Blog: September 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.

License plate

For those who remember this XKCD:

comic strip about license plate 1I1-III1

With the following mouse-over text:

The next day: "What? Six bank robberies!? But I just vandalized the library!" "Nice try. They saw your plate with all the 1s and Is." "That's impossible! I've been with my car the whole ti-- ... wait. Ok, wow, that was clever of her."

I saw this in the parking garage at work today:

license plate: 88BB8BB

Ki anu amecha

There is a prayer/song in the Yom Kippur liturgy called "Ki Anu Amecha", of the form: "we are your people, you are our king; we are your flock, you are our shepherd; we are your children, you are our father" etc. Last year for Kol Nidrei my rabbi asked me to write a short kavanah, or intention, to read at the service before singing this. (In a great display of trust of which I am quite mindful, he did not screen this before I read it in front of 900 people.) I didn't post this here at the time; I meant to post it before Yom Kippur this year instead. But I didn't, so here it is now.

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer describes what God is to us -- our father and king. Both of these are one-sided; there is nothing about our role, our place in God's realm. The caring father and the just king both act upon us, not with us. So after days of pleading to the frightening, distant Avinu Malkeinu, it is time to add new images to our conception of God. It is time for us to be actors and not just acted-upon.

Ki Anu Amecha adds the relationship that has been missing until now. God is still Malkeinu, but we are his people. Still Avinu, but we are his children. Now we matter, taking our place as partners with God. Further, our view of God is not limited now to Avinu and Malkeinu -- God is shepherd to our flock, portion to our congregation, and most powerfully, our friend.

Friend? I don't know if I'm ready for God to be my friend. That's even more intimidating than Avinu and Malkeinu -- a true friend knows me as well as, or better than, I know myself. I am flawed, broken, not the best person I can be, and it's all laid bare for a true friend. Can I stand up to the scrutiny of a divine friend? On this Yom Kippur I look more for the divine teacher or the divine shepherd. I am grateful that God offers us so many ways to relate to each other; if one does not resonate for me this year, another will. What is most important is that the relationship exists; in Ki Anu Amecha God reaches out to us as surely as we reach out to him, true partners in teshuva and atonement on this grave night of Kol Nidrei.

Some rambling notes from Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur was really good for me this year. I haven't had time to assemble a more-organized post (and lookie, Sukkot starts tomorrow night!), but I want to record a few disconnected thoughts.

We had the minyan-style (Ruach) service for the morning service again, this time using the draft of the new Reform machzor (which is in beta test and is, I believe, scheduled for publication in 2015). We also, for the first time, had a minyan-style service for Rosh Hashana and used that draft too. Overall I am pleased with what I saw of the new machzor; there are certainly decisions I would make differently (including a major formatting one), it's still way, way better than Gates of Repentance, the current book. Ok, granted, that's a low bar, but still...

At that service on Rosh Hashana at one point my rabbi stood up and said "tag, you're it" (not in those words), leaving me to proceed from an unfamiliar book. (He had to go downstairs to the other service.) I stumbled some but got kudos from congregants for my attempt. So on Yom Kippur I got there early so I could review the new book, and he was able to stay. But hey, I would have been prepared to lead the vidui and s'lichot if I'd've had to. (The minyan-style service goes until the torah service, at which point we all adjourn to the sanctuary for the rest.)

I chanted torah for the afternoon service again, same part as last year. They gave me the same part for Rosh Hashana morning as last year, too. I detect a pattern. :-) I'm hoping that next year will be the year I actually learn high-holy-day trope.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, to fill time between services so people don't have to leave if they don't want to, we have a beit midrash, classes. To my surprise there was nothing I wanted to go to during the first hour, so I found a quiet corner and read more of the new machzor. (And just sat and thought for a while.) During the second hour I went to a class that was really more of a discussion about forgiveness, more focused on the human element than halacha. More questions than answers here -- do you have to forgive someone who intentionally hurt you, does "forgive" imply "forget", can you put a situation behind you without actually resolving it (psychologically, I mean) and just not let that guy live rent-free in your brain any more or do people need closure, stuff like that. Lots to think about; little to report.

I found many of my thoughts over the day drifting to someone in authority over a community I dedicated a lot of energy to, who repeatedly and unapologetically misused that authority in ways that damaged me, and the other people who stood by and let it happen. I am trying really hard to just ignore the whole thing, while at the same time wishing that maybe somebody would learn something from it.

At the ne'ilah service (the last one of the day, near sunset), the associate rabbi spontaneously invited anybody who wanted to to come up onto the bimah in front of the open ark for the service. Nobody stood immediately, but a moment later I did -- not sure what was driving me, but I'm glad I did (and a dozen or so people joined me). It was a different experience, and even though God isn't physical so proximity doesn't mean anything, being right there in front of the open ark did...something. It definitely enhanced my prayer.

A WTF moment

The original post had restricted access, but I don't work there any more so I'm not as concerned with sharing this, and I think it's an important consideration.

[Filtered, since I'm talking about my employer.]

Let me preface this by saying two things: (1) I am open about my vision problems; if somebody has questions I'll do my best to answer, and (2) I'm comfortable asking managers above me for what I need to do my job.

I've been having vision-related issues with my computer setup at work, mainly with software that doesn't play well with accessibility settings. As soon as you change font sizes or text/background colors, there are things that just don't work right. It's annoying, as I spend a lot of time finding work-arounds or just sucking it up.

As I wrote about back at the time, Office 2007 (specifically, Outlook 2007) is just plain not functional in a reverse-video environment. I use a reverse-video environment at work because the bright white pixels were hurting my eyes even before I started getting floaters that made it harder for me to read black text in that scheme -- especially for extended periods, like at work all day. (The Mac is actually worse for OS-level accessibility than Windows, but I don't spend 8-10 hours a day working at my Mac. Plus, the applications I spend the most time with -- Firefox, command line, emacs -- can be configured in the ways I need.)

Then the Windows 7 rollout came. Accessibility in Win7 is no better than in XP, and some things are worse -- maybe there are solutions I haven't found, but neither Google nor our IT department was able to help me. So, long story short, my computer is still running XP and Office 2003, and I get frequent automated nags to schedule my "upgrade". My manager is working with HR and IT on several fronts (one of which involves me exploring the Mac as a solution), and the word that filters down to me suggests that IT is not being very helpful (no surprise, given my past experience with them). Since I'm doing this experimentation in odd pockets of free time because I still have, you know, work to do, I haven't gotten very far -- but I was assured that I have until April (when XP is really and truly end-of-lifed) to have something in place.

Last week I learned that an impending Exchange upgrade is going to break email for me. So my manager is arguing with IT about that now, and who knows what will happen. While some people would take "can't get email" as a blessing, I really can't do my job without it. So... today I got email from our HR person instructing me to file a formal request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This includes collecting a medical assessment from my doctor and a description of my job requirements at the level of "fine motor control", "sight", "lift up to 10/25/50/100 pounds", "climb ladders", and all sorts of stuff covering a range of mostly-physical disabilities. And they gave me a tiny little space to describe the problem and what I need.

You have got to be freaking kidding me, I thought.

This makes me feel embarrassed, awkward, and more than a little "on display". And it made me think about how someone who isn't comfortable speaking up for his needs, or who fears reprisal, or who just doesn't want to be a "problem", would react. And that's for disabilities that are socially acceptable -- now what if it was something you were trying to keep from sharing, like a mental-health issue? How many people who need reasonable workplace accommodations, ones that would not be an imposition on employers, don't get them because asking is too demeaning, or worse? (And yes, I know that there are many other types of needs that feel even more demeaning than workplace accommodations for disabilities.)

I don't know what the solution is, but there's got to be a better way.

Biblical Hermeneutics: what hinders Jewish participation?

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 couple years in, one of the moderators observed that there was very little Jewish participation and asked what hinders people. I wrote the following answer, now deleted.

I'm making this a separate answer instead of editing my current one because it goes in a different direction. I still agree with everything in my other answer.


I came here, and stuck around, because of the promise in a site that is neutral, without a doctrinal basis. That would be an interesting site to participate in. We have a few people who write excellent questions and answers in that style1 -- but not enough. The site, like the general population, is dominated by Christians, too many of whom assert belief as Truth (and then get upset when you ask for a source). This has gotten worse in 2013.

Since most people here (and all moderators) agree with those basic assertions of truth (if not all the details), they don't see the problem even when someone objects. To them it's like saying that the sun rises in the morning. To people in this group, doctrinal assertions in posts add character and couldn't possibly do any harm.

I don't have a problem with Christians.2 I have a problem with Christian axioms -- or any other religion's axioms -- being treated as givens on a site that claims to welcome all. I thought we could keep that in check, but now I wonder. That a very-reasonable request for a polite, academic tone has been challenged is disturbing.

I came to teach and learn in a classroom. But people brought in an altar, crucifix, and communion wafers, and the caretakers gave them directions.

Current status

I've just celebrated Rosh Hashana. The liturgy includes hearing the shofar, which is basically a wake-up call. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) wrote the following about this:

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to G-d in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at yourselves; improve your ways and your deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you! (Hilchot Teshuva 3.4)

When I read that Thursday morning, "vain pursuits that neither profit nor save" jumped out at me. I've spent a lot of time on this site, and what has it gained me? I recently reviewed the questions I've participated in -- which aren't all the ones of Jewish interest, but they might be as many as half -- and asked myself what of this could move to Mi Yodeya if/when this site fails.3 I found almost nothing.4 Mostly the questions are too basic for Mi Yodeya. On Mi Yodeya I mostly ask questions; here I mostly answer them. That should have told me something.

Not only have I been teaching torah to those who already have a history of grossly distorting the Tanakh to their own ends,5 but I haven't even been helping any Jewish readers who might wander by. At best I've been helping a few open-minded people who are interested in text without doctrine, but I wonder if I would need two hands to count them.

The Rosh Hashana liturgy also contains the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, a powerful, frightening prayer that shines the harsh light of judgement on all of us. According to legend, it was written after Rabbi Amnon of Mainz gave the mistaken impression that he might consider conversion to Christianity, which would be a terrible transgression against God and the Jewish people. And while I, like Rabbi Amnon, would never6 consider giving up my Judaism for that or any other blasphemy or idolatry, I wonder if I, too, have given inadvertent support to those who are up to no good. This question will be one focus of my contemplation and teshuvah this season.

1 (listed three examples)

2 I've invited Christian friends to my Passover seder, for example, and been invited to some of their celebrations (including an ordination, which was fascinating). Respectfulness, not religion, is what matters.

3 Or merges into Christianity Stack Exchange.

4 (a couple links)

5 Not everybody here of course, but enough to be worrying.

6 I almost never say "I would never X", because who really knows what the future will bring? But on this point I say it with confidence.

(My earlier answer, from July 2013, explained the ways in which the site looks very Christian and seems to presume Christian axioms. I also talked about not having much motivation to ask questions, only answer, because I have a better place to get Jewish answers to my questions and I'm not generally interested in the abundance of Christian answers I would get.)

The shofar call

The eerie, plaintive voice of the shofar is a wake-up call, one that for me is muddled when in my congregation we have groups of people (mostly children) blow in what turns into a competition for who can hold t'kiah g'dolah the longest. People smile and chuckle and lose the meaning in it. This year, by some quirk of fate, every service I attended in Elul and for Rosh Hashana had but one shofar blower.

On Rosh Hashana morning I closed my eyes during t'kiah g'dolah, listening to the faint cry grow louder, stronger, more earnest with each passing moment. I imagined myself at the foot of Har Sinai, hearing but not seeing the divine shofar blast, taking in but not understanding the thunder and smoke as God prepared to speak. At Har Sinai and in services in my congregation both, I was in the presence of the awesome, fearsome God who could, in an instant, judge me for death or for life. Reflecting on my failings of the last year (and longer), I knew I had not truly earned the outcome I prayed for, but that somehow God might accept my teshuva anyway if I do it and mean it.

"Arise, you slumberers, from your slumber", the Rambam proclaims, "you are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save". I've read those words in our machzor every year, but this year they jumped out at me and then followed me home for more examination. The Rambam isn't talking about the relaxation and fun we all need in our lives, I don't think; he's talking about the pursuits that we put real effort into without gain.

Like a certain online community I've helped build over the last two years, only to see it go in a damaging direction while its custodians look on and do nothing. Perhaps I should have known that any "neutral" religion-related community would eventually be dominated by evangelical Christians who do not see their own bias. I've been trying to set the community back on its original course of respectful dialogue, but now I realize my efforts are ineffective. I could keep trying, but this year's lone shofar called me to re-evaluate this vain pursuit that neither profits nor saves. There are others who need my attention more, chief among them my own neshama, my own soul/spirit.

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer tells us that on Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, ...who shall be troubled and who shall be tranquil. Last year it seems I was decreed to be among the troubled; this year may I merit to be among the tranquil.

Related thoughts, and a discussion of site direction. And yes, this was the subject of my "sunk costs" post back in March; obviously I didn't manage to stay gone after I left.