Blog: February 2013

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.

Why participate in the Biblical Hermeneutics site?

Biblical Hermeneutics is a site on the Stack Exchange network. Its founders said it was intended as a scholarly, not religious, site for Q&A about the bible -- the focus would be on hermeneutics and showing your work, not on theological claims. A year and a half in, somebody asked how people of different religions can participate -- since there can only be one right answer to each question (this person said), how can you be pluralistic? The person asked if the site is viable. I wrote the following answer, now deleted.

Thank you for asking this important question. I share your concern about viability, but for reasons almost opposite of yours. I am one of those on record as believing that the only way a site that wants to be religiously-diverse can succeed is to avoid assertions of Truth while providing information. It is possible to describe an interpretation without asserting doctrine by following just a few simple rules (taken from Wikipedia):

  • Avoid stating opinions as facts. (For us, this means recognizing that what you hold as Truth is, to someone else, an opinion. We all need to be mature enough to be willing to do that. Reasonable people can disagree.)
  • Avoid stating seriously contested assertions as facts. (Almost all interpretive assertions are seriously contested.)
  • Avoid presenting uncontested factual assertions as mere opinion.
  • Prefer nonjudgmental language.

You have strongly-held beliefs and Truths. So do I. So do the moderators. So does everybody here. They will never all be the same. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from each other; it just means we have to treat this as a Q&A site that strives to provide supported answers, not as yet another Internet opinion forum or a congregational assembly hall. Think of Biblical Hermeneutics not as your clergy, who will set you on the Right Path, but as Consumer Reports, which will present information about a bunch of different options and leave it to you to decide what to do based on your own individual circumstances.

If we fail to do that, however -- if we as a community accept evangelism, unsupported assertions of Truth, and opinions in the form of answers -- then we should shut this site down as a bad fit for the Stack Exchange network. In that case it would work better over on Yahoo Answers or some place like that. I now realize that even reducing it to "Christian Hermeneutics" probably wouldn't solve the problem, given the issues raised in the question here; y'all don't agree with each other either.

So to answer the question in your title -- why should one participate here? I participate here to learn and share with a diverse community, without judgmentalism, without accusation, and with a degree of rigor that I can't get by hanging out at Starbucks or my congregation's study hall and chatting with folks. But I find myself participating here less than I once did precisely because we have not, after more than a year, made enough progress on dealing with these matters, and as a non-Christian I am feeling like my input doesn't matter. (In the original there were a bunch of links to specific instances here.) And no, it does not particularly matter that I am currently #3 in reputation for the site; that just means that I've been willing to put in the effort to provide supported, non-opinion (non-Truth-asserting) answers despite the doctrine in other answers.

Put another way: I know in my heart that most of the other participants here are Wrong. But that isn't my problem; that's between them and God. I'm here to study text. Can you be here for that reason too?

Ultimately this failed; the site accepted an abundance of opinion (belief, doctrine, dogma) stated as fact, making for a hostile environment.


A few days ago Dani told me that his company, for no particularly-obvious reason, was replacing all their office chairs, with the old ones to be hauled away...somewhere. Some of his coworkers, noting that their current chairs were in fine shape, asked if they could salvage them. The powers that be said ok, anything with a "reserved" sign on it wouldn't be hauled away.

A few minutes after telling me this he asked "do you want to have brunch Sunday at (a downtown restaurant)?". Sure, I said. A moment later I asked "are we fetching office furniture?" Why yes, he said.

So um, I said, if they were likely to have any spares... "I reserved two", he said. Nice.

So I have now upgraded my desk chair (not my computer chair, which is different), finally deprecating the desk chair I obtained from the Perq Systems fire sale for, I think, a dollar. Dani's company isn't dead, so I have hopes that this chair will do at least as well as its predecessor.

(I'm actually very particular about my computer chair(s), in contrast. When I started with my current employer I spent one day with my assigned chair and then went out and bought my own (which, to pass muster with the furniture police, had to match color). All our chairs have stickers on them with their designated locations (because sometimes people "borrow" chairs for meetings and aren't so good about returning them); mine has an additional sticker, "property of (me)", and has never been absconded with.)


One of the things I find a little challenging when interacting with Christians -- quite aside from matters of doctrine -- is the expectation of free-form prayer. When I went to an inter-faith gathering and the leader asked me if I would lead us in a prayer before the meeting, I was stumped and declined. I once read about a Jewish student doing a clinical internship (hospital visits, etc), and a Baptist patient asked her to kneel down on the floor and pray with her -- a befuddling experience for the student. I understand fixed prayer and I understand prayer around a framework, but I don't really understand this. What am I supposed to say? It's too uncertain, too free for me; I feel the burden of creativity.

We've been reading in the book of Sh'mot about how the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery -- but it's not complete freedom, it's freedom to serve God. How were they supposed to do that? It was explained at Sinai; the revelation provides the structure.

When we think of Sinai we think of the Aseret HaDibrot, the "10 utterances". They're a pretty vague lot when you think about it. Don't murder? What consitutes murder -- does self-defense count, does abortion? Honor your parents -- what does "honor" mean, and what if your parents are, heaven forbid, rashaim, evil people? Guard Shabbat -- what does that mean? As somebody just learning the ropes years ago I initially found the idea of Shabbat to be kind of confusing.

But we don't just pay attention to the words God spoke to the whole people. The revelation continued for forty more days, and a lot of that is what this week's portion covers. In Parshat Yitro we got the grand ideas; in Parshat Mishpatim we get a lot of the details. Even more of the details come from the oral law that was given alongside the written torah.

I was relieved, not alarmed, when I learned more about Shabbat. I didn't know how to "guard Shabbat", but I could learn the details that the rabbis understand. Light candles and say the appropriate blessing? Check. Make kiddush to sanctify the day? Check. Attend worship services? I could learn. Some concept of rest? Further education needed, but I'm game. Havdalah, the ritual to formally end the day? Sure. The unconstrained creativity of "guard Shabbat" was paralyzing; the details and structure opened a whole new world and a path to God.

Unconstrained creativity was bad for Israel too; it led to the golden calf. Worship God, one of the Dibrot said? Sure, let's make one! Um, no. We had to get both the broad directives and the many details, and it was after all that that Israel said na'aseh v'nishma, we will do and we will listen. Note the order, by the way.

I'm not saying that creative interpretation is always bad. Look at all the ways we tell the Pesach story at the seder to engage people of all ages. Look at the variety of music we use in worship. Look at our Shabbat morning minyan. Look at the range of understandings on any page of talmud. Creativity isn't bad; unconstrained creativity is. (For us; I understand that our Christian friends have a different covenant.) We need to understand the foundation on which we're building, the Dibrot that we're working out the details for. Na'aseh v'nishma means do first and then listen and understand; only after that can we responsibly vary what we're doing.

This is my problem with many of the left-page readings in Mishkan T'filah (the new Reform prayerbook) and with the vast majority of "creative" services. [1] The connections between these alternate texts and the themes we're supposed to be addressing in our prayers to God seem...tenuous at best. Maybe they are clearer to those who have mastered our liturgy, but I am not nearly learned enough to depart that far. I need the foundation, the details we were given, not the freedom to make up my own thing. My goal is nishma -- not a golden calf.

We risk making a golden calf if we jump straight to doing our own thing without understanding the foundation. I've been talking here about prayer, but it applies to any mitzvah -- the idea of eco-kashrut is nice but it doesn't substitute for proper slaughter, pursuing social justice is meritorious but does not free us from obligations to give financial tzedakah too, making Shabbat a delight by spending it with friends is a great goal but we can improve on going to a restaurant to do it. For whatever mitzvot we're talking about, the lesson of Parshat Mishpatim is: do first, try to understand, and only then start adapting. This is a path that, I believe, leads us to God.

[1] "Creative" services typically happen when some group -- youth group, sisterhood, brotherhood, social-action committee, etc -- is put in charge of a service (like a Shabbat evening service) and is allowed to add poetry, replace fixed prayers with interpretive readings that fit their theme, and so on.

Entitlement or obliviousness?

Someone I respect a great deal once told me he wouldn't be surprised if someday I leave the Reform movement for Orthodoxy. I don't think so; my beliefs (i.e. the dox part) align more with Reform, even though my practice does not. I'm used to being one of the most observant Reform Jews I know, and I'm used to working around some of the hurdles that come with that. (Why no, even though it's great that all the local Reform congregations got together for a joint festival service, no I'm not going ten miles to Monroeville for it, sorry.)

But every time something like the to'evah (abomination -- and yes, I understand the strength of that word) of this past Friday's service happens, a tiny little voice speaks up in the back of my mind saying "you know, this could be a lot easier on you...". It's frustrating. If it weren't for the excellent relationships I've formed in my congregation, including both of our rabbis, I sometimes wonder...

So, this Shabbat the Reform movement celebrated its sisterhood's 100th anniversary (movement-wide, not just us). Cool -- sisterhood has never, ever spoken to me (and in fact I believe its existence violates a core principle of Reform theology, but that's a different post), but I can understand the desire to celebrate that milestone and all their accomplishments, honor their leaders, and so on. The international president of the sisterhood umbrella organization happens to be a member of my congregation, so clearly we were going to do something. So Friday's service was led by sisterhood leaders from a siddur produced by a committee of that umbrella organization.

They wrote a "creative" service. Cue ominous music here.

So what we got was an evening service that ran almost two hours (!) and still managed to omit half the amidah and all the brachot around the sh'ma except one (there was a song for hashkiveinu). Also all of kabbalat shabbat except L'cha Dodi, but we never get a complete kabbalat shabbat unless I'm running it, so that's noteworthy in degree but not in type (we usually do more than this, though not all). Are they kidding me? Who thought this was ok? Rabbis and cantors on the committee, apparently, so part of me is glad I don't know their identities as my opinion of them has just gone way down. (My rabbi tried to salvage some of the omissions during the service; I don't know if he had had a chance to vet this service beforehand or if he had trusted his colleagues.)

What did they fill all that time with? Lots of poetry, lots of "women are great" readings, lots of sisterhood self-congratulations, half a dozen "how sisterhood changed my life" testimonials incorrectly labeled as a d'var torah in the program... all sorts of stuff that would be more appropriate at a celebratory dinner than at a Shabbat service. Shabbat, and God, got short shrift -- at a Shabbat service.

(There was also a short torah service (we do that on Friday nights about half the time), with group aliyot. The last one of the three was for anyone who belongs to sisterhood; I didn't go up because they said "belongs", not "pays dues to"; I've never felt I belonged but as a board member I'm required to be a member on paper.)

When I got there and saw the service booklet I considered turning around and leaving. In retrospect I should have, perhaps visibly. Instead I ignored their service at times and picked up our regular siddur instead so I could have a valid Shabbat service. (My rabbi noticed.) But after the mourner's kaddish I saw that there were still a couple more pages of readings and stuff, plus they were going to teach a new closing song, and at that point I just said dayeinu and left. Ugh.

If they had wanted to have a special additional service that would be one thing. But this displaced the regular community service. In that regard it was even worse than a typical Reform bar mitzvah, and I hadn't realized that was possible. It is possible to honor people while preserving community norms, but that isn't a strong-enough guiding principle in the Reform movement. I alternate between being sad and saying "how dare they?".

When I got home I set aside what I had been planning to talk about in Saturday morning's d'var torah (it was my turn) and mentally assembled something else instead. That'll be forthcoming, but in case you wonder when you see it, yes there's a connection.