Kol Nidrei

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 On Tuesday night, September 25th, Jews the world over (including many who go to synagogue only once per year) will gather in synagogues for the opening evening service of Yom Kippur, a service commonly known by the name of the declaration that begins it: Kol Nidrei, "All Vows..." This liturgical climax of the Jewish year is known for its haunting and beautiful melody.

 As a 1924 article from the American Jewish Year Book explains, however, the declaration of Kol Nidrei (it really isn't even a prayer) has a history of confusion and controversy.

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From the J-Vault: Kol Nidre (1924)

Kol Nidrei, Professor Israel Davidson explains,

takes its name from the opening words and is recited at the beginning of the evening service of the Day of Atonement, has come down to us in two versions, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic... [T]he Hebrew version, which contains a reference to the vows contracted during the year that has passed... presents a legal difficulty. For, according to law, vows already contracted cannot be annulled unless the votary explicitly states what these vows were and makes his statement before a board of three, and none of these conditions is required in connection with Kol Nidre. To overcome these difficulties, R. Meir b. Samuel, the son-in-law of Rashi, changed the text of Kol Nidre and made it to read as we have it now in the Aramaic version: "from this Day of Atonement to the next Day of Atonement"...

Kol Nidre presents a number of other difficulties. Why, for instance, is this prayer placed before the beginning of the services? What connection is there between the absolution of vows and the verse from Numbers 15:26, with which it concludes? If it is a prayer for forgiveness, why should the sin of non-fulfilment of vows be singled out from other transgressions for which the Day of Atonement is supposed to atone? How is it that this particular composition has come down to us in two languages?

Professor Davidson goes on to offer numerous theories and explanations related to these questions. He also discusses rabbinic objections to Kol Nidrei at many points during Jewish history, from an array of religious leaders--from medieval sages to the Reform Movement's early leaders (who completely altered the text, retaining only the popular melody). Yet, he notes, Kol Nidrei has endured:

Historic Judaism, however, still braves the storm of accusations, safe in the consciousness of its integrity, and mindful of the wise adage not to indulge in too many explanations, because friends do not need them and enemies would not believe them.

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Bonus: for anyone interested in a contemporary religious explanation of Kol Nidrei's history and purpose, I can't resist embedding this video lecture from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (click here if you can't see the embedded video player):

For July 4th: Why Study American Jewish History?


 Today, Bible, Hebrew, and holidays form the central themes of Jewish education; Jewish history and American Jewish history are neglected.

Historian Jonathan Sarna asks: Why Study American Jewish History?

American Jewish history contextualizes contemporary challenges facing American Jews...

American Jewish history deepens students' understanding of America and shows them how their ancestors fit into the larger picture of American society...

American Jewish history broadens students' horizons...

American Jewish history helps to deepen attachments to Judaism and the Jewish people...

American Jewish history communicates the enduring power of religion in America...

American Jewish history bridges the gap between collective experiences and personal stories...

American Jewish history encourages students to integrate Jewish and secular studies...

American Jewish history forms the basis for the shared Jewish memories that are basic to both Jewish identity and Jewish community....

 ...Deepening students' Jewish identity is, of course, a noble endeavor, but using American Jewish history as the vehicle to accomplish this aim raises significant problems. What do we do, for example, about unpleasant facts: criminality, slaveholding, intermarriage, or even (for those who teach in a Reform setting) the postwar resurgence of Orthodoxy? How, moreover, will students react later in life when they learn the more complex realities of the American Jewish experience? Will they feel that their religious educators betrayed them? Even now, are we providing students with a portrait of American Jewish history that is as multifaceted and self-critical as their curriculum in American history? And, if not, what message are we unintentionally conveying-not just about American Jewish history but about Jewish education in general?

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Reinvent Yom HaAtzmaut?

Robbie Gringas makes a case:

Yom Ha'atzmaut is currently far from being an event through which the Jewish community "celebrates itself". While Chanukah, a festival marking momentous events in the land of Israel, is celebrated in the home and in the community with comfort and ease, Yom Ha'atzmaut, another festival marking momentous events in that far-away land, is neither comfortable nor homely. Chanukah has become a festival that is 'owned' by the local population, no matter where in the world they live. Yom Ha'atzmaut is and has always been owned by Israelis...

Nor, for example, is St Patrick's Day to those of Irish descent what Yom Ha'atzmaut is to Jews... St Patrick's Day has now moved far beyond being an Irish Catholic event. The largest St Patrick's Day Parade now takes place in Chicago not Dublin. The slogan throughout the States, "Everyone's Irish on St Patrick's Day", marks its ecumenical, non-ethnic intentions, as the festival celebrates more the sale of Irish-style goods (mainly great beer) than the promotion of Irish life and authentic culture. Despite this gradual draining of the festival's content, St Patrick's Day nevertheless celebrates a more authentic, less complicated sense of exilic longing, than does Yom Ha'atzmaut for Jews...

The time may have come for us to begin draw inspiration not from other nationalisms, nor from other ethnicities, but from our own. We need to begin to see and develop Yom Ha'atzmaut as a Jewish holiday: a chag. Paradoxically, because Yom Ha'Atzmaut is such an established yet unclaimed festival in the orthodox world, we may find ourselves with a great deal of room for maneuver. We may draw from religious wisdom without committing to its authority: we may refer to religious constructs without commenting on their essence...

Each chag has a narrative and a theme that express themselves through a designated experience, structured reflection, and symbolic action...

We would suggest that Yom Ha'atzmaut should mark the following theme: להיות עם חופשי בארצנו – To be a free people in our land. This would allow us to focus on the four areas of Zionism that together would suggest a unique aspect to Jewish existence...

For Chag Ha'atzmaut it might be tempting to reach for the Declaration of Independence, or for one's Tanach, to find the specific megillah appropriate to our Chag Ha'atzmaut. But before doing so it would be useful to increase the breadth of our options. Perhaps a piece of literature from beyond the Tanach might be equally appropriate? What might the story of the Golem of Prague reflect on Israel's narrative of sovereignty, power, and tradition? How could a biography of Albert Einstein – an individual, Diaspora-dwelling, light unto the nations, almost-President of Israel – comment on Am Chofshi b'Artzenu? Must we choose only one text?...

As we have stated, there may be value in drawing on Jewish 'traditional forms' of ritual so as to lend - not necessarily authority - but contextual familiarity to our Chag Ha'atzmaut rites of passage. One such form might be the Seder Plate, as applied to the four principles of Chag Ha'atzmaut... one might raise and drink a glass of water to mark the life-giving simplicity of להיות , to cut open a pomegranate to mark the unified and diverse nature of עם , to eat a wild sabra fruit to mark the prickly yet sweet ambivalence of חופשי , and to light a vial of olive oil to mark ארצנו .

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There are  several worthy observations here, but color me skeptical about any attempt to create a really meaningful ritual celebration intentionally and all at once. Isn't it possible that the ancient festivals are so rich with meaning precisely because no one human individual (or, God save us all, committee) designed them? Do we really want to perform rituals born in a brainstorming session and tailored to express themes X, Y, and Z, as defined by seventeen bullet-pointed specifications? Aren't the contradictions and opacities and confusions of the classic Jewish holidays a significant part of the reason we'll never exhaust the ways they can be meaningful? It's not that I disagree with Gringas that Yom HaAtzmaut ought to develop further, but perhaps it will best do so if we let it do so in unexpected and unplanned ways.

1947: Discrimination Against Shoah Survivors, and the Need for Zionism

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Today we remember between five and six million Jews whom the Nazis murdered, and look to the survivors still among us to bear witness to what they saw.

Of course, concentration camp survivors (and others who ended up in DP camps following the war) were not always accorded such honor and reverence as they often are today. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the image of the DP in sectors of the American public was too often an image of the pitiful victim, the uncivilized wretch, or the sneaky criminal. Today's installment of the J-Vault provides a glimpse into this larger topic, among numerous others.

Special J-Vault for Yom HaShoah: The Psychology of Jewish Displaced Persons (1947)

The title to this article is a bit deceptive. Its primary resonances today are less in relation to the human psyche, and more in relation to group issues of socioeconomic classes, race relations, and the need for Zionism.

American Jewry today has little or no understanding of the Jewish Displaced Person. By and large, our ideas of the Jewish "D.P." are built up entirely on descriptions of horror and hunger portrayed by fund raising appeals or on the contrasting stories of "black marketeering," "continual demanding," and "unwillingness to work" in blanket generalizations by newspapermen who often have interviewed some official who himself has little understanding of the Jewish Displaced Person or of what makes him act as he does.

It is easy to understand the point of view of the American, British or French army or UNRRA official who condemns the Jewish Displaced Person. Usually that official is an ordinary citizen who is part of the stream of thought and philosophy of his country, and he measures those he meets by the standards of this background... He tends to forget the fact that some people were more discriminated against than others, and being more deprived, may exhibit the results of the more difficult lives they have experienced, in behavior which will not make for peaceful living, quiet, and cleanliness. It is difficult for such an official to understand (and emotionally accept the idea) that those who exhibit such negative behavior are those who need the most patience and help. More often, instead, the Jewish Displaced Person is characterized as ungrateful, unclean, lazy or unambitious...

It must be understood that that which may have helped a person survive concentration camp does not necessarily help him in his future adjustments after liberation. By and large, these abilities may retard his after liberation adjustment. The Jewish group attitude, except in occasional instances, was opposed to the "law and order" of the Nazis. "Law and order"—after liberation—continued for many to be something to oppose. It is difficult, for example, for the Jewish Displaced-Person who is so close to hunger, to realize that it was good for him to black market and do anything else that would oppose authority (under the Nazis) but that now, under an Allied power, he is to accept freely whatever limitations they see fit to set on him...

Another aspect of the Jewish ex-concentration camp inmate's attitude is his resentment of the general population in the nearby and surrounding towns in Germany and Austria. Most of the general population represent to the Jews their oppressors and supporters of the oppression against them. That they should be treated theoretically on an equal plane with the general population after their years of suffering only adds to their resentment of the authority which imposes this policy. It is difficult for them to see why people who have had full rations, their families complete, their household furnishings, their positions and comparative security, should be given equal treatment with those who have lost everything. That the Jews should be restricted in movement when the non-Jews are not is also a basis for resentment. In general, the Jews from concentration camps do not look to the Allied or local authorities with any great degree of acceptance...

The British point of view is the most difficult for the Jew to understand. His attitude of treating all persons alike (an antithesis of the Nazi philosophy) has often been referred to by Jewish intellectuals as "pseudo liberalism." The Jews feel that it is naive to treat emaciated, harassed victims with the same amounts of food, clothing and other materials as their oppressors. The British attitude is reminiscent of the Abraham Lincoln story of the wife who came upon the scene of her husband in life and death struggle with a huge bear. The wife, feeling she had to do something, said "Go it husband! Go it bear!" The Jew and anti-Nazi similarly want to know on whose side Britain is — the former Nazis or those who were their victims...

The longer Jews have to remain in lands where they can plan no future, the sooner will all Jewish behavior in these lands become more uniformly aggressive and difficult to work with. As time goes on without a bold and decisive plan, more and more insecurity will develop, and with it can be expected hostilities between native residents and Jews, selfishness, rivalry, suspicion and all the behavior expected in cases of severe dependency. With these, and aggravating these conditions, will be the daily increase of ill health, unsanitary conditions, ignorance due to lack of educational facilities, and unemployment with all its depressive characteristics...

Actually, even if all of the possible facilities for social adjustment of Jewish Displaced Persons were available in the occupied zones, (and this would be difficult to secure so long as Allied political aims dictate the general national internal policies), adjustment of the group in the occupied zones would be doomed to failure. There the D.P. is unwanted by the populace, and he faces daily risks of having physical harm done him, when and if the Allied forces are withdrawn. There he daily faces open and veiled discrimination in finding a job, getting a place to live, getting a business license, or even a telephone. Few, if any, of even the highest authorities are interested in seeing that he gets equal opportunity to build an individual economic and social existence. The recent measures of leniency to Nazis, loans to Germany and Austria, and granting of greater autonomy to local governments by the Allies are pretty clear indications of the future of the Jew in these countries...

In work with most of the small handful of immigrants who have already arrived in the United States, the same problems which displaced persons have exhibited in Europe have been found, but in aggravated form. The same techniques which they developed in the process of self-preservation in the concentration camps are often their main "standbys" of behavior in the new environment. Since these techniques have little or no application to life in America, they become useless appendages which do not help to "make friends and influence people."... His seething hostility against a Nazi government (tied up with a general resentment based on his deprivations) is transferred to the new world about him. The Americans, in turn, cannot understand him. They are indifferent to the problems of Nazism, which they prefer to consider distant and of the past...

America and other lands are reluctant to open their doors to such a group. To sit idly by and philosophize on the sensibility or justice of this or that plan is only to draw out the daily growing problem. The greatest number of the group have expressed the wish to be resettled in Palestine. They have learned of the failure of colonization projects in forgotten and little populated parts of the world. They fear the growing anti-Semitism of lands such as Argentina.

Their behavior continually voices the question, "whom can we trust?" They have been able to trust few in the past, except for people who have seen and understood the meaning of their experiences. They want to be among their own, and instinctively express the feeling that only in Palestine will they have people to come to, who will receive them and want them and give them security. In Palestine, the readjustment of the Jew is within the realm of possibility. In the occupied zones, it is not. Here the Jewish Displaced Person can build and work for the future and feel that it is permanent. In the cooperative farms and groups, he gains a feeling of group belonging, so akin to the need for family life and security. Here, he can find understanding of the problems and experiences he has faced, because many of the Jews of Palestine are themselves refugees from the concentration camps and seek the adjustment of the new refugees as an ideological goal...  Here too, he can work out his need for authoritarian leadership learned in the concentration camp, and gradually learn participation and democratic methods within the working group...

Never before in the history of social work has it been necessary to plan for so large a group of disturbed people. Only by introduction of wholesome group life can any progress be expected. As it stands now, every day away from such a therapeutic atmosphere is a day of further regression. Eventually, and not too far in the future, it will be too late.

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Hanukkah and the Other December Dilemmas


Hopefully you saw our December newsletter on intermarriage, but as the Festival of Lights begins, it is appropriate to note that not every "December Dilemma" has anything whatsoever to do with intermarriage. Tonight begins Hanukkah, a holiday defined in America by its awkward juxtaposition with Christmas -- a juxtaposition which is the source of much consternation, but also, perhaps, an entirely appropriate layer of meaning. Here are a few publications on the subject.

High school student Jessica Schutz tells the story of her family's "Hanukkah bush" and her own response: "I was forced to question my identity as a Jew. What kind of Jew was I? What entitled me to bear that title, besides birth to a Jewish mother?"

Nancy Wallack looks at Hanukkah cards and doesn't like what she sees:

Jews' beefing up of Chanukah celebrations to console our children (and perhaps ourselves), has crept into cards mixing Christmas and Chanukah, gentile and Jewish imagery. Mealy-mouthed "seasons greetings" are joined with wishes for "Shalom." My guess is that the Shalom is a straight translation of the Christian concept of the coming of or the promise of peace, in the birth of the Prince of Peace. Carolers sing, "Peace on earth, good will to men," why not extend this to our friends the Jews?

Steven Greenberg seeks "a plausible meaning of Hanukkah" that can be shared with non-Jewish friends and neighbors, specifically thinking of the common situation of explaining the holiday to public schoolchildren. He settles on two:

1. Hanukkah celebrates the strength it takes to be different. The Jewish people had a different way of looking at the world than their Greek neighbors. Although they learned much from Greek culture, Jews were proud of their very different way of living life. Everyone knows what it's like to be in the minority. We all are, in some way, different from the pack. It takes a lot of courage to be unique, to like yourself when you march to a different drummer. It takes even more courage to fight for what you believe in. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom everyone needs to be a little, or sometimes a lot different, from the majority.

2. Hanukkah means rededication. When Judah rededicated the Temple, he was also rededicating his people to their vision of the world, the Jewish dream of a world of justice and goodness. Justice and goodness are easier to talk about than to do. It takes a lot of work. Anyone can get tired working for even the greatest of goals. That's why rededication is so important. We all need a "Hanukkah" to remind us of our dreams as we work in small ways to make them happen, little by little, every day.

A final thought, in synthesis of these three perspectives: if a holiday can be seen as, in addition to a time to celebrate, a challenge to us to live up to that holiday's message, then Hanukkah's juxtaposition with Christmas could not possibly be more appropriate. As Wallack laments, it is true that Christmas often threatens to engulf Hanukkah and replace its native meanings. But, as Schutz discovers, this confrontation can crystallize the questions we must ask ourselves as Jews, and force us to ask them. The season may be a difficult time to be different, but as Rabbi Greenberg notes, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to being different.

Ḥag urim sameaḥ!

Happy Thanksgiving

A pair of Thanksgiving-related publications from Sh'ma:

Thanksgiving in Two-Plus Civilizations. Stephen L. Tobias and his mixed family and friends celebrate American Thanksgiving in Morocco:

The acquisition of a kosher turkey was a journey in itself in the company of our Casablanca kosher butcher who took our order weeks before the occasion. He put the word out to his various suppliers for a dindon, or as it is called in Moroccan Arabic, a bibi. He oversaw the turkey's ritual slaughter and purification, and was amazed to learn of the custom of the distant American Jewish community which celebrated a religious holiday he himself had never heard of... A local winter squash made a serviceable mock pumpkin pie, and someone got us cranberry sauce from the nearby American military base - how often do you get to use the French word for cranberry? How often does anybody?

Our November-December Dilemma. Philip Cohen reflects upon the transition from Thanksgiving to the Christmas season and, as an American Jew, feels whiplash:

Late autumn and early winter inevitably toss us Jews between the poles of a dialectic, yielding perhaps the strongest contrast found in our American social existence. On the one hand, there's Thanksgiving, with its message of America as a land based on fundamental principles of religious freedom... When we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are observing a moment of high American civil religion that Jews therefore share in common with all Americans. On the fourth Thursday of November we Jews are Americans together with all other Americans. With everyone else, we observe the uniqueness and greatness of our nation, against the backdrop of an essentially religious festival that was, after all, roughly patterned on Sukkot...

...Well and good. But no sooner are the turkey bones headed for trash then we are tossed to the opposite end of the dialectic. The green and red lights go up around the neighborhood, across the main streets and at the malls, and the variegated forces of the mass media remind us ad nauseam that we have a moral obligation to spend lots of money in the next month in order to mark the upcoming holiday season properly. Christmas music starts pouring over the airwaves sending a message of love and joy to all of us. The subliminal message we receive as non- Christians, I believe, is clear: This glitzy, faintly religious extravaganza of celebration, lights and fellowship is theirs and not ours... as much a part of things as we naturally and rightfully felt ourselves to be at Thanksgiving, that's how remote we feel from the center of America when Christmas rolls around.

Whether you feel near or remote from "the center of America," have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Check out our publications on the topic of Food, too.

Halloween: What's a Jew to Do?

The traditional halakhic answer, finds Rabbi Michael Broyde, is: nothing. Well, maybe hand out candy. But certainly neither trick nor treat. As he writes (reprinted at MyJewishLearning.com):

Based on this [preceding halakhic analysis], in order to justify candy collection on Halloween, one would have to accept the truthfulness of any of the following assertions:

1)  Halloween celebrations have a secular origin.
2)  The conduct of the individuals "celebrating Halloween" can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
3)  The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations con be attributed to some secular source or reason.
4) The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.

I believe that none of these statements are true... Applying these halakhic rules to Halloween leads to the conclusion that participation in Halloween celebrations--which is what collecting candy is when one is wearing a costume--is prohibited... The question of whether one can give out candy to people who come to the door is a different one...

Writing for CLAL in 2000, David Nelson argues that American Jewry ought to create a new Jewish holiday in order to co-opt Halloween:

Halloween is such a strange time for many Jews. Rabbis, educators, and day school directors remind their constituencies constantly about how un-Jewish it is, how pagan and Christian it is, how we shouldn't participate... Meanwhile, these pronouncements are ignored by thousands of Jewish children who enjoy Halloween!...

...About 20 years ago, a friend and teacher of mine, Rabbi Everett Gendler, told me that in his shul they make "Ya'akov lanterns." At the time I chuckled and filed the tidbit away without further thought, but the time has come to dust it off and think it through. We Jews have a long history of borrowing customs and rituals from the culture in which we live...

...The Jewish quality of these rituals, objects and customs comes not in their uniquely Jewish origins, but in how we have adapted them to function as vehicles for uniquely Jewish meaning. So, for example, we borrowed a child's spinning top from our Christian neighbors in medieval Germany. On the four sides of the top were written abbreviations for instructions on playing the game: nicht - nothing, ganz - everything, halb - half, and stell - put. On our tops we wrote the letters in Hebrew: nun, gimmel, hay, shin. But they still provided a digest of the rules of the game. Then we transformed the whole thing into a vehicle of Jewish meaning - nes gadol haya sham - a great miracle happened there.

Can we perform a similar transformation on Halloween? It is, after all, a well loved holiday for many people, and would thus be a highly attractive means of communicating some Jewish message. Let's see what happens when we try.

Nelson lays out a possible vision of the new Jewish Halloween, which he entitles "Chag Or Habayit--the holiday of the light of home."

These suggestions may sound tongue-in-cheek, but I intend them as a challenge. We who live in an open society, who no longer must fear the Evil Others among whom we live, must now begin to think through what elements of the ambient culture can enrich us. I am honestly not sure if I'm ready to carve a Ya'akov lantern, but I'm certainly willing to consider it. Are you?

You may agree or disagree with Nelson's argument, but it seems to me that his analogy linking medieval cultural fluidity with the modern design of a new holiday fits well into the conceptual model explained by one of my favorite quotes, from Harvard Biblical scholar Jon D. Levenson, on page 7 of this book:

The suppressed or forgotten past provides precedents helpful in dissolving the current consensus: historical criticism is invaluable to the venerable liberal (and, in my view, illogical) argument that the inevitability of unwilled change legitimates willed change, that the historical reality that the tradition was, de facto, always changing validates, de jure, contemporary efforts to alter it.

Whatever traditions you do or don't alter, have a happy Halloween... or, if you're a traditionalist, have a happy but altogether normal day on the 31st.

High Holidays & Wine


As the holiday season draws to a close with Shemini Atzeret this week, a reflection from Benjamin Cantz in Sh'ma (Sept 1988), connecting the wine-making process to the High Holidays:

 The eight days of Succos are completed with the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchas Torah. On Shemini Atzeret the prayer for rain is said for the first time since spring. This special prayer is the occasion of reintroducing the words "He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall" into the daily prayers for the coming half-year. One growing cycle has ended and a new one begins.

The natural world depends on water. Nothing can live and grow without it. Without water the vine cannot draw up out of the ground the goodness therein, or produce the leaves that gather in the sun's rays, or fill the grapes with juice. Without water there is no life.

In the Talmud, Torah is compared to water. It comes from above and goes down to the lowest spot. Without the water of Torah a Jew cannot draw up out of the ground of the world the elements of his spiritual life that lie within all of creation. All creation longs to grow toward its Creator in love and humility. Torah makes this possible for the Jew.

Read the entire piece here.

Sukkot Resources

Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs says that dwelling in sukkot offers us the opportunity to connect to our own history of wandering in an African desert. 

Is erecting a sukkah publicly breaking down the separation of church and state

Latino Evangelical Christians join in the Sukkot celebrations 

Could our sins be the covering over G-d’s sukkah?
Sukkot as a metaphor for relocation as a preemptive response to the threat of violence 
Browse more Sukkot publications.

Yom Kippur Occupies Wall Street

As the Forward reports, hundreds of Jews (and others, one presumes) gathered in the midst of the ongoing financial district protests on Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur prayers:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:

“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf! What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship! It is the fallacy that gold is God!”

...There are plans to build a sukkah at New York’s Occupy Wall Street and to continue holding Shabbat services until the protest is over.

That Jews should become involved in this (largely) economic protest is unsurprising. As Steven Windmueller has written, the economic upheaval of recent years has "devastating implications" for the Jewish community. Much economic coverage in Jewish media sources have focused on the effects of this crisis on Jewish philanthropists and communal organizations, but Windmueller also notes that "A new class of 'near-poor and new poor' Jews is one of the outcomes of this economic crisis." Jews, too, can be have-nots.

Speaking personally, it rubs me the wrong way that an occasion for repentance should be mixed up in an occasion of rebuking/protesting the actions of others. Of course all of us should criticize society when we feel societal structures are unjust, but shouldn't Yom Kippur be a day when it is important to turn around the scrutiny on oneself, focusing on one's own actions, beliefs, and responsibilities rather than on others? A sermon such as the one quoted above, attacking the greed/idolatry of others (a perfectly appropriate topic for another day) seems to miss the mark, in my opinion, on that day. Yom Kippur should be a day to ask urgently: what am I doing wrong?

Click here for more BJPA resources on the economy.

Yom Kippur Resources

Browse more Yom Kippur and High Holiday publications.

גמר חתימה טובה

Shanah Tovah

Shanah Tovah

From Hidden in a Holiday, by Jan R. Urbach:

A verse from Psalm 81 is featured prominently in the Rosh Hashanah evening service: Tiku bahodesh shofar, bakeseh l’yom chageinu, “Sound the shofar on the new moon, in the time appointed for our festival day.” The word bakeseh — translated here as “at the appointed time” — can also connote concealment...

...This idea of hiddenness is a powerful entree into the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah... Rosh Hashanah is a joyful festival celebrating renewal, and it is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, filled with pachad (terror) and yirah (fear and awe). Moreover, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the autumn teaches us that the “newness” we seek is a hidden one. Overt, external renewal happens in the spring; the renewal that occurs in autumn is underground...

...The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah challenges us to face the mysteries of life and death, of justice and judgment, but it doesn’t help us solve them. The prayer U-Netanah Tokef raises the most challenging questions of meaning, justice, and the vulnerability and uncertainty of life; it answers them by saying only, “But You are Sovereign, God, living and eternal.” The text offers no explanation of God’s ways; it simply affirms God’s eternal existence and presence, veiled in mystery.

This is the beginning of teshuvah and it paves the way for our next steps. Even as we shift our vision from ourselves to focus on God, we learn something about how to see ourselves. As we confront and celebrate the hiddenness of God, we begin to see ourselves, too, as fundamentally hidden and mysterious. At some point in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will be ready to delve into the deepest parts of our souls and reveal what is hidden there...

...Concealed within us are not just the things we find shameful, but also hidden potential, creativity, talent, yearning, and complexity. To be an unknowable mystery is one of the ways — perhaps the most profound way — in which we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. Before we rush to uncover and reveal what is hidden within, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy allows us to simply stand in awe, and more than a little fear and trembling, at the mystery.

Tiku bahodesh shofar, bakeseh l’yom chageinu. “The shofar of renewal is blown within the hiddenness of the festival day.” (Psalms 81:4) The renewal, teshuvah, comes through our growing sensitivity to and treasuring of that which is hidden: the subtle hidden meanings of the themes of the holiday, the non-obvious in the world around us, the unknown and unknowable within the self and, most importantly, the One Who is hidden in everything.

Click here to download this publication, which is from the September 2005 issue of Sh'ma, focusing on Rosh Hashanah.

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו.

Mel Gibson, Hannukah Hero?

Yes, it's unfortunately true. Mel Gibson is teaming up with Warner Bros. to recreate the story of Hannukah for the silver screen. In honor of a new school year being upon (some of) us, let's take a short pop quiz of Gibson's latest venture.

Question #1: Mel Gibson can best be described as:

A. A great equal rights champion
B. A raging anti-Semite
C. A lovable curmudgeon

Question #2: Upon hearing the news that he will be producing a movie on Judah Maccabee, the most common reaction from the Jewish community is:

A. Nachas (aka Pride)
B. Incredulity ( are you #%*!? kidding me?!)
C. Agreement that, yes, this does seem like an intellectually sound arrangement

Question #3: What do 'Basic Instinct', 'Showgirls', and the movie adaption of the story of Hannukah all have in common?

A. All three share writer Joe Eszterhas
B. All three share writer Joe Eszterhas
C. No, really. They share the same writer. Meaning that for all we know, Judah Maccabee, pole dancers, and Sharon Stone will all share screen time. 

Do you think Gibson will be able to pull it off?

Labor Day (Belated) Publications


Okay, so we should have posted these yesterday. But instead we were taking the day off from work, as was entirely appropriate. (I'm sure the Pullman strikers would have approved.) Don't complain about the delay or we'll go on strike from blogging.


On Belief, for Elul

Accounting of the soul

Yesterday began the Hebrew calendar month of Elul, the month of spiritual accounting and preparation for the High Holidays.

The journal Sh'ma dedicated its September 1993 issue to the month of Elul, with five essays about belief.

Bonus: it is traditional to hear the shofar after morning prayers every morning of Elul. Here is the sounding of the shofar during Elul 5766 (2006) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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