Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thanksgiving on Chanukah

Lots of people are wondering how rare is it for Thanksgiving to fall out on Chanukah.

According to Wikipedia, Thanksgiving was declared as a national holiday in 1863 as falling on the last Thursday of November.  Thus, in 1888 and 1899, when Thanksgiving fell on the 29th and 30th of November respectively, this was during Chanukah (1st and 4th days, respectively).  The first night of Chanukah was Thursday night, November 28th, 1918, which was Thanksgiving.

In 1941, Thanksgiving was moved to the fourth Thursday of November, which means it can no longer fall on the 29th or 30th.  Since that happened, this year will be the first year that Thanksgiving falls during Chanukah, with November 28th being on the first day of Chanukah.

The first night of Chanukah will be the Thursday night of Thanksgiving again in 2070 and 2165, but Thanksgiving day will never again fall out on Chanukah, due to the Jewish calendar drifting later over time.

So, if you were thinking of making Turkey latkes, this is the year to do it!


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

TheTorah.com

If you haven't seen TheTorah.com, you should.  It is a web site full of thoughtful articles and divrei torah from a religious yet historical/critical approach.  I printed out divrei torah on all the chagim to read in shul (when was the last time I printed out divrei torah?), and they are music for the soul.

The origin of the species

I was reading the first chapter of the Torah with my five-year-old daughter last shabbat.  She asked some very insightful questions, including, when we got up to the sixth day, "where did people come from if nobody was born yet?"

I think this is the question people have been asking as long as there have been people, and of course we can't really know or understand, and the answer itself defies human understanding.  As I continue learning the Torah with her, I am going to struggle with how to present certain things.  Do I just present the Torah's mythology, the same way I would read any story?  Do I talk about my own understanding of what the authors of the Bible were thinking and asking?

When I first read the pasuk of "vayehi or," my daughter commented, "that sounds like magic!"  Indeed it does, as does the creation of man in the first chapter.  It just says God made man, not how.  Of course, the big bang doesn't sound any different - there was nothing, and all of a sudden - poof! - there is a whole world of animals that develop into people capable of writing symphonies and experiencing love and creating iPhones.  It's still sounds like magic.  So, it's pretty accurate to say yes, God created everything, just like that.  I also told her that the next chapter we'll read will have a different story about how man was created.  I don't think she's ready to contrast two different versions of a story, but it will be interesting to see how she understands that story.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Grown Near Wheat

I have always been amazed at how many different types of crops all seem to grow near wheat, at least when it comes to the annual search for more unnecessary Pesach chumrot.  Finally, I came across this helpful diagram of the modern American farm which helps explain the need for all these chumrot.  Of course, most of our produce is grown on very small farms where all the crops overlap and are mixed together in a sack by the one yokel who goes out to harvest.  And this ingenious design allows every single crop to be grown right next to wheat, so anyone can justify a nonsense chumra by claiming the crop grows close to wheat:


By the way, you know what else grows near wheat?  Wheat!  And yet we still make matza out of it.

Chag Kasher V'Sameach!

Friday, December 21, 2012

The end of the world as we know it

I don't expect the world to end today.  Nor did I expect it to end last year when some idiot was going around predicting the rapture.  But I was thinking about the fact that pretty much every religion has a concept of the end of days.  Judaism's is generally more positive (messianic times) than negative (destruction), though there are prophesies of destruction as well.  Every religion also has a narrative for the beginning of the world.

Why is that?  In reality, the world has been around for a really long time, and will be around for a really long time.  I think the concept of infinite time, going backwards or forwards, is really too complex for humans to conceptualize.  The same is true of the infinitely expanding size of the universe.  In fact, this is why I believe there is a divine element to the world - there are simply too many things about the world that are beyond human comprehension.

But what religion tends to do, instead of reacting with wonder and awe at the beauty and majesty of the world, we react by simplifying things.  The world isn't infinitely old - it's only a few thousand years old, and will probably only last a few (hundred) more years before ending or completely changing.  That idea seems designed to make the world easier to understand.

In fact, while the end of the world seems frightening, perhaps what the most frightening idea is that tomorrow will be just like today, and the world we live in, with all its flaws, will never fundamentally change?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Two assumptions of my education

Thinking back to my yeshiva day school education, I noticed that there were certain assumptions that I picked up that I've more recently come to question, which were at the heart of my changing views on Orthodox Judaism.  I'm not sure if these ideas were explicitly taught, implicitly taught, or whether they were just my own assumptions which I picked up along the way.  I'd be interested to hear if you had the same understandings in yeshiva.  Note that I went to mainstream modern Orthodox schools, not right wing or chareidi by any sense of the words.

1 - The manner of fulfilling mitzvot.  The way I recall being taught about halacha is that there is a specific way to fulfil ("be yotzei") a mitzvah, and either you do it right, or you don't.  I have the image of a heavenly Computer that measures the input, and either returns true or false.  Of course, you never get the output, so you just need to make every effort to fulfill the mitzvah correctly.  For example, if after the fact, you find out your tefilin have a missing letter, or your etrog was the wrong species, etc., then you've done no action towards fulfilling those commandments - you get no credit.  The extreme of this is trying to be "yotzei kol hadeot" to eliminate any chance of getting the wrong combination.  Of course, no value is given to religious experience - you either got the mitzvah or you wasted your time.  I think this is probably a Lithuanian/Brisker bias, but it could go all the way back to the Temple priests (put the wrong spice in the ketoret, and you die.)  I don't think of God as a big Computer anymore, but sometimes it is hard to find the balance where you don't obsess over the details, but still find meaning in trying to follow halachic guidelines.

2 - Timelines of Biblical books.  I do remember discussing some aspects of when certain prophets lived, but overall, I think I always imagined all of Tanach (not just the Torah) as being written at a single point in time, and all representing the exact same divine truth.  The idea that Isaiah and Ezekiel could have different ideas about what is important or what God wants never occurred to me.  Similarly, I don't think I was ever taught that God wrote the book of Kings, but I'm pretty sure I was taught that when the book says a king was "good" or "bad" in the eyes of God, this represents God's assessment of the king, not that of the book's author.  There is certainly more room for historical context to be taught even within the bounds of traditional Bible study, but I wonder if there is a slippery slope there as well if children become accustomed to questioning the motives of Biblical authors.

So, do you remember learning this way?  Are kids now being taught the same way?

Monday, September 10, 2012

לשמוע אל הרינה ואל התפילה

I went to selichot on Saturday night, as I do every year.  I'm not planning on saying any more selichot (until Yom Kippur, at least), but I do enjoy going that first night.  I remember discovering many years ago that the Yamim Noraim are a lot more pleasant when you don't kill yourself staying up until 2am every night saying selichot.

Looking at the words of the selichot, there is very little I connect to conceptually, nor would these be the kind of tefilot I would compose on my own.  I don't enter the high holidays with trepidation, trying every possible way to appease a vengeful deity, nor to I feel ashamed of everything I've done in the past year.  I do, however, look forward to an introspective and reflective time.  And I find that the nusach, the musical themes of the time, evoke an inspiring sense of majesty.  The fast, repetitive, soulful chants of the selichot seem naturally designed for a calming of the mind, much like the way a yoga meditation might use a repetitive chant.

I find religion most meaningful as food for the soul, not the mind, and thus it is the rhythms and melodies, not the words, that I look forward to this time of the year.  For the same reason, I try to blow the shofar every morning, even if I don't daven.  I think of it as the simplest of prayers, the wordless call that reaches into the depths of the soul, without any words that more likely than not just detract from the moment.

For anyone dreading this holiday-intense period, I hope you can find some time among all the over-eating and over-praying to reflect on what is truly important to you, even (especially) if it's not found in the machzor.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why I'm Fasting Today

I'm pretty bad at fasting, and tend not to fast on the minor fast days.  Today will be harder since my wife is not fasting, having recently given birth.  So I thought it would be helpful to write down my reasons for wanting to fast.  (And yes, it is a choice - we all make choices whenever we observe something or don't.)

Firstly, it occurred to me that Tisha B'Av is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates something that actually happened, and unfortunately, there are many real tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the years.  I'm not terribly torn up over the loss of the temples, and from reading Tanach and Jewish history, it doesn't sound like the times of either the first or second Temples were such glorious times.  Modern Israel may arguably be much better.  But it has never been easy to be a Jew, and the Crusaders, Cossacks, Nazis, Arabs, etc. have never cared if a Jew was yeshivish, modern, Satmar, or unaffiliated.  As long as someone identifies at all as a Jew, they are bound to this tragic history.

There is also something meaningful about commemorating something along with Jews all over the world.  We evoke powerful symbols the way we sit on the floor and darken the shul.  It occurred to me that Tisha B'Av is always the same day of the week as Pesach, and both have strong symbols.  Reclining and drinking wine is a strong symbol of freedom, and sitting on the floor and not drinking is a strong symbol of tragedy.  Both are real parts of our history, and both are important to spend a day thinking about.

Finally, aside from any religious motivation, it's worthwhile to take one day a year to remember that there are many people in the world who are starving, and may have to go a day without food, without downing Vitamin Water beforehand, and scarfing down bagels and lox afterwards.  Let's be grateful that at least we are choosing to fast today, but will have plenty to eat tonight.

Tzom Kal.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Don't think too much!

This article caught my eye (and gave me an initial laugh when I saw the headline): Thinking can undermine religious faith, study finds.  It states that people who think more analytically tend to be less religious.  This makes sense, as religion appeals to our more emotional sense.  But it goes on to say that the same people, when the study put them in a more analytical mood, tended to express slightly less religious sentiment than those in a more emotional state.

I think this makes a lot of sense, and I've experienced it myself.  If you think analytically enough, of course all the myths and superstitions of religion don't make sense anymore.  But when you are in a place of emotions - scared, loving, transcendent, etc., then religion becomes a lot more appealing.  In fact, I think that often God takes over where rationality end, for example, when contemplating the beginning, or end, of time, something that is very difficult to conceptualize rationally.