Monday, November 29, 2010

Yeshiva guy says over a vort - with glossary for those who don't speak yeshivish

This video requires a glossary and some explanation if you are not familiar with yeshiva-speak, but I think the point is clear nonetheless. It makes a great case for the Conservative movement's historical approach to the continuously-unfolding revelation of Torah.


Glossary (in order of usage):

"to say over a vort" = to repeat a brief explanation of something in Jewish tradition that I learned from somebody else

"by my rebbe's" = at my rabbi's house

"Shabbos" (Israeli pronunciation: Shabbat) = the Sabbath

"pasuk" = verse in the Torah

"machlokes" (Israeli pronunciation: mahloqet) = a dispute between rabbis in the Talmud

"shehakol" = a berakhah (blessing) recited before eating food that does not fit neatly into certain other categories (i.e. unprocessed fruits and vegetables, wine, bread or other baked goods)

"mezonos" (mezonot) = baked wheat products other than bread

"to wash" = the ritual washing of hands, mandated by the rabbis of the Talmud before eating bread, a mitzvah (commandment) which is not found in the Torah

"bracha" = berakhah, a ritual blessing

"gemara" = literally, "completion," this refers to the rabbinic commentaries in the Talmud that were compiled primarily in Israel and Iraq from the 2nd to 5th centuries, CE; in this case, it is used to mean one specific discussion within that large body of work

"Masseches Brachos" (Massekhet Berakhot) = the tractate of the Talmud primarily dedicated to issues of prayer and berakhot over various items

"Avos" (Avot) = the biblical Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

"kol ha-Torah kulah" = the whole Torah, i.e. all the mitzvot explicitly stated in the Torah AND all those described in much later rabbinic literature

"mitzvos" (mitzvot) = commandments that are incumbent upon Jews to perform

"lulav and esrog" (etrog) = parts of four plant species (willow, myrtle, palm, and citron) that are used ("shaken") during rituals on the holiday of Sukkot

"Sukkos" (Sukkot) = one of the three major harvest festivals of the Jewish calendar, Sukkot commemorates not only the major harvest of the year, but also the time that the Israelites spent in the Sinai desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus occurs many generations after Yaaqov/Jacob and his family went down to Egypt.

"Amaleq" = a tribe that attacked the Israelites while they were traveling through the desert, also long after Yaaqov/Jacob.

"zekher" = literally, "remembrance"; the reference is to Deuteronomy 25:19, wherein there is a dispute regarding the pronunciation of the word zekher . It could be read with different vowels, either as "zekher" with the vowel segol under the letter zayin, or "zeikher" with a tzere under the zayin (although Israelis pronounce these vowels identically in this context). There is a recent Ashkenazic custom, according to Dr. Joshua Jacobson no older than 100 years, to repeat this verse when it is read on Shabbat Zakhor (the Shabbat before Purim), pronouncing the word once one way and then the other way.

"Parshas Zakhor" (Parashat Zakhor) = a portion of the Torah read on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim, including the verse mentioned above

"leyn" = the Yiddish term for chanting from the Torah as Jews do every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday; Yaaqov/Jacob could not have done so because the Torah itself did not exist during his lifetime

"Sefer Torah" = a Torah scroll

"gid ha-nasheh" (badly mispronounced in the video) = the sciatic nerve, which Jews are forbidden to eat according to Genesis 32:33

"Crocs" = a brand of plastic sandals

"Tish'ah Be'Av" = a mournful day in the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of the month of Av is the day on which Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and Romans respectively. It is customary not to wear leather shoes on this day (hence the modern affection for Crocs).

"Rav Elyashiv" = Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a prominent rabbi and decisor of Jewish law based in Israel. He recently banned the wearing of Crocs on Tish'ah Be'Av and Yom Kippur, citing their comfort.

"Converse" = a brand of canvas sneakers

"Rishonim" = Torah commentators who lived from the 11th through 15th centuries, CE

"YU" = Yeshiva University, an Orthodox-affiliated institution of higher learning in New York City, founded in 1886

"mesorah" = collection of traditional sources

"kefirah" = heresy

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 11/25/2010

Pirqei Avot 2:5

על תפרוש מן הציבור
Al tifrosh min hatzibbur
Do not separate yourself from the community.

I’m flying to Israel today, so I won’t be part of this tzibbur, this community for two weeks.

Nonetheless, we belong together. We need each other.
This is also a humbling idea - nobody should think that s/he is so perfect or wonderful that s/he does not need community. That is what a synagogue is all about. And here's a wee bit of etymology:

"synagogue" = place of assembly (Greek)
בית כנסת ("beit keneset") = house of gathering (Hebrew)

The English word, borrowed from the Greek via Latin, is merely a translation of the Hebrew.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson - Changing Paradigms

This lecture by author Ken Robinson is an engaging and inspiring take on educational paradigms. It will be of interest to anybody who is drawn to rethinking education. It was sent to me by my son Oryah's teacher at the Waldorf school that he attends in Nes Tziyona, Israel.

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 11/24/2010

From the first berakhah of birkat hamazon:

הזן את הכל
Hazan et hakol
God is the one who nourishes all of us.

This of course refers to food, but maybe something else as well. We all need a little spiritual sustenance. Have a bagel, but have a piece of history, philosophy or theology on the side. God is the source of food, but also gives us the wisdom to understand. Make sure to feed all of your needs!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 11/23/2010

Pirqei Avot 2:18

על תעש תפילתך קבע
Al ta’as tefillatkha keva’
Do not make your prayer a fixed recitation.

Don’t be stuck in the words! Let your mind and heart wander. Tefillah should be reflection, not just mindless recitation.

And, it can happen all day. Take your tefillah with you when you leave.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Vayishlah 5771 - Judaism 2.0

My daughter Hannah loves to read books. Of course, she’s three and cannot actually read by herself, but she loves having books read to her, and will sit by herself for long stretches with a book in her lap, thumbing through the pages as though she were actually reading.

Within perhaps two years, God willing, she will learn to read. And then she will have no more need for books.

We are in the midst of what can only be described as a paradigm shift; we are being molded by technology more so than ever before, and this is taking place quite rapidly. The question that I would like to put before you today is this: What will we be able to hold onto in the future that will maintain our roots as the People of the Book? What will continue our distinctiveness as a literate tradition?

I would like to paraphrase for you the opening passage of today’s parashah, based on the way I think it might be retold today, if it were taking place in 2010:

Vayishlah Yaaqov - Jacob sent a text message to his brother Esau on his Blackberry. He said, “sending gifts. what do u think?” He hit the “send” key.

A text message came back to him. “am coming 2 meet u with 400 men.”

Jacob was so upset that he nearly dropped his phone. But then, realizing that without it he was helpless, he gathered his senses and googled how to escape from your angry murderous brother and 400 soldiers.” Wikipedia’s entry on biblical military tactics suggested that he split up into two groups, so that at least half of his family and cattle would get away. Then he searched for an appropriate prayer, and found something on

May it be Your will, God of our Fathers and our Mothers, God of Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, and Isaac, God of me and my wives Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, that we all make it through this without ...

Then his phone rang, he answered it, and promptly forgot the whole thing.

* * *

Here are a few pieces of information that I need to share with you:

1. I was speaking to a handful of 7th graders at the Youth House a couple of weeks ago, and asked about their favorite books. One of them replied to me, “Who reads books any more?”

2. In other news, a shocked and disappointed mother told me last week that her sixth grader cannot spell the word “soup” (or even come close).

3. Also last week, another mother told me that her daughter does, in fact, still have textbooks, even though all of her course materials are online. Lugging all of them home in a big bag, her 5th grader told her that the heavy books are only for when the power is out.

4. I teach many classes in and around this building to young people. One of the biggest challenges that I face when I am teaching tefillah, Jewish prayer, is simply getting children to open the siddur (prayerbook) and try to follow along with me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the era of print is over. We are in a transitional time, the cusp of a new world, a world in which our relationship to the word is entirely different. Not that this brave, new world does not read, merely that all of the reading that we will do in the near future will be on LCD screens. It is already largely that way for those under the age of 18.

Is this, as every Jewish newspaper editor in history has asked over and over, good for the Jews? We in the Jewish world risk being stuck behind, forever clinging to our beloved print with all the affection and foolhardiness that we demonstrate for our prized material possessions. I love my books; in every Bar/Bat Mitzvah workshop that I teach, I present a historical overview of the Jewish bookshelf, complete with bound examples of the wealth of Jewish literary tradition. I pass around the room volumes of the Mishnah, Talmud, Miqra-ot Gedolot (Torah with standard rabbinic commentaries), Maimonides, the Shulhan Arukh (the standard 16th-century codification of Jewish law), and so forth, relics of centuries of Jewish printing and millennia of commentary.

Our tradition of stories and ideas is print-based, and prior to that, it was manuscript-based. Starting with the Torah. To this day, we make our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) the way that our pre-print ancestors did, writing them by hand with all-natural materials.

Muslims call us ‘ahl al-kittab, the People of the Book, a phrase coined by Mohammed in the Qur’an, and we have proudly adopted this moniker, in Hebrew Am Ha-Sefer. What will we be when books are no more?

What can we hold onto?
What will root us in our history?
What can ensure that our story is not lost in the digital sea, archived like so many old email messages by a world that has moved to the eternal present of the question “What are you doing right now?”

I attended a lecture this week by Dr. Ken Stein, professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History and Israeli Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He is presenting a three-lecture seminar for rabbis entitled “Wrestling with Israel,” in which we are learning strategies to respond to the nascent movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. I am going to generalize his strategy beyond this issue in particular.

In the course of his talk, Dr. Stein pointed to a couple of important trends:

1. Students arriving at university today have trouble grasping the big picture of history. They can find very detailed, very deep information using all of the electronic tools available to them. But they have difficulty synthesizing larger stories.

2. History today is taught in terms of narratives. When I was in high school in the 1980s, for the first time American history was being taught as a general story with several sub-stories - the story of women in America, or African Americans. Or Jews. This narrative principle has overtaken, in some ways, the overarching picture. And it is this narrative method that has enabled the adversaries of Israel to fashion multiple narratives. And they are, of course, contradictory.

3. The major difficulty with the competing narrative problem is that most of us are not equipped with the ability to apply the relevant source material against the non-academic, ahistorical spin that the deniers of Israel use to ply their trade.

We have in fact aided and abetted this by maintaining the canard that the establishment of the State of Israel was a direct consequence of the Holocaust. The wheels of Zionism were set in motion far before 1945. It is short-term thinking such as this that has enabled some academics to claim, as one did recently in an Intro to Government and International Studies course at University of South Carolina, that it is the United States’ support for Israel that caused the terrorist attack on 9/11.

4. We have failed to find the right way to teach our story adequately, regarding Israel or anything else. And we cannot rely on our nifty gadgets to do so by themselves.

Dr. Stein charged us with finding a new way.

As he was speaking about Israel in particular, I found myself reflecting upon my own journey through Judaism, my own learning process, and my attempts to share what I have learned with others, and it occurred to me that the new informational paradigm requires finding a new way to connect Torah to tefillin to peoplehood.

Or, put another way, Jewish learning to Jewish practice to the overarching Jewish story. To understand the details of Jewish life within the big picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we want Israel to exist in the future, if we want Judaism to exist in the future (and particularly our non-coercive, decisively modern and yet historically-based brand of Conservative / Masorti Judaism), we must make sure that our narrative is first learned and understood by all of us, and that we make sure that the rest of the world hears it as well.

I think that the greatest gift that Temple Israel, or for that matter all of North American Jewry could give to the future would be a multi-million dollar project. Let’s call it the Jewish Story Project. This money could be invested in developing a new technology that would capture the attention of all young Jews, through their mobile devices, laptops, iPads, whatever, and teach them the fundamentals not just of the story of the modern Jewish political expression called Zionism, but also the stories of the Torah and Talmud. I think we need to be thinking BIG. We need to think on the top shelf, and not just in terms of what is “good enough.” It has to have all the appeal of Facebook or Twitter or Angry Birds (which I have never played), and all the depth and clarity of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

We have to co-opt the information revolution before it turns around and bites us back. We have to fight back: pixel for pixel, byte for byte. We need to make Judaism a part of that eternal present, to rephrase the question for our people from “Is it good for the Jews?” to “What are you doing Jewishly right now?”

And while there are many Jewish electronic resources available for our consumption (the Torah, the Talmud, commentaries, halakha, philosophy, etc.), nobody can yet lay claim to revolutionizing the relating of the Jewish story through electronic means. And that is precisely what we need: a Jewish digital revolution.

We need to migrate to Judaism 2.0. At stake is nothing less than our future as the People of the Book.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Although I wrote this to deliver at Temple Israel on November 20, 2010, I contracted a stomach flu the night before and therefore was not able to do so.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 11/18/2010

From the poet Rahel, who lived in Mandate Palestine:

וְאוּלַי לֹא הָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים מֵעוֹלָם
Ve-ulay lo hayu hadevarim me-olam
And perhaps these things never happened...

It is one of her better-known poems, and all the more so because the words were set to music by Yehuda Sharett and sung by the famous Israeli rock 'n' roller Arik Einstein, among others. She wrote it while surveying her years of hard labor taming the agricultural fields around the Kinneret, making the hills of the Galil green.

Sometimes, when we come very far in a task or project or process, the beginning seems so far away that we wonder whether or not it actually happened. But that is the nature of commitment and growth - every task is a learning process through which we are fundamentally changed. If it's a very long task, it makes the beginning seem so far away, like another lifetime.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 11/17/2010

Pirqei Avot 2:21

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה.
Lo alekha ha-melakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimenah.
You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it.

We all face so many tasks each day, and there is never enough time to finish them all. Don’t panic! Keep going, keep trying to do what needs to be done, even though you know you'll never reach the bottom of your list. That is the only way to go about life.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 11/16/2010

In an effort to generate more interest in the daily minyan at Temple Israel, we are now serving a breakfast buffet afterwards.

Pirqei Avot 3:21:

אם אין קמח, אין תורה. אם אין תורה, אין קמח.
Im ein qemah, ein Torah. Im ein Torah, ein qemah.
No sustenance, no Torah. No Torah, no sustenance.

The rabbis understood that we need a balance of spiritual and physical nourishment to survive. We cannot learn the Torah without sustenance, and without the words of the Torah there will be no sustenance to be had.

Tefillah (prayer) is Torah study; I am grateful that we have something to eat after!