Archive | January, 2010

Mishkan T’shuvah: And the editors are…

It’s happening. After the wild popularity of Mishkan T’Filah in the American Reform movement, the Central Conference of American Rabbis announced in April that they will produce a new machzor, to replace Gates of Repentance. This machzor will be modeled after Mishkan T’filah and is intended as a companion volume.

It will be called Mishkan T’shuvah.

Until recently, I had low hopes for this volume. I was imagining scores of committees being convened, leading to a camel (horse created by committee) volume just as muddled as Mishkan T’filah.

But I have good news. I have learned the identity of the four editors of the new machzor.

First, let’s digest the number of editors. Four. Theoretically, MT’f had one editor, Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman. In reality, it was created by committee, after committee, draft after draft. The CCAR spent the better part of my lifetime on it and managed to bankrupt itself in the process (see this for real insight on the CCAR’s financial situation). But with only four editors, I’m far more hopeful for this machzor.

And now for the editors: Rabbis Janet Marder, Sheldon Marder, Edward Goldberg and Leon Morris.

Janet Marder is a former president of the CCAR. Sheldon Marder is a former dean of HUC LA and Goldberg is at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. The choice of Leon Morris is a real surprise here. Leon is a different kind of Reform Jew altogether, thinking always in terms of mitzvot and obligation.

Watching this machzor develop will be interesting, to say the least.

Shabbat Shalom.

Read full story · Comments { 36 }

What I write about, apparently

If you’ve been wondering what I’m talking about, here it is converted into a pretty word cloud by Wordle.

Read full story · Comments { 4 }

Post-Denominational, Pluralist, Reform, etc.

Crossposted to Jewschool. Limmud NY is mentioned in this post. For my Limmud NY 2010 wrap-up post, go here.

If it’s on Facebook, you know it’s official. So officially, I’m “Jewish – Pluralist, Reform, etc.” Labels are a big thing for me and I finally figure out why at Limmud NY this year.

I went to a panel called “One-Foot Judaism,” in which three rabbis–Renewal Rabbi David Ingber of Kehilat Romemu, Orthodox woman Rabba Sara Hurwitz of The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Reform Rabbi Leon Morris of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning–were asked a series of fairly big and random questions. Some questions came from the audience and one came from me. Knowing full well what Leon would say (he and I have had this conversation a few times), I asked,

How useful are labels? Are they a helpful shorthand for describing a person or are they detrimental and limiting? Are they good, bad or harmless?

Sara and Leon answered, but David did not. Leon said what I expected him to say, that it’s both good and limiting and that he struggles with it, but embraces the word Reform. Sara said something that Leon and I later remarked to each other was exactly what we’d been thinking, but had never actually found the words for. For Sara, the word Orthodox enables her to be who she is. Today, there is nothing remarkable about a woman being a rabbi, unless she is Orthodox. So Sara is who she is and is remarkable because she is an Orthodox rabbi. That a label can enable you to be someone special sounds very powerful to me, as a totally atypical example of a Reform Jew.

So now back to “Jewish – Pluralist, Reform, etc.” When I first attended Limmud in 2008, Facebook said I was “Jewish – Reform.” Between Limmud NY 2008 and Limmud NY 2009, it said “Jewish – Observantly Reform Litvak.” Now that Limmud NY 2010 has come and gone, what shall my labels be in the coming year?

I’m pretty happy with the words Reform and Pluralist right now, but there a few little things itching at me. Let’s take the word Denomination for a moment. For many, the words Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal are all denominations. But I’d conflate Reform as a denomination with Reform as an organized movement, something which I’m adamantly not a part of.

So if I’m not a member of a denomination and if I’d even go so far as to say that I think the denominational system is at least a little bit intellectually bankrupt, does that mean that I’m *gasp* Post-Denominational? Does it make me Post-Reform?

Read full story · Comments { 10 }

Mishkan and the trouble with the psalms

There was a time when Reform Judaism shied away from uncomfortable texts. Some Torah portions were even once regularly skipped in Reform communities. I thought that time was over, until I discovered Mishkan T’filah’s attitude toward Kabalat Shabat.

Last week, while at Temple Sinai in Denver I noticed something that had somehow escaped my attention until now. Though all of the psalms we traditionally associate with Kab Shab are represented, five of the eight of them are abridged. Only 98, 93 and 29 survive Mishkan intact!

So what’s missing?

In Psalm 95, the final four verses are missing, verses 8-11:

8 Do not be stubborn as at M’rivah,

as on the day of Masah, in the wilderness,

9 when your fathers put me to the test,

tried me, though they had seen my deeds.

10 Forty years I was provoked by that generation;

I thought, “They are a senseless people;

they would not know my ways.”

11 Concerning them I swore in anger,

“They shall never come to My resting place!”

In Psalm 96, four verses are missing from the middle, verses 7-10:

7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name,

bring tribute and enter his courts.

9 Bow down to the Lord majestic in his holiness;

tremble in his presence, all the Earth!

10 Declare among the nations, “The Lord is king!”

The world stands firm; it cannot be shaken;

he judges the peoples with equity.

In Psalm 97, six verses from the middle are gone, 3-9:

3 Fire is his vanguard,

burning his foes on every side.

4 His lightnings light up the world;

the Earth is convulsed at the sight;

5 mountains melt like wax at the Lord’s presence,

at the presence of the Lord of all the Earth.

6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness

and all peoples see his glory.

7 All who worship images,

who vaunt their idols,

are dismayed;

all divine beings bow down to him.

8 Zion, hearing it, rejoices,

the towns of Judah exult,

because of your judgments, O Lord.

9 For you, Lord, are supreme over all the Earth;

you are exalted high above all divine beings.

In 99, verses 6-8 are gone from the middle:

6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,

Samuel, among those who call on his name–

when they called to the Lord,

he answered them.

7 He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud;

they obeyed his decrees,

the law he gave them.

8 O Lord our god, you answered them;

you were a forgiving god for them,

but you exacted retribution for their misdeeds.

92 lacks four of its middle verses:

9 But you are exalted, O Lord, for all time.

10 Surely, you enemies, O Lord,

surely your enemies perish;

all evildoers are scattered.

11 You raise my horn high like that of a wild ox;

I am soaked in freshening oil.

12 I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes,

hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.

So what are the uniting themes here? Mostly anything that glorifies God by ascribing violence to him or by describing the defeat or our enemies. God forbid we even engage with this image of God. I can understand discomfort in the face of this type of language. Indeed, it makes me uncomfortable.

Is the solution to the problem posed by these uncomfortable passages to excise them? Must prayer be all comforting reinforcement of what we already think? Or should it challenge us to engage with an uncomfortable world?

But this is the Reform way. When it comes to Torah, we’re okay reading and re-reading passages that treat female characters with little detail or ignore them altogether, but when it comes to liturgy, Reform has to sprinkle the text with women, from Sarah to Miriam. We’ll read Torah portions about sacrifice till the cows come home, concocting all sorts of exegetical reasons that those passages have worth, anything that even vaguely reminds us of sacrifice is right out. And it’s the same story here.

Read full story · Comments { 19 }

What does it mean for something to be a “Reform principle?”

The iWorship listserve has been talking lately about what we would classify the rejection of The World to Come as. Is it Reform halachah? Reform agadah? I’d say neither. After arguing in this post that such a rejection is not universal enough within Reform to be considered anything in particular (except common) I suggested in a post to the list that if it were true, it might be classified as a Reform principle. And that opened up a can of worms for me that I wasn’t quite expecting.

Someone on the list latched onto the word “principle” and started quoting the various principles created in the Reform platforms:  Pittsburgh 1885, Columbus 1937, San Francisco 1976 and Pittsburgh 1999.  What each reveals about the Reform rabbinate’s notions of the Messiah and the World to Come over time is fascinating, but not my primary topic here.

Rather, I wanna address what a principle is and what the role of these CCAR platforms are or should be. Specifically, I’ll address this in light of my recent classification of Reform into four categories: Reform Jews, Reform Judaism, the Reform movment, and the Reform intellectual community (or RIC).

First, I’ll have to deepen my definition of Reform Judaism. Previously, I defined it like this:

Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief.

When I said that, I carefully skirted anything about belief. So I would amend it like this:

Reform Judaism is an historical, intellectual push to re-form and re-standardize Jewish practice and belief, which has morphed into and blended with an ideology of autonomous, individual and personal choice about practice and belief, founded in the acknowledgement of the fact the age of rabbinic oligarchy has ended and the only ritual or moral authority that a Jew is answerable to is God that Jew’s own conscience and intellect.

This addition about authority is important because it’s the basic fact that the rest of Reform springs forth from. Without the acknowledgement of personal autonomy, a Reform Jew is just a lone rule-breaker. With an acknowledgement of autonomy, a Reform Jew is simply exercising the ability to be his or her own legal authority. Obviously, a Reform Jew might still seek out rabbis or others more learned than they are for learning, guidance or advice, but their advice would not be binding unless that Reform Jew decided to be bound by it.

This, of course, is at the core of the Reform responsa endeavor. Responsa literature is common throughout the history of rabbinic literature, but for most of its history, responsa were considered legally binding. Reform responsa, however, are merely one way for Reform Jews to explore an issue of importance. The answers of the CCAR Responsa Committee are learned discussions and suggestions of action– none would suggest that they are binding.

I would argue that the same is true of the Reform platforms. They are the collective decisions about what Reform means at three stages of Reform history, as decided by a group of leading Reform rabbis. As such, they are clearly the work of what I call the RIC, the hard-to-define group of Reform Jews working on and thinking actively about what Reform means.

However, based on what I’ve said above, none of it can be said to be binding on members of the Reform movement. And it certainly isn’t biding on Reform Jews in general, as some are not even members of the movement.

Read full story · Comments { 13 }

Machzor Eit Ratzon!

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Siddur Eit Ratzon, a shabat sidur created by Rutgers math professor Joe Rosenstein. It’s largely used in chavurot and indie minyan settings, though I’m convinced it’s a better sidur for Reform congregations than Mishkan T’filah (though it’s not trying to be and no one believes me). Joe just told sent me an e-mail:

If you check out the list of groups that are using Siddur Eit Ratzon (it’s under “for congregations” on the website), you will find that only a handful (about 5) of the 50 listed are “chavurah and indie minyan settings”–most are in fact regular synagogues.

I have just received word from Joe that work is almost complete on his machzor, Machzor Eit Ratzon, which is very exciting.

Joe will be at Limmud NY in a couple of weeks selling SER and he’ll have a few pages from the draft of MER for people to take a look at, but he has a question: What pages do you want to see? If you were going to buy a new machzor, what would be the important pages for you to take a look at?

Learn more about Joe and his sidur here.

Read full story · Comments { 0 }

Mishkan and the Messiah

Someone recently claimed on the iWorship listserve that among other generalizations one could make about Reform Jews, one could say that Reform Jews don’t believe in Olam Haba–The World to Come.

This used to be a big cornerstone of what I believed all Reform Jews must believe, as evidenced by a lot of the nonsense I said on this blog back when I was actively working on a new sidur.

I now know that most Reform Jews don’t believe in a personal Messiah. Many prefer the ill-defined “Messianic Age” (like me, for instance). I would say that many, if not most, believe in some sort of Olam Haba, whether its physical or spiritual and whether it involved the Messiah at all or not. But I have met a handful that openly acknowledge a belief in a Messiah or at least a high degree of openness to the idea.

So how does Mishkan come into this? Reform liturgy, it seems, is still replete with the Messiah, whether we really want him/her/it or not. Take Havdalah, for example. NFTYites and participants in Reform camps often cite Havdalah as their favorite ritual experience. And at the end, we sing all about hastening the arrival of Messiah, Son of David.

And then, in Kabalat Shabat, we’ve got L’chah Dodi. Gates of Prayer knew what the Reform Jews in the pews still know–most of us don’t believe in a Messiah. That’s why GOP and many of its Reform liturgical predecessors lacked two verses of L’chah Dodi that referred explicitly to the Messiah. (Never mind that they tossed out a few other totally inoffensive verses as well.)

Verse four of L’chah Dodi says:

At hand is the Son of Yishai (Jesse, David’s father), of Bethlehem.

Another verse puts it like this:

At hand is the Man, the Son of Peretz (Peretz being another of David’s ancestors).

It’s not too easy to metaphor-ize these verses. Either because of that or because no one wants to bother learning the “new” verses, I have yet to attend a single MT-using Reform service in which all verses of L’chah Dodi were sung.

Is this evidence of a new approach to the theologically distasteful in Reform movement liturgy? I think not. If it were, we’d find references to the restoration of Temple sacrifice in MT and mentions of the imahot out of it.

Yet, here’s the Messiah. Back in Reform liturgy. He’s not wanted in L’cha Dodi (except, apparently, by its editors). But he is wanted at the end of Havdalah.

What gives?

Read full story · Comments { 11 }

Which sidurim I use and where

I just noticed that I’ve started behaving in some standard ways when it comes to which sidurim I use and where I use them.

I bring the Koren Hebrew-English with me wherever I go. If I don’t want to use the sidur of choice where I am for any reason, I use Koren.

So if the sidur of choice is Mishkan T’filah, I use Koren. I’ll also keep an MT in the seat next to me in case I wanna look at something.

If it’s Sim Shalom and I can plan ahead, I’ll bring my compact copy of Or Hadash, Reuven Hammer’s brilliant commentary edition of SS. If I don’t have time plan ahead, I’d rather not use SS because it’s so big and hard to use standing up. So I use Koren, which is so compact and perfect for praying while standing.

If it’s Siddur Chaverim Kol Yisrael, I’ll use it except for during the Amidah, when I’ll switch to Koren because CKY is rather large.

Same as CKY goes for Siddur Eit Ratzon.

I think I’m going to that gay synagogue in NYC on Friday. I happen to own a copy of their sidur, so I’ll just bring that with me and give it a test-drive.

Read full story · Comments { 8 }

Ritual and Reform at Denver’s Temple Sinai

Rabbi Richard S. Rheins had no idea how appropriate his comments to me would for this blog.

I’m in Denver this weekend so I headed to Temple Sinai last night for services. I was not encourage by what I saw when I arrived. I assumed this was just some large Reform congregation using Mishkan T’filah. But I was pleasantly surprised.

After services, I had a couple of questions so I introduced myself to Rabbi Rheins.

Question 1: On my way in, I spotted a rack of MTs off to the side. It seems this congregation owns a few copies of the light blue version of MT with no transliterations. So I asked Rabbi Rheins why the congregation had decided to purchase copies of both versions of MT.

Question 2: Services had been in a very particular style. There was little in the way of English readings, the service taking place mostly in Hebrew. Kabalat Shabat was cut short, but other than that, the services was structurally intact. Music Director Bryan Zive sang and played guitar the whole way through and seemed to have a thing for Josh Nelson and the like. In short, this service was about as far from Classical Reform as you could get and still be in the URJ mainstream. And then there was the the Torah service. So I asked what the thinking was behind the juxtapositions of a very non-Classical aesthetic and the very Classical practice of including a Torah service on Friday night. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. I was mostly curious about what had led to the combination.

It turns out that the answer to both questions was basically the same. Rheins pointed out that there was once a time when you could say generally what Reform congregations do and be right about most Reform congregations. But he added that if there’s anything you can say generally about Reform now, it’s that Reform Judaism provides a level of access for every Reform Jew, alluding, I suppose to the big tent.

What he meant is that there are members of Temple Sinai that need transliterations to follow the Hebrew. Yet there also members of the community that know their Hebrew and find the transliterations distracting. Likewise, some will come to Friday night services. Others will come on Saturday morning. Why only give Torah to those who come on Saturday morning. Perhaps, he said, some came on a Friday night, one of the only they’ll attend all year, just to say Kadish. How, he asked, can we watch them come and go without giving them some Torah?

So what Rheins was describing is a kind of ideal version of Reform Judaism. And his ideal for Reform is that it gives something to everyone, allowing people many points of entry for Jews from any background. That’s nice, and Rheins is certainly living that as in the ways that he can in the community he leads.

I hate to sound ungrateful and whiny, but poor pitiful me, I’m over-educated. I find that there is no longer a point of entry for me because I know too much, which is kind of absurd. Whine, whine, whine.

Shabat Shalom.

Read full story · Comments { 14 }