Monday, October 31, 2005

Dilemmas in Dressing for Davenning

or: So I Did Flip Out in Israel, After All

This topic usually comes up as a side point to other discussions — Shabbos Attire is usually a good place to go looking for it, as in these two posts on Hirhurim, or this three-part series by MOChassid. Another good topic is Black Hats, such as this post at On The Main Line and this one at the new Orthodox Reflux. There's also a personal story by Jack at The Jewish [Soul] Connection which applies more directly to this topic. There's also a post of RYG"B's that deals with ideals of levush for various (semi-)contemporary Orthodox movements.

If you know of any other blog posts/conversations about it, please link to them in the comments!

So, anyway, this is the deal.

There's a halakhic ideal out there that one should dress for davening — not just on Shabbos, but at all times — as one would dress for an important meeting with someone really important. Back in the day, people would use the example of a King. Now they talk about the President, or going to Court, or having a Job Interview.

I always felt that it was a bit silly. After all, the Creator of Worlds knows me! God knows my conscious and subconscious thoughts — what's the point in treating a conversation with the Omniscient like a job interview? You don't need to impress God, and you most definitely do not want to try to fake God out with fancy clothing or bling.

So for most of my life, I pretty much ignored it when people talked about dressing up for davening. Sure, I eventually stopped davening at home in my pajamas, and wouldn't hhazan or lein in shorts, but that was about it.

Until Israel. Ironically enough, my views on this issue started changing when I was living and learning in the Valley of the Aboriginal Ghosts, Southern Jerusalem — one of the most friendly, comfortable, and informally-attired Jewish cultures I've ever experienced.

I began thinking along the lines of yes, it's absurd to think that you should try to impress God like a prospective boss at a job interview. And I do feel like I have a fairly informal relationship to God, thinking about God more in terms of Heavenly Parent or Ultimate Artist than as King or Master. But God still is the Monarch of the Universe, and just like people dress formally when they meet the President, or some other high government official — not in order to make a certain impression, but due solely to the formality and gravitas of the situation — it does make sense to dress in a formal/respectful/dignified mode (whatever you want to call it) when having a meeting with the Omnipotent.

So around Rosh Hhodesh Elul, around when I moved into my new neighborhood and started my new job, I also started wearing a suit/jacket and tie to weekday minyans. After all, according to the communal norms of the society (both Jewish and general) in which I live, that's the accepted [male] clothing standard for an important meeting with someone very important. Unlike the impression I get from the Hhareidi and Hhareidi-leaning worlds, I do not consider my clothing to be a ritual object. To me, the ideal is to dress 'respectfully' (or whatever), on the whole — not to wear a hat, or wear a jacket, as some specific sacralized article of clothing. I knew a guy a few years ago when I worked in a camp who wore a jacket for davening — over his t-shirt and shorts. That never made sense to me. I also don't understand why, in the words of Rav Asher Balanson, the minhag is not to be "medayek" to that extent. It seems to me that if people were really serious about this ideal (as opposed to not holding by it, as I used to), then they should express it in action. Monochromatic people who talk about jackets and [black] hats seem to be more interested in social and communal consequences of uniformity than in actually putting this ideal into practice. Wouldn't they wear a tie if they had a meeting with the President?

Anyway, the transition was made significantly easier due to the fact that the shul I started going to around here (the only one with an early enough weekday shahhris that I can go to before work) isn't your typical Modern Orthodox shul that embraces a wide variety of observant Jews and their everyday clothing; there's one of those down the street. It's a Yekke shul, with very exacting communal norms of dress and decorum. They expect all men, whether married or not, to adhere to their minhag hamaqom (local custom) and wear a tallis during morning minyan, and they also expect anyone honored with an ‘alíya (and the hhazan, etc.) to wear a tie, jacket, and hat. Now, I don't wear a hat (someone lent me his when I got an ‘alíya) because it's not part of 'dignified dress' in my culture. But the suit/jacket and tie thing makes perfect sense to me. Of course, there's a twist here — according to RYG"B, it's part of their culture/ideology to be dressed in a 'dignified' or 'respectable' manner all the time, a position I respect and understand, but don't agree with.

I've been calling this a "religious experiment" (even if only to prevent a hhazaqa), so here's what passes for 'results' — positive, negative, and neutrally notable — so far:
  • It feels right. This is the ideal, and I'm expressing it in action. I really feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing... when I'm not having doubts. Or thinking uhm yeah, okay, what's the point? why did i start this again?
  • I'm worried about yuhara. If I believe that I'm adhering to a halakhic ideal, how do I prevent myself from looking judgementally at others, like the monochromats I bashed up above? Or the vast majority of my Modern Orthodox / Dati ‘Olami world? After all, this is a personal hhumra; I'm not telling everyone to go out and copy my wierd quirks!
  • Side-benefit: I've become more comfortable in formal clothing. However, this also makes me worried. What if I'm not doing this for the positive ideal I think I'm representing, but for a negative reason? All my life I've hated dress-shirts, suits/jackets, ties, and dress-shoes. While part of it has to do with proletarian, countercultural tendencies, a big part of it is Sensory Hypersensitivity/Integration issues, and one of the ways that expresses itself in me is in a very strong psychological aversion to buttons. Yes, you heard me. I can't stand the feel of buttons. There's something about the combination of roundness and smoothness that gets its sensation all over my hands and won't go away. This is why I try and buy dress-shirts with fabric that covers the buttons (which unfortunately it's very hard to find in non-white), and why in general I can't wear a 'regular' dress-shirt unless the buttons are covered with something like a sweater or a tie. I'm also an INFP, a personality type that (seemingly accurately, in my case) includes a strong attachment/attraction to that which is seen as 'good' or 'holy' as well as a corresponding pull towards being intrigued with the opposite. So what if this is all about some kind of self-defeating embracing of something I've always seen as bad/aggravating/negative, instead of putting a positive ideal into practice?
  • I no longer feel comfortable davening in less formal clothing. In situations in which I am unable to change, I feel semi-naked, or unprepared. I actually feel the standards of 'this isn't what I should be wearing to my appointment with the Divine'.
  • A big problem is the fact that my work environment is "business casual". Only one co-worker wears a tie or jacket (and very rarely at that), and polo-shirts are normal. This'd all be a lot easier if I could just get dressed for work, and happen to be at the 'proper' level of formality for davening as well. As it is, I have to change when I go between the two places, and the extra clothing takes up valuable space in my bags. And besides that, as yall can see from the pictures of me I've put up, my general mode of being clothes-wise is casual. I wear sweaters and jeans, and t-shirts and sandals or hiking boots. This whole formal clothing thing feels like fakery sometimes.
  • There seems to be someone who agrees with me — according to Micha Berger in this posting, Rav Shlomo Riskin 'required jackets and ties for shacharis (Not hats)' in a high school even. However, this anecdote is the only one I've ever seen about it. There's got to be some kind of reason why more people don't hold this way... am I missing something?
  • Growing up geeky, I developed a strong fear of being seen as weird. This definitely qualifies me as weird. And I'm paranoid of friends, acquaintances or relatives finding out about my change in practice. When I go home to my parents' for Shabbos, I dress for shul as they've always seen me dress — Southern Jerusalem style (dress-shirt [either with covered buttons or a sweater] and slacks; remember, I've always hated suits/ties). How do all those guys who 'flip out' in Israel and come back monochromatic do it? Are they just so sure (or full?) of themselves and their newfound frumkeit that they just don't care what other people think?

Update: Jewish Worker (Bluke) had a short post on this topic here back in May.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Cain Was Framed!

I am Cain. I was born in the Garden. My parents ate the Fruit of Knowledge, and were thrown out onto the Cold Hard Earth. They were punished with Pain and Toil, but the benefit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil more than made up for it. Their animal, semi-sentient urges had become transformed. They could now Reflect, and think about Thought, and Decide, "This desire is Selfless, I will cultivate it; That desire is Selfish, I will withstand it."

I am Cain. I did not eat the Fruit of Knowledge, but I was also Cast Out onto the Cold Hard Earth. My Younger Brother, Abel, was born with Knowledge in his Blood. He had Foresight. He had Understanding. He could Move On. Uprooted from the Ground of Eden, he became a Herder of Animals. God had put us in the Garden to Tend the Plants, so I continued the Harvest Work on the Outside.

How was I to know that the Soil was no longer an option? That I was following a Backwards, Dead-End Path?

No one told me. They didn't need to be told. No One Told Me!

I gave the Best I could Grow to God. God Didn't Want It!

Wasn't this my Purpose on Earth? How dare He accept Abel's Animals and not my Garden?!

Bereishit/Genesis 4:1-2:

והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו
ותהר ותלד את קין
ותאמר קניתי איש את ה׳
ותוסף ללדת את אחיו את הבל
ויהי הבל רועה צאן וקין היה עובד אדמה

And the man (or: Adam) had known Hhava, his wife;
she became pregnant, and gave birth to Qayin (Cain) —
and she said, "I have gained a man with God."
She then continued giving birth, [and had] his brother, Hevel (Abel);
and Hevel was a shepherd, while Qayin was a worker of the land.

The grammar is clear. והאדם ידע And Adam had known is pluperfect tense. Had known, not knew. The subject-noun, followed by a verb in what we call today the "past tense" form, expresses an action preceding the previous action. If it were וידע האדם in what the grammarians call the wayyiqtol form ("future" + 'flipping vav'), then it would be an action in sequence, and then Adam knew.

Or in other words, as R' Shelomo Yitzhhaqi (Rashi) commented:
This had already [occured] before the earlier narrative — before he sinned and was kicked out of Gan ‘Eiden. The same goes for the conception and birth...

So Qayin, at least, was born in the Garden. We are never told that he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — and yet he was kicked out of Paradise just the same. Hevel, his younger brother, seemingly was born on the Outside, and was conceived by Adam and Hhava after having eaten the fruit. He was born with the knowledge of good and evil, of death (for on the day you eat of it you will surely die). Qayin, this verb yada‘ implies, was not. Did he even understand what death was, until he created it with his own hands?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Pshat and Drash in Bereishis

A Support for Gosse?

Bereishit/Genesis 2:4
אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם
ביום עשות ה' א' ארץ ושמים
These are the generations of the heaven and the earth in their being-created, on the day God made earth and heaven.

In footnoting a midrash about this pasuq, R' Barukh Haleivi Epstein comments in his Tora Temima:
It seems that this is the reason [the midrash] took the word behibbar’am ("in their being-created") out of its פשט (straightforward) meaning — since according to the straightforward understanding of the word, it would mean that the 'generations of the heaven and the earth' were created on the same day as the heaven and the earth [themselves]. But that can't be, since the heaven and the earth were created on Day 1, and their 'generations/descendents' were created during the rest of the [First] Week!

So in other words, the straightforward [pshat] understanding of the Torah is that the 'generations of the heaven and the earth', i.e. the geological and biological history of the universe, were created with the universe itself! So Gosse could have been right! Thank G~d we have the Oral Tradition to teach us that no, in fact God did not create fossils in the ground and ice layers on Greenland 5766 years ago. Of course, with that said, ein miqra’ yotzei’ miydey pshuto — "a scriptural text never abandons its straightforward meaning," leaving room for what us Tricksterists like to call Possibly The Best Practical Joke Ever.

בראשית ברא אלהים

Bereishit. One of the most ambiguous words in the Torah. Does it mean "in the beginning" as the oldschool translations have it? "At the beginning of" as the new ones do? "With reishit" as some midrashim claim?
I prefer to read it — somewhat unpshaticly, I admit — as First Of All.

Imagínate... Imagine...

Thousands of years ago...

The First Jewish (=Israelite) Commonwealth.
The time of Chieftains, or the time of Kings.

A group of Israelite children are helping their parents in the fields, when a rumor hops, skips, and jumps through the village. The kids are all excited. Their parents are impatient.

A wandering prophet has come to town.
Maybe it's Shemu’eil. Maybe it's Elisha‘.

The adults come to the prophet for advice, blessings, and arbitration. They offer praise to YHVH, God of Israel, and then return home to their figures of Ba‘al and Asheira.

The children come to hear stories.

Prophets tell the best stories.

And so, that night, in a rocky clearing out between the fields, the children of the village gather, build a bonfire, and wait for the prophet to tell them stories. Stories of their heroes, the Chieftains; of their Ancestors; and of God.

The prophet begins to tell them of Creation, and says: "Other nations believe in many gods. They say that in the beginning, bar’u elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz — gods created the heavens and the earth. That Ba‘al, or Marduk, fought against other gods and monsters, and they built the Universe out of pieces of death."

One of the children interrupts, "My parents told me that! And lots of stories about Ba‘al, how he fought with Mot, and how he, y'know, did it with a cow..."

The children giggle. The prophet grins, too, for a second, before returning to the serious matter at hand. He takes out a scroll, shows it to the children, and reads seven words.

Bereishit. Bara’. Elohim. Eit. Hashamayim. V’eit. Ha’aretz.

And he places the scroll back into his bag, and begins reciting the text from memory, embellishing the details as he goes with the traditional legends that have not yet been committed to writing.

But he begins with Bereishit.

"Bereishit—" he says. First Of All.

"First Of All — the most important thing to remember," he continues, "the key to everything, is that bara’ — in the singular! — Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. God — one God — created the heavens and the earth..."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Upper West Side a magical mystical wonderland where you bump into friends from high school, friends from college, spouses you didn't know existed of friends from college, babies of friends from high school, friends from Israel, an old shulmate from back in the shtetl, and even a friend or two from elementary school you haven't seen in at least six years...

I was worried that Simkhas Tayra on the UWS would be like college — hordes of stupid drunk people barely keeping their grips on the Torah scrolls they were defiling with their chemical breath — but it most definitely wasn't. It was hordes of happy Jews of all types shul-hopping and skipping and dancing with ruahh ("spirit") and not with reiahh ("smell").

Mythbusters: Simhhat Torah Edition

Contrary to popular belief, Mipi Eil is not from Sefarad or the ‘Eidot Hamizrahh. It has a very clear ‘Eidot Hatzafon pedigree. I now quote from the Artscroll Succos Machzor:
Ascribed to the Maggid of Koznitz, Rabbi Yisrael ben Shabsei Hapstein (1733-1814), one of the earliest chassidic masters in Poland, this piyut follows the aleph-beis. Each of its six stanzas praises God, Moses (Amram's son), the Torah, and its students and supporters. This piyut is one of the few written specifically for the Simchas Torah Hakafos.

In other words:
Mipi Eil was written by some guy from Ashkenaz!

So please, fellow Ashkenazim — realize that when you adopt a Mizrahhi accent and intonation for singing Mipi Eil, while you are being multicultural, you are not being any more authentic!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Happy Litvak Day!

a.k.a. "The Mother Of All Hoshanas"
(as one of my students' parents called it)

קוֹל מְבַֿשֵּׂר מְבַֿשֵּׂר וְאוֹמֵר
kayl mih-VAH-sir mih-VAH-sir ve-AY-mer

(if you don't know what that's about, see here)

I really don't understand why people are so weirded out by taking plants and waving them around, or thwhacking them on the ground, backs of chairs, and/or fire-escapes. They seem to think that it's "pagan"-like, or "cultish", or similarly 'primitive'-looking.

C'mon people, what do you expect?
Do you think Yahadut is some abstract, universalist, Western religion?

G/d no!
Judaism is an exotic ethnic religion, tied into the life of one specific People, their relationship to their Deity and the natural rhythms of the Land they live on.

Although sometimes it's hard to tell, when you're on the other side of the planet, and getting ready to pray for geshem is feeling useless since it's been raining all summer anyway...

And notwithstanding the inherent 'heathen' earthiness of Judaism,
...[Two kohanim] would blow trumpets and walk, until they reached the Eastern Gate [of the Beit Hamiqdash]. Once they got there, they would turn around and face Westwards, and say:

"Our ancestors who were in this place had their backs to God's Temple, and their faces Eastwards — and they would bow Eastwards, to the sun. But us? Our eyes are towards God!"

Ribbi Yehuda says, they would repeat it, saying:
"We are for God, and towards God are our eyes!"

אנו ליה וליה עינינו
(Mishna Suka ch.5)

אנו ליה ועינינו ליה
(Piyut for Ne‘ila by Amitai ben Shefatya)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Now With Haskama

Shifra reviewed my blog! I feel like I just got a haskama from the gedol hador— no wait, gedolat hador!
(and I don't mean this guy; he already gave me one, although Shifra's is a lot more eloquent)

«insert modest-but-proud acceptance speech here»

Have a gutyontef / hhag sameiahh, everybody!
(but especially Shifra)

And in the spirit of popularity, I've installed a hit counter on the side.

In other Sukot news, Alan Scott highly recommends Rabbeinu Bahhya's commentary on Succos and the Four Plants for those interested in Hippy-Orthodox, Indigenous, and similar 'earthy' streams of contemporary Jewish thought.

Oh, and be very careful what you say when discussing your ritual temporary holiday dwelling with Russian-speakers. вы-амаскил йидом.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Yom Kippur Away

Things I learned on Yom Kippur in Amshinov:

  1. You can find bloggers and diqduq geeks anywhere
  2. 45 minute break? — Not so bad after all
  3. I am not a psycho killer (kess keh say), in case yall were wondering
  4. Rosh Yeshiva hhazaning Ne‘ila: makes up in emotive inspiration what it lacks in musical training
  5. Disappearing trip-up tree branch = Musta been a sheid
  6. To turn a girly kitl into a manly one, simply snip off the doilies with a pair of scissors
  7. There's nothing more impressive than THE Vilna Sha"s
  8. Jastrow wasn't an apikores; he just had an attitude problem
  9. Lema‘an nehhdal mei‘osheq yadeinu is from Viduy of Ne‘ila, not the Tanakh
  10. Are you annoyed by drivers on dark highways at night who shine their brights at you from behind? Are you pissed off that they just might blind you and cause you to get into an accident? Well have we got the solution for you! For just 5 easy payments of 29.95, StAm Neqama Incorporated will equip your vehicle with a portable 1000-candlepower floodlight/maglight, which you can point backwards and 'bright' those bastards right back.
  11. When jokers go all serious, it's frikkin scary, yo
  12. Nobody uses chickens for kaparos anymore

(this post was back-dated to Friday, actually written Sunday)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Paging Mr. Tumnus

This week's parsha: Ha’azinu
it begins: Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:1-2
האזינו השמים ואדברה / ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי
יערוף כמטר לקחי / תיזל כטל אמרתי
כשעירים עלי דשא / וכרביבים עלי עשב
Listen, sky, and I will speak / and the earth will hear my mouth's words
My lesson will drip like rain / my speech will flow like dew
se‘irim on the lawn / and like revivim on the grass...

So, what are שעירים and רביבים ?

שעיר usually means goat, as frequently in listings of sacrifices. According to pretty much everyone, here שעירים means something along the lines of 'rain', 'raindrops', 'storms' or 'stormy rainfall'. However, there's another meaning to the word שעיר...

Vayiqra’/Leviticus 17:7
ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים
אשר הם זונים אחריהם
חוקת עולם תהיה זאת להם לדורותם
Old JPS translation:
And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs, after whom they go astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.

Other translations understand שעירים to be 'goat-demons', which I guess is a pretty good (albeit negative) description of a satyr. Other occurances of satyr-type שעירים include:
Yesha‘yahu/Isaiah 13:21:
ושעירים ירקדו שם
...and satyrs shall dance there.

So, due to these other "שעירים", I've always imagined the שעירים and רביבים of Ha’azinu as some kind of legendary wilderness-dwelling monsters. Not evil people-eating monsters, of course, but monsters nonetheless. Like satyrs, or fauns, or centaurs... or who knows what else kind of mythic-style possibly half-human half-animal beasts.

It's a completely different image — Moshe's words passing over and penetrating the minds of the listeners like rain storms over the fields and meadows, or Moshe's words dancing in their heads and inspiring them with love of God like legendary creatures frollicking in unknown lands...

כי שם יהוה אקרא / הבו גודל לאלהינו

Monday, October 10, 2005

Attn: Slifkinites and Kansas School Board

Qwantz Dinosaur Comics* has a hack-up-a-lung-funny comic today about Intelligent Design. Check it out. It's not 'leytzonus'. Really! Promise (bli neder, isar, qonam, qonas...)!
*Qwantz Dinosaur Comics are written by a guy named Ryan North with a hilarious childishly-absurdist sense of humor (just like my friends in college). Every day's comic is the same exact illustration — only the dialogue changes.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Seven Is A Symbolic Number For "Mucho"

random linguistic fact:
Spanish mucho  =  Judeo-Spanish muncho מונגֿו

We now return to your regularly scheduled bloggage...

? » Karl » Jen » Z » Mirty » Rav Fleischmann » me(me)

The Seven Meme

    7 Things I Can Do:
  • Connect any subject to linguistics
  • Roleplay diverse characters
  • Teach / See multiple perspectives
  • Move silently*
  • Procrastinate
  • Identify edible wild plants
  • Appreciate Biblical poetry
(*they called me "the Brooklyn Burglar" on my first Israel trip)

    7 Things I Can't Do:
  • Speak another language fluently*
  • Distinguish between my and my brother's baby pictures
  • Roleplay characters with utterly alien or evil motives
  • Get over sensory hypersensitivity
  • Persevere to the end of a computer/video game
  • Drive stick-shift
  • Write a full story
(*although i've unwittingly fooled people into thinking i can)

    7 Things I Hope To Do Before I Die:
  • Love / marriage / kids
  • Live in Israel again (and take my father there)
  • Live Upstate again (and see the rest of the country/planet)
  • Learn more
  • Learn to be handy with tools
  • Learn to fight (and survive in the wild)
  • Set foot on another planet

    7 Things I Say Often:
  • Uh / eh / um / er / oh / ah / (o)kay / whoa / wow
  • Hey (as a greeting)
  • So, put it together / what do you get from it / what do you think
  • Hopefully (followed by a verb in the future tense)
  • Let's try doing this systematicly
  • No problem
  • ״ברוך הוא אבינו, בוראנו, יוצרינו — הצייר העליון — שככה לו בעולמו
    וברוך הוא אשר ברא את השמיים תכלת ואת הארץ מגוון
    וברוך הוא אשר חלק מכוחותיו לבניו...״

(*let's up this back up into symmetry with the other lists)

My blog broke. Half the template got deleted, and so the blog was coming up blank even though everything was still in the system. With Alan Scott's help, I was able to recover the template from Google's cache (the WebArchive Wayback Machine didn't have me in it), and at the same time I changed the color scheme since some very important people had said the white-on-black was hurting their eyes. Hopefully everything'll be back to normal soon.

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Gut Un Gezuntait Yaw

When it turned 2004 (if i remember correctly),
my brother commented:

2004 isn't a year!
It's the setting for a bad sci-fi movie!

A few days ago I realized,
while contemplating the new year 5766:

ה'תשס"ו isn't a year, either!
It's the sound you make when you sneeze


...get it?

And have a happy Yerahh Ha’eitanim, everybody...

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Dievas davė dantis, Dievas duos duonos*

(*Lithuanian proverb: God gave teeth, God will give bread)

Over the holiday, my father pronounced the plural of yontef (yom-tov) as yomteivim ([jǝm'tejvǝm] yum-TAY-vim).

We also discussed the makhzeirim ([max'zejrǝm] makh-ZAY-rim) that we needed to bring to shul.

But of course, the premier Lithuanian holiday isn't for another few weeks. On Heiŝanǝ Rabǝ, we take ǝrǝvǝs and thwhack them against a chair or the fire escape, and say keil mivasser mivasser vi'eimer.