Monday, December 29, 2008

Interesting Posts Elsewhere and Scheduling Note

I have been swamped at work and have not had time to post much lately. I expect this situation will continue for another month or so. I will try to get a post in here or there, but I do not expect to do too much posting until February.

In the meantime, here are a few very interesting posts from elsewhere.

Ben Z at Mah Rabu has a thorough and exhaustive post on the Conservative Movement and one-day versus two-day yom tovs. He links to his earlier two-part post on the Reform Movement and the same topic. The post is quite thoughtful.

Also, the Natan Slifkin, the "Zoo Rabbi," has written a defense of his opponents here. (Hat tip to Gil at Hirhurim).

(If you don't know about the controversy, check out the "Controversy" section at Slifkin's website here: This whole controversy arises out of a terrible collision between traditional Judaims and science. It is both fascinating and sad.)

Essentially, Slifkin argues in defense of his opponents that the charedi world has the right to reject a rationalistic approach to Judaism like his, and thus the ban against his works is justified in those communities. These communities promote other values well, and adopting a critical view of certain scientific beliefs of chazal would undermine that, even though rationality would support such a critical view.

Slifkin's argument raises a great issue at to whether truth is an instrumental value that should serve other values, or whether it is a separate value and such trade-offs are unwarranted. Unfortunately, I don't have time to analyze this now.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Reflections on an Orthodox Bar-Mitzvah

I attended an Orthodox bar-mitzvah on Saturday. As expected (or at least as I expected), the bar-mitzvah boy did a spectacular job. Last week's parsha (vayetzei) is one of the longest is the Torah, and his leining was great. And his speech was smart, mature, and insightful.

Most bar-mitzvot I have attended have been Reform or Conservative, and I was struck in good way by the "tone" of the service. It was pretty serious as a service. Like any bar mitzvah service, there was some focus on the bar mitzvah boy: the rabbi talked about him, he gave a dvar Torah, etc. And it certainly was a happy occasion. He was happy, his family was proud (and rightfully so), and the day was his.

But the service did not revolve around him. It was not gushy or silly or showy. The focus during the davening was on the davening and the focus during the leining was on the leining. This was not a tribute ceremony or a show. This was shabbat morning service. The sense I got from the room was that this was important business for grown-ups. We do it every week, someone has to be the leader, the kid is now old enough and knowledgeable enough, and so he's in charge. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

The result was a real rite of passage. The bar-mitzvah boy did an adult thing in an adult way and did it well. And since focus of everyone was on doing the adult thing, the experience was genuine.

In too many Reform or Conservative synagogues, the bar- or bat-mitzvah is run as a performance. The kid memorizes a small part of the parsha, says a few blessings, and the parents give a speech about how the kid is the best person in the world. The adults are not there to daven or learn Torah; they are there solely to fawn over the kid. While this is objectionable by itself, it also results in gutting the meaning of the ritual. The kid is not doing an adult thing since the adults in his or her life don't regularly do these things. The kid is performing a show, and the performance itself is the coming-of-age ritual.

This is not a blanket criticism of liberal Jewish bar- and bat-mitzvot. Many are closer to the Orthodox model, and many are genuine, meaningful, and haimish. But many are not. We Conservative and Reform Jews might not copy everything from our Orthodox friends, but we certainly could learn a bit about how to do a bar-mitzvah.