Monday, February 28, 2011


So congratulations are in order to Shoshana Martyniak (aka Shvaygshosh) who brought Barry Rubin (who writes the RubinReports) to Beth Emeth to talk about Israel, the Middle East, Libya, Egypt etc. It was a very successful Friday night, with a packed house full of engaged and thoughtful Jews of all ages. As an admitted peacenik, I found it fairly depressing at times, but thought Dr. Rubin himself was a good and articulate speaker (even with bronchitis!).

As I said Friday, there were moments when I felt like Dr. Rubin was citing the title of Al Vorspan's book, "Start Worrying: Details to Follow", but as the Hasidic story ends, it's good for a Jew to worry, especially about Israel. But, while we should stay wide-eyed, I still feel we should keep an open mind and be fully cognizant of the challenges Israel faces not only from her neighbors, but internally as well.

How many opinions?

We've been seeing a rise in rabbinic petitions: from the extremely right wing (Don't sell land to Arabs!) to more left wing (accept LGBT individuals in Orthodoxy!) to everything in between. So it was interesting to read this blog suggesting that this approach actually 'flattens' dialogue. I take his point but I'm not sure I agree entirely. I don't know that such a response gives a mistaken view of consensus; I do think that in some cases, petitions or the like can become an 'easy out' for a rabbi on challenging issues; instead of engaging in real discussion with his or her congregation he/she can say 'but I signed on the petition/letter/whatever!'. I think it can also become something of a mindless task. You get an email from a congregant, however well meaning, who asks you to sign on for-or-against whatever issue, so you sign it. It makes the congregant happy, it doesn't actually require any work, maybe you drop it in your blog, but that doesn't lead to real advocacy (necessarily) nor any real reflection on the part of the rabbi. It can be another slide toward rabbi as 'warm fuzzy' provider rather than change agent.

Anyway, the posting is found below. Feel free to share your thoughts!
Getting 100 rabbis to sign on something used to be difficult. After all, the “escape clause” on the rabbinic ban on polygamy, now over 1,000 years old, allowed the husband of a woman who could not or would not accept divorce to marry a second wife if he could obtain the signatures of 100 rabbis from 100 different communities. This loophole was designed to make sure that the ban on polygamy would be difficult to circumvent. It appears not to be too difficult anymore.

The trend is disturbing for several reasons. Firstly, there are tens of thousands of rabbis in the world, if not more than 100,000; there is no rabbinic consensus on virtually any issue. Thus, getting a bunch of rabbis to support one thing or another is not difficult, but it can give the mistaken impression that there is some sort of broad agreement on an issue.

When numerous rabbis sign on a single document, it flattens dialogue. Positions tend toward sound-bites and away from nuance. There is little room for shades of grey, and there is little room for the rabbis with unique voices to create their own space. Furthermore, these letters tend to give the erroneous impression that all rabbinic voices are equal. A social media-savvy recent rabbinical school grad is not the same as a gadol be-Yisrael, but on a petition they each get one vote.

Rabbinic disagreement has classically taken place in a beit midrash or through the exchange of personal letters. Rarely were there public pronouncements that did not invite dialogue. It would be terrible if as a result of these letters different groups stop having dialogue with each other. As Rav Shach once lamented to Rav Amital, “we’ve grown so far apart that we don’t even argue anymore.”

Finally, people will eventually stop listening to rabbis who cry “Wolf!” When everything is worth a public petition, those things that really demand a public outcry will be ignored. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein calls this “inflation.”

I hope that rabbis, individually and collectively, begin to realize that the cost of these statements are not worth the benefits and, accordingly, think long and hard before affixing their signatures to such petitions.

Can't we all just get along?

Some good news for a change: Rabbi Richard Marker, currently Vice-Chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, has called for the very successful Catholic-Jewish reconciliation to be extended to Islam as well.

The article acknowledges that there have been bumps in the road, especially more recently as more conservative folks cautious of the reforms of Vatican II find themselves in leadership. However, compared to all previous encounters between the Church and Judaism, we can agree that it has been a watershed experience, and a great deal of suspicion and hostility has fallen by the wayside because of that engagement. It is possible that bringing Islam into the conversation would do wonders, (probably more for Europe than America as Islamaphobia in Europe is a much greater issue than it is here-- in New York State, for example, antisemitism still dwarfs anti-Islamic activity--but nevertheless good stuff here as well) and it's great to see it being put out there. And it's great to see the notion being discussed not only as a rehashing of past injustices but of what we can do to move forward together.

Article is from Reuters but I found it here at Ha'aretz.

  • Published 19:32 28.02.11
  • Latest update 19:32 28.02.11

Top U.S. rabbi calls to extend Catholic-Jewish amity to Islam

Rabbi Richard Marker tells interfaith conference that the dialogue the two faiths have maintained since the Catholic Church renounced anti-Semitism should be 'a model for transformed relations with Islam.'

By ReutersTags: Israel news Muslim Jewish World

The historic reconciliation between Jews and Roman Catholics over the past 40 years should be extended to Muslims to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, a senior Jewish official has said.

The regular dialogue the two faiths have maintained since the Catholic Church renounced anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council, should be "a model for transformed relations with Islam," Rabbi Richard Marker told an interfaith conference.

Marker addressed the opening session on Sunday evening of a meeting reviewing four decades of Catholic-Jewish efforts to forge closer ties after 1,900 years of Christian anti-Semitism and to ask how the dialogue can progress in the future.

"Forty years in the histories of two great world religions is but a blink of an eye," Marker, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, said. "But 40 years of a relationship is a sign of its maturity."

"The focus of the world is no longer specifically on Jewish- Christian amity. We must, for so many reasons, involve the third of our Abrahamic siblings... Islam."

Major faiths have held countless bilateral meetings to foster better ties since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) launched the world's largest church on the path of dialogue.

Christian and Jewish leaders increasingly meet their Muslim counterparts to seek common ground and better understanding, but none of these discussions have the history or depth of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue officially begun in 1971.

In those 40 years, the Catholic Church has apologised for its sins against the Jewish people and recognised Judaism as its spiritual "elder brother," a step that Jewish leaders praise as a historic change in perspective.


The dialogue has not always been easy. There is still much mutual misunderstanding at the grass-roots level and Jewish leaders are quick to criticise the Vatican over divisive topics, especially related to the Holocaust.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican's top official for relations with Judaism, told the meeting that Pope Benedict's three visits to synagogues were more than those of any other pope.
Benedict has also been harshly criticised by Jews for ending the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop and promoting sainthood for Pope Pius XII, who Jews allege did not do enough to save their people from the Nazis during World War Two.

Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, host of the four-day meeting, said Catholics and Jews had come to know each other as friends over the 40 years of dialogue.

"Of course, we must make sure ... that anti-Semitism is unambiguously exposed as a sin against God and humanity, for anti-Semitism is unfortunately not dead," he told the meeting.

During the meeting, participants will plant a tree in memory of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew killed by an anti-Semitic gang in 2006, and visit the Drancy camp outside Paris where the Nazis sent French Jews to death camps during World War Two.

The Grand Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, said the reconciliation between Jews and Catholics in recent decades was unprecedented but might not continue if it did not develop.

"Many Jews have organised Jewish-Catholic dialogue so it is totally focused on what we Jews think are Christian failures," he said. "This situation cannot continue much longer."
Catholic officials were unlikely to want to continue such a one-sided dialogue, he said, and some Jews see the need to define their role in an increasingly pluralist world.

"Jews will not compromise their religious integrity ... by saying that Christians can be models for us not despite their Christian faith but because of their Christian faith," he said.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I think this will be the basis of the peace process

Because anyone can get behind funny.

February 27, 2011

Arabs Embrace Israeli’s YouTube Spoof of Qaddafi

JERUSALEM — A satirical YouTube clip mocking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s megalomania is fast becoming a popular token of the Libya uprising across Middle East. And in an added affront to Colonel Qaddafi, it was created by an Israeli living in Tel Aviv.

Noy Alooshe, 31, an Israeli journalist, musician and Internet buff, said he saw Colonel Qaddafi’s televised speech last Tuesday in which the Libyan leader vowed to hunt down protesters “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway,” and immediately identified it as a “classic hit.”

“He was dressed strangely, and he raised his arms” like at a trance party, Mr. Alooshe said in a telephone interview on Sunday. Then there were Colonel Qaddafi’s words with their natural beat.

Mr. Alooshe spent a few hours at the computer, using Auto-Tune pitch corrector technology to set the speech to the music of “Hey Baby,” a 2010 electro hip-hop song by American rapper Pitbull, featuring another artist, T-Pain. He titled it “Zenga-Zenga,” echoing Col. Qaddafi’s repetition of the word zanqa, Arabic for alleyway.

By the early hours of Wednesday morning Mr. Alooshe had uploaded the remix to YouTube, and began promoting it on Twitter and Facebook, sending the link to the pages of young Arab revolutionaries. By Sunday, the original clip had more than 400,000 hits and had gone viral.

Mr. Alooshe, who at first did not identify himself on the clip as an Israeli, started receiving enthusiastic messages from all around the Arab world. Surfers soon discovered that he was a Jewish Israeli from his Facebook profile — Mr. Alooshe plays in a band called Hovevey Zion, or the Lovers of Zion — and some of the accolades turned to curses. A few also found the video distasteful.

But the reactions have largely been positive, including a personal message Mr. Alooshe said he received from someone he assumed to be a Libyan saying that if and when the Qaddafi regime falls, the liberated Libyans would dance to Zenga-Zenga.

The original clip features mirror images of a scantily clad woman dancing along to Colonel Qaddafi’s rant. Mr. Alooshe said he got many requests from surfers who asked him to provide a version without the dancer so that they could show it to their parents, which he did. (

Mr. Alooshe speaks no Arabic though his grandparents came from Tunisia. He said he uses Google Translate every few hours to check messages and remove any offensive remarks.

Israelis have been watching the events in Libya unfold with the same rapt attention as they have to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, with news of the bloodshed dominating the front pages of the major newspapers this weekend.

In the past, Colonel Qaddafi has proposed that Palestinian refugees should return en masse by ship to Israel’s shores, and that Israel and the Palestinian territories should be combined into one state called Isratine.

Mr. Alooshe said he was a little worried that if the Libyan leader survived, he could send one of his sons after him. But he said it was “also very exciting to be making waves in the Arab world as an Israeli.”

As one surfer wrote in an Arabic talkback early Sunday, “What’s the problem if he’s an Israeli? The video is still funny.” He signed off with the international cyber-laugh, “Hahaha.”

(cleaned up version below):

Thursday, February 24, 2011

And the apology

So Glenn Beck apologized for his comparison of Reform Judaism and Muslim Extremists. Full transcript is found below (taken from MediaMatters, which is linked to above, and has the video). It's uncomfortable to read, and it's awkward (as apologies often are), but I'll take it at face value and as sincere (he indicates, as I did, that he walked it back as soon as he said it, so at some level he understood that he said something naughty). As we know, real tshuvah is in the form of apology and a change in action. So, here's hoping not only that the apology is sincere, but that Mr. Beck will choose to weigh his words more carefully in general and find a way to entertain (I'm sure he would say, 'inform') without resorting to demagoguery.

That he and his co-host declare their intent to charge into offense (jokingly, of course) doesn't give me too much hope, though.

I still want a T-shirt.

BECK: Stop the music for just a second, because I want to, I want to lead with my mistakes. I have always told you that if I make a mistake, I'm going to lead with it. You also know that I don't apologize willy-nilly for things. I don't, I don't really care, you want to boycott me, boycott me, you disagree with me and you want to cause all kinds of problems and call me a racist, or whatever, you go ahead and do that. Let the chips fall where they may. That is my belief, if I know I have something right. If I have something wrong, I've always told you that I want to lead with it. Well, I made a mistake on Tuesday, and I want to make sure that you understand that I was wrong on this and I, and that I also apologize for it.

I do this, because I have always told you to do your own homework, and in this case, I didn't do enough homework. I also tell you that you, you have to guard your word, you have to guard your honor and your integrity, because people have to be able to believe you. The only way people will believe you is if when you get it wrong, you do apologize, and you, and you point it out, and not like the New York Times or anybody else, bury it on page two. I lead with my mistakes, because I think it's important as a human being to demonstrate to other human beings that we can be stronger if we correct our mistakes and flaws and move on.

With that being said, I think it was on Tuesday that I was making a point about political activists, and I started to talk about the difference in Rabbis. Somebody has called me ignorant for what I, what I said on Tuesday, and I think that's a pretty good description of my, what I said. I had, was having a conversation with a few friends the night before--one of them, I trust on things like this, and I'm not even sure if I misunderstood him, or misheard him, or what, but I certainly had not done enough homework to be able to go on the air and haphazardly make a comment, like I did, and it was just about political activists, it was, you know, I'm not going to rehash it, but it was, it was ignorant.

The second thing that happened was, I made one of the worst analogies of all time, and I knew it when I said it, and I just kept going, 'cause I'm like, you can hear it if you listen to the tape, or you know, if you go back and listen to Tuesday's show, you can hear, what I'm starting to talk--here I am talking about Judaism, and I start comparing Islamic extremism, and it was just, it was, it was a nightmare. And I knew it as I, I mean I started in on it, and I don't know if you noticed this Stu, but halfway through, I was like, and, well, no wait, this is not exactly, because I just knew --

STU: [laughs] yeah..

BECK: -- what a stupid--

STU: Yeah, and you did clarify it immediately, that it had nothing to do with, you know, but, you know--

BECK: Well, whatever, whatever.

STU: Attempted, at least--

BECK: Yeah. I mean, it's just, you get into--here's the thing. I'm on the air for four hours, every single day. Four hours every day, live, without a script. That is a recipe for disaster. That is, that is, trouble, because you and I have a--you know it's like Stu said yesterday: he was really, very concerned at the end of the show. You keep, I know you Glenn, you say you don't care anymore, well we do, we need a job! And you and I, as the host and listener, you and I, have this problem. I'm sorry, I don't know what is wrong with my microphone today.

PAT: Do you want to switch to mine? You want to switch?

BECK: Wow, yours sounds good.

STU: That's really nice, Pat.

BECK: That's nice of you Pat.

PAT: I'm not sure if it's the mic or just the incredible--

STU: Sultry tones?

PAT: Yeah.

STU: Of Patrick.

PAT: Dulcit tones of my voice.

BECK: No, our mics won't reach each other, so--

PAT: Oh, okay.

BECK: So, I try to keep him at more than an arm's length. What were we talking about here?

PAT: How you're on the air for four hours.

BECK: Oh yeah, how we're on the air for--see, this is a good, good example. We just have a different relationship, you know, you and I, as the host and the listener, we have a relationship where I'm like, hang on, my mic sounds weird, hang on, let me switch it. I mean, this is a very unprofessional show at times, and part of that is because we've been together for so long, and you know, you know me, and I feel as though I know you, and so when you have that kind of relationship, you are just talking like you talk in your cubicle.

Well, that brings me back to the original point. I've told you to guard your credibility. There's no way you're never gonna be wrong, there's no way you're never gonna say something stupid. But the people around your cubicle, and you happen to be around my cubicle, have to know that when you make a mistake, for honor's sake, you correct it, and you don't hide from it, and you go, "Man, was I stupid, and I was ignorant, and I apologize."

Abe Foxman brought this to my attention, and Abe Foxman is not, I mean he didn't directly. I don't agree with Abe Foxman on, really, I don't think, anything. Well, I think, we, years ago, I think we had dinner together and I, we may have agreed on what we--he may have had a steak, and I may have had a steak, but on this one he's right. And to Abe and everybody else: If I offended you, it was not my intent, I see how I did that, and I apologize for the action and the words. 'Nuff said. All right. Now, now let's see who we're going to offend, but do it with credibility. I mean--

PAT: We're gonna offend someone?

BECK: Let's mean it.

PAT: Yes, yes.

BECK: Let's just not back into offense, let's go head on into it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Radical [Rabbis] come to get me released...

So I'm seeing my colleagues thoughtfully considering Glen Beck's comments all over Facebook (that is to say, having a good laugh and/or doing the rabbinic equivalent of, "Really?"). On Ilan Emmanuel's page (aka The Scifi Rabbi) I jokingly said that we should make T-shirts. Dan Fellman agrees.

So, in response to Glen Beck's little commentary, what kind of T-shirts should we make for Reform Rabbis? What would it say? What kind of picture? I'm thinking of Isaac Meyer Wise in a Hawaiian shirt (or all punked out with a mohawk) with the words "Radical" underneath. Or maybe the guy up above. So, whaddaya think?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Difference Between Reform Rabbis and Islamists

Thank you to Commentary Magazine for this! (Wow, I can't believe I just wrote that!).

The Difference Between Reform Rabbis and Islamists:

However much many liberal Jews have come to see their faith in terms that have tended to merge their political beliefs with their religious identity, Reform Judaism is a venerable religious movement above and beyond political activism that is due the same respect that any other denomination of one of our country’s great faiths deserves. Many of its rabbis are, and have been, political activists (including many who are ardent Zionists), but that does not justify putting their faith down as mere politics. To do so is to manifest the sort of disrespect for religion that is more usually associated with the left than the right.

Moreover, any comparison between Reform rabbis and the leaders of Islamism is as untrue as it is obnoxious. Reform’s beliefs are in no way the equivalent of a creed that seeks to destroy all non-Islamic governments and faiths as Islamists do. Nor need we point out that it is also true, as Beck helpfully noted in passing, that Reform rabbis are not the spiritual leaders of a movement that sponsors terrorism as a matter of principle.

While the signers of the one-sided anti-Beck ad opened themselves up to criticism for backing an obviously partisan argument, to put down an entire religious movement as mere politics, as if a vast association of synagogues, schools, camps, and charitable endeavors exists merely to take shots at Beck, is absurd. As with some of Beck’s other glib utterances that have gotten him into trouble, it’s clear that he’d be better off not talking about topics about which his knowledge is limited.

Um, what?

Now, I don't usually get into domestic politics here; values? Yes. Internal politics of the Jewish community? Sadly, yes. Israel? You betcha. And I find that most Reform rabbis do the same; rare is the rabbi these days that preaches on specific political agenda. But, apparently, according to Glen Beck, I am (or at least, 'reformed' rabbis are) members of a political, not religious organization, akin to radicalized Islamists.


To be fair, he does try to walk back from that line, realizing the comparison was probably faulty. However, I'm pretty sure I'm in the God business, or at least the spiritual meaning business. And, like most religious institutions, that business has a community engagement component. No different than, say, The Church of Latter Day Saints. Or the Catholic Church. Or African American Churches. Just happens that our community engagement is more progressive/liberal than the first two examples.

Does that mean that LDS and the Catholic church are political? Or African American churches? I mean, they would never, say, endorse a candidate or a specific position to vote for from the pulpit, would they? I mean, I know I would never do that...


Now, if only he would call us "Reform" consistently...

Full text below:

PAT GRAY (co-host): And now remember, this is all fueled by an organization that Soros funds, that has a bunch of progressive rabbis that came out against Glenn and said --

BECK: OK, you have to -- hang on just a second. When you talk about rabbis, understand that most -- most people who not Jewish don't understand that there are the Orthodox rabbis, and then there are the reformed rabbis. Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It's almost like Islam, radicalized Islam in a way, to where it is just -- radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics. When you look at the reform Judaism, it is more about politics. I'm not saying that they're the same on --

GRAY: No, obviously not.

BECK: -- and they're going to take it at that, but -- stand in line.

GRAY: "Glenn Beck says --"

BECK: It's not about terror or anything else, it's about politics, and so it becomes more about politics than it does about faith. Orthodox rabbis -- that is about faith. There's not a single orthodox rabbi on this list. This is all reformed rabbis that were -- that made this list.

STU BURGURIERE (executive producer): Yeah, I don't know that for a fact. I know that certainly this organization is a progressive political organization. And that's fine.

BECK: Totally fine.

BURGURIERE: They, you know, just attack and it's ridiculous.

Monday, February 21, 2011

In Honor of Presidents' Day

George Washington's Letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport RI, 1790, in response to Moses Sexias, the warden of that synagogue.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

More Coherent Thoughts on A Serious Man

So...A Serious Man by The Coen Brothers (2009).

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this film.

I don't give a hoot what the reviews say: this is a 'comedy' only in the sense of what you'd find in Yiddish Theater; which is to say, it's a tragicomedy. No, that word doesn't quite work. It's comedy only in the Woody Allen sense (i.e. that when you fall down a manhole etc.); It's almost a psychological thriller, especially the way it's shot, with all kinds of distortions of reality. Funny things may happen, but it's not funny.

A modern retelling of the book of Job, we watch the protagonist (a college professor in 1960s Minnesota) deal with his stoner son's bar mitzvah, bitch daughter, his wife's affair and demand for divorce, a bribery attempt, someone trying to derail his tenure, racist neighbors, his brother the crazy sodomite, and generally becoming unhinged. Like Job, he consults three 'friends' (in this case, 3 rabbis) who fail to offer any succor.

Many critics have talked about how the Coen Brothers capture that look of the late 60s perfectly, and while I wasn't around then, I've been in those kinds of synagogues and JCCs and college buildings, all wood paneling and limited but dramatic light.

If you like the Coen brothers, or Yiddish Theater (they brought back Fyfush Finkel!) this movie is awesome. If you don't do well with cringe-inducing psychological pain, steer well clear. Also: if you've not experienced Judaism at all, this will be a little like watching a foreign flick; basically, all the punchlines are for those of us 'in the know'. Beautifully shot, excellent acting, at moments painful to watch.

A special note on the portrayal of the rabbis. Many people have taken their general lameness, to indicate an attack on religion (or at least Jewish religion). I don't see it that way. I think we've all encountered rabbis that have trouble hearing the real question (or even the person in front of them), who offer drab platitudes, etc. The Forward has an op-ed piece arguing that liberal Judaism (that is, non-Orthodox Judaism) is in trouble because it has no firm theological foundation, that Reform Judaism especially is so broad and so diverse it's nearly impossible to gain any kind of consensus (of course the Conservative movement is in trouble because those at the Seminary and in the RA are insisting on standards that the rest of the movement doesn't abide, so that argument kind of falls flat).

I think the movie is saying something else. The problem is exactly the problem of the book of Job: we want easy answers. We want someone to tell us how the world works, someone to give us a 'proof', to show us the math. We want all these metaphors about God (King, Father, "He", etc.) to be right and to have someone to hold accountable, to hold us accountable in a literal sense. We want what Art Green calls Naive or Childish religion (this, incidentally, is the same religion that uber-Atheists like Christopher Hitchens rail against, and when you try to point out that this isn't the religion you buy into, they dismiss you as not really being religious).

The reality is that religious experience requires commitment and engagement. We have to work for it, just as we have to work to make the numbers fit, work to make our bodies healthy and whole, work to earn bread for ourselves and our families. In this sense, Orthodoxy has it right; there are expectations placed on the practitioner. Or, rather, there are tools and methodologies through which one discovers meaning; keeping kosher, observing shabbat, studying Torah etc. Where liberal religion has failed is to take those seeking a spiritual experience (and most congregants out there are; they may not have the language to describe it, but they're seeking something) and give them equally valid tools--study and practice--to help people find and create meaning. Instead, we talk about programs, institutions, organizations, dues, etc. Which are good things to talk about, but are the means to the end; that is, to provide people the opportunity to find meaning using Jewish language and imagery and texts surrounded by other Jews.

Why is this so? Because it's easier. It's less threatening or challenging. Talking about 'stuff' doesn't make us feel inadequate or illiterate the way talking about text or prayer or God does. Because rabbinic schools are really good at teaching us what others think but need to learn how to help rabbis talk about what they think, and more than that, learn to create the safe space so others can talk about what's important to them.

So people come and keep expecting answers handed to them and when those answers are pat or cliche, they get disillusioned. Of COURSE those answers are going to be cliche; they're not YOUR answers!

In that sense, as one rabbi Sklar put in this collection of thoughts,
"It’s the most Jewish movie I’ve ever seen…You leave the theater with a host of questions, no easy answers and, frankly, arguing about what it all means."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Note to self

Watching The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man while the family is out of town can add a double-dose of depressing.

Good flick, and the faux-Yiddish Folktale (or is it just postmodern Yiddish theater?) at the beginning was very, very interesting.

"Our actions have consequences."

More cogent thoughts later.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A wonderful letter to Egypt

By Donniel Hartman, found below and at this link. Also worth reading the comments at the link below the posting; many of them are quite thoughtful.

A Letter to the Egyptian People (13/02/2011)
Dear Neighbor:
We, your neighbors, have been speaking a lot about you these last few weeks. As the status quo in your country to which we have become accustomed has changed, some of us expressed concern, others hope, and still others, admiration. Each view has its pundits, whose reading of the "facts" (your reality) seemed somehow to always fit into their pre-existing worldview.
The truth is that we don’t know. We don’t know, first and foremost, who you are. You see, for the last 30 years it seems, we never got a chance to talk. We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.
We got used to and comfortable with the existing state of affairs and learned how to adapt and work with it in ways that would fit our own national interests and aspirations. We all must now come to terms with the fact that it is not only about us, but about you. We must begin a new conversation with you, a partner that has declared loud and clear that your voice - the voice of the people - must and will be heard.
First, let me start then with a hello. As neighbors, we have had a long relationship, filled with many different memories. I remember as a young teenager the feelings of fear that you aroused when in 1973 your armies crossed the Suez Canal and my country's very existence was in doubt. I remember the awesome beauty of the Sinai desert as a soldier in the tank corps when it was still under Israel's control and the strategic comfort it provided. I remember falling head over heels in love with your President Anwar Sadat, when he declared, "No more war, no more bloodshed." I remember the hope that he brought to our country, a hope which inspired us to recognize that our future security could not and should not be based solely on the strength of our army and the impenetrability of our borders, but on the stability of our peaceful relations with our neighbors.
For nearly 35 years now, we have lived in peace with each other. Our children have not died at each other's hands. It hasn’t been the warmest peace, but as we say in the Jewish tradition, "dayenu." It was enough. We Israelis, while always aspiring for more, deeply valued it nonetheless. Where do we go from here?
One of the old adages posits that democracies rarely go to war with each other. This is so, it is argued, because when the people who actually have to pay the price of war get to choose, they will invariably choose resolution over conflict. They will choose their children's lives over national pride and ideology.
It is here that the Middle East has often proven this wrong. It seems that in our neighborhood at times, our children are our least valued commodity. The two of us, however, who have enjoyed the fruits that peace has given to our children are also a Middle Eastern phenomenon, and must become the rule instead of the exception.
Democracies rarely go to war, however, for yet another reason. A democracy is not simply the rule of the majority, but rather the rule of the majority that preserves the inalienable rights of its minorities. It is a system of government which believes that all humans are endowed with certain basic rights and freedoms which both empower them to govern themselves and which frees them from the potential tyranny of that same government. Democracies rarely go to war not simply because they want to preserve the lives of their citizens but because they respect the inherent freedoms of all humans, citizen and non-citizen alike. When one respects one's own rights to be free, it often leads one to respect one's neighbor's rights to the same freedoms as well.
I pray that this will be one of the outcomes of your democratic revolution. I hope that our two peoples living in vibrant democracies will find new ways to reach out to each other and respect each other. That does not mean that we always have to agree. It is possible and even likely that there are policies which each one of us is pursuing, either externally or internally, that may differ from the other's national interest or even moral sensibilities.
We have a critical choice ahead of us. The change in the status quo can cause us to revert to the old and mutually destructive patterns. I hope we do not need to relive the experiences of our grandparents and parents in order to learn yet again that war is not a solution. I pray that we will use the change in the status quo as a catalyst to move us forward. Status quos are comfortable, but they can also lead to stagnation. Our neighborhood is one in which there is still much pain and hatred. We, the two of us, have a unique opportunity to change the rules of the game, to speak, engage, challenge, and even push each other to find a new and vibrant status quo.
I know you are going to be busy over the next number of months and we are not your primary concern. I am nevertheless writing to you to again say, hello, and that we look forward to speaking with you soon. Until then, we wish that your transition to freedom be a peaceful and beneficial one to all your citizens and that your freedom be a blessing to you, and to the whole world. Amen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I don't even know how to talk about this.

This article from Ha'aretz about a Canadian who, after converting under Orthodox auspices in Canada, is being denied Right-of-Return to Israel because his conversion is 'unacceptable', reminds me of everything that we get wrong when we talk about religion, and why so many people find any attempt at maintaining a connection to their Judaism profoundly difficult.

The irony that, had he converted under Reform or Conservative supervision, he would have been accepted, is not lost on me, but it doesn't make it any better.

I just don't understand why we end up having these internal fights over 'who is a Jew' instead of dealing with matters of substance--what Judaism should teach us about our moral and social obligations, for example, or how we can experience divinity in a post-holocaust age. Nope. Let's argue over whether a committed individual who wants to live a Jewish life 'counts'.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had in the gym the other day with someone who asked me whether a non-Jew could have a bar mitzvah. Baffled, I asked her what she meant, and she asked a different question: whether someone is Jewish if the mother isn't Jewish. I said yes, if raised as such, and she asked "by everyone?"

How about a new deal: let's stop questioning each other whether we're 'really' Jewish, and start building meaningful Jewish experiences together. I'm not so naive as to say that we need no boundaries or definition, or that there aren't illegitimate claims on Jewishness (see: Messianic Jews). But would someone point out why I should minimize others' meaningful connections to Judaism, set up higher and higher walls to keep caring, loving and engaged people out, and otherwise waste my time and energy bullying people? Because that's what it amounts to: bullying. And really, I'd rather figure out the best way to support Israel while preventing it from sliding into some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, or promoting efforts to support the hungry in our community, or getting people engaged in Torah study, or ANYTHING ELSE.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

PA will hold September Elections

Mahmoud Abbas' office has indicated that the elections postponed from last year will go ahead, apparently without Hamas' participation (or Gaza, for obvious reasons).

It'll be interesting to see if it happens and whether it helps promote the peace process in some way. Especially since the Military Council now running Egypt has made assurances that their peace treaty with Israel will be maintained.

Ha'aretz is also reporting that Saeb Erekat is stepping down. Not going to miss that guy. He was the PA's chief 'negotiator', which is to say, he always seemed to be more their chief obstructionist. Fascinating to me especially is the reason he's stepping down: a Wikileaks-style Al-Jazeera report that he was willing to make massive concessions to Israel on Jerusalem and the right-of-return. Hrmn....

Article contents appear below (from Ha'aretz).

Palestinians will hold presidential and legislative elections by September, a top aide to President Mahmoud Abbas announced Saturday, a surprise move apparently prompted by the political unrest spreading in the Arab world.

Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo did not give a firm date for elections, but said the chief Palestinian decision-making body, the Palestine Liberation Organization, was already making preparations.

"We call on parties to put aside all of their differences and to focus on conducting the elections by September at the latest," he told a news conference.

However, Abbas' main political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, said it would not participate.

Abed Rabbo spoke a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in response to nearly three weeks of mass protests against his 30-year rule. The Egyptian protests and another successful revolt in Tunisia a month earlier have inspired calls for democratic reform throughout a region dominated by autocratic governments.

Palestinian elections were meant to be held last year, but the vote was put off because of the split between Abbas' government in the West Bank and the rival Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas rose to power in parliamentary elections in 2006, and a year later seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah movement. Since then, both sides have resisted calls for new elections as repeated attempts to reconcile failed.

The Palestinians hope to turn Gaza and the West Bank, located on opposite sides of Israel, into an independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. The internal divisions are a major stumbling block to any future deal.

In Gaza, a Hamas official said Saturday that they would not allow elections in the coastal strip.

"Hamas will not participate or recognize or give any cover for this election and we consider this announcement a conspiracy against the Palestinian people," said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. "Hamas believes in elections but elections can come only after [political] reconciliation."

Also Saturday, Abbas' chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, announced his resignation. The move came in response to damaging leaks by pan-Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera that detailed some of the inner workings of previous peace negotiations.

Erekat told The Associated Press that an investigation determined that internal documents obtained by Al-Jazeera were leaked by someone from his office. "If there was any security failure in my office, then I am responsible. For that, I have resigned," he said.

The documents showed that during peace negotiations with Israel in 2008, the Palestinians were prepared to make significant concessions on final borders with Israel and on the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees with claims to lost properties in what is now Israel.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Mubarak has decided to walk:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another Book Review: Inventing Jewish Ritual

First, thanks for all your recommendations for my next book. I decided to go with Art Green's Radical Judaism; it's actually been on my wish list for a while, as I'm a little bit of an Art Green nerd and have been since I studied Hasidism at Oberlin with Miles Krassen, followed by his theological writings, and the interview of him I read for when I did the PEER program.

His approach to Judaism--that is, the reimagining of the religious experience through the modern use of traditional material, including texts and rituals--are on display in Vanessa Ochs' book Inventing Jewish Ritual. Indeed, early on she defines Judaism as

a dynamic, evolving tradition, one continuously sculpted by its loving practitioners. Jews keep Judaism alive through inventing new rituals-moving, fulfilling and authentically Jewish rituals.

As with Judith Shulevitz' book, I was a little hesitant to read this despite my interest in creating new--and redefining traditional--Jewish rituals. Too often such books are self-congratulatory attempts at preserving some element of hippy culture, and Ochs' book skirts the edge of that. However, there is much to be learned here, both in her approach to ritual and tradition as well as the systematic way she breaks down modern rituals and their impact.

The book is broken up into three components, scattered throughout. The first is the author's own spiritual journey and discovery that she "could go about making new rituals without fanfare and without drawing much attention." Through this we see her own struggle between modernity and tradition (which, as we saw with Shulevitz's book, is resonant for nearly all modern Jews in North America) and her increasing sense of self-permission to 'rewrite the rules'; that is, create new rituals using traditional elements when the need arises. She describes her first baby naming (for a girl) and the radical impact it had on her.

The second component is a sociological study of ritual; how are rituals created? What is their history and mythology? Can one deconstruct rituals, even modern ones? This is a great analysis of a variety of modern rituals, including the orange on the seder plate, the use of certain niggunim and their origins, the creation of wedding brochures, and the like. It's great fun as she traces email exchanges and personal interviews to show how even rituals that have been invented in the last 10 years are quickly surrounded by a fog of mystery and awe.

The third is the discussion of how one might go about creating rituals for ones self. That issue of Authenticity comes up frequently in this aspect, with a fairly permissive stance, with a sense that Judaism is strong enough to withstand even the most bizarre innovations. Some quotes:

I needed to recognize that even clumsy or misguided efforts held redemptive possibility-if only for the innovator. Less successful ritual practices would fade away. Even the innovations that were misguided, even crude or tasteless, would not destroy "the whole thing".
I wondered "is this permitted?" (what did I imagine to be the source of permission granting?...)

I no longer asked, "Is this new ritual really Jewish?" but instead asked, "What new rituals are Jews actually practicing?"

She also insists on the idea that new rituals can be liberating and redeeming for Jews who are on the fence as to their Jewish experience:

Rather than blaming Jewish tradition for its being hard to penetrate or complaining that synagogues are boring and cold places, you can take responsibility for your own spiritual well-being by shaping Jewish experiences that resonate with your world and your life.

While in some ways this book isn't quite geared for me as a reader (as a Jewish professional I have no problem inventing new rituals, sometimes on the fly, sometimes without even realizing it), it was a captivating read. Ochs' story of her own self-discovery--especially influenced by her search for a strong female voice in Judaism--is quite compelling. She gives reassurance to the Jew who is exploring creating something new or changing something that seems monolithic: the Jew-by-choice leading her first Passover Seder, the wedding couple bridging multiple traditions and levels of observance, the young seeker who is trying to contextualize an experience through ritual.

And she casts aspersions on the endless games of one-upsmanship that Jews play with each other

Listen to Jews interrogate each other. We do not typically ask, "Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?" We will not ask, "Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?" Rather we inquire about the materiality of enacted beliefs and habits of conviction: "Do you drive a car on Shabbat? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks? DO you cover your head, wear a wig, put on tefillin, hang a mezuzah on your door...
If you're at all interested in ritual, even if you don't see yourself as a ritual innovator, I recommend this book.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What should I read next?

Kind a prosaic topic for this blog (and I promise, dear reader, that I'll get to more meat-and-potato-kugel soon), but after last week, in which I discovered that sewer repair is an all-consuming thing, I'm up for something a little more gentle on my soul.

So. I've read eight (8) books since I picked up the Kindle (Dec. 29th), which means I've read more these last weeks than I did all last year (at least in book form). I've been trying to do a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary works. they are:

1. The Sabbath World (reviewed a week or two ago)
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
3. Inventing Jewish Ritual (review coming soon)
4. Civil Disobedience
5. Super Sad True Love Story
6. Early Modern Jewry (Review coming soon)
7. How to Live Safely in a Science Ficitonal Universe
8. The Count of Monte Cristo (which I just finished)

What do you think I should go for next? I have the Man in the Iron Mask in my que, but I'm thinking that might be too much Dumas at once for my health. I'm thinking non-fiction this time (I find it cheerier, strangely, than fiction). What are your suggestions (Jewish and non)?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Last Call: Mubarak

Mubarak appears to be stepping down as of September (apparently with some prodding by the Obama Administration).

Article from Ha'aretz follows, along with a little Musical Interpretation.

Mubarak: I do not intend to stand in next election

Announcement comes after a week of mass protests throughout Egypt, culminating Tuesday night in million-strong rally in Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

By Haaretz Service Tags: Israel news Egypt protests Hosni Mubarak

Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday that he would not run in the next elections in the country, following mass protests that have been ravaging the country for the past week.

The protests throughout Egypt culminated Tuesday night in a huge rally in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, in which more than a million people reportedly gathered to demand his resignation.

Mubarak speech 01.02.11

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announcing he will step down at the next elections, in a televised speech to the nation, February 1, 2011.

Photo by: AP

"I did not have the intention of running in the next election and wanted to spend my life trying to serve the people," he said in a televised address to the nation. "Now I want to finish my role while Egypt is at peace."

The next presidential election is scheduled for September, but in his address, Mubarak pressed his cabinet to speed up elections. Until this most recent announcement, officials had indicated that Mubarak, 82, would likely run for a sixth six-year term as president, a role he has held for over 30 years. There were also indications that he was grooming his son, Gamal, to take his place.

Mubarak claimed the opposite in his speech, saying "I never intended to be a candidate for another term."

"During the next few months I am going to try hard so that we can fulfill a peaceful transition of the regime," the president said in a speech that was greeted by loud cheers and jubilation from the crowd gathered in Tahrir Square. There were, however, many in the square who vowed that they would continue their protests until the president left office immediately.

Among the changes he said he intended to make, the president said he would seek changes to the constitution. In an earlier attempt to appease the protests, Mubarak sacked his cabinet and appointed a new one. But protesters have been resolute in saying that they refuse to stop their demonstrations until Mubarak resigns.

Speaking about the riots which have left a reported 100 people dead and over 1000 wounded, Mubarak said that they were organized by political groups that wanted to threaten the country's stability.

He concluded his speech by saying that he did not plan on leaving Egypt after stepping down at the end of his term. Mubarak, a former air force officer, took over the presidency following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

"The Hosni Mubarak who speaks to you today is proud of his achievements over the years in serving Egypt and its people," he said. "This is my country. This is where I lived, I fought and defended its land, sovereignty and interests, and I will die on its soil."