Archive for December, 2013


While the 1920s represented a decade of expansion for the Conservative movement, the Depression of the 1930s caused a shrinkage everywhere. The finance committee chairman at Cincinnati’s Adath Israel reported, at the end of 1930, that, “during the past year, owing to the general business depression, there was a decided loss in membership and a decrease in membership dues”; five years later, he reported that the “economic depression has lasted for over five years and hurt us in every way.” In the early years of the Depression, Temple Sinai in Los Angeles reduced dues from $5 to $3.50 a month, while, at the Brooklyn Jewish Center Hebrew school, tuition and single memberships were cut in half, gymnasium membership was made free, and the raffle for the 1933 Chevy had to be canceled. At Montclair, New Jersey’s Shomrei Emunah, the treasurer, as late as 1936, was trying to get congregants who had owed dues since 1930 to pay “back amounts.” Temple Beth Israel of Phoenix, Arizona—Conservative until it hired a Reform rabbi in 1933—noted as early as 1930 that “pledges and funds were inadequate to cover the necessary expenditures” and thus it was necessary to borrow from the “cemetery fund.” The following spring, leaders went house to house to beg members for funds “to tide the Congregation over until September 1st,” and, in 1932, the president declared that “we are a bankrupt institution and our temple building has been sold.” Not even brotherhood “stag [without wives] parties” (1933) could put the synagogue in the black. At the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan, the board reported a $60,000 deficit in 1931 and noted that staff members were owed thousands of dollars in back wages. Rochester’s Beth El lacked sufficient funds in 1930 to pay the mortgage, after numerous congregants resigned because of “financial reverses.” Banks threatened to foreclose on Seattle’s Herzl Congregation in 1930 and again (on the renamed Herzl Conservative Congregation) in 1936. In Washington, D.C., at Adas Israel, the leaders reduced the salaries of synagogue employees by 10 percent in 1932-1933 and another 10 percent the following year, while relying more and more on borrowing. At the Brooklyn Jewish Center, in 1931, where the president noted the “depressing conditions now prevailing in business” and the “often threatened danger of having our doors closed for lack of financial support,” he announced free tuition for the religious school and said that new members could join and make no payments for one year; annual dues were cut in half the following year for families and by 25 percent for singles.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 81-82.

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Jews don’t give to organizations but to causes. Organizations need to see themselves as tools for donors and users rather than vice versa.

This is not merely semantics. It implies seeing the relation between missions and users, donors or members in a completely different light. Organizations need “network weavers” rather than fundraisers, facilitators rather than directors, and catalysts instead of organizers.

Andres Spokoiny, “Study Points The Way Toward More Avenues to Jewish Life”, The Jewish Week (8 November 2013), 43.

What matters, in this propagandistic game, is not the actual sexual proclivities of a particular emperor but the extent to which notions of masculinity functioned to articulate the strength of the emperor and state, regardless of which imperial family occupied the palace in Rome.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 161.

Jews haven’t ceased searching for values and meaning. But the ideological movements of the past 200 years — Reform, Conservative, Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy — are all modern phenomena created as different responses to the encounter between Judaism and the realities of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are historical, and we’d be ill advised to see them as timeless. They may not be fully adequate to respond to the different set of challenges facing Jews in the 21st century.

So maybe instead of lamenting the lack of connection to “modern” Jewish ideologies, we should be working on creating postmodern ideologies. This is not a purely philosophical issue. It’s about the critical question of what Judaism as a culture, religion and civilization has to offer to those of us who yearn for meaning in an uncertain world.

Answering the question of why be Jewish is just as important as how to be Jewish.

Andres Spokoiny, “Study Points The Way Toward More Avenues to Jewish Life”, The Jewish Week (8 November 2013), 43.

While we focus on young adults who desire to impact the future of our communities, we lack meaningful ways for them to get involved. Many communities have shifted to support innovation and start-ups, but these new efforts can’t be the only way to engage for the future. Ultimately, the challenge of improving our leadership is not just about young adult involvement. Few of my own peers find enjoyment from traditional committees, even when they are committed to the organization and Jewish life.

Marci Mayer Eisen, “Where Did Our Farm Teams Go? Rethinking Committee Process“, eJewish Philanthropy (17 July 2013).

To draw people back into the synagogue, we…need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, “Growing The Conservative Movement”, The Jewish Week (18 October 2013), 27.

Few people want to serve on ongoing committees. Gone are the parent-led youth committees. Special event committees are rare, unless they are focused on fundraising. Task forces exist, but usually for short-term projects like strategic plans. Even organizations with sophisticated volunteer structures are struggling with which committees to maintain and which to disband due to lack of attendance. And, many boards of directors have been reduced in size so that they are easier to manage.
There are bright spots – dynamic, meaningful, effective and enjoyable boards. Yet, we bemoan the fact that there are not enough volunteers to lead our organizations. We criticize organizations that are too staff-focused. We are turned off when boards are expected to rubber-stamp decisions made by small executive committees. We attend meetings that are uninspiring or worse, simply boring. We joke about the real conversations taking place on the parking lot. It’s a serious problem.

Marci Mayer Eisen, “Where Did Our Farm Teams Go? Rethinking Committee Process“, eJewish Philanthropy (17 July 2013).

The current popularity of the Beit ha-Behirah of R. Menahem ha-Meiri reflects this change in modes of learning. Meiri is the only medieval Talmudist (rishon) whose works can be read almost independently of the Talmudic text, upon which it ostensibly comments. The Beit ha-Behirah is not a running commentary on the Talmud. Meiri, in quasi-Maimonidean fashion, intentionally omits the give and take of the sugya, he focuses, rather, on the final upshot of the discussion and presents the differing views of that upshot and conclusion. Also, he alone, and again intentionally, provides the reader with background information. His writings are the closest thing to a secondary source in the library of rishonim. This trait coupled with the remarkably modern syntax of Meiri’s Hebrew prose have won for his works their current widespread use. It is not, as commonly thought, because the Beit ha-Behirah has been recently discovered. True, the massive Parma manuscript has been in employ only for some seventy years. However, even a glance at any Hebrew bibliography will show that much of the Beit ha-Behirah on sefer mo’ed, for example, had been published long before Avraham Sofer began his transcriptions of the Parma manuscript in the nineteen twenties. (E. g. Megillah Amsterdam, 1759; Sukkah Berlin, 1859; Shabbat Vienna, 1864.) Rather, Meiri’s works had previously fallen stillborn from the press. Sensing its alien character, most scholars simply ignored them, and, judging by the infrequent reprintings, if any, they also appear not to have found a popular audience. They have come into their own only in the past half century. (On Meiri’s quasi-Maimonidean intentions, see Beit ha-Behirah, Berakhot, ed. Y. Dickman [Jerusalem, 1965], introduction, pp. 25-32. Meiri consciously follows Maimonides in addressing the halakhic dicta rather than the Talmudic discussion, in gathering scattered halakhic dicta under one roof, and in writing in neo-Mishnaic rather than Rabbinic Hebrew. He parts company with Maimonides and follows R. Judah ha-Nassi in writing not topically but tractatewise, and in registering multiple views. Indeed, no one writing after the dialectical revolution of the Tosafists could entertain again the Maimonidean notion of halakhic univocality.)

Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy“, Tradition 28, no. 4 (1994), 120-121, n. 54.

Rather than defending Judaism’s distinctive system, some Jewish clergy and synagogues have allowed themselves to act as if some of their families are fully Jewish even if one spouse is not Jewish by any criterion. They have thereby also become the bearers of an insidious message—that all this religious stuff is really not terribly important and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the really important thing, which is for everyone to play nice and get along.

Jack Wertheimer, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?Mosaic (September 2013).

…text editing is a necessary hermeneutic tool for students and scholars of Jewish studies. Every student should be introduced to the world of text-critical analysis and avoid considering any edition as a revelation from Sinai. Or rather, he or she should consider the text as written revelation, as Torah she-bikhtav, and apply to it the same rules applicable to the written tradition, i.e., that the text can become meaningful only by the intervention of a reader/interpreter. As the Midrash Sifra states it with an ironic dictum of R. Yishmael, quoting Rabbi Eliezer:

R. Yishmael said to him: You say to the text (katuv): be silent until I explain you!
א”ל רבי ישמעאל: הרי את אומר לכתוב שתוק עד שאדרוש

The silence of the text is the indispensable premise for revelation to happen through the commentary.

Giuseppe Veltri, “From The Best Text To The Pragmatic Edition: On Editing Rabbinic Texts”, in The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature, eds. Reimund Bieringer, Florentino García Martínez, Didier Pollefeyt, Peter Tomson (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010), 77-78.