a wide selection of Shabat songs, and a few other sections.

And then, of course, there’s Birkat Hamazon. There is the usual absurdly long version of BH as well as an abridged version. As the commentary in the bencher notes:
The Talmud does not present a fixed text for Birkat Hamazon. Rather, it describes the basic themes of the four blessings and notes key terms that must be included in each. The length of the text that developed around those themes has led scholars in many generations to compose shortened versions which pare back the text to its original components.
Though the commentary doesn’t say whose shortened BH it is presenting, the shortened version is considerably shorter. But that means it’s got less shtick, so who wants that?

In all, I like the bencher. I like how many different blessings and prayers and songs it include while remaining compact, if larger than most benchers. It’s got a great, elegant layout. If you like sidurim like Siddur Eit Ratzon, as I do, you’ll like this bencher as well.

YN’s editor, Joshua Cahan will be at Limmud NY next month. Will you? Registration was just extended through Monday, so what are you waiting for? See what he’ll be teaching about at the conference here.
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When I say “the Reform intellectual community”…

…what do I mean?

I’ve been throwing the term “Reform intellectual community” around a bit since I declared independence from the Reform movement. Recently, commenter ML called me out on the term:

David, could you elaborate a little more regarding the Reform intellectual community. What is it exactly and how does it stand apart (or not) from the rest of the Reform world?

Good question, ML. I’m glad you asked. I’ll answer it with a series of definitions, building up to a definition of the Reform intellectual community. In this post, I will attempt the lofty goal of defining four things: the Reform movement, Reform Judaism, Reform Jews and the Reform intellectual community.

The Reform movement is a collection of organizations devoted to building and supporting Reform communities, projects and concerns. This includes the Union for Reform Judaism, the organization made up of Reform synagogues in North America; the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization for Reform rabbis in North America; the Religious Action Center, a DC-based political lobby that works on initiatives that the URJ has officially supported; Hebrew Union College, the four-campus institution devoted to training professional Reform leaders, including rabbis, cantors and educators. To be sure, there are institutions that also comprise what I call the Reform movement outside of North America, such as the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Leo Baeck College, but I am most familiar with their North American counterparts, so I tend to focus on those.

Reform Judaism, however, is not the same thing as the Reform movement and much harder to define. I’m gonna make a stab at defining it, knowing full well what kind of bone-picking will commence in the comments. Continue Reading →

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5 down, 3 to go (semesters, that is)

I try to keep whiny introspective blogging to a minimum around here, but I allow myself about one or two of these a year anyway. So here we go.

I just finished my last final for the semester and feel completely brain-fried. That must mean it’s time to do a little semester re-cap.

To begin, this has been, without a doubt, my hardest semester of college so far. I’m the editor in chief of our weekly newspaper here at Drew. I took three classes (usually four, but I could afford to take one less to deal with everything else). I also worked three days a week for Limmud NY. And romantically, I’ve had a pretty disastrous time (as usual, but also worse than usual).

I’m told by some housemates at their most encouraging and mushy that they think I’ve grown as a person and been friendlier and kinder, which is good. Except that I can’t see that. I feel more bitter and cynical than ever.

It may sound odd coming from me, but I used to believe that people in positions of power were generally well-intentioned people. Not that I thought they always did everything right, but that I believed they always want to do the right thing. My attitude toward authority has shifted dramatically this semester, mostly because of some interaction I’ve had with administrators and student government folks here at school.

I also announced this semester that I was putting an end to my association with organized Reform Judaism. I still feel a part of the Reform intellectual community, but organizationally, liturgically, and in terms of leadership I feel that the organized Reform world has failed me and told me in numerous ways in recent years that it doesn’t want me. I kept getting told how smart and promising I was, but I couldn’t find anyone interested in doing anything that I or the rest of what I’d call the Reform intellectual community is saying.

Good things?

I’ve now been writing at Jewschool for about nine months and I still feel like a kid in a candy shop every time I log in to the administrative side of the site and post something.

I’ve definitely learned more about who I am and what I want that I ever have before. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely happy with what I discovered.

I’m gonna go spend a few days in Denver with best friend Leslie Bass in a couple of weeks.

I’m gonna do a senior thesis about religion and science fiction.

And I’m gonna go back to Israel for a semester in the fall (probably).

So Chappy Chanukah and let’s hope next semester is an improvement.

I think I need a haircut.

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New track from Kirtan Rabbi and some Kaddish thoughts

Crossposted to Jewschool.

Last time I wrote about Rabbi Andrew Hahn a.k.a. Kirtan Rabbi I began by saying:

Though I usually scoff at anyone attempting to meld Jewish and Eastern spirituality, Kirtan Rabbi caught my ear.

It still catches my ear and his live CD is still on my Shabos Zmiros playlist, which I listen to all day on Friday every week to prepare for Shabat.

So he just came out with a new track of Kadish, which you can download from his site here.

As an aside, I don’t scoff at anyone attempting to meld Judaism and Easter Spirituality anymore. I read The Jew in the Lotus over the summer and challenged a lot of my conceptions of intentional syncretization of Judaism. I still scoff at most people trying to do this.

I don’t know anything about Hahn’s reasons for melding Jewish prayer with Kirtan, which Hahn described as a “call-and-response devotional chant, originally developed in India,” but I know that it does make for really great listening and mood-setting.

And now, Kadish. I have some pretty strong feelings about the Kadish. A regular reader of this blog will not be surprised by that. The liturgical tradition I come from plays fast and loose with the Kadish. In the Reform world, we usually treat Kadish as some sort of triviality. We’ve been without Kadish Shalem since 19th century German reformers lobbed it out the window. Kadish D’Rabanan made its Reform re-appearance recently with the advent of Mishkan T’filah. We’ve had Chatzi Kadish (oddly re-dubbed “Reader’s Kadish”), but in places it doesn’t go (as a stand-in for Kadish Shalem) and we’ve gone without it in places it does go. We’re going to ignore Kadish Yatom (the mourner’s kadish) for now, but I’ll come back to it.

This is all because of what I believe to be the basic misunderstanding of how to make prayer accessible on part of the entire liberal Jewish world. The notion has long been, if we get people to understand the wording of prayers, or if we change the wording so they’ll like it better, we can get people to appreciate prayer more.

My idea is that Jewish prayer doesn’t function on a detailed, word-to-word basis. It functions on a larger prayer-to-prayer, idea-to-idea basis. The poetry of Jewish prayer is not to be found in individual words. Certainly there is poetry in the words, but I’m talking about the poetry–the grand sweeping meaning that encompasses the whole service structure.

One of the challenges to this idea that confronts me is how do you get bite-size bits of liturgical structure across by saying a few words to at the beginning of a service? And that’s where the Kadish comes in. We’ve long ignored it as a meaningless trapping of structure, but if structure comes to the forefront of our effort toward understanding, the Kadish is suddenly of paramount importance.

If we tell people the following three things, I think they’ll get a little bit more of the structure than they did before, simply by learning where the structural breaks are.

  1. Kadish Shalem means you’ve finished a major service division and are moving into something new.
  2. Chatzi Kadish means you’ve finished a service division of less importance and are, again, moving into something new.
  3. Kadish D’Rabanan means you’ve finished piece of the service intended to be some sort of text study and are now moving back into regular prayer.
  4. Aside from being a time to recognize those in mourning, the Kadish Yatom also indicated the end of the service as well as the break between Birkot Hashachar (morning blessings) and P’Sukei D’Zimra (verses of praise). (However, in some liberal communities the BH/PD division is marked with anothe Chatzi Kadish, which is fine by me.

To continue with the Birkot/P’Sukei division, I don’t think I knew that the division really existed or was significant as a kid because I grew up using Gates of Prayer, which doesn’t make much a big deal out of the change from BH to PD. Bit if we’d had a Kadish there, maybe I would’ve known. Whatever. The end of this post is feeling kind of anti-climactic.

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