Blog: December 2011

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.

Shabbat is when now?

I had not previously heard that Samoa is moving across the international date line this week, meaning that they will go from 11:59PM Thursday to 12:00AM Saturday, skipping Friday. This raises an interesting question for any Jews living there -- when is Shabbat?

According to one answer there, now it'll be Sunday -- we count days, not secular designations.


Interesting discussion in the comments.

Last night of Chanukah

A full chanukiyah makes me happy -- you might say it provides a warm glow. Read more…

First steps for someone considering conversion to Judaism

Somebody asked on Mi Yodeya: what are the first steps for someone considering sincere conversion to Judaism? I answered:

The conversion process is involved and long. You will go through the following steps, possibly more than once:

  • Investigation and exploration: beginning to figure out what is attracting you, what alternatives there are (e.g. does being a Noachide meet your needs?), and what the impact would be. You might begin to attend services at synagogues (possibly several synagogues while you figure out where you're most comfortable).

  • Meeting with one or more rabbis, ending with you finding the one who will be your rabbi. They will ask you questions; you should ask questions too. You are looking for a good match, not the objectively-best rabbi (as if there were such a thing).

  • Formal study and beginning to observe mitzvot, under the guidance of your rabbi. Formal study should definitely include one-on-one study with your rabbi. It is not unusual for it to also include a course to teach the basics in a group setting. From what I've seen nobody's making money off those courses; often you just pay for the books. But you don't need one-on-one time with your rabbi to learn the basics of brachot, kashrut, Shabbat, the prayer service, and so on; a classroom is more efficient, saving the rabbinic time for the personal and advanced topics.

  • Addressing barriers to conversion as you are ready. This could include everything from family relations (how you will deal with evangelical parents, for instance) to altering your work arrangements (do you work on Saturdays?) to replacing kitchenware to, possibly, moving. That's just a sample, not meant to intimidate but just to inform.

  • When you and your rabbi agree that you're ready, going before the beit din (court) for acceptance, going to the mikvah, and (for men) handling circumcision or its replacement.

You should not be surprised if the whole process takes a few years. Rabbis absolutely want to welcome converts but must do their best to make sure it'll "stick"; the cost of someone not converting is not nearly as great as the cost of somebody converting and later changing his mind. The first is a lost (or delayed) opportunity; the second creates a sinning Jew.

Some books you might find helpful to read earlier rather than later in the process are: Read more…

Answer: practice and time

Several years ago I wondered aloud how the people who lead religious services are able to pray themselves -- if they're paying attention to the logistics, do they ever get to have that moment of connection that they're trying to facilitate for everybody else in the room, I wondered? I later asked a rabbi at HUC about it and he said, basically, "welcome to our world".

Y'know what? I've gotten way more comfortable with this since then. What it seems to have required is practice and time. Shocking, right? :-)

Friday night I led services with our second rabbi. The senior rabbi and cantorial soloist were both on a congregational trip to Israel, so I was to fill the cantorial role. The rabbi and I talked by phone for ten minutes or so the day before to talk about music, and then we just showed up and it worked. We've led together two or three times, I think -- not a lot -- and yet the "shared mind" was there, so we did not bumble around with cues and awkward transitions. I got prayer time for myself amidst the service and it was great. I led a couple Friday services over the summer too, one all by myself (the cantorial soloist and I had been planning to do it together and she injured herself the day before), and I got compliments on how much spirit I brought to it -- and yet, again, I was able to participate and not just facilitate. It was neat.

I've led our Shabbat morning minyan a few times and that's generally gone quite well too, but the minyan has a hive mind and can do well with pretty much any semi-confident leader. (Confidence matters more than skill in this group, in my observation.) So I can lead that minyan and still have a worship experience for myself, but the minyan is helping. In the sanctuary, especially up on the bimah, that experience is different; the acoustics of the room are terrible, there's more space between the leaders and the congregation so it's harder to see how they're reacting, too many people like to sit in the back, and Friday night attracts a fair number of people who don't participate as actively as the morning minyan.

I've come to one important conclusion, and it differs from what I see some other leaders doing and I don't know why that is. I think I'm right, but I'm a virtual sophomore. My conclusion: just do it -- just pray the prayers, just sing the songs, etc. Add connective tissue where needed and appropriate (if I don't know many people there I mention the turning and bowing in the song L'cha Dodi, for instances), but extended interruptions will kill any chance of anybody in the room actually achieving kavannah. I see people stop to teach a song -- repeatedly, with call-and-response teaching and several run-throughs before we sing it "for real" -- and I feel like I'm no longer worshipping but am attending camp or a concert. None of our melodies are hard and most are repetitive; people who want to get it will get it, and if not this week then next week or the week after. Similarly, I've seen people stop in the middle of the Amidah, the central prayer, to explain what the prayer is about, because we're reading it in Hebrew, but the English is right there on the page. I assume I'm not the only person who's ever dropped out of a "let's read this together" section to read something else, like a translation, on my own.

Friday night we sang songs that we tend to sing only once a year, during Chanukah. I just sang them. I intentionally added an English verse to Maoz Tzur (for accessibility), and the others we sang two or three times (they're not long). Some people clearly didn't know them at the beginning but they were singing by the end. We read the Chanukah insertion in the Amidah but we did not stop to talk about its content at that point; there was a d'var torah coming and people could wait. I assumed that people are smart enough to just go with the flow, and I was not disappointed. And the rabbi and I got to worship and not just perform, without damaging the communal experience.

More, please.

It's kind of like the sorceror's apprentice

A few days ago I wanted to order some books from Amazon. While I was getting a delivery anyway, I decided to throw in a small kitchen item that I hadn't been able to find locally and that Amazon sells directly. I wanted two of said item.

The shopping cart would not allow me to order two of them, though I saw no "almost out of stock" notice on the product page. So I split it into two orders, since I was ordering enough to be able to do that and keep the free shipping, and I was able to put one of the kitchen items in each order. Mission accomplished, though it felt a bit silly.

Then yesterday the email came. For my convenience (and at no extra charge), each of these orders was split into two, one for books and one for the kitchen item. (Presumably they ship from separate warehouses.) I will apparently be receiving four packages from them, two on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. This is more than "a little" silly. :-) It could have been two instead of four, but the interface stumped me. I'm glad I didn't also throw in, say, a clothing item, a DVD, and some electronic gadget into the order; mail carriers have enough hassles this time of year without my help.