Friday, August 27, 2004

Shabbat Dinner Preview

We discovered that we were having a vegetarian over for dinner after we'd decided to make chicken. We needed a parve, vegetarian side dish with whole protein, so I decided to make mengedarrah, but I dressed it up a bit for Shabbos. While the onions were cooking, I added two teaspoons each of ground cumin, coriander, paprika, cinnamon, and ginger. I just tasted it, and I am very pleased.

By the way, you do need to add an additional 1/4 cup of water if you're using brown rice. It should take 40-45 minutes to cook, but check on it after 30.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

In Which I Finally Convince the World that I Have Exchanged Judaism for Tiflus

In another venue, I mentioned that I've been idly composing liturgy for a same-sex wedding/commitment ceremony for no one in particular. Andrea asked to see it, at which point I decided that I may as well "come out of the closet" on this issue. Yes, I am a silly, empty-headed liberal Jew with the audacity to make up blessings. Sue me.

Now that that's over with, some background:

A halakhik wedding ceremony consists of two components, ארוסין or קדושין and נשואין. Combined, these procedures change a woman's sexual status from "forbidden to all men" to "permitted to her husband." Of course, this is not the ultimate essence of marriage, but it is its halakhik essence, and that is reflected in the blessing that accompanies ארוסין.

I believe that there are halakhik grounds for permitting sexual relationships between two men or two women, but, short of a rabbinic edict (which is impractical for a variety of reasons), there is no way to effect the sort of status change that takes place in a Jewish heterosexual wedding. Therefore, the terms ארוסין, קדושין, and נשואין are inappropriate in this context, as is the blessing traditionally recited over ארוסין. I see no problem, however, with applying the English terms, "marriage," "wedding," "bride," and "groom," or the Hebrew terms חתן and כלה (groom and bride). These terms are of primarily cultural, rather than halakhik, significance, and the concepts that we associate with them are perfectly applicable to same-sex unions.

I have heard that Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism (which I have yet to read), proposes a union ceremony that has the halakhik function of merging two people's property. This seems to me like about the right idea. Ideally, the procedure would involve an exchange of rings, which, in my understanding, it very well could.

The bit that I've been working on (if you can call it "working,") is a version of the "Seven Blessings" (שבע ברכות), which are traditionally recited as part of the נשואין ceremony and at meals througout the following week. My goal was to change as little as possible while ensuring that blessings be appropriate for this new context. Below are the blessings, in Hebrew and English, followed by explanations of the changes. (My translation is heavily influenced by Adler's.)

ברוך אתה ה אלוקינו מלך העולם שהכל ברא לכבודו.
1. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who created everything for your glory.

ברוך אתה ה אלקינו מלך העולם יוצר האדם.
2. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, shaper of humanity.

ברוך אתה ה אלקינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, בצלם אלקים ברא אותו, זכר ונקבה ברא אותם. ברוך אתה ה יוצר האדם.
3. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has shaped human beings in Your image, creating male and female. Blessed are You, Lord, shaper of humainity.

.שוש תשיש ותגל העקרה, בקבוץ בניה לתוכה בשמחה. ברוך אתה ה משמח ציון בבניה.
4. May the barren one exult and be glad as her children are joyfully gathered to her. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens Zion with her children.

שמח תשמח רעים האהובים, כשמחך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם. ברוך אתה ה משמח רעים אהובים.
5. Grant great joy to these loving companions as You once gladdened your creations in the Garden of Eden. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens loving companions.

ברוך אתה ה אלקינו מלך העולם אשר ברא ששון ושמחה, חתן וכלה, גילה, רינה, דיצה וחדוה, אהבה ואחוה ושלום ורעות. מהרה ה אלקינו ישמע בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים קול ששון וקול שמחה, קול חתן וקול כלה, קול מצהלות חתנים מחפתם
ונערים ממשתה נגינתם. ברוך אתה ה משמח רעים אהובים.

6. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, merriment, song, dance and delight, love and harmony, peace and companionship. Lord our God, may there soon be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the rapturous voices of the wedded from the bridal chambers, and of young people feasting and singing. Blessed are You, Lord, who gladdens loving companions.

ברוך אתה ה אלקינו מלך העולם בורא פרי הגפן.
7. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.


1. This blessing is unchanged.

2. This blessing is unchanged. Hebrew אדם, like English "man," can be either exclusive or inclusive of females. I've followed Adler in using the translation "humankind."

3. The original blessing is based on Gen. 2:22. It emphasizes the complementary roles of male and female, suggests that woman comes from man, and may also refer to couples' ability to perpetuate God's image through procreation. This version is based on Gen. 1:27. It emphasizes the essential sameness of man and woman and our common divine origin. It also suggests that where the word אדם ("man," or "humankind") occurs in these blessings, it should be understood in a gender-neutral sense.

4. This blessing is unchanged. (While it poses certain theoretical problems in this day and age, they have nothing to do with the gender of the couple, so I've left the blessing alone.)

5. I've replaced "bride and groom" with "loving companions," a reference to the Song of Songs. (The Hebrew literally translates, "beloved companions," but I think this translation conveys the meaning more accurately.) The first occurance of the phrase in the blessing is original. So, yes, I've rendered it redundant. I don't think this is a problem. (Compare the original versions of blessings 3 and 6.)

6. This blessing conveys the hope that Jerusalem will one day be filled with happy brides and grooms. (Again, a bit of a problem, but not particular to this context.) It reflects the language of Jeremiah. I see no reason to alter the terms "bride" and "groom" in this context. However, the end of the original blessing ("who gladdens the bridegroom with the bride") is inappropriate. I've replaced the bridegroom and bride with the "loving companions" of the previous blessing, but I'm not sure I like it. Suggestions?

7. This blessing is unchanged.

Feedback is welcome.

Monday, August 23, 2004

A Call For English Readings

My brother-in-law is running High Holy Day services in Montreal (with a little bit of help from others, including DH and me), and he has apparently had trouble finding English readings that are accessible without being completely vapid. This has left me thinking about why appropriate readings are so difficult to find.

Part of the problem is that our situation is so far from ideal. It would be nice if everyone could read the traditional prayers in their original language. It would be nice if everyone were sufficiently familiar with the liturgy to be able to invest it with meaning on their own. It would be nice if we could count on everyone to be 100% present, ready to be intellectually and emotionally invested in the service. Since none of these is the case, we is stuck trying to find texts in the vernacular that relatively apathetic congregants might find meaningful on their first and only reading.

Another problem is that the readings that exist are found mainly in Reform and Reconstructionist prayer books, and they are generally unsatisfying. Just as liberal Jews seem to have trouble achieving a sense of grief on Tisha B'Av, they seem to have trouble promoting guilt and remorse on the High Holy Days. Liberal spiritual leaders want to make worship a positive experience. They want to emphasize God's mercy and unconditional love for all humankind. They don't like the idea of divine judgment. That's all very well, but in the final analysis, there can be no repentance without remorse, and without repentance, the quest for spirituality is rather vacuous. We have to start by feeling bad about ourselves.

A third problem is the literary quality (or lack thereof) of most contemporary "creative liturgy." The Conservative prayer book is filled with horrid compositions by committees of rabbis, which sound like translations even though they aren't. Stilted language can be distracting.

Now that I've made the task seem completely insurmountable, does anyone know where we might be able to find quality English readings? They don't have to be perfect. The more material we have, the better, even if we don't love all of it. Contemporary poems by actual poets are good (I look to the VR here). Excerpts from works of Jewish philosophy, ancient or modern, are good too. Translations of traditional prayers are great if they're readable. (Does anyone know where we could find a halfway decent translation of the High Holy Day piyyutim?) Midrash, psalms, biblical passages . . . whatever. Variety is the spice of life.

Thanks for your help.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why I "Do Halakha"

This started as a Live Journal meme (originally from Smartphil, via debka_notion), but the topic seemed blogworthy.

Smartphil presents a number of possible answers to the question, "why do you do halakha*?" The reasons come from Rabbi David Golinkin's "Halakhah of Our Time," and are summarized here. The following are my current thoughts on why I choose to lead a (more or less) halakhik lifestyle. I've used the summary of Golinkin's work as a guide. (Note: These are today's thoughts. My reasons may be different tomorrow.)

A. Theocentric Reasons

In my understanding, there can be no halakha without the presumption that (1) God exists, (2) God cares about human behavior, and (3) human beings can, at least to a certain extent, discern God's will. Without these presumptions (we can call them "postulates," for DH's sake), you might have something that looks like halakha, but the essence of halakha is missing. (We call that something "tradition.")

I do not believe that the entire Torah, let alone the Babylonian Talmud, was dictated to Moses at Sinai. I do, however, like to think that the Torah, the Talmud, and the expressions of Judaism that came after them contain some element of divinity. I would rather not be any more specific than that. This is all speculation.

As Naomi Chana once said somewhat more articulately, I don't think God really cares whether or not I mix meat and dairy, but I do think He cares that I care. (Sorry, I'm old fashioned. My God is a He.) Halakha offers a means to demonstrate my commitment to God's will, even if I can't be sure exactly what it is that He wants.

B. Ethnocentric Reasons

To be honest, I don't quite understand the argument that Jews should adhere to Jewish law simply in order to preserve Judaism or the Jewish people. There's no sense in trying to preserve something unless it has inherent value. And I don't buy the argument that Judaism is worth preserving simply on account of the ethical principles that it imparts. Certainly, Judaism has contributed certain ethical values to the world (or, at least, certain expressions of those values), but there can be ethics without Jews or Judaism, and, sadly, there are nominally religious Jews with little regard for ethics.

That said, the specific ways in which I observe halakha have a lot to do with tradition and community. I want to strive to live in accordance with God's will, but I don't want to do it alone. I want to be a part of the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people" (as the Reconstructionists put it), and I want to be a part of a living community.

C. Anthropocentric Reasons

Golinkin offers two very different anthropocentric reasons to observe halakha:
(1) It encourages self-discipline, and
(2) It brings joy.

With regard to (1), I would say that self-discipline is only valuable insofar as it is applied to inherently valuable pursuits. It is quite possible that if I prayed more regularly I would also exercise more regularly, study more diligently, arrive on time for appointments, and be more cautious about my diet. I was once better at all these things, and I daresay they were connected. It wasn't so pleasant, though. People were always telling me to "loosen up." Maybe instead of loosening up I should have learned to hide my stress. (Something to think about over this season of repentance.)

As for (2), well, this seems like a good opportunity to plug Naomi Chana's recent posts on prayer. For my own part, I admit that one of my primary reasons for observing Shabbat as I do is that it makes me happy. I like having a chance to rest, take a break from what I normally do, wear nice clothes, eat good food, and chat with friends. I attend synagogue partly out of a sense of religious obligation, but also because I genuinely enjoy it. Missing services puts me in a lousy mood.

I certainly don't enjoy all mitsvot. Waking up early to pray is pretty unpleasant (unless I'm joining the wonderful egal minyan, in which case it's not too bad), and when I'm not in a religious setting, restrictions on eating and movement can be very awkward. I suppose the true test of my commitment to halakha is the extent to which I observe the mitsvot that I don't enjoy. But I don't think that getting pleasure out of mitsvot** is inherently bad. Like the Chassidim, I like to think that God wants us to be happy.

* Jewish law/ religious observance
** Commandments.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

My Response to Schick's Response to Goldberg

My mother sent me a link to this Jewish Press column by Joseph Schick. The column is a response to the New York Times column by Jeffrey Goldberg to which I linked earlier this week. (Sorry, folks. The NYT column is no longer available for free.)

Schick writes:

The clear message from Goldberg`s piece is that Jewish settlers, with the tacit support of some Orthodox Jews and rabbis, want to kill Ariel Sharon. Unfortunately, this charge is not completely baseless. As I wrote in my last column, there are fanatics who have called for, or implicitly condoned the idea of, Sharon`s murder. Especially in light of Yitzhak Rabin`s murder at the hands of an Orthodox Jew, there is an obligation on all Jews to condemn the fanatics and not to ignore the danger they present.

However, Goldberg never distinguished between the fanatics and the other 95 percent of Yesha residents. Instead, he defamed all of them. He completely ignored the Yesha Council`s repeated statements that it unequivocally opposes any and all forms of violence in the framework of opposition to Sharon`s unilateral withdrawal plan. He also ignored the pact signed by Yesha Council leaders two weeks ago, in which they agreed that IDF soldiers would not be asked to disobey orders to dismantle settlements and that no form of violence was acceptable. And though Goldberg highlighted Avi Dichter`s concern about 150-200 extremists, he disregarded that Dichter also emphasized that the extremists were in no way representative of the general settler public.

I never had any doubt that these fanatics were in the minority. Residents of the settlements tend to be politically right-wing, but they are generally peaceful people. It is easy to be opposed to settlements; that is how supporters of Israel show that they are "moderate." But the issue doesn't seem that simple to me. There are some very well-established Jewish communities in the West Bank, and, after all, there are Arab communities in Israel. Why not Jewish communities in a Palestinian state?

Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with Schick's article. It raises an issue with which I often struggle when I post on matters relating to Israel in this blog. On the one hand, I agree with Schick that the secular media is often unjust in its depiction of settlers, and that is a problem. On the other hand, I don't think readers of the Jewish Press need to be reminded of that. Ditto for readers of my blog, who (I surmise from the comments) are almost exclusively religious Jews who support the Jewish state.

I am grateful for media watchdog organizations such as CAMERA and Honest Reporting, but I seldom visit their websites or read their newsletters. I don't think there's much to be gained by nurturing feelings of victimization. Jews like to point out that Palestinian extremists are more numerous and more prone to violence than Israeli extremists. That is true, for a variety of reasons (none of which has to do with Arabs being evil or Jews being nice). But the violent Israeli extremists exist, and we, as Jews, should be more disturbed by that than by any bias we perceive in the media. It is our religion that they are perverting.

Anti-Semitism and Homophobia

Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty has written a thought-provoking post on the parallels between anti-Semitism and homophobia. These thoughts were apparently triggered by Martha Nussbaum's essay on disgust, with which I don't entirely agree, but Jason's comments are, in my view, very reasonable. He focuses, in particular, on the relationship between nineteenth-century attempts to convert Jews and contemporary "conversion therapy" for gays:

In these phenomena, we can see the disastrous results when disgust-as-morality turns inward, upon the self, for many of the most outspoken advocates of both movements have been converts.. . .

The modern drive to "repair" homosexuality is of course different in some ways from its nineteenth-century counterpart, but it shares three main traits with our ancestors' desire, as they termed it, to "regenerate" the Jews:

--Hypothetically, the main argument of these movements may well be true: If Jews or gays successfully converted, they might well be happier. At least some of them.

--Objectively, it is a fantasy. Change in one's sexual orientation does happen from time to time, but engineering it is still a utopian dream. Change in one's religion is probably almost as hard to achieve through human design. People hold religions based on faith, and faith is inscrutable. Conversion does happen on occasion, but planning for it is absurd.

--Morally, they both reek of condescension.

Read the whole thing.

To All of You With Blog Experience

I've been thinking about switching from Haloscan because of the annoying character limit, but I haven't been able to find anything better. I don't like the new Blogger comment feature because it forces anyone who doesn't have a Blogger account to post anonymously. Does anyone know of a free, Blogger-compatible comment service that:

1. has no character limit, or a limit of 3000 characters or more,
2. accepts and stores contact information from all commenters,
3. allows the blogger to edit and delete comments,
4. accepts HTML, and
5. opens links properly, in a separate window.

If not, please answer this: which of these features would you, as a blogger or commenter, most readily do without?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

I Kinda Miss the Levys

Now I'm getting updates on former neighbors via links to articles on random blogs. Not sure what to think.

Ah, well. The news is: the Levys have disposed of their TV. The kids are doing wonderfully, according to Chavy. I'm glad to hear it. They really needed a bit more exercise.

DH says he has no objection to individuals deciding not to watch television, but he thinks that communal pressure to pull the plug is a Bad Thing. The message is that frum Jews can't handle contact with the outside world.

"The Satmars go a step further," he says, "by teaching their kids in Yiddish."

I guess he's right. Still, there really isn't any worthwhile programming for kids Tehila and Aharon's age. We rarely watch TV ourselves, and I can't say I miss it. If you ask me, life without the boob tube should be considered by all parents, frum and otherwise.

The internet, on the other hand. . . Well, we'll leave that for another time.

This One's For Dad

The Canadian Jewish News reports on the growing popularity of single-malt scotch at kiddush clubs. Neil Nathan says,

"The absolute best thing to eat with scotch is shmaltz herring. When I come home from work, I may have a glass of scotch and some herring before I decide what to have for dinner."

Hat tip to Danny at B'nai Akiva's Blog.

Welcome to the Blogosphere

Two of my livejournal (and real-life) friends, Lawrence and Fleurdelis28, have created their own blogs. Now they can waste just as much time as me! (Bwah-ha-ha!)

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Journalists Say the Darndest Things

"Many biblical scholars believe that the Jezreel Valley will be the site of the penultimate battle between the forces of God and Satan, with the final conflict and return of the Messiah taking place in Jerusalem."

From the Washington Post via PaleoJudaica.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Jerusalem Dreamers

From Leah:
I have mixed feelings about the fence. I would rather it weren't there.. . . On the other hand, the wave of terror has been reduced tremendously and this could be because the wall has been built in certain areas.. . . Unfortunately, many innocent Palestinians are suffering because of the wall too. They have no work, their kids don't have easy access to schools, shopping isn't as much fun or as easy anymore.. . . And some Palestinian Israeli cities voiced some happiness at having the wall because they have less crime from their non-Israeli neighbors who used to come into their towns more easily. So I wish we didn't need it, I wish we could bring it down, I wish there'd be no terror at all, once it's down. Then we could really talk.

From Sarah:
It was a bit surreal, when I stopped to think about the fact that I was having a great time swimming in this beautiful pool with an incredible view, and it's in the West Bank.. . . Especially since, as far as I know, the Arabs in those parts do not have access to a pool (I might be wrong. I don't know.) Swimming pools are so important in places where it gets so hot hot hot. I felt a bit guilty.. . .Maybe if they ever figure out what Arafat did with the money he stole, they can use some of it to build nice swimming pools? It might seem frivolous, but when you stop to think about it, it's not. There are reasons that crime rates in New York go up in the summer.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Folks, Can We Stop Being Racist?

I don't want to write this post. I really, really don't want to. But I'm starting to feel like I have to.

I've spent time in a variety of Jewish communities, mostly various flavors of Orthodox and Conservative. There are certain trends that one notices as one moves further to the right of the religious spectrum, one of which is an increasing tendency toward what can only be called racism.

I'm sorry guys, but it's true. The sorts of things that one hears about "the Arabs" in so-called frum communities would make a decent person's skin crawl. People talk casually about "wiping them out." Sometimes they make jokes about it. If these same people heard American Muslims saying similar things about Jews, they'd be calling the ADL in no time. I don't think they'd be reassured to hear that it was only a joke.

These are the very circles in which one most often hears of the "rising tide of anti-Semitism," of madrassas preaching hatred of Jews. They say, this is different. We're not directly inciting people to kill. Well, neither are the vast majority of American Muslims -- even the sort that we call "fundamentalist." It's all talk. But we recognize that it's dangerous talk, that talk can have consequences.

We recognize it when it's them. What about when it's us?

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Just a Chip off the Old Blog

Many thanks to Rabbi Josh Yuter for alerting me to the fact that today is National Chocolate Chip Day. (It's also his birthday. Happy birthday, Rabbi Josh.)

I haven't made ordinary chocolate chip cookies in a while. They just aren't very exciting. However, I have been adding chocolate chips to peanut butter cookies (yes, Meredith, I got the idea from Jenn) and to oatmeal raisin cookies (yes, Erica, I got the idea from William Shetterly). Raisins and chocolate chips may seem like an odd combination, but the best oatmeal cookies I've eaten have had both. As for chocolate chip peanut butter cookies, well, they're made with chocolate and peanut butter. Need I say more?

Monday, August 02, 2004

Jews For Kerry

Globe staff writer Frank Phillips interviews Steve Grossman, former chairman of AIPAC, and Alan Solomont, Kerry's New England finance chairman.

Solomont and Grossman say the Democrats have strong arguments to make to the Jewish constituencies that are enticed by Bush's policies toward the Mideast. They say the defense of Israel is only one issue of concern to the community and that Democrats offer other policies that they say provide more social and economic equity, traditionally a major focus of Jewish voters.

Ok, so Kerry's policies have some appeal for un-American, liberal, commie traitors like me. But what about Israel?

[Solomont] also said John Kerry's record on Israel is ''perfect" and that the senator has traveled a number of times to the region and familiarized himself with the issues and its leaders.

If only he didn't change his mind about everything every other day, Kerry's voting record might be significant.

As I've said before, I don't think that support of Israel is sufficient reason to vote for Bush over Kerry. The Democratic candidate obviously cares about the Jewish vote, and, if elected, he will continue to care about it for the next four years. As a senator from Massachusetts, he has shown himself willing to support pro-Israel policies, for whatever reason. It is even possible that he has genuinely changed his mind on certain issues, in Israel's favor.

But I don't trust the man, on this issue or any other. I may vote for him regardless, but I won't be happy about it.

Prospective First Lady Disavows Cookies

"Somebody at my office gave that recipe out and, in fact, I think somebody really made it on purpose to give a nasty recipe," she said. "I never made pumpkin cookies -- I don't like pumpkin spice cookies."
More on this critical issue here.