9/30/09

WSJ: Kindle is Bombing in Campus Trials

We returned our Kindle DX to Amazon. We felt immediately that it was a throwback to an ancient technology even with its sleek form factor and its readability. The awkwardness of the interace was overwhelming to us. Accordingly, we are not surprised to read that the Kindle is as WSJ puts it gingerly, "Not Yet a Hit...."
Amazon’s Kindle DX: Not Yet a Hit on Campus
Students are testing out Amazon.com’s Kindle DX e-book reader device as part of a pilot-program taking place at seven campuses nationwide this fall. But already, some students are expressing their discomfort with the gadgets.

“I’m not a huge fan of it yet,” said Aaron Horvath, a 21-year-old senior at Princeton University, who is among 50 students in three different courses at the Ivy League university testing the devices. He saved his harshest criticism for the device for the pages of The Daily Princetonian saying, “I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool.” He said the device doesn’t allow people to flip through pages easily, and adds that it’s cumbersome to text and type notes.

Horvath acknowledged he’s only been using the Kindle DX for about two weeks. “I’m still adapting to it, although I don’t know if I’ll ever adapt,” he said.

Administrators and professors also say the jury is still out on the device’s academic applications.

“This is very, very early,” said Serge Goldstein, Princeton’s associate chief information officer and director of academic services. “We expected the devices to have plusses and minuses, no surprises there.”

Amazon didn’t immediately return phone calls and an email requesting comment.

Students at Reed College in Portland, Ore., have also had about four weeks to spend with the Kindles. Now some of them have come up with a list of about 10 improvements for the device, including the need for page numbers and easier way for note taking and highlighting, said Martin Ringle, Reed’s chief technology officer.

Still, Ringle said, “the pilot is going really well because this is precisely the kind of information we were hoping to ascertain.”

9/29/09

New Upload of an Old Paper: The Shema' and now the Inner Jewish Scribe

We've uploaded a new copy of an old paper:
Tzvee Zahavy, "Political and Social Dimensions in the Formation of Early Jewish Prayer: the Case of the Shema`," from the Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, Division C, Vol. 1, pp. 33-40, Jerusalem, 1990.
We still agree with our old hypothesis, evidence and conclusions, but now with a shift from the outside to the inside.

In our current writing project, we are seeking after, not history, but the archetypes that comprise the Jewish soul. We've found the scribe at the center of the crowd of the inner master personalities of the Jew.

We haven't yet tightly construed just what the scribe represents. Some canned definitions go like this, "Scribes in Ancient Israel, as in most of the ancient world, were distinguished professionals who could exercise functions we would associate with lawyers, government ministers, judges, or even financiers. Some scribes copied documents, but this was not necessarily part of their job" (from Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, via Wikipedia).

We'd like to call the scribe the professional of the book for the people of the book. Scribes authored and or copied the Tanakh. the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmud. By later times they morphed into rabbis. They wrote and promoted the mitzvot of tefillin and mezzuzot, other amulets, marriage and divorce documents and more.

Keep in mind that scribes are archetypically distinct from priests and patriarchs (and the other characters that we shall describe). And here is how we began our story at a conference in Jerusalem in the old paradigm, now posted for your reading pleasure, and soon to be superseded by the new model:
Prayer services do not emerge spontaneously or arbitrarily in a vacuum. They are the public pronouncements of the central values and concepts of the religious leaders who initially propounded them and are social rituals that often emerge out of intense conflict and hard-fought compromise. Once established as standard within a given community, prayers are not easily changed because their rituals must be accountable on a regular basis to a community of pious devotees.

Specific historical, social and political conditions contributed to the distinct origin of two major rabbinic services. In the crucial transitional period after the destruction of the Temple, the Shema` emerged as the primary ritual of the scribal profession and its proponents. The Amidah at this formative time was a ritual sponsored mainly by the patriarchal families and their priestly adherents...

Times' Ethicist: Is Harvard a Good University Investment?

The Times' ethicist, Randy Cohen, takes up the question of whether it is more ethical to give your donation to Harvard or the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

We thought he'd focus on the practical issue of whether it's just a bad investment to send money to Harvard, given the poor performance of Harvard's endowment funds this past year, which some estimate have lost half of their value. If you gave a dollar to Harvard a year ago, they'd have made it into 50 cents now. Doesn't sound like a good idea.

But that's not what Randy inquires about. His concern appears to be framed as: where can you do the most good with money donated to educating our youth?

That expression of the issue seems to miss the major point, namely that research universities do not exist primarily to educate students. They are there to assemble faculty to create new knowledge through research.

We waited for years at Minnesota before we heard the "S" word come up in a faculty senate meeting or any other administrative setting. Students simply don't rate much attention at big schools.

I think what Randy means to say is if you want to affect students' futures, give to a school where the money collected from donations goes more directly to students and not to basic research.

We agree that the question raised is legitimate grist for the ethicist and for opinion mills in general. But the analysis offered in the Times falls short. See the discussion online for some additional insights into why.
Should You Give to Harvard?
Randy Cohen
The Issue
The fiscal year for major university endowments ended June 30, and schools have been reporting their results: not good. In the Harvard-Yale portfolio game, the latter was down 24.6 percent, while its rival lost even more, 27.3 percent. If you are an Ivy alum, this might seem a good moment to donate to your alma mater, to help rebuild its battered portfolio. But should you, given the power of education to improve people’s lives?

The Argument
Do not donate to Harvard. To do so is to offer more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window (at some sort of metaphoric college cafeteria, anyway). Even after last year’s losses, Harvard’s endowment exceeds $26 billion, the largest of any American university, greater than the G.D.P. of Estonia. By contrast, among historically black colleges and universities, Howard has the largest endowment, about $500 million, a mere 1.4 percent the size of Harvard’s. (Donors gave Harvard more than $600 million just this fiscal year.) The best-endowed community college, Valencia, in Orlando, Fla., has around $67 million, or 0.18 percent of Harvard’s wealth. This is not to deny that Harvard does fine work or could find ways to spend the money but to assert that other schools have a greater need and a greater moral claim to your benevolence.

Consider the students served by the two sorts of schools. An applicant who falls just shy of getting into Harvard is likely to go elsewhere. He or she will endure little suffering for having to muddle along at Brown or U.N.C. But for many other students, it is community college or nothing. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, a high percentage of those enrolled are the first in their families to attend college. Eighty percent of them work while going to school; 78 percent of them come from households with incomes of $25,000 or less. A lack of financing for these schools means higher tuition and fewer scholarships, which are serious obstacles to potential students. And while the Ivies do reach out to low-income students, Harvard’s sliding scale for tuition includes a bracket for families earning $120,000 to $180,000 a year, something that doesn’t come up much at B.M.C.C. It is fair to say that these schools enroll different constituencies.

And the well endowed serve a smaller constituency: nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, institutions that help keep alive the American promise of economic opportunity. On average, a male college graduate will earn significantly more in his lifetime than a nongraduate, a big thing to most families. Indeed, for many young people, community college is what stands between them and a life spent working a minimum-wage job or something not much better. Acknowledging the value of such schools, President Obama has proposed a community-college initiative. Support them, and you change people’s lives.

Support Harvard? The student paper, the Crimson, reported that in 2008 40 percent of the college’s graduates flocked “to lucrative jobs in business, consulting and finance.” For those who go on to Harvard Business School, the future is even rosier. Or at least greener. The median base salary for the B-school’s class of 2009 is currently $115,000; the median signing bonus adds another $20,000. These are starting salaries, during an economic downturn, for people who have never had an adult job (As some earlybird readers pointed out, B-school students do have work experience before enrolling.) Thus begins the next generation of wealthy alums with the wherewithal to give generously, perpetuating the status quo. Which might not be a bad slogan for the next fund drive. If you favor truth in advertising. And unsuccessful fund drives.

If we esteem higher education as a source of national prosperity, we should regard it as a public expense, like roads or national parks or the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. (Cost: $6.2 billion. With a slight up-tick in the stock market, Harvard can buy four. And pay cash. And take no guff from Yale.) Many countries do just that. France has 81 universities that charge very little tuition. Some Belgian universities are setting tuition at 500 euros.

Until that happy day, private donors will play their part, but they need not make the rich schools richer, the poor (comparatively) poorer. Instead, we could continue to encourage individual generosity with approbation and tax breaks, but add this stricture: only a portion of any donation may be earmarked for a particular school; the remainder will be distributed to needier institutions. That is, half of your donation could be pledged to Harvard, the rest would go to Howard and Valencia and the like. We’ll experiment with the proportions to find the sweet spot that aids the most students while discouraging the fewest donors. This reform need not be written into law. It should be accepted voluntarily by every donor and embraced by every university with a substantial endowment and a concern for an egalitarian society.

There is no imperative to shut down Harvard until B.M.C.C. matches its endowment; after all, we don’t ban donations to orchestras or animal shelters until all human disease has been eradicated. There are many kinds of good to be done in the world. But if you wish to promote education as a force for social justice, there are better and worse ways to do it. Ethics is not just intentions; it’s also effectiveness. We can frame the question as a conflict between two goods: donate to Harvard or donate elsewhere? Under the current circumstances, the more honorable course is to write that check to a community college or a historically black college or a small Catholic college or other modest institution that genuinely and profoundly transforms the lives of its graduates.

9/27/09

Video: Monty Python's Classic Dead Parrot Skit

We were pondering what the Republicans and other opponents say about the reform of our nightmare called health care insurance in this country and for some reason our thoughts drifted to this classic Dead Parrot skit from Monty Python... enjoy.

Sex rabbi Shmuley Boteach to Britney Spears in 2007: this racy photo will scar your children

On the eve of Yom Kippur it is inspiring to see how a Hasidic Lubavitch celebrity kosher sex rabbi recently encouraged another celebrity (not Jewish) to repent of her sins.

According to the rabbi, this racy picture of Britney Spears getting out of a car (right) will scar her children for life. He wrote her an open letter to tell her so.

Is there a book in the works on how Shmuley saved Britney?

Note the inspired way that the Sage of Englewood quoted in 2007 from the well known rabbinic Tractate "Life Gets Serious":
Rabbi asks Britney Spears to cover up and spend more time with her boys

American radio TV host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has sent a letter to pop singer Britney Spears calling her a ‘bad mother’.

Washington, Feb 13: American radio TV host Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has sent a letter to pop singer Britney Spears calling her a ‘bad mother’.

The 40-year-old has imparted some rabbinic lessons to the ‘Toxic’ singer and said that according to rabbis once a person becomes a parent, life gets very serious.

“Allow me to share with you a teaching of the ancient Rabbis. Once you become a parent, Britney, life gets really serious,” Page Six quoted him, as writing to Spears.

Rabbi said that her kids are watching her in a degraded state- drunk and hardly spending time with them, which will permanently scar them.

"We can all pretend that life is one big party devoid of responsibility. And rarely being home, or coming home drunk, or letting your kids see you in a degraded state, will permanently scar your kids,” he said.

The author of the famous ‘Kosher Sex’ added that her two sons will soon start surfing the net and might come across the scandalous photos of their mother.

"Soon your boys will be surfing the internet. They'll see a lot of photos of you in poses that no son should ever see their own mother,” he added.

Rabbi suggested that she ought to spend the maximum time with her little ones and abandon her feral lifestyle.

“Try and be home with your kids. Cover up. Limit the visits to the nightclubs,” he said. (ANI)

[repost from 2007]

9/25/09

Pay to Pray does not work for Synagogues

Ynet reported in 2007 that a synagogue think tank group in Minnesota had come up with a startling conclusion. High synagogue dues may be the reason that fewer Jews affiliate. Well!
Synagogues are hurting Judaism in America: Obligation to pay high synagogue dues in US contributing to decline of American Jewry
Rabbi Levi Brackman

...As a former congregational rabbi I can understand why synagogue membership in America as it currently stands is in decline. In the UK, most synagogues membership comes together with Jewish burial rights. So although people may attend only once a year, they nonetheless feel that their payments are going towards something tangible. In the United States, however, it is a different story.

Not only does synagogue membership not come with burial rights, but the dues are also generally much higher than those in the UK. Whereas dues at the synagogue in London of which I was the rabbi were equivalent to $600 a year for a couple, most synagogues in the US have yearly memberships which start at about $1,200 dollars per annum.

For a club which is used only once or twice a year that is a lot of money to pay. Yom Kippur is a time for introspection, not just on the part of laypeople but on the part of communal leaders as well.

Congregational leaders and rabbis have a tendency to demand that their congregants and members make more commitments to the synagogue, and they are right to do so. At the same time, however, they must ask themselves whether these financial demands are not preventing people from joining a synagogue.

9/24/09

VIN and Israeli News 2: Charedi Rabbis Ban the Dangerous Internet - Much Worse than TV


If you are reading this, you may be violating rabbinic edicts against the Internet and you may be subject to punishment.

We are tempted to mock this new rabbinic ban with sarcasm. But we resist. Instead we opine.

Bans and dividing walls (mechitzas) do not make a moral person. Morality comes from within. Rabbis need to teach their followers that they can indeed concentrate and pray properly when sitting next to a woman in synagogue. They can indeed control their emotions and have pure thoughts, even when sitting next to a woman on a bus. They can indeed use the Internet to communicate and to learn and not to seek or view objectionable content.

Rabbis here is how we see it. If you are so sure that your followers need porn filters on their Internet connections, if you are so sure they need segregation from women on buses and in shuls, then you have failed to inculcate in them proper conduct, proper attitudes and basic self-control and maturity.

From Chadoshot 2 vie VIN news:
Jerusalem - Rabbonim in Beitar Illit announced all residents must sign an agreement not to be connected to unfiltered Internet, according to a report on Hebrew-language website Haredim.

At a central gathering held in the city this week it was also decided that “all Torah and education institutions and school principals must see to it that every student at their institutions comes from a home free of [unfiltered] Internet.”

HaRav Dovid Tzvi Ordentlich said, “This is a thousand times more dangerous than the threats Am Yisroel faces from without and from within. The Internet is like a tidal wave threatening to swallow up and endanger the entire edifice of charedi Jewry that has been built in this generation through so much hard work. The issue must not be taken off the agenda. The warning must be sounded all the time and everywhere.”

According to HaRav Tzvi Braverman, “Fifty percent of the problems in the city – sholom bayis and chinuch habonim – stem from the Internet. There is a hidden blaze in the city. An atom bomb underneath the city. We cannot have a situation here in Beitar in which an ehrlicht Yid sends his children to Torah-based institutions and there’s something worse than television. This is the battle of the generation.”
Advertisement:

Almost all of the city’s rabbonim took part in the gathering, which was initiated by the beis din headed by HaRav Ordenlich. “Those who are compelled to be hooked up to the Internet for parnossoh reasons, etc., must be linked to the filtered, controlled Internet,” the rabbonim announced, adding that on Shabbos Shuvoh the rabbonim at every shul would discuss these takonos.

Matthew Berger in the Bergen Record: Even on Yom Kippur Jews Won't Forgive Madoff


According to Matthew Berger of the Religion News Service, published as the religion column in the Bergen Record today, even on the most sacred religious day of the year, Yom Kippur, Jews Won't Forgive Bernie Madoff.

We feel uneasy about the selection of this topic for this column.

To us it appears that Berger (probably Jewish) has emphasized that Jews won't forgive this crime because all they really care about is money.

That is not what he says in so many words. That is how it sounds to us.

Of course there are other ways to interpret the choice that Mr. Berger made for the topic of his Yom Kippur religion column.

We are just not that forgiving -- even near Yom Kippur -- of people who take a high religious holiday and use it as an opportunity to grind our noses in the monumental monetary crimes perpetrated by a Jew against many other Jews and non-Jews.

There are other significant things to write about that are going on in Jewish life, in the synagogues, the communities, the State of Israel.

This was a bad choice by Mr. Berger because it caters to a negative stereotype about Jews and connects it with a core religious Jewish holiday.
Madoff's brethren not in forgiving mood
BY MATTHEW E. BERGER

Rabbi Peter Berg plans to remind his congregants this month that the first question God asks when they reach heaven's gates is whether they have dealt honestly in business.

"The rabbis of the Talmud have always believed there is no question that's more important," said Berg, the senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, "because it ultimately gets to honesty and faithfulness and integrity."

It is a lesson that Bernard Madoff may have heard, but certainly didn't adhere to. Madoff pled guilty in June to running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. His estimated $65 billion fraud devastated the life savings of millionaires and small investors alike, and destroyed the endowments of numerous charitable groups.

So, in this Jewish season of seeking forgiveness and granting it, the question arises: Should Jews forgive Madoff? Can they?...more...

9/23/09

New Yorker:3 Jewish Stories - Dreyfus Affair; Bored to Death; The Retributionists

BOOKS Adam Gopnik: Revisiting the Dreyfus affair. The Dreyfus affair never goes away. It shows that hatred and bigotry are not a vestige of the superstitious past but a living fire…

Gopnick reviews and praises the new book by novelist and lawyer Louis Begley, “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters.”

He calls it, "Brave because Begley wants to use the occasion not for French-bashing, or for reciting the enduring history of European anti-Semitism, bleak as it is, but as a pointed warning and reminder of how fragile the standards of civilized conduct prove in moments of national panic. The Dreyfus affair matters, he believes, because we have, in the past decade, made our own Devil’s Island and hundreds of new Dreyfuses—the Dreyfus affair matters because we’re still in the middle of it."

ART Peter Schjeldahl: Kandinsky at the Guggenheim. We thought if Wassily Kandinsky was Jewish we'd have four Jewish themed stories in a row, impressive even for the New Yorker. But it turns out that he was not a Jew but a Theosophist and maybe a bit of an antiSemite.

TELEVISION Nancy Franklin: HBO’s new comedy about a writer turned private eye. We enjoyed the first show because the main characters were vivid confused Jewish guy types from Brooklyn, where the series was shot.

THE THEATER Hilton Als: Daniel Goldfarb on a postwar revenge plot. The review of "The Retributionists" points out that this show would have had a greater impact if not for the more dramatic release of Tarantino's film, "Inglorious Basterds" with a strikingly similar Jewish revenge on Nazis theme. Als likes Goldfarb, but not this play.

9/22/09

Shmuley Boteach Exploits the Death of Michael Jackson to Make Some Money on a Book

When measurement instruments are calibrated to seek out the lowest depths of all, they will be able to measure the crass materialist action of this rabbi.

The Jewish Week lobs some soft pitches at this story and once again, Gary Rosenblatt clueless, misses the point of the story. As he says,
The rabbi planned to publish the book, at Jackson’s request, but then shelved the idea after Jackson was arrested in 2003 on charges of child molestation.
After Jackson died suddenly in June, Rabbi Boteach decided to go ahead with the book, titled “Michael Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Intimate Conversation,” to be published by Vanguard next week.
Yikes. How much do you stand to make on the book, Shmuley? would be a good question to raise.

How did a bad idea in 2003 become a good idea in 2009? Indeed, no such inquiry from the pseudo journal, The Jewish Week.

Has this rabbi no shame? Clearly not. He is a celebrity.

Satirical MoveOn.org Hollywood Video for Health Insurance Reform

Hat tip to Henry.

9/21/09

Glenn Beck Declares Yom Kippur a Day of Fasting and Prayer

Gee thanks Glenn. You are a piece of work.

We get referred to with a link on Huff Post by Aaron Keyak but he forgets to mention us by name ("a blogger"). Hard to bear.

Glenn Beck: The Grinch Who Stole Yom Kippur

Last April, a blogger asked if Glenn Beck is Jewish. If there were any doubt, Beck's tweet from Rosh Hashanah morning (last Saturday and the start of the Jewish New Year) puts that to rest. At 10:37 a.m. on September 19th @GlennBeck tweeted:
Sept 28. Lets make it a day of Fast and Prayer for the Republic. Spread the word. Let us walk in the founders steps.
Instituting "a day of Fast and Prayer for the Republic" may not exceed Beck's capacity as a Fox News talk show host, but co-opting Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, may be beyond even Beck's highest powers.

In the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, I've sought to understand the thinking behind Beck's decision and I have come up with three possible explanations.

First, perhaps this is an attempt by Beck to connect with his Jewish brethren. In this scenario Beck sees a parallel between the greatest day of atonement for the Jewish people and his newly invented holiday. In fact, Beck may borrow from the Yom Kippur liturgy:
When the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies unharmed, having successfully achieved atonement for the people, he would offer a moving prayer for them. ... [L]ater he would prepare a celebration to thank the Almighty for allowing him to complete his monumental task.
Of course, as the founder of this new holiday, Beck would fill the airwaves in the role as High Priest of Fox News, in all of his greatness.... more...

9/20/09

Times Magazine: The Coming Publication of Carl Jung's Red Leather Big Book Liber Novus


We like the fact that the cover story in the Times Magazine today is interrupted in its paging in the printed edition by the second story (The Right Way to Pray? By ZEV CHAFETS).

And here we were reading both with utmost care and wondering how it is possible that we could be any more current since we are teaching Jewish prayer (at the Jewish Theological Seminary) and employing as some of our interpretive methods concepts drawn from Jungian psychology (archetypes and the collective unconscious)...

It's a tantalizing must read article about the prospect of the publication of an enigmatic work by the great psychologist Carl Jung.
The Holy Grail of the Unconscious
What the unearthing of Carl Jung’s Red book is doing to the Jungs and the Jungians (and maybe your dreams)....
No, Carl Jung was not a Jew. The record is mixed on his attitude toward Jews -- some say in a number of respects he was an anti-Semite.

9/17/09

Zev Chafets in the Times: The Right Way to Pray


Let's just say that Zev Chafets has written a timely story in the Times Magazine for the coming issue on the topic of the hour in our religions in America. Love that graphic.

He is mixed up about the subject and it shows in his article. He should come and take our course on the daily Jewish liturgy at JTSA this semester. We'll get him straightened out.
The Right Way to Pray?
By ZEV CHAFETS

The Brooklyn Tabernacle, a 3,500-seat evangelical prayer palace in downtown Brooklyn, was built in 1918 as one of the largest and grandest vaudeville houses in North America. It is still a hot ticket. Its youngish, racially diverse congregation packs the pews each week to praise God and bask in the sounds of a Grammy-winning 250-voice gospel choir. But the tabernacle is more than just a popular church. It is also a destination for evangelicals from all around the United States and beyond, laymen and ministers alike, who come as acolytes to study prayer.

“Prayer is like other activities,” the Rev. Daniel Henderson told me when we met at the tabernacle the week before Easter. He was visiting Brooklyn with a group of seminary students from Virginia. “You learn from people who are already good at it,” he went on. “The people who pray at the Brooklyn Tabernacle are committed. Praying with them is an education.”...more...

9/16/09

Why is this Rosh Hashanah different from all the other Rosh Hashanahs?

Why is this Rosh Hashanah different from all the other Rosh Hashanahs?

Because on this holiday rabbinic leaders are asking their colleagues to speak out in favor of ethical living.

What a novelty.
Orthodox Jewish leaders urge N.J. rabbis to give sermons on ethical living
by Jeff Diamant/The Star-Ledger

In an unusual move, a group of influential Orthodox Jewish leaders has written a letter explicitly urging American rabbis to speak during this year's High Holiday sermons on the importance of ethical living, in response to some recent high-profile arrests of Jews, including two rabbis in Deal in July.

In the Sept. 3 letter sent to about 2,000 rabbis nationwide, the leaders of Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America cited "the recent scenes of religious Jews being led off in handcuffs, charged with corruption, money laundering, and even organ trafficking."...more...

Shanah Tovah: Let Your Imagination Assist Your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Prayers


(Here is a version of our earlier message, edited into a short evocative holiday feature for the local Jewish paper.)

As we hold the machzor and siddur in our hands this season and perform its prayer services together we realize that we have in our hands a book with great life and vivid personality.

In the humming and silence, the whirling activity of reading and singing of our services, we find and mine a trove of complex and fascinating words, ideas, themes, tropes, and compositions.

Using a bit of imagination, in the siddur and the synagogue we can find a multidimensional and complex set of religious master characters.

As we take the content of the tefillot and personify it into characters, we find a wide range of personalities.

Scribes are prominent. They value books and learning and Torah. When we read a prayer that came from the liturgical author who speaks as a scribe, we actually articulate and discover that inner scribe in our Jewish psyches.

In our prayers we will also find the priests who value the ancient Temple and its services and the patriarchs who led us in politics, among the panoply of onstage archetypes.

The mystic, for instance, calls out to us from his prayers with the notion that reciting texts brings one into an immediate experience of the divine power. He avers that mysticism is real and that it works.

The healer promotes to us from his texts the certainty that prayers for sick people can make them well.

The bipolar personality of praying proposes that prayers can swing between two divergent moods — an expression from the depths when humans are in despair (oy) and an expression from the heights when humans rejoice (hallelujah).

The meditator personality of prayer wants you to recite and chant your prayers in ways that induce transformations of human states of mind.

The confessor asserts that to utter our sins in a confession assists in our atonement and betters us as Jews and as human beings.

The magical thinker says that the use of formulas and the invocation of divine names in blessings and prayers help us to convince the Deity to act on our behalf.

The community organizer touts to all assembled that they must participate in social gatherings — the formation of communities for prayer via the minyan and the bet knesset.

The musician chants, sings trop, nusach, and niggun, all essential parts of the text and of the performance of prayer.

The monotheist is a big fan of verse one of the Sh’ma, of course.

And the memorialist preaches from our psyches the importance of the services of the Kaddish and Yizkor, the remembrance of our departed.

In these High Holy Days let us imagine the great assembly of all these Jewish personalities rushing around in the synagogue-of-our-psyches and speaking out to the multiple personality facets of God with a great urgency.

Let us visualize the archetypes of the Jew reaching out through these familiar prayers to address the recognized archetypes of our God: God our King. Our Judge. Our Savior. Our Creator. Our Lover. Our Teacher. Our Lawgiver and Legislator.

Those archetypical personalities come from that place that we call our Jewish soul. They are reaching out to the hearing God, seeking a connection via prayer, in an expression of great yearning.

Shanah Tovah.

9/15/09

Our Rosh Hashanah Message: Welcome to the Great Jewish Prayer Assembly


The Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his introduction to the new Koren-Sacks Siddur that, "The siddur is the choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries from the days of the patriarchs until the present day." He calls it a "calibrated harmony."

We respectfully disagree. Contrary to what you may have been taught in Hebrew school or Yeshiva, contrary to what you may read in your commentaries and average theological essays, the classical prayers are not works laying out a systematic theology or a linear philosophy of our faith. They make no such claim.

We say that the Siddur is not a magnificent symphony festooned with harmonies.

How so? The Siddur prayer service that we know zigs when it should zag. It starts and stops and restarts. It changes the topic of conversation abruptly and frequently. It meanders and wanders. It contradicts and repeats in patterns that have no peers.

We see in the synagogue a discordant set of performances. In jarring sequences we stand and we sit; then we stand again. We fall on our faces. We open doors and close doors. We march around and touch objects. We read from a scroll. We kiss our fringes. We cover our eyes. We chant, we sing, we are silent, we chant again.

These are unsymphonic sequences. Just consider everyday how we start to pray and then eighty-eight pages later we call out, "Bless," let us start to pray. Those previous words, it turns out, were just preliminary.

And don’t forget that during all of this churning of contents, we bodily shake and shiver and rock and roll.

We see in the Siddur and its performance a complex set of voices speaking to one another, and past one another, in a cacophony. The book we pray from is full of dissonance and disharmony, an unmusical gathering, set to tunes that do not mesh.

And that is what gives it such life and such vivid personality.

In this humming and silence, this whirling chaos of reading and singing, you find and mine a trove of complex and fascinating words, ideas, themes, tropes and compositions.

And so here is our novel emphasis. The Siddur’s words convey a multiplicity, and not just of ideas and precepts. Of personalities.

It is the great Jewish get-together. It's not a symphony. It's our local, state and national fair all wrapped into one.

This engagement is a clashing of archetypal Jews with an equally complex set of archetypal personalities of God.

Certainly we have before us a monotheistic faith – but one in which we see unmistakable evidence of a polymorphous view of the world.

Who then is in our Siddur (and Machzor) that speak from and to a Jewish psyche and expresses the yearnings of a Jewish soul with multiple trajectories and cultural meanings? Who inhabits this churning state of conflict?

In shul, our cast of venerated Siddur characters comes to life for us like the whirling avatars of a video game.

These characters are all part of our own inner Jewish psyches.

In the Siddur and the synagogue we find a multidimensional and complex set of religious master characters – in fact this is a busy marketplace full of personalities hurrying around in the psyche of every Jew.

Some of them know each other; some are gregarious; some are somber and solitary; some are vivacious and optimistic.

Scribes are prominent. They value books and learning and Torah. When we read a prayer that came from the liturgical author who was a scribe, we actually articulate and activate that inner scribe in our Jewish psyches.

There are also the priests who value the Temple and the patriarchs who led us in politics and a panoply of other onstage archetypes.

The Mystic calls out to us the notion that reciting texts brings one into an immediate experience of the divine power. He avers that mysticism is real and that it works.

The Healer promotes to us the idea that prayers for sick people will make them well.

The Bipolar personality of praying proposes that prayer is two things - an expression from the depths when humans are in despair - oy; and an expression from the heights when humans rejoice – hallelujah.

The Meditator recites and chants prayers in ways that induce transformations of human states of mind.

The Confessor issues a mea culpa – a confessional – and asserts to us that to utter our sins in a confession assists in our atonement, betters us as Jews and as human beings.

And yes within this whirling synagogue and Siddur we recognize even more archetypes.

The Magical thinker says that the use of formulas and the invocation of divine names in blessings and prayers help us to convince the Deity to act on our behalf.

The Community Organizer touts to all assembled that they must participate in social gatherings – the formation of a communities for prayer via the minyan – the Beit Kenesset – a mutual gathering at a place for praying.

The Musician chants, sings trop, nusach and niggun, all essential parts of the text and of the performance of prayer.

The Monotheist is a big fan of verse one of the Shema` of course.

And the Memorialist preaches from our psyches the importance of the services of the kaddish and yizkor, the remembrance of our departed.

In these High Holy Days, the great assembly of all these Jewish personalities rushing around in the synagogue-of-our-psyches speaks out to the multiple personalities of God with a great urgency.

The archetypes of the Jew reach out through the familiar prayers to address the recognized archetypes of God. God our King. Our Judge. Our Savior. Our Creator. Our Lover. Our Teacher. Our Legislator.

So then – as we enter into our most intense encounter of year with the liturgical prayer of the Siddur and Machzor, we need to keep uppermost in our thoughts that this process of diverse personalities of Jews speaking in distinct voices to the complex dimensions of the personality of one God – this cacophony of cultic communications, this is the Great-Jewish-Get-Together that brings us closer to redemption both as a whole people and as individual persons.

And finally we need to recognize that those archetypical personalities prominent in our prayerful dramas, they all come from that place that we call our Jewish soul. They are all reaching out to the hearing God, seeking a connection via prayer, an expression of great yearning.

Shanah tovah to all.

9/13/09

Attention Liberal Jews: Don't Feel Bad if You Don't Understand All Your Prayers - Orthodox Jews Don't Know Half of What they are Davening Either


Our takeaway from this new program announcement is the astonishing and yet reassuring fact that Orthodox Jews need remedial work so they can understand what they are praying.

It's surprising that Orthodox Jews admit they don't have the entire Siddur under control, especially after shelling out the big bucks for day school education.

At the same time it is not at all unexpected to us - we've always realized the complexity and opaqueness of much of our public liturgy and the utter paucity of serious resources to address that issue. For $25 you can enroll in a (kosher) OU course that will remove the scales from your eyes.

Okay, yes we are shocked that they would have the temerity to charge for this.
The OU’s Tefillah Education Initiative: The Answer to Your Prayers
By Bayla Sheva Brenner

"So many of us daven by rote and have lost our perspective as to why we go to shul,” says Frank Buchweitz, the Orthodox Union’s (OU) national director of community services and special projects. “Something has to be done to make prayer and shul-going a more meaningful experience.”

Enter the OU’s Tefillah Education Initiative. Launched in 2008 by the OU’s Department of Community Services, the program brings scholars-in-residence to communities throughout the country to underscore the power of Jewish prayer. Since its inception, the Tefillah Education Initiative has brought its prayer re-energizing programs to community members throughout the New York metropolitan area, including The Five Towns, Manhattan, Poughkeepsie, Queens, and Teaneck, New Jersey. The program has also been in Deerfield Beach, Florida—and it is poised to continue spreading the inspiration.

This multi-faceted Initiative mines the depths of our liturgy and generates a heightened appreciation of tefillah through a variety of programs, including a comprehensive curriculum—ideal for schools, shuls or individual use. Conducted in conjunction with the Shema Yisrael Torah Network, the course consists of weekly e-mails and is available by subscription. The study guide boasts subscribers from around the world—from beginners to seasoned daveners—some from as far as Hawaii and the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Subscriptions can be purchased through the OU web site at community.ou.org/prayerguide for the nominal fee of twenty-five dollars.

“If you go to a typical shul and ask people what percentage of the tefillot they [actually] understand, I think it would be impressive if they said they understood more than half,” says Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who is collaborating with the OU on the Tefillah Education Initiative. “We learn how to daven as children, but we do not learn how to daven as adults.”

To address the obstacles to meaningful davening, the OU is encouraging shul rabbis to spend a few minutes every Shabbat Mevarchim emphasizing an aspect of tefillah of their choice. To bolster this effort, the OU is offering resource materials on tefillah to participating rabbis. Additionally, numerous in-depth presentations on tefillah by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the OU’s executive vice president, emeritus can be accessed at www.ouradio.org.

Upcoming Tefillah Ventures

In September, the Tefillah Education Initiative plans to introduce an array of innovative projects such as “Weekly Tefillah Tips.” The tips, which will be sent via e-mail to individual subscribers and synagogues, will focus on specific sections of Shabbat tefillot, beginning with Mussaf. Supplementing the tips, “Take Five for Tefillah,” available on the OU web site, will enable individuals to listen to or download five-minute audio shiurim on the meaning of the tefillot. Rabbi Epstein will provide material for both of these programs.

Finally, the Tefillah Initiative will sponsor community-wide conferences on tefillah throughout North America, featuring panel discussions and workshops with world-renowned rabbis and speakers. The first such conference will be held in New York’s Five Towns on December 6, 2009.

“Our goal is to inspire more people to focus their attention on successfully communicating with their Creator,” says Buchweitz, who will be coordinating the communal conferences.

As more individuals and communities seek ways to enliven their davening through the OU program’s invaluable resources, it’s becoming clear that the Tefillah Education Initiative is the perfect answer to their prayers.

To find out more about any of the Tefillah Education Initiative programs, or to host a community-wide conference, go to www.ou.org/community_services or contact the Department of Community Services at 212.613.8188 or frank@ou.org.

Two Rich Perspectives on Our Teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

We try to keep track of new angles of vision on our teacher and mentor, the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

One composite thoughtful post for the e-zine Zeek at Jewcy by Mordecai Drache, lauds, "Solveitchik's brilliant and poetic casuistry that can enrich Jews of all intellectual and spiritual orientations."

A second article, this one by our old buddy Lawrence Grossman, reviews the David Fishman book, Yiddish Drashos and Writings, concludes with a complex of thoughts, "For readers able to understand the Yiddish and attuned to the complex vision of its author, this volume will convey ...traces of holiness. Is it too much to hope that it also might encourage steps toward renewing respectful dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews?"

Reading such essays helps us to recall the many facets of personality and the depth and clarity of expression of the great teacher of Torah whom we had the privilege of knowing in our rabbinical studies.

Sunday Jewish NY Times: J Street, Daphne Merkin, Ramadan and Borlaug

The New Israel LobbyWe are sure there is more of interest -- these items jumped out at us from the Times today....
The New Israel Lobby By JAMES TRAUB
Can J Street — and the Obama administration — change Washington’s Middle East policy?

Dame of the British InteriorDame of the British Interior By DAPHNE MERKIN
Margaret Drabble’s novels have opened up the famously reserved English character to detailed inspection. So what happens when she looks at herself?


    Drummer Is Up Before the Sun, Waking Brooklyn for Ramadan ...
    During Ramadan, Mohammad Boota plays his drum to wake Muslim worshipers, but the limits of New York hospitality have modified his predawn ...



    And in Minnesota news, University of Minnesota's most famous and important alumnus has passed away. [Borlaug was not Jewish - wish we could claim him - he was a Norwegian Lutheran and a great world hero.]
    Norman E. Borlaug accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in July 2007.
    Norman Borlaug, 95, Dies; Led Green Revolution
    By JUSTIN GILLIS
    A Nobel Peace Prize winner, he developed high-yielding crop varieties that helped to avert famines worldwide.

    9/11/09

    Times: Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman Seek Secrets to Synagogue Success from Christian Rev. Rick Warren

    Why not try to learn your synagogue business from the most successful competitors in their own markets?

    That is what some Jewish leaders were doing back in 2007 - trying to learn how to really succeed from the Christian mega-churches.

    Here is our repost of the original article.


    On Religion
    An Unlikely Megachurch Lesson
    By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
    Published: November 3, 2007

    One Sunday morning in 1995, Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman braked to a halt in an oddly enlightening traffic jam. The line of cars was creeping toward Saddleback Church in Southern California, whose services were drawing thousands of worshipers. As two Jews, Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman had crossed the sectarian divide to try to figure out how and why.

    As they inched down the road, they spotted a sign marked “For First-Time Visitors.” It directed them to pull into a separate lane and put on emergency blinkers. Bypassing the backup, they soon reached a lot with spaces reserved for newcomers. When Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman emerged from their car, an official Saddleback greeter led them into the church.

    Those first moments on the perimeter of the church set into motion a dozen years of increasing interaction between a Jewish organization devoted to reinvigorating synagogues and one of the most successful evangelical megachurches in the nation, the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

    This has not been a studiously balanced bit of ecumenicism. Synagogue 3000, the group led by Mr. Wolfson, an education professor, and Rabbi Hoffman, a scholar of liturgy, went to the church to figure out what evangelical Christians were doing right that Jews were doing wrong or not at all.

    “To put it bluntly,” Mr. Wolfson said, “if there are thousands of people waiting to get in, I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what they’re doing that’s tapping those souls.”

    The latest outgrowth of this unlikely learning curve is Hallelu Atlanta, a gathering tomorrow of 4,000 members of 18 congregations. With its amalgam of praise songs and spiritual testimonies, Mr. Wolfson describes the event as “a Jewish tent meeting.” A similar event outside Los Angeles in 2002 drew 5,000 participants.

    Since 1995, Synagogue 3000 and its precursor, Synagogue 2000, have taken member congregations and seminary classes to Saddleback and had Mr. Warren conduct a workshop in congregation-building for nearly 20 Jewish leaders....more...

    Is Norman Podhoretz Jewish?

    Yes Norman Podhoretz is a Jew. He is an unhappy Jew. He is dismayed because so many of his fellow Jews are liberals. He has written a nasty and disrespectful book with the title, Why are Jews liberals?

    His column in the WSJ today has the utterly sad subtitle, "I'm hoping buyer's remorse on Obama will finally cause a Jewish shift to the right."

    With major league irony we note that the writer of that title is also the writer of "My Negro Problem -- And Ours, 1963".

    Podhoretz is (now) a conservative republican Jew. Hence - apparently by definition - his writings are cruel and insulting towards his fellow Jews and towards his own religion.

    Exempli gratia from the WSJ today. When Podhoretz quotes with approval a "cruel wag" who blithely insults Reform Judaism, is he not doing the same? Sure he is - and it's so obvious to us.
    The upshot is that in virtually every instance of a clash between Jewish law and contemporary liberalism, it is the liberal creed that prevails for most American Jews. Which is to say that for them, liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right. And to the dogmas and commandments of this religion they give the kind of steadfast devotion their forefathers gave to the religion of the Hebrew Bible. For many, moving to the right is invested with much the same horror their forefathers felt about conversion to Christianity.

    All this applies most fully to Jews who are Jewish only in an ethnic sense. Indeed, many such secular Jews, when asked how they would define "a good Jew," reply that it is equivalent to being a good liberal.

    But avowed secularists are not the only Jews who confuse Judaism with liberalism; so do many non-Orthodox Jews who practice this or that traditional observance. It is not for nothing that a cruel wag has described the Reform movement—the largest of the religious denominations within the American Jewish community—as "the Democratic Party with holidays thrown in," and the services in a Reform temple as "the Democratic Party at prayer."

    As a Jew who moved from left to right more than four decades ago, I have been hoping for many years that my fellow Jews would come to see that in contrast to what was the case in the past, our true friends are now located not among liberals, but among conservatives.
    Ha ha, what a clever put-down of liberal Reform Jews. Not.

    Anyway, after what is now the expected Republican right wing tirade of insults directed against liberals, Podhoretz finally gets around to his rhetorical exercise telling us namely, that liberals are rotten people with bad attitudes, conservatives are patriots with correct opinions and Jews ought to be in the latter camp, but to his dismay the majority are not. Gee that sounds like a major insult to us.

    Along the way he says utterly charming things like this, "...what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack."

    The not-at-all-veiled insinuation of this insulting characterization is that cowardly liberals want to throw away all that is good in the world and brave conservatives want to protect you from that danger.

    If it didn't sound so darned insulting we would point out in response to Norman, that actually, it is the exact other way around.

    We would tell him that liberals want to protect what you have, sometimes by intelligent and benevolent government regulation and intervention. Conservatives want to let the capitalist lions roam freely and allow them to gobble up whatever they wish, no matter who gets hurt.

    Ahem. Didn't you lose 40% of your retirement account last year in a matter of weeks? Don't you know someone who is unemployed and in financial distress or foreclosure? Aren't you entirely fed up with the bizarre billings and copays and denials of your health plan? Doesn't the mini-mansion next door that looks like a public school - with its 4 air conditioner condensers constantly droning in your ears - make you want to puke?

    Yes Norman, as everyone is telling you now, there are many distinct Jewish streams of thought, not one. Monotheism applies to our vision of God, not our vision of politics and society.

    Some Jews, like you and your conservative co-conspirators, want to sanctimoniously and selfishly amass wealth for yourselves and your cronies, and to prevent progress, to freeze the supposedly perfect world that you pretend to see.

    Your right wing guys have no messianic visions or progressive hopes. You reject that core belief of Judaism that indeed we work every day to bring into being the Messiah and the messianic age of peace and equality.

    You want more war and more disparity. Other Jews, like me and my liberal friends, want to provide a safer, healthier, more equitable and more peaceful world for all its inhabitants.

    There has been a really tremendous focusing of liberal Jewish sentiment, thanks to Podhoretz and his ilk making clear exactly where they stand, i.e. on the side of greed and war, making it clear that they have no arguments of substance to back up their positions, only the weapons of fear-mongering, insulting and bullying.

    And they have made the liberal task so much easier for us by providing for us clever attacks (without any logic, but with slogans that sound good) that can be turned back at them with mere soft edits.

    To wit and to conclude:

    We're confident buyer's remorse on the likes of Podhoretz certainly will cause a greater Jewish rejection of the right and more solidification than ever on the left, on the side of liberalism.

    You taught us well, Norman.

    And for a swift kick in the rear type of review see this one, "Because They Believe," by Leon Wieseltier in the Times.

    Galilean Synagogue at Migdal excavated by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority

    This looks like a breathtaking new-ancient synagogue site at Migdal beach.

    From the IAA release:
    One of the Oldest Synagogues in the World was Exposed in the Israel Antiquities Authority Excavation

    A synagogue from the Second Temple period (50 BCE-100 CE) was exposed in archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting at a site slated for the construction of a hotel on Migdal beach, in an area owned by the Ark New Gate Company. In the middle of the synagogue is a stone that is engraved with a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the likes of which have never been seen. The excavations were directed by archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the Israel Antiquities Authority...
    Don't miss our 1983 video of ancient synagogues on YouTube.

    9/10/09

    Were you an eyewitness to the mass murder of 9/11?


    We haven't written about our 9/11 recollections. It's been too painful and still is disturbing for us to think about, even after eight years.

    We had turned the corner on the way to work in Jersey City when we hit a traffic snarl. Why had the cars stopped at the top of the hill? My lord, we could see why.

    Five miles away, across the Hudson we could see from our car that there was a fire in a World Trade Center tower.

    Suddenly, oh my, the fire spread to the other tower! What was going on?

    It took us a while to realize that we had seen with our naked eyes an act of unmeasured evil. The terrorist murder of 3000 people.

    From that moment, the world has never seemed the same to us.

    Have you recovered?

    Update: Hits for Tzvee in Google Print ...up to 420

    Update: the hits for us in Google Print are up to 420.

    10/14/07: Search for us at print.google.com and you will get 189 hits. That's my books and publications and the number of scholars in Google's corpus who have made reference to my publications.
    What is Google Print?
    Google's mission is to organize the world's information, but much of that information isn't yet online. Google Print aims to get it there by putting book content where you can find it most easily - right in your Google search results.

    How does Google Print work?
    Just do an ordinary Google search. When we find a book whose content contains a match for your search terms, we'll link to it in your search results. Click a book title and you'll see the page of the book that has your search terms, along with other information about the book and "Buy this Book" links to online bookstores (you can view the entirety of public domain books or, for books under copyright, just a few pages or in some cases, only the title's bibliographic data and brief snippets). You can also search for more information within that specific book and find nearby libraries that have it.
    Nice to know that serious people read your work.

    9/9/09

    Firefox Hack Update: Make Book Burro work in release 3.5 of Firefox or try the new Book Burro preview

    Update: There is a preview release at
    https://bookburro.org/preview.xpi

    It looks promising.
    Here is the earlier work-around....

    We cannot help you, if you don't understand the title of this post, if so, don't read it.

    Book Burro is a Firefox extension that will take you to a lot of book vendors and libraries to find a book from an Amazon web page.

    Have you been missing the Book Burro extension (or others that are not officially compatible) since you upgraded to Firefox 3.5?

    If so, here is a hack to restore it to life from lifehacker.
    • Type about:config into Firefox's address bar and click the "I'll be careful, I promise!" button.
    • Right-click anywhere. Choose New>Boolean. Make the name of your new config value extensions.checkCompatibility and set it to false.
    • Make another new boolean pair called extensions.checkUpdateSecurity and set the value to false.
    • Restart Firefox.
    Now the extensions that officially don't work in 3.5 may launch anyhow. Or if not you may need to highlight an ISBN and right click and launch the app.

    9/8/09

    Are there any High Holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services for Secular Jews?

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said poetically, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

    Nobody can accuse the members of the City Congregation of foolish consistency.

    These secular Jews who by definition have no truck for organized Judaism, have sent us a press release describing upcoming events that appear to be mirror images of what goes on in organized synagogues this time of year. With a rabbi too.

    We say, Go for it! Knock yourselves out! Have a blast!

    We point out that this congregation meets on, "Mahattan's far west side." Indeed it does.

    Are there any High Holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services for Secular Jews? Yes, as follows.
    The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
    Schedules Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur Services Sept 19; 27-28
    Services Held at the Desmond Tutu Center 180 10th Avenue
    High Holiday Preparation Seminar, Sept 9

    New York, NY August 17, 2009 --- The City Congregation, the New York City branch of Humanistic Judaism, led by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, has scheduled events and services for the High Holidays welcoming in the year 5770, Rabbi Schweitzer announced today.

    A seminar, “Rethinking the High Holidays for Secular Jews,” will explore how secular Jews can celebrate the holidays and derive meaning and inspiration from them, despite their lack of belief in traditional practices and rituals. The presentation will be held on Wednesday, Sept, 9 at 15 West 86 Street (SAJ), from 7:30-9:00 pm.

    One hallmark of City Congregation celebrations is the examination by members of important issues and topics that are meaningful to their lives. On Rosh Hashanah they will consider how to manage anger in the world around them and in their own lives.

    According to Rabbi Schweitzer, “We are burdened by feelings of self-accusation and anger turned inward – or towards those we love…We can and do blame others all the time, but what do we do with the blame we have for ourselves, for our own misconduct, our poor judgment, our failure to take responsibility? How do we manage these feelings without denying them and also without letting them eat us up or exploding in destructive ways?”

    On Yom Kippur the congregation will consider the question, based on Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd… or Not.” If secular Jews do not rely on God’s caring intervention, how do they manage crises and tragedies in their lives? Where do they turn for support and comfort?

    The congregation will observe Rosh Hashanah service on Saturday, Sept 19 at 10:30 am followed by lunch. Kol Nidre services start at 7:30 pm on Sunday, Sept. 27th. Yom Kippur services begin at 10:30 am on Monday, Sept. 28th and include a Memorial service and are followed by a community break fast. Children’s programs will be held on both holidays. High Holiday services are held at the Desmond Tutu Center, 180 Tenth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets on Manhattan’s far west side.

    For tickets and information, contact the City Congregation at 212-213-1002 or e-mail info@citycongregation.org

    9/7/09

    Times: Is Egypt Restoring Maimonides' Synagogue to Curry Favor with Unesco?

    It seems to us that the Times speculates a lot more than it used to about the motives for various governmental actions in foreign states. We consider this story an example of how not to report news -- seeking to explain away a good deed by ferreting out an imagined ulterior motive.

    Roger Cohen gives the background in his op-ed, "An Egyptian for Unesco," in which he reluctantly supports the appointment of Farouk Hosny, a "71-year-old painter who has served as President Hosni Mubarak’s cultural guru for more than two decades" as head of the United Nations cultural agency Unesco.

    And so what does this have to do with the sudden rehabilitation of the Maimonides Synagogue in Cairo?

    Michael Slackman connects the dots for us in his, "Cairo Journal - Private Motive for Egypt’s Public Embrace of a Jewish Past."

    9/6/09

    What does the Talmud teach about rape?

    After an especially harrowing discovery, we have been trying to convey to a dear and esteemed person that in America when one tries to right a wrong, the accepted method of doing that is through currency - monetary payment.

    Of course, it occurred to us that it's not just an American practice. It's widespread and in particular, it's Talmudic.

    Here is an anecdote to underscore that point.

    Some time ago when we taught Talmud at the University of Minnesota, Rachel Adler, who was then married to our Hillel Rabbi, Moshe Adler, came to us and asked us if we'd agree to an independent studies course with her on the Talmudic texts about rape.

    We had studied some of the relevant chapters during our rabbinical training. We also knew that Rachel was widely respected as a leading writer on Jewish feminist issues. Before consenting to the course we advised Rachel that she might be disappointed to find out that the rabbis of the Talmud were not concerned with or sensitive to the issues of sexuality, personal rights and gender differentials or even the cultural symbolism that Rachel found so urgent.

    In fact, we cautioned, that the authorities who wrote the Torah and the Talmud did understand that rape is a violent crime and that a rapist needs to be punished and the victim needs to be compensated. In the society of the rabbis, who was the victim to be compensated by fines was a matter of some discussion.

    Accordingly we were going to find that a main concern of the Talmud was the question of how the monetary compensation for the damages of the crime of rape was to be allocated, who is liable, under what circumstances, in essence, who receives the money.

    Rachel duly noted my caveats and then we studied the relevant texts during that term. When we finished, she observed that the enterprise was indeed challenging and interesting and that in fact our original disclaimer was correct. The preoccupation of the text was the allocation of the fines.

    Rachel went on the write several important books that treat matters related to this subject such as, Engendering Judaism: an inclusive theology and ethics.

    Lesson: Clearly, compensation for a crime is not all about the money or only about the money -- in American culture or in the Talmud. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi money is not everything and it's not the only thing.

    Like it or not, monetary compensation is accepted across history and cultures as the main way to right a wrong.

    9/4/09

    Crunchgear: Amazon and Bezos Grovel in Apology Over their 1984 Deletion

    If you recall not long ago because of copyright infringement issues, Amazon deleted some copies of 1984 from customers' Kindles, without first telling them!

    Now our friend John Biggs at Crunchgear informs us that Amazon's Jeff Bezos has been a busy beaver, sending out groveling apology emails and offering to restore the books and customer notes - or - send them $30 as a gift certificate or check.

    This is the American way. You own up to your mistake, you apologize and you compensate the victim - in this case at about three times the original out of pocket costs.

    Friends - are you listening? You apologize and you compensate - with currency if that is what the victim wants. Do you understand? Are you listening? We are waiting.

    Can a person practice two religions?

    Can one person observe two religions at the same time? We've heard of the Jewbus, Jews who adopt Buddhist practice but do not renounce their Judaism. Some of us know Jews who claim to be Muslims while maintaining their affinity to the synagogue. Shhh. It's a secret.

    Exclusivity is a prime requirement in the official rules of many world religions. But my question stands in real life situations.

    The literature on modern syncretistic practice is not extensive. We came across one tantalizing excerpt from an article by Jay McDaniel - Double Religious Belonging: A Process Approach - in the journal Buddhist-Christian Studies 23 (2003) p. 67:
    Increasingly, Christians in the United States are turning to Buddhism for spiritual insight and nourishment. Many are reading books about Buddhism, and some are also meditating, participating in Buddhist retreats, and studying under Buddhist teachers. As they do so, they approach what might be called "dual religious belonging." The phrase itself can suggest at least three metaphors. We can imagine them

    (1) as people crossing a bridge into the world of Buddhism and who then return to Christianity with fresh insights; or
    (2) as people with two intravenous tubes in their arms, one providing fluid from a Buddhist lineage and one providing fluid from a Christian lineage, for the sake of a more complete life; or, shifting to a more organic metaphor,
    (3) as people with primary roots in Christian soil but with secondary roots in Buddhist soil, who receive anchorage and sustenance from both kinds of soils.

    Shortly I will draw upon the third metaphor to suggest the desirability of a "taproot" as opposed to a "fibrous" approach for such double belonging, at least in its initial stages.
    What do you think?

    9/3/09

    AP: Pfizer Lied and Cheated. TTB: You should not take any Pfizer pill - Lipitor, Zoloft, Viagra et. al.

    Pfizer has now been penalized with the largest fines in history for cheating, lying and misrepresenting in the marketing of its drugs.

    The company is worse than Madoff. It has no legitimate credibility at all as a pharmaceutical manufacturer. It should be forced to cease operations.

    It makes no sense to us that a single person should take a single Pfizer pill from this day forward.

    The company is a fraud, it is fair to assume that its drugs are all complete frauds.

    You now can conclude without a shadow of a doubt that nothing bad will happen to you if you stop taking the snake oil that has been sold under the names Lipitor, Zoloft or Viagra, among others. Really. Stop taking them. Um, based on the facts of the cases against Pfizer, it is fair to suspect that bad things will happen to you if you do continue to take their pills.

    Yes we do know that is not what the government says. That is simply what any sane and logical person should conclude.

    Example - we just saw a commercial on TV for Aricept. Guess what? "Aricept is manufactured by Eisai Inc. and marketed by Pfizer." Aricept is supposed to make Grandma stop forgetting about making her family their dinner. Nah. We now think, based on, oh gee, facts, that whatever Pfizer says is a load of crap.
    Pfizer to pay record $2.3B penalty for drug promos
    Repeat offender Pfizer paying record $2.3B settlement for illegal drug promotions

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal prosecutors hit Pfizer Inc. with a record-breaking $2.3 billion in fines Wednesday and called the world's largest drugmaker a repeating corporate cheat for illegal drug promotions that plied doctors with free golf, massages, and resort junkets.

    Announcing the penalty as a warning to all drug manufacturers, Justice Department officials said the overall settlement is the largest ever paid by a drug company for alleged violations of federal drug rules, and the $1.2 billion criminal fine is the largest ever in any U.S. criminal case. The total includes $1 billion in civil penalties and a $100 million criminal forfeiture.

    Authorities called Pfizer a repeat offender, noting it is the company's fourth such settlement of government charges in the last decade. The allegations surround the marketing of 13 different drugs, including big sellers such as Viagra, Zoloft, and Lipitor.

    As part of its illegal marketing, Pfizer invited doctors to consultant meetings at resort locations, paying their expenses and providing perks, prosecutors said.

    "They were entertained with golf, massages, and other activities," said Mike Loucks, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts...more....

    9/2/09

    Review: What Does Kvetch Mean?

    Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods. (Audio CD) by Michael Wex (Author), Michael Wex (Narrator). HarperAudio.

    Imagine a dictionary of Yiddish that contained only the most colorful and culturally rich words and phrases in a language. Now imagine that the definitions were arranged topically and written up by a lexicographically learned person who was also part cultural critic and an accomplished uninhibited professional comedian.

    Michael Wex has put together a charming and learned book about Yiddish that encompasses those traits. More important to me, Wex brings a set of propositions to his writing. His expertise as a Yiddish translator, university teacher and novelist comes into play. Wex works with the concepts that Jewish culture inheres deeply in the Yiddish language and shapes its idioms. And he attempts, most often successfully, to show how those elements of language in turn shape the attitudes of their speakers.

    True, Wex stretches some points. He finds some of the roots of kvetching in the society of the ancient rabbis and the disputes of Mishnaic scholars. I must admit this is a stretch. He also dwells too often on Yiddish principles that he himself invents. He calls one such notion the "aftselakhis"-impulse, the drive to do things simply because they are contrary to the wishes of others.

    Even so, I found many myth shattering gems of insight in this book pertaining to topics of religion, food, sex, demons, insults, and the goyim.

    For instance, all my life I had thought that the “bubbe mayse” was a grandmother’s tale. But in a lengthy discourse Wex informs us that the term derives from the widely popular medieval Italian romance Buovo d'Antona – a story of the love of Bovo and Druzane. When translated into Yiddish in 1507-1508 by Elia Levita these stories became the Bove-Bukh. In 1541 it was the first non-religious printed Yiddish book, and was reprinted over the years in at least 40 editions. By reference to this famous work, any romanticized story in Yiddish became a bove-mayse. Later folk etymology confused this with a bubbe-mayse or a grandmother's tale.

    The author pursues all types of language games in his own writing, and engages in puns throughout the book. In one discussion, Wex introduces the town of Teaneck as a pun on words, saying that a girl had to wear a turtleneck to the movies in Teaneck.

    I’m glad that I listened to this book, rather than reading it from a printed edition. Through the CD I got to hear the full resonance of the Yiddish idiom. This book on CD is a second generation audio book. The book is also available as a downloaded audio book which you can listen to on your iPod or similar device.

    You’ll find some audio books, like this one, are read by the author. This has its plusses and minuses. For one thing, the author ought to know best how to best emphasize and dramatize his own writings. The downside is that an author generally sounds less polished than a professional reader. In this case Publisher’s Weekly calls Wex’s reading style, “a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character and a classic Yiddish whine.” After my first hesitations, I decided that his inflection was perfectly suited to his content.

    I’m a late convert to the audio book medium. I glommed onto mainly non-fiction audio books as a desperate way to save my sanity during my daily commute. This particular book actually made me look forward to the traffic jams on the GWB.

    As a professor of Judaism, I listened fruitlessly for any inaccuracies in the author’s description of the references in Yiddishisms to Jewish law, culture and history. I caught only two minor errors. I have my doubts about a few of the more complex explanations that Wex proposes for the origin of some Yiddish idioms.

    My main caveat is that I doubt a total amhaaretz (Jewish cultural ignoramus) or a complete shaygetz (non-Jew) would be able to follow some of Wex’s compressed and complex excurses on these background subjects. Hence, this book will be best appreciated by the knowledgeable Jewish reader, one who is already somewhat literate in the culture and history of the people of the kvetch. But it is recommended to the general readership at large, who, it appears, are already purchasing the book in significant numbers, making it # 24 in a recent the NY Times PB bestseller list.

    -repost from 11/1/06

    Has Madonna abandoned Kabbalah?

    Madonna is in Israel again.

    Some say that Madonna has abandoned Kabbalah. That may mean that she no longer wears her red bendel. Does it mean she no longer wants to be called Esther? What does all this really mean to us?

    In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2005 73(2):361-393): "Imagining Power: Magic, Miracle, and the Social Context of Rabbinic Self-Representation", Kimberly Stratton of Carleton University, Ottawa makes some ambitious claims:
    In western discourse "magic" carries various negative connotations that stem from its use in ancient polemic and are reinforced by post-enlightenment biases against so-called primitive religious practices or superstitions. For this reason some scholars recommend dispensing with the term altogether (Janowitz: 18). Others see it as a potentially useful heuristic device if applied critically, noting the possibility that magic can be considered a source of power or prestige in certain societies (J. Z. Smith: 17). This article examines the ambivalent attitude toward magic in rabbinic discourse and argues that diverging portraits of it in rabbinic literature reflect different attitudes toward ritual power in Palestine and Babylonia. In other words, rabbinic writings indicate that magic could carry positive as well as negative connotations in certain parts of the ancient world and demonstrate the need to conceive of "magic" more broadly as a discourse of power- situating discussions of it in particular social contexts. Furthermore, this article seeks to illuminate the relationship between attitudes toward magic and social structure by delineating the evolving role of magic in rabbinic ideology and self-representation.
    Modern rabbis are still struggling with magic, with Madonna and with the "red bendel". Here is a March 2005 posting on the subjects at Mesora:
    Judaism.com supports the notion that the Red String has been infused with mystical, Kabbalistic powers at the tomb of Rachel, promising the protection of the Evil Eye. Judaism.com wants to reclaim this Red String as Jewish tradition, when if fact they admit they are ignorant of its source. It is actually heathen and idolatrous. Judaism.com also displays a video claiming the Red String becomes blessed with special authentic and proven qualities; to remove pain, defend against the Evil Eye, to bless children, and to afford easier pregnancies. Mesora intends to reveal each of these views as falsehood, and contrary to true Torah ideals.
    This contemporary posting does not fit Stratton's interpretive model. I don't see how it is a "discourse of power" or in any way "ambivalent".

    Speaking of magic and power, I found myself quoted in an essay on "Intercessionary Prayer, Healing and Jewish Shamanism" by Rosie Rosenzweig. She chose to illustrate her context with this passage from my Studies in Jewish Prayer (p. 17):
    A primary issue at the outset of the Yavnean age was, in a word, local survival. The rabbinic leadership struggled to assert some authority against the forces of foreign political domination. Rabbinic Jews, like many other subservient subordinate populations, were essentially powerless and accordingly indigent. Day after day, the people had to struggle against the elemental forces of nature for rudimentary sustenance.

    The rabbis turned their attention where they could. They espoused the view that through their knowledge and religious virtuosity, the Jew could help fend off the powers of nature, protect persons from the harm of the elements and of the unknown, of sickness, and of the dangers that lurked throughout the world inside the village.

    The rabbis in the age of Yavneh afforded the Jews means to control the immediate vicissitudes of nature. Through their teachings and practices,through the rabbinic Torah, and mainly through prayer, the masters of this time postulated that they could for instance bring rain, or stop the rain. They could avert the dangers of the natural world or the likelihood of attack by bandits or other potential human enemies. They offered the people a way to cure their diseases, or at least to foretell the outcome of sicknesses. In the Yavnean period after the fall of the Temple, the rabbi who employed prayer and engaged in the study of Torah evolved by the necessity of the context in which he thrived into the local holy man par excellence of Judaic life.
    Nice thoughts -- you need to read the whole book.
    [repost from  8/07]