Table Talk

There is a lot of pressure at Passover time. If you are hosting a Seder there is the pressure to buy the necessary products, organize the house and make sure everything is just right for your guests. If you are a guest there is the pressure to find a place to go and fit in at someone else’s table with different traditions.

Now Arielle Levites adds another layer of pressure to the Seder by arguing that this once a year home ritual can have a significant effect on Jewish identity in teens. She and her colleague Liat Sayfan found that teens who regularly attend a Seder have a stronger connection to their Jewish identity “as well as to their sense of connection and responsibility to others.”

It seems counterintuitive to think that a dinner that only happens once a year can have such a consistent, though small, effect. Generally we think of larger programs as significant to a child’s Jewish development: religious or day school education, attendance at summer camp. But maybe it is the little moments that have the biggest impact.

Many of the reasons Levites presents for the success of the Seder on Jewish teen identity echo the arguments of Marshal Sklare and Joseph Greenblum for why the Seder is so popular in America. Quite simply, this is a ritual that fits our modern American sensibility and lifestyle. Teens want to take ownership of their Judaism and feel proud of their heritage while also engaging with the world around them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Seder for the teen, Levites argues, is the intergenerational nature of the ritual. This is one of the few times during the year when kids, parents and grandparents sit around the table and engage in serious conversation, but it is a very particular kind of discussion. The Seder is not about adults interrogating children about their lives and asking “What did you learn today?” It’s also not about adults talking among themselves while the children are expected to be silent.

Instead the Seder is a moment for kids to ask questions and adults are expected to respond. It is a night for children to place themselves into the intergeneration story of the Jewish people. They make themselves a part of a ritual that has been going on for millennia, and which they will be expected to lead in the future.

So there is one more element of pressure to add to the Seder. This meal has important implications for the future Jewish identity of the children sitting around the table. Just as the matzah ball soup is prepared with care and love, so too should the conversation. As Levites notes “American Jewish teens, perhaps like all teens, want opportunities to talk with their families about what matters most in life.”


Beautiful Failure

The last few weeks I have been preoccupied with Israel’s attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon, becoming the fourth country, and first commercial operation, to do so. Everything went smoothly from launch to Earth orbit to lunar capture and orbit, but unfortunately the small probe called Beresheet couldn’t quite stick the landing. While it did reach the moon, the spacecraft crashed and lost communication with Earth.

I watched the live stream of the landing on YouTube, excited to witness the historic moment. The newly reelected Prime Minister was at mission control in the city of Yehud, near Tel Aviv, while the President of Israel was at his residence in Jerusalem watching with a group of children. Everything seemed to go well until the end when the spacecraft’s signal was lost. Finally, one of the controllers announced that they were on the moon, but not in the condition they wanted.

So how do you characterize a mission like Beresheet? Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to return to the moon in the future, as a complete success this time. President Reuven Rivlin tried to console the children by focusing on the positive: Israel became the 7th country to orbit the moon, took some amazing pictures, and Beresheet hopefully has inspired the next phase of Israeli space exploration.

Was the mission a success or a failure? Perhaps we shouldn’t think about it in such binary terms. The astronomer Phil Plait argues that “making mistakes is not only inevitable, but critical to the scientific process.” He writes that “[w]e make mistakes, we learn from them, we build on what we’ve learned, and in this way progress is made. Not doing that is what transforms a mistake into failure.”

One of the most remarkable, but perhaps overlooked, aspects of the Beresheet mission was the final livestream itself. Some countries would have kept the mission under wraps until it was complete so that if it was successful, there could be a triumphant announcement. If the goals were not met then no one would know.

Transparency and openness are also hallmarks of good science. It’s hard to do groundbreaking work in a vacuum (pun intended); you need cooperation with others, another outstanding feature of the Beresheet mission. NASA helped with communications and also provided a Laser Retroreflector Array on the spacecraft which can be used to precisely measure Beresheet’s location. Since the instrument does not need power to operate, it’s possible NASA will still be able to use it to locate the probe if it survived the crash. Who knows, maybe some science will be achieved from the mission after all.

I once saw a sign at a preschool that read “Mistakes are good because they help us grow”. It’s a philosophy that is important for science, but for life as well. It is also the essence of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, return. Whenever I make an error, I am always consoled by the learning opportunity it affords me. I know that I can do better in the future, that I will have another chance, and that makes all the difference.

Make it Your Own

Most American Jews are aware that the Passover Seder is one of the most observed rituals in our community. According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 79% of American Jews attend a Seder. But have you stopped to ask why? One theory was raised by sociologists of the American Jewish community, Marshal Sklare and Joseph Greenblum, in 1967:

Five criteria emerge as important in explaining retention of specific home rituals. Thus, the highest retention will occur when a ritual: (1) is capable of effective redefinition in modern terms, (2) does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style, (3) accords with the religious culture of the larger community while providing a “Jewish” alternative when such is felt to be needed, (4) is centered on the child, and. (5) is performed annually or infrequently.”

The Passover Seder fulfills all of his categories. (1) The Seder is able to be redefined in modern terms. Each year more haggadot are published relating the story to current events. In the 1980’s we had the Soviet refusnik’s Haggadah. Today we have the social justice Haggadah. (2) The Seder does not demand social isolation. In fact, the Seder is a perfect time to invite people, including non-Jewish friends, family, and neighbors to share in our traditions. (3) The Seder accords with the larger culture. Passover is about celebrating freedom, one of the basic and most cherished of American values. (4) It goes without saying that the Seder is geared toward children and keeping them occupied. (5) To the gratitude of many a Jewish homemaker, the two Seders come around just once a year.

Sklare’s observation is encapsulated by one of the latest edition to the library of haggadot, the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander, two much-celebrated writers who are certainly known for their Jewish perspectives but not for a particularly pious outlook. They received much attention for their endeavor – Foer even appeared on a late night talk show to promote the book – but I can’t help think how odd the book seems in light of the Jewish tradition. We expect a haggadah to be prepared by rabbis and Jewish scholars, but as Englander noted in an interview, he is an atheist who left the Orthodox community to live a secular and unobservant life. And now he has translated one of the most beloved texts in Judaism.

At first glance the New American Haggadah may seem like a strange and even heretical concept, but it fits right in with a particular kind of American Judaism. It certainly represents a “redefinition in modern terms” of the Passover experience. It brings the Seder right into the center of American culture by making the text a source of commentary for some of the most celebrated writers of the contemporary literary world. But mostly, this new haggadah is exciting because it celebrates the idea of taking the Seder and “making it your own.” I recently heard someone say that the best entrepreneurs are the outsiders, the ones who aren’t part of the establishment. This is what makes American Jewish culture unique – we have an independent spirit that looks for inspiration outside of the expected sources of wisdom.

If non-scholars can create a haggadah, that should inspire us to make our Seders our own as well. Many people have literally done so by creating their own haggadot, or at least adding supplements to them. How will you create a unique Seder this year? What happened in your life that could add meaning to the Passover story? As you partake of the rituals of the Seder, may you find wisdom and meaning by making this holiday your own. Hag Kasher Vesameach!

Chai Life

How much should the government get involved in the lives and choices of the people? This is a perpetual question of politics. Many agree that government should protect its people and provide basic services, but what about regulating morality and ethics? The libertarian side argues that individuals should be free from interference, even if that means being allowed to engage in activities that may be harmful to themselves. The other side argues that governments should uphold values that are in the interest of all.

This question plays out in a number of areas, including the legalization of marijuana. Many states in the U.S. have decided that the government should no longer prohibit adults from buying and using the drug. In New Jersey, the legalization effort is currently stalled, while Israel just decriminalized cannabis.

A new party in Israel, Zehut, wants to go further and has made legalization of the drug a central part of its campaign. Zehut bills itself as libertarian, with right-wing positions on the Palestinian issue and advocacy for personal freedom on social issues. Despite its libertarian orientation, Zehut also believes that Israel should be guided of Jewish law, values and tradition.

So what does Judaism have to say about marijuana? Previous rabbis have ruled that use of the drug is against Jewish law, but those decisions were mostly made when cannabis was illegal. Now that it is allowed in some jurisdictions, is pot kosher?

Nothing in Jewish texts prohibit consumption of marijuana. In fact it is mentioned as an herb in the Talmud and there is no suggestion that it should be avoided. Judaism allows pleasures of the body, including the consumption of good food and drinking alcohol. Pot produces a similar effect as alcohol so it makes sense that if legal, it would also be permitted according to Jewish law.

The medieval rabbi Nachmanides understood that there was a danger to Judaism’s permissive attitude toward alcohol. Since drinking was allowed, someone could abuse alcohol and not violate halakha. Basing himself on the Torah, he argued that Jews have an obligation to pursue the path of moderation. One may eat and drink, but it is a religious duty not to do so to excess. This same approach would apply to marijuana as well: one may use it but not abuse it.

We live in a world that is quickly changing. While most rabbis of a previous generation opposed cannabis consumption, today some Kashrut organizations have begun to certify edible versions of the drug for medical use. But have we also considered all of the costs of legalization?

Are we as a society prepared for the possibility of an increase in substance abuse, car accidents and other negative effects of increased marijuana use? Have we considered how we will wipe clean the records of people convicted of using and selling the drug in the past? Do we have a plan to allow people of color to benefit from a new legal cannabis economy rather than be exploited by it? What will we do to help rebuild communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs? These are weighty questions that go beyond the simple question of whether to legalize pot or not, but we ignore them at our peril.

The Next Find

Last Sunday Adath hosted a fascinating discussion of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, which was this year’s selection for One Book One Jewish Community. Princeton University scholar Dr. Brendan Goldman gave a presentation about the Cairo Geniza which provided important background and context to the novel. Thank you to the OBOJC Committee for a great event!

I have written about the Geniza before, but its importance cannot be overemphasized. The discovery of over 350,000 textual fragments spanning a thousand years of history in the attic of an ancient synagogue in Cairo revolutionized a number of academic fields: Jewish history, Hebrew poetry, and the history of the Mediterranean basin in general, just to name a few.

Part of what makes the Geniza so exciting is that discoveries are still being made. Even over 120 years since Solomon Schechter cleared out the storeroom and brought back his treasure trove to Cambridge, the fragments have not fully been sorted and examined.

Thanks to modern technology, much progress is being made in getting a handle of this massive “horde of Hebrew manuscripts” as Schechter called it. The Friedberg Genizah Project brings together all of the collections around the world which contain fragments into one place on the Internet. Scholars can view digital copies of the entire corpus. Princeton also has a Geniza Lab that collects transcriptions of the fragments.

Geniza studies are not just for academics, however. The interested layperson can go to the site of the Taylor-Schecter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge and read articles about particularly interesting discoveries in its Fragment of the Month section. You can even get involved in research yourself with a project called Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, where you can sort and transcribe fragments that have yet to be fully deciphered.

The Scribes effort is an example of citizen science, where regular folks are able to help experts in their research projects. The same Zooniverse platform has 89 other projects you can participate in, including the search for planets in other solar systems. The Internet and big data make it possible for people with no specialized skills to help contribute to important discoveries.

I have already spent some time on Scribes of the Cairo Geniza sorting and transcribing fragments, looking for the next remarkable find. I haven’t found it yet, but I think that is the appeal: the next click could pull up a document that changes our understanding of Jewish history.

Power to Destroy and Save

The world was shocked, but not surprised, by the terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last week. Once again, violence invaded the sacred space of a place of worship. It is a story we have sadly told over and over the last few years.

Religious violence is not new. The Bible refers to holy war that the Israelites must fight against certain enemies. Muslims fought wars which spread Islam from its point of origin in the Arabian Peninsula. Later, the Crusades saw Christian armies conquer the Land of Israel in the name of faith, and massacre Jews along the way.

The holiday of Purim, which we celebrate today, is filled with violence. The evil Haman aims to destroy the Jews of Persia, and his grudge seems to be just the latest stage of a cycle of vengeance going back at least to the time of the Exodus, when his ancestor Amalek attacked the Israelites.

Even the seemingly light-hearted parts of the Purim story can be disturbing. People assume that Esther entered a beauty contest to become Ahasuerus’ queen, but the text doesn’t exactly describe it that way. Instead the Book of Esther tells us that she “was taken into the king’s palace,” without any indication that Esther consented.

One way to read the story is that the king kidnapped many women from his kingdom and brought them into his harem to do with as he pleased. In fact, the Rabbis of the Talmud infer that Esther was raped by Ahasuerus, which certainly provides perspective on her reluctance to risk intervening with the king to save the Jews.

Purim is often considered a kids’ holiday, so we ignore these disturbing details. We don’t mention that the Jews killed 75,000 people with the consent of the king. Some find these aspects of the story deeply troubling and are reluctant to celebrate the holiday.

Violence has always be a part of religion; the question is whether faith leads humans to commit shameful acts or shameful acts are committed in the name of religion because we are human. I don’t think there is an easy or satisfying answer to this question.

On Purim we celebrate a miraculous redemption from an evil fate, but the Book of Esther famously does not mention God’s name. It wasn’t the divine that saved the Jews, rather the courage of Mordecai and Esther. We human beings have tremendous power, both to destroy and to save. The religion I promote encourages the latter.

A Perfect Copy

On March 24th Adath will host an event as part of the One Book One Jewish Community program. The book this year is The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas, an historical novel of the ancient storeroom in Fustat that yielded immense information about Judaism and the medieval world. Whenever I finish historical fiction, I like to check and see which aspects of the book are real and which are made up.

It just so happens that I had recently read Sacred Trash, a non-fiction account of the Cairo Geniza (the attic in the Ben Ezra synagogue used to store worn out texts), so the real-life characters in Lukas’s novel were fresh in my mind, but one aspect that intrigued me was his reference to a legendary Ezra Scroll, a Torah scroll produced by the Biblical Ezra, which is a perfect copy, free of any mistakes and hidden in the synagogue.

What follows is not really a spoiler for the book, but if you want to avoid any advance knowledge of the novel you might want to stop reading.

I had never heard of the Ezra Scroll before, but I thought it sounded similar to the story of the Cairo Codex, a possibly 9th century copy of the Prophets thought to be the oldest Masoretic text in existence. The book was the property of the Karaite community in Cairo and kept in a different synagogue, but has since disappeared. Facsimile copies exist and the original is thought to be kept in a locked room of the National Library in Israel, but no one has seen it in decades.

In fact, Lukas’s inspiration for the scroll came from a footnote to a scholarly article about Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the article, but I did find some clues about the legend. In 1905 Richard Gottheil published an article about Hebrew manuscripts in Cairo other than the ones found in the Geniza. In a footnote he mentions that “[t]he so-called Ezra-scroll in the Fostat Synagogue is, of course, only a pious superstition.”

Why would there be a legendary Torah attributed to Ezra, and what would be its significance? In the Bible, Ezra is called a priest but also a “confirmed scribe of the Torah” (Ezra 7:12) who “brought the Torah before the congregation, from man to woman and all who could hear with understanding.” (Nehemiah 8:2) It stands to reason that Ezra produced a Torah scroll which may have survived from antiquity, and apparently the congregation in Old Cairo claimed to have it.

The possibility of an Ezra Scroll seems to gain some support from a line in the Mishna which states that on the intermediate festival days one is not allowed to write sacred books or “correct one letter, even in the scroll of Ezra.” (Moed Katan 3:4) The problem with this translation is that it may be based on a mistake in the text. The printed edition of the Mishna has the word “Ezra”, but the Kaufman Manuscript, the oldest complete manuscript of the text, has the similar-sounding word “Azarah”, courtyard.

The Scroll of the Azarah would be the Temple Scroll which either was read by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, or was used as an authoritative edition so that other versions could be copied from it. Perhaps the legend of the Ezra Scroll derived from this textual error.

It says something about the People of the Book that the Ben Ezra congregation would possess a tale of a perfect Torah. Our greatest treasure is not gold or silver but rather truth. We constantly strive for the correct text, the best version of our story. Maybe one day we will find it, maybe we won’t, but as Lukas’s novel shows, the search is often the most exciting part.