MSNBC’s Kabbalah Corner

Does anyone else find interesting how much MSNBC covers the new-age Kabbalah craze? It could just be the standard mocking of stupid celebrities. Not only are people like Madonna and Britney prime journalistic fodder, but they won’t have to worry about the Kabbalah center suing them into oblivion for defamaiton unlike some other “religious” institutions.1
For example, in a recent Newsweek interview which appeared on MSNBC:

When Spears talks about the South Asian musical influences on ?In the Zone,? she says she?s ?been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions.? When asked if one of them is Hinduism, she says, ?What?s that? Is it like kabbalah??

So she’s not exactly a religion major.2 It’s possible she has some insightful comments about comparative religion. I doubt it considering her teacher has some trouble keeping her own Kabbalah straight. See for example, MSNBC’s review of Madonna’s new children’s book, Mr. Peabody’s Apples:

In her introduction, Madonna explains that ?Mr. Peabody?s Apples? is based on a 300-year-old Ukrainian tale called ?The Baad Shem Tov.? [sic] She says her instructor in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, first turned her on to the story, which aims to demonstrate the power of words.

This could be a simple typo on the part of Madonna or MSNBC. Frankly I’m curious if Madonna knows something we don’t (undoubtedly she does, but regarding Jewish History. On second thought, scratch that too). Did the Baal Shem Tov have an evil twin? Or maybe this guy was a Hassid from the ‘Hood?
At any rate, I’m sure MSNBC will continue to humiliate the these two for many months to come. They just make it too easy.

1. What, you’d think I’d mention them by name? They scare me.
2. But a poster child for not learning Kabbalah until one turns 40. Incidentally, Madonna easilly meets the age requirement.

Posted in Odds & Ends, Popular Culture, Religion, Society.

Midterm Meltdown

I finished my take-home midterm today – to wiped now to do much. Next week, I give a presentation for Theorizing Religion on Asceticism In Rabbinic Judaism. Obviously, it wlil be a little different than my shiurim because of the nature of the class. Still, I get to do a quick intro to Talmud with a little mahshevet hazal thrown in. Not bad for a “secular” college.

Posted in Personal.

Marathon Woman

A big y’yasher kochech to Fresh Samantha on completing the NYC Marathon in her first attempt!
Her overall time of 8:24:51 earned her a close 34,649 place overall, 11,701 for women, and 2,906 for her age group.
8.5 hours of running – I’m getting tired just thinking about it. If you have a spare moment, pop on over to her site and share the love.
Congrats Samantha!

Posted in Odds & Ends.

Rapture and Reconstructionism

Shavua Tov everyone.
A few things on my mind before I get back to the take home midterm. The first is a response to a critique I found on Heimishtown. In my earlier rant on hareidi community I used the phrase “ever so humble self-proclaimed ‘Gedolei Torah.'” Heimishtown rightly points out that in that article the term “Gedolei Yisroel” was used not by the Rabbis themselves, but by the Yated Ne’eman Staff. My understanding is that the term “Gedolei Yisroel” is not just used by the masses to refer to their rabbis. The specific reference was to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. If the rabbis are not part of the same organization, then I apologize for the incorrect attribution.
On a slighly different note, we had an interesting speaker come to the Hillel this week: Rabbi Dan Aronson, the Dean of Admissions at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). I must compliment him on two things. First, he carried himself like a professional. He was always polite and civil despite some rather obnoxious comments by a particular audience member (not me). Second, I always have a degree of respect for someone who admits when he doesn’t have an answer and he has to think about it some more. While this is an ethic commended in Avot 5:7 (or 5:6 in the Rambam’s version), many Rabbis I’ve met would instead fall in the alternative category of the Golem.
At any rate, there were two major critiques I had of Reconstructionism as he described it. The first is really more of a critique of Mordechai Kaplan, the movement’s founder. Admittedly, I have not read much of Kaplan myself, so for now I will rely on what I heard from R. Aronson. As stated on the RRC website, Reconstructionists “define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” R. Aronson then defined what he meant by “evolving,” “religious,” and “civilization.” However, I noticed he did not define what was meant by “Jewish.” It seems to me that this is a circular definition in that the term “Jewish” is used to define “Judaism.” Kaplan would certainly hold that some people are not considered “Jews,” but I do not know what that precise definition would be. Even resorting to ideas like a “symbol set” or relevant ethics, he would probably not say that a Christian who held these ideas would in fact be Jewish.
The other critique is more fundamental to the purpose of Reconstructionism. As presented to us, Kaplan was trying to stem rampant assimilation. Judaism needed to undergo consious changes in order to survive – the “traditional” model would not be sufficient to maintain the Jewish people. Judaism As a Civilization was published in 1934 (if memory serves). Not being alive then, I cannot possibly know what was the reality of Jewish life in America. However, despite the numerous problems througout the “traditional” world, I would think that it’s still in relatively good shape in that it’s not going anywhere. Yes, assimilation still happens, but I would say that I don’t think that the “traditional” models are going to disappear any time in the near or distant future.
Finally, there was one particularly poignant observation from one of the audience members. Kaplan writes about the need for Judaism to evolve in order for it to survive. However, he does not explan why Judaism ought to survive. What would make the “Jewish” set of understandings significant enough to warrent perpetuating? If it is just to preserve the history, then we could easily set up a museum for it and cease any form of observing it at all. Kaplan’s stated goal of combating assimilation only makes sense if there is something in Judaism that’s worth not only keeping, but keeing vibrant and alive. If there is indeed something inherently significant to Judaism – it cannot be divine by its nature since Reconstructionists do not belive in divine revelation of the Torah – then what would it be?
R. Aronson recommended Exploring Judaism as a good text to understand more about Reconstructionist Judaism. If there are any experts in Reconstructionism out there, feel free to post your comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Shabbat Shalom: Parashat Noach

It’s been an unusally busy blogging week for me, which usually means I’ve either been hyper, annoyed, or both. Let’s end the week on a positive note, shall we?
Here it is “Arky, Arky” or “Rise and Shine”
Click here to sing along!
Guitar choirs: C F C DM7
(Chorus) Rise and shine and give God the glory-glory (x3)
Children of our God.
God said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody” (x2)
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, Children of our God.
Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky (2X)
Made it out of gopher barky, bary. Children of our God.
All of the animals, they came in by two-zies, two-zies (x2)
Elephant and kangaroozies, roozies. Children of our God.
Rained and poured for fortyday-zies, dayzies (x2)
Nearly drove those animals crazies, crazies. Children of our God.
Dove went out to take a peeky, peeky (x2)
Dove came back with twig in her beaky, beaky. Children of our God.
This is the end of, the end of our story, story (x2)
Everything is hunky-dory, dory. Children of our God.
(Lyrics from a comment here)
Shabbat Shalom
For added shabbat fun, try using this tune for D’ror Yikra and perhaps benching. Extra points if you don’t accidentally start singing Carlebach’s “Shomrim”

Posted in Meta.

Golemic Proportions

One last post today and then I am so done. In honor of Halloween, MSN’s Learning and Reseach Center rates nine scary monsters from various cultures.
The Golem gets a 4:

Sometime around 1500, it seems, a certain Rabbi L?w [sic] of Prague decided to build a tireless servant. He shaped a heap of clay into a crude humanoid, muttered a spell and–say hello to the golem, a powerful pile of mindless matter that follows its master’s orders relentlessly.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out as hoped.

Three issues:
1. “Muttered a Spell” – I think even the Kabbalah Center would be upset with that description
2. “build a tireless servant” – Hey, the water carrier thing was just a cover for his true purpose – to thwart the blood libels attempted by the anti-semitic peasentry. (oh, and once to rescue a Jewish woman who was raised Catholic). I used to read the comics in the Jewish Press, and they wouldn’t mislead me. Not about this anyway.
3. Here’s the kicker: “Didn’t work out as hoped”??? What does that mean? Does anyone know of stories that involved the Golem going on murderous rampages? Ok, maybe the evil anti-semitic peasants got their blood libel plans foiled, but hey, they deserved it. And as we all should know from the X-Files, the golem only exists to extract revenge on the enemies of the Jews or to serve as their protectors like that episode of Gargoyles. Even Mendy got along with his golem.
Sorry, I’m in a bad mood today.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Haredi Rattle And Roll

Avraham sends over this classic from the ever so humble self-proclaimed “Gedolei Torah.” Basically, women are not supposed to get an education to earn a living, yet they have to raise the children by themselves and support their husband who’s learning in kollel. This of course despite the fact that the husband is contractually and halakhically obligated to support her. I guess with all that talmud study, no one bothered to learn Aramaic, or they’re just relying on the warm fuzzy English translations.
He also seds a nice article on Chassidic Rock. Not only does this demonstrate that they read secular newspapers (unless they have their “shabbes goy” do it for them), but that someone must have listened to rock music in order to indentify it in the first place (unless of course, they are all ba’alei teshuva or they used the aforementioned shabbes goy). Their posek in Rock Music is Mr. Philippe Ayache, a R. Tendler-esque professor of Baroque music – who by the way must have had some secular education. Maybe they should have just seen School of Rock.
In fairness, some songs played at wedding make no sense. Check out some on this list of wedding songs to aviod. In addition to these, I’ve personally heard part of Live and Let Die played at one wedding (you know who you are) and I’ve been told by several people of I Will Survive being played at weddings, which of course is the English equivalent of Od Lo Ahavti Di – an old school wedding staple.
Too ticked to comment more on these now and I have a midterm to write. Feel free to rant in the comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Grad Schooled

Elder Avraham’s recent post about his experience in trying to graduate reminds me of my recent expereince in trying to get my Revel diploma.

Me: Excuse me, my transcript says I’m a “Bible” major. It should be “Talmudic Studies.”
Secretary: It’s the same thing.

Priceless. Oh – still haven’t gotten the Revel diploma, but I do have the major correct. And only after four years…

Posted in Personal.

Secular College Stereotypes

The secular college debate is what Dr. Lee might call a ?chestnut? ? one of those belabored topics like the death penalty, gun control, or the failures of Jewish dating life. Rarely will new information come along which will force a reevaluation of one?s positions. However, every now and then something will happen: an event, or in this case a publication, which for some reason has a significant impact on a community.
Recently, two graduate students wrote an essay warning orthodox parents of the dangers pervasive in secular colleges. (I do not know when/where it was initially published ? I came across the RCA link accidentally). Gil Perl, a
PhD candidate in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Yaakov Weinstein, a PhD Candidate in nuclear engineering at MIT, specify harmful “Onslaught of Ideas” (e.g. biblical criticism) and "Sexual Temptation" to which unsuspecting Modern Orthodox students will be exposed.
In a Jewish Week article covering the reactions to the essay, many considered the manifesto to be “alarmist.” And included the requisite range of opinions from those who agreed and disagreed with the authors. Even new YU President Richard Joel specifically disagreed with the negative portrayal of Hillel, an organization which he led as president for several years. (Although he did not address secular colleges vs. YU). Others have been more explicit in condemning this piece as Orthodox’s typically sheltering response to challenges. Blogger Dr. Manhattan used the metaphor of a cocoon mentality. Conservative Rabbi Alan Mittleman similarly criticized the authors and their reactionary culture as “Fretful Orthodoxy.”
As a YU graduate and musmach now attending a secular college (one not known for its Jewish community), I see that the authors write not from paranoia, but from concern. Before elaborating on this point, we have to take a step back to see the real purpose of the offending essay.
First, reread the title: “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses.” The intended audience is not the global Jewish community (although it would be naive of the authors not think it wouldn’t get out), but specifically to Modern Orthodox (MO) parents of college age students. Many parents and some MO yeshivas believe the ideal is to send their children to Ivy League or other moderately prestigious colleges. YU is to be avoided at all costs. Presumably, parents want their children to remain Jewish, preferably observant. Then they must assume that the Jewish life on the typical secular college campus is sufficient to maintain their child?s Jewish life. The authors aim is to debunk this myth; not only is the secular campus life insufficient to maintain one?s Jewish life, but it may aversly affect whatever religion they do have.
Going to Penn does not condemn someone to hell any more than going to YU guarentees a spot in heaven. From my experience with typical yeshiva high-school students, I would say that 90% of them would do better at YU than elsewhere. That leaves 10% who will either do well elsewhere or perhaps better than they would at YU. The authors are not writing for them, but for the parents of the 15% or so who do have the choice and have a misconception about the reality of a secular campus.
While observance is not guaranteed at YU, nor is apostasy assured at secular colleges, it is undoubtedly easier for one to maintain and certainly to augment their Judaism at YU. Even ignoring the educational elements of shiur and the core requirements, compare anything from accessibility of kosher meals to minyanim.
College guys are lazy. The default would be not to do something. Even at YU students struggle to attend their ubiquitous minyanim. Many of them don?t have to leave their dorms ? just head downstairs ? imagine if they had to leave their apartments and get on a bus to get to a minyan. For the seriously committed, these inconveniences will not matter, and for the seriously secular, YU won?t change anything. But what about those in the middle who could go either way? This is the contention of the authors ? they are talking to the parents of the middle majority.
I do not think it?s as simple to call this debate cocoon vs. non-cocoon. One of the authors himself studies in the Near Eastern Languages dept at Harvard where he is undoubtedly exposed to heresy the likes of which even MJ?s students haven?t seen.
The authors themselves argue that it might be preferable to teach bible-criticism at a younger age. But they are not interested right now in changing the yeshiva educational system, only in assuming it is a given and working from there. They did not necessarily advocate YU as the Answer. In fact, they did offer suggestions as to how one may attend secular college and maintain their Jewish identity e.g. live at home.
YU is hardly the panacea for Jewish education. I mentioned earlier that 10% might do better elsewhere. YU can be intellectually, religously, and emotionally stifiling. Classes are limited, shiurim myopic (depending on the shiur), and there is the excessive pressure to get married by the time one turns 20. There are certianly people who would rebel against YU and would do much better at a secular college. I do not think the authors would deny this, but again, I think they are writing for the majority.
When discussing issues of Modern Orthodoxy?s future, it?s important not to look at the ideal, but the reality. As much as the yeshiva system could use an overhaul, it?s not going to happen in the near future. Ideally, we might like to expose high-school students to bible criticism, but the reality is that many lack the intelligence or interest to take it seriously. Just like ideally we wouldn?t want sex or drugs in the yeshivot, but that doesn?t change the reality. There is certainly a generation gap in that parents probably do not have a good idea of what their children are doing and certainly not what is going on in secular colleges.
The authors? sanctimony did not help their cause and I’m certain it helped unify the opposition. Secular college isn’t inherently evil. There are many advantages and opportunites, none of which were discussed. With both secular colleges and YU there are risks to one’s religious observance, and these risks must be evaluated carefully and honestly. There is however one prerequisite:
Modern Orthodoxy needs a complete reality check.

Posted in Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?

When I first mentioned that I would be a panelist discussing Egalitarian Liturgy, the immediate reaction I got was cynical to say the least. "Why would I want to get into that," and "you’re being railroaded" were just two of the comments reflecting the broad sentiment. Initially, I too was skeptical for probably the same reasons.

First, the word "Egalitarian" recalls the classic conservative vs. orthodox debates, and is often employed by those with specific agendas. 1 However, knowing the nature of the Hillel, and after speaking to the Rabbi, it seemed obvious to me that the panel would be cordial and informative.
Some questions still remain: why take the chance or why bother with this at all?

It’s a good question; one which requires its own post.


The Ideological Conflict

I do not want to discuss the details of the other panelists’ positions, mainly because I do not want to misrepresent them. However, I can present my own take on egalitarian liturgy and how I presented it in the discussion.
I did not like the title of the panel. The term "ethical" presupposes the discussion is a moral one – that there is some inherent value towards egalitarianism to which all people are subsumed. While there is a value to egalitarianism, I do not see it as an "ethical" imperative, but rather as a "religious" imperative. For the sake of this essay, I will define "religious imperatives" as requirements necessarily for the sufficient observance of one’s faith.

As one of the other panelists correctly noted, the word "liturgy" is not limited to prayer, but it includes all manners of public worship. When discussing inequalities in Jewish liturgy, the most blatant example is the role of the woman. 2 Women are relegated to sitting behind a mehitza restricting them from active participation. Furthermore, several prayers themselves are not amiable to many women. How can one properly worship when s/he3 is excluded from the primary religious mechanisms? This is a religious imperative.

However, there is a conflicting religious imperative: to maintain "The Tradition." The current actions of the community – following the practices of the previous generations – are as canonical as the Torah itself. It is arrogant at best – heretical at worst – to alter the practices of the previous generations.
Advocates of Egalitarianism could rightly point to the fact that liturgy has changed over time. Piyutim were added throughout the middle ages, many in response to actual events.4 For the proponents of tradition, the changes that happened in the past are valid, but we today have no right – or minimal right to make any further emendations. Furthermore, the nature of some of the changes currently suggested affect essential parts of the prayer service.


To further understand this debate, we will have to examine some of the specific examples of the offending elements of Jewish liturgy.

I discussed the specific issue of prayer – the colloquial use of the term”liturgy”.; I noticed two categories of non-egalitarian prayer. The fist involves language of explicit or implicit exclusion. For example, “bessed are you…that you did not make me a woman is obviously exclusive of women. Other prayers exclude wicked people; in the amida prayer "velamalshinim" excludes heretics. An implicit exclusion would be the yekum purkan prayer which blesses “the congregation and their women and children” – implying that the women are not part of the community.

The other examples of non-egalitarian prayer do not excluded the petitioner, but somehow make the prayers inaccessible to the petitioner. "God" is most often referred to in the masculine. Or the use of the avot, the fathers and not the imahot, the mothers.

For the proponents of egalitarian liturgy, these types of passages exclude either the prayers from the individuals, or the individuals from the prayers.


Can there be a harmonious solution between the two conflicting religious imperatives? Regarding the issue of God language, I suggest that the imperative could be not to modify the language at all. According to all parties involved, God is supposed to be a non-gender. The Hebrew language lacks a gender-neutral conjugation; the masculine gender is used by default. By making a point of including feminine God language, one removes the neutral aspects of the masculine and instead emphasizes the gender. I will also theorize that this might have more of an impact on those communities who pray in English. The constant use of "Him" or "His" will have a greater impact on those who pray in Hebrew and will not be as sensitive to the masculine usage.

For the other changes, one would have to consider the nature of the prayer being modified. Of the passages mentioned, emending the yekum purkan would be the most plausible since it would have the least effect on the tradition. Few people would notice the change – assuming they know the aramaic and say all the words – and even if a community would still reject this change for themselves, they would not reject other communities who would adopt this change.5

Regarding the Amida, I cannot anticipate any substantive changes in the current siddurim. However, halakhically, it might be possible – if not preferable – to personalize the silent amida.6 The petitioner will then have the religious meaning while remaining in the halakhic tradition, and assuming the petitioner uses some discretion, s/he will not offend the social tradition.


Throughout the Jewish history, Rishonim and Achronim have reinterpreted Jewish laws to reflect the religious needs of the community.7 However, due to the fragmented nature of the Jewish community, there are rarely new religious needs which are applicable to all. It is not surprising that different communities will have different needs. Therefore, I cannot claim that there is a universal religious imperative for egalitarian prayer. I can say that it exists for certain individuals throughout all communities, and for separate communities themselves. However, so is the religious imperative of "Tradition" equally applicable across the spectrum of Judaism. When faced with this conflict, it is up to the communities to reconcile them for themselves. Each has free will to decide which imperative will take precedence. However, in the areas of conflict, both sides must realize there will be consequences – most often the ostracization of one community by another. This too is a religious imperative – and perhaps the real ethical imperative.

1. See for example the sponsors of the program.
2. There are inequalities among men which are not addressed. E.g. the preferential treatment to the kohen.
3. Although this would mostly apply to women, there are some men who are particularly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the service. For them, egalitarianism is also a religious imperative.
4. For more examples of the evolution of prayer, see the articles and books by Dr. Joseph Tabory
5. Or at least not for this reason alone. This would be in contrast to practices like women reading from the torah, which have a more divisive effect in the Orthodox Jewish community.
6. Minimally in the blessing of shema koleinu.
7. See the collected works of Jacob Katz among many others.

Posted in Random Acts of Scholarship, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.