Tags: shul


a three-pronged argument

We're outside shul on a snowy Friday night. Kid, aged about thirteen, is telling another kid not to make snowballs.

"Don't do that. You're carrying; you're touching snow, which is muktze; and you're wearing my gloves."

As Gabriel puts it - d'oraita, d'rabanan, and rude.
shiny jen

pre-fornicatory experiences

"A college bop," said Etienne expansively, "is a pre-fornicatory experience."

And the crowd of listening freshmen giggled and fancied Etienne a little bit more, which was presumably the intended effect.

A minimal amount of social bonding and aesthetic enjoyment occurs at a college bop, aided by coloured lighting, cheesy music, and subsidised alcohol, but overriding all is the naked desperation of all present to conclude the evening in carnal embrace.

That is to say, the degree of sexual awareness is practically palpable (as is a great deal else). Who is checking you out? Whom might you be checking out? At whom might you make a pass? What will be the flirty move here, the suggestive word there, that will get you successfully laid? Where is Etienne?

I mention this not because I think you, dear readers, are unfamiliar with these scenes, but because I have little taste for bops, clubs, and other such pre-fornicatory experiences; having avoided them for some ten years, I recently found myself once again in just such an atmosphere, but in the context of an Orthodox Synagogue, which incongruity bears examining.

Among the women, during davening, I wasn't expecting the immaculate makeup, the artlessly blow-dried hair, the tight, tight skirts (modestly below the knee) or the plunging necklines (over a skin-tight undergarment modestly covering collarbone and elbow, of course). I wasn't expecting the enthusiastic displays of piety in the men's section, or the self-conscious charm exerted during socialising afterwards.

Above all, I wasn't expecting that tense, searching, sexually aware atmosphere, where one is continually groped by other people's questing feelers. Where all members of the opposite sex are potential targets, and all members of one's own sex, competition. I was transported back ten years to the college bop; I found myself looking around for Etienne. Granted the aim isn't to get laid at the end of the night - rather to get married by the end of the year - but it's equally as intense, equally as hungry, equally as naked, and sadly unmitigated by loud music or freely-flowing alcohol.

I should perhaps have expected it. The shul describes itself as the nexus for committed, Torah-observant Jews to meet and develop their Jewish futures together; this is apparently code for kosher meat market. I just wasn't expecting shul to be a pre-fornicatory experience, and I didn't like it much.
shiny jen

miscellaneous. *More* tea, vicar?


Hilarious (read the product reviews)

Breaking news shocker, exercise won't make you thin if you're already at your body's optimal weight

scary - I didn't know heat from candleholders could ignite tables.

Serious effort to combat Artscroll's dominance in the siddur market. Winning quote: It is almost like the ArtScroll siddur is a household word - er, "almost"??

This made me very very happy and is completely non-political.
shiny jen

etz hayim olympics

Three-day festival coming up, and that means a lot of time in shul, so you can spend your time doing research for the Etz Hayim Olympics.

Categories so far:
"Have you ever actually read the Torah?"
"Cheap Shots"
"Do you know what pshat even means?"

and any others you can think of; parallel categories for other chumash commentaries, of course, since not all of us are blessed with Etz Hayim. No mocking the mediaevals, but Artscroll's interpretations of the mediaevals are fair game provided you can demonstrate that the risible bit is Artscroll.
shiny jen


The Riverdale Press reports on last Sunday at shul. I posted then about keyrings with Hebrew names, which were apparently a Good Fundraiser.

I'm only posting this really because I like the photo, with the scary colouring. Hee.*

* (Additional commentary about root vegetables excised on advice of Rochester Potato Marketing Board)

shiny jen

a hamalka megillah...

I had the best time this evening. You know HaMelekh megillot, right? Esther scrolls which tweak the layout such that each column starts with the word HaMelekh, which means The King.

So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...

...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.

Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.

I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."

You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
shiny jen

fun at shul

Hebrew Name KeyringsThis is what I was doing this afternoon (clicky picture for bigger). The shul had a Lower East Side Nostalgia Fundraising Klezmer Concert Thingumajig, and I was being the Lower East Side Sofer stall, where people can get their Hebrew names written. I had a cracking time.

I do this writing-Hebrew-names thing a lot, and I rather enjoy it; names are easy, and people like them very much, so it's a very good investment-to-return ratio. I don't usually do it in my home shul, though, so today was a nice change; no travelling to speak of, and writing for people I actually know is nice also.

Normally I just write the names on parchment-look paper, but I had a Brilliant! Idea! in the form of keyrings, clear acrylic ones into which one slips the paper, and then it's cute and useful and all kinds of shiny. And my goodness they were flying off the shelf; from 12-3 I did 45 keyrings, as well as names-on-paper. I'd only brought about 35 keyrings with me, had to do the rest at home and mail them. People were buying them as afikoman gifts, which is very sweet.

I do feel a bit guilty for contributing to rampant consumerism - if Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the thing, cutesy keyrings fail on the first step - no-one actually needs a cute keyring with their Hebrew name on it. So perhaps I should come up with something made of paper instead - a bookmark, or something - that is less wasteful of resources. Any bright ideas?
shiny jen

R' Ovadia Yosef on megillah reading, part 1

Women are allowed to chant the Scroll of Esther on behalf of men if no competent men are available, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi community, ruled in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of his Ashkenazi counterparts.
From Vos Iz Neias, or Haaretz, and loads of people emailing me.

Let's start with how this isn't a landmark decision.

The above is roughly akin to saying "Prisoners should not be detained unlawfully, Democrats ruled today, in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of their Republican counterparts." It's not exactly an innovation. A lot of people have been doing it that way for quite some time, left-wing Orthodox Ashkenazim as well as the liberal movements, so it doesn't really count as "landmark." It also wasn't a "decision," in that he's been saying and teaching that way for some time, in line with quite a lot of rabbinic Judaism over the past couple of millennia. And he didn't "rule," it just came up in a class on the laws of Megillah reading. So, less of the sensationalism.

What is interesting is that suddenly people felt the need to make a big deal out of it. For some reason, the idea that women might read for men has become interesting enough to make headlines. Why should this be?

It's possible that it's part of "Who Owns Judaism?" - it made the news because the ultra-Orthodox said it. Basically all Jewish movements, from centre-right Orthodoxy and leftwards, look to the ultra-Orthodox for authenticity. So it doesn't matter that other flavours of Jew have had women reading Megillah for simply ages; it's only news when the ultra-Orthodox talk about it. Perhaps that's what's going on; if so, it's a great pity.

A tangent: It's a pity for what it shows about how other Jewish movements think about Judaism, perpetually looking over their shoulders measuring themselves against the ultra-Orthodox. Other kinds of Jews don't want to be ultra-Orthodox for a great many reasons, but there is the unfortunate tendency to assume, deep down, that it is basically laziness - that if we were just a bit more prepared to deal with discomfort, we too could be like that. This results in an unspoken but evident assumption that only ultra-Orthodox Judaism is the "real" Judaism, that only the ultra-Orthodox do it "properly," and the necessary corollary that if we're in another movement, there's no point committing to it with our whole heart, if it's just inauthentic toy Judaism.

Moderate Americans don't secretly feel that only hard-line Republicans are the "real Americans," do they? (I really hope they don't, anyway). With notable exceptions, Americans seem to manage the idea that first and foremost you're an American, and you can have political affiliations, and that different political groups are more or less equally valid. Democrats don't go around more or less identifying as Republicans who can't be bothered to do it properly, but an awful lot of liberal Jewish movements have an undertone of being lapsed Orthodox. Either this is a great shame and the liberal movements need a lot more self-confidence, or it is evidence that ultra-Orthodoxy is the only true Judaism. Speaking for the liberal movements (what hutzpah) it's our choice. End tangent.

It's also possible that women-reading-Megillah made the news this particular year because the concept of women participating in things has risen in the public consciousness enough that it's now something people are ready to think about.

Over the past - I don't know, decade? couple of decades? - women's participation in this sort of thing has been increasing. It's now easier for Orthodox women to learn how to read Megillah, and it's a good deal more acceptable these days for women to have women's Megillah readings, for instance. As long as women participating was strictly a non-Orthodox thing, the Orthodox world could comfortably ignore it, writing off the non-Orthodox practices as not really Judaism, but perhaps once it's made its way into the left wing of the Orthodox world it's harder for the right wing to ignore? In other words, perhaps this is creeping feminism crossing a threshold?

So the idea that women might participate in ritual a little more, in the form of a comment about women reading megillah, may have crept into the Sephardi real-world setup. Having crept into the ultra-Sephardi world doesn't mean it's crept into the ultra-Ashkenazi world - doesn't mean it hasn't at all, just evidently less so - which means that the looking-over-their-shoulders-at-the-ultra-Orthodox Jews can't feel authentic about involving women yet. But that's okay, because they ought to be acting on conviction anyway.

In any case, such events are pieces of evidence that even ultra-Orthodoxy is influenced by ideas percolating in the rest of the world, which itself is evidence that exchange of ideas goes both ways, into ultra-Orthodoxy as well as out of it. That is, there is not one true Judaism and a host of lesser Judaisms, but many symbiotic Judaisms.

R' Yosef, being Sephardi, might possibly agree.

But possibly not.

On to part 2
shiny jen

snow day?

In the four-plus years I've lived in this city, I've never actually had to ditch professional obligations because of snow, but this morning I have a commitment to read Torah at the shul's morning minyan, and there is a respectably large amount of snow out there. I've heard of these quasi-mythical beasts called Snow Days, but I've never had to find out, at 6am, whether it Is One, and I don't actually know how it works.

That is to say, I can see from the internet that schools are closed, but does that mean minyan is cancelled? It's minyan! Minyan is about struggling to shul under adverse conditions in order to assemble ten people for morning prayers! Granted "adverse conditions" tends to mean "ugh it's too early for this" rather than "that's quite a lot of snow," but to my sleep-befuddled 6am brain, they seem equally adverse, and if exertion for the one is expected in the normal way of things, why not exertion for the other?

From the mighty scrapings and rumblings out there, I deduce that the main road is probably more or less clear (I can't see it from my windows), but on reflection, given the demographic of our morning minyan, it seems unlikely that a minyan's worth of people will be out there clearing the ground between their cars and the main road, or between their front doors and the place their ride usually collects them.

Which, I think, means I can go back to bed.
shiny jen

why I had ice-cream at kiddush

I nearly ran out of the sermon screaming this week.

Our rabbi is great, and his sermons are unusual - they're actually worth listening to. He's one of the rare people I will make an effort to hear, rather than sneak out to avoid; he doesn't say obnoxious stuff or stupid stuff, and quite often he says really thoughtful, interesting, intelligent stuff. So this week, when he said something that made me go hot and cold and trembly, it was an experience out of the ordinary.

I'm going to tell you about it because it's interesting, but remember that our rabbi is the nicest, kindest, most menschlik person you could imagine, and what happened is the fault of the culture we live in, not the fault of our rabbi. Our rabbi is a simply splendid chap and you should think very highly of him, please.

The subject was the Ten Commandments, and what the mystical commentary the Zohar has to say about "Do not murder," "Do not steal," and "Do not commit adultery."

Basically the Zohar chooses to blur the moral absolutes - i.e. there are many impulses which in moderation are very good things, and in extremis are really really bad. For example: the impulse that leads to stealing isn't actually bad, because Wanting Things fuels things like art and civilisation, just when it goes bad it becomes stealing. Getting inspiration from someone else is a sort of stealing, if you look at it one way, but it's not bad stealing. There's generally moderate versions of things which are good.

When giving a sermon you're supposed to bring an example from real life so that your congregation can connect on a personal level. Our rabbi knows his homiletics, and he told a story about a friend who wanted to lose weight. The friend would be so good denying himself fat or carbs or whatever it was, and then he would crack and eat steak and ice-cream and things and Stop Dieting because he had Failed.

This was the point where I wanted to get up and leave, get out, run away. You see why I was so distressed?

What are the sins in this sermon so far?




Being fat.


Not on purpose, you understand. That wasn't the point of the sermon. Nonetheless, that's what just happened, and it knocked me sideways.

The rabbi is speaking in the vocabulary of our cultural narrative, and we have a very powerful cultural narrative that says eating is a morally dubious act. To diet is to be virtuous; to eat as much as you want is to be grossly inappropriate. We surround ourselves with the message that no effort is too extreme, no sacrifice too great, if thinness will result. To be thin is a constant, all-consuming goal for an enormous number of people.

The cultural narrative, in other words, does seem to put eating on a par with murder, theft, and adultery, so it should come as no surprise that our rabbi chose eating to illustrate a point about impulses which have the potential to be socially destabilising on a grand scale.

For me, this eating-message isn't compatible with the Jewish message. The eating-message says: your body is gross and you are gross for letting it be that way, and if you work very very hard, it might one day be marginally closer to acceptable than it is now. But my Jewish message says: every human being is worthwhile; the world is good; to live is to reflect the Divine glory.

So it distressed me to hear eating being semi-consciously compared to murder. Validating the idea that bodies are inherently repellent by speaking about dieting in a sermon validates the idea that you can only be happy and healthy if you are thin. It validates a corrosive, body-hating, self-hating philosophy.

The stated message of the sermon was this idea that many things are good in moderation but damaging in extremes. I'm okay with this. I accept that too much eating can be damaging. (Likewise breathing too much oxygen.) That's a perfectly reasonable message for a sermon. But it concerns me that the subtle message, the one that is heard by the brain and not by the ears, the one that lurks in the subconscious, was far more sinister.

That was what I heard from the pulpit this Shabbat, and that was why I wanted to run out screaming.

P.S. Please remember to blame the culture and not the rabbi. It's not. his. fault. Okay?