The ProsenPeople

Imagine You Don't Know How To Read A Novel

Friday, April 09, 2010 | Permalink

In his last posts, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, wrote about learning to bake your own matzah and new models for engaged Jewish life. He has been blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s author blogging series.

Imagine you don’t know how to read a novel.

Now, this is a thought experiment, so bear with me: You know how to read other books and essays, but you don’t know how to read a novel.

But instead of learning how to read a novel, you find another solution: a blog about novels. This is sort of a 21st century version of Cliff’s Notes. You get the blogger’s take on the novel, but you have to trust her to convey the meaning of the novel itself.

Then you discover a whole world of blogs on novels. Dozens of blogs. Soon you start getting weekly emails from the bloggers. Then they come daily. You are awash in other people’s takes on the novel. You start to become overwhelmed.

Then you find the answer: a “best of novel blogger” site. Now you don’t have to read all those blogs, you can just tune in to the best blog takes on the novel.

But you still can’t read a novel.

Now substitute the novel for Jewish texts –- TorahTalmudKabbalah -– whatever you like.

Most of us can’t read the texts ourselves. So we rely on the blogger –- a translator or interpreter -– to help us understand the text. In the olden days, we were stuck with one blogger -– the local rabbi. Good or bad, he (and the rabbi was usually a “he”) was the one tell who would tell us what was in the texts.

Then along came the internet. We no longer had to rely on the local rabbi for a take on the text. We could sign up for email lists and read blogs. Then it became overwhelming. So we picked a few to read. Or maybe we stopped altogether.

But we never learned to read the text.

So what is the role of the rabbi nowadays? At a minimum, a rabbi should be someone who is the “best of the novel blogger” – someone who is more than mediocre, who can offer enlightening opinions, and stand out among the cacophony that the internet has bequeathed to us.

But what if the rabbi were actually a teacher who empowered us? What if the solution to the cacophony was to dive into the source for ourselves, form our own interpretation and offer our own opinion? What if we learned to read the novel, as it were? In that vision, the rabbi is the guide: someone who teaches us how to read, not someone who tells us what it says. She could direct us, and steer us away from faulty interpretations. But ultimately we could add our own voice to the conversation. We could make meaning on our own, and we could see the value in the original text, not only the interpretation.

These days, other people’s interpretations are a dime a dozen. Finding a blog is easy. Bringing our own self to the original text is an all-too-rare event (just think of how many people actually read the Health Care Bill or the State of the Union Address).

Imagine a world in which people only talked about novels, but never actually read them. If novels don’t matter, then no problem. But if they do matter….

We live in a world where people often talk about Jewish texts, but don’t actually read them. If we don’t think these texts have much importance for our lives, no problem. But what if they do matter? Wouldn’t we want to access them directly?

Jewish vibrancy, as I argued in Empowered Judaism, is not about handing off the text to someone else. It is about internalizing the text -– with a guide, a real teacher -– and then taking that text seriously.

There’s a reason that Cliff’s Notes were forbidden in high school.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. He’s been blogging all week in Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

Why Bake Your Own Matzah?

Thursday, April 08, 2010 | Permalink

In his last post, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer wrote about new models for engaged Jewish life. He’ll be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

A few years ago, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, wrote an article about independent minyanim in which he asked, almost as an aside, “We all cook and bake. Why shouldn’t every community be baking its own matzot?”

I admit at the time I thought this was a relatively marginal goal in the general trend toward Jewish empowerment. After all, we need people who can pass on the core Jewish principles of study, worship and acts of lovingkindness, not a competitor to the ably skilled people at Streit’s.

But Ethan’s challenge was an interesting one. He put it a different way in a lecture series he recently gave on Halakhah (Jewish law). Does your own Jewish community have the skills, knowledge and confidence to truly own the Jewish tradition? Or, to put it another way, if we all eat matzah on Passover, why is it that none of us know how to make it?

And here I thought I was an empowered Jew. After all, I just wrote a book called Empowered Judaism. But I have no clue how to make matzah, one of the oldest commandments of Jewish living. And until this year (see below), I didn’t even know anyone who could do it (and believe me, I have a lot of Jewish friends on Facebook).

What’s worse: we free ride on other communities that don’t really buy into our approach to Jewish life in order to get matzah on Passover. Isn’t it odd that the people I buy matzah from would never be a 10th person in the minyan I daven in on Shabbat? We live in parallel Jewish communities, but only one group is totally dependent on the other to celebrate Passover (and make tefillin, and ritually slaughter animals, and write sifrei Torah, with a few exceptions to the latter two.)

To be clear, this is not a “liberal” vs. “Orthodox” issue. Very few Modern Orthodox communities (excluding those on religious kibbutzim in Israel) bake their own matzot. What kind of message does it send when we take school-kids on a tour of the matzah factory, and they only see ultra-Orthodox Jews in charge?

Now this doesn’t mean we all need to go out and bake our own matzot for Passover. But it does mean that someone we know, someone in our Jewish community, broadly speaking, should be baking matzah.

This all came home for me last week, when a number of fellows at Yeshivat Hadar – men and women – baked their own matzah under the supervision of Rabbi Tucker. The event was so unusual that it merited coverage in the New York Times. “This is the essence of Pesach,” one of our students, Rachel Druck, was quoted as saying.

This underscored for me the ways in which we have a long way to go to seriously live out an empowered Jewish life. It’s not enough to build engaged communities of prayer, learning and lovingkindness. It also means setting our sights on the possibility of being fully Jewishly self-sufficient. Even to the point of baking our own matzah.

If all the matzah factories closed next year, and you were forced to go it on your own for Passover, what would you do? I, for one, am going to take some time this year to learn how to bake matzah.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, is blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Synagogues and Settlements

Wednesday, April 07, 2010 | Permalink

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. He’ll be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

It’s strange to write a book about independent minyanim when you don’t even attend one anymore.

Independent minyanim are those grassroots, all-volunteer-led Jewish prayer communities that have popped up with force across the United States, Israel and Europe over the past decade. In 2000 there were three of them; now there are more than 70. I wrote about them in Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.

For eight years, since I co-founded Kehilat Hadar -– one of the flagship independent minyanim –- in 2001, the minyan was my Jewish community and spiritual home. Even after I retired from the leadership in 2005, I would attend the minyan’s services and learning programs, watching the community grow and mature.

Then I fell victim to a force much more powerful than upstart Jewish community: New York City real estate prices. My wife and I had a daughter a couple of years ago, and all of a sudden, our cozy 1-bedroom apartment on 110th Street transformed into a nightmare of space needs. We couldn’t afford a bigger place on the Upper West Side. So we did what Jews have done for centuries: we migrated.

Shunning the obvious next-step neighborhoods like Park Slope or Riverdale, we moved up to Washington Heights. We even recruited people to join us. But we didn’t start an independent minyan. Instead, we joined a synagogue.

The synagogue is by no means cutting-edge. It was founded in 1938. It has an old-school name: The Fort Tryon Jewish Center. It uses a siddur that was published in 1960. There is a ritual committee, a board and membership dues.

And yet, it’s not your average synagogue either. It never affiliated with a denomination, and prides itself on being independent. Laypeople read the Torah and lead the prayers. It is multigenerational, with people in their 80s schmoozing with people in their 20s (many of whom are students at Kehilat Hadar’s affiliated Yeshivat Hadar) at kiddush. They have hot cholent and hot veggie stew for the non-meat-eaters.

The synagogue hired a young rabbi last year named Micha’el Rosenberg; he received Orthodox ordination in Israel but believes in equal participation for men and women. (When he lived on the Upper West Side, he used to daven at Kehilat Hadar). Taking a page out of the independent minyanim playbook, he only speaks for 5 minutes.

The synagogue isn’t perfect. In fact, its main challenge is space. It meets in the social hall of another synagogue, and the room is simply too big for the number of people who come. It’s hard to build religious energy with 60 people in a room built for 400. But every week there are new faces, and the community is certainly gaining momentum.

So what does it mean that one of the chief champions of independent minyanim is a member at a synagogue? It demonstrates that the whole independent minyan phenomenon was never an either-or proposition between minyanim and synagogues. People are looking for Jewish community that works. If it’s in a synagogue, they will happily join a synagogue. It also shows that synagogues are being influenced by independent minyanim. When the rabbi knows the ethos of independent minyanim from the inside, s/he is unafraid to borrow tactics that worked there for use in the synagogue.

The future of Jewish community is not limited to independent minyanim or synagogues. In the ideal, both minyanim and synagogues will learn from each other, and we will see a variety of models for engaged Jewish life.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, is blogging all week in Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s author blogging series.