Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Yom Kippur Post-Mortem

I wanted to provide an update on our plans for Yom Kippur services before they actually happened, but things got a little bit crazy, and then they kind of stayed that way. On the whole, services went pretty well. Many thanks to those of you who suggested sources for readings. Special thanks to Rachel Barenblat, who provided an original poem entitled "Kol Nidre," which we used. I'd also like to thank Brother-in-Law if he is reading this. He worked very hard to make these services happen.

I led the kol nidre/ ma'ariv service,* which was held in the Moot Court [insert sarcastic comment here]. I could have done better, but I certainly could have done worse. The remaining services took place in the Hillel building. DH lead shacharit and neilah, I lead mussaf, and Brother-in-Law lead mincha, both before kol nidre and before ne'ilah. Pesukei d'zimra was (were?) lead by a local student. Other students read the Torah portion and the haftarah.

Planning the service was actually a lot of fun. We had to use the Birnbaum machzor, an Orthodox prayerbook published in 1951, and we wanted to adjust the service for our community without creating too much confusion. We referred to four other machzors for guidance: the Conservative Silverman machzor, published in the 1948, the Conservative Harlow machzor, published in 1972, the Reform machzor, called Gates of Repentance,** and the infamous Artscroll, the Orthodox machzor du jour. None of these alone would have been quite right for our purposes. For starters, none uses inclusive language or accommodates a female shlichat tsibbur. Gates of Repentance and Harlow preserve too little of the traditional text; Artscroll and Birnbaum preserve too much. Birnbaum and Silverman have positively awful translations. Only Artscroll has a complete set of instructions. Here's a little summary of the various ways in which we attempted to deal with these issues:

Piyyutim: Traditional High Holy Day prayerbooks are full of medieval liturgical poems, or piyyutim. These accumulated gradually over the centuries, and different communities used different selections of poems. Phillip Birnbaum and Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz (otherwise known as Rav Scroll) edited their respective machzors with the apparent intention of including every piyyut ever written. I'm all for comprehensiveness, but reciting every piyyut in either Orthodox machzor is a bit silly. Some of the piyyutim are in fairly difficult Hebrew, and even those that aren't are difficult to grasp when you're ripping through them at breakneck speed. Our rule of thumb was to omit piyyutim that don't appear in Silverman and to replace a number of the remaining piyyutim with English readings on similar themes. We used one reading from Gates of Repentance, a few from Harlow, and a few from S. Y. Agnon's Days of Awe.

Slichot: Each of the five Yom Kippur services contains a version of slichot, a set of confessions and prayers for forgiveness. The extended versions recited during ma'ariv, mussaf, and ne'ilah include a string of piyyutim surrounding a refrain centered on the "thirteen attributes" of Divine mercy. Artscroll and Birnbaum repeat the refrain seven times in each set of slichot. Harlow and Silverman have it recited once. We decided to repeat the refrain three times, following the custom in our home community. Some of the piyyutim were replaced by English readings.

Avodah: The mussaf service includes a recitation/ partial reenactment of the Temple service for Yom Kippur. In Ashkenazic tradition, the avodah takes the form of a lengthy and difficult piyyut. (I am told that Sephardim use a piyyut that is considerably easier to understand.) Rabbi Harlow had the brilliant idea of replacing the piyyut with a reading consisting primarily of selections from the mishnah on which the piyyut is based. We used his version, reading most of it in English, but switching to Hebrew for the confessions of the High Priest and the prostrations.

Martyrology: The avodah is traditionally followed by a piyyut relating the (largely apocryphal) tale of the death of ten sages at the hands of a Roman emperor. The practice of reading the martyrology at this point is rooted in the (somewhat disturbing) idea that since the destruction of the Temple, Jews attain atonement through the "blood of the righteous." Naomi Chana suggested reading the midrash on which the piyyut was based instead of the poem itself, and she recommended the translation in Stern and Mirsky's Rabbinic Fantasies. I had never read the midrash before this year, so I am very grateful for the recommendation. It is a fascinating, theologically complex piece that certainly deserves to be read in its entirety, as Naomi Chana suggested. However, the midrash is quite a bit longer than the piyyut, and the martyrology is not supposed to be the centerpiece of the mussaf service. We included the entire midrash in our source packets, but we did not read it all aloud.

Additional Readings: None of us is very good at public speaking (although we were fortunate enough to have a student present who was willing to speak briefly before mincha and ne'ilah). In place of a Kol Nidre sermon, we recited Rachel Barenblat's poem. We included a reading from Harlow on fear of sin to get people into the mood for the u'netane tokef prayer, and we read a story from Days of Awe before ne'ilah.

I have a few things to say about this, but not right now.

Okay, folks, it's almost Sukkot. We're going to visit the in-laws in New York, and I have to pack. Chag Sameach.

* Here is some basic information on Yom Kippur and its liturgy. It includes definitions of several of the terms that I use in this post. Others are defined here.
** We also referred to the British version, Gate of Repentance, which is more or less the same.

Monday, September 20, 2004

My Jihad Against Idiocy

From Roland Merullo's impressively unenlightening column on liberals and conservatives in today's Globe:

I began to form the impression then that the conservative mindset springs from what, for lack of a better term, might best be described as an Old Testament world view: Life is harsh, God is angry, enemies ought to be treated without mercy. An eye for an eye. There is good and there is evil, and the distinction between them is as clear as the line between sin and righteousness.

This is not the first column I've read that uses "Old Testament" as shorthand for "cruel, violent, and unenlightened." I find this usage offensive, not only because it misrepresents the Hebrew Bible, but because it slights those of us who regard the "Old Testament" as scripture and aren't so morally and theologically simplistic.

Meanwhile, "jihad" has replaced "crusade" as the favored metaphor for overly zealous, often foolish and destructive endeavors. "Crusade," of course, can be used in a positive sense as well. But when was the last time you heard of a "jihad" for the environment or civil rights?

There are, admittedly, Muslims who make "jihad" seem like a pretty awful concept, and they've managed to call a lot of attention to themselves. Christian fundamentalists (l'havdil?) are also pretty high profile. That doesn't make it acceptable for columnists to use words like "jihad" and phrases like "Old Testament world view" without the foggiest notion of what they're talking about.

Am I being petty?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Flourless Honey Pecan Cake

My gluten-free, three-ingredient Rosh HaShana dessert worked out, and now that I'm not starving, I can share the recipe. It's good for Passover, too.

3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup honey
12 oz. pecans, finely ground

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch pan (nonstick spray is perfect) and sprinkle with corn starch, potato starch, or confectioners' sugar. Set aside.

Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. In a separate bowl, combine yolks, honey, and pecans. Fold in whites. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake in preheated oven about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and firm. Cool before removing from pan.

Funky Grammatical Issues

For those who haven't figured this out yet, apikursus is an Aramaicized Greek word in its Ashkenazic (Eastern/ Central European Jewish) form. In Jewspeak, it means "heresy." An apikoris is a heretic, which, I suppose, is what I am, but I haven't been able to figure out what the correct feminine form of the noun would be. Imshin suggests epikorsit, which, as she concedes, is a (modern Israeli) Hebraicism. Opinions?

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Words of Torah

Before beginning, I'd like to request forgiveness from any of my readers whom I've hurt, offended, mislead, misrepresented, etc. I will try to use this medium responsibly in the future. I wish everyone a sweet new year and a gmar chatima tova.* To all who will be observing Tsom Gedalia tomorrow, I wish an easy fast.

Now, to the point: I'm not very good at giving divrei torah (sermons, essentially). Shiurim (study sessions), I can do. I am always pleased to be asked to teach a mishna on Shabbat morning. But ten-minute speeches on the Torah portion can be really tough. How am I supposed to engage the text and make a point that's religiously meaningful to contemporary Jews in that amount of time?

My particular problem is that I feel the need to present the peshat, or plain meaning, of the text as I understand it. I have no problem with midrash, medieval exegesis, or modern Jewish philosophy. The Torah can be interpreted in many different, interesting, and (I concede) legitimate ways.** But my way is to start with peshat, which for me means interpreting the Torah as an ancient Near Eastern document. Other approaches make me uncomfortable, at least when I'm the one speaking.

I do believe that studying the Bible in its original context can yield insights that are meaningful to contemporary Jews and Christians. However, this approach is not conducive to producing sound bites. Speaking on the High Holy Days is particularly challenging, since I am not addressing the usual Jewishly literate crowd. No, I'm addressing the usual Jewishly literate crowd plus about 100 others. Their conception of Judaism may actually be affected by what I say. To make matters worse, these people are smart. I can't talk down to them. They won't tolerate logical leaps. It's horrible.

I shared these concerns with a friend, after having written a speech for the second day of Rosh Hashanah with at least two glaring logical disjunctions. She said, people will have other things on their minds. They won't be worrying about whether the d'var torah hangs together. I should be thinking about keeping their attention, making a point, and wrapping it up before they drift off.

So that's what I tried to do. I made a few jokes, glossed over the leaps of logic, and escaped the bima as soon as possible. My basic point (in case you're curious) was that the story of the binding of Isaac isn't fundamentally about obeying God even if it seems immoral, but about obeying Him even if it hurts terribly. There were a few references to Levenson's Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, and I managed to stuff in a quote from Micah and a few lines about gemilut chassadim, "sacrifices" that benefit our fellow human beings. A few Jewish education types seem to have genuinely liked it, and I didn't notice anyone averting their eyes from me afterward, so I guess it went okay. I got some practice speaking before a large audience, and discovered (yet again) that I could use a lot more practice. I also learned (yet again) the Number One Rule of d'var torah delivery: keep it short, and people with thank you.

* I don't know how to translate this phrase. It expresses the wish that God evaluate the listener (or reader) positively and reward him or her with a happy year. The theory behind the saying is that God issues something along the lines of mid-term evaluations on Rosh Hashanah and determines our final grades on Yom Kippur. I guess I don't mean it literally.

** See the VR's sermon on the Binding of Isaac (which is much more polished than mine).

(I hope Naomi Chana doesn't mind that I've been using her footnoting technique.)

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

In Defense of Agnosticism

While browsing Kol Nidrei sermons on the web, I came across this very unusual drash, delivered by Rabbi Ethan Seidel in 2002. 2001 was a difficult year for Rabbi Seigel, as it was for most of us. Aside from the September 11th attack, he endured the death of a friend, and this precipitated what he describes as "theological depression."

I don't mean to make light of clinical depression - that's serious business, and my condition was just not that serious. But for a Rabbi, at least, a theological depression is a problem. I'm paid to believe in God. If I'm suddenly convinced that all is chaos, how is that helpful to my congregation?

Rabbi Seidel relates some of the thoughts that plagued him during this period, thoughts that are very familiar to me. Then he gives us his reason for self-disclosure, and it's one of those simple truths, the kind that is as shocking as it is obvious:

I wonder if you all realize how common such a theological crisis is, even among us Rabbis? Maybe you think that there are some people who have perfect faith, and that you with your imperfect faith are somehow a defective Jew. I'm here to tell you not to think that.

It gets even more outrageous:

I think that there is something pareve, even unhealthy about both the atheist and the fundamentalist. How can they be so sure of themselves? They live in a world where everything is known. But is that 2-dimensional world reality? I ask the atheist: is goodness really just a human invention, just a matter of opinion? And how can the fundamentalist ignore the chaos that seems to permeate the world? Reality is incomprehensible. And I mistrust . . . those who claim to understand life.

There is, admittedly, a certain arrogance to this approach. How can he be so sure of himself? How can he declare something that others claim to know to be fundametally unknowable?

But I understand. I think that way, too.

Anyway, it's a good read. Somewhat comforting, if you're one of those Jews who struggles privately with the fundamentals.

Belated Arrival Day Post

The Head Heeb has asked his fellow bloggers to contribute their thoughts on the future of American Judaism in honor of Arrival Day, the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam. I've been trying not to spend too much time on the internet lately, but I'd like to add my two cents before it's really too late. In brief:

The American Jewish community is more religiously diverse today than it has ever been. We have Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Chassidim and so-called Mitnagdim, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Humanist Jews, pagan Jews and Bu-Jews. Frumster lists over ten varieties of Orthodoxy, ranging from "Black Hat Yeshivish" to "Flexidox." Perhaps as a consequence of this ridiculous proliferation of labels, an increasing number of American Jews are choosing not to affiliate with any "denomination." Our generation has seen the birth of "non-denominational" congregations, day schools, and rabbinical schools. These are institutions that, though they may have their own philosophies, do not accept the authority of external organizations. They tend to promote the idea that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, and, ultimately, to decide what Judaism means to each of us. Jewish identity and practice are viewed in very personal terms.

There can be no doubt that the current conflict with radical Islam will influence the development of American Judaism. We may see a shift away from the idea of personal autonomy and toward a more conservative, ethnocentric, nationalist approach to religion. We may see a revival of the fight against intermarriage, a new interest in conversion, and increased emphasis on aliya (moving to Israel) as a Jewish ideal. The trend toward ever-increasing diversity may reverse, as Jews seek refuge from adversity in a more unified, clearly defined religious identity.

Whether or not these changes occur will depend both on events in the Muslim world and on how the United States chooses to manage its relationship with Israel. Either way, I am relatively certain of one thing. The terms "Orthodox," "Conservative," and "Reform," which defined American Judaism for so long, are well on their way to becoming entirely meaningless. We will have to continue to find new ways of articulating who we are and what we believe.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Who's Being Untsniusdik Now?

I wonder what Rav Shachter was thinking last night when Rebbetzin Jungreis delivered a "benediction" before the entire Republican National Convention. He was probably proud to see an Orthodox Jew standing up for the president. For some reason, modesty is only an issue in Orthodox settings. Keep women behind a curtain in shul, and the rest of their lives is irrelevant.

I suppose one should be grateful for small things.

Update: Simcha says:

Don't be silly. Rebbetzin Jungreis has been condemned for years for precisely this issue. She is persona non-grata in many places in the yeshiva world. But you wouldn't know that from reading The Jewish Press.

All right, then. I was trying to give Rav Shachter the benefit of the doubt. Frankly, I'd prefer a little hypocrisy to what is apparently "centrist" Orthodoxy's actual attitude toward women in public roles.

What can you do.