Tag Archives | reform

Three new haggadot: Excellent ‘New American’; middling Reform; whitewashed Ethiopian

My new piece for JTA is live today. The gist:

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (JTA) — Leading a seder for the first time this year? There’s an app for that.

Entries in the annual stream of new Haggadahs this year include a Reform version that comes in hardcover, paperback and iPad app editions. Two others  feature a gorgeously designed Haggadah that features an array of literary celebrity contributors and one with an Ethiopian flavor.

The Reform Haggadah, “Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family” (CCAR Press), is terrific for its introductions and artwork, bland in its content and promising in its use of technology.


Coffee table art books have given birth to an entire sub-genre of artistic, if unwieldy Haggadahs, including the gorgeous “New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company). Edited by novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, this Haggadah aims not just to tell a story but to be about storytelling. It is far too unwieldy to be deployed in full at your seder, but that hardly seems to be its ambition — and it’s too beautiful to pass up.


The story of the ongoing immigration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel seems to be a perfect thematic match with Passover. As interest grows in far-flung Jews with unexpected skin tones, an Ethiopian Haggadah was inevitable.

What a shame, then, that “The Koren Haggada: Journey to Freedom” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) is such a whitewashed letdown. It’s “The Gould Family Edition,” edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman and translated by Binyamin Shalom.

Read the rest of it over here.

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Welcome to the blog with no name

I have no clever name for the blog this time. But welcome, all the same. It’s been about five months since I last blogged. I’ve missed you all dearly.

Once upon a time, I went to Israel for a semester during high school. So I started a blog (“Live from Israel: David Says Things” at davidsaysthings.wordpress.com) to keep the folks back home apprised. Then I came back to Austin to finish high school and didn’t write in my blog for a while.

I started blogging again after a couple of months, renaming the blog “The Donkey’s Mouth.” That didn’t last long. I graduated from high school and moved to New Jersey for college and renamed the blog again, but now I can’t remember what it was called.

After a semester, I attended Limmud NY for the first time, my brain got turned inside-out and I renamed the blog again: “The Reform Shuckle.” At this point, the blog became focused on Jewish liturgy, ritual, prayer and the structure of Jewish communities.

Four Limmuds later, y’all decided that I should rename the blog “The Wandering Davener.” (Although there was a minority that was in favor of calling it “Hey Nakedhead!”) I bought this domain name and planned to relocate the whole thing under the new name. Then I graduated from college, didn’t blog for six months and suddenly remembered that I had owned davidamwilensky.com for a year and still hadn’t done anything with it. Then this happened.

Six years after I started blogging, this version of my blog was on the verge of having a sixth name. (Never mind that “The Reform Shuckle” lasted for four of those years.) The one constant, still here six names later, is me. So other than my own, no name this time: It’s just me, David A.M. Wilensky.

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L’chu N’ran’nah–another new bencher

Crossposted to Jewschool

A while ago, I reviewed a new bencher called Yedid Nefesh, by blogger Rabbi Josh Cahan. I’ll be referencing that review in this one. Full disclosure: a regular Jewschool contributor is an associate editor of this bencher.

When I reviewed Yedid Nefesh, I wrote:

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 coming out of the Conservative tradition, falls into the latter category.

If Yedid Nefesh, with its neither-here-nor-there approach to the imahot, is Conservative, L’chu N’ran’nah is Reform. Which is not to say it has anything to do with the URJ. Rather, it comes out of what I would call a Reform intellectual background; it’s Reform without the movement.

Each page on LN has three columns: translation, Hebrew and transliteration, parallel to each other, in the style of Siddur Eit Ratzon and Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael. The layout is fine and clean on most pages, but lapses into florid title pages.

It’s bigger than many benchers, but not overly so. It is slightly awkward to use because of its longways page orientation, but a certain width is required for the layout, which I like, so I’ll forgive the width.

The songs section is robust, bigger than Yedid Nefesh’s.

I love that Birkat Hamazon is clearly separated into its four constituent sections, showing users of LN that BH is designed and has a coherent order to it, something that is unfortunately lost on most.

Both benchers have abbreviated versions of BH, with LN’s running shorter. Differences in substance are negligible. LN, however, includes a variety of other, very brief BH options, including the tiny Aramaic one from Brachot 40b–a personal favorite of mine. It’s also got a woo-woo one by Shefa Gold that I’m not a huge fan of and a few others.

Over all, it’s nice. The biggest drawback I see is that there is slightly less commentary than I’d like. It looks like a little bit less than YN, but I’m willing to forgive that because of its otherwise good three-column layout.

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When the laity just sit there and flail…

The congregation in this anecdote will remain anonymous. Suffice it to say that it is URJ-affiliated and around 700 families. I promise it’s a true story that I heard recently from a source in a position to know.

After years of tweaking Friday night service times at least annually, the synagogue settled, seemingly happily, on services at 6:30 p.m. every Shabbat evening.

This went along fine for a while, but a few vociferous folks, 20 or 30 people, complained that they couldn’t make it to services if they were that early.

The Ritual Committee felt that since no time would work for everyone, they wouldn’t go out of their way to accommodate this handful of people.

The President of the congregation felt differently and demanded that the Ritual Committee and the Rabbis create a once a month 8 p.m. service for the people who can’t make it to the 6:30 p.m. service.

Hardly anyone comes, but the service goes on.

Immediately, I thought, why not create an 8 p.m. monthly lay-led service. The people who can only come late would love it and a whole other crop of people who prefer lay-led services and like to lead them would latch onto it also.

So I asked the guy telling me this story if they considered a lay-led service. Yes, he told me, they had. It was the first thing that the Ritual Committee thought of.

They floated this idea around to the people who wanted the 8 p.m. service. No good, these people said. We want a “real” service led by the professionals with a real sermon and real music.

God forbid anyone should take responsibility for their own Jewish needs. Make sure you get the professionals to take care of it.

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Why the Rabba isn’t Reform

Crossposted to Jewschool

So the word now is that Rabba Sara Hurwitz can keep the title of Rabba, but she can’t make any more rabbas. Her Yeshivat Mahara”t will only ordain new Mahara”ts.

A number of people, including one Jewschool commenter have asked, “If the orthodox world won’t fully accept her and other women as rabbis, why doesn’t she just leave for a more liberal stream of Judaism?” Some have even suggested she become a Reform rabbi!

The thought is preposterous. What help would someone thinking and living in an Open Orthodox mindset contribute to a Reform community as its leader? No one would ever suggest a Reform rabbi just up and leave, seeking a job in an Orthodox synagogue because they are dissatisfied with something in the Reform world. So why suggest Hurwitz should become Reform?

The most interesting part of it is that one of the people who suggested this to me has been one of the loudest voices asking me to stay put in the Reform movement and try to fix what I’m not satisfied with.

This isn’t just my abstract speculation about a woman I’ve never met. I had a chance to meet Hurwitz at Limmud NY 2010 and I asked her a question about the utility of labels. The word Orthodox is important to her. It allows her to be who she is.

I don’t think Hurwitz is going anywhere and I don’t want her to either. I hope she stays put and continues to be a positive influence on her community.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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