Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Holier than thou? How I ruined my own Shabbos

[Created while stuck at home, between sneezes and trips to the tissue box. My current temperature is 99.9 Fahrenheit/37.77 Celsius. That's nothing to write home about, obviously, but I feel like _ _ _ _.]

It all started innocently enough.

Or so I thought.

I got up on the bima with my Junior Congregation kids, spoke a few words about Yitro/Jethro having been either, according to the Written Torah, a Midianite priest, or, according to midrash (rabbinic interpretative story), a Jew by Choice, bringing Moshe Rabbeinu/Moses our teacher some influence from the outside world, namely, the basis of the first Jewish judicial system, and how that proves that outside influence is not always a bad thing for Judaism (read the comments, too). By way of illustration, I then proceeded to lead the kids and the congregation in singing Adom Olam to the tune that our last rabbi’s kids had called the tune to Dror Yikra, but which was actually, unbeknownst to them, the tune to an old song (from the ‘60’s?) called “Sloop John B.” (Frankly, I don’t think it’s the best tune for either Dror Yikra or Adon Olam that I’ve ever heard, but it works, more or less.)

Fast-forward an hour or so. The president of the congregation asked me to lead Birkat haMazon, the Grace after Meals. In the middle of “bentching,” (reciting Birkat haMazon), I stopped to shush a whole table of people who were talking through it.

After bentching, I was called over to the offending table by the president. One of those seated there, whom I will call E. the Elder, expressed her indignant opinion that Yitro was most certainly not a Jew by Choice. I was quite taken aback. I had careful cited a midrash whose premise I don’t believe—I don’t think Yitro was a Jew by Choice, either—out of respect for tradition, and here I was being taken to task for it. Since it was the rabbi himself who’d introduced me to that midrash last year, I turned to him for support, not being learned enough to be able to cite chapter and verse. But instead of answering my sheilah (question), he proceeded to put me on the carpet for speaking words of Torah without his permission. I walked away quite upset, and got my tallit (prayer shawl) and a siddur/prayerbook so that I could davven/pray the Mussaf/Additional Service, which I always miss, being downstairs with the Jr. Cong. kids at the time. But just as I had tucked myself away into a corner of the sanctuary, now full of tables from kiddush, and was about to launch into the Mussaf Amidah, I overheard E. the Younger (no relation to E. the Elder) complaining, from halfway across the room, “She thinks she’s the rabbi and she can tell us what to do.” I slammed my siddur shut and stormed over to her table. “If you insist on insulting me, at least do so to my face. And I’ll shush anyone who talks during Birkat HaMazon—I don’t care that I’m not the rabbi!” Having yelled my piece, I stomped out of the room, and went downstairs to davven Mussaf.

Being in no mood to return to the scene of the insult, I davvened Mincha and Maariv at home. This gave me an opportunity both to davven at my own pace and to check out some of the material that’s not in the Silverman (old Conservative) Siddur and/or that we usually skip. I was quite surprised to see Yedid Nefesh listed as a S’udah Shishit (or Shalosh Seudos, as the Artscroll Sidder puts it)/Sabbath afternoon song—I’d always thought that that was an Erev Shabbat/Sabbath Eve song.

I also looked at the post-Havdalah material. Gott fun Avrohom, a Yiddish prayer that I read in translation, is very nice, my theological reservations aside. (I don’t have faith in either the Thirteen Principles, the complete and close Redemption, the Resusitation of the Dead, or the prophecy of Moses.)

There are, as usual, way too many verses in the following prayer, B’Motzaei. I was glancing through those verses when my eyes fell on the prayer after them, Amar HaShem L’Yaakov.

Amar HaShem L’Yaakov??!!!

Why did I suddenly hear a violin solo playing in my head?

Quickly, I scanned through the Hebrew.

Sure enough, I knew the first four verses from a song written by bloggin' physician/musician Mark Skier, a.k.a. PsychoToddler, recorded by his Moshe Skier Band while there was still a violinist in the band's line-up.

So that was my adventure for the day. :)

Come havdalah time, I had to draft the Punster, already back from minyan, to hold two Chanukah candles together so that I could recite havdalah (the prayer separating the Shabbat from the rest of the week), which he’d already done at shul. It had been so long since we’d done havdalah at home that we didn’t even have a havdalah candle in the house, and had to fulfil the requirement for a flame created with two combined wicks by holding the two Chanukah candles so that their wicks touched.

Afterward, and following a call from the president the next day, the hubby and I reviewed the events of Shabbat. These were our conclusions.

1. In current parlance, it’s called “Freedom of the Pulpit”—the rabbi has complete freedom to say what he wishes, whether I like it or not. In tradition parlance, the term is “Mara d’Atra,” which I think means roughly “Master of the Place”—the rabbi is the designated religious authority for the synagogue, and no one can speak from the bima on a religious subject without his prior consent. You’d think that I’d learned that the last time I got in trouble. (See my Monday, October 31, 2005 post, High-Holiday-Season Highlights, part 3: The 1st day of Sukkot—this is the “ugly” part). Sigh.

2. I should have made sure that my Jr. Cong. kids knew the tune that I was using for Adon Olam. I had assumed that they did, since that tune had been sung here many times before. No such luck. Some congregants get upset enough that I actually have the chutzpah (nerve) to sing any new tunes at all, not being great supporters of David haMelech’s/King David’s words, “Shiru laShem shir chadash, sing to the L-rd a new song" (Psalm 96). They get even more upset when I seem to be doing a solo and leaving the Jr. Cong. kids in the dust. Note taken.

3. The no-new-tunes issue may be a generation-gap problem, but the attitude toward talking during Birkat haMazon is not—the groups in conflict are divided not by age, but by background, my husband and I concluded. In Orthodox circles, it’s quite common for people to say Birkat haMazon to themselves, and there’s no expectation that anyone else at the table will be quiet while they do so. For those of us who were raised non-Orthodox and/or who came to Judaism later in life, the practice is entirely different. Since many non-Orthodox Jews aren’t well enough acquainted with certain rituals to perform them on their own, the non-Orthodox movements have often chosen to perform as a group in synagogue some rituals that have traditionally been performed individually and/or at home. This probably accounts for the existence of congregational Sedarim (Seders, ritual Passover meals), even among the Orthodox, who probably consider them a form of kiruv (an attempt to encourage Jews to return to Orthodox observance). It also probably accounts for the likelihood that Birkat haMazon is done “b’tzibbur, in community”—that is, as a group—more often in non-Orthodox circles. And therein lies the problem. Those who grew up with the tradition that Birkat haMazon is basically a private prayer see no problem in talking while others are bentching. But those of us who’ve experienced Birkat haMazon much more frequently as a group prayer find it disrespectful in the extreme when others nonchalantly yak through it.

The hubster says that I should simply learn to ignore all the blabbing unless the blabbermouths are speaking so loudly than I can’t hear myself bentch. I can only reply that he himself, having learned so much of what he knows while studying in an Orthodox synagogue for his Bar Mitzvah celebration, is one of the people in the other camp. There’s no good answer for this one, folks. The (ex-)frummies are going to continue to see nothing wrong with talking through a communal Birkat haMazon, while those of us raised Conservative and otherwise are going to continue to find nothing right about it.



Blogger Jack Steiner said...

I know that story, people speaking while I am leading bentching. Back in my Ramah days it was a task that I was assigned to deal with.

Not always the easiest thing to do. I usually found that if I ignored them they went away. Then again I had a pretty good glare that I could use to freeze them in their tracks.

Wed Feb 22, 01:39:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Jack, I'm sorry to say that this group doesn't go away--it's roughly the same people talking every time we bentch. Oy. And the fact that the rabbi got his s'micha/rabbinical ordination from a "black-hat" (right-wing) Orthodox yeshiva doesn't help--obviously, he's in the other camp. That's what E. the Younger meant--she couldn't understand how I could have the nerve to try to shut her up during Birkat haMazon when the rabbi himself was among the yakkers.

Part of the problem that some of us have with our rabbi is that he's clueless in general. Another part of the problem is that he's also clueless about the fact that he's working in a Conservative synagogue. To be fair, perhaps differences in practice such as this one aren't quite as obvious as letting women chant haftarot. Of course, the fact that many of our members are ex-frummies and, as such, "on the fence" themselves doesn't help the rabbi get a clue.

Wed Feb 22, 10:00:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of one of the joys of being in a "mixed" family...the BT Orthodox relatives come to our shul for a family simcha. After the meal, a woman leads Birkat HaMazon. The relatives quietly leave the room so that their benching will not be led by a woman.... sigh.

Wed Feb 22, 11:10:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anon., I've never quite understood the problem with women leading Birkat haMazon. My understanding--please correct me if I'm wrong--is that this is one of the time-bound mitzvot (commandments) that women are obligated to fulfil. Assuming that that's the case, why can't a woman leading Birkat haMazon for a man?

Is it because of Kavod haTzibbur, "the honor of the community," that is, that this will give the impression that there's no man qualified to lead? I have a problem with that whole concept. Why is it perfectly okay for women to be ignorant, or at least to be forced to conduct ourselves as if we were (never being allowed to lead any ritual in public), but insulting for men to give the impression that they're ignorant? How does it serve the Jewish community to treat half the Jewish people as if we were illiterate?

Then, of course, there's the Kol Isha ruling, forbidding a man to listen to a woman sing, lest her voice turn him on. And this, while she's singing a prayer? Please stay tuned. I've been working for weeks on a series of posts about Kol Isha and related issues. It's taking quite a while because the issues are very serious and complex, and I want to do them justice. I think my series may be ready for publication shortly.

Wed Feb 22, 02:00:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog - I lurk here often.

Shira, IMO you need to consider long-term whether you'd be better off being miserable that everyone around you is LESS committed to observance than you are, but willing to allow you to be intellectually curious and intellectually honest, rather than now, where people seem to be forcing you away from an active, committed, inquisitive, learning Judaism.

My wife (who, for full disclosure, is both a JTS-ordained rabbi and a talmud professor) jokes that politically, while I may call myself a moderate, the right wing has moved so far right that I'm now a liberal. Religiously, you may be in that grey zone between conservative and orthodox, but orthodox is moving right faster than conservatism is moving left...

Maybe there's a place for you in the Orthodox world at places like HIR, or KOE, or KJ (in NYC), or B'nai David Judea in LA, or other similar shuls. Or, in the conservative world, at places like LA's "Library Minyan" or NY's "Minyan Ma'at".

Here, if your synagogue gave you the role (or accepted your offer to volunteer for the role) of leading the Jr. Cong., then you implicitly had the Mara D'Atra's permission to teach them Torah. If he's trying to retroactively censor you, then HE's the one with the problem -- and he will fail as a pulpit rabbi outside the Orthodox world.

Good luck!

Thu Feb 23, 01:00:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anon. #2 (don't know whether you're the same person as Anon. #1--in the future, please comment under a fake name, even if it's Joe Schmoe), info needed re acronyms--I got Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Kehillat Jeshurun, but I can't find a KOE on the Orthodox Union's list of Manhattan synagogues. Please clarify.

To be fair to the rabbi, I may have his implicit permission to teach the kids, but I, apparently, don't have his permission to spout what I'm teaching the kids to the adults from the bima.

I'm still sleeping on what you've said. Another comment will follow later tonight.

Thu Feb 23, 08:07:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"Shira, IMO you need to consider long-term whether you'd be better off being miserable that everyone around you is LESS committed to observance than you are, but willing to allow you to be intellectually curious and intellectually honest, rather than now, where people seem to be forcing you away from an active, committed, inquisitive, learning Judaism."

In our shul, we can count the number of people who are both hard-core davveners and egalitarians (believers in equal rights for women in terms of participation in ritual) on one hand, literally. I guess that's my bottom line. I'm tired of constantly duking it out with hard-core davveners who are non-egalitarian and, frankly, barely tolerate my attitude, in some cases, on the one hand, and hard-core egalitarians who hardly ever set foot in shul, on the other hand.

To be fair to my current shul, it has come a long way since I first became a member. Women are now not only allowed on the bima when the aron kodesh ("ark" storing the Torah scrolls) is open, we now also have the privilege of chanting haftarot, Ashrei, Ein Kelokeinu, Adon Olam, kiddush, and birkat hamazon. We are also now counted for a minyan, though that's by necessity, rather than by the members' preference. But, on the other hand, as our shul hires rabbis who are farther and farther to the right, I feel less and less that I'm actually a member of a Conservative synagogue. The sad truth of the matter is that I've never felt truly at home in my current shul in my over 20 years of membership. Not only am I a hard-core egalitarian, I'm also, as someone whose belief in tradition teachings is not as literal as that of most shul-going Jews, someone who tends to interpret tradition in ways that clash with the hashkafah (religious point of view) of most of my fellow and sister congregants.

Much as I'm not fond of the thought (and much as this will upset my Orthodox readers), I may have to give serious consideration to getting back on the subway on Shabbat to go davven at a shul where there's a higher percentage of people who share something reasonably resembling my hashkafah. Minyan Ma'at (or perhaps the Westside Minyan, or one of the other minyanim that meet in the Ansche Chesed building) might be a possibility. Or perhaps I might just go back to my old stomping grounds, a certain dual-affiliated Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue on the Upper West Side. I could always davven out of the Siddur Sim Shalom while the rest of the gang is davvening out of the Kol Haneshamah. I used to do that all the time anyway (after they switched from the Birnbaum, which was my preference, aside from the "she-lo asani isha" part).

This is something that I'm really going to have to think about, because it would mean that we'd become a two-shul family. My husband, as head of the ritual committee and one of the few members of our current synagogue who knows how to chant a haftarah, feels obliged to stay put. It's a sad business when one must choose between davvening where one's spouse is and davvening where one's soul is.

Thu Feb 23, 11:36:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anon. # 2, this was one of my earliest posts, and will give you a pretty good idea of my hashkafah (religious perspective) and how I arrived at it. I should warn you that I'm not sure that I understood--or understand--the word "chazakah" correctly. What I meant was that the idea that rituals and discussions should be left to the clergy actively discourages participation by laypeople. That's exactly the opposite of the approach to Judaism that I learned in my "Jewish formative years," that is, when I was roughly 24-48. Anyway, here's the post. Just click, then scroll up. I hope that that post will clarify matters somewhat.

Fri Feb 24, 12:08:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon #2 here --

KOE = Kehilat Orech Eliezer, aka "The Finkelstein Minyan". It was founded, IIRC, by Prof. David Weiss-Halivni of Columbia and a group of his students, to daven at the home of JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein (z''l) on shabbatot etc. when he couldn't go out. It later evolved into a full-fledged davening kehilla. Their own website says it best -- www dot koe dot org.

Fri Feb 24, 01:34:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the information. So Kehilat Orech Eliezer, an Orthodox synagogue, evolved from a minyan founded in the home of a chancellor of the Conservative Movement's east coast rabbinical seminary & cantorial & grad school The Jewish Theological Seminary. The irony is not lost on me.

Sun Feb 26, 12:10:00 AM 2006  
Blogger DJR said...

While fairly traditional in its halakhic approach, KOE does not identify itself with any denomination.

Thu Mar 02, 01:09:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

DJR, welcome aboard, and thanks for the info.

Fri Mar 03, 01:43:00 AM 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>