Atereth Zekaynim, The Crown of the Elderly – On the death of Reb Zalman

       עֲטֶרֶת זְקֵנִים, בְּנֵי בָנִים 

Children’s children are the crown of the old (Proverbs 17:6)

Reb Zalman, z”l, of blessed memory was not my Rebbe, though I did meet him several times. He was the Rebbe of my parents when they very young, in the mid-1960s in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At that time Reb Zalman was a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department of the University of Manitoba, where my parents were students (in other departments). This was in the time period after he was a dynamic youth emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and after he founded Bnai Or (the beginning of Renewal) and just before he founded Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA.  The Judaism my parents knew  at that time consisted of what we would now call big shul Conservadox, and also the rich secular, often communist (or at least socialist) Jewish culture of the Bundists and the Yiddishists and a taste of more modern Judaism through the Brandeis Camp Institute. What they were finding in their secular lives as university students in the 1960s was Ruach- in the sense of spirituality and in the sort of Camp Ramah sense of spirit and joyous community.

What Zalman did for them, and indeed for all of us, is create a Judaism that had Ruach, in both the spirituality sense and the joyous community sense.

So, my experiences I want to share of Reb Zalman, are not what it was like to hear him teach or lead prayers, as others have so eloquently  done (Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism …Rest in Peace Reb Zalman: My Rebbe Died Today), but two different things. First, wherever I travelled in my Jewish life, geographically, spiritually, over many years, when I landed in a community that I admired or felt at home in, within a few minutes I would find out that it had either been found by Reb Zalman, or by one of his disciples, or the current leaders were inspired by him. Like the Johnny Appleseed of Jewish spirituality and renewal, his reach was everywhere.

The second is that since it was my parents who were inspired by Reb Zalman, I had the privilege of growing up in a Judaism  where ideas and practices he started were woven into the fabric (see blog title) of my Jewish life, and did not seem new, or odd, but normative and authentic. For this I am very grateful, as it has allowed me to explore without the fear of change and with the confidence of a native. He literally invented the Rainbow tallit (see Jewish Chronicle version or Yonassan Gershom’s version) that I was metaphorically wrapped in. 

And both of these are a true legacy of what he gave to Judaism, and a true crown to his achievements.


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All-of-a-kind Family tore down the mechitzah on Simchat Torah

What were shuls like in terms of seating  early 1900s in the United states?

The family pew/mixed seating came to Reform shuls in the 1850s and was adopted between the 1920s and mid-1950s by most what were to become “Conservative” congregations and a small but significant minority of what were to become”Orthodox” synagogues. (The terms were not used in then the way there are today and the movements were less  separate then). Most traditional shuls had michitzot. But that did not mean they were as strict as people seem to think today.

I was astonished to (re)read this passaged from the beloved children’s book, set in the Lower East Side in 1913, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown by  Sydney Taylor, for whom the premier Jewish Children’s book award is named.

From the back of the synagogue Uncle Solomon’s voice suddenly rang out, “All the world is singing on this joyous holiday”. Right hand cupping his right ear, left arm flung wide, he began shuffling his feet in time with his song. The sisters stared at him, astonished. Could this be their dignified Uncle Solomon?“ Papa, he’s dancing!” Gertie shouted. “It a party?” “Yes, my little one, Papa cried gaily. “It’s God’s party and everyone is invited.”

Uncle Solomon’s feet kept whirling faster and faster. They were carrying him clear across the back of the synagogue. He did not dance alone for long. One after another joined in to form a circle. Pious old men forgot the stiffness in their aching joints and danced shoulder to shoulder with the younger men and children. The curtain separating men and women was thrust aside, and so contagious was the revelry, many of the younger women joined the dancers. In and out and roundabout, Uncle Solomon led them, and the excitement kept mounting.

Voices feebly raised at first, soared ecstatically higher. Feet that had moved hesitantly, quickened their pace. Only the older women remained seated on the benches, bobbing their heads and clapping their work-worn hands in time with the dancing. Mama, too, was caught up in the moment, bouncing a delighted Charlie up and down on her knee.

The sisters, swept along in the general furor, were prancing about in all directions. Tiny Gertie was hemmed in by a sea of moving legs till Papa swung her onto his shoulders. There she rode on her bobbing throne, smiling down triumphantly at Charlotte who was holding on for dear life to her dancing Papa.

Yes, it is is a fictionalized account of Sydney Taylor’s (Sarah Brenner’s) early  life and there are a few very small, trivial  historical inaccuracies. But when she so carefully recalls so many ritual details like how to kosher meat with salt at home or what it is like behind the mechitzah on Yom Kippur, I doubt she would randomly make this up.

No religious expression is static over time or immune to the world around it. And we are all the richer, spirituality  for that.

After all, is it really God’s party if not everyone is invited?


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Conservative Movement and Egalitarianism- Really Time to make up their minds

Just a  few days ago the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a Tshuvah (ruling) declaring that women are obliged to perform positive time bound mitzvot.*

Let’s take a step back and look at the evolution of Conservative halacha on this point (Thank you Rev Wikipedia for most of this history):

  • Early in its history (earliest reference I can find is 1955), Conservative Judaism determined that a mechitza separating men and women was not required in services, and that women could be called to the Torah if permitted by the synagogue rabbi.
  • The CJLS passed a takkanah which allowed Jewish women to count in the prayer minyan. Throughout 1973 the CJLS debated various responsa on this subject. In August 1973 a vote was taken. Instead of voting for or against a particular responsum, the committee voted on accepting the conclusions of the teshuvot. A motion was passed which stated that “Men and women should be counted equally for a minyan.”, with nine in favor and four opposed.
  • In 1983 a number of Conservative rabbis issued responsa on the same subject, arguing that women can and should be counted in the prayer minyan. These papers were written as part of the process of JTS deciding on whether or not to admit women to its rabbinic and cantorial programs. However, the Chancellor of JTS at the time took this process out of the hands of the CJLS, and made the process an affair of the JTS faculty. The decision to allow women to become rabbinical and cantorial candidates was then based on a vote of JTS faculty.
  • In 2002, long after the Conservative movement had adopted complete de facto egalitarianism, it offered its first responsum on the subject, the Fine responsum, holding that Jewish women as a corporate entity could agree to assume the same obligations as men and be bound by them corporately, without any individual woman having to do so personally.  The CJLS effectively passed a takkanah ruling that women may be counted as witnesses in all areas of Jewish law.


And now to the main question the current tshuvah raises:

How can they maintain non-egalitarian congregations and minyanim ( including the daily Stein minyan at JTS) when those entities actively prevent Jews from fulfilling mitzvot they are obliged to do. I am pretty sure, for example, that the Shulchan Aruch says that if you are in mourning and you are able to you should be shaliach tzibur/ prayer leader-but wouldn’t a non-egalitarian minyan be actively preventing you from performing this mitzvah?

Yes, I know that each rabbi is the  mara d’atra, or local religious decisor but certain things are deemed beyond the pale (Officiating at an intermarriage, for example).

For extra fun you could note how the evolution of Conservative Halacha is  does and does not match in the order of the evolution of Modern Orthodox Halacha on women.

Also- Nice abstention from local Toronto Rabbi Baruch Frydman Kohl, who recently ruled that women could be counted in a minyan but not lead services.

*In Judaism traditionally, women were excused from what are called positive commandments (the Thou Shalts as opposed to the Thou Shalt Nots) and time-bound commandments (ones that must be done at a specific time of day), which happen also to be the commandments that are done in public, are performance oriented and are associated with prestige. (More here  )





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Jewish Feminists, Liberal and Orthodox, Seek Mutual Respect

As an observant, but non-Orthodox feminist Jew,  I have been really interested in some of the struggles of Orthodox feminists both within their communities and with liberal Jewish feminists. I have listened to a lot of voices and these conversations have made me realize that Jewish feminists are looking for mutual respect from each other, but often feeling as if they don’t find it. The essence of the issue can be seen in this quote from one of the pioneering Orthodox feminists, Dr. Norma Joseph, addressing a group of Jewish feminists, “the feminist world finds me too Jewish and …  this Jewish feminist world finds me too religious.”

  • Orthodox feminists feel that liberal Jewish feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” or authentic feminists because Orthodox feminists are willing to accept non-egalitarian prayer conditions and language etc. The idea of creating change from within is too summarily dismissed and derided.
  • Liberal Jewish feminists feel that Orthodox feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” Jews or authentic Jews for two reasons:

1) Orthodox feminist don’t acknowledge the firsts or the way paved for them by liberal Jewish feminists.

As Hillary B.Gordon laments:

“Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?  Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?….. the Facebook story people were sharing about “I’m Orthodox and I wear tzizit” written by a woman.  You know what I sort of want to say?  Big deal!  I know, I know, in the Orthodox movement it is a big deal but come on people, get your head out of the sand, lots of women wear a tallit and even (gasp!) put on tefillin.

This was brought up by two comments on my blog by Dan Ab

why [do]Orthodox feminists ignore or actively remove feminist writing and changes from other denominations when crafting their own narrative. As she indirectly notes, this this a political rather than a halachic decision because admitting Orthodox feminism has been inspired by non-Orthodox changes essentially dooms efforts to make change. As an example, I was saddened that JOFA’s Fall 2013 journal had a bunch of personal stories from the first generation of Maharatot. All of them talked about having no Jewish female clergy role models which were either blatant lies or parading their own unwillingness to explore the world around them.

Similarly, modern Orthodox “innovations” like a ‘real’ bat mitzvah or baby naming  or Rosh hodesh groups, or women studying Talmud seldom if ever mention the origin of these ceremonies and notions decades before in the liberal movements.

2) Orthodox Jewish feminists don’t view non-Orthodox denominations as legitimate alternatives. As I say in  Orthodox feminists Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives - It should be absolutely respected to stay in Orthodoxy because you love the community, or you grew up in Orthodoxy, or you choose to do so, but don’t present it as the only available, legitimate choice for observant Judaism.

Again Hillary B.Gordon:

On the ride home, we discussed another comment from the evening where Dr. Gorsetman told a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman who was a big neurologist – head of her hospital department AND an Orthodox Jew who attended an Orthodox shul.  One day she walked into shul, in to the women’s side of course and said “I can’t do this anymore” and subsequently just quit going to shul.  “This” was the fact that at her hospital she wasn’t a 2nd class citizen who needed to be hidden away in order not to tempt men. …. The shame of that was, as the two of us saw it, was that she quit going to shul as if there were no other Jewish options out there that could provide her with an alternative.  But again, somehow those options are just not legitimate.

and from my blog Marcia Beck

Certainly the larger Jewish world espouses a mainstream, ‘only orthodox practice is the real deal’ mentality. I have experienced a (mostly) unspoken feeling of competition when I speak with thoughtful Jewish women about observance. “Do you keep Shabbat? Do you keep kosher – fully kosher? What about the minor fast days?” I wish that we could walk in our diverse Jewish communities with compassion rather than judgement as our guide. Then we could ask questions like “where does the reality of your daily life bump into your practice of halachot? How do you cope with that?”

It seems also as if collaboration on liturgy, which could be very fruitful, is not possible because anything that comes from a non-Orthodox source is seen as tainted and dooming (And dooming it might be. Many Orthodox leaders would love to say that Orthodox feminists aren’t really Orthodox and cite their contact and cooperation with liberal Jews. But to bow to that pressure is not brave.)

JOFA has an excellent and inspiring Tanach program. So does Schechter. What would happen if they collaborated?

So bottom line I would say this to all of us: Those who seek legitimacy should also confer legitimacy. What great things we could do together!

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V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit: Bread and Butter, Challah and Tefillin, and the “New Jew”

READ the whole thing- it is worth it!

I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis exempted women from certain mitzvot to ensure that men are free to serve God through mitzvot, and that the mitzvot not lose their status and, therefore, their power to inspire awe. The impact of this exemption on women’s spirituality and ability to serve God was acceptable, in their view—if the question of women’s spirituality was even considered.

Today, however, women are equal citizens in secular society (at least officially) and are not expected to sacrifice their self-fulfillment for men. The rabbinic model of women’s exemption from mitzvot no longer makes sense. Even as I have come to value homemaking and other nurturing activities once considered more feminine (such as communal work), I am still not willing to consider them “women’s work.” To be full, balanced human beings we all need to be engaged in both the public and private spheres, in nurturing acts as well as acts of self-fulfillment. Men, therefore, should take challah and women should wrap tefillin, and vice versa. If we value both of these experiences, and if we see neither gender as subservient to the other, we should settle for nothing less.

via V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit: Bread and Butter, Challah and Tefillin, and the “New Jew”.

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Orthodox Feminists- Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives

A common question posed to Orthodox feminist is given the great conflicts between their feminism and their religious environment (which I mentioned here and is discussed here), why don’t they just leave and join a non-Orthodox denomination?

Two thoughtful authors,  Elana Sztokman and Leah Sarna address this issue in:

Why haven’t I left yet and Orthodox Feminists Are Not Conservatives in Disguise

Here are some of the points they make:

  • A monopoly on expertise

I simply could not keep halacha on my own. I am not prepared to build and maintain my own eruv, slaughter my own animals, make my own wine and cheese, write my own Torah scrolls, home school my children or care for my own dead.

  • Community- the Orthodox community is strong, engaged, educated Jewishly , kind, hospitable, creative, with kind, caring leaders.
  • Connection to the past and a feeling of continuity with our ancestors, observing the same rituals and studying the same texts.
  • Familiarity- I’ve never known anything else. All my friends are here. These are my people, whatever their flaws
  • I like being in a halakhic community- a bazzillion brave points to Elana Sztokman for acknowledging  that the Conservative movement is also a halakhic movement
  • It is an-all -encompassing life style that gives me an identity and allows me to easily recognise people “in the club”. It provides a rhythm to my life and defines how I dress and eat.

These reasons (except maybe the ones in the first bullet, which have some problems) are all are echoed in a beautiful essay The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account.  But through this essay I came to understand my underlying problem with these reasons and my respectful disagreement with Orthodox feminists. It is that the reasons that feminist or intellectually questioning or pro-LGBT people give for not leaving Orthodoxy are all sociological. “I love the community, I love the observances, I love the ritual etc.”  And what bothers me is the assumption that one cannot have a meaningful, observant community outside of Orthodoxy- because I do have one.

And my kids are educated and engaged and taught in their day schools by both observant and non-observant teachers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Most recently I spent Purim at Reform shul in  the evening and at a hip partnership Minyan in the morning- at both I met other parents from my kids day schools and other members of the two (other!) shuls I actually belong to. I could go on about the possibility of a non-Orthodox observant life…

The point is- staying in Orthodoxy is certainly a respectable choice, but it is not the only option for an observant community. And to imply that it is the only choice is insulting to those of us who are observant but not Orthodox.

Also one can say only a small minority of non-Orthodox Jews live in a communities of engaged, educated, immersive observance, which is a totally valid point. But you can also say that a small minority of Orthodox Jews are self-defined as feminist or pro gay rights- so you are in a small community whatever you do.

If anyone who wrote these posts sees this, I would love to hear you thoughts.





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Matzah and how authoritarianism is crumby

Shayna Zamkanei has an excellent post on what Matzah used be like. In Why your ancestors never ate matzos she goes over some important points.

Our ancestors never ate “flat, crisp matzah” until the 19th century. What they ate  looked very similar to a pita. She amasses a lot of proof. ( I had only head of the first one- Hillel folding the matzah, lamb and marror together).

We know this to be true for several reasons, the first of which is the “korekh” component of the seder. “Korekh,” which means to roll up or bend around, is what we are supposed to do when remembering Hillel and making the infamous “Hillel sandwich.” Since we cannot roll massa that is crisp, we must assume that massa must be pliable.

Second, the Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 7a suggests that bread and massa could be easily confused: “Rabbah the son of R. Huna said in the name of Rab: If a moldy loaf [is found during Pesah in a bread bin and we are uncertain whether it is bread or massa], if the majority of loaves [in the bin] are massait is permitted [because we assume it to be like the majority].” The massa currently sold ubiquitously in stores, however, never threatens to grow mold, no matter how hard you foster the right conditions. Soft massa, on the other hand, easily does.

Third, later sources also to refer to massa as soft, and Ashkenazi Jews cannot wash away this fact by claiming that soft massa was a Sepharadi custom. For example, the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis) wrote that massa should be made thinner than the tefah (around 3 inches) recommended in the Babylonian Talmud, while the Chafetz Chaim advised that massa be made “soft as a sponge” (Mishna Berura, Orach Haim 486). In “The Laws of Baking Massa,” the Shulchan Aruch deems baking to be sufficient  when “no threads can be pulled from it.” Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University and halakhic advisor for the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union, stated clearly that there is no custom that prohibits Ashkenazi Jews from eating soft massa.

She attributed today’s cardboard matzah to the “its industrial production beginning in the 1800s.” However I think there are other, intertwined  reasons as well.

If you bake your own matzah freshly even with the strict “18 minutes from flour-water contact” to end of  baking rule, it is not hard and cracker like. I know this because our family has baked matzah (when we did it it was with Passover flour) at a koshered outdoor  pizza oven at the annual matzah bake in Toronto. The matzah comes out soft and chewy but turns stale and hard in  few days.

I also noticed  recipes for home made matzah in one of my favourite cook books, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, I: Traditional Recipes and Menus and a Memoir of a Vanished Way of Life by Edda Servi Machlin. She also includes stories and cultural information about the Roman Jews (who are neither Ashkeanzi/Sepharadi because they existed before  split). She recounts how everyone used to make their matzah at home. Her recipes also call for using oil or sweet wine instead of water and for the 18 minutes applying to the baking time and not the total contact time. She describes how children loved matzah and loved being involved in baking and eating it.

Even before industrialization, worries about kashrut and strictness lead many Eastern European communities  to allow only the town baker to make matzot. People were not trusted to do it in their homes. This created a situation where the industrialization was possible and its inferior product was accepted by the community because they had already lost contact with the visceral tastes and knowledge of what used to be a home-centred mitzvah. And this is what we lose when we worry more about halacha then the actual mitzvot.

So I say, fight the cardboard and crumbs and take back matzah!!

Make your own. ( At home need a very hot oven, passover flour and speedy hands if you want it to be traditionally kosher. Or commandeer an outdoor bread oven and kosher it). One batch is enough for putting out at your seder and for the experience.



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