Blog: February 2008

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.


Today Erik and Baldur are 15 years old. I declined to put lit candles in their dinners. :-)

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Ki Tisa: alien influences

This is the d'var torah I gave yesterday morning. I recommend first reading Exodus 34:10-17.

This week's portion gives us the instruction to separate ourselves from the other nations, smashing their idols and being mindful of intermarriage. The torah tells us that if we aren't careful, we risk following after their gods, which is clearly unacceptable.

This passage comes after the sin of the golden calf, so it makes sense in context. Some of the rabbis blame the golden calf on the erev rav, the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Jews. Read this way, the people are being told not to do what they have just done. We know it's a risk because it happened.

It might be tempting to conclude that this was an instruction for another time, and today we do not need to trouble ourselves with what sounds like xenophobia. I have heard some make this argument, referring to that generation as "children" who don't know any better (in contrast to us). But to think that we aren't susceptible to such influences seems misguided to me.

As most of you know, I was raised as a Christian. Even though it has been decades since I went to a Christian mass for anything other than a wedding or a funeral, I have to pay attention when I find myself in such a place. Certain things are embedded deep in my memory. I know that you're supposed to dip into the holy water on the way in; I know you're supposed to genuflect; I know all the congregational responses in the liturgy. I don't do these things, but I am mindful of the fact that I am at risk of going on auto-pilot. Years of exposure can lead us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do. (This must be especially difficult for children raised in two religions "so they can choose one at adulthood"; they will have to surpress at least half of what they were taught.)

Even when we don't have that kind of personal history, in our melting-pot, big-tent, multi-cultural society, we are all exposed to other religions' influences and we absorb more than we might care to admit. Look at the liturgical history of our own movement, clearly modelled on Protestant worship of the 19th century. But also look closer to home, when some of us celebrate others' holidays in a spirit of kinship. You might call it a Chanukah bush, but we all know what it really is, for instance.

I'm in a choir that sings renaissance music. Most of the repertoire is secular or religiously neutral, but every year the group does a Christmas performance and every year I sit that out. I have been criticized by other choir members who say "it's just music, not worship". Some of them are Jews. Is it worship, or at least endorsement? We draw the line in different places, obviously. To me, it is the first step down a slippery slope that ends with Christmas being part of our routine, when singing "glory to the newborn king" along with the radio seems perfectly reasonable.

Most of us are not likely to engage in the avodah zara (alien worship) that concerned the sages. We don't have much call to sacrifice to Ba'al, for instance. But there are things out there that draw us in other directions, and we should at least pay attention. We are part of a larger society that has different priorities than we might; do we follow? This is not just about overt religion, either: one of my teachers once commented, on the subject of attendance at Shabbat morning services, "the god of soccer is a vengeful god". Even secular activities can be problematic if they draw us away from our own religion. The verses in this week's portion speak of very real risk for us today.

Some communities respond to this risk by secluding themselves and shutting out the outside world. I'm not advocating that; I think the world has a lot to offer us and we have a role to play in it. Seclusion helps no one; it might even make us weaker. We are part of a greater society, so we must deal with these issues.

Our ancestors were called to smash others' idols in a very specific context: as part of taking over their land after the idolaters have been driven out. This is not our situation today; we live among other peoples. I am not about to smash my neighbor's creche or buddha statue or sacred tree; it's not my place. But within our own domain, and within shared spaces, we can and should draw lines between what is acceptable and what is not. I can respect my Christian neighbor but still refuse to let him hang a cross in my house -- or in my child's classroom. I can respect my pagan friend while refusing to allow a goddess statue in my living room -- or in the public square. The torah does not command us to go into others' communities and destroy their religious symbols, but it does tell us not to allow them in our own community.

When we live among other peoples we absorb some of their values, and sometimes these values contradict (or at least interfere with) our own. The torah text presents a real concern for us. We should respond in moderation, neither cowering in isolation nor trying to repress our neighbors, but we should respond and be mindful. This text does not speak only to the generation that built the golden calf; it speaks to us too.

Interviewed by Zahava

Questions from Zahava over on Blogger. Read more…

Interviewed by Jducoeur

1. Do you see yourself getting serious about the SCA again sometime, or do you think you're gradually moving on for good?

I think I'm gradually moving on. I've been becoming less active for years; I don't see myself dropping local events and Pennsic, but it's unlikely to again become the major part of my life it once was. The society has changed over the years, becoming more pointlessly-bureaucratic, more formal and corporate, and both more and less spread-out (more fragmentation physically, but email has been a big offset). And I have changed: I prioritize Shabbat and kashrut over activities I used to enjoy; I see my non-local friends less often (there's a cycle there of not going to events so not seeing them so not having reasons to go to events); and I've become pretty pesimistic about the culture of the SCA (I see far fewer people standing up for what they think is right than I used to).


2. The question that started this thread: what's your favorite game (period or modern)?

Just one? That's hard! :-) Besides, whatever I say now probably won't be the answer in six months.

So, right now, I think I'm going to say Seven Ages, the depths of which I have not yet fully explored. I'm torn between that and the family of crayon rail games (Iron Dragon, EuroRails, et al). And I'm also trying to decide between board games and RPGs; I find the mechanic of Dogs in the Vineyard fascinating and would like to play more.

I guess about the only thing I can say for sure is that I'm not really into computer games. :-)


3. Where do you hope that your professional life takes you? I know what you're doing now; do you have any specific ambitions professionally?

I want to make good technology that people can use. Ok, that's broad; the way it manifests in my current position is that I want to build core infrastructure that projects (and external parties) can use. I am not especially into the idea of doing one-off apps (the typical services model); if we can't reuse a good portion of what we're building, then it's just work for the sake of work -- fine as an alternative to unemployment, but not ultimately fulfilling to me. I want to make building blocks and see them in use.

I want to do this by being a guiding force in the design, in the public interfaces, and in getting the level of abstraction right. I see myself as a senior contributor and/or a tech lead. I could imagine being involved in product management someday, maybe, if the stars align, though it's a path that can take one too far from the nuts and bolts, too.

I see both programming and tech writing as means, not ends.

Will things actually go this way? Good question. I've got about twenty years before I start eyeing up retirement, assuming I don't bolt the field entirely to pursue something totally different, and a lot can happen (pesimistically, a lot can go wrong :-) ) in twenty years.


4. You've talked a bit about how you got into Judaism. Now that you've been in for a while, what aspect of the religion do you find most rewarding?

The mindfulness it brings to every aspect of my life, from the loftiness of prayer to the minutiae of eating. There's an awareness that pervades everything, and informs everything, and I don't think I've ever felt so connected and grounded in my life before.

A strong second is the idea that we do for ourselves -- my fate is in my hands, but also that "just plain folks" like me are enpowered to do things on behalf of the community. I lead services; I read torah; I give divrei torah; I could teach, theoretically. It's great to have rabbis, but things don't fall down if you don't.


5. The other side of that: you've gotten fairly seriously into modern Jewish culture. What do you most like about that?

The value that is placed on thinking. If you study a text and you don't have questions or want to argue with the rabbis, you're doing it wrong. The idea of turning an idea around and around, really studying it, and not being afraid to challenge it -- that this is a core value -- makes me feel right at home.

I don't know if I'm explaining this very well; here's an anecdote that might help (given our shared context): An SCA friend who'd seen me in action on laws committees and in online philosophy discussions, on learning that I'd converted, said "you mean you weren't already?!".

Interviewed by Multislackerkim

Apropos of nothing: today was my 2500th day with my current employer. Wow.
Well, what else are wiki calculator plug-ins for? :-)

Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?

No. I'm not even all that sure about divine beings like angels, let alone former humans. (I understand "ghost" to refer to spirits of people no longer alive.) This isn't about cold, scientific rationality, because I do believe in God, but I just haven't seen anything that suggests to me that ghosts are real.

What's your biggest accomplishment?

That's a tough one, as I have been fortunate so far. There are many traits I'm very happy to have, some of which I think I helped to develop, but they are mostly gradual things, not identifiable points in time, so I don't think I can count those. So I guess, if I'm looking for a milestone, it would be deciding on, and following through with, conversion to Judaism.

If you had a choice of living now or during the time period you portray in the SCA, which would you choose and why?

Now, definitely. Sure, I'd love to visit history, given a time machine, universal translator, and some degree of confidence that I wouldn't mess up the timeline too badly, but I wouldn't want to live there. I'm too attached to my modern standard of living, including good medical care, plentiful nutritious food, comfortable housing, the ability to engage in intellectual pursuits (for pay and for fun), and easy communication anywhere. And, yeah, the internet.

If you could "do it all over again" what would you change about you or your life?

I've certainly got plenty of warts and have done things I'd rather be able to redo, but in a way, it all contributes to who I am, so I'd be cautious about making anything not have happened. However, there have been a few times when I have unintentionally hurt others badly, and I would like to have the opportunity to undo that for their sakes.

What's the best thing about owning a cat?

Bonding. My cats are individuals, albeit ones with limited communication, who all have their own places in my heart. And my lap. :-) I know that some people treat pets as closer to objects than to household members; that's not me.

Short takes

Airfare to Israel these days costs how much?! This may require more thought.

The local SCA choir started some new songs tonight, including Salamone Rossi's Kedusha, which has been in the files waiting to emerge for a few years. It's a pretty piece as a whole; some of the individual lines are a little funky. I think it's going to sound really nifty when we've learned it. The director quite reasonably asked me to lead people through the pronunciation; I had forgotten how awkward I now find transliteration. I should have just read from the Hebrew. Oh well.

The choir performed at an event last weekend, including one joint piece with our consort. That was fun, and the consort is bigger than it's often been in the past. We'll be doing a joint performance at Pennsic.

Last night Dani and I went to a pot-luck dinner (by local SCA folks). The theme was "black history month"; most people interpreted this as calling for African recipes. (I would have figured we'd get some Carribean, but no.) The result was that almost everything involved at least two of: rice, beans, peanuts. (I made a West-African vegetable stew with peanuts, served over rice.) It was all quite tasty, though we usually manage more variety. :-) (Themes sometimes act as themes and sometimes as loose inspiration. We once hosted one with the theme "once in a blue moon", which produced round foods and stuff with blueberries.)

I owe a few sets of interview answers. Thanks for the interesting questions.

The Pardes of pastoral care by Velveteen Rabbi is an interesting, multi-level take on the sometimes-difficult task of relating to people.

Two interesting studies reported by Siderea. "Rat Park" was new to me; who knew that rats use drugs to relieve boredom rather than out of addiction?

Signs you might not be from LJ originally; I forget now who pointed this one out.

Qualities people will pay for even if there are free options, via Dsrtao.

Options for Jewish learning this year

My rabbi recommended the Lay Leadership Summer Study Retreat (Shalom Hartman), which I am strongly considering going to this year. From what I've read so far, it sounds like an excellent learning opportunity. I learned this Shabbat that a fellow congregant is definitely going, which would reduce some of my "travelling alone in a far-away place" jitters (it's in Jerusalem). It's kind of pricy; I can afford it but am asking myself cost-benefit questions. I'd be away for about 10 or 11 days (late June/early July). Those 10 or 11 days span a period when Dani would be away anyway (at a gaming con), which seems like a win in the spousal-away-time department. (It's a given that he's never going to accompany me on one of these trips.)

It's either that or the National Havurah Committee summer session, recommended by Magid (who attended last year). This, too, sounds like a good program -- it's got stuff I'm definitely not into, but enough serious study to keep me busy. It's probably smaller and a little more intimate than the Hartman program, and I'd know one person there (assuming Magid goes again). It's the week immediately after Pennsic -- dodging is good but back-to-back vacations might be bad.

This year's URJ Kallah is a no-go. I kind of figured it would be with the title "Israel at 60", but it was possible the program would surprise me. It's now been published; it didn't. So, some other year, maybe. (Israel is of course an important component of Jewish study, but I'm looking for something with more traditional text and less modern history/zionism, thanks.)

I do mean to return to the Open Beit Midrash at Hebrew College, but not this year.

Someday I will be able to take the 3+ weeks needed to go to the Conservative Yeshiva's summer program in Jerusalem, but not this year and probably not next. I'm pencilling it in for 2010. (Similarly, Drisha and Pardes have programs that are too long for me right now.)

Interviewed by Mikekn

1. How did you first get involved with the SCA? What attracted you to it?

It was the fighting. I was into D&D (only RPG I'd yet played) and sword&sorcery fantasy, and this sounded like that. Historical accuracy and re-creation? Much later... I saw fighting at a college demo, stayed until it ended, showed up at the next practice, got tutored in making carpet armor, and I was off and running. It was several months before I went to an event (hadn't really heard about those), and then I discovered that the SCA does other things too. The next two steady activities I got pulled into were dancing and archery.


2. What is your favorite edition/version of D&D? Why?

I started playing with Basic D&D (that is, the blue book), and have played most of what followed. (I own but have never played the original set with the white books.) Generally, each has improved on what came before. The last (and only recent) campaign I played in (see Ralph's D&D journal) started with v3 and switched to 3.5 when it was published. I found that very satisfying, as this was really the first time I felt I could build a character with some depth and well-roundedness. Feats and skills add a lot of richness (hey, almost feels like RuneQuest! :-) ), and the multi-classing felt smooth. Some of the character types seem better thought-out; I always found mages (now wizards) a hassle to play, but the new sorceror class was very comfortable. (It's possible that dual-classing sorceror and paladin was mildly abusive.) I would happily play in this system again (and would explore some other character type if I did).

When I started playing in high school the game was all about the hack-and-slash and collecting loot. Now, what I care about is interesting characters and interesting worlds to play them in. Older editions of D&D didn't support that so well (is that part of what drove me to the earlier style of play?), but the current one does.


3. What is most memorable from your time as EK chronicler?

Hmm, good question. I don't think there's so much one big thing as a bunch of smaller bits, so let me offer some of those: Read more…


I was asked to lead the evening minyan on Thursday, where it's traditional to give a brief d'var torah. I knew that most of the attendees would be members of the executive committee, which I didn't consciously take into account, but it clearly shaped my thinking somewhat. Here's approximately what I said:

For the last two weeks we've read about the giving of the torah, first the broad strokes like "honor your parents" and "don't murder" given to everyone, and then many more details given just to Moshe covering criminal law, torts, holidays, and more. And now this week we get to T'rumah, the first of four parshiyot dedicated to building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where the Israelites will worship.

It seems somewhat out of balance, as if building the mishkan is the important set of commandments for the Israelites. Other commentaries have asked "does God need all this?", and that's not what I'm going to talk about. I see something that sets these commandments apart from the rest.

The other commandments we've been given so far are mostly given to us as individuals -- about how we relate to God and to each other. True, there are society-level commandments about how to run a justice system, but there too, the average person does not so much share in these commandments as live in a society affected by them. With the mishkan, on the other hand, every single (adult) Jew is involved -- as a donor at least, and possibly as a craftsman, custodian, or staff. The mishkan is, in turn, there for everyone; any Jew can (and sometimes must) bring offerings there.

I don't think it's that God needs a dwelling-place. I'm not even sure it's that the people need a structure, though arguably they do. I think the mishkan is not so much about the building (noun) as the building (verb). It's the first and biggest activity that everyone participates in together. What better way to build commitment to the community?

Would that we could bring our community together so. We don't have the mishkan or temple; the service conducted there was replaced by our modern prayer services. (That's why they're structured the way they are.) But look at our services today in the Reform movement; rarely does everyone come together. We have sub-communities within the broader community. Sometimes that's necessary; it can be hard to have one service that speaks to the young child, the scholar, the confused teen, the person who wants to participate, and the person who wistfully remembers the decorum of "classical Reform". Sometimes it's necessary to have a tot shabbat, or a learner's minyan, or services at different times. But sometimes, as Rabbi Yoffie spoke about at the biennial in December, we get other fragmentation, such as the bar-mitzvah service that's a private affair for one family. Wouldn't it be great if we could encourage families to celebrate s'machot with the community, as we already do for baby namings and pre-nuptual blessings? And wouldn't it be great if the community could be open to adding such events to regular services, finding a balance point between honoring individuals and serving the needs of the whole congregation?

When we try to be a big tent it seems inevitable that some interior walls get hung up. Sometimes we need to, and I'm not suggesting that we try to throw everyone together all the time. But just as our ancestors built the mishkan for all, may we be open to the possibility of building our mishkan as openly as we can.

Shabbat evening

Very occasionally we have a bar or bat mitzvah at the Friday-night service. Perhaps ironically (given the d'var torah I just posted), this week was one of those. With a couple small exceptions, it was pretty much spot-on what such a service should be.

Read more…