Monthly Archives: April 2008

Blogging Avot: Simon the Righteous

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Pirkei Avot Chapter 1, Mishnah 2 reads:

1:2 – Simon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things the world is sustained: on the Torah, on the (Temple) service, and on deeds of loving kindness.

Who was Simon the Righteous (Shimon HaTzadik)? Aside for being one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly, he was also the High Priest.

According to a famous story in the Talmud (Yomah 69a), Simon went out to meet Alexander the Great, who the Samaritans were hoping would destroy the Temple. Simon donned his priestly clothing for the occasion, and when Alexander saw him, he got down from his horse and bowed down to Simon.

Says the Talmud:

They said to him: Will such a great king as you bow to that Jew? He replied: His image I saw shining before me, whenever I gained a victory. He asked the Jews: Wherefore are you come? They said: The Temple where we pray for you, and for your empire, that it should not be destroyed, is it possible that you should be misled by the idolaters to bid its destruction? He asked: Who are those idolaters? They replied: These Samaritans who stand near thee. He said to them: I deliver them into your hands.

This story is likely apocryphal, of course. Simon probably lived some time between 310 and 270 BCE or from 219-198 BCE (depending on which Simon he actually is). Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE.

For Pirkei Avot, most of this is irrelevant. What is important: As a key to the chain of tradition, Simon is something of a proto-Rabbi, who not only speaks in aphorisms, but names Torah as the first of the three things that sustain the world.

But he is not stripped of his priestly background. “Avodah,” the Temple service, is — according to Simon — the second item that sustains the world. This could be a difficult notion for Pirkei Avot. After all, the Rabbis of Pirkei Avot are trying to assert their post-Temple control on Judaism. They are the spiritual descendants of the Pharisees, the opponents of the Sadducees, who were of the priestly class.

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Posted on April 25, 2008

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No Room for Karpas

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

What does a progressive seder plate look like?

A little bit like a fruit salad, according to frequent MJL contributor Jill Jacobs over on Jspot:

sederplate.jpg

1) an orange (women/glbt), olive (peace in middle east), a broken ring (marriage equality), and even a flower on the seder plate (latter is, inexplicably, a vegan substitute for the beitzah/roasted egg).

2) at least four matzot (when I was growing up, the fourth was for Soviet Jews; now it’s for Darfuri refugees, Jews living in oppressive countries, and/or contemporary slaves.)

3) an empty chair for the captured Israeli soldiers, victims of terror, and/or Darfuris (again). (Given the size of my apartment, the people who showed up were lucky to have chairs, let alone the people who didn’t come)

4) an unlit candle for Tibet.

5) a cup of water for Miriam, and a fifth cup of wine for the state of Israel, the captured soldiers (again), or Jesus (uh. . . whoops–that would be the suggestion of the messianic website).

6) a fifth child, who represents either Holocaust victims or the unaffiliated (ok–this one wouldn’t actually take up any of the precious space in my 2-inch wide Manhattan apartment. . . ).

7) Special Haggadah inserts for (this year alone) global poverty, marriage equality, Darfur (third symbol’s a charm), Israel/Palestine (from multiple perspectives), righteous gentiles, sweatshops, and about fifteen that I’ve forgotten. (MORE)

Posted on April 24, 2008

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Is Passover too long?

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

While I love the ideas and rituals of Passover, I admit, I’m a little disappointed: Is it really only Day 5?

I’m assuming I’m not the only one in the Jewish blogosphere with a bloated stomach, so I thought I’d give you some levity to spread on your bread of affliction.

A poll for you, my friends:

Posted on April 24, 2008

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Blogging Pirkei Avot

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

Pirkei Avot, literally Chapters of the Fathers, but more commonly translated “Ethics of the Fathers,” is one of the most unique works of rabbinic literature.

Thought Avot is a book of the Mishnah, it consists mostly of aphorisms and ethical principles, not law. The book is particularly relevant now, as it is customary to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat — one chapter each week– between Passover and Shavuot (though some continue to study it through the summer).

This year, the cycle will start with Chapter 1 on May 3, concluding with Chapter 6 on June 7 — but I thought I’d get an early start, begin blogging Pirkei Avot and see how far I get.

(For a general overview of Avot, I recommend Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ wonderful MJL article, which can be found here.)

Pirkei Avot begins:

1:1 – Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.

This mishnah ends with a paradigmatic Pirkei Avot lesson, both in its substance and structure — this is not the only tripartite teaching in Pirkei Avot.

But the mishnah’s beginning is also incredibly significant. Here the Rabbis map out the chain of tradition. “Moses received the Torah and transmitted it…” — and this most certainly does not only refer to the Written Torah, but the Oral Torah, as well.

This Oral Torah was passed through mesorah, tradition, to Joshua, the elders, the prophets, and finally to the Men of the Great Assembly, the leaders of Israel during the time of the Second Temple.

Indeed, the next mishnah (Avot 1:2) features Simeon the Righteous, who is described as one of the “survivors of the Great Assembly.” In the mishnayot after that, we have teachings from his students and theirs.

Thus, the beginning of Pirkei Avot serves a significant political purpose. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the future and nature of Judaism was up in the air. The Rabbis of the Talmud took Judaism in a very specific direction, away from its cultic past, toward one centered on Torah study and interpretation. What gave them the right to do this?

For them, the concept of Oral Law was absolutely essential. It was, to some extent, the unwritten source of their authority, and it’s this that is being propagandized and pushed at the beginning of Pirkei Avot.

The Rabbis use Pirkei Avot to perpetuate their ethical worldview, but at the same time, they are perpetuating their own legitimacy.

Posted on April 24, 2008

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Sports Stars Count the Omer

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

It’s omer counting time, and MJL has a daily counter to help you in this task.

But I’m more inclined to use Bangitout.com’s counter which uses the jerseys of famous sports stars to help in the counting.

For example, tomorrow–the famous number 4 of the Green Bay Packers Brett Favre. Day 23–none other than Michael Jordan.

While I tend not to enjoy many of that site’s number-related articles, this is a keeper.

Posted on April 23, 2008

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Peoplehood is so vacant, it’s vacuous

This entry was posted in Beliefs, History on by .

In last week’s Forward, Jay Michaelson entered the Peoplehood debate with force, simultaneously acknowledging his own sense of connection to Jews worldwide and summarily dismissing the notion of Jewish Peoplehood as “vacuous” and “banal.”

Jay begins his article by asserting that in pre-modern times, Jews felt part of klal yisrael, the congregation of Israel, because they had to: “all of us knew that we were Jews, and that, thanks to external forces of discrimination and marginalization, we were responsible for one another.”

Then came emancipation, which allowed Jews to affiliate with specific parts of Jewish life (culture, religion, community) or not at all.

Here Jay takes an interesting turn.

Enter “peoplehood,� the latest effort by Jewish elites to find common ground among secular Israelis and Hasidim in Brooklyn, Jews-by-ethnicity from the former Soviet Union and “cultural Jews� in Europe.

First, while I agree that the notion of Peoplehood has taken a hit in recent centuries, I think its coffin has yet to be nailed shut. While it may have weakened in recent years, Jewish support for Israel is still incredibly strong, and the last 30 years have seen the success of the Soviet Jewry movement and the relocation of Ethiopian Jewry via Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

But equally important, while there’s been much debate about Jewish Peoplehood over the last couple of years, this is the first time I’ve seen it described as the invention of “Jewish elites.”

Jay goes on to poke holes in the concept of Jewish Peoplehood, many of which I agree with, but his tone and conclusions seem influenced by this early assertion. And aside for its perhaps-unjustified cynicism, I’m just not sure its true. I’ve seen no evidence that “Jewish elites” are trying to forge a new sense of Peoplehood that drastically deviates from the original concept of klal yisrael.

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Posted on April 23, 2008

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Shlomo the Musical & More

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

-In “Herencia Judia (Jewish Heritage),â€? “Lapidus has reimagined familiar Jewish texts (and occasionally, traditional melodies) in Caribbean rhythms. The familiar Pesach words of ‘Dayenu’ are set to the plena, a narrative song style originally from Puerto Rico; the Four Questions as a Cuban form, the changui…â€? (The Jewish Week)

-And a look at how goes “one of the most bitterest cultural wars in the ultra-Orthodox community in yearsâ€? — the permissibility of public music concerts. (Haaretz)

-Rabbi Andrew Hahn, aka the Kirtan Rabbi, “is part of a small cadre of pioneers who incorporate Hebrew names of God and snatches of sacred texts into musical forms associated with Eastern traditions… usually done in kirtan, also known as bhajan, an ancient form of call-and-response chanting that originated in India, in the Hindu and Sikh traditions.� (NJ Jewish News)

-A look at Black Orthodox bluesman Joshua Nelson, who has joined the Klezmatics but is still music director at Hopewell Baptist Church as well as a Hebrew-school teacher. (Jewish Exponent)

-A new musical “Shlomo the Musical” seeks to revive the spirit and spirituality of Shlomo Carlebach. (Jewish Exponent)

-A new CD captures the rich musical tradition of Portugal’s liturgy, including Marrano communities. (Haaretz)

-Capsule reviews of some new Jewish CDs, including “The Diwan of the Jews from Central Yemen”, “Sephardi Voices from Sarajevo”, and an album which is a “seamless fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Jewish materials.â€? (Jewish Journal)

-Some short reviews of recent Jewish music CDs from Red Hot Chachkas, Brian Bender and Little Shop of Horas, David Buchbinder, Klezmer Alliance and others. (The Jewish Week)

Posted on April 23, 2008

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Searching for Matzah

This entry was posted in General on by .

And I’m not talking about the afikomen. Mainstream newspapers are reporting on an unprecedented matzah shortage across the country.

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that “It appears there’s been a huge disconnect between the Bay Area grocery community and the Bay Area Jewish community in terms of supply and demand.” (MORE)

Meanwhile the New York Times has one store manager remarking that “The first shipment we had was a month ago, and we never got another one.� (MORE)

And don’t count on having moist Passover cakes. The Wall Street Journal reported on the of kosher for Passover margarine crisis.

“Margarine-gate, that’s what we’re calling it,” says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union, the leading kosher certification agency…. Some stores in the New York area have been rationing kosher-for-Passover margarine, letting customers buy only a single package. Others are using it as a marketing tool, selling only to those who agree to buy a certain amount of other items too. (MORE)

Posted on April 22, 2008

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MJL Seeks Graphic Designer

This entry was posted in General on by .

MyJewishLearning.com is currently seeking a full-time graphic designer — for both web and print materials — to work from our Manhattan headquarters.

Responsibilities include:

-Managing website’s overall aesthetic strategy

-Composition of graphics for daily homepages

-Creation of templates for online newsletters and other online and offline marketing collateral

-Creation of graphics for articles and e-newsletters

-Layout of grant proposals and reports

-Design of subsites for niche audiences

-Design of brochures

-Photography/Photo Editing

The ideal candidate will have a four-year degree in graphic design or a related field and two to three years of related experience. Proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite required. Videography/Flash/programming skills are a bonus.

Full health/dental benefits provided.

Interested candidates should send a resume and cover letter to Jason Brzoska at jason@myjewishlearning.com.

Posted on April 22, 2008

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Israel’s Government

This entry was posted in History on by .

-Is Israel’s government becoming a gerontocracy? (Haaretz)

-Isi Leibler says that not only “our prime minister is a failed leader,� but his cabinet ministers have “an uncontrollable urge to conduct their private political theater via statements and leaks to the media. Instead of working in unison, they condemn the policies of their government, criticize ministerial colleagues, and frequently even contradict their own statements. No democratic government in the world has ministers behaving in such an undisciplined and irresponsible manner.� (The Jerusalem Post)

-Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak has called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fire Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, whom he has accused of threatening to destroy Israeli democracy. (The Jerusalem Post)

-Ze’ev Segal argues that Friedmann’s plan, which sharply cuts back on the judiciary’s ability to review action of the other two branches, will “cast a stain on Israeli democracy, both domestically and externally.â€? (Haaretz)

-40 ministers “without portfolio� have served in Israel’s governments since the early 1990s. “This number has no equal in any democratic government in the world.� (Ynet)

Posted on April 22, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy