Archive | September, 2010

I didn’t really like Sukkah City

As far as I can tell, the only relatively negative coverage so far of Sukkah City has been at New Voices. Our slideshow, embedded below, has a few comments from me thrown in. Overall, I disliked Sukkah City because it made Judaism a conceptual abstraction. No one can enter or try to use the sukkot on display, which shows a basic failure to grasp the concept of the sukkah on the part of the exhibition itself.

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A great post from prolific lefty open Orthodox blogger DovBear:

According to the Artscroll commentary, the poem claims that the lulav and esrog are held up as a sign of our victory over Satan. If it were actually in the poem, this would be astounding as it seems like a clear reference to the cross, what it symbolizes, and how its used. But as I say, I don’t think the text supports this reading. So it wasn’t the mideival Jewish poet who l tried to connect his lulav and esrog to the artifacts of the surrounding culture.  It was Artscroll — which is astounding enough, I suppose.

Read the whole post here.

[Edited later on the same day it was posted, to change my description of DovBear, following comments below.]

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ArtScroll’s borderline idolatry

I had a discussion a few days ago with someone from the iWorship listserve about how I think ArtScroll is pretty far to the right of most Modern Orthodox Jews. I told him that I think Koren is a much more moderate siddur and that it’s catching on because it is more in line with how more MO Jews think.

I just got the new Expanded ArtScroll Siddur Wasserman Edition. They go on and on about how the typesetting is more modern that old one. I find it just as obnoxious and crammed as the original. I got it because it has some new material in it to supplement the good ol’ stuff and it’s got a new introduction and overview section–and I go nuts for those things.

Anyway, I was just starting to digest it today when I discovered a case in point about the rightward lean of ArtScroll: pages and pages of prayer for holy places in Israel. I know that no one is with me on the Western Wall as idolatry issue, but this includes special prayers to be said at the Wall, Rachel’s tomb, the Cave of the Machpelah and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb.

I don’t think prayer at the graves of the holy dead is mainstream. Unless I’m just fooling myself here. Which is possible. But seriously. Idolatry. I’m just saying.

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Jewish weddings don’t need God

Crossposted to Jewschool.

How did the creation of this new blog, JTA’s The Life Cyclist, pass me by?

At The Life Cyclist, Dasee Berkowitz (full disclosure–I know her) writes:

As a Jewish life cycle consultant who guides couples and families toward creating meaningful ceremonies, I am presented with all sorts of creative, sometimes puzzling requests from couples planning their weddings.

One client had a particularly interesting request — a Jewish wedding ceremony that left God out of it.

Apparently, the couple in question are scientists–which Dasee informs us of as though that should explain why they’re atheists, reinforcing a dichotomy I’m far from comfortable with. The point is, the are atheists, but they both feel connected to their Jewish heritage. They want a Jewish wedding, but they want God to stay out of it.

Their request made me wonder: While adapting a Jewish life cycle event to reflect a couples’ lived values makes the event meaningful for them, does altering it by leaving God out undermine what makes it Jewish in the first place?

Maybe this an obvious question to many, but to me it seems odd. Is the presence of God in a wedding ceremony what makes it Jewish? Obviously, that can’t be the only thing that makes it Jewish. Many wedding ceremonies involving non-Jews include God. So that must not be Berkowitz’s point.

I’d argue that what makes a Jewish wedding Jewish is a commitment on the part of the two people being joined to keep a Jewish household and raise Jewish children. Of course, that can’t be the whole purpose either. Lots of groups have weddings in which it is assumed or required that the happy couple will raise children in whatever tradition that group has. What gives a Jewish wedding its Jewish character and content is treating it like a legal arrangement.

As a liberal, modernist Jew, I wouldn’t want my wedding’s legal content to be my acquisition of my wife from her family. However, the ceremony’s legal character is still important to me. I would treat it, as I think many do these days, as a mutually binding contract in which my wife and would acquire each other, so to speak.

In thinking about the content and character of Jewish wedding, God is far from my mind. In the Torah, God has nothing to say about weddings or marriage. Marriage in the Torah is a human construction. God expects us to marry, Genesis suggests, but we arrange the marriages ourselves. Unlike a ritual like prayer, where God is inherent, the wedding ceremony seems to employ God only as part of a Jewish ritual idiom. God appears not as God, but as part of our dominant idiom.

Would a Jewish wedding still be Jewish wedding without God? I think so.

Read the whole post here.

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Re-writing Korbanot, part I: intro and the Harlow approach

This is a two-parter. Part II is here.

Korbanot is a highly variable recitation of biblical and talmudic passages on the minutiae of sacrificial ritual in The Temple. The notion is that sacrifice was the most legitimate way to access God and that reciting the laws about how to do it was equal to actually performing the sacrifices.

The dominant modern view is that sacrifice is over and it’s not coming back. Prayer suffices in its stead. I once had an idea about how to create a replacement for the Korbanot section of the service that would reflect this reality. That’s what Part II is about.

While flipping through Or Hadash, Reuven Hammer’s commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, I noticed that Jules Harlow, Sim Shalom‘s editor, had created a replacement for Korbanot.

Like the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, Morris Silverman’s 1946 Conservative siddur, Harlow included the last passage in the Korbanot section, Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 principles of biblical interpretation, in SS. Building on Silverman’s minimal acknowledgment of the Korbanot passages, Harlow went one step further. Rather then merely excising the bulk of the section, he added several passages from rabbinic literature in their stead.

The first is perfect. It’s Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a, which describes Yochanan Ben Zakai walking with his disciple away from Jerusalem. From where they are, they can see the Temple in ruins. The disciple is distraught, but Ben Zakai says, “There is another way of gaining atonement even though The Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.”

From there, Harlow presents a selection of passages from rabbinic literature. The way Harlow arranges them, they seem to be explanations of how to do what Ben Zakai suggests. They are all about lovingkindness. It’s not exactly what I would have done if I’d ever gotten it together to do my version of this, but I think it’s pretty damn clever..

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Re-writing Korbanot, part II: my approach

This is a two-parter. Part I is here.

Many moons ago, when I was working on a siddur or my own (I won’t link back to any of those old posts because I sound like a moron in a lot of it, but if you do some looking around, they’re still here somewhere), I had an idea about how to redo the Korbanot section of the service, a lengthy section of readings that detail the textual basis for the sacrificial ritual system in place in The Temple back in the day.

Rambam himself saw prayer as the superior form of ritual, saying that God knew that primitive Israelites needed sacrifice to access God, but that we evolved away from that. So I had the idea that we could replace Korbanot with a selection of biblical and Talmudic passages about how to pray with kavanah or intention. I never actually did this, but the idea was there nonetheless.

Like I said in Part I, the Conservative approach is quite clever, but it’s not what I would have done. However, seeing that Harlow created a version of Korbanot for modernity, I’m inspired to think about what I would include in my version.

The problem I have with Harlow’s approach is that it almost ignores the ritual at hand. Ben Zakai’s statement that we can atone through acts of lonvingkindness is lovely, but from what I know, it seems like Judaism does not actually treat acts of great chesed as the replacement for sacrifice. Rather, we take prayer to be the one-to-one replacement. Each Amidah (except for the evening, which is a whole other story) stands in for a sacrifice in The Temple. Shacharit is the morning sacrifice. Minchah is the afternoon sacrifice. And Musaf is the additional sacrifice offered on special days.

So I would begin with biblical passages. There are definitely some talmudic and midrashic and otherwise rabbinic passages out there that should go into this idea, but I don’t know those texts as well as I’d like to yet, so I’ll stay away from those and leave that to the commenters below.

Biblical passages that come to mind immediately:

Psalm 51:17-19, verse 17 already being the opening line of the Amidah:

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.

You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings;

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Bamidbar 12:11-13

And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to use the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “O God, pray heal her!”

Shmuel A 1:4-13. This passage details Hannah’s prayer to God asking for a child. It’s especially good because it takes place in The Temple among sacrifices. Her husband even offers sacrifices in this passage, but on Hannah’s prayer brings her a child. I might also include part of chapter 2, which is Hannah’s extended prayer of thanksgiving after her child is born.

There’s also a passage somewhere in the Talmud where Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv are described as having been established by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively. That passage and its proof texts would obviously be a must-have in this section.

I’d also want to maintain Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 principles as the final passage of the section.

That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far in this. Anyone else have ideas?

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Jewish Spirituality Course–first reflection paper–identity and lifestyle

As previously mentioned, I’m taking a Jewish Spirituality course this semester. This post, crossposted to New Voices here,  is actually just the first of four two-page reflection papers that I’ll do for this course over the course of the semester. There a few ideas in here that I don’t think I’ve ever articulated here at The Shuckle before, so I thought I’d give y’all a chance to read this paper.

David A.M. Wilensky


Jewish Spirituality

First Reflection Paper—Identity and Lifestyle

I don’t know if this has anything to do with the class, but I began davening Maariv, Minchah and Shacharit every day the day before Rosh Hashanah. I’ve only missed one Minchah so far, while missing no Shacharit or Maariv. I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but there it is.

Among Jews of a particular conservative (with a small “c”) kind of observance, there’s an idea that somone who does all of the mitzvot—as though there is somewhere a complete list—will discover meaning in all of them. This meaning is inherent and divine. The meaning may not be apparent until one starts doing that mitzvah. Sometimes, these people say, it may not be apparent for many years.

Growing up in the Reform movement, that always seemed like a ludicrous proposition. The Reform movement has historically had an intellectual bent that is uncomfortable with that kind of thought process. Rituals, we would say, were created by people, not God, so they do not have inherent meaning. At the same time, we would relabel the bein adam l’chaveiro/bein adam l’makom dichotomy as a ritual/ethical dichotomy.

In high school, when I began going to services every Shabbat morning and every erev Shabbat, stopped doing work in exchange for money on Shabbat and stopped doing homework on Shabbat, I found that the line between ritul and ethical commandments is thin. I thought at one point that if everyone would just calm down every seventh day, the whole world would be improved. When I started to wear tzitzit every day, the line seemed even thinner. If tzitzit are a meta-mitzvah that reinforces observance of other mitzvot, how could it even be classified as either ritual or ethical? Clearly, I reasoned—and I still do—it must be both.

I’m still Reform, though I’m not a member of the Reform movement (where “Reform movement” means official Reform bodies such as the URJ). As such, I still belive that Judaism is a system of meaning created by human beings that acts to create more ethical, considerate people. I’ve found that the reasoning I cited earlier, that something created by God would have inherent meaning that something created by humans wouldn’t have, doesn’t hold up. We did not create rituals for kicks. We built meaning into them and I have started to see discovery of the meaning our ancestors built into them—or discovery of new meaning we can layer on them—as a goal.  Though I have yet to discover any divine reasons for new mitzvot I’ve obligated myself in, I have yet to try on a new mitzvah that I haven’t found meaningful or helpful.

“Complete observance”—whatever that would even mean—is not a goal of mine. I don’t see myself eating only kosher food anytime soon. Likewise, I can’t imagine not scribbling notes in the margins of my Tanach or siddur on Shabbat. There is a whole idea percolating in my head right now about jotting down notes while praying as a spiritual practice. (If, as Louis Finkelstein said, “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me,” does that mean that if I study the siddur while I pray, I am the rare person that God actually talks back to while praying? And I say that with my tongue about halfway into my cheek.)

What I have found, however, is two new ideas. The first is that trying on more ritual usually turns out well. I’m even prepared to try tefilin again, which didn’t turn out well the first time. (Your suggestion about the reason for the four compartments in the shel rosh and the one in the shel yad is the first compelling reason I’ve ever heard for tefilin.) The second is that obligation is not a bad word, but that in today’s world I can only obligate myself. So I’m trying on rituals. When something happens, or it looks like something might happen, I am obligating myself in the new ritual. That means that if I eat bacon, I feel no remorse because I haven’t obligated myself in kashrut. But when I miss Minchah, I kick myself because that’s something I’ve obligated myself in.

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My dream is coming true

I have long wanted to live in a world in which all new works of Jewish liturgy have their own trailers on YouTube. So here’s the second one I’ve discovered.

Watch out for the part where one of the editors of Mahzor Lev Shalem tries to co-opt a Reform tagline and claims, despite the lack of a complete transliteration in MLS, “This is a big-tent machzor.”

It’s also mad long and not nearly as cool as the Koren Soloveitchik siddur trailer.

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Yom Kipur at Hadar: Part III–Annotating one’s siddur as a spiritual practice and why I had to wear a kipah

There’s a lot to say about Yom Kipur at Hadar this year. Intro here. Part I here. Part II here.

This story actually begins on Rosh Hashanah at Chavurat Lamdeinu. Rabbi Ruth Gais mentioned a quote from former JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein:

When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.

This really resonated with me. But I immediately thought about taking it one step further. Following the tradition of my mother, I make notes all over my siddurim and machzorim. Probably to an even greater extent than my mother does. I’ve often thought that I kind of study the siddur while I pray. Does that make me the rare lunatic to whom God actually speaks while he prays? (I mean this half-seriously.) Either way, ever since Ruth planted this quote in my head, I’ve been thinking about the notion of writing during prayer as a spiritual practice.

Now, I know that writing is one of the forbidden forms of work for those who observe Shabbat in that way. I’ve also been to Hadar three or four times before and never been asked to put on a kipah or told to stop scribbling all over my siddur. So I figured these were OK things. On YK this year, I got a rude awakening about the extent to which Hadar is willing to tolerate halachic deviance.

During shacharit, a gabbai came over to me and handed me a little business card with a page number and a task on it and asked if I’d like to open the ark on page such and such. (Hadar gives out honors in this way. It’s very novel, I think. The cards suggest using them as a bookmark for the page on which your honor will take place.) I politely said that I couldn’t because I was using a different machzor and I was afraid I’d miss the right time. He said, “OK. Well, can offer you first gelilah?” I know when that is, so I said, “Sure. Thanks.”

A few minutes later, he came back, holding a little black kipah. “Can I offer you a kipah?” I told him that I’d rather not. He seemed hesitant and confused. “OK. Well, when you go up to dress the Torah, we’d appreciate it if you’d wear one.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand. Thanks,” I said, taking the kipah. I had also been annotating my machzor all morning so I had a pen tucked behind my right ear. “And if you could just put the pen away when you come up.” Fine by me. “Sure. I understand,”  said.

A moment later, I realized that I had my own kipah with me and pulled that one out so I didn’t have to use the borrowed one. I went ahead and put it on, borrowing some bobby pins from Dana, so I wouldn’t forget.

Then he came back again. “Actually, we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t write at all, out of respect for the community. If you have to, please go to the back and do it privately.” I grudgingly said, “OK. I understand.” I was pretty pissed, but didn’t really have any room to argue with the guy, especially since I was appreciative of the fact that he hadn’t insisted I wear the kipah the whole time.

So as the Torah reading was winding down, I went to stand in the back such that I’d have a clear shot to the amud when he called for gelilah. Standing back there, I decided, in the spirit of YK, that I’d find the gabbai later, during a break, and apologize to him, honestly, for being such a pain in the ass about everything.

By the time I got up there to start dressing the Torah, it was pretty clear that the gabbai has decided that between the pen and the kipah and everything that had already passed between us, I must be some kind of uncouth loon. So he felt the need to give me detailed instruction on how to dress the Torah. What he didn’t know is the I spent the better part of my life dressing the Torah more often than not at lay-led services at CBI.

The guy doing hagbah sat down, of course, with the front of the Torah toward him, making it hard to put the belt on. To make matters worse, it was one of those wacky Torah belts with the three circular clasp things that have to go through these holes. Its was damn near impossible to put it on backwards. So now I’m fumbling around and taking forever with the belt, so I look like even more of a moron than I already appeared to be. Once the belt is buckled, it’s a little higher than it should be. So I’m about to tug it down when the gabbai leans over and says, “If you could just pull it down to halfway.” I know.

Then he hands me the Torah cover. Like every other Torah cover ever, it’s got a slit in the back so that you can pull it open like curtains and ease it over the scroll easily. Well, this is clearly not the way the gabbai usually does it. You can, of course, leave the slit closed and lift the cover all the way over the Torah and drop it on from above. I guess he prefers that way because he starts looking at me like I’m doing something wrong again.

Then he gives me the breastplate, which I put on without incident. I had noticed when the Torah was brought out that it didn’t have crowns, so I know not to wait for them. But whoever was reading was obviously using a yad, so now I’m waiting to the yad. I turn back to the gabbai, expecting the yad. He already knows that there’s no yad to be put on so to him it looks like I’m waiting for further instructions. So he says, “You can go sit down now,” in this tone that says “Why are you still here? You’re done. Duh.”

So I go sit back down. Earlier, I had been considering keeping my kipah on, but I decide to take it off before I’m even back at my seat.

I did not write anymore, but I also decided not to apologize to the gabbai.

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Yom Kipur at Hadar: Part II–How I got spotted by a fan from across a big mass of Jews

There’s a lot to say about Yom Kipur at Hadar this year. Intro here. Part I here. Part III here.

It’s gotten to a point where I almost expect at least one or two people to know me by name at NYC Jew events like Hadar or Limmud. It was a tad disconcerting, if exciting, at first, but I’m over it. But here’s weirder version of that.

As Maariv wrapped up on YK and I was ready to bolt for the juice boxes and granola bars, a guy walked over to me and said, “Can I ask you a weird question?” Other than the one he’d already asked me? “Do you write a blog?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Do you write The Reform Shuckle?” “Yes.” “So you’re David Wilensky.”

Apparently, this guy, Alex, is a big fan. Apparently, you are all reading one of Alex’s favorite blogs. He has been to this blog enough times that he just recognized me from across a crowded mass of Jews from the thumbnail picture of me to the left (in this blog’s current layout ca. YK 5771).

So, hey, Alex. How’s this YK at Hadar post series treating you? Yeah. It’s kind of long.

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