Friday, September 29, 2017

Kol Nidrei experiences

[ANNUAL TRADITION] I think I started collecting Kol Nidrei experiences in 2007. Over the years many of you added your own. My first one follows, and you can see more by clicking the link... 

What's your place like on the holiest day of the year?

The Shul Where I Grew Up

Attendance: 90 percent of the shul is in their seats by the time the pregame starts. 20-50 percent are wearing white kippot. 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.
Many more here >

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Rambam and Moshe's prophecy

I understand the Rambam on prophecy as follows; All of us have capacity for imagination, which can at times seem to operate on its own. Examples are dreams or when we let our minds wander. A person who has removed himself from the world, and spent his time thinking about philosophy and God will have bursts of imagination and dreams that are about philosophy and God. Like all dreams and and bursts of imagination they need decoding via the intellect. This process - the burst of imagination, stemming from an uncorrupted mind and the interpretation by a refined intellect - is what the Rambam called prophecy for everyone but Moshe.

Any verses in which we are told that God speaks to man, are meant to be understood the same way we understand verses that tell us about God's hand or his nose: as figurative language.

How did Moshe's prophecy work? Rambam seems to have kept this a secret. While he insists in the Guide that Moshe's prophecy was categorically different, to the best of my knowledge he never tells us exactly how it was different or how it worked. Why would he have omitted to do this?

Possible explanations:

1) he didn't know.
2) he didn't want us to know.
3) he was trying to rework the tradition to fit with his preconceived philosophical doctrines (ie he was a scholastic) and Moses's prophecy is a dead end, because you can't reconcile the tradition's insistence that God directly spoke to Moshe with the philosophical doctrine that God never changes.

I wonder if the Muslim and Catholic scholastics had better luck with this problem...

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Rosh Hashana Review 2017

I've been away, but let's see if I make it back in the new year. If you've been around more than me recently, thanks.

So a few things went right this year. First, and foremost I attended a synagogue that offered a fat-free service. By this, I mean we were served none of the unnecessary lard that clogs things up and slows things down, things like: An auction, a speech and a kiddush.

Skipping them saved us more than an hour.

Next, I ate well. The work of the next week and a half is to shed some of the weight.

Finally, I solved a pressing theological problem. For months I've been struggling with this idea that tefilla changes us, causing God to react to us differently. (Long time readers will remember this excellent post on the subject). While I can concede the idea may work on an individual basis, its hard to understand how changing ourselves via prayer cures a sick person or ends a drought.

Appropriately the thunderbolt hit me during Unetaneh Tokef, when I realized the true meaning of the words ma'avirin et roah hagezayrah.

The correct translation - and cheers if you beat me to this - is "remove the evil from the decree," and not anything like "cancel the evil decree," which is what I'd previously thought. The difference is important.

Because, as I understand it now, the prayer isn't insisting that repentance, prayer and charity can change or negate a divine decree. We aren't asserting that our words and action will have some supernatural effect on someone else's illness or on the weather or the decisions other people make regarding us. We're only saying that the "evil can be taken out of the decree"

The decree itself goes forward - people die, remain impoverished and so on - but thanks to the effect repentance, prayer and charity have had on our thinking, we no longer experience these tragedies as something evil. When we use repentance, prayer and charity to re-calibrate your perspective in keeping with Jewish values, the terrible events that are the fate of all men, no longer appear evil.

Let me explain what I mean, with a few examples.

SICKNESS: Certainly, its unpleasant to suffer from an illness, but someone who has trained himself to think about the world in the true Jewish sense won't experience it as an evil. Instead, he'll frame it as an opportunity, or a punishment, or a brute act of a nature. However much he might suffer, he won't experience the suffering as something evil. Thanks to how repentance, prayer and charity have reorganized his thinking there is, to his mind, no evil in the decree.

BANKRUPTCY: The Koren machzor includes an anecdote about Abarbanel, in which the rabbi tells the Spanish king that all he really owns is what he has given to the poor and needy. The rest can be seized by the king in an instant. Someone who has adopted this view, a view that can be cultivated through acts of charity, sees no evil in the loss of his fortune. The money was never really his at all. While the privatization that come with poverty can be terrible, the person who has adjusted his thinking in the way I am attempting to describe does not see any evil in it. It's simply his lot.

UNTIMELY DEATH: I have no wish to minimize the pain of losing a loved one, just as I have tried not to minimize the pains of illness or poverty\, but the theory I am attempting to develop holds true in this case, as well. We can think of an untimely death of a great injustice, or we can think of it as something natural. We can see ourselves and our loved ones as immortal or we can view ourselves as human beings, prone to the sharp vicissitudes of fortune. The Unetaneh Tokef tells us this:
A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream."
We aren't meant to last, the poem reminds us. We aren't meant to ride through life without ups and downs. Only the King, the Living and Enduring God, is eternal, unaffected, unchanged. He endures. We decline and disappear. Thorough repentance, prayer and charity we come to recognize our mortality, our vulnerability and our impermanence. And, having accepted these facts of our existence we can, I am proposing, serenely face all that life has to offer, seeing no evil in it.

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