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Drops of Honey by dropsofhoney
Tasting, talking and tagging Jewish education in Pittsburgh and the rest of the Jewish world! Rabbi Scott Aaron Ph.D. is the Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning of Greater Pittsburgh
Oct 27, 2013 | 74416 views | 0 0 comments | 495 495 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Tisha B'Av: Senseless Violence Then and Now
by dropsofhoney
Aug 05, 2014 | 22577 views | 0 0 comments | 644 644 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
     Today is Tisha B'Av , the date on the Jewish calendar that our tradition tells us that both Temples were destroyed in ancient Israel.  Jews around the world are fasting, reading the book of Lamentations, and mourning the loss of our ancient centers of worship and Jewish life.  The holiday is not observed by many Jews in the same way since the founding of the modern state and the reuniting of Jerusalem, but that is a subject for another post.  Today I want to use a famous piece of text from the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b, about this holiday that is painfully on point in our time as well as the time of our Sages.

     "Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity?  Because during the time it stood, senseless hatred prevailed. This is to teach you that senseless hatred  is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together" 

     Today, thankfully, a 72 hour cease-fire in the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is holding and there is hope for a negotiated permanent cease-fire.  Since Hamas first started firing rockets at Israel from Gaza almost a month ago, over 1,500 Palestinians and at least 65 Israelis have been killed in the escalating violence.  Senseless hatred is clearly a factor in this crisis.  It has been increasingly and understandably common in the past month to hear both Jews and Muslims the world over calling for the death of the other where ever they may be.  Acts of anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israel vandalism and intimidation have been reported all over the world that have been tripped off by the crisis, and the boiling anger against not only Hamas but all Palestinians has been more visible among Jews now than I have ever seen.  The Palestinian-Israeli crisis has been convulsing through the middle east for over a century and neither side is completely blameless for why it has not been resolved to this point.  However, the current violence is recognizable to some extent, and while not desirable or endorsable it is at least understandable. Hamas has continued to terrorize all of Israel with indiscriminate rocket attacks since almost immediately after Israel turned the Gaza Strip over the Palestinian Authority in 2004, and Israel has responded by essentially keeping Gaza under siege and laying waste to it when the rocket attacks become unbearable.  We can argue who is more in the wrong in this situation or what ultimately will need to happen for peace, but the reasons for the violence can at least be understood (i.e. it makes a certain amount of sense) regardless of which side's viewpoint you endorse.  

     But we cannot forget on today of all days that the precursor to this latest round of violence was four murders motivated by senseless hatred.  Three Jewish Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank by Palestinians, and a Palestinian teenager was burned alive in retaliation by Jewish teens.  None of these deaths make any sense.  The attackers did not know their victims nor were they provoked by them.  The victims were just targets of opportunity for people filled with senseless hate to unleash it upon without any thought to its repercussions. Even though the authorities arrested and charged the Jews with murder, Hamas took the event as an excuse to launch rockets at Israel in retaliation.  Now, a month later, that narrative of revenge has been lost as the violence has intensified and it is now being justified by the historic arguments of self-defense and righteous indignation.  However, those four fatal acts of senseless hatred have led to close to 2,000 deaths and countless wounded. Those casualties were foreseeable by (as we say in this town) anyone who had a lick of sense, but the hatred in those perpetrators was so strong that it knocked the sense right out of them.   

     The Middle East today is not a barren world of barbarians.  There are schools and universities all over the region and especially in Israel and the Palestinian territories.  There is global miedia access and digital knowledge resources all over.  No one can say that the average Palestinian or Israeli doesn't know any better or isn't educated enough to make rational decisions.  These perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing and did not think enough ahead or care to do so before they acted, and they touched off a war in the process.  Their hateful acts were senseless and the entire region, including Jerusalem, is that much closer to another episode of destruction that will be remembered for a long time to come.  On today of all days, I hope the negotiators for the permanent cease-fire will make sensible decisions for everyone and move the underlying, historic hatred away from the destructive flames of war.
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"Yesh Boom": An Israel Educator's Israel Education - part 2
by dropsofhoney
Jul 18, 2014 | 6341 views | 0 0 comments | 498 498 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Yesterday I wrote about my intellectual learning experience among an international cadre of fellow Israel Educators last week at the First International Dialog on the Israel Educator in Jerusalem.  I indeed gained new perspective on how we think about narrative on Israel and the realities of life in the modern state beyond 'the conflict."  However, this visit was in the midst of the latest round of conflict and the conference went on in the context of rocket attacks and Israel's aerial bombardment response through Operation Protective Edge.  This trip presented me with not only a chance to actually experience Israel under the same threat as Israelis but also to see the country's social and economic evolution since i personally lived there 20 years ago.  While I had been back a number of time, that was usually as part of a Birthright or similar trip that visited only the tourist sights and did not include spending real time in the neighborhoods and daily rhythms of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as I had done when a resident.  The experience was not only eye-opening but educational too.

Here are some observations/realizations about Israel today that have stuck with me from the trip.

  • When I lived there 20 years ago, Israel was trying very hard to become a European city with modern conveniences, American fast food, international chain stores and restaurants, high-end shopping, destination tourism for the wealthy, top-flight culture, etc.  I emphasize the word "trying" because it was not yet that kind of a culture but the efforts and desires were apparent in a number of ways including conversations with Israelis about what they thought would improve their daily life, entrepreneurial retail start-ups that imitated retail outlets in the West, and the effort to bring more Western movies, music and literature in to the mainstream.  I can remember conversations where American visitors would express concern that Israel would somehow lose its character and culture if it becomes more Western and Israelis telling those Americans that they were more than willing to trade some character and culture for a better quality of life.  This trip showed me that the West had won.  This was most notable to me in Jerusalem.  No longer is it a city of buildings from past eras with an overarching religious vibe and a scattering of governmental buildings.  The city has exploded with new construction of apartment buildings, hotels and offices; there were construction cranes where ever you looked.  The shopping opportunities rivaled Tel Aviv and other Western cities as did the dining, and there are now a number of new cultural institutions in the city.  The buses were modern and not aged clunkers and the central bus station rivaled NYC's Port Authority, and while the amount of car traffic has clearly increased the cars were a variety of current makes and models.  Perhaps the most notable change is the light rail that snakes through the city now like the ones in Boston or San Francisco, and is a true slice of Israel with Israelis of every type sharing the resource.  I even went to a session as part of the conference about the dangers of such rapid urban growth and modernization and the loss of culture and character (!) that the gentrification of historic neighborhoods like Machne Yehudah is bringing.  Israel is forming its identity is concrete and steel now rather than brick and wood.
  • At the same time, the divide between Arabs and Jews was visible on the streets.  When I lived there 20 years ago, prior to the second Intifada, Arabs were part of the urban landscape as much as Jews in West Jerusalem as workers, shoppers and fellow travelers n the buses and sidewalks.  Now I saw far fewer of them in daily life.  It was explained to me to be in part a result of the security wall that now largely separates the West Bank from Israel which is restricting Arab access to West Jerusalem and also in part due to the current tension between Jews and Arabs in the aftermath of the deaths of 3 Israeli teens and 1 Palestinian boy by extremists in both communities.  With the IDF now in Gaza, I suspect there will be even fewer sightings for the near future in West Jerusalem.
  • Terror has changed and the country along with it.  20 years ago we were afraid of bus and cafe bombings. Everyone on a bus watched each other like a hawk.  A forgotten purchase left by your seat after you left a cafe where you took a coffee break during your shopping could get the whole street shut down for hours while the police bomb squad blew it up just to be on the safe side.  Guards inspected your backpack before you entered any cafe, grocery store, public building or shop.  Today I saw few guards at these types of buildings and some of the ones that were present didn't inspect anything.  Metal detectors were set up in public building entrances like bus stations but they were turned off.  Instead of worrying about packages left on the ground, now people worried about packages falling from the sky.  People had phone apps warning of rocket launches from Gaza and everyone checked where the closest bomb shelter was when they entered a building.  At the same time though, while worrying about a bus bomb is a constant worry people only stressed about the rockets for about a minute and a half, from when the warning sirens sounded to the explosion of the rocket.  Otherwise, they went on about their day.  This was all surreally apparent to me when I was taking a train from Tel Aviv towards Jerusalem.  The train pulled into the Lod station just as the siren sounded.   My traveling companion and I both left the train and followed the crowd to the station shelter.  The crowd moved quite calmly and orderly and the soldiers seemed to be far more non-plus-ed than the civilians.  When we reached the shelter it was already full so we ended up with others on the steps just outside the shelter entrance.  Everyone was very quiet and then we heard an explosion.  As its echoes died away, a woman standing next to me looked up at me, shrugged her shoulders and said "yesh boom" which roughly translates as "that was the rocket blowing up."  She then turned around and started back to our train.  The whole thing took 90 seconds maximum.  No constant looking over the shoulder or giving fellow bus riders the stink-eye.  The alarm sounds, you go to a safe place, yesh boom and go back to your business.  When I was there it happened a few times a day in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv although it was much more constant in the south.  Still, the ability of most Israelis to compartmentalize the experience each time it happened was an amazing thing to see.
  • In addition to the ability for Palestinians to travel in to Israel proper being much more restricted, it was notable how much more difficult it is for Israelis to enter the territories. The highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv runs right by Ramallah and the West Bank.  There were exits from the highway in to these areas but unlike the exits to cities and towns in Israel proper, these had obstacles and guards that had to be negotiated in order to continue on the road.  THere were also signs in Hebrew and English that had warnings to the effect of "This exit is an entry point in to the Palestinian areas. It is dangerous for Israeli citizens to travel on these roads."  When I lived there, my sister and I and two friends rented a car for an overnight trip to Netanya.  Somewhere along the way we read the map wrong and ended up in the territories without even knowing it until we reached an IDF checkpoint.  The soldier in charge pointed us back towards Israel and politely suggested we never make that mistake again.  The point is it was easy to make that mistake then with no wall or gated exits or bypass roads.  Today, you can't enter the territories accidentally at all.  
  • Prices of staples were high.  I visited a local convenience store near my hotel most nights and was shocked at what was charged for basic items like cheese, bread, soda pop, etc. The sheckel was basically trading at 3:1 on the dollar which is good for the sheckel, but still the prices were steep.  It correlated with what Israelis were telling me about how costly it was to live in the cities now.  Gasoline was $7.00 a gallon but the roads were full of cars. Even a shwarma sandwich near the bus station, a basic grab-and-go street food, was almost $10.  Similarly, I learned that Machaneh Yehudah which is a market of street stalls in Jerusalem where people go to buy most everything from vendors at negotiable prices is no longer the same.  High end cafes and pubs have moved in to the market and there are fewer actual vendors there now as a result.  One data point I heard was that in 2000 there were 59 places in the market to buy tomatoes and today there are only 14.  Fewer stalls means fewer places for people to buy fresh foods on a budget.  The market there runs in a unique pattern.  Wealthy people tend to shop in the morning when the food is freshest and prices are highest.  Mid-day sees the workers in the area shopping on their lunch breaks and the prices have moderated a bit.  By the late afternoon the vendors have lowered their prices to move their perishable products and primarily the poor and students shop looking for bargains.  If there are fewer places to shop in the market now due to gentrification, then there will be less incentive for the remaining vendors to sell their goods at prices that reflect the shoppers.  Supply and demand will dictate higher prices for all, and that will be hardest on the poor.  Add to that the rising rents for apartments due to demand and the poor will have little choice but to leave the city which seems quite counter-cultural to the Zionist ideal.  
So, in a nutshell, Israel has grown in to a truly Western nation from my observation.  While that is not necessarily a bad thing for either Israel or the Jews around the world who love her, they are inheriting the socio-economic challenges that come along with it.  Herzl said "if you will it, it is no dream."  I hope Israel has the ability to keep the dream of their modern Westernized state going in the midst of the environmental, medical and economic costs that come with it.  
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"Yesh Boom": An Israel Educator's Israel Education - part 1
by dropsofhoney
Jul 15, 2014 | 5917 views | 0 0 comments | 475 475 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Last week I was honored to among a group of invitees brought to Israel by the World Zionist Organization and the iCenter to participate in the First International Dialog (sic) on the Israel Educator. This gathering brought together 125 educators from 16 countries to focus on common challenges, best practices, shared resources and professional standards for Jewish educators that have Israel education as a significant part of their portfolio in their home countries or communities. An immense amount of knowledge was exchanged and pedagogic viewpoints were challenged in ways that caused those of us attending to re-think how we are providing Israel education at home and what are the challenges and opportunities in our work that impact our ability to improve our work product.  

To give you just a sample of what we learned, below are key points regarding the current cultural challenges facing Israel education worldwide as presented by one of the brightest minds in Jewish education, Dr. Zohar Raviv who is currently Birthright Israel's VP of Education.  Given that I am only able to share rough quotes with you, I am providing a contextual "rashi" for clarification:

  • "There is a disparity in our culture between access to information and the ability for those accessing it to analyze it in-depth."  Scott's Rashi on Zohar - When vast amounts of  information is at your fingertips, you are less likely to analyze it critically through fact-checking research.
  • "There is a growing and alarming disparity between low levels of knowledge and high levels of opinion."  Scott's Rashi on Zohar - If i read an article about something on wikipedia, I therefore have full comprehension of the subject.   
  • Most Jewish youth and Emerging Adults today "perceive Judaism primarily as religiously/ritually based and have little concept of its actual meaning."  Scott's Rashi on Zohar - Our most common pedagogic environments emphasize how to be Jewish and not why anyone should be Jewish.
  • Most Jewish youth and Emerging Adults "see Israel primarily through the prism of 'the conflict.'" Scott's Rashi on Zohar - Israel's awareness in the minds of our young people is one-dimensional and not positive.  
  • "Israel educators need to be able to turn exciting experiences into opportunities for learning, and educators need to provide challenges to push students beyond their comfort zones."  Scott's Rashi on Zohar - Infotainment is not real education and Israel experiences without planned and prioritized objectives and outcomes is simply infotainment.  Furthermore, creating experiences for students that allow them to experience discomfort in their own intellectual and emotional processing about Judaism and Israel has pedagogic value under the right circumstances.
  • "Jewish education needs to be humbling and not gratifying." Scott's Rashi on Zohar - It isn't about the teacher's experience, it is about the student's.
  • "Information needs to lead to meaning and not just data."  Scott's Rashi on Zohar - Prioritizing knowledge acquisition over wisdom development in Jewish education is short-sighted and less-beneficial to our students. 
  • "There has never been a monolithic Jewish life so don't confuse unity with uniformity." Scott's Rashi on Zohar - The idea that the Jewish community has just one unified historical narrative is inaccurate and misleading to our students. Moreover, the pressure to conform to a uniform narrative is actually counterproductive to the goal of binding a diverse people to a common cause of Zionism and Jewish peoplehood.
Those driving points echoed throughout our conversations about Israel education and how we need to both ramp up our work to insure what is being done in our communities is truly engaging and to reinforce that real identity development is hard work on the part of both the educator and the participant.  I came back to Pittsburgh with a lot to chew on for our own community and with deep appreciation to the WZO and iCenter for the challenge of raising the bar on what we do.  

Now, the fact that all this was happening in the midst of the current hostilities with Gaza lent a much more practical component to our theoretical work, but more on that tomorrow! 
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Some Morning-After Thoughts about Shavuot and Modern America
by dropsofhoney
Jun 06, 2014 | 6955 views | 0 0 comments | 503 503 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Tuesday night was our 6th annual Pittsburgh community Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Our community once again had between 400-500 people, including many teens and young adults, from all backgrounds of Jewish life studying together with rabbis of every stripe at the JCC.  The evening, as always, was really engaging for both students and teachers and our only problem, which is an annual one, was once again not ordering the right amount of cheesecake!  One year we run out in the middle of the event, another year (like this one) we giving away trays of it as people are leaving.  Oh, and I am still looking for the magic ratio of dairy to parve cheesecakes to order too!

When I got back to my email today after the holiday, I was intrigued to find an article from Tablet Magazine in my in-box pondering why so few American Jews engage with Shavuot despite it being on the same religious par as Sukkot and Passover.  The author finds that there are four reasons it kind of gets overlooked by many American Jews:

  1. It is not home-based like Passover or Sukkot or have a major come-home component like Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur,  Instead, it is mostly synagogue-based which puts it off the radar screen for an increasing amount of US Jews.
  2. Both the Reform and Conservative movements used to hold their confirmation celebrations on Shavuot, but synagogues in both movements are increasingly dropping this ceremony as something borrowed from Protestantism in the 19th century when Judaism here were forming its American identity and now harder to justify given that it has no actual root in Judaism.  
  3. The timing is bad.  Unlike many of our other festivals which often coincide with Christian or national holidays over the course of the year (Sukkot/Thanksgiving, Passover/Easter, etc) when religion is more visible in the general community, Shavuot falls close to Memorial Day which is sadly seen more as about retail sales and picnics than honoring our fallen warriors.  Plus it is right at the end of the school year (including religious school)  and right before summer camp when people are a bit burnt out on structure and study.
  4. The holiday emphasizes traditional theology like revelation, chosenness and obligation to Jewish law, concepts that many American Jews challenge or ignore as incongruous with the modern world.  While that actually makes for some amazing discussion and debate for geeky rabbi-types like me, many American Jews would not be drawn to that kind of topic matter for an evening's entertainment even if it was a form of religious observance. 
So what to do?  The article describes congregations re-thinking ways to either enliven the study experience or expand the program offerings to appeal to more people and they make sense IMO for many congregations.  However, my experience in Pittsburgh has shown me the value and energy of a community tikkun event that is designed to meet the need of bringing Jews together to learn in community without expecting them to engage in a pre-conceived notion of religion.  

Here is why it works in Pittsburgh:

1. The tikkun is centrally located in walking distance from the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues and the "frum" neighborhood. There is plenty of parking for those who want to drive to it.

2. It is held at the JCC which is communal territory.

3. All teachers agree to not use electronics so anyone can come to their session.

4. The local Jewish paper as well as the JCC and federation co-sponsor and advertise it.

5. No rabbi has to teach with another and no limits are placed on the rabbis’ choices of topic, so no “politics” are involved amongst them.

6. Participants simply choose the course that interests them and go. This means often there are people learning with rabbis they would not encounter the rest of the year and whose views may be very challenging to them. We regularly hear about how those opportunities are sought out as a draw to coming to the tikkun.  They can also come for as long as they want.  

7. The program runs from 10 PM to 1 AM with 50 minute classes and cheesecake in between. This way both the Reform congregations that have confirmation that night and the Orthodox Jews who need to make kiddush and eat after sundown can attend at least part of the program.  This event draws a lot of unaffiliated/marginally-affiliated Jews too though.

8. We advertise the local all-night study options along side of this event so that people know they can attend both with planning.  For some, an hour with us is enough and for others this just gets their all-nighter started.  Either way, there is a communal participation opportunity for any adult or teen who wants it for as long as they want it.

This model is not perfect. We have a number of ok-with-driving suburban congregations that still see this event as a “city” program and do not participate. But by and large it works for our town and it brings a diversity of Jews together to learn.  It also doesn't try to do too much.  I would be cautious if we tried to draw young families with an earlier program plus this one for example.  That would tax our resources and create competition with congregation who can serve that population better earlier in the evening.  Regardless, Shavuot may be a tough sell to many American Jews but with planning and compromise, we can gather Jews together for a common learning experience.  After all, isn't that the human essence of Sinai?

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Let Me Holler at You About the Custom of Studying on Shavuot!
by dropsofhoney
May 27, 2014 | 6758 views | 0 0 comments | 499 499 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
A wise person, Lee Chotiner, once explained to me the aversion of Pittsburghers to attending any event that requires them to cross over one of our three rivers or go through one of our tunnels as a "holler" mentality.  Holler is local Appalachian dialect for "hollow" i.e. the valley between the mountains where lots of folks here in Appalachia live or grew up.  Folks raised in the hollers often have little reason to venture beyond them as their whole family and community might live in the same holler with them or just one over.  Pittsburgh Jews (of whom I suspect there are few actually hailing from a holler) are as subject to the holler mentality as any other Yinzer so getting folks together from across the county and beyond for communal events that don't need season tickets is a real challenge.  

Case in point, every year our community sponsors a communal Tikkun Leil Shavuot which is the customary practice of staying up all night on the first night of Shavuot to learn Torah and other texts.  This year that will be held on Tuesday night, June 3, from 10 PM - 1 AM at the JCC in Squirrel Hill followed by all-night study at neighborhood congregations.  Our community is very proud of that event as it regularly draws 400-500 people from across the Jewish spectrum to study together with rabbis from all over the community. However, we regularly get complaints from individual Jews and even rabbis and congregations who are "over the river" that this event is too far for them to join.  As someone who has lived in New York City, Chicago and LA before coming here, I have always found this mindset not only provincial but frustrating.  A 20-30 minute drive in those cities was normative and we did it regularly for much less important reasons than joining with our Jewish community in stimulating debate and conversation.  Still, after 5 years here, I have decided to stop trying to change peoples' minds for those in distant hollers to get them to come to the Tikkun and instead want to bring the Tikkun to them.

For those who can't join us this year for whatever reason, here are some DIY Tikkun Leil Shavuot study activities from a variety of sources, including some video-based, that you can engage with your family and neighbors right in your own living room. Some are designed for use leading up to the holiday and some for study that night but all can be used for a tikkun.  Remember that the goal of the Tikkun experience is to expand your mind Jewishly in accordance with the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah which the rabbis say expanded the minds of the entire Jewish people.  It can be done anywhere, even on your own, although as we all waited together at the foot of Sinai for the Torah according to the Torah then ideally we would study it together now. The most important thing is that you learn something though so who you are with is up to you. Here are some various options for home Shavuot study, and whether you are with us in Squirrel Hill or engaging in learning in your own holler I hope you have a sweet and happy Shavuot!  

Limmud's Home Study Guide 

Union for Reform Judaism's Study Guides

Jewish Women International Study Guide 

Hazon's Study Guide  

Jewish Theological Seminary's Study Guide   

Yeshiva University's Study Guide 

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College's Study Guide
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Just a Little Off the Top: Circumcision and Competing Theological Views
by dropsofhoney
May 10, 2014 | 7397 views | 0 0 comments | 473 473 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

     The infant circumcision debate is an ongoing process in the Jewish community around the world as well as among many people of all faiths.  Not a month goes by that I don’t read of a country or city in North America or Europe seeking to limit or ban infant circumcision.  Jews are among the more consistent historical adherents to the practice in terms of religious reasoning, but there is a small but vocal group within the Jewish community that objects to the practice as a needless medical procedure that inflicts unneeded pain and discomfort on newborn boys.  While the issue of whether or not the procedure inflicts undue pain on the infant is part of an ongoing debate upon medical professionals as well as ethicists (as well as anxious parents), I recently saw a reasoning offered by a Jewish mother that struck me as indicative of the tension between Jewish assimilation in to American culture and Jewish traditional practices.

     Alicia Silverstone, an actress best known for her role in the film “Clueless,” recently published a book on her view of pregnancy and child-rearing.  In the book, she explains her reasoning for not circumcising her son:  

“I was raised Jewish, so the second my parents found out that they had a male grandchild, they wanted to know when we’d be having a bris (the Jewish circumcision ceremony traditionally performed 8 days after a baby is born),” she writes. “When I said we weren’t having one, my dad got a bit worked up. But my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

What caught my attention when I read this was not that she chose not to have a bris but that she asked if the ceremony meant G-d had created the body as imperfect.  She was not raising a medical objection or an ethical one, but one of aesthetic. What was so remarkable to me about it was that Ms. Silverstone is actually asking the same question that our sages also asked several millennia ago!  To cite an example, in a text of biblical commentary from roughly the 5th century CE (the 400s) called Midrash Rabbah, the following is written to explain ritual circumcision: “Everything that was created [by God] during the six days of creation requires further preparation to complete it. For instance, mustard needs sweetening, lupines require sweetening, wheat needs grinding, and even man requires improvement.”  The same commentary also contains an alternative explanation:

"'Walk before Me and be perfect' (Genesis 17:1). Rabbi Levi said: the matter can be compared to a noble woman whom the king commanded: 'walk before me.' She did so and her face became pale, for she said: 'perhaps he saw in me something unseemly.' The king said to her: 'I have found 5 nothing unseemly, except for the nail of your little finger that is a little too long. Cut it, and the blemish shall be gone.' So, too, did God say to Abraham, our patriarch: 'your only blemish is that foreskin. Remove it and the blemish shall disappear.'"

The emphasis on both of these texts is the question of perfection.  More importantly, they ask the same question 1,600 years ago that Ms. Silverstone is asking today; does the commandment to circumcise imply that G-d made an imperfect body? 

     This still-contemporary question actually arises from an ancient clash of cultures. Archaeological evidence clearly shows that other ancient cultures circumcised for various reasons; the Egyptians were known to do it for cosmetic reasons as an example.   Judaism understands G-d to command the Jews of all generations through Abraham in Genesis 17 to circumcise their newborns as a sign of the covenant with the Jewish people.  The question of whether or not the body is an imperfect creation is not an issue for the Torah, certainly not regarding the foreskin.  It is about marking the body as a way of signifying membership in a sacred covenant.  As Greek culture spread throughout the ancient world starting in the third century though, their culture became as dominant in that world as American culture is in ours today.  Ancient Greek culture, called Hellenism, holds that the human body is a perfect creation and a literal embodiment of beauty.  The perfection of the body in health, form and behavior became a primary goal for Hellenistic culture and imperfection was seen as a symbol of weakness and dysfunction.  For example, the ancient Olympics were held with nude athletes as they symbolized aspirations of human perfection.  The concept of the gymnasium as a school for physical perfection was a Greek institution and also embraced nudity as a component of physical activity.  A more contemporary illustration can be found on your DVR in the movie “300” which is a dramatization of the ancient story of how the Spartans, a Hellenistic culture, defeated the hordes of the Persian empire due to their physical perfection.  In the end, a Spartan who was born with physical deformities and subsequently spends his life being treated with contempt and disdain by the other Spartans betrays the 300 to the Persians who win him over by showing him how his deformities are not the measure of a man’s worth in their culture.  Hellenistic culture saw Judaism as a ridiculous system in part because of its practice of circumcision.  To them, the body is created perfect and to circumcise was to make it imperfect and thus mar its natural beauty.  Many nations in the ancient world that embraced Hellenism banned circumcision at various points as a way of pressuring the Jews to abandon the practice and embrace their concepts of physical perfection.  As a result, some Jews who chose to embrace Hellenism decided to forgo circumcision so that they and their sons could participate in the gymnasium, Olympics and other cultural practices that involved nudity.

     As history progressed, circumcision became a marker of a Jew to Christians who abandoned the practice after it coalesced as a separate religion.  Christians seeking to persecute Jews would use the lack of a foreskin as a form of identification of targets and even to identify them for execution as the Nazis did during the Holocaust.  Groups of Jews chose to abandon circumcision at various points in history as a way of hiding in a larger culture that was hostile to them (Nazi Germany, the Former Soviet Union as two 20th century examples), but not until modern times have Jews considered not circumcising their sons as a voluntary measure without coercion.   American Reform Judaism in the late 19th and early 20th century had some proponents of eliminating the ritual all together as antiquated for the modern world, but that position never gained wide-spread acceptance in the Reform movement.  In the last few decades there has been an increase of people who see circumcision for anyone as an unnecessary and painful surgery for infants.  They proffer medical reasoning as well as ethical for why not to circumcise and there are a significant number of Jews who are adherents of this position although still a relatively small percentage in comparison to Jews who continue the practice of Brit Milah. 

      There is a current debate within the medical community on the value of circumcision for health reasons, but what distinguishes Ms. Silverstone’s reasoning is that it is theological rather than scientific. It embraces a Westernized sense of beauty and perfection based in ancient Greek thinking rather than a Jewish understanding of communal affiliation and sacred marking.  I am not criticizing her choice; I believe every parent has to decide what is best for their own child regardless of external pressures.  But her choice in this case exemplifies the struggle between Jewish values and Western values which for many American Jews can really feel in conflict at times such as around issues of beauty, modesty, wealth, stewardship and many others.  In her case, she chose to adhere to a Western value of beauty over a Jewish value of identification with a people, its traditions and its history and I don’t think she examined the Jewish reasoning for ritual circumcision as much as the contemporary ethical and medical arguments against it.  I suspect there will be other Jewish moms-to-be who will read her book and see her position as correct in the modern age.  However they will be making that decision just like Ms. Silverstone did, which was without a full comprehension of why Jews circumcise and what it says about our views on the human body as G-d’s creation and our symbolism of belonging to a covenantal people. 

     I am all for 21st century Jews making religious observance decisions that resonates with their modern sense of self and life if they have looked at all the reasons to maintain or change a behavior so that they make an educated decision.  But when such decisions are made without fully understanding what they are modifying or rejecting then I have to ask if they are really making a truly informed decision at all.  Here is hoping future Jewish parents look at the whole issue of ritual circumcision before they make their decision and not just a snippet of information.  

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When is a Seder not a Seder? Passover and Messianic Judaism
by dropsofhoney
Apr 11, 2014 | 6709 views | 1 1 comments | 497 497 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

I was made aware last week by one of my adult students of a "Passover Worship and Teaching" event scheduled for April 15 (the night of the second Seder) at Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill by a local church. They planned to bring Messianic Jewish leaders to run the program.  This event's flyer was distributed throughout the Jewishly- concentrated neighborhood of Squirrel Hill which includes Allderdice. 

This event is not happening at the high school.  Allderdice could not legally deny the use of space to the church during non-school hours, but April 15th is during Pittsburgh Public School's spring break and the building will be closed.  Apparently the flyer was distributed before the church contacted the school about reserving the space. 

However, given that many Jewish children and teens in the Squirrel Hill area may have seen the flyer, my agency, the AJL, thinks it is important to provide students and parents with some basic understanding about the complicated issue of messianic Judaism, and why it is not acknowledged as legitimately Jewish by any branch of the Jewish family tree.  Accordingly, we sent the below information to the families whose teens attend our high school programs but I want to share the information here as well.   I hope this explanation will assist families in understanding this topic if it should arise.

  • Who was Jesus and what is his significance to Christianity

Jesus of Nazareth lived in ancient Israel at the beginning of the 1st century CE.  His life story is found in texts within the Christian bible called the Gospels.  According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jew who lived and traveled within Israel and who espoused theological positions contradictory to the Torah and the culture of the Jewish community of that time.  The Gospels also assert that he was the Messiah of the Jews and the son of G-d; he gathered many followers through the performance of miracles and theological pronouncements that defied Jewish commandments, teaching and authority.  The Gospels say that Jesus was crucified by the Romans who governed Israel at that time because he and his followers were causing such unrest and disagreement amongst the population of Jerusalem that they feared civil unrest against their rule. 

Christianity proposes that the pain and suffering during Jesus's crucifixion that preceded his death was so great that it atoned for the sins of all people for all time.  They also believe that G-d raised his son Jesus from the dead as a final proof of his being the Messiah.   Christianity teaches that anyone who accepts Jesus as the Messiah and renounces other beliefs are forgiven  and guaranteed eternal life in Heaven.  Conversely, anyone who rejects Jesus as the messiah is not guaranteed eternal life in heaven.

  • What does the word Messiah actually mean?

The English word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word Moshiach which means "anointed one" and is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to kings that G-d selected to rule the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  A prophet would "anoint" a king with oil by pouring it over his head to signify that G-d has selected that man to be the king.  The most famous king in Jewish history was David; G-d promised him that his descendant would be the redeemer of the Jewish people in the future i.e. the Messiah.  

  • What do Jews believe about the Messiah and why isn't Jesus accepted as the Messiah?

All theological viewpoints within Judaism reject Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.  Historically, Judaism has understood the Messiah to be a human (not a divine being as Jesus is understood to be) who would be a descendant of King David, selected by G-d.  The Messiah will unify the Jewish People  to fight against their oppressors and  lead the Jews out of exile and  back to the land of Israel.  This will usher in what is called Olam HaBah, the World-to-Come, which is an eternal existence on earth with no war, hunger, poverty, illness or other social plague.  G-d will resurrect the dead and all Jews from throughout history will live together in Israel in the presence of G-d who will once again dwell within the Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE).   The rest of the world will also know world peace and plenty and live  in eternal harmony at that time.  Today, that traditional belief is debated between the various Jewish denominations with many no longer awaiting  the Messiah as an actual person, but a Messianic  time when all humanity comes together to establish the ideal world of Olam HaBah.  

Jesus does not meet Judaism's historic criteria of Messiah in a number of ways but there are three major reasons that are understood to disqualify him.  First, Jesus preached to his followers that the commandments of the Torah are no longer obligatory to Jews once one follows his teachings..  The Gospel of Mark, for example, describes him violating Shabbat restrictions on work by leading his people in harvesting grains on a Saturday, allowing people to ignore the dietary rules of kashrut, and miraculously healing the sick through his forgiving them for their sins.  According to the Torah, observance of Shabbat and kashrut are core commandments from G-d and only G-d can forgive true sin.  Jesus took it upon himself to over-rule G-d and create a new religious system that ignored the commandments. Second, He also claimed to be the Messiah himself rather than being identified by a prophet and anointed in recognition of G-d's selection.   Third, Judaism understands that G-d has made an eternal covenant with the entire Jewish people throughout the generations that will lead to the redemption of all us to Israel and Olam HaBah when the time is right.  Conversely, Jesus proclaimed that eternal life is earned by each individual's belief in the Messiah which super-cedes any commitment to an entire people. 

  • What does Messianic Judaism believe?

There is actually a spectrum of belief within Messianic Judaism -- called Hebrew Christians, Jews for Jesus, and Completed Jews among others names.  Followers of this theology can be people who were born and raised within the Jewish mainstream and had a change of heart, or Christians who embrace this theology.    Briefly, this theology professes that G-d still has a binding covenant with the Jewish people and the Christian bible has been misinterpreted over time as saying that G-d transferred his promises to Christians and abandoned the Jewish people.  They hold that G-d still loves and protects the Jews and the state of Israel and that the Torah is at some level still a valid system of law and observance for those who personally accept Jesus as their Messiah.  At the same time though, Jesus has fulfilled G-d's promises to the Jews who need only accept him as the Messiah rather than keep waiting.  Messianic Judaism reinterprets Jewish symbols to fit this theological viewpoint e.g. the Passover seder is a reenactment of Jesus's Last Supper, Shabbat/Passover wine and challah/matzah represent the blood and body of Jesus that many Christians symbolically ingest when they take communion, the blowing of the shofar is the call to accept Jesus as the Messiah, etc.   

Bottom line, messianic Judaism is a form of Christianity that incorporates the Jewish religious calendar, symbols, and even culture in to their expression of their faith.  Evangelism, the act of convincing some one to adopt your religious belief, is a part of many messianic Jewish churches too and they actively seek to convert Jews to their belief system which is antithetical to mainstream Judaism.  It is important to note that not all Christians believe that Jews are denied eternal life by not accepting Jesus as the Messiah and many of them feel no need to convert us away from our beliefs. It is also important to note that Messianic Jews are not bad people, but they profess a theology that is not Judaism and they are not practicing Judaism.  Events like the one that was leafleted around Squirrel Hill this week imply otherwise and it is important to know the differences between Messianic Judaism and Mainstream Judaism. 

If you need more information on this topic, please visit www.myjewishlearning.com or www.jewsforjudaism.com or speak with a local rabbi. 

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Moti Jankovsky
April 15, 2014
So they are the Reform Jews that we don't want to talk about.

The Reports of the Death of Congregations has Been Greatly Exaggerated
by dropsofhoney
Mar 26, 2014 | 5853 views | 0 0 comments | 498 498 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
One of the most important component of healthy congregational education programs is healthy congregations.  By this I mean those with a clear mission statement, responsive culture, connected and caring community and sustainable communal and religious services.  The AJL has been working with local Pittsburgh area congregations for several years to assist them in holistic and sustainable growth with the support of our local federation and we are meeting with success against the prevailing trend that congregations are not long for this century.  I have written a piece about on the ejewishphilanthropy.com blog  for anyone interested in learning more about the unique work we are doing with our unique community and its unique needs.  If you are interested in learning more about our efforts in Pittsburgh, please feel free to be in touch!
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Educational Insight from One of Our Own: Carolyn Gerecht
by dropsofhoney
Mar 03, 2014 | 5915 views | 0 0 comments | 494 494 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Among other things, I professionally focus on the research and teaching of good experiential education skills in the Jewish community, and as a result I get to encounter a number of young professionals who are working in this area.  There has long been a debate about whether you can teach good experiential education skills or are they innate in some and not others i.e. a product of nurture or nature?  I fall on the nurture side of the argument and know that dedicated educators of any stripe can acquire some level of proficiency in this area.  That being said, there are those who are "natural" at it and really show an adept talent for the work from the get-go.  Pittsburgh is fortunate to have one of those naturals working in our community in Carolyn Gerecht who until recently was the youth director of one of our local congregations where she engaged and affected kids of every age group effectively and meaningfully.  Like many young communal professionals though, she grew restless and wanted to do more with her life.  Fortunately Pittsburgh was smart enough to realize what a talent she is and, through the efforts of our local federation and Agency for Jewish Learning, found resources to send her on a year-long joint professional development experience for experiential educators in Israel through Yeshiva University and Pardes.   The community helped support her sabbatical year program in exchange for a commitment that she return here to bring her upgraded skills to bear locally.  This was a win-win for her and the community, and the initial proof of that is found in this excellent article on Experiential Jewish Education that Carolyn recently published on EJewishPhilanthropy.com.  The benefits of her training and experiences shine through here and a preview of what she will bring back to our community is excitingly clear.  I look forward to having her back here and learning from her as she works again with our community's teens!  
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Slinging Mud from the Ivory Tower: the Academic Boycott of Israel
by dropsofhoney
Dec 30, 2013 | 7913 views | 2 2 comments | 485 485 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
     Between the earliest Channukah on record this year and the usual end-of-year ballyhoo around ending semesters and winter vacation, an event took place that got somewhat overlooked by the larger Jewish public.  A academic society for university faculty in the field of American studies, the American Studies Association, took an on-line vote to boycott Israeli universities in protest of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It passed with 2/3 of all those who voted endorsing the boycott although it should be noted only 1/3 of eligible voting members bothered to vote at all.    While this is not the first American academic group to hold such a vote, it is the largest so far.  Other groups include the Association of Asian American Studies and and the Native American Studies Association.  

     The boycotts are part of a larger political protest movement known as BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, that is intended to put pressure on Israel regarding its treatment of Palestinians by convincing universities, religious and other associations, and corporations to cease business and relationships with any Israel-based entity.  BDS has had some impact on Israeli relationships in Europe but has historically gotten little traction until now in the USA.  These few academic actions endorse boycotting any interaction with Israeli universities although not individual Israeli academicians.  So why am I highlighting this recent event here on a blog about Jewish education?  Because Israel is part and parcel of Jewish education, and how our people, especially our emerging adults on campuses, observe such efforts impacts their own sense of Jewish identity.  

     Let me say that I understand the motivations behind boycotts/divestment/sanctions in general. They are a powerful tool to right wrongs.  Consider the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950's or the divestment movement from Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s or the recent international sanctions against Iran.  These were critical to making real change for the social good of all. However, I cannot see the same logic in the actions against Israel. Those efforts were against singular national wrongs; Israel is surrounded by an entire region of countries whose governments mistreat their own citizens far worse than Israel does the Palestinians.  Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the list goes on.  All of them regularly and lethally persecute their own people over land, beliefs, ethnicity, even gender. I understand that Israel is not completely innocent and that the treatment of the Palestinians has been an ongoing issue for over two generations. But compared to the human rights records of its neighbors, it seems mighty hypocritical to pick Israel to boycott when there is no BDS movement for the other middle east nations.   It especially seems hypocritical to me when an academic organization takes a measure like this boycott without a logical basis.  The proof of that hypocrisy came right from the president of the ASA, Dr. Curtis Marez.  When an interviewer pointed out the discrepancy in human rights records in the middle east, Dr. Marez "did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere."   

     As an academic in my own right, I would never accept that kind of half-assed validation in an academic dialogue for the simple reason that it lack reasoning which is a hallmark of university-level thinking.  The defender of this vote say that the association was exercising its academic freedom.   I, and many others, counter that academic freedom is based on intellectual fairness and logical processing of even emotional issues.  The ASA and the others who have taken similar votes cannot argue with a straight face that their actions to boycott Israel are based in reason and logic if they have not taken similar action against academic institutions of other nations as well.  I am glad to note that this hypocrisy was not ignored by some of our leading institutions; four universities withdrew their membership in the ASA and fifty five others lodged strong disagreement with the vote.    That message on the campuses of this country is an important one.  It not only ensures that academic freedom is not used as an large-scale excuse for political agendas, but it tells American Jewish students that Israel, while not perfect, is a kindred nation they can be proud of as one that takes human rights seriously.
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Scott Aaron
January 02, 2014
Sorry Mr. Alexander, I still don't buy it. I read that part of the quote originally in the NYT and didn't find it worth mentioning here because it says, in effect, the ASA only proposes actions like boycotts if someone asks them to do so, not because they feel proactively motivated to address wrongs. So by that logic, academic institutions based in Egypt, Syria or Russia for example are perfectly normative partners despite the various forms of legal oppression underway there as long as no one directly asks the ASA to boycott them. In other words, the ASA would never proactively initiate a boycott like this of their own accord but if asked, well, that is a different situation altogether. That seems like an ethical cop-out to me and I think Dr. Marez's remark quoted here is the more honest one.

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