Monday, September 30, 2013

Surprise! Lawyer representing Hasidic businessman tells a lie!

Lawyer Jay Lefkowitz has been retained to defend the right of Hasidic businessmen to discriminate against people who don't meet their dress code, ie, non Jews, and non Hasidic Jews. 

Here is how he sees it:

“Frankly, it’s very troubling that the commission thinks it’s OK for the Four Seasons restaurant to impose a dress code but not a bakery owned by a Hasidic businessman."

Using this magic new tool called Google, I was able to discover in under three seconds that the Four Seasons has no dress code.

The Zagat 2009 New York City Restaurant guide has starred the Rainbow Room... [and the 21 Club] as the only... public restaurant[s] requiring a tie among 13 that demand jackets.

A quick check fo Zagat, reveals that the Four Seasons is not one of those 13 that require men to wear coats.

Now, what about the 13 places that do have dress codes. Might Lawyer Lefkowitz have a point? Is asking people planning to spend big bucks on a posh dinner to dress up a little, the same as banning a woman from your Lee Avenue junk store unless she is dressed in an out-of-date, climate-inappropriate style? I don't think so, but the courts will decide.

A few questions for your favorite lover of Pope Pius 12

Thanks to Twitter, I am in correspondence with an Italian historian who is trying mightily to convince me that Pius 12 was an all around good guy and lover of the Jewish people. By way of evidence he has supplied the fact that a few famous Jews, who were not historians, said some nice words about the Pope back in the 50s and a report compiled by some Yad Vashem historians that I have not read because it costs $50.

Meanwhile, I keep asking the following questions. Should he answer them (holding breath) I will report back.

#1: Why did the Pope excommunicate every single Communist in the world, but never excommunicate a single Nazi?

#2 Why did he cancel and suppress his predecessors anti Nazi encyclical? 

#3 Why did he protest the Nazi euthanasia program but not Final Solution? (The Nazis backed down)

#4 Why did he protest Nazi round ups of converted Jews, but not round ups of non converted Jews?

#5 Why did he protest invasion of Scandinavia (full page headline on the front page of the Vatican newspaper!) but not the Final Solution?

#6 Why didn't he protest or quit  when Civiltà Cattolica ran a series of editorials accusing Jews of ritual murder, notably in 1915 following the Bellis case? His direct superior, the monster Cardinal Rafael Merry Del Val personally approved those editorials. Why didn't he complain?

#7: Why did he permit the German Churches to hold a Requiem Mass upon Hitler's death? Meanwhile, three there was no papal prayer or Mass celebrated in solidarity with the Jews.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why did Kayin kill Hevel? (Shumel Goldin gets it wrong)

My encounter with Shmuel Goldin's "Unlocking the Torah Text" this weekend nearly gave me a stroke. And all I covered was his section on parsha Bereshis. 

There were two terrible passages. We'll deal with one now, and get to the other later. 

In brief, I hold there are two incorrect theories of midrash. I call them the "moron approach" and the "skeptical approach." The moron approach, beloved by idiots who think their stupidity proves their piousness, hold that our sages were merely receiving vessels who did nothing but repeat whatever they heard from their own rebbes. They say the midrashim, in their entirety, go back to Sinai, in one long game of telephone, with not one of the Sages ever making use of his own intelligence or creative powers to add or subtract from the original teaching. 

This, thankfully, is not Goldin's approach.

Instead, Goldin embraces the skeptical approach telling us that midrashim are not really interpretations of verses. Instead, they are something the Sages used to encode and transmit Deep Ideas. Here's how he puts it
Midrashim are vehicles through which the Rabbis.. transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, they are not necessarily meant... to explain the factual meaning of a Torah passage.
The Goldin passage I quote above is actually a (unattributed) paraphrase of something that the Ramchal says in Maamar al Haagadot. And let me make this clear: The Ramchal's approach is a sound way of dealing with problematic midrashim. Trouble is, too many people use this approach to deal with midrashim that are not problematic at all. And this is precisely what Goldin does.

The Midrash he attempts, in this example,  to reveal as a vehicle for transmitting secret lessons is found in Berashis Raba, Berashis 23:16 where various rabbis are quoted discussing competing reasons for Kayin's attack on Hevel. 

In summary:

(1) The brothers divided up the world, with one taking the land, and the other taking the animals. When Kayin saw Hevel standing on "his" land he objected.

(2) The brothers divided up the land and the animals even-steven but both wanted the land where the future Bes Hamikdash would stand. So they fought

(3) The brothers both wanted Chava Rishona, and fought over her. (Chava Rishona is how the Midrash solves the problem of Eve's two creation stories. The first Chava (the one created alongside Adam in Genesis 1:27) was rejected, and replaced by the Chava created from Adam's rib in 2:21 leading Adam to declare in 2:23 "Zos Hapaam / This time [I am happy with the Chava]!")
(4) Hevel had two twin sisters while Kayin had only one. They fought over Hevel's extra sister (the existence of the twins are indicated by the superfluous word "es" in 4:1 and 4:2 where Kayin's birth announcement is accompanied with only one "es", thus one twin, while Hevel's birth announcement has two appearances of "es" which to the Rabbis suggested two twins.

According to Goldin, none of this should be construed at an attempt to interpret and explain the Kayin and Hevel story. Instead the Sages are "expressing global observations" regarding the real reasons why men go to war, namely territory, religion and women.

And then he makes it abundantly clear that he hasn't even taken the elementary first step of consulting the midrash in question, writing:
Fundamentally, the Rabbis make the following statement in this Midrash: We were not present when Kayin killed Hevel. Nor can we glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning the source of their dispute."
Only, even the briefest glance at the text of the Midrash shows this is not true! The Rabbis are not making a statement in unison about Global Facts, nor are they sharing Big Ideas. Rather they are arguing about nothing more than the plain meaning of the verse. 

Each of the four suggested reasons for the fight are based on something specific and anomalous in the text, as the Midrash itself tells us, namely the seemingly extra detail about where the fight occurred. 

The verse says: "While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him."

Why mention the field?

(1) Because Kayin and Hevel split the world, with one (the farmer) taking the land, and the other (the sheep herder) taking the animals. In the field, Kayin objected to his brother standing on land, which he owned, so they fought.

(2) The word "field" is often a keyword for the Bes Hamikdash  (eg Micha 3:12) The brothers successfully divided up the entire world, but when they got to the field, ie, the Bes Hamikdash they fought

(3 and 4) Field is also a keyword for women. Both are, um,  plowed (Not my pun! Its in chazal!) and also because of Deuteronomy 22:25 where it says: "If a man finds a girl in the field." So when the brothers reached the field, ie the woman, they fought.

None of this, by the way,  is a DovBear interpretation. All of it is right there in the plain text of the midrash - which Goldin would have encountered had he checked the midrash before embarking on his unnecessary attempt to "decode" it.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Where is Moses in the Torah?

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Yesterday (today in the Diaspora), we read the final portion in the Torah, Vezot Haberakha; tomorrow, we read the first, Bereishit. This leaves us precious little time to study the opening chapters of Genesis, one of the many challenges of juxtaposing the beginning and the end.

Thanks a lot, Krona.
However, it also allows us to see what the first and last portions of the Torah have in common: a thesis about the perfection of the human lifespan. Consider the sixth-to-last verse of each portion:
And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deut. 34:7)
And LORD said: My spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he too is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6:3)
This connection helps explain a particularly bizarre passage in the Talmud (Hullin 139b):
The Papunians asked Rav Mattena... Where is Moses in the Torah? "Because he too (be-shaggam) is flesh."
Of course, Moses is mentioned by name no less than 649 times in the Torah. What could the Papunians be asking? It is true, as Rashi notes, that gematria is at play here, which gives a numerical value to each word, so that be-shaggam and Moses' name are each equivalent to 345, but there seems to be something much deeper as well, linking the 120 years of this verse and the 120 years of Moses.

Now, Rashi himself does not use this interpretation in his biblical commentary; he interprets the 120 years not as a decree related to individual human beings, but to the human race as a whole: the great diluvian clock has now begun ticking, and mankind has only a century plus twenty percent before it will be swept away. Other commentators, from ibn Ezra to Da'at Miqra (Y. Kil), have followed this path, arguing that the 120 years of the Flood are akin to the 40 days of warning for Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, despite a) the absence of any public exhortation; b) the orders of magnitude between forty days and over fourteen thousand days; and c) the fact that God does not decide to bring a Flood until the next paragraph. However, the Malbim and others do follow the course suggested by Rav Mattena.
Indeed, this decree, which precedes that of the Flood, ultimately has more impact for the audience. It comes immediately after a long list of long lives; the youngest recorded death is that of Lamech, Noah's father, at 777 (Enoch does not die but is "taken by God"), while the oldest is Methuselah at 969.
This guy lied to Captain Kirk. Everyone knows Methuselah died in the Flood.
It would only be natural for the reader to balk at these inconceivable numbers. The Torah explains that in fact it is God's decree, as we emerge from the mists of prehistory, that man will not live "forever," but rather that the maximum for humans is to reach their thirteenth decade. Indeed, some scientists believe that this is biologically true as well.

It is striking that the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Torah pose complementary problems for the contemporary reader. The dilemma at the end of the Torah is that of authorship: who wrote the last eight verses, which take place (up to a month) after Moses' death? That dispute is already recorded in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a), but some push it back to the beginning of Chapter 34, since Moses never comes down after he ascends Mt. Nebo; others push it back to Chapter 31, wherein Moses hands over the completed Torah scroll, or even further.

The quandary at the beginning of the Torah, on the other hand, is that of literalism. It is essentially impossible to take Chapter 1 literally (this may be reflected in the multiplicity of views as to what day of Creation Rosh Hashana corresponds to), as it includes elements such as three days and three nights before the heavenly bodies shine. What about Chapter 2, which is a different narrative of Creation? Or Chapter 3 and its talking serpent? Does history begin after the expulsion from Eden, after the Flood, after the fall of the Tower of Babel? In light of this issue, it is extremely significant that a decree from the Torah's first portion is only realized in its last.

Our engagement with the Torah changes and develops as we change and develop. That's why we always have to start anew with each new year. That is why Bereishit must always follow Vezot Haberakha.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Women and Hoshana Raba

I don't understand why pious women don't participate in weekday minyanim - especially on days like Hoshana Raba. And, slow down: I'm not talking about women with child raising obligations. I know those women are exempt. I am talking about women who have no child raising obligations. Why don't women like that go to shul on Hoshana Raba??

I also don't understand why women (generally) will ignore a shiva house minyan. If they happen to be there, visiting someone who has been bereaved, and a minyan starts, they rarely join. Instead they'll  move to the kitchen and continue talking. Why?

The same things happens at weddings. Next time you're at one, join one of the many maariv minyanim that pop up after the chuppah, but watch how the women behave. Most will walk right on by, not even stopping to answer kaddish or kedusha, if its summertime and the minyan is saying mincha.

Again, I know women are exempt. But so what? Why wouldn't a pious woman who has no other competing obligations want to take advantage of the many benefits of praying with a minyan? Why wouldn't she want to answer Kaddish, and reap the so-called segulah that comes with a loud YEHAY SHMAY RABA. And if she's at a shiva house, already, why not just join the minyan? Exempt or not, she's there already

The problem isn't the women, by the way. The problem is a culture ut at a culture that has so devalued women's shul attendance that communities would even feel it acceptable to have a shul with no women's section..Meanwhile, the same culture that gives breaks to women, encourages me to do all sort of things I am not required to do (daily mikva, for example) So why aren't women also encouraged to do more and more? Why does the culture give them a pass on voluntary mitzvos, when it doesn't give men a pass on even voluntary mishigas and narishkeit customs?

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Does Yom Tov Sheni in Israel make sense?

A guest post by dstaum

Today, Harry Maryles blogged about how while he's visiting Israel this Sukkot, he's keeping a "2 day chag", and discussed the basis for doing so. There's also a good discussion going on in the comments.

Here's what I don't understand. If keeping the minhag of your home country is because of minhag avoteinu b'yadenu, then the current practice makes no sense.

The reason that the Jews in Bavel (Babylonia) kept 2 days was because they didn’t know when Rosh Chodesh of that month really was, since that time was set by the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem. Even with the signal fires, the messages wouldn’t always go through, sometimes because of natural occurrences, sometimes because of Shomronim (Samaritans) deliberately lighting false fires to confuse the dates.

Well, why didn’t they just send a messenger? Well, obviously, a messenger couldn’t make the trip on time. If he could, there would be no need for the much speedier signal fire system.

So what about a traveler who lived in Jerusalem but was spending Sukkot in Bavel? Could he travel any faster than the messenger could have? Obviously not. So to spend Sukkot in Bavel, he would have to have departed Jerusalem well before Rosh Chodesh Tishrei. So how would he have had any idea when Rosh Chodesh was declared, any better than those who lived in Bavel year round? No way at all! So he would have had to keep the same 2 days of yom tov that everyone else did there, despite of that fact that most of the time he lived in Eretz Yisrael!

Today we have a set calendar. Even if we didn’t, we have instantaneous communication with Eretz Yisrael. We could get word immediately of the time of the molad (new moon) in Jerusalem. But we commemorate the way it was done in ancient times by keeping 2 days of Yom Tov outside of Eretz Yisrael because of Minhag Avoteinu B'Yadenu.

Well, if we’re keeping it the way it was done then, what sense does it make for someone who just happens to live in Eretz Yisrael to keep one day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora? His corresponding traveling ancestor wouldn’t have been able to do so. How is it consistent in any way for him to keep one day while all around him the other Jews are keeping two?

And once we establish that, the converse must follow – a Diaspora Jew should keep only one day in Israel. Otherwise the system has no consistency.

I'm not trying to mock the minhag, I'm just genuinely trying to understand. So how is the minhag of keeping 2 days in E"Y following Minhag Avoteinu?

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Monday, September 23, 2013

The new Pope's interview makes me sad

While we were away, celebrating the holiday, the big Jesuit magazines and newspapers simultaneously published an interview one of their priests conducted with new Pope Francis. As Slate put it in a headline, the interview confirms that Pope Francis Is a Liberal, who is Profoundly anti-Conservative.

Some of the interview's choice bits included :
  • The Church has "locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules." (chumras?) 
  • The hierarchy is too obsessed with abortion and homosexuality, and while Church teachings on those matters are clear "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." 
and then there were this somewhat staggering, and supportive articulation of the basic liberal world view:
"Human self-understanding changes with time, and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth"
and this flat denouncement of its conservative counterpart.
"If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”
When did the church become more sensible than Haredi Judaism? How is it the Pope can recognize realities our Gedolim continue to deny? Honestly, I never thought I'd write these words and typing them out is painful - I thrive on examples of Church barbarism - but this is happening: The Church, under Francis, appears to be reconciling itself to the truths of Liberalism in a way Orthodox Judaism still has not, and shows no sign of ever doing. While we continue to waste time and energy on things like gay marriage and heresy which hunts, while we stay trapped in small-minded rules, the church is re-calibrating and turning its focus towards larger, more important issues of social justice.

All of which makes me very sad and a little bit sick.

SILVER LINING #1: At least Yaakov Mencken and the other RW Jewish clowns won't sit shiva for this pope.

SILVER LINING #2: Maybe the RW Jewish clowns who previously twisted and corrupted Judaism in pursuit of Christian approval will continue to do so. Maybe their insecurity and lick-spittle proclivities will finally power the liberal re-invention Judaism needs.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Top 10 Ushpizin FAQs

A guest post by Y. Bloch

It is now the midpoint of Sukkot, so on day four of the Feast of Tabernacles, let's deal with all those pesky queries about the ghostly guests, the Ushpizin!

1) Q: Ushpiz? What sort of word is that?
A: It's Aramaic, borrowed from the Latin hospes, meaning host or guest (we'll be using the latter term), which has given us the term "hospitality."

2) Q: Why do my Israeli friends call an ambulance when I say I want to be an ushpiz for a Sabbath meal?
A: Ah, well just as "hospital" evolved from this root in French and English, the modern Hebrew term for hospitalization, ishpuz, followed a similar route (although hospital is still beit holim, house of the sick).

3) Q: So what's so special about guests on Sukkot?
A: That brings us to the Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism first published in the 13th century, which states (Lev. 103b):
Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev. 23:42)... It is written, “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” and then “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell,” and then “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the Guests; the latter to the people of the world.
Thus taught Rav Hamnuna the Elder. When he would go up to the sukka, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukka and say: "Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying: "'In sukkot you shall dwell seven days' -- be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, faithful guests, be seated."
4) Q: Wait, who are the "five other righteous"?
A: It never says, but Isaac and Jacob are mentioned later in the passage, pronouncing curses on those who invite them but not the poor.
Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and [the needy] are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num. 16:26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “The belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov. 13:25). Jacob says “The morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov. 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “For all the tables are filled with vomit and excrement, with no space left” (Isa. 28:8).
5) Q: Yum. But wait, "the other righteous" could be anyone! Why then are the feminists criticized for coming up with usphizot?
A: Because it's USHPIZAN. Where did you people learn Aramaic grammar, anyway?

6) Q: Then how did we get Joseph, Moses and Aaron as the other three?
A: Oh, that's a different Zohar (Addenda III, 301b-302a):
In parallel to these seven supernal days, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in the world seven worthies of truth to establish them and enlighten them, each and every one on his respective day, and He planted each one in the appropriate generation. These are the fathers of the world: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
7) Q: But isn't that about the days of Creation, i.e. the days of the week?
A: Yup.

8) Q: So, today is Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot but the first day of the week. Is it Joseph's day or Abraham's?
A: Well, each of these has a unique Kabbalistic superpower, and Joseph's ranks him after Moses and Aaron, even though he lived earlier. So maybe it's Moses' day, as Sephardic and Hasidic Jews maintain. An Ushphizin Fighting Championship would settle this once and for all.

9) Q: But everyone agrees that it's seven total, right?
A: No. Before Rabbi Abba is quoted, the first opinion leaves out David, so it's only "Abraham and five other righteous." On the other hand, some (like R. Zadok of Lublin, Peri Tzadik, Deut., Sukkot 38) add an eighth for the extra day in the Diaspora: King Solomon. Surprisingly, the same Frankfurt Jews who do not say prayers that have their source in the Zohar nevertheless embrace the idea of eight Ushpizin.

10)  Q: Still, it's just words, right?
A: Depends whom you ask. One version opens with, "I beseech thee, X," which is hardly the tone of R. Hamnuna's invitation. Indeed, some authorities (R. Hayim Palachi, Kaf Ha-hayim 639:8) demand action: lighting candles in the name of the respective night's Ushpiz and putting an embroidered chair out for them. (To share?) I'm sure the odd pauper out will appreciate knowing that a seat is being saved instead for those who won't eat.

Q: Huh.
A: That's why I leave it all out. Math is easy; Kabbala is hard.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why do we wave lulavim?

After much thought, I think I am going to embrace the Josh Waxman suggestion.

Once upon a time, people used palm branches to make noise. Slowly, slowly, the act of making noise with a palm branch became thought of as the "right" thing to do when a king came around. Then, slowly, slowly this became thought of as an appropriate thing to do for the King of Kings, too. (and after all didn't He tell us to "take" a palm frond? What else could he have wanted us to do with it?) 

Somewhere along the line, the noise making attribute was forgotten, and the key thing became the waving. And now, that we were waving, of course the Rabbis were going to tell us how to wave. Hence Nanuim. 


The first guy to wave the lulalv was an escaped slave in the Sinai desert, who did it during the first sukkot, following matan torah, using arbah minim he ordered on Like the mainstream observwant Jew he was, this escaped slave waved his lulav using the authentic Nanuim (Chabad of course, or maybe Yemenite)  because the oral interpretation provided by Moshe made it clear that waving is what God wants.

Why do we wave the lulalv?

In my daily life I interact with non Jews, like many of you. Around Yom Kippur, I'm never reluctant to tell them how we celebrate the holiday. I mention the fasting. I tell them we spend hours in shul. I explain that the day has a unique power and an enduring hold over my emotions and imagination. And I do this even though I know they can't relate. In fact, I'll often preface my explanations with an "I know this is strange, but.."

Sukkos is different. I don't think I've ever volunteered that we gesticulate with fruit. This is not because I think one strange set of rituals is less strange than the other, but because I know the gentiles can relate to fasting and prayer. They and their holy people do that, too. But fruit waving? Too weird. Why would anyone do such a thing?

I'm aware of two Torah-true explanations, neither of which I much like:

(1) There are all sorts of magical, kabalistic forces and energies in the air, especially at this auspicious time of year. The arbah minim are a sort of antenna that allows us to access, and perhaps collect those invisible waves. Why I hate this explanation: a) Taking the arbah minim is a biblical commandment, but the bible provides no hint at all that such forces and powers exist. The Jews didn't start to think about magical forces until much later in our history. b) As the Ramban famously said, "He who wishes to deceive calls his witnesses from far away." We have no evidence at all that such forces exist. Asserting that these invisible, imperceptible forces are the reason we lulav wave, seems to much like someone is pretending to knowledge he doesn't have.

(2) Waving fruit reminds us of Israel and the harvest and makes us happy. (Rambam) Why I hate this explanation: Really? Waving fruit makes us happy? Waving fruit?

So what's the deal? I mean the real deal. Why did Jews start waving around the Arbah Minim. Because even if you want to argue that God's original command was to take the Arbah Minim and build a sukka with them, at some moment in time, the Jews got a different idea in their heads and chose to start waving the things instead. Why would we do that?

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Amazon really does have everything (but love for Sefardim)

Guy writes (If he provides permission, I will name him):
It occurred to me recently, when I wanted to buy a new tallis and was too lazy to hike down to the seforim store, to look on Amazon and like everybody else in the world after reading a few reviews and with the click of a button it was wending it's way to my tallis bag. One thinks one can walk to the door and find the smiley box there waiting and it almost is.
So then I tried some other interesting combinations like this Amazon page and discovered that Amazon is Ashkenazic because if you type "lulav and esrog" it's happy but "lulav and etrog" gets a "did you mean" slap. Forget the magnifying glass, what better place for one of those zoom in pictures.
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kosher Bacon Cheeseburger

Editorial Submission by NAME ON REQUEST

Not only is this not an oxymoron anymore, those who actually like cheeseburgers tell me that Burrit'Olam in Teaneck's "cheese" actually tastes good, a lot like the real thing. While the thought of cheeseburgers gave me the dry heaves even before I was religious, Facon's glatt kosher beef bacon tastes pretty good (and a lot like pork bacon). The advances in food technology are amazing.

But they are also unsettling. Outside of Pesach, an Observant Jew could eat this in all good conscience. But is it something one can do, but still isn't a good idea, like urinating with the Shel Yad wrapped around your arm, or an uncle marrying his niece?


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Monday, September 16, 2013

The paradox at the heart of the High Holidays

There are Jews, we're told, who enter Elul in a state of trepidation, a state of trepidation that only becomes more severe as the great days of awe approach. We're told that some Jews of yore fainted when the Elul New Moon was announced in synagogue. Other Jews fasted during the 10 Days of Repentance and I have seen Jews cry openly during their prayers. Why the drama? Because Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the days when our fates for the entire year are written and sealed. Like it says in the famous siluk: Who lives and who dies; who gets rich and who goes broke; who enjoys tranquility and who gets harried by his childen, parents, employers and neighbors -- all of it is decided during the first ten days of Tishrei.  Believers take this seriously, of course, and respond accordingly.

But then, as the sound of the last shofar fades away, something else happens. We fill up with joy. We enter the next  holiday, the one that calls itself the happiest of the year, full of confidence that our sins have been erased and that the curses have been replaced with blessings. This, too, is part of being a believer. In fact, those of who pray in the old style say it outright in the krovot of the first day of Sukkot. The new year is here, the people are forgiven, and we can go forward with confidence.

It doesn't start to get strange until the year turns and we find ourselves back at Elul. Then the trepidation fills us up all over again. But why? Anyone who has been through the Jewish year knows the drill: We pray and God forgives. This is baked in. Guaranteed. So why would anyone knows this enter Elul or the Ten Days with anything other than perfect confidence? We aren't forgiven for our sins against God as a reward for being stressed out in Elul. The day itself atones for those types of sins. You make it through the day, complete with the regret and the confession and the resolve to be better behaved and the slate is cleansed. That's the magic and the majesty of Yom Kipper. So why enter Elul with any fear?

More strangeness: Suppose God didn't forgive you. How would you even know?

Does anyone ever say "Man, this awful thing befell me because I coasted through Neelah?"

Are we taught to say that people who suffer are sinners? All of us know someone who died young. Would you confidently say that he or she was a sinner, whom God abhorred? Of course not. That's not how we respond to individual tragedy. When something bad happens to a person, we don't write them off as a sinner, nor do we encourage them to think of themselves as bad people. Instead, we offer theodicies or throw our hands in the air and pronounce God's mysteries unknowable. This is a charitable response, of course, but not in keeping with the whole Ellul experience. If we really believe the words of the siluk about how RH and YK decide everything, if we shook on Yom Kippur because we believed God is really standing in front of the open books, making final decisions, would we bother with the theodicies and the professions of uncertainty? Or would we just admit to ourselves that the poor guy must have flunked Yom Kippur?

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Well, how did it all go?

Every year, I write a post Yom Kippur wrap up, detailing the facts of my holiday experience. Here's this year's version:

Final Meal (We eat once, not twice)
  • Honey cake
  • Soup with kreplach, matzo balls and thick noodles
  • Roast chicken
  • Roast potatos
  • Israeli salad 
  • Chocolate cake
Daytime Services
  • Started at 8 am 
  • Finished at 3:15 p.m.
  • Started again at 5 p.m
  • Finished for good on time
  • Havdalah
  • Kokosh
  • Vegetable Soup
  • Various egg dishes
  • Talapia in tomato sauce
Other notes:
  • The Koren machzor, which I used this year for the first time, is wonderful. The translation is better, and more readable than Art Scroll's. Also, the commentary's focus feels more down-to-earth. Unlike ArtScroll, Koren doesn't take magic for granted. It discusses history skeptically and honestly and frequently provides wisdom from non-traditional sources. The discussion of charity that accompanied Unetanh Tokef, for instance, included a brief retelling of a Y.L Peretz story. When I read the Art Scroll commentary I feel like I'm in the company of a smart Rabbi who doesn't share my sensibilities. Koren, on the other hand, feels like it was written by a smart person, who happens to be a rabbi, and is also someone I'd like to get to know a little better. I'd ask for a second date with Koren, while I think I'd dismiss a shadchan who set me up with Art. 
  • As a people we need to do a better job of popularizing the names of our musical compositions. I'd like to be able to tell you about the wonderful melody our Chazan chose for Slach Nah, the finest of the piyutim, without humming it. 
  • Marriv's pizmon speaks of a brit and a yetzer. According to Art, the brit is the 13 Middos and the yetzer is the accuser who badmouths us to God. He thinks we're telling God to remember His mercy and ignore the prosecutor.  Koren says the brit is the deal God made with Noah to never destroy us, while the yetzer is our own evil inclination. I think Koren's reading is better. The poem, as Koren says, presents the audacious claim that everything we've done wrong is really God's fault. He created us as sinners, after all. We're just a piece of clay in His hands, etc, The refrain continues the audacity by telling God that he can't destroy us, thanks to his deal with Noah, and, anyway, the evil inclination he gave us is what caused all the trouble in the first place. Not a very frum translation, but perfectly in keeping with the text, I think.
  • This year felt a little flat. The power of the day didn't hit me as hard as it usually does. I have a few theories for why this was so. 
  • For the very first time, I can report feeling no annoyance whatsoever toward the people who read while the rest of us are singing. 
  • I say this every year: The four maariv piyutim, are jewels. A chazan who debases them with a bubblegum tune should be dragged out of the building and kicked to the curb (In my shul the chazan's selections were fine.)
  • The Rabbi spoke after Kol Nidrei, and did not speak at all on Yom Kippur (which is exactly as it should be.)
* For reasons I can't fathom, the Hasidic Jews, and those who wish to emulate them (also for reasons I can't fathom) have two, sit-down meals on erev Yom Kippur. There's nothing wrong with this.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gay-mar tov

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Thanks, gay mafia. Just when I thought I was out... you pull me back in. I managed to get through a whole post about the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the arayot (Lev. 18) without mentioning good ol' verse 22.

But on Wednesday, Jewish Insurgent concluded his post here by writing:

You might be anti-gay because the Torah says so and all you are doing is making someone else’s life miserable with no payoff for you, or you could simply be looking past the truth because you are too busy dealing with the thing you think might be right.

And then on Thursday, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau made news by invoking Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's decades-old halakhic argument about gays being defined as "oness," operating under compulsion. I won't get into the analysis, since Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber already did a fantastically thorough job of that a year ago. 

Instead, I would like to get back to the biblical analysis. As I wrote a few months ago, the term "mishkav zakhar" is not the biblical term for sex between men; it is the term for classic male-to-female genitalia sex, specifically the kind that makes the hymen go bye-bye (Numbers 31, Judges 21).

The term which shows up in Lev. 18 and 20 is mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha, a perplexing nomenclature. An ish (man) is bedding not another ish, but a zakhar--and not just bedding him, but bedding him "the beddings of an isha." Of course, isha means both woman and wife.

Some have suggested that it prohibits two men having sex in a woman's bed, which is profoundly bizarre. Others argue that it refers to a ménage à trois, which is intriguing but a bit hard to swallow. Still others argue that it refers to a social construct in which such relationships would involve pedophilia or rape, but if so, the fact that the Torah condemns both parties is horrific (and contradictory).

But what if, like standard-issue mishkav zakhar, mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha refers to a situation of permanent physical change? What if the ish is whole, but the zakhar only has his zakhrut (manhood) left, because he has been altered in the mishkevei isha manner? In the Ancient Near East, males were often castrated for the purpose of being sex slaves. Perhaps this is what the verse refers to. The Torah takes a dim view of castration, so it would be consistent with other verses. Were that the case, the great biblical proof-text used to bludgeon gays would fall. I've certainly heard no better explanation of mishkevei isha.

Now, this approach is certainly unconventional, but it is not wholly unprecedented to view mishkevei isha as defining not the what of this sexual union, but the who. The Talmud (Yevamot 83b) cites Bar Hamduri's exegesis:
"You shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman" -- what male is it that is capable of two manners of bedding? Obviously the hermaphrodite.
Undoubtedly, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch are different cases, but they share something of an intersex status, creating a hybrid of mishkav zakhar and mishkevei isha. This certainly opens the door to further analysis of this much-debated line.

Would reinterpreting the verse change the halakhic equation? Maybe not, but it's a lot easier to embrace paths such as that of Rabbis Doctors Lamm, Farber and Lau if the verse lends itself to other readings.       

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Who was the best Jazz Singer?

The original Al Jolson

Danny Thomas in the 1953 movie. The top clip shows the movies' first scene. (Don't you just love a high reform service?) I can't find the Kol nidre online,but you can hear it in the second clip.


 Jerry Lewis from the version of the Jazz Singer that aired as a 1959 TV movie Kol Nidre starts @51:00.
 He sings it in black face!


 Neil Diamond in the 1980 movie. Search for more information about ###

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tell us about your Kol Nidrei

Welcome to a new edition of the famous DovBear holiday tradition...

I think I started collecting Kol Nidrei experiences in 2007. Over the years many of you have added your own. My original two posts are first, and the next batch are from your comments. Please feel free to add your own. (Note: Any that way have been added last year are now lost, thanks to our comment-murdering friends at JS/Kit Echo.)

The Big Shul Where I Grew Up and the Yeshivish Minyan I Attend Now (DovBear)

Attendance: 90 percent of the shul is in their seats by the time the pregame starts. 20-50 percent are wearing white kippot (in the childhood shul the number was higher.) Most of the women are wearing something white, too.

Pre-game: Every Torah is taken out of the Aron, and the pillars of the community are honored with the privilege of carrying them. (This is one honor that isn't auctioned to the highest bidder.) The rabbi leads the procession to the shulchan, reciting Ohr Zeruah l'tzadik every few steps. We answer him. When the men reach the shulchan they crowd around the chazan who has been waiting there, pushing in as tightly as possible. All of this began within 30 seconds of the announced start time.

The show: Takes about 10 minutes. The chazan always uses the same tune, the traditional tune that can be heard on any number of cantorial tapes. His voices gets louder each of the three times he recites it. We hum along, and answer thunderously when the time comes to scream: solachti kidvorecha. After the chazan intones the shehechayanu the Torahs are silently returned to their place.

Post game: The children exit, and the Rabbi delivers words of encouragement or rebuke, and in some years, an appeal is also conducted for some worthy charity. (not the bedek habayis fund). Marriv begins afterwards, led by the chazan, who also selects the tunes for the slichos which are sung responsively.

The Hasidic Sfard Shteeble I Used to Attend... (DovBear)

Attendance: About 15 percent of the shul is present at the announced start time which is for Tfillas Zaka, not Kol Nidrei. Aside from their kittels, very few of the men are wearing white, and many have substituted a standard black gartel for the kittel's white belt. A number of the women wear white and many have identical white kerchiefs over their wigs; some wear what look like white aprons.

Pre-game: The congregation gradually enters, and slowly the men take their seats and hunch over Tfillas Zakka, a long semi-silent prayer said in an audible whisper. In a few minutes the drone of conversation is replaced with the hum of prayer. At some point (usually within 5 minutes of the announced start time for Kol Nidrei) a gabbai slaps his hand on a table and the rebbe groans or whines or wails out a kabbalistic prayer called Kum Rebbe [name I forget. Eliezer?]. Those who know it whisper the words together with the rebbe.

The show: The Torahs are taken from the aron, and the men carrying them, also community pillars, gather around the shulchan. After they arrive, the rebbe goes to the amud (about 15 feet from the Torahs) and bleats out Kol Nidrei using a tune that is strange yet powerful in its own right, but only vagualy similar to the traditional tune. The crowd bellows the response lines, and at the end the rebbe's shehechyanu is extended into a wail that soulds like the shofar.

Post-game: When the Torahs are back in their place, Maariv begins immediately, led by the rebbe

Parallel experience of a mother who hasn't made it to Kol Nidre in many many years... (Tesyaa)

6:40 - Light candles with teenage daughters, then watch as husband in kittel and daughters in white shirts covered with sweatshirts make a quick exit. (Shul is apparently over-airconditioned).

6:45 - Scan kitchen and dining room. Thankfully spouse and older children have done an admirable job of clearing table and washing dishes before candlelighting.

7:45 - Breathe sigh of relief that developmentally delayed youngest child loves his bed and is a good sleeper. Put him to bed. (Hopefully no unwelcome surprises here).

8:00-9:00 - Entertain two rambunctious young boys. Remind them that they are not hungry. Remind them that they are fasting at least until breakfast (or later depending on age). Remind them about 40 times not to brush their teeth.

9:00 - Attempt to put boys to bed. Cajole them to be good because "Mommy's fasting". (Hey, whatever works).

9:15 - Dressed in a robe (not a white one), pick up machzor. Read text of kol nidre silently. Daven maariv. Read piyutim of interest silently. Scan text of 13 middos and wish I was davening in shul. Say some tehilim.

9:30 or so - click of front door as spouse & daughters return home. Brief exchange about how the davening went.

That's it. It's been the same for several years. Predictibility is good (I guess).

The Big Shul in Williamsburg... (Yeedle)

I daven in a big shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. Since most people are married and wear kittels (white, of course) and thick wool talisim, the cooling system is turned up so the reg. temp. is a cold 55 degree. Coming with a sweater (or a [white] shawl, for the ladies) is advised.
Another tid-bit: Most women, in honor of the special occasion, don't wear any wig or all. Just a white turban or tichel. And even the few who dare come with their wigs on, make sure it's well covered, with the maximum of two inches showing in the front. (last year, two self-appointed ladies made sure that no one is "showing" too much of her wig.)

The program starts with everyone running to get a dip in the mikvah one more time, and almost everyone reminds themselves to do so a mere 5 minutes before the shkiah. Then, the shul starts getting fuller and fuller, everyone settles down with their machzorim and the rabbi gives a mussar sermon. Most people utilize the time to say tefilas zakai. Some even manage to say "kum rabun shimon" as well. 

When the rabbi finishes the 30 minute sermon, which nobody listened to, the rabbi takes out ONE sefer torah (the rest remain in the ark) and circles the shul (making one hakafa). During the hakafa everyone, but I mean EVERY SINGLE ONE, pushes himself to kiss this sefer torah the rabbi is holding. Every single year kids get "injured", machzorim get lost/pages ripped etc. While making the hakafah, which takes like 10 - 15 minutes, the rabbi stops at random intervals and cries "Ohr zarua latzadik, ulyishrei lev simch".

Then the rabbi returns the sefer torah to the aron, and says a short tefillah. Another 5 minutes pass, and the rabbi, who serves as baal tefillah, starts chanting (the traditional nussach I think) Kol Nidrei and everyone quietly chants along with him. Kol nidrei is repeated 3 times, each time the volume goes up.

From there, the davenen continues as it says in machzor :)

The Israeli experience...(Micheal)

Pre game - walk to shul in Kittel and Talit, but try not to get bowled over by kids (and adults) who are getting an early start on their bikes (depending on where you live, the streets will be full of bikes and noise for the entire 25 hours of Yom Kippur - even 3 am you can hear bicycle bells and shreiks from kids enjoying the car-free environment)

I don't remember ever seeing "Tfilla Zaka" on the menu, but many people try to arrive early for shul to say it before kickoff. Every year I try to get there on time for Tfillat Zaka, every your I fail (maybe I'll be more successful tonight)

Shul itself is more likely to be school hallway or kindergarten. Very few Cathedral-like shuls in Israel that can accommodate big crowds (biggest shul here in Modi'in seats about 300, but most shuls are much smaller than that - my shul can squeeze in about 250 plastic chairs)

Don't remeber ever seeing more than 2 Sifrei Torah taken out for Kol Nidrei, but many minyanim (particularly those in a Gan or school) will only have one or 2 sfarim, so by default all sfarim are removed for Kol Nidrei.

In the shul I daven, most men are wearing a white Kipa Sruga, but that is the case on a regular Shabbat as well

No Yom Kippur Appeal, but if we're lucky we'll get a drasha of some sort.

Reform Shul....  (Susan)

Eat a big dinner because I know it's my last meal for over 24 hours. Debate with myself about how much water to drink. I don't want to be too thirsty tomorrow, but I don't want to have to get up to use the restroom during serives either.

Arrive about an hour before services start. Put some canned food in the barrels outside for the annual food drive. Chat with the spouses of the choir members, who also arrive early.

Stand on the front steps and greet people as they arrive. The senior rabbi (a woman) and Cantor (a man), as well as the choir, are wearing white robes. The two other rabbis, who are married to each other, are both wearing a kittel. Some of those who regularly come to shul, such as myself, are wearing white and no leather. The number of people wearing white is increasing slowly over the years. Most others are in regular business suits and dresses, with leather shoes and belts. Almost nobody has a head covering of any kind, however many men pick up a white kippah provided inside.

Services start within 10 minutes of the scheduled start time (which is late for us, since services usually start within a few minutes of the scheduled time). Cello plays Kol Nidre, then Cantor sings it. Is it done a third time? I can't remember.

People continue to drift in as the service continues. Eventually, the entire 2,000-seat auditorium is full. The senior rabbi delivers a sermon to a rapt crowd. She's an excellent and passionate speaker. After the sermon, upward of 100 people get up and leave as the services continue.

Services are over less than two hours after they started.

Stand at the door saying goodnight to people as they leave.

Spanish And Portuguese Version (Fear From Love)

* Majority of Shul is full ten minutes before advertised start time, everyone wears a tallit, white stripes, black stripes, blue stripes..... two guys wore kittels, one of them wasnt sefardi

Shema Koli ten minutes after fast starts. No Tefillat Zakah, No Kum Rabbi Shimon, no Kol Nidrei, yet....

* Kol Nidrei starts ten minutes later after another Piyyut. The Sifrei Torah are held by The Rav, The President and the Two Chattanim. A different person says Kol Nidrei each time, sefardic tune.

*No appeal but a sermon before Arvit

* Arvit begins, and every word is sung until the end of tefillah, either the whole congregation joins in and says the whole paragraph together with the shaliach tzibbur or there is a system of the shaliach tzibbur saying the beginning of a sentence and the congragation saying the last two words.

*finish 3 hours after we start, beautiful.

The Reconstructionist Shul... (Tziporah)

Attendance: Yes, most everyone is seated by the time we start; the people still walking around chatting are either service big-wigs, showing off that they're part of running this thing, or people who come only once/year and have a lot of people to say "hi" to that they haven't seen in a while. Moms are trying to round up the kids and get them settled into the childcare before it gets quiet, stopped repeatedly by the old people who want to talk about "how big" everyone is getting.

Pre-game: I think one of the rabbis or somebody usally says something or does a reading or whatever to make everyone shut up. Then both Torahs are taken out, and the rabbis carry them around the shul in different directions, singing "Ohr Zeruah" along with the congregation, trailed by Board members, etc. It takes FOR-fricking-EVER. Everyone wants to touch the Torahs and the rows are too long for everyone to reach it, so some scuffling ensues. (Very genteel scuffling, of course).

The show: For the last several years, the first rendition of Kol Nidrei has been done with a cello and some other instrument. Several of us are horrified by this; some refuse to attend b/c of it; others find it nice and "contemplative." Phhbt. With a Bad Cohen on the ritual committee, they're lucky it's not worse. Anyway, then it's usually the rabbi and one of our lay leaders with a great voice, and the third time is a chorus that always includes the old ladies with the horribly wobbly voices that make you wince. Thank G-d it's over.

Post-game: Torahs get put away, then there's a neverending procession of readings, speeches, prayers, whatever, all the way through to the Amidah/kaddish, and finally the feature event of the evening: the rabbi's sermon. This is what most of us are looking forward to, since it's the junior rabbi who actually has a formaleducation and can link HH Days themes to something relevant and make it interesing.

After the sermon, there's a vast rustle and buzz as people try to exit before the President/Vice President get up and beg for money and more volunteers. It's not pretty.

The Yeckish Shul... (Mar Gavriel)

"Talles" is scheduled for some time around sunset, or slightly afterward. People start to shuffle in at least 10-15 minutes earlier, but there are always people running in at the last moment. All married men (after Shono Rishôno) wear kittels (as they do on RH, as well). We use the terms "kittel" and "sargenes" interchangeably. Virtually all the women wear white.

"Talles" is when the one rabbi, the other rabbi, and finally the chazzen for KN/ma'ariv sing the berocho over the talles, with great pomp and circumstance, before donning it. After the chazzen is done, each man (married or not) dons his talles. All who are wearing kittels wear all-white talleisim, whereas bachelors and men in Shono Rishôno wear their ordinary black-striped talleisim

At this point, the chazzen puts his talles over his head and entire body, and hunches over the shtender, to silently whisper a personal prayer -- I assume הנני העני ממעש, or one of the other ones printed in the book. When he is done, he removes the talles from his head, and the rabbi, who is standing next to him, proclaims: "בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים."

Then, the chazzen, in a quiet voice, begins "Kol Nidrei", in the old tune. The congregation hums along for some parts. This is then repeated in a louder voice, and finally in an even louder voice.

When this is done, we say the line
ונסלח לעל עדת בני ישראל ולגר הגר בתוכם כי לכל העם בשגגה
a single time, and then Shehecheyonu. The congregation responds a rousing "Omein!" to the chazzen's Shehecheyonu, and then the chazzen sits down.

The rabbi then gives his YK sermon, the only time that he speaks over the whole 25 hours. Usually, this lasts until nightfall, at which point we begin Borachu. In years when there has been persecution of Jews somewhere in the world, or violence in Israel, the sermon has been curtailed, in order to have time to recite some Psalms before Borachu.

The whole procedure is beautiful in its simplicity.

No Torah-scrolls, no Tefillo Zakko, no Kom Rebbi Shim'ôn, no appeal for money.

UK Orthodox Experience.(SM)

Everyone to be sat in seat before Yomtov. 50% are. The rest arrive - in their cars - after.

Tefillas Zaka, what's that? Oh you mean the thing that meshugana SM says when he won't respond to everyone's greetings. Kum Rebbe Shimon - ?

Kittel - I wear one. So does the Rabbi, the Chazzan and perhaps 5 other people.

Bigwigs take Sefer Torah out of ark and parade them to Bimah. Chazan makes meal of Kol Nidre - must still be hungry. It is the standard tune but by the time he's done it and the choir has helped it doesn't feel like it.

Appeal for UJIA (Israel). Sermon.

Ma'ariv. The songs are well known so people stop talking when they are being sung - more or less. Otherwise there is a steady hum throughout. This is better than on RH when you cannot hear the Chazzan or yourself.

3 hours later - home.

(Which is why, although I have no affinity for their beliefs, I go to Chabad for Neilah, daven for the Old Age home shacharit and mincha and teach the rest of the time, fitting in my davenning wherever I am and in the quietest place I can find.)