Coming Attractions

As you can imagine, things are busier at U of C since I have to catch up on readings ignored because of the hagim. I spent most of my “blogging time” this week finalizing the move and rewriting the FAQ which is why I haven’t had any new postings in a while.
This Friday I will be on a panel at Hillel discussing “Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?” (I wonder if I’ll have to start rating my performances based on the number of chairs thrown at me). Will b’n get a post on this one.
I’ve also been working on a post about the recent secular college brouhaha. Due to the sensitive nature of these topics, I’m trying to be thougtful, coherent, and at the same time not offend anyone. Ambitious, if not impossible.
Stay Tuned…

Posted in Meta.


Updated on August 29th, 2006
First, let me welcome you to YUTOPIA – The Sometimes Updated Blog of Rabbi Josh Yuter. If you’re reading this entry, you’re probably looking for some more information about who I am and what I’m doing here.

As you might have guessed, my name is Joshua Yuter, and among other things, an ordained rabbi from Yeshiva University. After bouncing around for years, I’m currently landed in Washington Heights New York and employed as a computer programmer.

I started blogging primarily to improve my writing skills with minimal accountability. Meaning, I felt I needed a non-threatening public forum where I could speak my mind and not get villified. (yet). The short answer to my general hashkafa is is ashkenazi guf, non-kabbalistic sepharadi neshama. Long answer is…well, you’ll just have to come back here more often to figure that out, but in terms of halakha check out this series for starters. Of course you should read everything in the archives – not that it’s all gold, but some interesting things in there…somewhere.

The significance of the name YUTOPIA is often misattributed to my connections with Yeshiva University (YU). This is a reasonable guess considering I spent 7 years there, but I’ve moved on some time ago. Really, YUTOPIA is based off of my last name. The name first came to me way back when I was tinkering with RedHat Linux and needed a domain name. As with most things in college, it seemed clever at the time.

Initially, YUTOPIA was running on Blogger, but thanks to Shaya Potter’s uprgading of YUCS it was time to move on. At the time of the move, YUTOPIA had over 4,000 hits – mostly thanks to Protocols R.I.P.) – and a few other very odd poogle links. On October 20, 2003, YUTOPIA moved to YUCS where it has remained since. Since that time we’ve gone through a few redesigns and some other improvements.

YUTOPIA is a small sample of the many thoughts which run through my head on any given day. I may get intellectual, personal, or shticky. My general attitude has been that there is a lot of stupidity on the internet and I don’t really need to add to that. However, I usually bring a unique perspective on things which some people find interesting. I realize not everyone will agree with everything on here, if they leave here thinking a little more than they did previously, I’m happy.

So that’s the scoop. Take a look around, stay as long as you like, and feel free to comment – we’ve had some great flame-free discussions in the past, e-mail or IM anytime.

Posted in Meta, Personal.

Forgive And Forget

In one of the more enlightening distractions of the day, I had a long conversation with the Elder Avraham on the nature and merits of forgiveness. The specific issue at hand was a recent Dr. Laura column in which she tells her readers “Don’t be so quick to forgive” because “knee-jerk forgiveness…will likely make you feel less important and make your pain feel inconsequential. ” In one example, she describes a caller who’s sister had an affair with her husband. Although the sister never expressed remorse, the father wanted the caller to forgive her sister for the sake of “peace” in the family.

On the other hand, it’s clearly not healthy if not prohibited (Lev. 19:18) to bear the grudge. Avraham was reading some texts for Kavvanah which apparently encouraged the offended party to forgive more easily.

How can we then reconcile two conflicting values? What is the middle ground between not becoming obsessed with revenge or self-pity, and not becoming a doormat?

There are several factors to consider. First, what is the nature of the offense? Eating someone’s donut should be easier to forgive than adultery. Not all offenses are equal in their severity and therefore not all forgiveness are equal in their absolution. Second, what is the nature of the apology? Is the offender sorry that s/he committed the wrong or that s/he got caught? Furthermore, there is a difference between saying “sorry” and being sorry. An empty apology serves the offender more than the victim as it gives the offender a sense of absolution and it obviates the guilt. A sincere apology would not only include remorse, but some matter of restitution if possible.

During the IM conversation, Avraham and I reached a similar conclusion from different perspectives. On one hand, a person should not be consumed by hatred, and on the other, shouldn’t be so quick to absolve the offender. Emotional wounds, like physical ones, take time to heal. The more severe the wound, the longer the recuperation. Just as discharging onesself from the hospital too early can have lasting physical effects, so can forgiving a person before s/he is ready. Therefore following this analogy, a person must come to terms with the action before any forgiveness may be given.

Sometimes we are too quick to forgive, or even worse, we’re expected to forgive. People feel obligated to forgive before they’re ready and consequently feel guilty in addition to whatever pain they have suffered. This forgiveness serves the offender more than the victim and is as empty as many apologies. This doesn’t mean a person should be consumed by the pain. Quite the contrary – s/he must undergo the process of healing. This process will vary from person to person and from offense to offense, but in all cases, it must be performed. Only when a person has “healed thyself” can forgiveness truly be given – and received.

Posted in Culture.

Was Marx A Hassid?

We’re in the “Marxism” section of the required “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis” class. If you’ve never read Marx inside, let me warn you it’s some of the most boring dense reading out there. Anyway, in one of his rants on alienation, Marx claims “all objects become for him objectifications of himself.” (not in the linked page, but you get the idea) Basically, when man produces an object, he invests part of himself – his essense – into creating this object. Thus, part of his essense is now “alienated” from himself, which for Marx is one of the worst things imaginable.

As I recall, the Keddushat Levi has a similar approach in explaining mishloah manot but with a positive spin. (Surprise – I do learn hassidut on occasion). Like Marx, he views the mishloach manot as the fruits of one’s labor, and consequently giving someone mishloach manot implies giving someone else a part of yourself. However, whereas Marx emphasizes the alienation factor of man losing himself, Keddushat Levi stresses the community building process of receiving the other.

This got me thinking that for all Marx talks about alienation and what the worker loses, I haven’t seen him discuss where the worker gets anything back. If a worker produces something in which he invests himself, and someone else acquires said object then following the Marxian analogy that person has also acquired the essense of someone else. Thus it’s not simply man losing his essence, but he is necesarilly gaining others in his role as a consumer.

I guess now would be the time to write a warm fuzzy derasha on the individual and his larger role in the community for Marxian and Hassidic thought. I have too much reading to do tonight, so I leave this as an excersize for the reader.

Posted in Academia, Jewish History, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship. Tagged with .

Must A Rabbi Know Anything?

Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner writes an opinion piece lamenting the lack of scholarship in the Rabbinate across all denominations. Protocols covered the editorial and it was met with some criticism from the Elder Avraham. I quickly posted a comment, but I feel this topic deserves some extra attention.

First, consider the different perspectives of Prof. Neusner, and Avraham. Prof. Neusner is an academic and so he thinks like an academic, valuing the formative intellectual development a PhD provides. (Although he has ordination from JTS, he is more known for his numerous writings than his pastoral skills). Second, Professor Neusner comes from a different generation where almost all Rabbis had PhD’s or equivilant degrees. Nowadays, they are a rarity. (As I mentioned in my comment, R. Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff made a similar observation in one of his classes in Gruss). Today’s Rabbis – or at least from what I’ve seen of those leaving YU – are as a whole less knowledgeable, less worldly, and less thoughtful than the rabbis of the previous generation.

Avraham’s response (aside from the dig at Neusner’s own acceptance in the academic field – a debatable point in its own right) is that it doesn’t really matter for the average pulpit rabbi. Most congregations would not want to sit through an hour long dissertation comparing Sir Isaac Newton and Maimonides. Many congregants are either unable or unwilling to concentrate on complex ideas before mussaf, especially if their tired and/or hungry. Assuming people are paying attention, you also have to be careful in terms of how far you can interpret. I once got flack for interpreting Leah as in some ways superior to Rachel. My sense is that most congregants are not interested in serious intellectual stimulation, or at least not at the level which requires a PhD education.

Consider the following quote from Neusner’s editorial: “But they stand for a religious system and are woefully unprepared to carry out their intellectual tasks.” [emphasis mine] It is this point where the divergence occurs. Neusner’s concept of the role of the Rabbi is different than Avraham. While at one point the Rabbi was looked upon as an intellectual as well as a religious leader, today most rabbis are simply pastors (although many would like a larger role). Perhaps Neusner is also lamenting the diminished role of the Rabbi as well (ignoring for the moment the question of causation).

Avraham is correct in that academic credentials are not essential for many pulpits. I’m sure many rabbis can go through their careers and not be seriously challenged intellectually. However, I think Neusner is correct that to some extent Rabbis do still stand for a religious system. I say this because as a Rabbi, I get questions about every aspect of Judaism – halakha and hashkafa. On some level I’m expected to know everything – otherwise people wouldn’t think of asking the Rabbi. I am viewed by others as someone who has, or more importantly should have all the answers. As I’m sure Avraham will agree, the RIETS education is hardly that thorough.

For a more specific example, assume a congregant goes off to a secular college and is exposed to bible criticism for the first time. The bewildered student then turns to his/her rabbi for some reconciliation. How can the rabbi respond effectively? Telling the student to drop the heretical class will not be helpful as it doesn’t answer any of the arguments. Nor would resorting to blind faith quell the student’s conflict. In order for an Orthodox rabbi to seriously answer this question, he must know the bible criticism as well as the critics, and know enough to formulate an intelligent response.

PhD’s are not magic pills which bestow knowledge – rather it is the culmination of a process of intellectual growth. Although the topic of one’s dissertation might never come up in one’s pulpit, minimally, the analytical skills will assist the Rabbi in formulating and articulating intelligent responses to the most difficult questions.

I’d like to add that I am turning into my father. Not that this is a bad thing, just a little scary.

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Gemar Hatima Tova

I’m still not able to put up a complete summary of the yamim noraim here, but I do have one story. As you could probably guess, there aren’t too many frum Jews on the U of C campus. Also, several of the regulars headed “up north” for Yom Kippur which diminished our talent pool even further.

Just how short-handed were we?

I davened neilah.

Yes, you read that right. On shabbat shuva, we realized that one of the regulars – who would normally take a tefillah or two – was probably not going to make it in for Yom Kippur. So, we divided up who would get what and I got neilah. I never thought I’d say this, but for a small second, I actually regretted not taking a Belz class.

My plan for Erev Yom Kippur was to go to the University’s Library to see if they had anything useful in their recordings collection. This was far more eventful than it should have been. First the library didn’t open until 12:00, and the recordings desk didn’t open until 1:00. On top of that, the search engine was down so I couldn’t even see if they had anything available.

Finally, I got the call number for this CD which seems like a live recording of an actual reform service complete with mixed chior and organ accompaniment. I wouldn’t have minded this so much, but they didn’t even use a normal nusach. (Carlebach’s simha l’artzekha for n’ilah????) I didn’t realize at the time that they also had this one which probably would have been more helpful. Still, kudos to U of C for actually having these CDs in their recordings library in the first place.

In the end, I think it went well. I love the acoustics in the chapel and we had enough ventilation such that it didn’t feel stuffy (which wreaks havok with my voice). Although I think I butchered the official nusach, I was able to fake enough of it such that no one seemed to mind and some actually liked the davening. (Oh – and no one seemed to care that I’m not married or that I don’t have a beard).

The Jewish community here is small and very special. Hopefully I can write more about it in a longer post on the yamim noraim sometime before pesach.

Posted in Personal.

Best Interactive Time Wasters

Since my last call for comments was less than impressive, I’m going to try again with another question. What is the best most addictive interactive time waster on the web. This doesn’t include reading blogs, watching amusing cartoons, or anything passive. These are things that require more user input than pressing the “play” button. For the record, I discovered these long before I came to Chicago.

I offer three suggestions:

News Hunter
This shockwave game is based on Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Skipping the so called “point,” this realistic flash game is highly addictive and entertaining despite the blantant shilling for the VW Touareg.

Fling the Cow
Initially done in DHTML, it is now available in flash as well. It delivers what it promises.

Broken Saints
This will be my “exception which proves the rule” (I love academia). Though passive – it’s a moderately animated graphic novel – it’s a fantastic piece of work. The work of three people over three years in their spare time, this work has won numerous awards including one at Sundance. (See their FAQ for more details).

So if you’re interested in something different, check this out. I’d recommend downloading “keepers” locally so you can view them at your leisure. One ambitious (probably unemployed) Slashdot reader clocked all 24 chapters at roughly 10 hrs 30 min total viewing time, so I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing in one sitting. One warning though: the beginning is really slow.

Update: It turns out that this isn’t much of an exception after all. I just noticed that there is an upcoming Broken Saints video game. If you have the bandwith, check out the trailer – although it’s more impressive if you’ve seen the original in its entirety. The game isn’t due out until 2006 and only for “next generation consoles.”

Disclaimer: Play at your own risk. I am not responsible if you get fired or suspended.

Posted in Popular Culture, Science and Technology.

Muzak Madness

Strange experience in the local Office Depot. I was in the filing section when I hear the faint sounds of “blessings on your head, mazal tov, mazal tov.” Since I was the only white person in the store and probably the only Jew around for a mile I thought it was just senility. A few minutes later, I clearly hear Sunrise, Sunset. In the computer demo section of this Office Depot in Hyde Park Chicago, they were actually playing the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof. Really.

Question for discussion: What is the strangest song you’ve heard either played in public either in normal form or the strangest Muzak experience? (BTW – check out Muzak’s website. I’m convinced they’re a cult). On the way out of the store, I heard Bruce Hornsby’s classic The Way It Is which wasn’t completly terrible.

It’s also good to know that some people other than myself remember the great SNL sketch with Paul Simon selling his soul to the devil and his Hell is being stuck in an elevator listening to muzak renditions of his songs.

Posted in Popular Culture.

Monty Python Shticks For Sale

Potter sent me a link to purchase the sheep in wolf’s clothing. This reminded me that I’ve been wanting to get the holy hand-grenade, but it’s a bit out of my price range. On the other hand, at U of C, I’m sure I can find plenty of arguments.

Update: For those of you wondering, the holy hand-grenade is not recommended (see the bottom of the page).

Posted in Popular Culture, Shtick.

New Shlock Rock Album

Mendy informs me of Shlock Rock’s new album which is mostly of Broadway parodies. As always, some are clever, and others are painful. Two comments though. Though I can’t prove it off of the web yet, I do remember Rechnitzer Rejects already doing a song called Get Me to the Shul on Time. (It began with the line “I’m getting maftir in the morning…”). I’m also noticing that he does a parody of Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah.” Been there, done that.

Posted in Jewish Culture.