The Subversion of the Ninth of Av

On a phone call with my father, he commented that the 9 Days are now the days when Orthodox Jews eat the most meat. The 9 Days are part of an escalating practice of mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. During the first eight days, traditional Jews do not eat meat, and on the 9th day, Tisha B’Av, they fast for 25 hours, from sundown until nightfall of the following day. Yet today, it is not unusual for people to hold a siyum, a celebration for finishing a tractate of Talmud during the 9 Days, so that they can eat meat in honor of the siyum. And since it’s summer, why not have a barbecue? Kosher restaurants are asking local rabbis to make a siyum at the restaurant, enabling patrons to order whatever they wish.

The growth of the siyum workaround is simply the latest in the ongoing subversion of Tisha b’Av. Prior to the spread of this practice, frum Jews replaced daily meat consumption with non-meat delicacies like Chilean sea bass, halibut, and, naturally, sushi. One restaurant advertised a special: order a platter of Sushi for your pre-fast meal, and receive a discount on a 2nd platter for your break-fast meal. Could anything more perfectly capture the idea that the 9th of Av has no real meaning anymore? Eat the same meal right before and right after the fast day. The day itself will have no impact on you.

Even well-intentioned Jews can’t seem to get it right. My father continued to comment that just as the 9 Days had become a meat festival, the 9th of Av itself, a day in which Torah study is forbidden, or at least heavily circumscribed, has become on a par with Shavuot for the amount of Jewish learning it engenders. Whether at synagogue or on the internet,rabbis and teachers expound on the 9th of Av from every possible direction. Some study Eichah and the Kinnot, the traditional lamentations read in synagogue. Others offer modern interpretations on the meaning of Tisha b’Av today and how to connect to its rituals of mourning.

For many, Tish B’Av is the time to commemorate the Holocaust, and to learn its stories, to relive its horrors and to mourn its victims. Tisha B’Av has served as a catch-all for the tragedies the Jews experienced throughout 2,000 years of exile, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. The Holocaust is both the most recent and most horrible of these tragedies, and despite having its own days of commemoration, for Orthodox Jews, Tisha B’Av is the most resonant. Yet, as memory slips into history, even the Holocaust loses its power to bring Jews to an appreciation of the destruction of the Temple. It’s just another historical experience, one that cannot move the heart as readily as the stories of our grandparents once did.

The reality is that Tisha B’Av mourns a loss we have long since regained. The land of Israel is governed again by a powerful Jewish state, approaching its 70th birthday in a position of strength and relative security. Jerusalem itself has been built and rebuilt. Home to a million people, Jerusalem is once again a city of gold and white stone, the seat of the Knesset and the Prime Minister, the center of worship for the Jewish people (and others!) yet again. The prophecies of Jerusalem’s rebirth describe the city today. The absence of the abattoir-Temple of 2000 years ago makes few hearts grow fond for it. Instead of one Temple, Jerusalem is a honeycomb of synagogues, yeshivas, houses of study, ritual baths, and holy sites. No greater temple has even been built by human hands.

And that, ultimately, is why we subvert the Ninth of Av. Mourning is not the right course for a city that has risen from the dead. To recite Eichah, to try and conjure tears and sorrow for a city that is once again the crown of its people, doesn’t make sense. But Orthodox Jews are slow to change their laws. Instead, they change their meanings. Refraining from eating meat on the 9 Days makes no sense, so instead, we demonstrate to God that we are rich in learning enough to make a siyum on each day, in homes and restaurants, and eat meat. And if not meat, then rich dishes that show that whatever measure of sadness there might yet be left in us for the last temple, we have built a third temple to replace it. And on the day itself, we fast and observe mourning rituals, but we are not saddened. We are learning Torah.

Palestinian Dependence Bid?


, , , ,

Jeff Goldberg suggest that Palestinians should ask the UN not for greater recognition of independence, but to concede their nationalist aspirations for the right to vote in Israel instead. He suggest it as a strategy, not a sincere change of direction, and believes that it will yield a two-state solution:

Reaction would be seismic and instantaneous. The demand for voting rights would resonate with people around the world, in particular with American Jews, who pride themselves on support for both Israel and for civil rights at home. Such a demand would also force Israel into an untenable position; if it accedes to such a demand, it would very quickly cease to be the world’s only Jewish-majority state, and instead become the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. If it were to refuse this demand, Israel would very quickly be painted by former friends as an apartheid state.

Israel’s response, then, can be reasonably predicted: Israeli leaders eager to prevent their country from becoming a pariah would move to negotiate the independence, with security caveats, of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, and later in Gaza, as well. Israel would simply have no choice.

But would it? Perhaps another outcome would result? What if Israel found itself unable to turn the clock back to a 2-state solution, for all the same reasons that a 2-state solution hasn’t worked thus far: an implacable Hamas, a corrupt and inept Fatah,  a distrustful Israeli Right and a powerless and directionless Israeli Left.

Can we imagine an alternate future, where Israel found itself unable to avoid a transition of some kind into a civil state for all of its citizens? I wonder… would the masses of Diaspora Judaism in-gather themselves to defuse the demographic Palestinian time bomb? Would secular, American Jews arouse themselves to come to Israel and struggle for its liberal democratic soul? Would comfortable Orthodox Jews be seduced by the dream of the Biblical Land of Israel, to go along with the more prosaic temptation of affordable housing and religious education? And perhaps Palestinians would find that with voting rights and equal citizenship, political alliances across the religious and ethnic divide could yield better results than insurrection and resistance. To say nothing of the right, at long last, to move out of Gaza and out of refugee camps, and out of the indignity of border checkpoints and work papers.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about it in almost exactly the same terms three years ago, prior to the last election in Israel. Three years later, not much has changed.

Jewish Education, Brought to You By…

A quick idea. Everyone’s been throwing out different models for delivering Jewish education, and even experimenting in different models for funding it. Has anyone tried to implement an ad-sponsored model?

Most day schools today charge a tuition that is higher than the marginal cost per student, but lower than the actual cost. In other words, they charge more than it costs to educate one more child, but less than the total annual budget divided by the number of students. In essence this means that everyone is on scholarship. Even if every parent paid full tuition, the schools would not meet their expenses without additional fundraising.

There’s not anything wrong with this, in my opinion. This is just another way to implement a differential pricing plan. The goal of differential pricing is to get each customer to pay the maximum that they are willing to pay for a good or service. In the case of schools, a tuition number is set, and anyone who wants to pay less has to submit to an invasive (though justified) financial aid process and then bear the stigma of being ‘scholarship’ families. Those who can afford to pay more are incentivized to do so by having those payments be in the form of donations. Those donations come with tax deductions and suitable honor and recognition.

Every idea that I’ve seen so far has suggested shifting some of the burden of funding schools onto the government, or onto people who are no longer parents of school-age children. What about an ad supported model?
Whether we think we’re in crisis or not, the challenge of affording private school is what most people would consider rich people problems. And there is a world of advertisers who would gladly pay good money to pitch ads at the owners of all those luxury SUVs in the parking lot of your school on PTA night. Can schools monetize this attractive audience more effectively? Some of the suggestions may sound silly, or even tone-deaf, but I’m going to list them anyway as actual ideas for new revenue for schools that could be quite significant:

  • School snail mail and email should feature ads
  • Every school event that includes parents in the audience, from school plays to welcome nights, should have a corporate sponsor
  • School fundraisers should have a wine and/or liquor sponsor
  • Strategic exclusive partnerships with Staples or other school-supply stores to provide special offers to parents
  • Specialists like psychologists, speech therapists and other professionals should be listed (for free) in a school-published web directory. Those who pay could receive a featured listing.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. A real professional in the industry would have dozens more ideas. And no school should do this alone. Schools should work together under a single umbrella marketing arm that would be able to work with advertisers to advertise across a broad network of day schools, increasing scale and making an ad package more attractive to the buyer.

While some of us may feel uncomfortable inviting corporations to advertise through our schools, I would personally prefer that to allowing government to dictate our curriculum in exchange for money. Is it time we consider an ad-supported model for funding Jewish education?

Rebuilding the Temple of Jewish Education

It’s Tisha B’Av today, but instead of mourning the destruction of the Temple or remembering the Holocaust, I’m thinking about how we can rebuild our Jewish community. Many of us believe that the key to a brighter Jewish future is Jewish education that is better, that reaches more people, and that is more relevant and applicable to our lives.

Today, Jewish children receive a Jewish education through Jewish day schools, Jewish supplementary schools, or Jewish camps. And of course, some Jewish children receive no Jewish education at all. There’s plenty of research out proving that day school is an effective way to deliver Jewish education for those who are willing and able to access it. The costs of accessing day school education, both in dollars and in lifestyle choices are very high, and even stipulating that the content of that education is terrific, day school will not be a realistic solution for many Jewish families. Camps, on the other hand, may be a fine complement to education received during the school year, but few would consider it to be an effective way, by itself, to provide Jewish education.

We must instead consider supplementary Jewish education – Hebrew school. Today’s Hebrew school is not the Hebrew school of the past, as caricatured in such films as A Serious Man. The days of uninspiring teachers, rote memorization of Hebrew, and listless classrooms filled with bored students are behind us. Today, and for some years now, Hebrew schools have provided an enjoyable experience that students emerge from with a sense of pride in their Jewish identity, some community service credits, and perhaps some Jewish friends and memories. What they do not get is Hebrew literacy, or even much by way of Jewish knowledge. While progress has been made, claiming success would be a case of setting the bar far too low.

There are many challenges to doing Hebrew school right, but I want to focus on two big-picture issues. The first is content, and the second is distribution. In the non-Orthodox world, the primary values of Jewish life have been Zionism and Tikkun Olam – supporting the State of Israel philanthropically and politically, and perfecting the world through a variety of social, political and environmental initiatives. A framework of Jewish holidays, rituals and traditions that were at times harmonic and at times dissonant with these values provided the structure for Jewish communal living. Hebrew schools taught to this content – the values and the framework for their expression. However, over time, allegiance to these values has waned, and questions and doubts continue to emerge about the values and the framework of non-Orthodox life.

The result of these growing doubts has been a complete lack of confidence and conviction over the way to express Jewish identity and to live a Jewish life within a Jewish community. The very meaning of who is a Jew and what is a Jewish community continues to go through convulsive changes.  In the world of education, the question of what to teach is so toxic, so fraught with division and doubt that it is rarely broached at all. The absence of leadership is most evident when you consider that the newest thinking on this challenge is to privilege the consumer, and provide a plethora of options for the learner in a marketplace. Put another way, rabbis, educators and leaders are stepping away from the responsibility of defining a core set of content, values, rituals, and behaviors, and instead letting the market decide. No doubt, some curating of the vast sea of choices is happening, but nevertheless, it is astonishing how much Jewish leadership has conceded that it has no idea which way to lead.

Viewed in this light, the declining rates of synagogue affiliation and attendance reflect the declining interest in the type of Judaism these institutions stand for. Teachers continue to teach students how to live a Jewish life that most will find outmoded and irrelevant as they grow into adulthood. Students come away with vague good feelings about being Jewish but few Jewish habits or behaviors. Judaism becomes a more superficial identity that can be shrugged on and off, rather than the organizing principle for our values, our choices, and our life missions.

Is there hope in the emerging class of Jewish movements and organizations that are forging new paths in Jewish life? Perhaps, taken together, they are defining new possibilities for Jewish identity and community. Certainly, the growth, vitality, and passion in Jewish life is found more in the independent minyans, the new Jewish food movement, and radically open Jewish learning than in JCCs, Federations, and traditional synagogues.

Yet these new approaches face many challenges. Many of them haven’t even built educational material and pedagogies for teaching children and teens, and there’s certainly no comprehensive curriculum that existing schools could adopt or adapt. And let’s face it, so many of these celebrated young organizations are composed of no more than a handful of idealists who lack the requisite capital, expertise, and manpower to reach significant scale. Too many operate in such financially precarious states that they have to focus on making payroll instead of making change.

The truth is that we have no effective distribution mechanisms in the Jewish community. Our institutions, built to raise money and deliver social services to Jewish communities defined by geography and proximity, are struggling to reinvent themselves in the wake of the ongoing communication revolution. There are no national clearinghouses of educational programming, no open databases of comprehensive educational content, and a dearth of online programs of Jewish instruction. A consolidated online school? Not yet.

But can you solve the problem of distribution without solving the problem of content and conviction? I’m not sure. Why bother investing in a robust distribution mechanism when you have no confidence in your content? As a counter-example, take a look at Orthodox kiruv institutions. Chabad and Aish have invested themselves into building extraordinary distribution systems, from world-class websites with rich offerings across the full range of Jewish life and learning, to a world-spanning network of actual schools, synagogues and centers staffed by caring pastors and educators who serve their communities with tremendous dedication. The success of that system is predicated on the deeply-held convictions about how to be a Jew, how to live a Jewish life, and the nature and purpose of Jewish community.

There is no doubt that we need to build a better distribution system for Jewish education. But the only way we’re going to do that effectively is if we find our own commitments to Jewish life. I don’t think we all need to believe the same thing to build a good distribution system. FedEx doesn’t care what you put in your box, email is agnostic to the words you’re sending, and Google will find any webpage. Content-neutral networks can be enormously powerful. But paradoxically, they only exist because consumers of content are highly discriminant, and value some kinds of content much more than others.

Sina’at Hinam, baseless hatred, the Sages tell us, was the sin for which the Second Temple was destroyed, and only Ahavat Hinam, baseless, boundless love, can restore it. I believe that there is no better expression of boundless love than helping someone teach something to others, even if you disagree with it. Our love for the diversity of Judaism must be expressed by building a distribution network that helps share all those passionate and vibrant approaches to Jewish life with Jewish children and families – including those not attending school or synagogue – and all those interested in being enriched by Judaism. That’s the kind of Temple I pray we will merit to build, speedily and in our day. Amen.

Do Liberals do Holy?

From Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

[…] today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianitywith other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This is all very similar to what’s happening to liberal Judaism. But why? Focusing on liberal, universal values does seem to dilute the value proposition of a specific religion. You don’t need the particular rituals and practices of Judaism, or Lutheranism to believe in stopping genocides. But the implication of liberal religion is that these rituals are secondary in importance, or perhaps not even intrinsically important at all. That once you’ve oriented yourself towards the proper values, there’s no need to take communion, or sanctify the Sabbath day over a glass of wine.

Since liberal religions often dispense with much of the metaphysics of traditional religion, it’s hard to embrace rituals in a consistent way. Yes, a practice may be beautiful, or deeply meaningful, or inspiring, but typically we experience practices that way when we engage in them intermittently. As soon as those practices become habit, they often lose their ability to impact us as we grow accustomed to them.

I suspect though, that customary practice may be part of the secret of holiness. You see, even if you make kiddush every week without a thought for the meaning of the words, and without any deeper sense of connection to God or the world, the very act of making kiddush every week has an impact that spills over to your entire life. Your life is now organized around this practice, and everything else must make room for this ritual, for this jar upon a hill and should you miss a week, the absence would trouble you.

The ritual is holy. It isn’t for understanding, or for providing access to upper worlds, or for creating conduit for blessing to flow down. It’s a way that we make meaning, not out of our pragmatic minds, or our sensitive hearts, but out of our habit-forming hands, our one-foot-in-front-of-another legs. Taking on these kinds of commitments creates a whole world of mutual dependency with our community-members. It helps us nurture our positive instincts and inscribe them into our lives with the force of habit.

I’m not sure myself. Traditional religion has plenty of its own problems. But it seems like liberal religion has made how we treat one another not just the pinnacle of religion, but perhaps its only sphere. Without god, without a deep sense of the sacred, without a metaphysics, or at least the possibility of one, religion becomes too pragmatic, too technocratic, and too self-reliant. Liberal religion needs to rediscover why it needs God again.

Observing the Fourth of July


As proud, patriotic Americans, we celebrate our country’s birth with friends, and fireworks. But as Jews, do we observe the Fourth of July? As a religious matter, many of us do observe Israel’s independence for a variety of theological and practical reasons, and even recite special prayers on that day. But we don’t typically do the same for the Fourth. Why not?

Whether looked at through the lens of “is it good for the Jews?” or the broader lens of does this bring us to a more perfect, more just, more Godly world, the founding of the United States is an unequivocally momentous happening. And while it’s true that the American Revolution was largely not a story about Jews, or even with significant Jewish involvement, it is nevertheless true that it ended up being among the most important events to impact Jewish history. Perhaps it’s time we embraced it as a Jewish holiday, not just an American holiday. It’s time to thank our Creator for the great experiment in freedom and responsibility that is the United States. God bless America!