Polls and the Big Lie

April 21, 2011

As a regular responder to on-line polls and surveys, I’ve decided to “sit out” any survey asking whether I believe the President is a Christian or a Muslim. On many polls, even though I have a strongly held position, I have to concede that there might be legitimate differences of opinion. But this topic responds to the success of the Big Lie. No responsible person believes that this Muslim issue is anything but a canard, aimed at discrediting Mr. Obama. It is on a par with the “birther’ nonsense, and it all adds up either to, “My mind is made up, don’t try to confuse me with facts,” or to a cover-up for resentment at an African-American president.
The saddest part of this particular Big Lie is that we tend to get so indignant at the scurrilous intent of the question that we forget to ask, “What difference does it make?” Hidden in the question is an Islamophobic attitude that in and of itself is contrary to all the principles of American democracy and to all principles of Bible-based religion, which should be teaching that every human being is created in the image of God.
I don’t care (for the purposes of this discussion) whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you voted for the person who is now the President of the United States or for his opponent — this is not about politics, it is about decency and about the ability to differentiate between truths and obvious lies. If the political opponents of this Administration think they need this kind of ploy to regain power, it is a sign that they are morally bankrupt as well as bereft of any positive programs to offer the American public.
Note that I am not suggesting that the responsible Republican leadership is behind this immoral, unethical tactic — but until the party leaders strongly denounce not only the Big Lie but also the Big Liars who are perpetrating it, we have to assume not that they believe it — surely they are not that stupid — but that they are willing to tolerate it because they think it will serve their ambitions.
As it happens, I know the editor of one website personally on which such a poll was conducted. I urged her to remove this particular poll — and to apologize for posting it in the first place. She justified it, saying “Of course the President isn’t a Muslim, but apparently many people believe he is, so I don’t see anything wrong with posting it…. Actually, I don’t think of a poll as settling any issues; a poll just lets you know what people are thinking. It’s just putting your finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.”
I responded with what is wrong with posting it: It gives credibility and dignity to the Lie, and suggests that matters of fact can be settled by popular vote. It also reminds me of the days when anti-Semites tried vigorously to vilify FDR as the Jew Rosenfeld. Even a question on creationism would make more sense than this one on Mr. Obama’s religion, since the theory of evolution, even though widely accepted by responsible scientists, goes against the “evidence” of the Bible. When the idiot fringe couldn’t discredit Obama for having been a member of Reverend Wright’s church, they went on to their next ploys, trying to present him as a Kenya-born Muslim.
But leaving the Big Lie aside, I too would object if any candidate for any office ran on the basis of a falsified biography. Some day, in fact, the citizens of the United States may knowingly elect a Muslim president. I have lived to see many things that, as a child, I would have never thought possible, an African-American president being one of them. (Others: the existence of the state of Israel; the serious candidacy of a woman for President; a Jewish vice-presidential candidate; the legalization anywhere of same-sex marriage; three Jews or three women on the Supreme Court.) For that to happen, the American Muslim community will have had to find its way into the American mainstream, and to have established that its religious positions are compatible with American democratic and social values. When that day comes, if my friend posts a poll on her website asking which I believe, that the President is a Muslim or a Christian, I’ll willingly participate – because it will be a Big Truth indeed.


Seeing Double: Variations on Two Themes from Parasha Re-eh

August 7, 2010

Food for Thought

I rarely get to the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where I went to college, but I still remember the steam-table cafeteria on 53rd Street with the sign in the window proclaiming, See Your Food. This week’s Torah portion is called Re-eh, See, and among the ritual laws it presents are those concerning dietary practices: See, Your Food.

Fittingly for a sedrah in Devarim, the Book of Words, the authors anticipated the development of Microsoft Word, giving us a cut and paste rendition of the dietary laws presented in Leviticus, listing the creatures it is forbidden to eat, repeating the prohibition of consuming blood, and offering for the third time the law which has probably caused the most conversation over the millennia: Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk.

A Midrash tells us that when God first says, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk, Moses turns to him and asks, “You mean no meat and dairy on the table at the same time?” God replies, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk. Moses thinks for a minute, then inquires, “You mean we need two sets of dishes?” God thunders, Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk. Now Moses tries again, “You mean we have to wait six hours after eating meat until we can have dairy?” And God sighs, “All right, do it your way.”

Thinking about the way the Rabbis, over the centuries, built their dietary fences around the Torah, piling precaution upon precaution, I find it difficult to reconcile the Kashrut structure they built with another important verse in the sedrah: Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it.

As we know, the foundational document of American Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, took away the dietary laws in their entirety. Would they have had to take away so much had their forebears not added so much?  

The defensive aphorism of the Classical Reformers over the years was, “We are more concerned with what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.” Yet, over the 125 years since Pittsburgh, we have seen dietary sensitivity creeping back in various ways to Reform Jewish life. We saw it when we were boycotting grapes; we see it today in the vegetarian pot-lucks held in many of our congregations, and in the various forms of eco-Kashrut including a focus on healthy ingredients or on sustainable agriculture. We heard it from Rabbi Yoffie at the Toronto Biennial last November, http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2009/11/president-yoffies-shabbat-serm.html#comments when he urged us for a variety of reasons to eat less red meat. Even as Rabbi Yoffie stressed that ritual Kashrut is not our issue, he emphasized the Reform movement’s need to confront eating ethically. Thus the subtle approval of the Conservative movement’s Hechsher Tzedek, Righteous Kosher certification. As Reform Jews, we are not required to worry about how an animal was slaughtered but we are required to worry about how the employees of the packing plant were compensated and treated.

Fortunately we have gotten away from an attitude that was still common thirty years ago – that if you “kept Kosher,” you were not an authentic Reform Jew. There are Reform Jews that go the whole hog in maintaining Kashrut – how’s that for a problematic figure of speech? – and others who are strictly Kosher at home but relax those standards in various ways when they eat out. Anita Diamant, in her Living a Jewish Life (HarperCollins, 2007), suggests a variety of reasons for adopting Kashrut in whole or part, “as a way of hallowing the very mundane act of eating.”

As someone who makes no pretense of observing anything like the Orthodox laws of Kashrut, except at Passover, I nonetheless would welcome a Reform codification of Rules of the Table – going beyond the wishy-washy statement in the commentary on the Pittsburgh Principles of 1999 http://ccarnet.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=45&pge_prg_id=4687&pge_id=1656. The word “Kosher” is heavily laden with political ramifications. It is too divisive to be acceptable in the Reform vocabulary, even if translated simply as fit, or proper. But the food service practice of many of our congregations may set an aspirational standard for members of those congregations – essentially no forbidden foods such as pork or shellfish, no overt mixing of milk and meat as in a sausage pizza, no foods tainted by unsavory or unethical treatment of animals or humans, along with a blessing before and a blessing after.

I’m prepared to be scolded for expressing a position of do as I say, not as I do. I expect to be chastised for hypocrisy, the shibboleth of those who call for an all-or-nothing approach to Kashrut (whether they are alls or nothings), although inconsistency or eclecticism would be more accurate descriptions But, having been stimulated by Re-eh to think again about ethical and ritual eating, and after writing everything above, I went back and re-read both Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon and the comments I and others made when it was first posted on this blog. My positions on Jewish eating in August 2010 seem consistent with my positions in November 2009. Where I have changed is that my belief is now stronger that the Movement has the responsibility to stimulate congregations to do a better job of “doing Jewish” and “teaching Jewish,” on this issue and others, thus role-modeling and leading the way for their communities. Will I follow? That remains to be seen, but certainly not if no one leads.
Wailing at the Wall

As a word person, I am particularly struck by the opening word of this week’s reading, which gives the parasha its name: Re-eh, See. We are accustomed to being told Shma, Listen, Obey. In this case, though, we begin with the visual rather than the auditory, See, not Hear. While Moses doesn’t directly develop the idea of seeing as compared to hearing, he talks about things that can be better comprehended with the eyes than with the ears: the pagan altars which are to be torn down, the pillars that are to be smashed, the faces that are not to be gashed. But the emphasis on seeing rather than hearing is more mine than actually inherent in the text.

The parasha opens with a brief reminder that the people have a choice between the blessing and the curse, each attributed to a different mountain which the people can see as Moses speaks. Moses assumes, out of a sense of cockeyed optimism, that they will be smart enough to choose the blessing, and then sets out to tell them what that entails. The laws that are recapped in this sedrah fall into two broad categories: religious or ritual laws on the one hand, and civic or social laws on the other. I focus here on God’s demand for a single place of worship after the people have entered the Land.

Obviously the single place idea was expunged from Judaism with the destruction of the Second Temple, and actually the synagogue had started to develop even prior to then. But taking the parasha as a contemporaneous report, Moses, as God’s press secretary, needs to give his conglomeration of tribes a common focus when they are settled in their allotted corners of the land they are about to enter. Scholars tell us the book of Deuteronomy was almost certainly written some six hundred years after that entry, with the people settled in an agrarian economy rather than nomadic wanderers. Knowing that gives special resonance to the authors still mandating support for the central institution, after it has become clear that going to Jerusalem three times a year is a strain for the tribes distant from the appointed place for sacrifice.

The authors of the Reform movement’s foundational document, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, forswore any hope or expectation of the restoration of a central Temple in Jerusalem, branding their congregations as temples to make that point clear. Yet the distancing from Jerusalem that was inherent in Classical Reform kept shrinking, and today we see our connectedness to Israel as a central factor in who we are as Reform Jews. But when we think Israel, what image do we see? Re-eh, Israel’s most potent visual symbol is the Kotel, the Western Wall of the very temple we had put behind us.

We saw this dramatized recently when the call at the Wall was Re-eh, See. A woman is carrying a Torah scroll in this sacred place! This sight was deemed so offensive that Anat Hoffman, whose day job is director of the Progressive Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center http://www.irac.org/ , was arrested. Anat is also the leader of Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall, which meets to pray there each rosh chodesh. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2010/07/carrying-the-torah-with-pride.html Women of the Wall is not a Reform organization, it includes members from all streams, including Orthodox – and clearly what is important to these women is not the act of praying at the Wall, but establishing the right to pray at the Wall. And what is abhorrent to those who would deny them that right is that these women choose to exercise it visibly in a place the deniers have made into a visible symbol of misogynistic Jewish religiosity.

Re-eh, see us, the Women of the Wall are saying. See us in our tallitot and kipot, so the world can see you going berserk. Re-eh, see us in the act of prayer, even when you cannot hear us. See us play out this drama at the surviving Wall of a Temple we do not want to see rebuilt – and which, truth to tell, you don’t either, even though you utter prayers daily stating otherwise.

So even if today Jews can present ourselves to God wherever we may be, Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall, have focused on the Temple Wall to capitalize on the attention it commands, and to force people to see what they don’t want to hear. Re-eh, See, elements in the Jewish enterprise have not accepted women as full players, entitled to fill the same roles as men, wear the same worship garments, read from the same Torah scroll, and do it all where they can be seen. Nashot HaKotel have co-opted the Wall because one picture is worth a thousand words, and this picture makes their struggle visible rather than abstract, dramatizing the idea that all are equal in the Divine presence. This is a fight about the women, not about the Wall.

I must confess that I am turned off by the Kotel – which has more and more become a combination of a Charedi synagogue and a tourist trap. Although our parasha tells us to tear down the altars of false gods, we elevate this particular pile of stones into an altar to a God that some expect will read and heed scraps of paper stuck between those stones. That’s not my kind of God. I don’t pray for the restoration of a central place of worship, nor am I interested in seeing the Kotel’s restoration as a seventeenth century Galitzianer shtiebel. I am grateful that Jewish visitors have the access we were denied between 1948 and 1967, but our access is tainted by what we see there, and by what we don’t.

Re-eh, See. See what use is being made of the Wall today – as a theatrical stage set for tourists, as a throwback place of worship, and as an instrument of protest. Although we have rejected the name the Christians gave this place, the Wailing Wall, it seems functionally to have become a place of wailing. The Temple, which, in the time of Deuteronomy, functioned as a unifying force has become a divisive one. As my grandmother might have asked, is this good for the Jews? And I will slightly modify her question and ask, how can this be good for the Jews?

Praying with Heart

July 24, 2010

A highlight of any trip abroad is the chance to get off the tourist route and into the homes of locals.  Barbara and I have  accomplished that in Israel by traveling with organized Reform movement groups, which typically includes Erev Shabbat services at a Progressive congregation, followed by dinner at the home of a member of the congregation.

While that opportunity was available to us on our trip this past June, we chose the other option, attending services at a fledgling congregation in downtown Tel Aviv, followed by potluck supper with the congregants. It was the right decision!

Our Kabbalat Shabbat was at T’filat HaLev, Prayer of the Heart, a congregation that was launched last year at Rosh Hashanah by HUC-Jerusalem rabbinic student Or Zohar, and that has met approximately monthly since. T’filat HaLev meets in a dance studio in downtown Tel Aviv, off Allenby Street – and the dance studio director plays an integral part in the service as she relaxes the congregation with a variety of motion exercises. The service is very musical – Or’s primary vocations are radio broadcaster and musician, and he leads services with his guitar while his wife Feliza, who describes herself as a musician and voice movement therapist, functions as the cantor, singing and playing the harmonium. This video provides a feel for what the service is like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trMFisLsHss, (This was not filmed the night we were there, but it captures the “vibe” we experienced.)

T’filat HaLev has come into being with support from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and a combination of networking, word of mouth, newspaper ads, email, and flyers posted on Feliza’s blog, http://www.myspace.com/omanuthaemuna Omanut Ha Emuna, , which translates as the Art of Believing. Or and Feliza’s musical group goes under the same name, and “seeks to investigate the relations between inner journeys and artistic expression. More specifically: Omanut Ha Emuna creates music that echoes inner search in music.”

In some sense, the congregation grew out of the music (and, in fact, at its inception last year, it was called Shirat HaLev, the Song of the Heart. But it also grew out of Or’s personal interest in Kabbalah, and his teaching of Kabbalah was part of the program during the early months of the kehilla (congregation) – now more traditional divrei Torah seem to prevail.

The music includes both familiar melodies and the Zohars’ own compositions. According to Feliza, “We sound like we sound. Sound like ourselves. Some say that our music blends Israeli rock, Middle Eastern rhythms and scales, American beats and styles such as soul and reggae, as well as a bit of Far Eastern coloring.” http://www.myspace.com/omanuthaemuna#ixzz0tskXBeJZ

Had we exercised our other option and gone to services at Tel Aviv’s main Reform synagogue, Beit Daniel, we would probably have used the “official” siddur of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Ha Avodah she- BaLev, The Service of the Heart, in a service much like those at home, aside from being all in Hebrew. (At least, that’s been our experience at Yozma and Mevasseret Zion.) At T’filat HaLev, there is no siddur, only a photocopied program/song sheet, which Or explains as being less intimidating to his community of novice worshippers than a siddur would be – enhancing their sense of being at an event (Or’s word for all of T’filat HaLev’s gatherings – “tonight is our tenth event”) rather than in shul. As part of the same approach, the service does not (yet) include Aleinu or the Mourners’ Kaddish.

T’filat HaLev appeals to families, because child care is provided in an adjacent room by Mechina members (post- high school, pre-Army young adults, taking a “gap year” and doing community service). Nonetheless, kids – including Or and Feliza’s — run back and forth between the prayer room, where they are welcomed by their parents and others, and their own event. The congregation is heterogeneous, ranging in age from their twenties into their fifties, singles and couples as well as families. I doubt that they think of themselves as “members,” since the concept of formal synagogue affiliation as we know it is a hard sell in Israel. As explained to us when we met with Rabbi Meir Azari, senior rabbi of Beit Daniel, his synagogue is sustained with fees for wedding ceremonies and b’nai mitzvah, as well as through contributions, not primarily through dues as in the American model.

Beit Daniel http://www.beit-daniel.org.il has established a unique role for itself in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, not only operating its synagogue in fashionable North Tel Aviv, and a guest-house/cultural center in gritty Jaffa, but also three public elementary schools in partnership with the municipality, integrating Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children under a single roof. Rabbi Azari and the congregation have taken T’filat HaLev under their wing, and in fact have granted a stipend to Or to build the new kehilla as a branch of the Daniel Centers, on the way to developing a multi-branch network model throughout Tel Aviv – Jaffa. T’filat HaLev benefits from Beit Daniel’s organizational infrastructure and experience, and as part of the Daniel network is poised to work alongside its big brother on municipal projects. (T’filat HaLev has also received modest funding and generous encouragement from the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.)

We American visitors were greeted warmly and graciously at T’filat HaLev, and more concessions were made to us English-speakers than I’ve experienced at other Israeli Progressive congregations. (Or explained that his group probably knew English better than we knew Hebrew.) But the hospitality and spirituality were the least of our take-aways from a remarkable Shabbat. It was exciting to see the response of so-called secular Israelis to a religious environment and experiment that broke their stereotypes and responded to their tastes and needs. It was satisfying to note that Progressive Judaism is now serving Israelis, not just American transplants. In fact, in developing its own modes and models of operation, it has set the stage for becoming our teachers, not just our students, at a time when we are facing the challenges of adjusting our own synagogue models to a changing environment. As financial contributors to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, it is gratifying for us to see the successes our seed money has allowed the IMPJ and its congregations to achieve. May we and they continue to be strong and to strengthen one another!

Unsung, but Better than Singer

May 17, 2010

Hidden, or maybe not so hidden, in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/nyregion/13grade.html and Tablet Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/33328/keeper-of-the-flame/ obituaries for Inna Hecker Grade is a novel about her fierce protectiveness of the literary legacy of her late husband, Yiddish novelist and poet Chaim Grade, and particularly her contempt for and feud with his much better-known and more popular contemporary, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

(This to-be-wished for novel is somewhat foreshadowed in Cynthia Ozick’s much-anthologized novella “Envy; or Yiddish in America,” which pits the Singer stand-in against another writer of the same era, who enjoyed even less English-language recognition than did Grade.)

As we read in Ecclesiastes, of making many books there is no end, and the Yiddish literary pantheon has room for Grade alongside Singer. In fact, one of the comments added to the Tablet obituary said that among Yiddish writers, Grade is to Singer as, among writers about the South, Faulkner is to Margaret Mitchell.

But while we’re waiting for someone to novelize the Grade story, or to accept the challenge of bringing Chaim Grade’s unpublished manuscripts to print, we have the opportunity to revisit those of his works that are available in English, the most accessible of which are The Sacred and the Profane, originally published in 1982 as Rabbis and Wives, and My Mother’s Sabbath Days, my edition of which also includes “The Other End of the World” and “The Seven Little Alleys.” (Harder to come by are the magisterial two-volume The Yeshiva and shorter works like The Agunah and The Well. Grade’s importance as a poet is mentioned in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, but none of his poems is included in the anthology, perhaps because of the widow’s over-zealous stewardship.)

The three novellas gathered in The Sacred and the Profane are set in Vilna in the first half of the twentieth century, and give us an unsentimental picture of a somewhat insular Jewish community battered by the forces of secularism, the rising tide of Zionism, and the difficulties of making a living. The first of the three, “The Rebbetzin,” tells of a wife whose own ambition pushes her husband out of his comfort zone, and takes on a special poignancy when we read it against the background of what we know now about Inna Hecker Grade.

For all her good intentions, and her ardor in controlling his literary estate, perhaps her passing will reawaken interest in the books we have, and unlock the availability of who knows what untranslated or unpublished treasures.

Brother, Where Art Thou?

March 12, 2010

Maybe because we’ve been reading on Shabbat about the brothers Moses and Aaron, I was particularly sensitized to brothers when our Torah study class recently read Jacob’s dying exhortation to his sons. What particularly struck me was the efforts of several Biblical translators to avoid translating achim as brothers.

Our teacher, Rabbi Andrea London, along with many class members, had the Women’s Torah Commentary, and most of the others had the revised Plaut Commentary, both of which present Chaim Stern’s translation of Genesis. My text was the Art Scroll Stone Chumash with a translation by Nosson Scherman.

The line we were talking about reads, in the Hebrew, Shimon v’Levi achim, klei chamass m’cheirotaichem. Left to my own devices, and aided by my own desk dictionary, I would render this Simeon and Levi are brothers; their weapons are instruments of violence. (My Ben-Yehuda-Weinstein Pocket Dictionary also offers kinsman or countryman as possible ach translations, but neither of these figure in the translations of Genesis I consulted.)

Seeing achim, I was startled to hear Rabbi London read Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. And my surprise was only enhanced when I looked at the translation I had in front of me: Simeon and Levi are comrades; their weaponry is a stolen craft.

Encountering these two different translations, or non-translations, of the same word, I did some further homework, and found that the 1995 Jewish Publication Society translation makes Simeon and Levi a pair. The 1917 JPS, following the King James, has brethren, which I see as old-fashioned but acceptable. Robert Alter translates the phrase under scrutiny as Simeon and Levi, the brothers, although there is no the in the Hebrew. Everett Fox chooses Simeon and Levi – such brothers – no such in the Hebrew either. (There are also further variations in the translation of klei chamass m’cheirotaichem, but they’re not germane to the main thrust of this discussion.)

Now, in defense of the eccentric renderings, their contrivers were obviously trying to get into Jacob’s mind, and to convey what he was trying to convey. We know that Simeon and Levi are brothers, two among the twelve; and they are also brothers to Dinah, in whose defense they earned the scorn their father is expressing. But, if we know Hebrew, we also know that if Jacob had wanted to say Simeon and Levi were partners, he could have called them shutafim; if he had wanted to call them comrades, he could have said chaverim; if he had wanted to identify them as a pair, he could have used zug. But the text reads achim – brothers.

As I have recounted before, http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2008/09/quotations-translations-and-ob.html, I once overheard a business colleague scolding his secretary. “You shouldn’t have done what I said, you should have done what I meant.” From opposite ends of the religious spectrum, Rabbis Scherman (Orthodox), the comrades man, and Stern (Reform), the partners man, agree that brothers alone is not good enough for helping us understand what Jacob meant, it’s important to convey that they’re two of a kind.

This leads us to the core question: what IS the job of the translator? Is it to tell us what the original language says, or what it means? Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler introduced me to the idea that any translation is a commentary; and in a different spin on the difficulty of going from one language to another, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik is credited with the simile that reading poetry in translation is like kissing the bride through her veil. Fellow-blogger William Berkson cites an Italian proverb that equates translation with treason. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2008/05/linguistic-disconnects.html.

One indication of the importance of a text written in a language other than the reader’s own vernacular is the availability of multiple translations. Why do we need more than one? One reason is that, even though the source text is static, language in general is dynamic, so while one generation’s translation may combine fidelity and fluency, a few generations later, the fluency may have disappeared. A concept like the familiar form in the second person singular (thy and thine) doesn’t exist in Hebrew nor in contemporary English – so a locution that combined fidelity and fluency in the era of King James would provide neither today. But we leave it alone in Shakespeare (this above all, to thine own self be true) while we change it in liturgy (All the world shall come to serve Thee/You). http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2010/01/all-the-world.html

Since my obsession with translation surfaces especially in the context of Torah study (and to a lesser extent, in the context of liturgy), my first impulse is to want the translator(s) to be as faithful as possible to the inherent meaning of the words. The commentary can then suggest how those words might be understood. Even in a Bible edition without commentary, the explanation can be handled in a footnote.

If I owned the printing presses, I would follow the rabbinic PaRDeS tradition. Pardes, as a word, is translated orchard, but as an acronym it encapsulates p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardes_(Jewish_exegesis). In this updated PaRDeS approach, the p‘shat is the simple translation, remez is the context, drash is the interpretive explanation, and sod (for which the p’shat is secret) is the lesson to be derived. http://blogs.rj.org/reform/2009/08/sonnet-torah-study-the-pardes.html, In such a case, the p’shat would be achim. The translator’s “reading,” like partners or comrades, would be the remez. The back story – Simeon and Levi’s actions in defense of their sister – would be the drash, interpreting why Jacob has paired these two sons in this way. The sod here would be contained not in the word achim itself, but in its amplification as their mutual commitment to violence.

But I don’t own the printing presses, and I continue to brood about the variations on the achim theme: partners, comrades, a pair. They all seem to suggest that brothers (at least these brothers) have a bond beyond common parentage. As a corollary, we find words like brotherhood and fraternity (from the Latin frater, brother) that extend a brotherly bond to closely linked men without common parentage. It’s interesting that when the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods changed its name to Men of Reform Judaism, it left the name of its magazine unchanged: Achim. Brothers. When we sing Hinei ma tov u ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad, we think, or at least I think, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity. Think, too, about Schiller’s Ode to Joy, typically sung to Beethoven’s music. Wouldn’t you translate Alle Menschen werden Brüder as All men become brothers?

No, if you’re part of the gender-sensitive Reform movement, you’d probably translate it as All people become siblings. But that’s a blog post for another day.


March 6, 2010

In Talmud class yesterday at Beth Emet (www.bethemet.org),  Rabbi Knobel was talking about a mishnah that involved the drawing of boundary lines, and I shared the story of Yankel, who was given his choice, as boundary lines were being set, of whether  he wanted the line drawn so as to put his farm in Poland or in Russia.   Without hesitation, he chose Poland, a choice for which his wife afterwards berated him.  (So what else is new?)  The Poles are even worse anti-Semites than the Russians, she scolded.  Why did you choose Poland?  To which Yankel replied, I was trying to spare you the rigors of the Russian winter!

Lo and behold, just a day after this discussion about boundaries, the New York Times ran a story about the problems created for Orthodox Jewish communities in the Northeast as their recent blizzards damaged eruvim

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/us/06religion.html?scp=1&sq=Eruvim&st=cse, the strung-wire constructs built around many Jewish communities to extend for their inhabitants the boundaries of “their place,” adding geography to the realm in which they are permitted to carry on Shabbat – a permission perhaps most visible to the outside or skeptical Reform eye when we see the line-up of strollers outside the Orthodox synagogue on Saturday morning.  No strollers?  It probably signifies that the word has gone out that a section of the eruv has fallen down, and until all the king’s horses and all the rebbe’s men have put humpty-eruv together again, the walls of your actual home set the limit on where you can carry, or where you can push a stroller.

In the days when Jews lived in walled cities, or behind ghetto walls, the Times tells us,  the extended carrying zone came with the territory; and in the U.S. the eruv was almost unknown before the 1970’s.  The Orthodox community for the most part coped, and carried.  Over the last forty years, though, the general posture within Orthodoxy has been to find dormant restrictions to  impose on its adherents, new ways to be zealous about avoiding the possibility of the possibility of breaking a Torah law.  After all, the creation and enforcement of these legal fictions gives employment to hundreds of roshei Yeshiva (heads of Orthodox seminaries), mashgichim (kashrut supervisors), and other black-hatted, black-suited functionaries, who are imposing these chumrot (severities) upon the willing – so we, the unwilling, have no reason to object, and can mostly be content to ignore.

One of the difficulties of establishing an eruv, a community boundary, the Times points out, is that the typical eruv involves creating the boundary by co-opting existing structures, like telephone poles and El structures, and stringing unobtrusive wires to create the symbolic enclosure.  This typically involves getting permission from the local municipal authorities, who have no real reason to withhold the permission, except their fear of local opinion:

“With the boom has come some opposition — not, as Jews once feared, from intolerant gentiles, but from fellow Jews. Some Orthodox leaders maintain that urban eruvim are too large and populous to be legitimate. Less observant Jews in Tenafly, N.J., and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., have fought their installation, under the erroneous assumption that an eruv would coerce them in some way.”

The Times, with its journalistic predilection to getting (or giving) only part of the story,* neglects to mention that opposition also comes from Orthodox leaders who want the original “no carry” law to be observed faithfully, and who decry the legal fiction route to permit the impermissible.

A well-known maxim in the more liberal sectors of Orthodoxy concedes that, where there is a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.  In fact, the eruv, and other such legal fictions, can be construed as a response to this principle.  Reform Judaism, in contrast, following the principle that the halacha is for guidance, not governance, avoids the creation of legal fictions by ignoring those aspects of the received body of Jewish law that no longer make sense, something we can do because we don’t start from the premise that the Torah is God-given and thus immutable.

So – the blizzards knocked down eruvim, and the mothers who normally brought their toddlers to shul in their strollers were forced to stay home.  But they were  so forced by their own interpretation of piety.  Unlike Yankel, who spared himself and his wife the rigors of the Russian winter, they were victimized by the New Jersey winter.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

*On Sunday, February 28, 2010, the Times wrote about the resurgence of Jewish life in Poland, focusing almost exclusively on the story of a former neo-Nazi skinhead who discovered his Jewish roots, and who now has not only become Orthodox but is studying to be a mashgiach, a kashrut supervisor.  Dan Bilefsky’s story totally ignores the more mainstream men and women who are reclaiming Jewish roots and seeking Jewish identity, including those who are doing so at Beit Warszawa, Warsaw’s thriving Progressive synagogue, under the leadership of American Reform Rabbi Burt Shuman.

From Russia, with Love

March 1, 2010

When I was first getting involved in synagogue life, my rabbi had a cartoon pasted to the door of his study, showing a group of men sitting around a boardroom table –n those days, temple boards were all men — as the president of the congregation announces, “We have only two items on our agenda this evening, the leak in the men’s room ceiling and the future of American Judaism.”

When we talk about the future of American Judaism, a number of recurrent themes come immediately to mind -– building Jewish identity, developing a new generation of leaders, the differences between the generations, creating ties with worldwide Jewry and especially with Israel, and the place of Reform Judaism in the big picture

How interesting it was, therefore, to participate the other day in an international conference call of the Committee on the Former Soviet Union of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and to hear a report from Rita Furman, the Netzer (Youth) Coordinator for the FSU, about a leadership seminar recently conducted at the Moscow Center for Progressive Judaism, and devoted to our exciting Reform camping programs in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Possibly the most important message to emerge from Rita’s report was that the issues that confront American Judaism are equally if not more important in Eastern Europe, except that we have a lot more resources than they do for dealing with them.

Camping was the main focus of the seminar in Moscow, and key participants were two “loaners” from the URJ camping system, Rabbi Ron Klotz and Max Klaben, director and assistant director of our Goldman Union Camp-Institute in Zionsville, Indiana. Ron and Max led six sessions during the conference, three with supervisors and three with madrichim (youth counselors). These sessions explored topics like who is the ideal madrich, how to work in an informal setting, and what background leaders need to have in order to work effectively with campers.

In the course of last summer, almost 1000 campers spent a week each at Progressive movement camps in the FSU, funded by individual contributions from the more affluent sectors of the WUPJ as well as by congregational and Federation grants from many North American cities. Rabbi Klotz was joined at the program by two local rabbis, Alex Lyskovoy and Leonid Bimbat., which, Rita told us, added a very important spiritual component to the discussion and enlarged the scope of the questions madrichim could ask, beyond the logistics of camp operations. .

The Reform camp programs in the USA and FSU were discussed and compared at length. Ron and Max had brought a lot of material (written, video, pictures, etc.) to provide a very broad picture of how the GUCI camp operates. To the surprise of the locals (using local to encompass the three countries represented, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus), and perhaps of the Americans too, despite such differences as the length of camp sessions and operating in a permanent venue like GUCI does as opposed to the rented camp facilities of the FSU, the topics of interest, the values that we wish to impart, and the goals we strive to attain both in the FSU and USA are very similar. Thus, Rita told us, the ties to and with their American counterparts were “immediately natural and very strong, as we spoke the same [religious, spiritual] language.”

Jewish identity was a particularly important issue, incorporated into all sessions. (My own rabbi, Andrea London, just returned from visiting our “twinned” congregation in Simferopol, Ukraine, and noted the “missing generation” — everyone she met, she reported, was either young or old, the middle generation having been kept from their Judaism during the Soviet era). Questions such as what it is to be a young Reform Jew today, how the active Jewish identity of the generation of the madrichim impacts both those younger than they and the older generation of their parents, were on the minds and the tongues of the madrichim, the young leadership cadre.

Given the cultural and economic divides, not all the issues that confront camps in North America and in the FSU are parallel. I’m told, for example, that one of the challenges facing camp directors at Union camps here, like our local gem OSRUI, is separating kids from their cell phones. Across the ocean, the issue is separating campers from their cigarettes! One of the outcomes of the Moscow training session is likely to be the prohibition of smoking at Netzer camps.

With all the similarities and all the differences of the two communities, it is generally acknowledged throughout American Judaism that Jewish camping programs are pivotal guarantors of our future – and how much more that is the case in the FSU, where Judaism is beginning to re-emerge after its forced hiatus, and where Progressive Judaism has to compete not only against secularism and apathy, but also against the aggressive outreach of open-handed, closed-minded Chabad. We have to fix a leak a whole lot more serious than the one in the men’s room ceiling; we have to bring kids into a spiritual and cultural worldview that will enable them to reclaim their birthright as modern Jews while fitting into their local societies as whole people. And the only way to fix that leak is with funding.

I was exhilarated by the WUPJ conference call where folks sitting in Moscow, Jerusalem, London, San Juan, Acapulco, and across the U.S.A. shared their thoughts on building Progressive Judaism, and Progressive Jews, in the FSU. It’s good to know that Barbara, my wife, sits on the Kiev Kehilla of our Chicago Jewish Federation and encourages the Federation to make a generous annual contribution to our Progressive camps in Ukraine. We’re proud to number among our friends people like Anne Molloy and Henry Posner of Pittsburg and Sue and Jimmy Klau of San Juan who contribute munificently to the Reform movement’s work in the FSU.

If I needed to point to one episode that triggered my own involvement in the support of Progressive Judaism, it would be an August Shabbat lunch at a camp facility outside of Moscow, where we met with Jews from all across Russia, who had gathered for a training session on how to conduct High Holy Day services in their rabbi-less communities. Rabbi Joel Oseran, who leads international development for the World Union, asked a youngish physician from Siberia what he was trying to find through his involvement with Progressive Judaism – and the doctor’s spontaneous reply was, “I think I am trying to find myself.”

So many of us Reform Jews in North America trace our own roots to the former Soviet Union – my mother’s family came from Belarus and my father’s from Kiev – and it behooves us to remember that the kids who are enriched by their experiences at Netzer camps are our cousins. When we help them find themselves as Jews, we help ourselves to do the same, linking the future of American Judaism to that of Eastern European Judaism. Ken yirbu – may this only increase.

“All the World”

January 17, 2010

In celebration of Beth Emet’s  sixtieth anniversary, the liturgy for our Erev Shabbat service was drawn from the siddurim the Reform movement has used during the synagogue’s lifespan – the Union Prayer Book and its adjunct Union Hymnal, Gates of Prayer, and Mishkan T’filah. From candle-lighting UPB-style, we segued into “All the World Shall Come to Serve Thee. “

All the world shall come to serve Thee,
And bless Thy glorious name,
And Thy righteousness triumphant
The islands shall acclaim.
Yea, the peoples shall go seeking,
Who knew Thee not before,
And the ends of earth shall praise Thee,
And tell thy greatness o’er.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in Reform musicology, but I will make two observations about “All the World” that the experts can refute if I’m off base:

  1. I associate it, not with Shabbat, but with Rosh Hashanah, since it appears as the closing hymn for the morning service in Union Prayer Book II and also in Gates of Remembrance.
  2. It has always struck me as the hymn that best encapsulates Classical Reform worship, sung in English, with a universalistic message, somewhat ponderous lyric, and lofty musical style.

Although I am about as far as you can get from Classical Reform in my ideology and liturgical preferences, I confess that I always looked forward to the rousing rendition of “All the World” that closed the morning service at my former congregation (and not just because it signaled that lunch was right around the corner). And when geography propelled a change in my affiliation, I told my new rabbi when he debriefed me after my first round of High Holy Day services that one thing I really missed from my old life was “All the World.”

They shall build for Thee their altars,
Their idols over-thrown,
And their graven gods shall shame them
As they turn to Thee alone.
They shall worship Thee at sunrise
And feel Thy kingdom’s might
And impart Thy understanding,
To those astray in night.

(For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what we do end our HHD service with in my current congregation – I can only assure you that it’s not “All the World.”)

So – the cantor gave me my nostalgia trip, my sentimental journey into a prior era of my synagogue life – and lo and behold! Something was missing. I have been trying to figure out what, and why, and the hypotheses that follow are listed in growing order of suspected importance:

  1. Our synagogue was full for this special celebratory Shabbat, but that meant 300 voices rather than the 1800 that would have been gathered in the “cathedral” sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah at the previous temple.
  2. The congregational participation, while spirited, projected an aura of good sportsmanship, willingness to play the historical game, rather than an inbred sincerity and sense of sanctity and connection to the message of the hymn.
  3. Missing was the sense that the hymn was wrapping up the service (which, in this case, of course, it wasn’t) but more important, we don’t resonate as did an earlier generation of Reform Jews to the mission of bringing ethical monotheism to the world. We’re not as much into One God for Everybody as we are into partnering that God in perfecting the work of creation.
  4. The hymns of the Union Hymnal were intended for an organ accompaniment. A piano backed by an instrumental trio just doesn’t create the same kind of soaring majesty.

In the course of pondering the effect and the affect of “All the World,” I discussed my reaction with a knowledgeable synagogue musician who comes out of Conservadoxy and who dismissed the hymn altogether as borrowed from the musical style of the Lutheran Church. Wrong! I haven’t sourced the Hebrew text (v’yeh-eh-ta-yu kol l’avdecha) but the translation, by Israel Zangwill, dates to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and surfaced in the second Union Hymnal, circa 1914. New music, composed by Abraham W. Binder, was applied to Zangwill’s lyric for the Third Edition in 1932 (for which Binder served as Musical Editor).

With the coming of Thy kingdom
The hills will shout with song,
And the islands laugh exultant,
That they to God belong.
And through all Thy congregations,
So loud Thy praise shall ring,
That the utmost peoples, hearing,
Shall hail Thee crowned King.

In compiling the Beth Emet anniversary service, our clergy, normally scrupulous about gender sensitivity, were equally scrupulous about the historical text , and left it alone. I don’t have a copy of the first 1978 Gates of Repentance at my fingertips, but I assume it followed Gates of Prayer in getting rid of Thee and Thou throughout, in favor of You and Your, including All the World Shall Come to Serve You. It may not have been until the CCAR Liturgy Committee was preparing the 1996 revision of GOR that they started grappling with the removal of masculine imagery for the Deity. While they still felt the need to perpetuate the triumphalist missionary message of All the World, they did get rid of the kingship imagery, and made a few other essentially cosmetic changes in the process Had I been king of the Liturgy Committee (oops, I mean sovereign), I would have decreed that “All the World” was an historical artifact, and if it was to be included at all, would have printed it in its original form.

Remembering Chet Aleph

January 13, 2010

In a recent on-line discussion about independent minyanim (non-synagogue ad hoc prayer groups), someone suggested that the predominantly young people who populate the indy minyan scene would be seeking out synagogues when they had children of school age.  As a member both of the synagogue “establishment,” and of  a generation that knew not day schools, I was inclined to agree – until I remembered my own Jewish education, in what I suppose we could refer to as an indy cheder (Hebrew school).

In the corner of the world where I grew up, the predominant modes of formal Jewish education were the Reform and Conservative congregational religious schools, the four-afternoon-a-week community-sponsored Talmud Torah, and private tutoring , which may or may not have included actually learning Hebrew, for a memorized, rote Orthodox  bar mitzvah

For a certain coterie of suburban professionals, including my parents, none of those alternatives was an appealing option for their children.  The synagogue schools were too minimalist, the Talmud Torah too time-consuming, both in classroom hours and travel into the city, where the bulk of the Jewish population still lived.   I don’t know whether they sought a solution, or whether the solution presented itself, through the presence in Cleveland of one of the great heroes and pioneers in Jewish education, now virtually forgotten, Abraham H. Friedland, known to his friends, family and disciples by his Hebrew initials, Chet Aleph.

Friedland’s “day job” was running the Bureau of Jewish Education and the community Talmud Torah system, the Cleveland Hebrew Schools.  But in the course of his work and his volunteer activities, he attracted a personal following like Chasidim sitting at the foot of their rebbe.  I remember that my mother shlepped downtown every Friday, and my father took time away from his office, to have lunch in a private room at the Russet Cafeteria, where Chet Aleph held court.  His impact on the community was such that, five years after his death, we named our Habonim Zionist youth group chapter Chet Aleph, while my friends’ AZA chapter (as the Bnai Brith Youth Organization was known in those days) was called Friedland AZA.

Under Chet Aleph’s guidance,  our parents organized and operated the Bialik School, a two-afternoon-a-week laboratory school taught by one of his disciples, Lillian Berman (later Miller), which differed in three important regards (and a couple of less important ways as well) from anything else that was then happening in Hebrew education:

  1. The emphasis was on modern spoken Hebrew, not merely on providing a reading knowledge of the siddur and the Chumash.
  2. Accordingly the language of instruction was Hebrew, not the Yiddish that had still pervaded the cheders of the previous decade, nor the English that was used in the four congregational schools (two Reform, two Conservative).  Using what would now be called the Ulpan method, but was then called Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew), G’veret Berman never used a word of English in class from Day One, nor allowed us to.
  3. Like Friedland, and like the parents of the students, the school was outspokenly Zionist, and thus our pronunciation was the pronunciation of the Jews of Palestine, Sephardit, not the Ashkenazic pronunciation of the synagogue and the non-denominational but Orthodox-sensitive communal schools.  And it was relatively secular; to the shock of my friends at the two Conservative synagogues, we did not wear yarmulkes in class.  We got our Bar Mitzvah training elsewhere; but Bialik School did teach us the requisite blessings for Shabbat, Chanukah and Passover.

I don’t remember Chet Aleph ever appearing in our classroom, although his picture hung on its west wall, opposite the picture of Chaim Nachman Bialik on the east wall.  I did meet him, though; somewhere in the family archives there should be a picture of me, taken at the rededication of the Hebrew Cultural Garden in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park, standing in front of Chet Aleph and the guest speaker for the occasion, the eminent Hebrew poet and novelist Zalman Shneour.

Friedland’s presence was reinforced because there were no generally available text books to support Ivrit b’Ivrit teaching, so he had to write them.  Our books – pamphlets really – carried his byline, and I later learned there were hundreds of them.  They were called Sippurim Yafim, Pretty Stories – mimeographed Hebrew equivalents of Dick and Jane, with typewritten text and crude cartoony line illustrations.  For whatever strange reason, I remember that one of them dealt with a tarnegol, a rooster, and another, probably designed to teach us feminine verb forms, was Aliza Kor’et Sefer, Alice Reads a Book.   I can also visualize my machberet, the little blue notebook we used for learning to write in Hebrew – the one intrusion of English into the classroom, because on the inside back cover was the Balfour Declaration, to remind us constantly that His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

Bialik School outlived Friedland by half-a-dozen years, eventually done in not so much by the absence of his charismatic recruiting as by the career imperatives of the one teacher who had been thoroughly trained to teach Ivrit b’Ivrit.  G’veret Berman had been able to combine her Bialik School responsibilities with her major job, running the Hebrew program at The Temple; but the demands on her time following her promotion to Education Director precluded moon-lighting.  Most of the students in the two classes transferred to congregational schools, but David Halperin and I were judged proficient enough to enter the Talmud Torah high school program.  We had as many years of study under our belts as our new classmates – but we had been going two days a week, while they had been going four.  We now had to adjust to a long commute, a switch from Sephardit to Ashkenazit, and wearing kipot in class.  But since this, too, had been Friedland’s program, the method was familiar.

When the indy minyan discussion got me thinking about my indy cheder, I went on line and Googled Friedland.  What I found on my first round of research was relatively sparse, but it included the dates of his birth (in Lithuania) and his death.  Given the strength of my memories, I wasn’t willing to believe that he died when I was only eight years old.  However, I corroborated the date by getting in touch with his grandson, Rabbi Daniel Polish at Congregation Shir Chadash, LaGrangeville NY.  Rabbi Polish had never known his grandfather; but he put me in touch with Rabbi Michael Shields, at Lake Norman Jewish Congregation in North Carolina, who had written his rabbinic thesis at Hebrew Union College on Friedland’s life and work.  (www.mjshields.com/index).

From Rabbi Shields’ thesis I discovered various other things about my Hebrew schooling that were apparently unusual for the times, if not unique: games and singing as part of the curriculum, not only for their pedagogic value, but also (revolutionary idea, even today) because Friedland thought that learning should be fun.  Although the aim of the Bialik School was to teach us Hebrew, not to prepare us for bnai mitzvah, we were mostly boys.  Later, when  the Bialik School closed, and I transferred into the Talmud Torah system’s Hebrew High School, the classes were very much co-ed – and from Rabbi Shields’ research, I got some perspective on that.  Friedland had been brought to Cleveland to run the Talmud Torah on the strength of his success in founding and running the National Hebrew School for Girls in New York.

Friedland’s legacy included organizing the Cleveland Bureau of Jewish Education, providing coordination among all the institutions offering Jewish studies, and instituting youth groups, teacher training, a children’s theater, and adult classes.  In addition to his professional activities, he was also president of the Ohio Zionist District, the Histadrut Ivrit (an organization promoting Hebrew language and culture), and the National Council on Jewish Education.  Shields characterizes him as one of the four top leaders of the Cleveland Jewish community.  (The other three were rabbis:  Abba Hillel Silver, Barnett Brickner, and Solomon Goldman, until he moved to Chicago.)   He was also a national leader in the promotion of teaching and using Hebrew as a modern language.  His legacy to me lay in the creation of an environment for Jewish study that kept me in the Hebrew classroom  into my college years, and has kept me learning ever since.

Friedland’s only child, his daughter Aviva, married Rabbi David Polish z”l, who, some ten years after his father-in-law’s death, founded the synagogue to which I now belong.   As part of the congregation’s  current celebration of its sixtieth anniversary, there’s been a lot of reminiscing about Beth Emet’s early days, and one factoid that was recently mentioned was that it had been the first American congregation to worship and educate in Sephardit Hebrew.  Obviously that practice is now relatively standard throughout the Reform movement – but my reaction when I learned that it had rippled forward from Beth Emet was to smile and think to myself, “I’ll bet I know where Rabbi Polish  got that idea.”

My Foray into Independent Minyan Land

January 11, 2010

Having been reading on JTA and in the Jewish blogosphere about the independent minyan phenomenon, I decided it was time to see for myself what it was all about, so I played hooky from my usual Shabbat community, the Kahal at Beth Emet, and ventured into this brave new world. For the benefit of late-comers, an independent minyan is a self-created worship group that operates outside the framework of the institutional synagogue.

Much of what I experienced was what I expected – but this is at least in part because what we get out of a worship experience is so closely tied to what we bring into it. Short summary: the keva (liturgical content) differed in detail from that of my Kahal but not substance; the kavana (intention) and the vibe seemed the same.

Although I wear a kipa and tallit at Shabbat morning services, I usually don’t carry my own, because they are provided at Kahal, as are copies of Mishkan T’filah and one’s choice between the revised Plaut Torah Commentary and the Women’s Torah Commentary. I had brought my own worship attire with me, foreseeing that they would not be supplied; and while I doubt that I would I have been thrown out had I wanted to worship with bare head and bare shoulders, I would certainly have been the only man in the room underdressed in that fashion. (I was otherwise on the verge of over-dressed in slacks, sport shirt and blazer. As at my own Kahal, jeans and sneakers would have been fine – but I don’t wear them there, either.) I didn’t need the Mishkan T’filah I brought with me, since the minyan has its own siddur, which it supplements with a song sheet and with Sim Shalom, the Conservative siddur. And there were books on hand from which I could follow the Torah and Haftarah reading, although the one I ended up with was an all-Hebrew Tanach with no commentary.

The minyan community was very heterogeneous in age, ranging from pre-bar mitzvah children to senior citizens. I was almost certainly the oldest person there, but that tends to be true many of the places I go. However, the group was older than the post-collegiate yuppie image I had conjured up from what I had read. The school-kids, I was later told, mostly go to day schools – tossing out the hypothesis that young people would leave the independent minyan scene for the synagogue when they had to provide a Jewish education for their children.

I didn’t find out who everybody was or what they do for a living, but at least three members of the minyan are rabbis. There were three service leaders – one with a guitar for Birkat HaShachar, the morning blessings; one (assisted by two of the school-kids) from the Barchu until the Torah service, and a third for the Torah service and wrap-up. Interestingly, all three were women, but both Torah chanters were men. The Torah verses were selected from Year Three of the triennial reading cycle (Kahal is currently reading Year Two), with three (group) aliyot. One of the women leaders, a rabbi, also provided an insightful d’var Torah, which was augmented by pertinent commentary from the group.

Besides me, there were four other familiar faces from Kahal – people who often worship with us weeks when the monthly minyan is not meeting. Before services started, people came over and introduced themselves, and at the end of services, the other first-time guest and I were asked to introduce ourselves. I was also asked to join the group for the pot-luck lunch after services, held in a member’s home. (The minyan meets in the library at Hillel.)

The minyan’s siddur characterizes the liturgy as drawn from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal traditions. I would translate that as a Reform service using mostly Conservative liturgy in a Renewal style. No musaf; no repetition of a silent Amidah; very selective Morning Blessings – I particularly missed Ma Tovu; almost no English; everything participatory; lots of singing; lots of unison first sentences and last sentences with all on their own for the intermediate passages. We sat for the Shma. As someone who chooses the mechayeh meitim (gives life to the dead) option in Mishkan T’filah while most of my community is singing mechayeh hakol (giving life to all), I was comfortable with a siddur that only provided mechayeh meitim, but noted that the woman next to me was singing mechayeh kol chai (giving life to all that lives). The Misheberach for healing segued from Debbie Friedman into Sim Shalom. .

My expectation in going to the minyan was that I would find a service and a community very similar to what I experience every week, and from a qualitative and “performance” standpoint, that proved to be the case. I’m less concerned with strict adherence to any particular blueprint for what a service should contain than I am with the creation of community through a shared worship experience. The keva is more fungible than the kavana; the religious “product” emerges from the shared experience of a like-minded liturgically-literate voluntary community. The value provided by the independent minyan, it seems to me, does not lie in its independence, but in its minyan-ness.