Thursday, December 31, 2009


It's been (slightly more than) one year and 100 posts. I would say that the experiment has been successful. I started this blog to get myself writing and thinking about Judaism from a variety of perspectives, styles, topics, and levels of quality.

Looking back at these first 100 posts, what have I learned?

It's hard to say something new about Judaism.

Seriously! I keep having these wildly radical ideas (compared to what I see around me), getting all excited about them, and telling my friends, only to have them say, "Oh, so you've been reading Rabbi so-and-so!" Or I'll crack open some history book and find that a few centuries ago this "radical idea" was considered passe and old fashioned.

What's a young Jew to do?

Also, I'm feeling my lack of knowledge. Granted, I'm not investing the amount of time in each post that many "serious bloggers" recommend, but I keep finding other bloggers, articles, etc. who bring so much more depth to their writing than I do. This is one of the major pieces I want to gain at school; the background and knowledge base that will allow me to support my writing with citations, references, and links that will make my writing stronger.

I don't write this post to be hard on myself; I'm very happy with what I've done this year, and like the way my writing is developing. Rather, I am acknowledging my awareness of my need for further development. On a larger scale, it has been an interesting reminder of the cyclical trends in human history. And, as humans, that applies to Jewish history as well.

My biggest revelation in this vein was realizing that what we now think of as "Traditional Judaism", and all of rabbinic Judaism for that matter, represented a huge divergence from the "original" Judaism. One writer suggested rabbinic Judaism could potentially be the single largest heresy in religious history!

When you look at it that way, it's not surprising I want to be one.

Thanks for reading; have a safe and happy new year, and see you all in 2010!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Strength of Friends

I used to say it was easy to do the right thing, to be strong, for your friends. With the implication being that the real test was being strong for a stranger. Tonight I learned how hard it is to be strong for your friends.

When your friends become a statistic. When they become headlines. When the thing that could never, ever, happen to you, happens to them.

It's hard to be strong for your friends.

Friday, December 25, 2009

For Those Observing Today...

Don't I wish...

We celebrated The Annual Jewish Holiday today in the traditional way: we saw a movie and ordered Chinese food. My sister pointed out that the crowd at the movie theater when we got there, for the noon show, was mostly Jewish and immigrant families; when we left, it was almost all Christians. Must they steal all our traditions?

It's 5pm in Chicago now, meaning sunset was about three hours ago, so technically it's Day-After-Christmas Eve. We talked about "The Holidays" a lot this week, and I have a much longer post to write about the need to transition to a post-inclusive world, but for now I just want to say this: I have no objection to Christmas, I just feel frustrated, exhausted, and trapped because I can't get away from it without becoming a complete recluse for several weeks out of the year. I hope everyone who observes it has a happy, safe, healthy, and fun Christmas, but please remember that it's your holiday, not everyone's holiday, and the rest of us sometimes need a break.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Interviews & Buzzwords

Visiting my grandma the other day, she asked me a "practice interview question": why do I want to be a rabbi?

A fair question, to be sure, and one I have spoken to in much of my writing, directly or otherwise. My answer had three parts:

1. I love studying, reading, and teaching Torah and Jewish history.

2. I like non-profit work, and my passion for Judaism will drive me professionally.

3. My favorite part of working with people is watching them grow and develop.

She found my answer lacking because I did not, in all that, mention God or spirituality. I felt I did; in describing education, social justice, and family life I described my spirituality and connection to God.

The ensuing debate contrasted very mundane, secular issues with religious, spiritual ones; any regular reader of this blog will know the intersection of those perspectives is one of my favorite places to be. I brought the question to several of my friends I visited last week to get their input, and the majority agreed my grandma was right.

Grandma had an excellent point. I cannot get so caught up in soaring intellectual, spiritual answers that I ignore good interview technique. I am reconsidering my answers to say the same things but use the essential buzzwords.

But there's another issue at stake for me, and it's big enough I almost want to ask the interview panel their opinion on the subject. I believe religion, and God, is not something to be separated from the rest of my life. I am just as Jewish when I'm at the office, stuck in traffic, blogging, praying, or watching TV. God is not unpacked for the holidays like some table decoration to be put away again once the festival is over; God is God at all times, and my relationship to God is likewise constant.

The question "Why do I want to be a rabbi" is different than the question "What is my relationship with God". But the second question underlies the first, and probably is the one that should be asked first. The question my Grandma should have asked me, and that hopefully the interview board will, is "Given your relationship with God, why do you want to be a rabbi?"

My non-Jewish friends spoke about a sense of "being Called" to the clergy. That's not really part of Judaism. In fact, I think people that decide to be rabbis primarily because of their strong love for God will have a very difficult time of it. They will quickly burn out, for the same reason as many of the excellent camp counselors who utterly fail as camp administrators; they take the job thinking they'll get to be at camp all day, then discover they are working a difficult office job that just happens to be on the camp grounds.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sex With The Rabbi

Six more posts in ten days. Should be able to do that. Right; here we go.

On Religion: In a Manhattan Classroom, Judaism Meets the Facts of Life

I want this story spread to all corners of the net, especially those where some of my favorite bloggers sit bashing religion in general, and its views on sex in particular. Granted, I probably should learn more about what, specifically, this rabbi has to say about these complicated issues of sexuality before deciding to endorse him too strongly, but look at the types of things he says in this article:
“Sex is fun...Sex is pleasurable, no question about it.”

“The Ramaz that I’ve associated myself with prides itself on being open to all issues, to all views, while maintaining its Modern Orthodox stance. Nowhere does that get more difficult than in the area of sexual ethics."

“I keep saying to the students as we move along in the course, ‘I believe there is a right and a wrong. But you’re going to make a decision.’ So it’s better not to just come down on them with a heavy-handed moral absolutism.”
Without knowing more specifics about his curriculum, that's the type of attitude I want sex educators, and religious educators, to have. I'm even ok with it when he says, “[Sex] really has to do with relationships. It isn’t just something you do." That falls within my range of acceptable messages, that sex is something sacred and special, and is best within a relationship. We could have some debate about what constitutes an acceptable relationship, but that essential idea is a strong part of my own sexual ethics.

I get very frustrated by the common perception that religion is sex-negative. Yes, some religion is, and there are definitely pieces that seek to control sexuality, but religion done properly promotes life, community, self-development, family, and happiness, and sex is a part of all of these.

In Judaism we are commanded not to just have sex, but to enjoy it. Some, unfortunately, try to regulate the definition of "enjoyment" just as they do "relaxation", "celebration", and "prayer" in other parts of life. It is regrettable they apply this constrictive viewpoint to sex, but I guess it's at least consistent.

Anyway, my point is religion and sex can co-exist happily, and promote each other. There is at least one rabbi out there teaching this; give me a few years and there will be two.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Loyalties Divided?

At a Hannukah concert at my mom's grade school, texting from the back row (shhhhh!). We opened the concert with the Star Spangled Banner, followed, naturally, by Hatikvah.

This has become a universally accepted standard at Jewish events across the ideological spectrum (at least at the ones I see; it's possible congregations at the extreme Right or Left feel differently). But should it be? One of the traditional anti-semetic attacks is that Jews cannot be trusted because their "true" loyalty is to the "Jewish state", therefore they are not "Real Americans". Or French, or Germans, or wherever we're being kicked out of this year.

Are we making this calumny true in the era of Israel? Singing a national anthem, to a flag no less, is a declaration of loyalty. Not quite a loyalty oath or applying for citizenship, but still a nod in that direction.

Is this appropriate behavior? I've said before that I believe our identity as modern American Jews doesn't necessarily include "Israeli" anymore, but even if it did would this be ok? Imagine learning a presidential candidate sang the anthem of another country every week; it would end the campaign!

Not that we should plan our traditions around electoral politics or public opinion. But is this a tradition whose time has come? Or one whose time has passed?


Loyalties Divided?

I wrote this post, originally, on my smart phone. Once I got into the tiny-typing vibe, it went very smoothly and beyond all expectations it wound up being a rather lengthy post. One of my better ones, I feel, drawing in talmudic analysis, US law, and excellent use of Jefferson Starship lyrics.

Turns out the "save" feature does not work automatically on my phone, so I must now take the following steps, in order:

1. Rewrite the post.
2. Locate my hammer.
3. Purchase a new cell phone.

The reconstructed post will be much shorter, since most of the original passionate inspiration has faded and I am working from memory rather than notes.

The question is this: at many "official" American Jewish events, especially school and camp events, we open with the Star Spangled Banner, followed by Hatikvah; should we continue to do this?

One of the classic tropes of antisemitism is that Jews can never be real Americans, Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Russians, Greeks, Romans, Brits, etc. is that they hold a "secret loyalty" to another nation, the "Jewish nation", and therefore can never be fully trusted in our own. In opening all major Jewish events with Hatikvah, we provide some small measure of truth for this calumny to work with.

I understand, or think I understand, the underlying motivation. Israel is a strong part of American Jewish identity, especially after the wars of the 60's and 70's. Singing Hatikvah is a show of solidarity with and love for Israel. But singing a nation's anthem is more than that. Singing the anthem, to a flag no less, is a declaration of loyalty. Look at Olympic athletes; the medalists sing their own anthem but not the others. Many times this is probably because they only know their own anthem, but what about the international NBA players; surely they know the US anthem in addition to their own? What about Jewish athletes from anywhere around the world? It would be regarded as highly inappropriate for these athletes, as representatives of their nation, to sing the anthem of another country.

Imagine how this would play out in a presidential campaign. If it got out that a Jewish presidential candidate (suspend disbelief for the duration of this argument and pretend there could be such a thing) regularly sang the Israeli anthem, it would end the campaign! Don't believe me? Imagine if it were a Muslim candidate singing the anthem of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I do not mean to suggest public opinion should be the guide for our actions, and creating traditions out of fear of possible antisemitism has already damaged our religion enough. But we are now at a point where we can, and should, consider this particular tradition and reevaluate its place in our culture. I love singing Hatikvah; it always fills me with a sense of pride. But isn't that part of the problem?

And now, if you will excuse me, in the spirit of holidays recently passed, I will emulate Judah Maccabee to my cell phone's Antiochus.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Two Generations

The title for this blog should properly be sung to the tune of The Temptations' "Just My Imagination".

I was reading some obscure presidential history...trivia, really. At the risk of spoiling the end (go read it; I'll wait.....ready? Ok.), I got chills from this line:
Their grandfather, as a child, made regular weekend visits to hang out with Thomas Jefferson. Their grandfather was born before the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.
From a US History standpoint, it's always shocking to remember that these issues we think of as "buried in our past" are actually so recent we can reach them in three generations. We talk about the Civil Rights movement like it's a ling time gone, but how can it be old news when there are people still living whose grandparents were slaves? For that matter, ginandtacos's example shows we're really only three generations away from the founding of this country.

Puts things into perspective, doesn't it? We're the nation equivalent of a 26 year-old recent college graduate at their first big job.

Then I put this into a Jewish perspective. We had a guest speaker at temple this past Friday. I did not agree with much of what he said (can you hear my blood boil from there?), more on that later, but he pulled several of the traditional lines about Judaism in America. Such as, "We've never faced persecution here", and "We have a great tradition in this country"; things of that nature.

Ignoring that the first point is just plain wrong, you hear this general line of reasoning fairly often. Granted, compared to how the rest of the world treats Jews, the US is a paradise for us. I mean, I can count the number of religion-based death threats I received in Junior High on one hand (three); that's unheard of in most of the world! But we act like this has been going on for a long time, and ginandtacos's article, in many ways, gives that idea the lie.

The first documented Jewish presence in America dates back to the 1650's, but the bulk of Jewish immigration happened in the late 1800's. More occurred post-WWII. Most of us don't have to go back very far at all to find our family's entrance to the country; probably just two generations, even without the huge families and long lifespans ginandtacos points out.

To me, that's a sobering thought. Partially because it means that my parents were here, and my grandparents, but to my great-grandparents this country was an alien land; not a place of tradition (מקום של מנחג - I show off in Hebrew!), but the strange land in which they were strangers.

But also partially because that's just long enough to forget. I have no memories of my great-grandparents; I know a few of them lived long enough to meet me, but to me they're essentially just names and photos. Which means every living member of my family grew up here. They - no; we - have only really known acceptance - with some small friction, perhaps. As far as we know, this land has always been a good place for the Jews.

But I've been reading a lot of history lately.

About cycles of nations.

And about other places that were paradises for Jews.

My parents and my grandparents.

Just two generations.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Oy Hanukkah, Oy Hanukkah.

I wish there was something new to say about the whole "Winter Holiday" season of joy and stress, but it's all really well-tread territory. My struggle with Christmas growing up was hardly unique; different, yes, but only in details. The core story is one most Jewish kids would recognize. And, I'm sure, quite a few non-Christians of any stripe.

I saw this story on the God Blog today. To sum up: the Obama administration briefly considered not displaying a Christmas creche; the "community of social secretaries" - seriously - found out about this, and "emitted a collective gasp". This gasp was apparently a strong enough statement of public outcry that the White House will, you'll be glad to know, be displaying the creche.

I know there's a lot of gray area about what can be show without denoting religious bias, and frankly I guess I don't care too much about this one - slightly tacky - decoration. It was really the end of the article that got me.

Let me give another hat tip here to my friend Eric Metaxas, who, as a former editor of The Record at Yale University, knows a few things about satire, politics and culture. He is also the author of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask)” and a bunch of other books. In his commentary at the Fox News website, Metaxas noted:

If President Obama wanted to fuel the fears of every serious Christian in America and actually prove that he is every bad thing they’ve ever heard about him on every crazy Web site, the idea of symbolically taking Jesus out of the White House at Christmas would be just the ticket! Let’s face it: “Brand Obama” dodged a bullet by not going forward with this terrible idea, but only barely dodged it. After all, the facts of the story are right there in The New York Times for all to see.

Amen. A highly symbolic close call, for Obama and other Democrats who want to stay in touch with ordinary American who frequent mainstream church pews.

I don't know what it was about this passage, but it left me feeling...betrayed. Or maybe it's more accurate to say "sold out". Like Team Obama said, "We know this might bother you, buddy, but we're going to do it anyway because it could gain us a few points in the polls". I know that's the core of politics...this one just felt personal.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Link Love: A Bisele Shmues

Recently found Tevel's blog A Bisele Shmues via a comment on a post at Shira's blog, On the Fringe - Al Tzitzit. Started reading through his posts, and found this lovely one about tying tzitzit:
So last night I was replacing several frayed tzitzit, and a flat-out lovely thing occurred. While I sat in the family room tying, my kids came in, sat down, and proceeded to read. Their reading is not uncommon, but this quiet moment in the middle of a hectic life, that's uncommon. So there I was, tying my tzitzit, focusing on the task, and what occurred? Quiet family time together, all anchored around a mitzvah.
I was just explaining to a friend at dinner that the core of Judaism revolves around the family, and, properly done, always leads back to a richer familial experience. Then I logged on and saw this post. Thanks for backing me up Tevel!

As a bit of an aside, but not really, I love reading Shira's and Tevel's blogs because I feel like they are on the same path I am, but coming from different starting points and headed to different destinations. Their writing has been very inspirational for me; I hope that one day my readers gain as much from my blog as I do from theirs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Natural vs. Artificial

From Abstruse Goose (keep scrolling; it's a long one):

I absolutely agree; the point of differentiation is fairly weak. A hand-woven blanket is no less natural than honey; both are made by naturally occurring organisms using materials gathered from their environment. I'm not very well read on the honey-making process, so I don't even know which is more complex. The only real difference I can see is humans make intermediate objects; we make machines that build other machines that make the blankets. I guess if we find bees building wax golems we'll have to reevaluate.

On my way to D.C.; take care of the 'net until I get back.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Letter regarding Women of the Wall

I wanted to write about this article on Haaretz that came out last month:
Police on Wednesday arrested a woman who was praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, due to the fact that she was wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit).

The woman was visiting the site with the religious women's group "Women of the Wall" to take part in the monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer.

Police were called to the area after the group asked to read aloud from a Torah scroll.
Facebook update: Israel has joined the group "Nations that arrest Jews for dressing like Jews".

I wanted to write about this, but didn't. Partially for time, partially because I always feel a little weak commenting on the female side of gender issues. "This upsets me because it is very clearly wrong" just doesn't tell the full story. I could reference other writers and draw from them, but since I lack the personal experience to ground it, it always feels like I'm quoting a talking points memo.

Leon sent this to me; it's a sample letter to the Israeli ambassador condemning this outrageous arrest. I'm posting it here to encourage as many people as possible to participate. It doesn't take long to write a letter and send it; please do so and ask your friends to as well. And next time I'm in Israel, I plan to daven with the Women of the Wall as much as I can.
(From Shulamit S. Magnus - Associate Professor, Jewish Studies and History Chair, Program in Jewish Studies, Oberlin College)

Many asked me this past Shabbat about the Women of the Wall and what we can do to help.

Here is something simple, quick, and effective: send emails to the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Use your own language-- which should be respectful, if forthright-- or feel free to use or adapt from mine, below. Use your contacts and encourage others to send an avalanche of these to the Ambassador; the Embassy and Consulates are Israel's nerve endings abroad. They will register and report on Jewish public opinion and are our best, most direct form of influence.

The other is to ask every Jewish organization with which you are affiliated-- Federation; women's groups; camps; Zionist organizations of whatever stripe; shuls; schools-- to do the same, and to raise this issue in each and every contact with counterparts in Israel, ceaselessly, as was done, lehavdil, with Soviet Jewry, until Israel does right.

When YOU go to Israel, seek out this group, and daven with them.

Below, the text of my email to Ambassador Oren AND THE EMAIL ADDRESSES TO USE:

To: ''; ''
Subject: from Professor Shulamit Magnus Arrest women for praying at the

Dear Ambassador Oren,

I write to express my outrage at the arrest of a woman for wearing a talit and reading from a sefer Torah at the Western Wall.

What a disgrace that the only place in the world where such an action could be taken without the denunciation and intervention of the State of Israel is Israel itself. For shame! To what depths have we descended in our capitulation to religious fundamentalism, intimidation, and coercion that a law in the Jewish State actually criminalizes Jews praying in prayer garments and reading from the Torah anywhere in Israel! Are we to compete with the Byzantine Christians, the Ottomans, the British, and the Jordanians in restricting religious expression at this site, for whose liberation brave soldiers gave their lives so that we might all have free access and expression there, after centuries of oppression and restriction?

We ask you to convey to the Government of Israel our shock and indignation -- and our profound disappointment in our beloved Israel-- that such a policy could be tolerated, and our expectation that remedy will be forthcoming immediately so that this sacred site of Jewish memory and connection will be a place of mutual respect for the plurality of Jewish prayer customs, from which intolerance, fanaticism, misogyny and coercion, not women at prayer,
will be banished.

Respectfully yours,

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Admission Essay: Challenge and Blessing of Reform Judaism

Religion is not one-size-fits-all. We understand that everyone has different needs when it comes to clothing, to computers, to furniture; heck, we even have stores with 31 flavors of ice cream! But when it comes to religion many people seem to believe that there is one way, the right way, that should meet everyone’s religious needs. Reform Judaism distinguishes itself by avoiding this theological trap.

One of the greatest blessings of Reform Judaism is that authority to interpret and apply Jewish law rests with the individual. This creates a safe space where we have the opportunity – nearly, in fact, the obligation – to continue learning, exploring, and developing our understanding of Jewish tradition and practice.

This freedom also creates one of the greatest challenges facing the modern Reform movement. Without stringent guidelines and requirements, many Reform Jews neglect their Jewish education and development, virtually disappearing after their b’nei mitzvot. As a result, community leaders must struggle to keep the ritual accessible without oversimplifying and divesting it of meaning.

Rather than drawing members back to the community, oversimplification hinders membership development. The purely secular Jews will not be attracted no matter how simple the service becomes. Meanwhile, members coming to temple for community involvement and those seeking to explore their faith will lose interest and drift away because of the lack of meaning.

My high school history teacher conclusively demonstrated that the reason most people find history “boring” is because they receive too little information, not too much. He would take stories that were normally represented as dull, two-line stories and expand them into hour-long action packed sagas that ensured the message stayed with us. The same holds true of religion; oversimplifying Shabbat services is the problem, not the solution, reducing the spiritual high-point of the week to a series of confusing, empty call-and-response readings.

Imagine, instead, if each week’s service were used as an educational opportunity, providing an opportunity for improving skill and knowledge. Members driven by curiosity would be drawn to return each week, eager for the next installment. This is how I first learned the silent amidah at summer camp. The daily services were new to me, and I struggled to keep up with my friends; I started forcing myself to read the prayers in Hebrew, reading as much as I could before the group got to Shalom Rav, and getting a little farther each day. I have not regularly attended morning prayers since that summer, but even now, years later, I know the prayers by heart and the amidah remains my favorite part of the service.

One of the greatest challenges for Reform rabbis is how they navigate this issue; how do we provide depth and meaning while promoting free expression? How do we provide guidance without enforcing direction? This is the question I hope to answer as I pursue ordination.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Admission Essay: Torah Portion Emor

At the end of Parshat Emor is an interesting story about a man who commits blasphemy and is put to death for it.
“Now, the son of an Israelite woman and he was the son of an Egyptian man went out among the children of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp this son of the Israelite woman, and an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. So they brought him to Moses.” [Leviticus 24:10-11]
The incident is used as an opportunity to introduce several laws and punishments before ending with the unnamed man’s execution. This brief story conceals an issue that should be very troubling to us as modern Jews. The man is put to death for speaking a single word, a difficult notion to reconcile with our value of Free Speech. The unnamed man is executed for the crime of blasphemy: using the holy name in an irreverent way. Immediately after learning what his punishment shall be, however, we are informed that “if a man strikes down any human being he shall be put to death.” [Leviticus 24:17] There is an uncomfortable tension created by the juxtaposition of these two capital offenses; the implication is that speaking a word can be as bad a crime as murdering a human being.

Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man put to death when Moses is allowed to live?

There does not seem to be a clear answer. This inequity seems a gross injustice. Jewish law teaches us that before one can be sentenced to death, they must be warned their behavior is wrong and given the opportunity to stop. Yet the unnamed man receives no warning, while Moses, presumably, had known murder was wrong. It says Moses “turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man” [Exodus 2:12] before striking, implying he knew the act to be wrong and wished to avoid witnesses. Murder, in this circumstance at least, is a forgivable offense while blasphemy is severe enough to warrant waiving proper protocols.

This ups the ante considerably; blasphemy is now a worse crime than murder. How can we, as Americans, make peace with this imbalance; how can we conscience executing someone for their speech?

We do not. We cannot, emotionally, and should not, morally, countenance turning speech into a capital offence. While there are many crimes that can be committed via speech alone – such as blackmail, intimidation, and perjury – there is only one that is a capital offense: treason. A crime so important it is the only one defined in the United States Constitution, and so rare there have been less than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions.

So how do we deal with this story?

We could put the story into a historical perspective. Blasphemy belongs to the class of speech acts known as declaratives; these are statements that, in being spoken, effect change in the world. Classic examples are “I adjourn the meeting”, or “I thank you”; the statement itself is the action. In ancient cultures declaratives could carry great power. But in the digital age, with over a trillion webpages and a billion new ones appearing each day, talk has become cheap.

We could turn it into a metaphor for modern life. This is the era of the sound bite and the text message: brief statements that fly around the world, and whose short shelf-life is offset by potential for deep short-term impact with long-term effects. While few of us would literally kill someone for their words, we symbolically execute politicians, celebrities, and relationships over a few ill-chosen words. Just last year, for example, Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, was forced out of a 55-year career for implying a genetic link between race and intelligence, his words erasing a lifetime of valuable scientific contributions.

There is a time for each of these approaches. The Torah is many things to the Jewish people, including a historical document and a source of inspiration. By viewing the text from these perspectives, the Torah helps us improve our understanding of our people’s past and present. In the end, though, we cannot in good conscience, as good Jews and good American citizens accept these easy answers. The questions raised by this parsha are unanswerable, showing once again why we are known as the People of Israel: those who wrestle with G-d.

Admission Essay: Personal Statement

I want to be a rabbi because to me the title of “rabbi” is equivalent to the Japanese “sensei”; both are “my master” and “honored teacher”. As a life-long martial artist, working on my second decade as a classical fencer, I have often been called upon to assist the instructor. I have consistently found that I get more out of the experience when I am helping others find their way, rather than just practicing on my own. One of the first lessons in fencing is that it is more important to train your mind and your eyes than your hand and body; the eyes to see from the right perspective, and the mind to understand and respond. This experience exemplifies what I hope to offer as a rabbi: to help people learn to see Reform Judaism from their own perspective, to understand and love religion and community, and to respond in a Jewish way to their daily lives.

Too many people view religion from only a single perspective. They seem afraid that learning to see more than one perspective will completely fracture their worldview. That mindset reminds me of one Calvin & Hobbes strip, in which Calvin starts seeing everything in a neo-cubist style. We learn that,
"It all started when Calvin engaged his dad in a minor debate! Soon Calvin could see both sides of the issue! Then poor Calvin began to see both sides of everything! The traditional single viewpoint has been abandoned! Perspective has been fractured! The multiple views provide too much information! It's impossible to move! Calvin quickly tries to eliminate all but one perspective!”
He successfully regains his single-perspective viewpoint, then informs his dad, "You're still wrong, Dad."

I never understood this mindset. It is much easier to navigate any terrain using multiple viewpoints to triangulate, and in every field I have studied I have likewise found that multiple intellectual viewpoints further learning and understanding. Today religion in our country is at the center of several major ideological debates, most predominately “Science vs. Religion” and “Secular vs. Traditional”. I never saw the inherent dichotomy in these debates, preferring to study on both sides to gain a better understanding. Granted, the large difference between these extremes creates intellectual pressure, but physics teaches us that pressure generates energy, which can be used to do useful work.

I saw such pressure lead to beneficial results when I lived in Oklahoma. I lived there from age three to thirteen, give or take a few months. My major Jewish memory from this time is a general theme of conflict and isolation; in a Junior High of 1,600, I was the only Jewish kid, just to give a sense of scope. There were two shuls in town, one Reform and one Conservative, and both fairly active, but all my friends there lived far enough away that I usually only saw them on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I had the teachers that yelled at me - in front of the class - for not wanting to write a letter to Santa, and no one was surprised when major tests were scheduled for Yom Kippur.

There were good Jewish memories too. There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly; when viewed from that perspective it is unsurprising I want to be a Rabbi. But I knew my non-Jewish friends had those things too. What I had that they missed was conflict. Ironically, the community was homogeneous enough that racism and homophobia were entirely off my radar, so it was a long time before I learned I was not alone in my isolation.

I thought the lessons gained from this were strength and confidence in my beliefs, the ability to teach and explain my religion to my friends, the skill to debate religion on multiple fronts, and the desire to merge "being American" with "being Jewish". And I did get those things, but recently I realized something new.

This summer I read Jew vs. Jew, Samuel G. Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, found myself firmly in the middle. As I dug deeper, I realized that I grew up without a real sense of Orthodox Judaism; it was as foreign to me as it was to my Christian friends. Like I said, there was the Reform temple and the Conservative synagogue and that was it, in my limited world view. I knew what Reform was; that's where we went, where I was consecrated, where the Rabbi gave my sister her Hebrew name. I knew what Conservative was; that's where the other Rabbi was, where they used a different book, and spent two days on Rosh Hashanah.

Reform was home.

Conservative was my friend's house.

I went to a Reform summer camp - Young Judea in Texas. A couple times per summer the kids from Camp Ramah came over; they were The Enemy, to be defeated whenever met on basketball court or kickball field. But after that they were Our Friends; we were all Jewish after all. They were just a little more...intense about it, and I couldn't follow their prayers. But my mom is a music teacher; I understood that some people use different melodies for the same songs, so that wasn't a problem.

A couple years before we moved away the congregations merged their Sunday Schools, so I got to learn more about what Conservative meant: the girls were bat mitzvahed at 12 instead of 13. Sometimes we went to services at one place, sometimes the other. I had friends at each, and friends at both. One Sunday I was recruited before class started to help round out a minyan; this was before my bar mitzvah, so I was handed a chumash with the explanation that it added two years to my age. It was an awesome experience; I was so proud to help out.

The point is, we were all Jewish. I knew there were differences, but I figured they just weren't important. Oh, sure, some were important, but even those didn’t really matter. You just remembered who would or wouldn't eat cheeseburgers, and everything was ok. This is where my sense of Jewish peoplehood developed, in a place where the difference between denominations mattered less than the friendly rivalry over which local football team you supported.

It's the irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just were not enough of us to get really fractious. Then I moved to Chicago, and first encountered the idea that there were so many Jews we could sit around arguing about who is or is not Jewish. That idea is a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population, a number smaller than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it is possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.

I was struck by this realization because I always thought growing up Jewish in Oklahoma was an unpleasant "character building" experience that, all things equal, I would just as soon do without. Now I see there was a true benefit to learning Judaism in that environment. The small space we lived in stripped away even the possibility of the idea of Jewish factionalism; we were pressed together to form a single community. It was the kind of pressure that breeds diamonds.

This idea really hit home while I was watching the movie The Prince of Egypt. It was released when I was a sophomore in college, and I went to see it with a Catholic friend when we were home on break. We wound up the only people in the theater (gotta love early afternoon mid-week showings!) and had fun mocking the previews, yelling at the screen, and providing…”helpful insights” to the characters throughout the movie. Let’s just say it wasn’t a kid’s movie anymore when we were done with it.

Then halfway through the movie something happened. I don’t know what, or which scene, or why that moment, but like a comet it hit me; if I was there, they would have done that to me. They wanted to do that to me. The only reason they didn’t do it to me was I wasn’t there. They did this to me.

Suddenly I was crying. Quietly – I’m not sure my friend even noticed, or if he did he made no mention. Everything quickly followed from there. The Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pogroms; every time and place Jews were attacked, enslaved, and destroyed, those responsible also wanted to do it to me and only the fact I was born hundreds of years and thousands of miles away saved me.

Do you realize how embarrassing this was? I’d heard the Passover story countless times. I’d seen more Holocaust movies than I care to think about. Schindler’s List? Completely unimpressed and unmoved. Sure, what happened was terrible but no worse than the mini-series I watched with my family when I was eight. I picked up Maus once in our Temple’s library one week during Sunday School, expecting to read a funny comic book. The story inside was excellently written and drawn, but there was no emotional space left inside me for outrage about Jews being killed; it had already all been used. And now this, this…children’s movie reduced me to tears.

I came to realize that maybe this is why we tell the story every year. Maybe this is why we tell the story in so many different ways; eventually one will connect. The first time I heard the story of the Exodus it was like some scary campfire story, complete with evil kings, magical events, and food to eat while we listened. We gasped when Pharaoh was cruel, laughed when Moses was tricky, and cheered when the Jews reached freedom. Then it was hunt for the affikomen, eat dessert, check Elijah’s cup, and go to bed.

This movie-moment has stayed with me through the years. Now whenever I see Jews being attacked for being Jews, in fiction or in life, I hear that voice again reminding me they did this to me. Even now, in writing this, I am choked up with tears remembering that I was a slave and oppressed until HaShem freed me. And on the other side of the coin, every great Torah scholar, every prophet, every Israeli hero, well, they did that for me too. This too is part of peoplehood.

Thank God we have children’s movies.

There were other moments on my spiritual path – climbing the steps to Masada, my grandfather’s funeral, tutoring my first bar mitzvah student among them – but that moment in the theater was the first identifiable one. Then one day in Kalamazoo, Michigan my then-rabbi, Rabbi Stephen Forstein, asked a simple question: “What is your relationship with God?” I babbled on for several moments before my brain finally caught up and I fell silent. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before, and finding the answer would require me to explore entirely new worlds of thought. It was that moment, as much as I can point to any single moment, that decided me. As with fencing, if I truly wanted to understand, I would have to be the guide for others. I wanted to be a rabbi.

This experience reawakened and enflamed my passion for the Jewish people. Having identified so strongly with K’lal Yisrael, I cannot ignore it. I am driven to immerse myself within it, to help it – to help us – grow and thrive. And so here I find myself, trying not to “deviate to the right or to the left” [Deut. 28:14]. We cannot reject tradition, but we also cannot be ruled by what it says. We cannot ignore science, but we also cannot be limited by what it has proven. We cannot reject modernity, but we also cannot lose our identity within it. There is a path here, down the middle, that we can safely walk. We will need good guides to help blaze the trail, and I put myself forth to be one of them.

Update on Application

For those who have not yet heard, my application is in and my interview is scheduled for mid-January. Meaning I have 6 weeks to learn 2 years worth of Hebrew. No problem, right?

I'm posting my admission essays in their "final form" (essays of this nature are never really "finished"; they're just past their deadline). I'll stagger them a bit to prevent "Genius Overload", which could be caused by reading all three back to back to...other back.

Parts of these essays may seem familiar; I found out on a Monday that the essays were due the following Thursday, so I borrowed liberally from previous blog posts. Don't worry; I gave myself full credit where needed, and if I'm caught, I probably won't press charges.

Holidays, Happy and Otherwise

Hi all,

So last week was an exiting and interesting week. This is the first "Holiday Season" with my girlfriend. We spent Thanksgiving morning with my family, and did dinner with some of her friends. Fun, and we got through both parties without serious incident.

It was hard to get into the spirit, though. We started the holiday with tragedy. Wednesday night my girlfriend's 14 year old cat finally lost his battle with diabetes. We took him to a nearby 24-hour animal hospital, said our goodbyes, and the vet gave him the shot. I held my girlfriend tight, we said kaddish, and went home to try to sleep and get ready for celebrations the next day.

It's strange watching someone you love grieve. Seeing them overcome by emotions so powerful, and knowing all you can do is hold them and watch. Having to keep your own grief in check because someone needs to sign the papers and drive the car, and because yours is such a small, pale thing in comparison.

There's so much more I want to say, about grief and about relationships and about the empty space in our apartment. It's still a bit too raw though.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 gives us 8 Online Fads You Didn't Know Were Invented Decades Ago.

Last night my girlfriend and I were discussing the cyclical nature of social trends. Today I get this. Neat!

This is a vital point to remember when doing anything with religion: all these "new", "modern", "never been seen before" problems we get excited about probably did in fact exist somewhere else years ago. They were resolved successfully, we're still here, get over it. Means whatever radical new idea is upsetting you today was probably the mainstream a few generations back, and the people doing things "your way" were the impetuous upstarts.

In case you're wondering, my personal favorite is #8, the primordeal emoticons.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ishmael and Issac

I seem to be on a "Biblical Grammar" streak. Lately every drash I hear involves word origins, hidden meanings based on structure, or some similar topic. Today's got into the burial of Abraham, and Issac and Ishmael's reunion. The rabbi's larger topic was mixed marriage, so he dwelt on the significance of Hagar's name: Ha-gar, the stranger. So "Ishmael ben Hagar" is "Ishmael, son of the stranger". His discussion prompted a different line of thought for me.

Ishmael = "He will listen to God"
Issac = "He will laugh"

Ishmael listens, Issac laughs; Issac gets the blessing.

It's not enough to listen to God. We must be prepared to laugh as well.

Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when God told them they would have a son, although we usually just hear about Sarah's. She laughed in surprise and disbelief; Abraham laughed in joy.

Abraham laughed in joy. Laughter shows joy. Sitting in services last month, someone said something that made me happy, and I laughed. It was very loud in the otherwise silent sanctuary. I was struck by how rarely we as adults laugh out of pure joy; humor, embarrassment, or courtesy, sure, but joy? Almost never. But religion is supposed to make us happy, right? We rejoice and celebrate our people, our culture, our family, our community, and our God. If we're so happy about it, where's the expression of joy? Where's the laughter?

Sarah laughed in surprise and disbelief. Laughter shows understanding. There's a lot of intelligence that goes into humor, both writing it and understanding it. This is why in-jokes are so annoying when you're not "in the know"; without the understanding to make it funny, it's just strange, frustrating, and nonsensical. [I want to say more about this, but it's not flowing well so I'm hoping one of my funny friends will save me in the comments section]

Laughter requires joy and understanding.

It's not enough to listen to God. We must be prepared to laugh as well.

Religious Evolution

“Religions are natural phenomena; they’re just as natural as cows. They’ve evolved over millennia, they have a biological base – just like the aurochs – they have become domesticated, and human beings have been redesigning their religions for thousands of years.”

Dan Dennett
TED 2006

Not a lot to say about this quotation; it's pretty self-explanatory. He didn't develop this theme as much as I was hoping he would in his presentation, but it caught my imagination.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Starting at the beginning

Interesting commentary/discussion on B'reshit (בְּרֵאשִׁית) - also known as Genesis - this week (I know I'm several weeks late on this verse). It starts with the first 3 verses. We all pretty much know the standard English translation by heart: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....", leading up to the climactic "And God said, 'Let There Be Light'!" Problem is this: when you look at the Hebrew, it doesn't translate like that.

Some Hebrew anatomy would be helpful here. The Hebrew letter bet (ב), pronounced "B" as in "boy", when used as a prefix typically means "in" or "at". Reshit comes from rishon (רשון), meaning first, constructed here to mean "beginning". Therefore, in (or at) the beginning... Here we find the first problem. The word is constructed such that it really means "In the beginning of..." . We don't know what goes after that dot-dot-dot. The next word appears to be the verb bara, meaning "created". Something's wrong with either our English translation or the original Hebrew.

Unsurprisingly, Rahsi has an answer. A couple answers, actually. We'll go with one for now.

He starts by noting that bet has a lesser-known meaning: "for the sake of..." Now we have "for the sake of
רֵאשִׁית". What's רֵאשִׁית ? Using a bit of midrashic mental gymnastics, he demonstrates that רֵאשִׁית is used in other verses to refer to Torah or the tribe of Israel. So now we have "For the sake of Torah/the people of Israel, God created the heavens and the earth." Great; now we're getting somewhere. Good for morale, not so good for relations with your neighbors. But at least it's better grammar.

I explained this to my girlfriend the other night, and she turned the whole thing on its ear. What if, she said, "for the sake of" is used to establish context? For instance, when we say, "For the sake of this discussion, let's assume the following..." All of a sudden Genesis 1:1 says, "For the sake of this Torah, this discussion, let's say God created the heavens and the earth."

No statement about actual factuality of God's creation. It may or may not be applicable to other conversations, other people, or the rest of your life. The verse becomes a sort of preamble, setting the grounds for discussion, in the same way the Declaration of Independence's "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." informs discussion of the US Constitution. That changes the entire field of Torah study and debate in some subtle and interesting ways.

Hey Rashi, you're not so tough! Bet my girlfriend could take ya'!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rabbi in the Ring

I'm not alone.

From Haaretz:
Foreman, a Belarus-born Israeli who has lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi, won the 12-round bout by unanimous decision - 116-110, 117-109 and 117-10....

Barring any surprises, Foreman expects to finish his rabbinic studies within a year, at which point he will be ordained. "I think it would be most fitting for me to return to Israel and be a rabbi for a community there," he said. "I could leave Israel once in a while to box."

Five Reasons Vampires Aren't Jews

As part of the Jewish Journal thumbing its nose (biting its thumb?) at the new Twilight movie (deservedly) Rabbi Wolpe details five important differences between Jews and vampires.
Their day begins at night, they show a certain aversion to the sign of the cross and they dress in black. Of course, I am talking about Jews.

But add some invidious stereotypes — bloodsucking and a predatory nature, and you get vampires. So, are vampires Jewish?
Of course not. He explains why, insightfully and entertainingly, before concluding, "Vampires are not Jews. Maybe we can allow one powerful, popular trend to be about someone else for a change?"

I greatly enjoyed this essay, especially as a horror and folklore aficionado who enjoys tracing monster legends back to the real-life fears that spawned them, but find one line particularly troubling:
Judaism believes in death. Yes, it believes in immortal life, but death comes first. The entirety of Jewish ritual is crafted to emphasize that all creatures — all of them — ultimately, unequivocally die.
The ENTIRETY of Jewish ritual? I get and agree with the belief in mortality, in fact I frequently accuse modern Judaism of being too death-centric, a religion stuck in mourning, but ALL ritual?

I sincerely hope not. I doubt that his claim is accurate; it's possible he spoke metaphorically there. Weddings, childbirth, b'nei mitzvot...all of these are life-based. Many of our holidays originate in death and tragedy, but the celebration is that we're still alive!

Granted, there is the mirror argument-by-definition; celebrating life must also celebrate death, even if indirectly, because death is the line that defines life. We celebrate at Hannukah and Purim because we survived; we are still alive. Weddings are celebrations precisely because our time together in this life is so brief. New children are welcomed because they add new sparks to the fire of life, providing heat and light against the cold and dark of death. From that perspective, yes, all of Jewish ritual is about death.

I always looked at it the other way around. As a child I did see Jewish ritual as death obsessed. There are laws about mourning? We are required to behave a certain way and grieve for a certain amount of time? How morbid! And the prayers in every service, reminding us of the dead? As I grew and studied, though, I realized that these laws actually encourage us to focus on the living. By strictly defining when, where, and how to mourn, it tells us the rest of our time is dedicated to life.

Someone important to you dies? Take the next 30 days, go feel really miserable. Trust me; you'll need it. After that, spend a few more months feeling slightly miserable, and the rest of the year feeling just generally sad. Then, each year after that, pick one day to go get really stinking sad about their absence. Then get up, dust yourself off, and get on with life.

The laws of mourning don't turn our focus to death; that happens naturally. The rituals turn us back towards life.

And at any rate, compared to most - if not all - the world's other major religions, our death and afterlife focus is so small as to be negligible.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The animals must survive!

Great review of 2012 over on Flames Rising, a site I just recently discovered. I particularly like this line:
It seems to be the grand irony that animals MUST not suffer and die in movies, even as billions of people perish all around them.

It reminded me of one of my earlier posts where I asked what it says about a society that spends billions caring for pets while letting children starve. "Flames" picks up on this same trend in disaster movies; billions of deaths don't bother us as long as the dog survives.

In a way, it all goes back to Noah, and I wonder if the story of his ark paves the way for this double standard of carnage. In the story, Noah, and the readers, accepts as given that humanity is toast. God has decided on the flood, and it's going to happen. As a result, our full attention turns to saving what little can be saved; Noah knows he'll have his hands full with the animals and his family, so he writes off the rest of humanity and leaves them to the water.

Disaster movies bring that same sense of acceptance, and, in fact, reinforce the lesson to the audience. Characters that try to save everyone get killed by the unstoppable disaster du jour. Usually they die as heroic martyrs, but they still die. Of course, those who selfishly think only of themselves also die. The trick is to be selfish but not too selfish; be just selfish enough, and remember your pet. Horror movies, on the other hand, teach us never to go back for the cat, but that's a different story.

Is that the problem we face? Are we trying to find that line between being generous and being too generous, or do we really care more about the cute animals dear to us than the humans we don't know? I'll optimistically assume it's the first one. That gives me a chance to help people draw their line somewhere farther away from home than the doghouse.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Geograpic identification by song

I was thinking about this "100 post" milestone thing. Looking back, my first-ever post was 11/9/08, so I can't make 100 in a year. Instead I'm setting my sights on the end of this year. Strap yourself in, the ride's about to get bumpy.



Birdsongs have dialects. Small differences in song accumulate until they produce identifiable differences. Learn these dialects well enough and it potentially becomes one of the easiest ways to tell where a given bird hails from.

Recently I was at a gathering of Reform Jews from around the country. It proved an interesting experience; within a group of Jews of similar ages, similar backgrounds, and similar religious upbringings there was not consensus about the melody for the evening prayers. There was definitely a large plurality, to be sure, and the variations were minor, but they stood out enough to be noticeable and to be clearly intentional, as opposed to missed notes.

It's possible most of these variants were improvisations, but I doubt it. My suspicion is these Jews sang the prayers differently because that's how they learned them. And where did they learn them?

At camp.

One of the phenomena I've noticed in modern Reformed Judaism is most changes - small ones, such as new prayers, songs, and rituals; not big ones like policy change - stem from young campers returning home and bringing their favorite parts of what they did during the summer. I suspect that one could fairly accurately identify where people went to camp by looking at the variations in the songs they sing.

I could be wrong, especially given the strong centralizing forces in RJ like NFTY. Many of the songleaders at camps across the nation are learning the new songs and harmonies from the same source. This could also be the source of variations, as individuals make mistakes and innovations and pass them onto campers, but it is also a strong normative force.

I like these variations. I like that as I travel across the country I learn more of them. It makes my own experience richer, as I integrate the ones I like into my own style. I like the way they stand out. There's a great moment in the birkat when the melody I learned continues through a break in the melody everyone else used; the accidental solo was fun for me, but I think it's fun for everyone else too, giving them a little surprise in the middle of a familiar prayer.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Identity vs. Identification

From Wendy Grinberg at

The term identity refers to how the individual sees him or herself. Ari encouraged us to move towards thinking about identification, that is, a process by which individuals act out what they think and feel, through institutions, interactions and intersections of culture.

His challenge to us was that while these Jews express a high identity, they express a low identification. Meaning, the problem isn't with the demand, but with the supply.

Not sure I agree with her conclusions, but it's an interesting way of viewing the problem. If there is a generation of young Jews that have strong Jewish identity, how do we encourage identification with Jewish organizations?

Leaving the board

I've been thinking a lot about diving lately. I love swimming but fear heights, so there's always an interesting moment in swim class, lifeguard training, etc. when I have to face the endless, gaping abyss (actual height: 2m) to progress in the fun swimming part.

Part of why diving scares me is there's that moment after you leave the board when - in a great metaphor for faith - you have to trust that you did everything you could correctly, but from now until you hit the water you're essentially gravity's plaything. All that remains to us is to choose our response; do we stay calm and focused and enter the water smoothly, or panic, scream, and belly flop painfully? Of course, sometimes you stay calm and belly flop anyway.

My feet have left the board; I am committed. What happens between here and the water is beyond me, but I will try to stay calm and enter the water smoothly.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Milestone denied

I was very excited last night when blogger told me I had reached 100 posts! Then I looked more closely and realized about 25 of those are still unposted drafts. So no, not quite yet, and yes, this post is cheating to pad the numbers.

Soon, though. I'll see if I can do it before the end of the year. That's only 3-4 posts per week.

Yeah, this'll be fun.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Did God Create The Earth?

No, says Professor Ellen van Wolde.

She said she eventually concluded the Hebrew verb "bara", which is used in the first sentence of the book of Genesis, does not mean "to create" but to "spatially separate".

The first sentence should now read "in the beginning God separated the Heaven and the Earth"

No alternate theory on where the earth did come from. An interesting, exceedingly fine distinction. Practical impact? None at all. God still created man, after all, and very few commandments or rituals - apart from the occasional words in a prayer - are based on God as creator of the earth. Actual impact? Probably huge. Can't wait for the Religious Community's response. Google search results for "blasphemy" this coming week should be interesting.

Does this actually threaten anything in religion? Is God less important, meaningful, powerful, or authoritative if Prof. van Wolde is correct? I think not. What is interesting to me is how does this change the dialog between religion and science?


Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Judaism Is Like Shaving

(It should be noted my girlfriend does not approve of this post)

I've been kicking this idea around for a while now, never quite getting around to actually writing it, then today I heard this podcast on The Art of Manliness about Allan Peterkin's book One Thousand Beards, and figured it was time. How much more of a sign could I need?

I've always enjoyed shaving; it was one of the few signs of manhood that did not bring with it some corresponding burden. But more than that I enjoyed spending the time with my face. It's a nice time; quiet, reflective, personal. I let my beard grow in full for a time, but wound up shaving it off again because I missed my face too much. About a year and a half ago I passed by an Art of Shaving store in Las Vegas, and my life changed.

Within a few months I had a razor stand, a brush, and a fancy razor that moved smoothly across my face and felt good in my hand. My morning routine had evolved from a quick washcloth and spray can to a ritual involving oils, lotions, and a lot of hot water. Soon I was learning more, researching, debating the merits of straight versus safety razors, and looking forward to my morning shave more and more.

In other words, it's a lot like how I rediscovered Judaism as an adult.

That got me thinking further. Shaving, it turns out, is not as old as most people think. Oh, there's always been some way way to remove facial hair, but they were usually painful and difficult. It took significant advances in technology to produce sharp, affordable blades, and even more before mass-production made the clean shave common. Which means shaving and Judaism are about the same age, give or take a millennium.

Both have changed a lot in that time, in keeping with technology and culture. Some people still shave in a traditional method (not the original method, but what they think is the original way); most people use a more modern razor and shaving cream; unfortunately, they frequently don't understand what they're doing, why they're doing it, or how to make it easier and more comfortable, so it becomes a painful, uncomfortable chore usually undertaken out of a sense of obligation.

So how do I shave? I shave in a fairly traditional method, but using the most modern and up-to-date tools and supplies. Again, much like how I do Judaism. The more I learn, the more I enjoy shaving. It has gone from a chore to an important part of my day.

A little bit of knowledge, a little bit of tradition, a little bit of modernization, and a little bit of ritual. Yep, that's Judaism.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Other Dayenu

"Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?"

You listen to the sermons and read the haftarah and feel good about yourself. You talk about the homeless, as if it were enough.

As if it were enough to talk about the homeless, but not see them in your streets.

As if it were enough to see them in your streets, but not feed them.

As if it were enough to feed them, but not shelter them.

As if it were enough to shelter them, but not clothe them.

As if it were enough to clothe them, but not give them medical care.

As if it were enough to give them medical care, but not educate their children.

As if it were enough to educate their children, but not welcome them to your society.

As if it were enough to welcome them to your society, but not love them as yourself.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Soon You Will Call Me...

Reading today about the origin of rabbinic Judaism, and made an interesting connection.

"Rabbi" means literally "My master"; it is a title of honor for the rabbi's role as teacher. Therefore, it's essentially equivalent to "Sensei".

All of a sudden the combination of religion and sword fighting makes more sense.

Jewish Pantheism

Found this on Wikipedia's article on pantheism:
Biblical Judaism asserts the origin of the Universe was brought forth by the Torah law of nature. Thus the original Torah is found not within the writing of Moshe, but within nature itself. "Reading" the Torah of nature is seen as equivalent to "reading" the Torah of revelation and theoretically will agree with one another in the end [as illustrated for example in the discovery of the Big Bang in 1965]. Rabbinical Orthodoxy viewing this as a discrepancy, in order to maintain the written Torah above that given first in nature, has argued that written Torah preceded creation, and it was from the written Torah that God "spoke" creation. A view rejected by Biblical Pantheists.

Maimonides, though Orthodox, reflected the sentiment that the Torah of nature and the Torah of scripture were equivalent and found its logic inescapable, in his comments on the reconciliation of science with scripture.

Not sure what the bit about the Big Bang refers to (I know what the Big Bang is, and I can guess how it relates to Torah, but it's not a theory I've seen before), and I'm disappointed but unsurprised by the gross retconning by "Rabbinical Orthodoxy", but in general I love this view of connection between religion and science. This is what I've always believed, and how I came to my faith.

Also love this description of Hindu pantheism: "As the sun has rays of light which emanate from the same source, the same holds true for the multifaceted aspects of God emanating from Brahman, like many colors of the same prism."

The Illusion of Free Choice

I like this one; I'll let you figure out why it goes here:

Including Men in Engendered Judaism

Just started Jonathan Kirsch's "The Woman Who Laughed At God", and I'm already enjoying it greatly. He also wrote "The Harlot By The Side Of The Road", another favorite of mine, so I am not too surprised.

Despite the title, the book is not about women in Judaism - neither of them are, actually - but an exploration of "Who is a Jew?" using the famous story of Sarah as a launching point. Sarah's laughter at God's prediction of a child does not incur the wrath that other seemingly lesser infractions do elsewhere; Kirsch leads from that into the multiple authors of the Torah, to multiple interpretations of the material, multiple theologies underlying the variants, and the evolution of Judaisms rather than Judaism. Having said that, he actually does spend a lot of time discussing women in traditional Judaism, starting with the hinted-at existence of Hebrew goddesses and moving through rabbinic Judaism to the modern era.

As he discusses the raw deal women tend to get from the Old Testament and its most fervent followers, I am coming back to one of my personal hot topics; where do the men fit? The single-issue focus of feminism destroyed (mostly) the old definition of what it means to be a woman, replacing it with something new and vibrant. The old definition of what it means to be a man was just destroyed. Nothing new was put in its place. Traditionally male traits are now "bad", and the only thing most men have left to define their identity is, ironically, their relationships with women. I recall a retreat a few years ago where the group split along gender lines to define "male" and "female". Everything the men came up with was some variation of "we are here to support and love you"; they were not able to define themselves independently.

The same issue arises with engendered Judaism; we have created new rituals and opportunities for women, and the men...keep the same archaic stuff we always had? If the old way was flawed and didn't work for women, why do we assume it will work for men?

I especially see this as an issue in Reform Judaism, largely because of the large number of very active, highly talented women at all levels of the movement that are transforming the religion into something more accepting - no, not just accepting; enthusiastic about women. This is good, and as it should and needs to be, but what works better for women does not always work well for men. This has become a problem for our children in the schools, young adults in colleges, and now I see it in religion.

This is a somewhat incoherent rant, I realize. It's late and I'm tired. But Kirsch stirred me, and, as I said, this is a hot topic of mine. More later.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A thought from last night:

We read the line "Renew our days as in the past", but the Hebrew word used comes from חדש, meaning "new". So really what we're getting, as our choir director put it, is not Renewal but Newal.

May this coming year be fresh and new; a year of joy, a year of healing, a year of learning, a year of life.

L'shana Tovah!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keeping It Covered

Another great post from Leon: "You Can Leave Your Hat On". He describes his struggles with wearing a kippah in public. My hat's off to him (sorry) because I only made it a week when I tried. The constant "Nice hat!" remarks wore me down quickly. Ironically, this was at a job where I was supposed to model religious commitment for children and their families.

Now I work in an environment where it would be accepted, even welcomed. I'm spending a lot more time in Temple, especially during the run-up to the Holy Days. I've spent several Friday nights at local assisted living facilities, leading services for the residents. But I find I'm more concerned about the message inherent in starting to wear a kippah than I am about actually wearing it.

Why am I concerned? As Leon points out, it's not an actual commandment. As such, the perceived obligation to keep our heads covered represents what is, to me, a stringent type of "Tradition As Law", in which the views of a particular rabbi (or group of rabbis) become as binding as the word of God. There is a specific mentality that takes tradition, turns it into law, applies it universally, and condemns - explicitly or implicitly - everyone that does not fall in line. Given the tendency for extreme religious observance to gradually become the norm, I feel almost obligated to resist just to maintain the middle ground.

There is also a statement made by adopting a new observance. What would you assume about a 30-something single guy [it should be noted my girlfriend objects to this description] that suddenly picks up a new, highly visible, religious habit? The "born again" or "baal teshuvah" implications are stronger than I'm comfortable with.

Is "being Jewish" now such a large part of my identity that I want to visibly distinguish myself at all times? Wearing a full-time kippah makes as much a statement at my temple as it does in at the grocery store, the bank, or the airport. I do not object to this marking, although I have equal reluctance to brand myself in general; I avoid wearing sword-shaped pendants despite my interest in fencing, I do not have cat pictures on my desk at work despite being a cat lover, and I do not put BSA logos on my car despite being a Boy Scout. No one of these defines my identity, and I don't want people to think of me as "the Jewish guy".

I also object to allowing ultraobservant "traditionalists" to define what qualifies as a symbol of Jewish identity. If I allow arcane rabbinic interpretations to define the expression of my Jewish identity, how can I object to their interpretations of dietary laws or conversion? I was thinking about this during Rosh Hashana, and was struck by how much the rabbi and cantor were falling over themselves to look Orthodox, even as the service was filmed and projected onto multiple screens, and a piano, violin, and cello accompanied the music.

There is an uncomfortable tension between these two ideas. Granted, Reform does not need to be a total rejection of Orthodoxy, but the "pick & choose" mentality, I think, really weakens Reform Judaism's theological arguments. Yes, a kippah has tradition behind it; it's what our ancestors wore, after all. But argument from tradition is a weak justification. There is a long history of distinctive Jewish clothing, most of them from traditions we'd rather not revisit.

I respect Leon for his courage and perseverance. I respect him even more for his thoughtfulness and consideration in making the decision. This ability to wrestle with God within your own life, to find the personal intersection between tradition and modernity, is to me the best attribute of modern Judaism. The process is more important than the result. It is how he and I remain friends not in spite of our different observances, but because of them.

Daven Like A Pirate Day!

From Leon at The Edible Torah:

"That magical day is upon us again, coming as it does, every year at this time: September 19, also known to some of us as

National Talk Like a Pirate Day

This year, it is coincidental with another, perhaps only slightly less exciting holiday: Rosh Hashanah.

I realize that the two may not appear, at first blush, to be compatible. But with just a bit of creativity and open-mindedness, you can combine these two important moments on the Calendar into a pleasing and harmonious whole..."

My favorite suggestion is "Augmenting the Unetaneh Tohkef with the rarely heard question: “and who by walking the plank?”" Visit his blog for the full list.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish In Oklahoma

I lived in Oklahoma from age three to thirteen, give or take a few months. My major Jewish memory from this time is a general theme of conflict and isolation; in a Junior High of 1,600, I was the only Jewish kid, just to give a sense of scope. There were two shuls in town, one Reform and one Conservative, and both fairly active, but all my friends there lived far enough away that I usually only saw them on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. I had the teachers that yelled at me - in front of the class - for not wanting to write a letter to Santa, and no one was surprised when major tests were scheduled for Yom Kippur.

There were good memories too, don't get me wrong! There was celebration, and learning, and family, and camp, and life that I look back on fondly, and when viewed through those lenses it's small surprise I want to be a Rabbi. But I knew my non-Jewish friends had those things too. What I had that they missed was conflict. Ironically, the community was homogeneous enough that racism and homophobia were entirely off my radar, so it was a long time before I learned I was not alone in my isolation.

I thought the lessons gained from this were strength and confidence in my beliefs, the ability to teach and explain my religion to my friends, the skill to debate religion on multiple fronts, and the desire to merge "being American" with "being Jewish". And I did get those things, but tonight I realized something new.

I am reading Jew vs. Jew, Freedman's exploration of the conflict between secular and religious Judaism in America, and, unsurprisingly, find myself firmly in the middle. As I dug deeper, I realized that I grew up without a real sense of Orthodox Judaism; it was as foreign to me as it was to my Christian friends. Like I said, there was the Reform temple and the Conservative synagogue and that was it, in my limited world view. I knew what Reform was; that's where we went, where I was Confirmed, where the Rabbi gave my sister her Hebrew name. I knew what Conservative was; that's where the other Rabbi was, where they used a different book and spent two days on Rosh Hashanah.

Reform was home.

Conservative was my friend's house.

I went to a Reform summer camp - Young Judea in Texas. A couple times per summer the kids from Camp Ramah came over; they were The Enemy, to be defeated whenever met on basketball court or kickball field. But after that they were our friends, we were all Jewish after all. They were just a little more...intense about it, and I couldn't follow their prayers. But my mom was a music teacher; I understood that some people use different melodies for the same songs, so that wasn't a problem.

A couple years before we moved away the congregations merged their Sunday Schools, so I got to learn more about what Conservative meant; the girls were bat mitzvahed at 12 instead of 13. Sometimes we'd go to services at one place, sometimes the other. I had friends at each, and friends at both. One Sunday I was recruited before class started to help round out a minyan; this was before my bar mitzvah, so I was handed a chumash with the explanation that it added two years to my age. It was an awesome experience; I was so proud to help out.

The point is, we were all Jewish. I knew there were differences, but I figured they just weren't important. Oh, sure, some were Important, but even those didn't really matter. You just remembered who would or wouldn't eat cheeseburgers and everything was ok.

Again, it's an irony of living in a low-diversity area. There just weren't enough of us to get really fractious. Then I moved to Chicago, and first encountered the idea that there were so many Jews we could sit around arguing about who is or is not Jewish. That's a myth, though. Jews make up about 0.2% of the world population; that's less than the margin of error on the last global census. Put differently, that means it's possible the existence of Jews is just a statistical error.

This isn't the place where I'll argue the case for Jewish unity versus plurality; I'm still working out a way to incorporate both into a single philosophy, I'll let you know what I come up with. I was struck by this realization because I always thought growing up Jewish in Oklahoma was an unpleasant "character building" experience that, all things equal, I'd just as soon do without. Now I see there was a true benefit to learning Judaism in that environment. The small space we lived in stripped away even the possibility of the idea of Jewish factionalism; we were pressed together to form a single community. It was the kind of pressure that breeds diamonds.

Lilah tov

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fixing Reform Judaism

A short post; I want to expand on this later, but these were my thoughts over lunch and I wanted to get them up.

Don't make it simpler, make it deeper.

People rise to your expectations.

The problem is empty, meaningless ritual; congregants are unattached to it. Create the connection, and they become active.

The Seder plate: the actual food item isn't nearly as important as pointing at it, asking "What's this?", and explaining why it's there. Dark chocolate could stand in for horseradish as the marror as long as you explain that we eat it so the bitterness reminds us of slavery's harshness. Ok, maybe chocolate won't work. Baker's chocolate might.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Kingdom of Priests and an Open Source Nation

Guest post by Leon Adato

I met Aaron through his blog - Open Source Judaism - and was intrigued by his focus on ideas about ideas. I also appreciated his direct style of writing, his interest in showing Torah in an amusing, if not pop-culturally-accessible, light (such as the lolcat bible:), and the fact that we read a lot of the same web comics (xkcd, Order of the Stick, and more).

When I first spoke with him, I commented on how whole idea of Judaism as an Open Source initiative intrigued me because in my day job, I'm a computer geek. So anything that combines technology and Judaism immediately gets my attention.

For the uninitiated, "Open Source" is a term which applies to any product (software, music or even ideas) where the final product AND its source material are made available to the public. Effectively you can have the stuff and also the stuff that created the stuff.

When you look at the way open source software is developed, the process sounds (to my ears anyway) distinctly Jewish:

Open Source starts when someone has an idea for a program that does something useful and interesting. They set the goals for the project and usually do the majority of the initial work. Then more people become interested and offer to help. There's a "Hey, let's put on a show" moment, where everyone brings their talents to the table to help make the software idea reality. As people join, they bring new ideas and skills which can even make the software better than the original designer imagined.

Through this whole process the original vision is maintained because the first code owner is still in charge, or because that persons' vision was clear and compelling enough that everyone on the project supports it.

So God opens the project "Torah 1.0". Depending on your view, either God or Moses served as the lead technical writer. Moses is the "software evangelist", leading the 12 tribes of alpha testers out of the closed-source culture of Egypt (clearly the predecessor of Microsoft). Soon after that, the source code (i.e.: 10 commandments) are given to everyone - not just Moses - which is a very open source thing to do. Later, when regular people begin to prophesy, Joshua wants to stop them (a closed-source response). Moses rebukes him, saying "Are you wrought
up on my account? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29). Moses wants everyone to understand the kernel - the core of the software - as well as he does.

One of the hallmarks of the open source community is it's willingness to consider outside ideas, opinions, and contributions. Granted, that willingness is not always cheerful or without skepticism. There are always healthy debates about how to accomplish something. The point of
those debates, however, is to always find the best way to accomplish the goal. "Best" is usually defined as the way that is the most elegant, flexible and support-able method.

Judaism (in my opinion) shares that value. In Talmud you will find famous debates between the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai (among others). These discussions, even as you read them on the page, are passionate, direct and assertive. They are always understood to be
"machloket l'shem shamayim" - "arguments for the sake of heaven". Nobody in Talmud was out to make a point for their own aggrandizement or at someone else's expense. Every word was written with the desire to achieve the "best" solution - the one that was the most elegant, flexible and truest to the goal of the Torah 1.0 project.

Later commentators - Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides and others - were equally passionate in their efforts to clarify the ideas found in Torah and Talmud. Like an email thread that takes on a life of its own as it bounces from discussion forum to listserver to blog post to Twitter
feed, the Rabbi's discussions ranged across time and geography, with later Rabbis debating points made years or decades earlier as if the original speaker were in the room with them.

Sometimes, in open source development, a new set of features is suggested but would require such a massive change to the original program that it would change the original vision or scope. And sometimes a group of contributors feels so strongly about that new set of features
that they are willing to take the original program code and own all those new changes and everything else about this similar, but new, program. At this point, the project is said to have "forked" and the offshoot application gets its own name and that project resembles a new
application more than extensions or enhancements to the original.

Under the open source metaphor Christianity and Islam represent "forks" to Project Judaism. Both groups have shown a heroic and admirable willingness to take full ownership of the source material and build on it. Like open source software, the independent forks can never be merged back together again - their various features sets and programming assumptions too incompatible at this point. But even so their common roots can still be appreciated. Kind of like how I can appreciate Mac's OS X operating system, based as it is on BSD, even though I've committed to running Linux on my computer for the last 3 years.

The various Jewish movements (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Secular, Humanist and Jewish Renewal, just to name a few) represent the equivalent of different user interfaces to the same system. They emphasize some functions while de-emphasizing or even obscuring others, but the core application (Torah) remains unchanged. This underscores my personal view that the movements are extremely cross-compatible and therefore all still part of one big development effort. Some people want a bare-bones, no-nonsense implementation,
whereas others prefer a more user-friendly user interface. It's important to keep in mind that not all users are the same in their level of expertise, involvement, or personal situation. Meeting them where they live is often the only way they will become engaged.

Which all the Jewish movements might do well to remember, from time to time.

So what's NOT open source about Judaism? Well, I started to hint at it a few paragraphs back. In Judaism, God is the chief architect, designer and visionary, and he's not likely to drop of the project. Also, unlike open source software, there is absolutely no messing with
the kernel - the core of the program (that would be Torah, in our metaphor). Nobody's going to come out with a Torah that features 9 commandments on the tablets instead of 10.

So what do Open Source Judaism developers actually *do* these days?

As a group, we can commit to continued improvements on the interface - the way our community experiences Judaism in all its forms. We can make sure that even our simplified "versions" allow the curious users to access the deep richness of the entire application. As a development team, we can strive to use the solid API (application programming interface) of Torah, Talmud, commentary and midrash to extend and enhance the usability of the system.

As individuals, we ought to work on our personal understanding of the kernel. Like any good programmer, we have to recognize that our fluency with the core code will allow us greater facility with any development we do at the edges of the application.

As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said, "GOTO 1 and GOTO 1 and GOTO 1 again".

Or something like that.

Leon Adato writes The Edible Torah - a blog dedicated to helping people set up their own pot luck Shabbat experience with family and friends. It's also liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, and stories about his Jewish journey.