Category Archives: Holy Days & Festivals

What “The Daily Show” Can Teach Us About 21st Century Judaism

800px-Dailyshow_logo.svgI am ready to nominate Jon Stewart as an honorary “Rabbi Without Borders.”

Last week, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a remarkable display of bad taste (to say the least), decided to put on an Afro wig and blackface in order to portray an African-American basketball player for Purim. In response, Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, pointed out the hypocrisy of Hikind’s insensitivity given his career as an outspoken critic of both actual and alleged (at least to Hikind) anti-Semitism. Stewart followed his comments with this hysterical segment entitled “Crazy Stupid Dove–The War On Purim” (see video below).

This is not the first time The Daily Show has captured the humorous side of Jewish holidays.  As J.J. Goldberg notes in his recent Forward blog, Stewart also introduced a laughing-out-loud funny segment about Passover last year called “Faith Off” in which he called on Jews to make Passover more enjoyable than Easter.

If you have ever attended, taught, or sent your children to a synagogue religious school, you know that teaching elementary school children the essentials of Judaism in 4-6 hours a week is extremely challenging. Given how little time there is to teach and how many other facets of contemporary American life religious schools have to compete with, we often turn to games, skits, and other ways to depict Judaism as fun and attractive. But in doing so, we sometimes revert to a simplistic, easy to digest version of Judaism without complication or obligation.

What is fascinating about The Daily Show’s Purim segment, though, is not how funny it is but how substantive it is. The segment thoroughly rebukes the transformation of Purim into a Jewish Halloween and the general trend towards fitting Jewish holidays into mainstream culture. Its message is actually the antithesis of his Passover piece, in which Stewart suggests coming up with cartoon characters and making video games to update our celebration of Passover. Through intelligent humor and sophistication, the Purim segment makes a compelling argument for rejecting the commercialization and assimilation of Jewish holidays. It is this translation, this targum, that we would do well to embrace. Most young Jews today are not interested in frontal, rote transmissions of tradition. Our religious school educators are correct that we need to approach today’s students through creative, interactive ways to reach the “multiple intelligences” of the Jewish public, to borrow from educational theory jargon.  But what The Daily Show segment teaches us is that we don’t need to be reductionist to make tradition contemporary and accessible. The challenge for us, as Jewish educators and teachers of the next generation, is to pick up where The Daily Show leaves off.

Posted on March 4, 2013

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

Changing the Subject: Purim and Israeli Politics

purim orsh 2.1Members of my Canadian synagogue are deeply engaged with Israel. Almost all, teens included, have visited the land at least once. They keep up with Israeli news. Some follow the liberal Ha’aretz; others the conservative Jerusalem Post. Most support local political organizations – ranging from the citizen diplomacy projects of Peace It Together to the staunch Israel advocacy of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.

Their Jewish learning is deep. Kids attend Jewish summer camp; adults graduate from the Melton Adult Jewish Studies Program; newcomers perfect their Hebrew; all love to discuss ideas and texts key to Jewish life.  But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics. 

The Shabbat before Purim is traditionally designated Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. With special Torah and Haftorah readings, we remember the evil of Amalek, who attack the weakened Israelites just after the Exodus. After the Israelites settle in the land and develop a strong army, Amalek continues to engage them. In one battle King Saul spares the life of the Amalekite king; the prophet Samuel disapproves. In Samuel’s view, a ruler’s first priority is national security. A king must guard this with absolute ruthless vigilance. In Saul’s view, a ruler can act with compassion towards those he sees as peers.

When we discuss this at our synagogue, someone invariably says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! These are two opposing Israeli views of how to manage relations with Palestine.” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone quickly changes the subject.

On Purim itself, we read Megillat Esther, story of the rise of a Jewish queen and her courtier cousin in the Persian Empire.  The satirical story describes excesses of drunkenness, cosmetic use, sexual slavery, harmful legislation, long memos, ostentatious clothing, formal speech and — yes — killing. Many readers laugh their way through the excesses, until they read about the Jews killing outrageous numbers of potential enemies. Then their laughter pauses and they wonder why they find the Megillah funny.

When we discuss the Megillah at our synagogue, invariably someone says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! When Jews have political power within a corrupt international system, how should we wield it?” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone changes the subject.

A decade ago, our synagogue did discuss Israeli politics. Discussions were painful, conducted without manners, and in ways that compromised the safe, quiet space of Shabbat gatherings. Gradually, a consensus emerged: let’s acknowledge our differences, but not dwell on them.

As an American, I tried to respect this quiet Canadian solution, but found it odd. Much of our traditional liturgy expresses yearning for a homeland built on peace and justice. Thus synagogue should be the perfect venue for discussing Israel’s efforts. If we improve our skills in respectful dialogue, I thought, we will talk in a polite Canadian way. So I brought in facilitators from the Children of Abraham Compassionate Listening Project; offered training in public issues dialogue skills; hired speakers to teach about the history of Zionism. Everyone found the events meaningful, but did not use their skills to discuss Israeli politics.

Eight years of frustration finally yielded a breakthrough understanding. I’m not simply slow at adapting to Canadian politeness; I’ve been slow at understanding contemporary Jewish life. From my perspective as a rabbi, spiritual community sits at the centre of Jewish experience. Thus, if Israel is important to us, we should explore it during synagogue practice. But for many Jews, synagogue is not the centre of Jewish life. It is only one expression of their Jewish identity, and not the one they associate with Israel. As rabbi, I should listen carefully to their understanding of Jewish identity, learn from it, and celebrate its richness.

Photo by Dave Kauffman. Cross-posted to OnSophiaStreet.com

Posted on February 24, 2013

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

Increasing Purim’s Joy

Purim is coming and the inhabitants of my house are giddy with anticipation. It has long been a favorite holiday in our family. We talk about costumes for weeks ahead of time. We take annual Purim pictures of the kids in their costumes. Marathon baking sessions ensure adequate supplies of hamantaschen for eating and sharing. And the kids take special pleasure in sending packages of hamantaschen and other goodies to friends and family, near and far. That’s before the actual holiday even arrives, bringing with it feasting, megillah reading, and shpielling.

Amid all the frivolity and hoopla that accompanies Purim, however, is a serious obligation; feeding the hungry.

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The commandment to provide food for the poor finds its basis in the Purim story itself (Esther 9:22). The Gemara (Megillah 7a) offers the necessary guidelines; it states that one must distribute gifts to the poor. And not just to one person but to no fewer than two needy individuals. Such gifts can be in the form of money or actual foodstuffs. So important is this oft-overlooked obligation that the Rambam places a higher value on the act of caring for the poor than on any other aspect of the holiday.

It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloach manot (gifts of food) to his neighbours. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:17)

Once upon a time, the organization formerly known as the Jewish Fund for Justice established a special fund to help women successfully overcome barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient. The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty distributed funds to agencies that worked with ow-income women, providing them with skills and assistance in order to help them improve their economic situations.

Why women?

Because women are disproportionately at risk for falling below the poverty line. Across all racial lines.

  • In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.
  • 13 percent of women over 75 years old are poor compared to 6 percent of men.
  • The poverty gap between women and men widens significantly between ages 18 and 24—20.6 percent of women are poor at that age, compared to 14.0 percent of men.

The Purim Fund for Women in Poverty no longer exists. But there are many worthy organizations in every community that are working tirelessly to gladden the hearts of the most vulnerable in our society. Won’t you consider increasing the joy of Purim by assisting those in need as our Tradition demands of us?

Posted on February 19, 2013

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The Pedagogy of Nemo: What a Winter Storm Can Teach Us About Shabbat

Too-much-snow-outside1

Well, that was an unexpected weekend! For those of you who do not live in the Northeast, we just got walloped by a monster snowstorm. At my own home in Connecticut, we have 38 inches of snow and we are only beginning to dig our way out.

But I think there was something special about Nemo (the name given for this storm), aside from the stupendous amount of snow it delivered: Nemo became a dramatic metaphor for Shabbat. According to tradition, there are two primary components of the Sabbath: shamor and zakhor. This dual structure emerges from the rabbinic attempt to reconcile the fact that the verb shamor (keep, observe) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:11 whereas zakhor (remember, internalize) is used in reference to Shabbat in the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:8. Shamor is the more active of the two, corresponding to the rituals and practices we do (or, often more importantly, cessation from doing) on Shabbat itself that mark Shabbat as different from the rest of the week. Nemo gave all of us in the Northeast a sense of what being Shomer Shabbat entails. For more than 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, we were deluged with snow so thick and relentless that everyone had to stay at home. No one could leave to go to work, shop, or do anything else. The fascinating paradox of shamor is that restriction can actually lead to liberation. Being prohibited from engaging in our daily affairs during Nemo’s fury freed us up to spend new-found time with family and friends, to take time to communicate and interact with one another in ways that our frenetic lives often make difficult.

snow!The shamor aspect of Shabbat usually gets the majority of attention. But the zakhor component is equally important within Judaism. Zakhor corresponds to the obligation to internalize Shabbat’s meaning, to locate Shabbat as the center of our temporal consciousness. From preparing for Shabbat ahead of time to reciting the kiddush during our meals, we take time to be mindful of Shabbat’s inherent sanctity. A major rabbinic contribution to this feature was insisting that “oneg,” or delight, be a part of our Shabbat experience. Rejecting the option of an ascetic Shabbat (which the anti-rabbinic Karaites would later endorse), rabbinic Judaism embraced a Shabbat of majesty and exuberance through food, attire, song, and all the other ways in which we celebrate Shabbat. Standing outside, watching my children flop around in the thick snow while attempting to throw snowballs at my wife, I found myself re-capturing that sense of pure, unfiltered joy. The smiles and squeals of delight, like a Hasidic Friday night meal, lasted for hours. We were left with the sense of exuberant exhaustion you might feel after laughing for a really, really long time.

I won’t be sad when the temperature rises above freezing, my children finally get back to school, and life once more returns to normal. But I hope that the lesson I took from Nemo—that Shabbat should be about the liberation of obligation and a sense of infinite joy—will continue to reverberate within my Shabbat experience long after the snow melts away.

Posted on February 12, 2013

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Can We Please Stop Re-Fighting Hanukkah?

Ask any Jew what Hanukkah is about and you are likely to get one of two possible explanations: Maccabees or Menorahs. The first approach emphasizes a story about national liberation from tyranny. In this account, based on the First Book Of Maccabees, Mattathias the priest and his sons stood up to the mighty Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV, waging a successful three year-long guerilla war that, against all odds, freed the Jews from oppression and returned them to self-rule. The second narrative centers on oil in the Jerusalem Temple. As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b (which omits the Maccabean revolt altogether), when the Jews tried to restore worship in the Temple, they could only find one small vial of sealed olive oil with which to light the eternal flame of the menorah in the Temple. Though the oil should only have lasted one day, it miraculously wound up lasting a full eight days, until a new supply of oil could be found.

It is quite fascinating to see how these two stories continue to resonate today. After World War II, and especially after Israel’s founding in 1948, the story of the Maccabees’ military prowess in defeating large, neighboring enemies became a popular new paradigm for thinking about Jewish toughness and masculinity. We no longer had to see ourselves as meek and bookish victims but could instead refashion ourselves as heroes, standing up to those who challenged our authority to express our Jewishness publicly. This notion of Jews being courageous and selfless, fighting for the preservation of Jewish civilization, continues to resonate today. On the other hand, many Jews focus more on the ceremonial candle-lighting aspect of Hanukkah, fashioning Hanukkah into a kind of  “Christmas for Jews,” complete with candle lighting, festive eating, gift-giving, and caroling.  We don’t have to feel left out of the pageantry and fun of Christmas because we have our own Jewish version, and for kids it is even better because we get presents for eight days while Christians only get gifts once! Continue reading

Posted on December 11, 2012

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Are We Living Up To Thanksgiving’s Potential?

So what did you really look forward to last week—Thanksgiving or Black Friday? Gorging on turkey surrounded by all those relatives, or the chance to grab a 50 inch plasma TV for $500 at some big box store? Where were you at 12am on Friday morning (or even 8pm on Thanksgiving at some spots)?

Many social critics bemoan the fact that Black Friday is infringing on the “sanctity” of Thanksgiving. But I think it Black Friday is a good thing. Not because I like shopping, though I confess I enjoy a good bargain like the next person and have had my share of Black Friday experiences in the past. Instead, I think Black Friday is good for America because it forces us to confront, in all its cartoonish outlandishness, what we want to stand for as a people. Thanksgiving ought to be the perfect holiday for Jews. After all, offering thanks to God is one of the primary motifs of Jewish prayer, from the very first prayer we utter each morning (Modeh Ani) to our thrice daily prayer of thanksgiving within the amidah; there was even a thanksgiving (“Todah”) offering in Temple times. Plus, what’s more Jewish than gathering family together around a festive meal?

But take a look at what our contemporary Thanksgiving holiday is like in practice. On Thursday afternoon, we sit down and eat gargantuan portions of food, often accompanied by lounging around watching football. Then there is the manic shopping frenzy of Black Friday, a day created to inaugurate the beginning of the holiday shopping period in which retailers offer large savings to get shoppers in the door. Thanksgiving Thursday and Black Friday, as currently experienced, actually share a unifying theme—gluttonous consumption and overindulgence. In fact, it is not surprising that the two days are quickly becoming one; they are, in a sense, consuming each other! A holiday which began in 1621 as a gathering to celebrate a successful harvest, to appreciate what the Pilgrims and Native Americans had, has morphed into an orgy of excess. Consuming a 25 pound turkey with all the trimmings or buying some electronic gadget you don’t even want (because the object you wanted was sold out and you didn’t want to leave empty-handed) may be proof of material success, but it is not the Jewish way to express gratitude.

Judaism calls on us to engage the world not with greed or lust but with a sense of sova, of enoughness. Through our liturgy and the recitation of brakhot, Judaism demands that we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this world rather than constantly yearning for more. This is the message that Thanksgiving historically conveyed and continues to have the potential to convey. And this is the message that I hope we, as religious leaders, can begin to propagate. There is nothing wrong with buying things we need, and it can be wonderful to gather together with friends and family for a festive meal. But intention matters. Context matters. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we pray with our feet, not just with our words. And, in the case of Thanksgiving, we can pray not only through what we stand for but also what we abstain from. So as we enter the fray of the holiday shopping season, let’s try to cultivate an appreciation for what we have rather than becoming fixated on what more we can have. In that way we can pay tribute both to our Jewish heritage and to the message that animated the original Thanksgiving so many years ago.

Posted on November 26, 2012

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The Reprieve

Were you aware that every year, erev Thanksgiving, a turkey is sent to the White House for the president to pardon? Well, actually, two turkeys are sent, in case one cannot fulfill its duties.

I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately  thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.

I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.

The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life.  I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.

Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that  it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading

Posted on November 21, 2012

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Bitter, Bitter Cheshvan

With the intensity of our Fall Holy Days behind us, we find ourselves now in the month of Cheshvan. Known as Mar Cheshvan, or “bitter Cheshvan,” it is the only month on our calendar devoid of festivals or fast days. And it is for that reason that many have assumed it was given its alternate name.

Yet, exploration into the etymology of the word Cheshvan presents a shocking discovery; we have been mispronouncing the name. The names of our Hebrew months were derived from their Babylonian counterparts. Given that we were in Babylonia at the time our calendar was codified, it makes perfect sense. With Nissan being the head of the liturgical calendar, the month in question is the eighth month. Because in Akkadian, the language of the day, the “w” (vav) and “m” (mem) sounds can interchange, we see that Marcheshvan which is from the two words “m’rach” and “shvan,” would have been “warh” and “shman,” in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew “yerech shmi- ni,” thus “eighth month.” Ashkenazic tradition incorrectly places a break in the name, “Mar-cheshvan.” Our Yemenite coreligionists have retained greater accuracy in their pronunciation “Marach- sha’wan.” Furthermore, Rashi (11th century, France), the Rambam (12th century, Spain, Egypt), and Ibn Ezra (11th century, Iberian Peninsula) all use the complete name, indicating the longer name as the known name.

And yet historical “truth” ought not invalidate the wisdom that might lurk within the folds of folk etymology. For a certain Cheshvan seventeen years ago turned bitter when the Israeli Prime Minister was murdered at the hands of a fellow Jew.

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As my hand reached for the handle, the front door swung open . My father’s face was ashen as he met me at the door to deliver the horrific news, praying that I had not been listening to the radio. Yitzchak Rabin, z”l had been assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Moments before his murder, he stood on the dais and, with pop star, Miri Aloni, sang these words:

“…So just sing a song for peace, don’t whisper a prayer; Just sing a song for peace, in a loud shout…”

And then, with seemingly-prophetic words still in his coat pocket, the assassin’s bullet tore through him and stole him from us.

The twelfth of Cheshvan. Set aside to celebrate my engagement to Warren with family and friends. What should have been one of the happiest nights of my life was marred by this terrible tragedy. Such an awful, awful night. For me and my family, it was surreal as we numbly maneuvered through a group of oblivious party-goers. The unrequited joy of the evening forever intertwined with a horrific reality.

And though peace seems less possible today than it did seventeen years ago, somehow we must continue to sing and to shout for that peace…

Perhaps there will come a day when the bitterness of this month will be no more. Until then, we pray and we hope and we find ways to bring sweetness to this world.

Keyn y’hi ratzon — May this be God’s Will.

Tell Your Friends:

Posted on October 16, 2012

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Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.

More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.

Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orach Chayim 3:3).

Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.

What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?

Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?

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*this post appeared on RJ.org in 2010. The discussion that followed in the comments are worth a read.

Posted on October 5, 2012

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