Halloween and the Jews

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Should Halloween be taboo in the Jewish community as a whole, and the Orthodox community in particular?

In my mind there is one simple answer: No.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I did grow up trick-or-treating (in groups with other Jewish kids). It was a really great thing to get excited about in the abyss between the High Holidays and Chanukah. But to be clear, I was NOT celebrating Halloween. I was participating in the American ritual of dressing up on the night of October 31, and begging for candy at the front door of my neighbors (or the richer community we would sometimes drive to).

Trick-or-treating on Halloween has a very interesting history – at least according to Wikipedia – but the form it has taken on today is completely secular. There is not religious connection to the current manifestation of Halloween, and children of all races, religions, and ethnicities participate in this beautiful example of America as the mixing bowl.

Halloween is no more or less antithetical to Judaism than Thanksgiving, the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve. Some in the Orthodox Jewish community  avoid those last three as well, but we’re not them. Why has this fear of trick-or-treating persisted over so many years?

Was it antisemitic acts that may have taken place during a time when Halloween was also know for mischief and pranks? Perhaps. Was it a general perception of the holiday as being a celebration of the devil? Perhaps that was it as well. Regardless of these outdated reasons, why can’t we just let the kids have fun?

I am not advocating that Jewish schools start having Halloween costume parades or other themed events, but as a community I think we should allow Jewish children to just have fun like everyone else!

Happy Halloween!

Ladies and Gentlemen…

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Another small step was taken this past Shabbat to strip away some of the superficial and unnecessary discriminatory practices in Jewish ritual that exclude and ignore women. Uri, a good friend and colleague of mine, started Birkat HaMazon at Friday night dinner in a way I’d never heard before: “Gveirotai v’Rabotai Nevarech” (ladies and gentleman, let’s bless).

For too long, the standard language (Rabotai Nevarech) has pretty much ignored the women in the room. If the call is for everyone in the room to start saying grace, why wouldn’t everyone be invited?

I cannot think of any halachik basis for someone to argue against this change, and hopefully it was be tiny little baby step in the right direction.

I want to praise Uri for taking this (somewhat) bold step. We must now work diligently to spread it to Jewish communities around the world.

What other simple changes could be made to current Orthodox Jewish practice that would make it more open and accepting, without shaking the boat too much to be accepted?

Unhealthy Skepticism

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I believe very strongly that beliefs should be challenged. When a society becomes too entrenched in it’s beliefs, and any critical thought is considered taboo, only bad things can happen.

But I think there’s a line.

It is equally as dangerous for people to dismiss facts being presented to them because they don’t conform with their way of thinking. When people dismiss something as propoganda when the real problem is that it’s someone else’s propoganda instead of their own.

Must I hear the word communist everytime someone talks about healthcare reform or social services? Do statistics and facts go out the window because they’re deemed to ideologically conflicting?

When discussion stops, and people become set in their beliefs, we arrive at a National standoff.

There are real people suffering from this real issue of poverty and the major #healthcareFAIL facing this country. We must push simultaneously for more open and lively debate of issues, and strong decisive action to follow through.

We Need Modern Orthodox Havurot

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In the second half of the 20th century, Jews across North America began to search more personal ways to connect to Judaism and spirituality. Instead of flocking to synagogues for prayer services and Torah study, small Jewish cohorts known as Havurot began cropping up in cities and suburbs alike. It was a revolution of Jewish spirituality and activism, and showed an early form of entrepeneurial inventiveness among Jews who knew what they wanted, but were not getting it from the established organizations.

And still today we find a need for innovation and reform in the way the Jewish community is engaged in it’s spiritual, cultural and educational manifestation. This call is being answered by Jewish social entrepeneurs who are finding gaps in the services currently being offered, and are creating small, localized efforts to address those demands.

A lot is being written about this phenomenon (see Innivation Ecosystem by Jumpstart), and it is becomming a major element of the Jewish communal field. In fact, the only group of Jews that have not entirely embraced this spirit of individuality is the orthodox.

This may seem obvious to some people, but there is a lot of dissatisfaction among young (modern) Orthodox Jews with the synagoes they are associated with. By and large synagogues are not responding quickly enough to the needs of us young Jews, and we are forced to choose between losing orthodox affiliation and participating in sub-standard communities.

Some synagogues are more responsive that others (Mt Sinai is alright with recent exceptions noted) but the overall top-down structure of orthodox community is not an absolute necessity.

It’s time for us to chart our own paths and find our own voices. I think we should take to the streets (or or living rooms) and find new ways to express our yiddishkeit. We are already doing this at shabbat meals that include lively discussion of Jewish thought, philosophy, bible study and much more. We must find new ways to express and actualize this dwindling fire within us in significant and meaningful ways.

Who’s More Religious?

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Something that I find fascinating is that no matter what type of Jewish setting I’m in (all Orthodox, mixed, Reform heavy, etc), I often hear people citing a scale of religiosity that places Orthodoxy on one end, and either Reform or unaffiliated on the other end.

People will say things like “there were all types of Jews there, from unaffiliated to Orthodox.” That statement implies those two groups to be outliers that encompass every other groups of Jews between them.

This is truly perplexing – especially when I hear it come out of very committed Conservative and Reform Jews.

I would not balk at a scale of halachik observance, or strict ritualistic practice, but it’s the scale of “how religious” that really throws me for a loop.

There are many Reform and Conservative Jews who are deeply religious, committed to their faith, and unwavering in their practice. On the flip side, there are many Orthodox Jews who are ambivalent or apathetic about their Judaism, and consider it to be more cultural/societal than religious.

And what does “religious” even mean? Is it the Jewish rules someone follows? Is it how long/intensely/often someone prays to God? Is it how moral and ethical a person is? What is it?

There is no basis to imply that any group of Jews is more or less religious than any other. Religion is what we make of it, and how we choose to manifest our relationship with God in this world.

I may be nitpicking with the language we use, but I recommend everyone think twice before implying any sort of inherent hierarchy within the greater Jewish community.

The Need for Change on Simchat Torah

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On Friday night, Rabbi Schwartz gave a 30~ minute drasha on the subject of women dancing while holding a sefer torah on Simchat Torah. This has been a controversial matter at the Mt. Sinai Jewish Center for a number of years, and the Rabbi knew that this would be an issue he would face early in his tenure at the shul.

To summarize: There is no halachik basis to deny women the right to dance with the Torah (niddah argument is bogus). The only question is a matter of Tradition vs. the recent spike in interest of women to be actively and passionately involved in torah learning. At first he felt that there was a lot of momentum to change the minhag of the shul to allow women to dance, but in recent weeks he said that many people had approached him to say that they would be uncomfortable with the change.

I think that it’s a no-brainer to allow women to dance with the sefer Torah. It’s another case of one group of people denying the self-expression of other people because it makes them feel icky (see: prop 8). If there’s no halachik problem, then if it makes some men or women uncomfortable, they can stay home. Personally I felt so uncomfortable with the fact that women were not allowed to dance with the torah that I did not participate in the dancing at all, and passed on having an aliyah.

But enough with the arguments pro or con – Rabbi Schartz clearly said that he wants to hear from the congregation. I encourage everyone to contact Rabbi Schartz and tell him what you think about Simchat Torah. We need to give him a clear message well in advance of next year’s Simchat Torah if we expect any sort of action to be taken.

CALL

EMAIL

VISIT HIM DURING OFFICE HOURS

Take the few minutes to share your feelings with Rabbi Schwartz, and tell him that we want a change for next year.