Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Pictures of Judaism from our students' eyes

The older class (ages 9-12) just finished an photography project. The project was divided into two parts. First, they took color photos of different scenes from their religious life, any object of their choice. Then, they picked one of these color photos and took eleven more photos with a black and white camera of just this one object. The goal was to view these religious objects through different angles, to take them out of their normal context in a way. Is a menorah just a menorah when its candles are lit? Do we recognize it as a menorah even if it is hidden within a tree? These and other kinds of questions provided the jump-off point for a really incredible range of pictures by the students.

Take a look at some of their photos below!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On the CJLS tshuvot about Gays and Lesbians

As many of you know, the organization responsible for advising rabbis on Halacha and for issuing "official positions" of the Conservative movement passed a number of tshuvot dealing with Gay and Lesbian issues. There were three, all told that passed-- two by a majority of the committee. The first was authored by Rabbi Joel Roth which re-affirmed the committees position on excluding Gay and Lesbian rabbis from leadership positions and forbidding all homosexual activity.

The second paper that was passed was by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins and Reisner which called for the sanctioning of Homosexual relationships as long as the person identified as a Homosexual unable to change (which, citing vast pyschological research, they believe is the case with the majority of gay men and lesbians). They did not sanction all activities within gay relationships, upholding the biblical prohibitions and read by the Ramban (see the tshuvah for specifics).

Because the Dorff/Nevins/Reisner tshuvah is the more controversial of the two, I decided that we should start with it. In our discussion, we considered different models of halachic decision making. Then we looked at the concept of Kavod Habriyot (human dignity) and looked at the distinction made between laws that are D'rabbanan (from the rabbis) and D'oraita (from the Torah) from Rabbi Roth's book *The Halachic Process: A Systemic Analysis*. Then, we went through the distinction between the Rambam and the Ramban's reading of "drawing near"-- from Lo tikravu ligalot ervah Lev. 18:6. Also how that verse is understood in the Gemara.

Our time ran out before we began to consider whether laws that were d'rabbanan could be overturned and how exactly that is done. We plan to pick up our discussion with: B. The Realm of Humiliation which can be found on p. 10 of their tshuvah. Please stay posted for the date of the next discussion.

The Tshuvah can be found here:

These discussions are for members only, but if anyone has any questions about these tshuvot, of course, please feel free to contact us at and we would be happy to assist you in whatever way we can.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Jan 19th Pot luck -- Shabbat B'Yachad (Shabbat Together)

So, if you don't know already-- every third shabbat at the BRJC we have a pot luck/family shabbat. That's this Friday night.

It's nice. Nothing to formal or fancy, just the community eating together. Davenning starts at 6:30pm and dinner usually around 7:30. I try and tell a shabbat story. Eventually, we would like to get more people participating in the service. So if you would like to; as a family, just let me know and I can find you a part.

The way that the pot luck part works is that everyone brings a dairy dish to share. If you happen to see this go by this chart:

If your last name starts with the letters:

A-D please bring a main dish
E-K a salad/appetizer
L-S a dessert
T-Z a beverage.

That way everyone won't be bringing egg salad (nothing against egg salad, just if we have too much it won't be such a great dinner.)

Shabbat Shalom. See you soon.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The B. Rabbit Gambit

The method of preempting surprise by confessing it yourself could be called the B. Rabbit Gambit. In 2002, Eminem starred in 8 mile, a film in which he played a hard case rapper named Jimmy 'B. Rabbit' Smith, Jr. B. Rabbit was trying to escape poverty and the hardships of his grim Detroit
life by becoming a star rapper, which in the movie, was achieved by competing in free-style rap battles with the neighborhood thug-artists. The preferred method of takedown was to insult the other’s mother, girlfriend, clothes, race, lyrics, breath, etc. etc. This would elicit the sought after debilitating oohs and ahs from the crowd and would eventually make the best insulter the winner.

(Incidentally, when I told this story in shul and asked, “How many of you have heard of Eminem? A significant number of hands went up. But when I added, “not the candy” most of them slowly lowered.)

So when B. Rabbit reaches the finals, he realizes that if he insults himself, if he comes clean on everything, tells the harsh truth about his mother, his girlfriend, his grade-point, his association with gangsters, etc. etc. then there would be nothing left for his opponents to use to embarrass him. Indeed, at the end of the finals his rival is left holding the microphone unable to say anything

Perhaps that is what occurred last week with Mayor Giuliani, although in a less honest way. We saw it more honestly done in Obama’s book about his experimentation with drugs when he was younger:

Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though—--Micky, my potential initiator, had been just a little too eager for me to go through with that. Said he could do it blindfolded, but he was shaking like a faulty engine when he said it…. Junkie Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: The final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Except the high hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory.....-Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, p. 93

According to the Giuliani camp, he lost a dossier that contained his political strategy and in it were all of the difficult things that he would have to contend with. America rushed to peek into his closet to see Amadou Diallo, Donna Hanover and Bernard Kerik all having tea with their backs to Ground Zero. Giuliani claims that it falling into the wrong hands was a result of foul play, but perhaps his leaving it in the hotel, or depositing it somewhere it could be captured, was just a way to see if these indeed were “insurmountable political difficulties.” Perhaps intentionally ('tis politics, after all) or through his subconscious, it came to light that the best way to see if America would elect the real Giuliani was if they knew everything about him, all of his liabilities. Moreover, if the American public knew everything now, even before he entered the race, perhaps they would do all the recovery work in advance of him needing to do it.

There is something nice about hearing all of the "dirt" on candidates before you have to make an evaluation of them as the campaign goes on. It enables us not to have to worry about revelations during the campaign, distractions from the substance of the issues at hand. With everything out in the open we could expect a positive campaign, one that allows us to focus on the real substance of a person. Hopefully hear most about how the candidate wants to make the country better in the next four years.

Perhaps what is going on in Vayehi at the end of Yaakov’s life is that he, too, is employing the B. Rabbit strategy. He has just asked Yosef to bury him in the cave of Machpelah along with Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rifka and Leah. But he knows that Yosef might think that this request is audacious because he did not bury Rachel (Yosef’s mother) there. Now he expects Yosef to do for him what he did not do for Rachel. So instead of waiting for Yosef to be reminded of this and instead of allowing Yosef think that Yaakov was trying to hide this fact, slip it by him, he confesses it to him as he is blessing Menasseh and Ephraim.

Bereshit 48:7: As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died to me in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still a stretch of land to come to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem."

The Rashi makes it very clear that Yaakov is aware of the hypocracy that he could be charged with:

Although I trouble you to take me to be buried in the land of Canaan, and I did not do so to your mother, for she died close to Bethlehem.

In fact, she was only two thousand cubits from Beit Lechem, and Yaakov did not even carry her there, inside the inhabitable holy land. Furthermore, he wants to make sure that you know that he did it even though it was not raining (for you could have thought that was the reason he hurriedly buried her)—another drash on kivrat eretz.

The reason, according to Rashi, was that Yaakov knew that a thousand years later Nebuchadnezzar, would exile them and they would pass by her grave and she would come out and pray for mercy for them.

It makes sense that the tradition would want to justify his behavior by suggesting that he did this only because the Kadosh Baruch Hu told him of the special role that Rachel was to play by comforting those who were expelled; that her tears in particular were effective.

Yet, to have to reach into the future a thousand years for a reason makes me wonder about this explanation. It shows how much the tradition has a problem with what he did and it is a testament to the traditional understanding that it does not take her burying her on the side of the road lightly. But by insisting that the KBH had him do it, that it was not a manifestation of his problematic conduct towards Rachel (in addition to burying her on the side of the road, he also undoes her dying wish to name Benyamin, Ben-Oni), Rashi undoes the amazing-ness of his confession and the brilliance of his understanding that it is better to speak of that which you did wrong than to have it discovered. Yaakov understands that the process of discovery elevates the import of that which is discovered. Confession allows for it to be situated, dealt with honestly and ultimately helps to elevate him.

The text itself does not hint at anything of a nevua (a prophecy) here, it only mentions his regret. The way his thoughts of her interrupt his blessing of Mennaseh and Ephraim signifies anxiety and perhaps a reminder of his love for her. (The Rashi, incidentally, would agree with his feeling anxiety, but not over whether he did this wrong or not, but over how it would be perceived by his son.) Yaakov was confessing all this so that he would be thought of as who he was. He was showing that he had lived a reflective life, even reflecting on those things that were painful.

Perhaps by doing this, he ends up leaving those who might criticize him less effective, because he pre-empts their criticism. He knows that Yosef would remember Yaakov’s burying his mother on the road when he got there. But this way, he would have time to talk to his father about it and decide whether he could live with doing the right thing by his father, given his faults. Yaakov also makes the reader of the Torah’s criticism of him less effective by showing us that he is aware of his faults. It is easier to vote for him because we know he understands the difference between right and wrong. And hopefully by confessing all this, he situates it in a way that he is at least trying to be different than it.

It allows us to move beyond the criticism of him as a person and focus on the lessons of the Torah that he teaches through his life.

Who would have thought that B. Rabbit could trace his behavioral lineage back to Yaakov Avinu?

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Learning opportunities at the BRJC

Basic Judaism course given by Rabbi Micah Kelber. Thursdays 7pm-8pm. Starting Thursday January 4th, 2007 for 10 weeks. This class is designed for people who want a basic introduction to Judaism, its theology and its rituals. It is for people who are looking to discover or rediscover the beauty and wisdom of Judaism. $200 non-members, $50 for members of the BRJC.

Conversational Hebrew course given by Veronique Semah. Wednesdays 730pm-830pm. Starting Wednesday January 3rd for 10 weeks. This class is for people who have a basic reading level of Hebrew and who are familiar with some basic words. Taught by a native Israeli, students will be able to improve their Hebrew language skills and practice them in a friendly setting. $250 for non-members, $175 for members of the BRJC.

On going:

Rabbi's Torah Study Class:
"We'll read the Torah in English, often referencing the Hebrew, word by word, patiently trying to discover the beauty in its composition, its theological underpinnings and most of all the value in coming together and studying it." Excellent beginner or refresher course.

There is no charge for this class, but donations make these classes possible.

Intermediate Hebrew Reading, taught by Ruth Masyr. Thursdays 6:30-7:30 A wonderful intimate setting to help you maintain your Hebrew Reading Skills taught by a passionate and well experienced teacher.

There is no charge for this class, but donations make these classes possible.