Why or why not?

Tablet Magazine ran an article earlier this week that I suspect drew quizzical looks from readers. Titled “Black Jewish Temples Get Their Own Prayer Book, After Nearly a Century,” the article is as much a short history of the Black Israelite movement as it is about the siddur itself.

Let’s bracket the kinds of historical concerns that we might bring into play discussing the Black Israelite movement. They’re not relevant to this post, because what I want to talk about is one reaction I saw on Facebook to the article. That reaction (paraphrased): “why do Black Israelites need their own siddur“?

The answer: because liturgy matters. Continue reading

Advertisements

We Can Do Better Without It

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, writing at SophiaStreet, has a post prompted by the deaths of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel.  (I’ve previously posted about this here and here.) In her post, Rabbi Kaplan argues that theodicy helps respond to suffering. She briefly catalogs the weaknesses of theodicy. For brevity’s sake, we will say that the basic problem with theodicy responses is that they have to contend with logical contradictions inherent to understanding God as all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing, and yet allowing evil into the world.

She turns at the end of the post to say that yesterday, she would have thought these responses to be useless. Today (in light of the three students’ murders), however:

Continue reading

Musings on Historical Approaches to Judaism and Problems of Is and Ought

DovBear has a discussion on his blog today about the implications of a “rational and historical” approach to Judaism. He quotes a question posed about the practice of tikkun leyl Shavuot–staying up all night on erev Shavuot to study–and whether, if someone will be exhausted and “lose Torah” as a result, it is better to “quit while you’re ahead” or stay up all night. The response to the question says, essentially, tikkun leyl Shavuot is only about 500 years old and its origin story with Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of the Shuchan Arukh) is sort of dubious, and none of the rishonim or Talmudic-era rabbis did it. So if you’ll “lose Torah” by staying up all night for the tikkun, the quote says, it’s better that you sleep your ordinary schedule than try to stay up.

DovBear doesn’t particularly agree with this (I’m soft-pedaling his response a bit).  Continue reading

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Starting Points

As promised a while ago, I’m still here and will continue to post.

Posting will be a bit intermittent for a while yet, I think. We are, in some sense, trying to rebuild our lives a bit. And at a new starting point, I’m thinking about any number of starting points. This post is bit of reflection on that idea.

Starting Point, the First – Crisis

For those who’ve read the blog for a while, you’re aware that my son, Secular Jew, Jr., (let’s just use SJJ here for now) is autistic. (If you’ve not been reading for a while, you now know.) Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a number of setbacks for SJJ–dramatic aggression, lost coping skills, lost communication skills–that in retrospect appear somewhat tied to medication issues, but that also seem to have been building for the last year or so until reaching a breaking point in late April. He’s been hospitalized in inpatient treatment centers twice in the last month, with the total inpatient plus waiting-in-the-ER time coming to about two weeks. The last of the two stays overlapped with his tenth birthday.

It’s been a horrifyingly difficult time for us–for him, unable to get across his needs and sometimes being ragingly angry, and for us, unable to do what parents are supposed to be able to do: to fix it. And the gap in services–medical, mental health, therapeutic, etc.–has been frightening and frustrating and enraging and depressing, because there are so few resources for parents dealing with autistic children in their extremes. Fortunately, we had enough support and resources to start to get back on track. Lots more behavioral therapy coverage has been approved by our insurance company, a new doctor is involved, and family was in town to help absorb some of the emotional blows of an earlier-than-expected release from the second inpatient facility. (And I’m beginning to wonder whether my insurance card will just spontaneously combust at some point from overuse.)

In short: we’re at a new starting point. Full-time therapy, no public school, no summer camp, a new schedule, and new challenges.

Starting Point, the Second – Identity

But putting SJJ into hospitals twice, with very limited visiting hours (generally an hour per day) during those visits, allowed Mrs. Secular Jew (MSJ) and I time we ordinarily would not have. And so, I had time to consider my own starting points.

The first time I had to consider these was when we checked SJJ into the first hospital. Hospitals ask about your religious preferences when you are treated inpatient, so they can (if you want) match you with a chaplain. Both hospitals just had an open box with religious preference–you write it in.

So, what would I put? (Somehow, though I insist to MSJ that just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I’m good with paperwork. My job is more involved with tearing paperwork to shreds than with filling it in. Yet still, I do most of the paperwork.) None? Humanist? Jewish? Something else?

My decision: “Jewish (humanistic).” And I declined chaplaincy services. To my knowledge, there aren’t many humanistic Jews in the Indianapolis area, and I know who the Jewish chaplains in the area are and just didn’t feel like I would want their services. And SJJ, who has limited communication skills, wouldn’t get much from chaplaincy services in any case.

Mishnah Berurah - halakhic text (photo of book)

Mishnah Berurah

Did I write what I wrote because that was the easiest thing to do? Probably–the likelihood of it just confusing chaplaincy staff and encouraging them to let us be drove some of that decision. But the answer reinforced for me that, wherever I end up, I know where I start: with Jewish sources.

Starting Point, the Third –  Coping

Continuing on, it turns out that when your home life is oriented almost entirely around raising a special-needs child, you actually don’t know what to do with yourself when that child is gone. Or at least, we didn’t. So combined with the fears and concerns we had, all centered on a child who has suddenly changed in a dramatically negative way, we were faced with a vacuum in the conduct of our daily lives.

So we went out to dinner. We visited SJJ every chance we had. But when you’re accustomed to waking up to find that your child is in bed with you (again!), and wake up in a different state, it’s very disorienting. And it’s guilt-inducing to intentionally do things that are fun, because it’s not what you think you should be doing at that moment–even though you know you need the break.

I was in some ways almost paralyzed into anxiety and introversion by all this change. Decisions just didn’t matter, and I didn’t have a lot of interest in making decisions anyway–our son wasn’t home, and we were both exhausted. Yet I was waking up several hours before I needed to leave for work.

This is where I reached another starting point. I had to remake a daily routine that would at least begin to fill in gaps. I didn’t really know what to do with that time in a way that wouldn’t leave me perseverating on the troubles we faced–that our happy, funny kid had turned almost overnight into a desperately unhappy, angry, raging, violent person.

And so I did something I hadn’t done in years. I laid tefillin.

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

“Wait!,” you might say. “You did what!?” (At least, if you’re a secularist/humanist/Yiddishist/etc.) So, let me explain.

I needed some kind of thing that would structure the day. That thing was usually helping get SJJ ready for school in the morning, but that wasn’t happening. I was up several hours early. And I needed a way to use the time to get my head screwed on right so that I could do the work of the day. I needed quiet; not the quiet that came with a suddenly empty house, but a reorienting quiet where I could work out my own “stuff.”

Meditation Room Window - stained glass nature image

Meditation Room Window

The building I work in has a meditation room. It’s labeled that way. I know, I know, it’s a chapel, right? But no crosses, or stars, or crescents. Some secular artwork? Yes. There are Bibles and Psalm books on some shelves in the back. But there are no religious services conducted there, other than the occasional employee-organized Bible study or prayer circle. Our employer does nothing in that space; a private organization separate from my employer maintains the room.

In short, it’s a quiet, warm room with some chairs. It’s not often used early in the day.

And I start from a Jewish point. It’s what I know and where I’m comfortable. So I constructed a weekday ritual around laying tefillin in the morning. I sometimes used a siddur, but engaged in a significant pick-and-choose process: I’d say one thing, omit another, change another, to express what I wanted to express. Or I would study something–part of the weekly Torah reading, or some halakhic text in Hebrew–to still my mind and transition from the trouble of home to the focus of work.

What I wanted to express was just the hope that we would be reunited with enough improvements to move forward. I didn’t ask anyone or anything supernatural to intervene, and I didn’t expect it. I still don’t. I didn’t pray. I still don’t.

But I needed a thing to do, and I needed a place to do it. I still love the core liturgical texts as poetry. I love Hebrew. And so doing something that would look to an observer like a very “traditional” Jewish thing to do–after all, tefillin were found at Qumran!–was what came naturally.

Starting Point, the Fourth – Moving Forward

Where does this all leave me now? Laying tefillin and studying a Jewish text–part of the siddur, or the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch yomi, or Mishnah Berurah yomitmost weekdays has become kind of centering for me. Even on days when I don’t lay tefillin, which has taken up a kind of “worry beads” meaning for me, I study one or both of the daily Kitzur or Mishnah Berurah in Hebrew. They’ve had no normative effect on me–I don’t do anything different, and many times I recoil at what the texts say about treatment of non-Jews. And, as before, I continue to try to read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, as well.

What am I not doing? I’m not praying. I’m not keeping kosher, observing Shabbat in a halakhic manner, or observing yom tov. When I’m burned out, I’ll stop without guilt, because what I’m doing isn’t something I perceive as being commanded in any way. It’s a balm.

MSJ and I talk about my new practice as “davvening,” since that’s what it looks like to the outsider. But it’s not what’s happening on the inside–and, if you look closely, you see that it’s not what’s happening on the outside. But it makes me feel better, and it lets me stay connected to parts of Jewish culture and history that resonate for me emotionally, though not intellectually or normatively.

And that’s what I need right now as a starting point.

Leavening

So, finally, I’m jumping on the “Jewish bloggers blogging about Pesach” bandwagon.

I know, I know–I’m late to the party. I can live with that. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier and, in the spirit of the festival, mah nishtanah.

And, like many, I’ve been seeing or receiving the various Haggadah supplements that are going around. I’m going to be a bit of a contrarian about Haggadahs for a moment. Specifically, I’m going to complain about text.

As in so many other things, Judaism has largely developed to have a “fixed” text for the Seder. A script, with stage directions. Many of these are important, of course–if you don’t know the Kiddush, you need the text, assuming that doing the Kiddush “right” is something you want to do.

But what if it isn’t? Or, put another way: should it be?

Continue reading

Procedural vs. declarative Judaism

If you don’t listen to the New Books Network podcasts, you are really missing out. Get thee to thy preferred podcast app and subscribe!

One of my favorites from the network (and I subscribe to a bunch of these) is the New Books in Big Ideas podcast. The most recent of these is a conversation with A. David Redish, author of The Mind within the Brain, which discusses the various kinds of memory and cognition, decision-making processes, and the problems that may arise with all these.

During the podcast, he and the host, Marshall Poe, discussed procedural vs. deliberative (also known as declarative) cognition and how these affect decision-making processes and human behavior generally. Prof. Redish mentioned that you learn to do new things–basketball was the example, but there are others–through a process that initially engages the deliberative/declarative systems but then moves toward ingraining those things into the procedural systems of the mind.

It was a fascinating discussion, especially because I really have very little background in psychology. (Come on–I went to grad school for religion, law school, and worked in IT. Something had to give! I also know very little about art, for what it’s worth.) And it got me to thinking about what my misgivings and comfort levels are with traditional prayer in a less traditional Jewish context, and why halakhic observance (or heck, remembering that I don’t actually want to eat very much meat) is so difficult for newcomers.

One of the tricks of procedural memory/cognition is that it engages the dopamine feed into our brains, which is why athletes talk about disengaging your conscious thinking and talk about being “in the zone.” My experience with the traditional prayer services is like this–I can get “in the zone” where I’m executing (in a technical manner) and feel really comfortable. But that doesn’t happen when I stop and read the words.

Actually, it does–but it engages the “in the zone” feeling for reading and translating Hebrew, rather than the “in the zone” feeling for reciting the prayers. The problem, of course, is that when I’m in the Hebrew zone, I remember that I don’t actually agree with the contents of the prayers. And I think this explains why I and others sometimes feel uncomfortable with the different liturgical approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism. (In my rabbinical school class a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chalom explained this as we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–people don’t actually agree often with the content of the prayers, but they refuse to allow change.)

This actually has me feeling pretty optimistic about my own ability to adjust out of the unease I feel with some of the liturgical challenges of Humanistic Judaism. Eventually, I realize, I’ll “get there.” The challenge will be making myself practice differently until what is deliberative becomes procedural.

I think many of us approach Judaism this way generally. “Why do we do it this way?” “We’re used to it.” “That’s absurd, don’t you think?” “Sure, but it’s how we do it!”

That covers a wide range of issues; in the liberal Jewish movements, we all “know” that many of the biblical texts aren’t literally true. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe (a Conservative rabbi) got in some trouble at a Passover seder when he said something like, “The Exodus didn’t really happen,” and was upbraided not because the audience disagreed, but because they just didn’t want to hear it in context–like that’s dirty laundry we ignore in public.

So the challenge for many of us will be, in the future, shaking up that procedural memory. Seems like it will be an interesting challenge.

Plasticine prayers

So, I mentioned at some point on the blog that I’m a rabbinical student here. The current rabbinical seminar centers on the Jewish calendar, holidays, liturgy, etc. Among the items discussed last week was Shalom Auslander’s short story, “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremey.” In it, the protagonist creates two golems using instructions in Kabbalah for Dummies, and chaos ensues. Interspersed throughout the story are excerpts (translated into English) from various traditional Jewish prayers, with “Epstein” (the protagonist in the story) taking the place of the name of God.

It’s a hoot, though not for the religiously faint of heart (that’s true for a lot of Auslander’s writing). We used it in class as a way of leveraging into thinking about what prayers say and what, as Humanistic Jews, we should say in liturgical texts, because integrity of thought and speech is central to the movement’s self-definition.

This, plus reading for the next class session, brought me back around to thinking about the language of liturgy. I’m still unsure about how I think we should approach dealing with traditional texts and melodies from a humanistic perspective. One thing I liked seeing was a few texts from HJ services that recognized past practice and prayer, then turned to what we now say. But I’m a history buff (ask Mrs. Secular Jew in Indy about that), so that would appeal to me. And, of course, you can’t stick a “this is what we used to say” prefix onto everything–it’s not as though the reasons for the musaf service in traditional practice are persuasive for a humanistic Jew. (Heck, it’s not even persuasive for plenty of folks in the Conservative movement!)

Nevertheless, after seeing a number of HJ liturgical texts, I still think I would like to see a bit more in the way of adopting traditional forms into HJ liturgical practice. I’m not sure what that would look like–I actually rather like the adaptation of Shalom Aleichem that I’ve seen in HJ texts–but I’m sure I’ll continue to ponder this as time goes on and as I have more reason to communicate with other Jews about what I’m up to.

Yom Kippur – Say What You Mean

One of the things that, when I was in a more “mainstream” movement Jewish setting, frustrated me was the language of prayer. What I mean by that is the translations in most of the “liberal” are also themselves quite, erm, liberal vis-a-vis the original Hebrew; once I actually learned Hebrew, the highly artistic-ish English translations of say, Siddur Sim Shalom became very, very suspect because they are really not accurate.

Last night, I thought I would take a look at the (it’s the old one from 1972) Conservative mahzor on my bookcase (prosaically titled “Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” in English, and Mahzor L’Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew) to see if I could find anything interesting/inspiring/appropriate for setting a course on thoughts for Yom Kippur. After taking a quick spin though the Kol Nidre prayer and not really finding great inspiration there (it is, after all, a preemptive mulligan on vows for the coming year–nice, legal stuff), I went to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening service.

Boy, did I find something. But, as is so often the case, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It was something way, way better.

After setting forth Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19 in Hebrew with a pretty decent English translation on the opposite page, we get this gem (my translation from the Hebrew):

Master of the Universe, Merciful and Forgiving Father whose right hand is extended to accept those who return, I have conducted myself according to the will of my inclination toward evil; I have rejected the good and chosen the bad. And not only have I not sanctified my limbs, but I have also made them unclean.

I will admit, it’s a rough translation, not great in the details and not artfully done (it’s early and my son is running around jabbering about VeggieTales). It is, however, something the Conservative mahzor is not; basically literal. The English on the facing page of the mahzor doesn’t even attempt a literal translation, instead including paraphrases like “Is there a person anywhere altogether righteous…? I am but flesh and blood, often yielding to temptation,” and “The struggle is ceaseless, the choice is ours.” (Mazhor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 347)

The next few paragraphs all begin the same way: “barata bi”–“You [God] have created in me” various characteristics–a mind and heart to contemplate the good and to discern holy things, eyes that can see the universe’s beauty, etc. Several of them conclude similarly, too: “oi li ki”–woe unto me, for “I have followed my eyes and made them impure,” or “I have made my ears too impure to hear words of prayer.”

The English? “I have been created with eyes” or “ears” or “a mind,” but always passive, deemphasizing the clearly active voice of the underlying Hebrew. And the conclusion does not include the “woe unto me,” but rather says, “Often I squander God’s gift and look without seeing,” or “hear without listening.” (p. 347)

The problem–and it’s like this throughout the mahzor–is that the English is gussied up, sanitized a bit, and presented as if what we’re saying in Hebrew is what we’re saying in English. (Yes, it’s the older mahzor. Guess what? The Conservative movement’s approach hasn’t really changed much on translation over the last few decades.)

It is not. And if you care about the integrity of public liturgy–whether you want to call it prayer, shared ritual, or something else–that’s a problem. It’s a problem that the mainstream liberal Jewish movements don’t really deal with well, because they live in a strange world where the “sancta” of Judaism (Mordechai Kaplan’s terms) are largely preserved and retained in use, put into the mouth of the average congregant (or at least recited on her or his behalf), and yet are clearly not what the leadership of those movements understand their members as willing to affirm or have affirmed for them.

Yet on the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance quadruples (or more!), those most important of days in the calendar, shouldn’t we say what we mean? And for those of us who will or have taken leadership roles, shouldn’t we provide our fellow Jews with the ability to say what they mean?

This is a hard thing, without question, because it presents us with a challenge: how much do we preserve? What do we set aside? How do we do so in a way that respects a wide range of beliefs? And how do we do so for ourselves?

I think the place to start is by acting for ourselves. And so that is what I plan to do this year. As we move through the calendar, I will try to use or craft language that reflects what I actually think.

I recognize that this will be a challenge for me. It already has been, and we’re not through Yom Kippur yet. I still find awkward–because they are unfamiliar–the blessings for Shabbat and Havdalah that are in the Society for Humanistic Judaism materials. But I can’t in good conscience recite the traditional blessings, because I don’t believe in a god that directly created the universe or acts in history; and that is so regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic I find the traditional texts.

I am comforted, however, by a reminder that this isn’t the first time I have had to adjust to the new. In that timely way they have, Tablet Magazine published an article this week, “Learning Judaism as a Native Language Requires More Than Synagogue Once a Year.” It reminded me that I learned to play guitar awkwardly, at first, but became more natural over time. So, too, with Hebrew (and I’m still learning there). So, too, with the traditional prayers I know so well.

So, too, will this be. And it will be an adventure.

I’ll keep you posted. Hopefully, you will have or have had an easy fast, if you fasted. I wish my Jewish readers all the best in the coming year. (To my non-Jewish readers, too, but you’re likely not so preoccupied by Yom Kippur.)

And now, here in Indianapolis, the sky is a clear blue, the temperature is wonderful, and after this morning, we will be headed out to be in the world a bit to cap off the High Holidays.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah.

And now we’re back, or, “Witchcraft”

Here I am, back to thinking about liturgy and ritual.

I’ve been thinking about liturgy, practice, and taboo quite a lot these days as I consider what lies ahead for me.

I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, studied at some point in preparation for Conservative rabbinical training, and am on a decidedly different path (though it is strange that some things old are becoming new once again for me; that’s something I’ll discuss as the time becomes right). My humanistic Jewish identification has made things interesting for me in dealing with my prior engagement with Judaism, as I suspect what I would do looks a lot more traditional than what many other humanistic Jews would do in terms of practice, liturgy, etc.

Example: a kippah. Many humanistic Jews would not wear one in any situation, because the point of the thing is to show respect for the God of Israel. I don’t think I’ll be in that category, not because I think there’s a need to show respect vertically, but because i think it helps, for me, to mark off time where I’m directly engaged in Jewish tradition. To do otherwise would, for me, feel uncomfortable (though not impossibly so–I’ve not worn a kippah lighting Shabbat candles in quite some time).

On the other hand, I would find it difficult to enter a synagogue–any synagogue–without slipping a kippah on my head, but the discomfort in doing so feels different to me. That is, if a building is a building is a building, which I recognize, then why the discomfort in entering certain buildings without a kippah? The answer for me is, I think, “simply taboo.” (Now get your witchy fingers out of my hair, Old Blue Eyes.) That’s probably my own issue to work through.

An issue for me and many other humanistic Jews to work through? Getting people in the doors and comfortable. And I think this means adapting pieces of the traditional liturgy so that the Jews we’re thinking belong with us–Jews whose beliefs and practices most closely comport without our own–are comfortable coming in and adjusting to services.

I’m very attached to the traditional liturgy and its melodies; I’m at least as likely to be humming some piece of the traditional Shabbat service (morning or evening) as I am to be humming a Springsteen song or a TV theme song. And I think others are, too, at least insofar as they expect to hear certain melodies and words in order to feel at home.

So, at least for my purposes, I’m thinking of adapting things to make them work for me and my family, because lighting candles without something to say is weird, I can’t say the traditional thing, and I don’t like the alternatives I’ve found.

I’m certain I’ll have more thoughts on this over the coming few weeks as I get a bit more exposure to some things. Hold that thought–I’ll be back around to this.