Men being “nice”: another look at partnership minyanim

“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
The Men’s Section

Crossposted at Jewschool

The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!

Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.

Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.

Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”

Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:

  • Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
  • Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
  • Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[…]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[…]may be democratic and tolerant[…]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
  • Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
  • Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.

“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[…]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”

  • A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
  • Idealization of masculinity (224):

“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.

More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[…]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[…]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[…]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.

[…]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”

Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.

Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles (222), men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice'” enough to give women a “corner” or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go. Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of tefillah.

Language at Drisha (Language for all)

Crossposted at Jewschool

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lot of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

time for a champion (unofficial review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright)

I’m torn between having this blog either be completely objective, throwing myself out into the world and seeing what happens, and documenting everything, including things that people might not like; or censoring certain things because I’ve had some surprising readers so far and who knows who might read it next? I don’t need the wrong person taking something completely out of context and getting the wrong impression.

Well anyway, that’s one of those decisions that I’m probably going to ignore anyways. I guess I don’t have much of a filter.

I’m getting pretty excited about my autobiographical graphic novel, which is currently in its planning stages. It’s supposed to be about 200 pages when it’s done, but it’s also my first one so who knows how it’s going to come out, maybe like five pages for all I know. And unlike with novels, where it’s like “Oh, here’s my autobiography even though I’m not famous,” I feel like if you have a decent story, autobio graphic novels are pretty standard fare. Anyway, the whole motif will be middleness and “losing everything,” as it were. It’s going to be pretty dramatic as soon as I decide how to dramatically end it. I have super high hopes. The working title is Get Ready for Love, after the Nick Cave song with an eerily similar theme.


It’s weird, you know? A couple of weeks ago I got this book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, because now that I’m “over it” I wanted to get the very kind of book I’d been avoiding for the past two years. It’s all about the sociology and development of religion, from  “hunter-gatherer societies” to Christianity and Islam (not much on Judaism past the point where Christianity starts, no big surprise there). Of course, he spells out ykvk approximately 30 times per page, which I hate, and he just got done talking about how Josiah invented monolatry or whatever, which I already heard about and still hate, and I started to wonder. Why do I hate it? Why am I even resisting? Why am I writing passive-aggressive comments in the margins?

So much for being a non-biased reader.

I originally got this book (And God: A Biography by Jack Miles) because I wanted to make a clean break and I was already feeling myself being all “Oh, it’s not so bad, I’ll just be religious again,” and getting pretty nervous about this, and I’m also reading Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor, which is reeeeally bringing me back. (“The ‘hesitation click’ is a linguistic feature of Orthodox Jews.” I laughed when I first read that.) And I wanted to be like, “I should know the truth anyways, why should I be scared of the truth?”

I did take History of Ancient Israel taught by the biggest heretic ever, but lately I’m kind of into the idea of God evolving. I’ve had this cycle of questions for a while now: How can we say that God is so nice and forgiving and actually cares about us, when that’s not exactly in the texts at all? Can whatever we invent to be true of God actually come to be true? Does he react to whatever our conception is of him? These questions, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty pressing, and I’ll gladly get my answer from secular sources if need be.

The Evolution of God seems more like the usual JEDP explanation of historical events though, rather than anything too original, but then again I’m only halfway through the book. Maybe I’m just bitter because I just read 200 pages of how the Torah was written by Josiah. I had to keep reminding myself to be objective. Realistically, of course, I shouldn’t be taking it so hard. I’ve heard it all before. And, after all, “progressive Jews” believe in the JEDP theory and know all about the “multiple authors” over “many generations” and they’re fine with it. And somehow, they think the Torah is still an “inspired document,” even, rather than the result of political factionism and rebellions and whatnot. (Interestingly, Wright says the oft-quoted “light unto the nations” phrase was referring to aggressive takeover, not “gently helping the other nations learn from the Israelites,” as some would have it.)

But I’m also not about to get down with Wellhausen just because he’s in vogue. I just don’t know who to believe these days.

I don’t know how they do it–if God was invented out of El and Baal and had tons of consorts until the upper echelons decided it was tearing the country apart, and meanwhile the Israelites were only rebelling against other gods because the other nations kept putting them into vassalage, how could take it out of its political context and say, “OK, THIS text is divinely inspired (by a god invented out of El and Baal), even though it was changed to fit the different ideologies of different kings, and just happened to evolve into monotheism, even though that wasn’t exactly the point of it at all and it’s all a mistake and a huge coincidence.”

I can get into the idea that the Israelites were polytheists. But I don’t love the idea that polytheism was the actual doctrine allllllll the way up to Josiah, nor do I love the idea that devarim was a political strategy. In theory, I’m following the idea that “God works through the political strategies,” as progressive Jews say, but I am just feeling really resistant to a lot of it. (The El and Baal thing is an example.)

Because, he works through political strategies to…what? The usual line is to be a “light unto the nations,” but…I’m with Wright on that one. I don’t really think the Jewish mission is martyrdom. The whole idea sounds kinda Christian, if you ask me. But what is the mission? What is anything?

I’m feeling so 22 right now. I can feel everything crashing down to be built up again. On what? Who knows?

an official review of ‘the evolution of god’ by robert wright

The Evolution of GodThe Evolution of God by Robert Wright

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An ambitious and comprehensive work. He gets a little too caught up at times, as most biblical scholars tend to do, particularly around p. 157 where he claims that the hebrew word for ‘moon’ (yareah) actually refers to a ‘moon god,’ with the sole evidence that a canaanite god was named something similar (yarih). Not like close languages never even slightly overlapped, but whatever. Oh, and the best part…what’s the explanation for this? Why can “yareah” only refer to a moon god, not the moon itself? Because “inanimate hunks of orbiting rock aren’t the kinds of things you generally converse with” (157)! (He kind of reminds me of Glenn Beck; using humor and a ‘lite reading’ tone in order to cover up the fact that he just ran up 4 pages on a theory with no evidence!)

The annoying part is when he uses little “insider clues” like this to formulate entire theses.

I did like the fact that it was an easy and thorough read in which he actually allowed a few opinions other than his to show through…however, I was disappointed that (as usual with this subject) the JEDP/”Josiah re-wrote everything” theory was underlying the entire theory, without it being mentioned outright save for in one footnote (even after having ironically mentioned that Wellhausen’s theory has lost traction in recent years).

I mean, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, and his biases don’t show through as openly as do some other authors’. Although his motive is noble (showing that violence isn’t necessarily an inherent part of Abrahamic religion), he indulges a little too much in his own whimsies on the basis of his (scant?) hebrew knowledge for my own taste.

I have a friend who once said “An Old Testament scholar isn’t the same as a Torah scholar.” His theories may make perfect sense within his own circles, but remember that scholarshave their own biases and limitations, too. (For instance, while he was talking about asherah being “a part of the israelite pantheon being absorbed into ykvk” I had to wonder whether he knew or cared that asherah is also mentioned in the talmud, circa like 1000 years after the fact, and surely after all the “editing” he claims to have happened.

Everyone’s got their “insider codes,” and biblical scholars aren’t immune to this.

What’s Bothering Jewschool?

I don’t know how, but comments on Jack Wertheimer’s article on the “Ten Commandments of America’s Jews” devolved into a horrific point-by-point ad hominem attack on him, instead of his actual argument. In brief, his post is a commentary on the current state of liberal Judaism. I thought it was rather accurate. Jewschool didn’t think so. After all, Wertheimer is not a Next Jew. The only other thing I’d read by Wertheimer was “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism,” which I also happen to agree with. We all have our biases. However, we have to evaluate these arguments by their merits and not resort to name-calling (“sexist grump”?) and blindly lashing out in defense. Wertheimer writes:

Although much has been written about disunity among today’s American Jews, what these words reflect is, in fact, a consensus on what Jewish life ought to stand for—a consensus held by activists, rabbis, popular writers, organizational leaders, and other figures of influence.

How can you disagree? Haven’t you ever seen slogans announcing new projects promising “An Open, Remixable, Meaningful, Connected Jewish Life”? There has to be something behind these lofty claims. I mean, say you walk into an event claiming it will make your life “meaningful,” “renewed,” “revitalized,” how do you suppose it will do so? You go into the event expecting certain claims. Wertheimer outlines those claims that event is about to make to you.

I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’ No trope is more common today than the injunction to engage in tikkun olam[…]So important has this mission become that in some quarters it is held to supersede all other commandments. In the words of a young Reform rabbi in Los Angeles: “Don’t keep kosher, that’s fine; don’t keep Shabbat, that’s fine; marry a non-Jew—whatever. But understand that it will take away your Jewish identity if you don’t fight for justice.”

I don’t really get this martyr/Jesus assumption “that Jews are uniquely responsible for improving the lives of their fellow human beings.” I think that’s new. I can only guess why that started. I think, I think, that Kol Ra’ash Gadol is saying that tikkun olam shouldn’t mean giving away all your belongings, is universalizing that idea, and thinks that Wertheimer is basically saying the same thing. [S]he writes: “Oddly, many of those Jews invest that time and money as Jews (back to his complaints about Tikkun Olam).” Maybe s/he thinks that Wertheimer is saying that no one should donate to causes anymore. But I’m pretty sure what he’s saying is, pretty acutely, that we’ve tended to supercede all the mitzvos and put “being ethical” on top of it. That is a Reform tenet, but it trickled down (up?). And then, staying on theme, that is what counts when you’re trying to come up with a “revitalized” Judaism. I can’t think of any events or causes currently that are both actively liberal and actively advocating we go back to traditional, obligatory observance.

KRG writes that Wertheimer “dismisses” the supposedly (yet non-existent) overarching elephant in the room, how to distribute tzedaka when we live in a community of non-Jews. Presumably s/he is basing this on the understanding that Wertheimer is criticizing “tikkun olam” in its common forms, which is giving to secular and/or Christian charities like saving Darfur. Again, I don’t think the point is “what kind of tikkun olam we are doing” so much as it is that the entire idea has been dominating the conversation to the detriment of other things.

II. You shall not be judgmental. Jews who intermarried were once regarded as transgressors of a great taboo; today, the great taboo is criticism of Jews who intermarry[…]“What you are doing,” declared an official at an organization dedicated to reaching intermarried families, “is really the most divisive thing that Jews do to other Jews these days, which is to tell your fellow Jews that they are not ‘Jewish enough.’

Think about it. Criticizing intermarriage is frowned upon, but criticizing anyone who does intermarry is extremely taboo. KRG didn’t really discuss this one, but I know from hanging out in certain circles that criticism is basically naught because “people are doing it anyway” and “we just need to find a solution.” That solution, often, is “welcoming intermarried families,” as opposed to encouraging conversion for the spouse and/or educating people about the entire fabric of values that says intermarriage is wrong. As it stands, people generally believe, I think, that it’s an individual choice that affects no one else, and I won’t go into that, but I do think (and I would assume Werty agrees) that the problem is not so much intermarriage as it is that people have come to ignore most principles of Judaism when they don’t suit the individual, in favor of easier, more flexible, more universalizable ones.

The “You’re telling me I’m ‘not Jewish enough!'” card is well overplayed. (BTW, it’s a mitzvah to rebuke your neighbor. A friend and I once realized that that particular mitzvah is absolutely prohibited in many, if not most, liberal circles.)

III. You shall be pluralistic. Many have come to believe that diversity, especially when it comes to every conceivable variety of family configuration, enriches Judaism by exposing people to different ways of thinking and living.

Maybe this is what got Next Jew to call him a “a cantankerous kvetch who champions a world order which is quiet, routinized and organized.” Werty knows enough not to actually straight up criticize this pluralism, but now it’s out there. This is sort of when I realized KRG wasn’t actually disagreeing with a lot of his points, saying things like “there’s a thread of truth to this one” and “I also agree.” So what’s the problem? Why all the name-calling? Why all the hatin’? Because it just “feels” like an attack? It’s funny that telling you what your group probably believes and you agreeing with it can be seen as an attack, isn’t it? It says something about the article’s subject matter, doesn’t it?

OK, now I’m doing it.

IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.  There was a time when most Jews roughly agreed on the key components of Jewish identity as well as on collective Jewish needs.

I think this is pretty agreeable, and he doesn’t really criticize although I can guess the undertones. “There used to be an objective standard, and now there’s not.”

V. Meaning, meaning shall you pursue. It follows from the previous commandment that the way for institutions to compete for the temporary attention of individual Jews is to offer them “meaningful” experiences[…] “A Judaism and a Jewish community without Torah as its center isn’t going to survive,” declares an influential young rabbi, adding, “nor is it clear to me why it should.” By these lights, Jewish survival for its own sake is meaningless.

OK, I have to admit I don’t get this one. I agree with the first part; but I don’t see how “Judaism without Torah at its center won’t survive” is actually against his own thesis. Still, KRG’s criticism is less intelligible:

I’m kind of mystified by number 5. Is he saying that Jewish survival, should it have, for example, no Torah at the center, and no community, is worthwhile for its own sake? Why? Number ten, OTOH is classic Wertheimerian krechtzing. He just doesn’t actually get that there is no non-public square anymore. I know the guy is basically a grump (and sexist, though that doesn’t come out so much here) who spends his editorial time complaining about “the kids these days,” but does he really want to advertise the fact that he has no idea what year it is and is unaware of the use of new technologies and how people – not just Jews- actually live?[…]Still, even a stopped analog clock is right twice a day: He’s right that the term “tikkun olam” which doesn’t really mean what people think it means, has even in the more general way it is used currently, come to be essentially meaningless (Rabbi Jill Jacobs takes this on concisely in the introduction to her first book).

Rabbi Jill Jacobs says it, so it must be OK to mention this classified, yet impertinent, piece of info.

VI. You shall create caring communities. The burden of responsibility rests entirely on the institutions, which must avoid having expectations of those benefitting from their care.

KRG also agrees with this, but can’t help adding that Werty is “imprecise.”

VII. You shall encourage the airing of all views. The glory of Judaism, in the current reading, lies in its openness to debate, controversy, and dissent.

Nothing from KRG, but let me add that I absolutely hate when liberal rabbis say we should be able to knock all the pillars down–deconstruct them, if you will–cause Judaism is so open to debate that it encourages dissent to the point to which we’ve currently devolved, which is to say that no act or belief not immediately verifiable is necessary anymore. (And to say that there are such acts or beliefs makes you “Ultra-Orthodox” and “un-pluralistic” and “NOT a Next Jew.”)

VIII. You shall not be tribal. Others balk at the “tribe” part altogether, repudiating the claims made by Jewish peoplehood and tilting instead toward cosmopolitanism.

Cause no other group ever does that. 

IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness. But if engagement with the Jewish people has become more awkward, pride in being Jewish has not.

Again, he’s not really outright criticizing anything per se, but I did read an article recently that said that secular Jews take pride in their ignorance of Jewish concepts. Nothing annoys me more than a secular Jew making bad Jewish jokes. They call it “pride,” of course. Those jokes are all some people have.

This is what KRG has to say about it:

He complains about celebrating Judaism (what he means is that he objects to young Jews insisting that the evidence is that we have no good reason, at least in the USA, to live in fear of our neighbors), about pluralism (really, is it that important that we all fit into very narrow categories? I wonder where I would go, since I’m a halachicly pretty traditional (except on specific things where I consider myself more stringent, such as who counts in a minyan: I believe everyone has chiyuv), textually obsessed, geeky, politically (very) liberal Jew. I like the Conservative movement’s big tent, but if the orthodox started counting women as equals, I could see myself there, too). This flows into his complaints about being open to airing all views and personalizing our Judaism.

KRG, stop being so serious. We both know what he’s saying about celebrating your Jewishness. He’s saying that we’re celebrating our ethnicity even though we’re not really taking any positive steps to actually merit that celebration. We’re just living nominally. You’re missing the point. And pluralism doesn’t mean that, either. “Very narrow categories?” You mean like how liberal Jews use the old “You’re either with us or you’re Ultra-Orthodox” approach? Those kinds of narrow categories? Pluralism means you’re trying to be something for everyone. And by everyone, I mean everyone. People who complain about keeping kosher, etc. The “big tent” you like so much. I don’t think you’d want to be Orthodox. Why? They’re not a “big tent.” They don’t water down their ideals to accommodate people who don’t want to keep kosher and complain when someone criticizes them.

X. You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public. This strikingly reverses the habits of the past, when, as the legal scholar Suzanne Stone has noted, a sharp distinction was drawn between conversations in the house of study or within the Jewish community, where fractious debate was both safe and welcome, and conversations in the public square, where “the honor of religion [was] at stake…and expression highly regulated.” Today, the mandate is to exhibit no such concern about “what the Gentiles will say” and to be unafraid of being heard and read by all.

I agree. It’s like we want everyone to hear. It’s like a circus. But here’s the news: You feel safe and you don’t sense anti-Semitism, but something brews beneath the surface when you do air all your grievances and weaknesses in a public forum (I mean, like, Huffington Post, for instance). People are picking up on what you say. KRG says “there’s no non-public square,” but that doesn’t mean you have to take all your problems straight to gentile media for the goyim to gawk at your problems. Jewish problems don’t belong on FOX News. You think there’s no reaction; no consequences? They remember your weaknesses and they are only so ready to turn all that against you when the time comes. I’ve lived in the Bible belt; anti-Semitism is called missionary work there. You want to say all religions are equally valid, that “God may have well seen fit to enter into other covenants,” but you had better believe other religions aren’t saying the same about you.

The Next Jew, though, sees it a bit differently:

One can almost hear the sound of both of Wertheimer’s hands gripping in white-knuckled mania onto a Judaism and Jewish community that is changing before his eyes by (Next) Jews who love Judaism almost as much as he.

Do you love Judaism? Or do you love what you think it should be?

(Although, as Jeff Eyges pointed out in a comment to Dan’s FB post, Wertheimer’s Judaism [=Conservative Judaism] is as dismissed as the Judaism he sniffs at by folks gripping even tighter to the reins – the Ultra-Orthodox)

There’s the “Ultra-Orthodox” again. Cause not saying everyone is equally right is a terrible thing.

KRG says:

As one of those uppity types he’s cranking on, I can say that while a lot of the Conservative movement is still hidebound institutionally, it’s ALSO the movement where some of the hottest ideas are being incubated – and that’s what pisses him off. OMG: Indie minyans that don’t affiliate!! Gay people! Women in the rabbinate instead of staying home popping out babies! Egal davening! three table potlucks (kosher, veg and kosher/veg, natch)! The world is coming to an end!

LOL @ the Conservative movement having “hot ideas.” And I like how non-kosher veg is a table at the potluck. My point exactly? And anyway, I don’t think he mentioned any of those things in the article.

I leave you with Jeff Margolis:

But we’re still doing that flaming bag of dog poo on Dennis Prager’s front porch, right?


Now, here’s how this affects me. I used to be one of those people who would have criticized Wertheimer for not having the Vision, that of course we should “personalize” and “revitalize” “our” Judaism. Of course we should take it away from the Authorities and Reclaim it. I loved the Jewish Catalog and the DIY approach appealed to me. But I’ve been disappointed. They told me they were pluralistic, but not to the point where they could completely respect anyone who believed in the Traditional Point of View. Everything was “the Ultra-Orthodox hate this” and “you’re either reasonable like us or Ultra-Orthodox” that. They told me they were pluralistic, that this was the most important trait you could have, but what of the non-liberal Jews you so love to scorn? And what of religion? There’s “making it work for you,” and then there “radically changing it to fit your changing desires/perceptions.” There’s adapting it to the world, and then there’s forcing a perfectly valid system (Judaism) into the confines of another system (democracy, universalism, etc.) That, to me, says that you didn’t find the first system good enough. You say you can’t put your Jewish practices in a box, but you are. And there are tons of labels on it–pluralism, egalitarianism, whatever–you don’t see them because they just happen to be exactly how you see the world. You think “Liberal Judaism” doesn’t have its own set of claims and biases? How can you say someone’s not a Next Jew if you don’t have a very specific idea of what a Next Jew ought to be? And why do you have to name-call anyone who doesn’t fit into that box? So much for pluralism.

They told me they wanted to take away the “institution” and take away the “top-down approach.” But somehow that went too far, and now anything objective is seen as “the institution.” If we don’t have three tables at the potluck, it’s because the Institution is telling us “how we should keep kosher!” How dare it! Why, it must be telling me I’m Not Jewish Enough If I Don’t Keep Kosher! Individualism sounds nice, but it’s only compelling to a certain point. I want objectivity. I want some semblance of it. If your religion doesn’t have objectivity, if people are telling you “God may as well have seen fit to enter into other [equally important] covenants with Christians, Muslims, etc.” (USCJ Statement of Principles), where is the motivation?

They told me we need to “reclaim” Judaism and “revive” it. Reclaim from whom? Who took it? The rabbis? Which rabbis? The Haredim? How did they do that? And how are you going to “revive” it? How is it in need of being revived; is it because of it or is it because of you? What do you propose ought to change? And why? I think I read this in Elie Kaunfer’s book–the only “empowering” book that I liked–I thought what we needed was a new gimmick, new programming, but that’s the last thing we need. Everything we need is right there. We’re the ones getting it wrong. We’re the ones who need to be “revived.” We’re the ones slowly but surely inventing an entirely new religion suitable to what we think we need.

I was kiruved and I liked it

I just finished a 10-week online program called Jerusalem Online University, which is hard to explain but here’s a visual:

That was on “The Torah Doesn’t Have a Lot of Errors Compared to Other Stuff” day. There were a lot of “logical proofs” like that. One was that since a Torah scroll can last up to 600 years or something like that, it only takes 12 in a row so errors can’t get in, and there were only nine discrepancies in one study, etc. How Sinai happened cause there were a lot of witnesses, and no one else has made the same claim of a national revelation, and so on.

I was skeptical at first, but I did it much for the same reason I had a bat mitzvah–“Nothing better to do!” I’m not sure I was their target audience, but don’t get me wrong I was pretty thrilled that I was accepted into this thing from the beginning. The only qualification was “One Jewish parent” and I was 1.) Shocked, because I thought it was sponsored by Aish and they’re pretty strict, and 2.) Joyous, because someone cares about my soul yay.

So, at first, if you’ll notice the kids on the chat on the right of the screen can get a little rowdy, and they were annoying me, and I kind of felt like a mom because my first thought was “Hey this program might be lame but maybe it will make one of these bros want to be frum,” and obviously I wasn’t thinking about myself because as far as I was concerned I didn’t need their kiruv.

But after a while I got kind of into it, and maybe not because of what he was saying so much as the fact that someone was actually doing this for us college students. Since what I’m used to is all efforts going toward getting families to buy synagogue memberships, I thought it was nice that they spent so much time and effort trying to get us interested. I wondered for a long time, and I’m still wondering actually, what they *really* want from us. I’m sure they expect the retention rate to be pretty low, and yet they’re giving us $200 to be in this ten-week program, and all we had to do was write weekly journals about what we learned. It’s so altruistic. It blows my whole mind.

I know skeptics would probably say something like, “They do want something; they want you to be like them! Ultra-Orthodox! They say that other forms of Judaism are invalid!” From my brief experience at least, they’d be happy if you were just more observant, even if you were label-less. Obviously, I’m sure they would really like it if you decided to be Orthodox, but if I may speak for them right now I’d suggest that’s because non-Orthodox branches don’t really demand as much out of their congregants relatively speaking, and on the contrary they want you to have the “whole package.” (My theory.)

I don’t think I realized I was getting into it until we were sent a survey after it was over. One of the questions was “How did you feel about Judaism before this?” and another was “How do you feel about it now?” I think the answers were something like: a.) A good source of tradition b.) a few interesting rituals c.) good moral guideposts d.) an entire way of life. I wish I could actually remember c.) because I ended up picking C. It was a lot like D but less intense. So then for the “How do you feel now?” I picked D. I thought about it, and although I was obviously way too into Judaism to be their actual target audience when I started at the beginning of this semester, I guess it did help me a little in unexpected ways.

First, it was nice to know that so many people were working together to make this program for the sole purpose of making kids like Judaism. There was even an option in the survey of “Further correspondence,” which I signed up for cause I’m entirely enthralled at this point. The very fact that so many people cared made me feel kind of inspired. (I know, you’re tearing up.) Next, I guess I had been thinking of Judaism as “good moral guideposts” or whatever. Obviously, I knew it was a system and I advocated for its being a system, but even so I know it took me a long time to think of it as “not just halacha,” and even longer to think of it as an integral life method, like Answer D said. I mean, I knew it was an integral life method, but being pounded with info on “How the world could have scientifically been made in six days” and how “the Jews were really chosen” made it get pretty real. Basically, it was nice to know that there are people straight up living this and believing it 24/7, which I haven’t really seen of course besides the Orthodox rabbi here and my Conservative rabbi back home.

A lot of it was dedicated more to “This is great” rather than “This is what you do,” or more importantly, “This is why it will be good for you personally.” A lot of the Judaism 101 stuff that I know either focuses on 1.) What the holidays are symbolically about, which he did talk about some, but in a more stimulating way (i.e. I heard “You have to go up the down escalator!” about four times to explain how Passover is about self-change…rather than what Judaism 101 usually talks about, which is stuff like “What you put on the seder plate”), OR 2.) How practicing Judaism will make you more ethical/healthier/a better person etc. JOU kind of strayed from that, and indeed he said during one of the courses that “Your job is to follow the Torah and repair the world with your hands tied behind your back! You have to be a light unto the nations by following the Torah! And you don’t have to go out and assimilate, the world will come to you!”

I liked that message because it didn’t beat around the bush, which I think a lot of Judaism 101 curricula do, by saying that you have to be ethical and Judaism just happens to help you do that, how convenient! But that method makes it sound like your job is to “repair the world…and if Torah gets in the way, you know what to pick. The Torah’s great, but it was written by people who were trying, just like we are.” JOU wasn’t heavy on “how it’s useful” stuff like that so much as it was on “Isn’t Judaism great? You can believe in Torah and still be a rational person!” I don’t know how to explain it, but it was “Isn’t Judaism great?” after being so used to hearing “Isn’t Judaism good?”

Anyway, I’m still not really entirely sure what they want me to do now, but hey. I would suggest that a good next step might be not leaving people alone in the wilderness after all this, which can be a problem with Birthright for example, where you have no outlet for the aftermath of the experience. I know the JOU people are really into large get-togethers, which appeal to the AEPi bros but probably no one else, and occasionally it seems like the whole program was made for the AEPi bros (there was even an optional AEPi trip offered during, like, Week 7). But they’re currently having optional informal weekly online courses, which is nice. If I were them, I’d be like “yo you’re trying to convert here’s some help and/or moral support,’ but maybe I’m just being idealistic. (I’m still waiting for some rabbi or something to be like “Oh, you’re converting what a good thing” instead of the “Oh, you’re converting, don’t ask me to help you” vibe I usually get.)

Therefore, I was kiruved and I don’t know what to do with it!

The Jewish Catalog review/hagiography

written for a class

The Jewish Catalog is one of the best success stories that came out of the “religious voluntarism” that characterized the post-immigration period. During a time when each denomination was battling a growing ambivalence among its own constituency, this is the book they wish they would have written. It would have been especially relevant to Reform Judaism during the period in which it was decided on the un-divine origin of the Torah, but nonetheless held traditional texts in high regard.

The 60’s and 70’s were a time of increased sense of ethnicity and spirituality, which opened the doors for the possibility of this book. I am quite doubtful such a book would have been very popular in the 50’s. What is interesting, though, is the approach. It is one that may not even be successful today, as it focuses on particulars and we have more non-traditional liberal sources today to follow (i.e. “Debbie Friedman recommends this song…Gunther Plaut recommends that interpretation.”) The soul of the book would be crushed under all the “modern interpretations.”

In the section on the mezuzah, we meet Maimonides, Eliezer ben Jacob, and R. Tanhum; and the laws for mezuzah come from Kitzur Shulhan Aruch, hardly a liberal source. Later on in the section, we even learn about the mizrach. In the section on kashrut, we are warned that “the only thing to worry about [regarding fruits and vegetables] is that insects haven’t invaded your food” (19). Such concerns would not worry the typical Reform congregant today, nor would the list of approved hechshers, including the Orthodox Union, which has the word Orthodox in it. I do wonder whether a Conservative reader would find interest in a similar book had it been written today, although again, it may “seem” to be too Orthodox-leaning, ironically. Likely, though, it would gain most traction in “post-denominational” circles, or even certain “culturally Jewish” circles perhaps. I suppose this was its initial audience as well.

The book’s success is even more outstanding given the level of detail that might lead one today to claim it’s “too traditional” (again, very ironic). It focuses on how to do things correctly over esoteric commentary on “how spiritual it will be if you think about doing it.” Admittedly, it is a self-proclaimed “DIY manual.” “You should have two sets of dishes and two sets of silverware,” it claims. And “you absolutely need sink liners” (23). It only occasionally recognizes denominational division (24). Despite this, it’s quite socially liberal:

If you are female and want to try out a shofar, you might really freak out the seller, who, shall we say, may not yet have sufficiently raised his consciousness. You can dodge the problem by bringing a male friend along. But if you run into any difficulty, remind the fellow that the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 589:6) specifically allows women to blow a shofar. (65)

I especially enjoy the timely section on How to Bring Mashiach. Some suggestions include planting a tree (preferably in Vietnam), sing “Lo yisah goy” at West Point while digging holes for trees with swords, “letting the female within you encompass the warrior within you,” and other various useful things (250-1).

The book has endured because, even today, it is one of the few avenues that people who cannot affiliate with mainstream institutions have available to them. It makes a person want to be Jewish, when faced with so many other options. It shows that Judaism is a perfectly interesting and even fulfilling alternative to popular options such as Buddhism or Hinduism or other smaller sects that apparently were popular in the 60’s and 70’s. I especially like it because it serves as a kind of model for a “post-denominational” community, which can do things like build its own sukkah, but do it within halachic guidelines, and without requiring a hierarchical leader. It gives people an ability to be self-sufficient. Moreover, it seems to regard both “culturally Jewish” and “religiously Jewish” groups as one (even in the juxtaposition of illustrations and photographs), so that the potential gap between the two is synthesized. That, particularly now, is essential.