The Maccabeats or StandFour?

— by Joshua Redlich  Chanukah may be over, but the songs are still in our heads. Two years ago it was "Candlelight," a song that reached over a million viewers in less than a week, launching the singing careers of the young and talented members of Yeshiva University's unofficial acapella group, The Maccabeats. But this Chanukah, "Eight Nights" by StandFour seems to be the song that everyone's kvelling about. But with the catchy, meaningful, and inspiring song came the unfortunate breakup of The Maccabeats, everyone's favorite Jewish acapella group.  Two Hanukkah parodies and more after the jump.  

 

With the constant touring and concerts, Immanuel Shalev, David Block, Noey Jacobson, and Nachum Joel, three of whom are married and all of whom have full time jobs, decided to part ways with the group and start their own. "Eight Nights, a parody mash up of “Some Nights” by Fun, “Die Young” by Ke$ha, and “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction, is their first song, and already it's a hit.   While I can not say which acapella group I like more just yet, I am excited to see what the future holds in store for each. And besides, no one can deny that two Jewish acapella groups are better than one.

American Orthodox Jews and Rabbinic Authority

— by Hannah Lee

The United States has the second largest Jewish population in the world, yet we alone have no unifying Orthodox religious hierarchical structure. Other nations with communities of over 100,000 Jews have Chief Rabbis — Israel, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Italy — while others have informal hierarchy, such as in Australia.  Here in the United States, the local rabbi reports to the synagogue board and the Jewish day school headmaster reports to the school board. We have no national chief rabbi to ensure proper halachic supervision and unification of policies across the board in Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, Dayan (judge) of the Beit Din of America (the Rabbinical court for Orthodox Jewry) and professor of law at Emory University while speaking at a Hanukkah program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School on Sunday.

More after the jump.
Rabbi Broyde spoke about two of the many perspectives on the Hanukkah story to portray the poles of rabbinic authority in this country. One is that the Hellenists infringed on our religious freedom. “If only they had left us alone, we would not have had to wage war against them.”  Another is that the Hellenists were wrong and rabbinic Jews had to force them to do what is right.

American Orthodoxy has been created in the image of America’s ethos of independent thinking. In his lifetime, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was the leading halachic authority for Orthodox Jewry in North America. However, he repeatedly declined the title of Chief Rabbi and his writings, such as Responsa Igrot Moshe, reflected his position against organized hierarchy — a tradition that dates back to the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu or the Vilna Gaon, who died in 1797) and the Aruch HaShulhan (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who died in 1908). Reb Moshe, as he was known, was fearless and autonomous, who refused to defer to other rabbinic authorities. He exhorted Jews to study and learn for themselves. We are to think and decide for ourselves.

R. Feinstein even considered it acceptable for modern-day halachic authorities to argue with some of the Rishonim, the influential Rabbis and Poskim (jurists) who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries, when they have strong proofs and firm analytic foundations. In tumultuous times, two things tend to happen:

  1. novel situations arise and
  2. historical answers no longer seem to work.

So, we need new answers to modern-day problems. An example that R. Feinstein cites from the Talmud [Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a] was about unblemished sacrifices, where Rabbi Zecharya was figuratively blamed for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) because he remained silent on the matter, out of respect or fear of his peers. When one has a particular, even unpopular, understanding of Halacha, one is not permitted to remain silent.

Do we learn from the historic rabbis and follow their rulings? It’s okay to do differently, says Rabbi Broyde, elaborating on Rabbi Feinstein. As the Rishonim are no longer living, we cannot run a community on auto-pilot. God cannot ask us to be right all the time, only that we try our best to follow a halachic process. For example, whereas the Ashkenazim follow the halachic rulings of the Tosefot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud), the Sephardim follow the halachic opinions of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204). These traditions cannot both be right, but it is our adherence to the legal process, not the result that matters to Orthodox Jewry.

The model for a God-fearing community is a body of laws that are consistent with the sources that bind us. R. Feinstein was very concerned that Jews follow secular law, Dina D’Malchuta Dina. Whereas the Jews in Hungary, for instance, lived in an unjust society seeking to exploit them, and resorted to cheating the government of taxes as necessary to survive, American Jews live in a just society and, thus we have the full obligation to comply with all local and national laws.

During the Q&A session afterward the official presentation, R. Broyde made it clear that sometimes rabbinic decisions are made for the communal good, and not because of halachic requirements. One issue raised by audience members was about the plight of agunot, “chained” women who are not given a get, bill of divorce, by their estranged husbands which results in the women being unable to remarry. “This is a political issue, as there is already a halachic solution,” said R. Broyde, because there is the prenuptial agreement that binds the couple to rabbinic arbitration by a beit din in case of marital disputes. Then the question became: “What about women who do not have one?” The prenuptial agreement has been in use for 25 years, he said. “What if the women had not been counseled by the rabbi to obtain one?” Using the analogy of people who ride motorcycles recklessly without wearing safety helmets, Rabbi Broyde declared, “We cannot expend community resources to clean up after a marital disaster.” And he added: “Communities get the rabbis they deserve… and members can always choose to move to where there is a better rabbi.” Alas for the aggrieved agunot in our communities, even with a prenuptial agreement, the obstacle for most get disputes remains in its enforcement. The secular courts do not give support to any rabbinical court ruling. Would a Chief Rabbinate make a difference for our agunot?

Rabbi Broyde claimed that the communities that have a chief rabbinate have political and social virtues, citing statistics from the United Kingdom: 3/4 of all Jews attend Jewish day school, higher rates of affiliation, and a lower rate of intermarriage. However, I remain unconvinced by this argument and Rabbi Broyde’s hope for a Chief Rabbinate of the United States seems an unlikely outcome in this “land of the free.”

 

Reframing the Hanukkah Christmas Dilemma

Rabbi Goldie Milgram

In memory of my father Samuel Milgram and his birthday on the third Hanukkah Light

When almost all your congregants raise their hands to the question “Do you have a Christmas tree up this season in your home?” it’s quite unsettling for a rabbi. This happened to me back in 1989 in a rural pulpit. The Hanukkah-Christmas dilemma full-blown. What to do, if anything?

A creative program came to mind during a night of troubled dreams. The president of the congregation, ever a supporter of my tendency towards R&D on behalf of the Jewish future, organized everything perfectly to my specifications. And the congregants came, almost all of them.

More after the jump.
First, we set up the synagogue president’s dining room perfectly ready for Passover.

Then we set up her basement, perfectly ready for Christmas with a whole set up borrowed from a pious Christian neighbor.

Then we set up her den with menorah, dreidl, Hanukkah decorations and foods.

Perhaps you can intuit why this particular set-up, a month before Hanukkah and Christmas which fell close together that year.

Bringing in the Light of Spiritual Intimacy and Understanding

As each couple arrived for the program, they received a questionnaire suggesting they go to the Passover room, if raised primarily Jewish, and the Christmas room, if raised primarily Christian. And there to sit quietly and sing along with the music, look at the tree, the art, the food, allow memories to arise and then answer a series of questions.

To the best of my recollection the questions were:

1. Please list all holiday and religious symbols in this room and  their meaning to the best of your knowledge.

2. Make a list of those with whom you’ve primarily shared this holiday with over the years and how that is for you.

3. What are your favorite foods for this holiday?

4. What are your most and least favorite customs and practices for this holiday and why?

5. Is this a holy day for you and what makes it holy for you?

Now, if you are in the Passover room please go to the Christmas room and vice-versa, turn this page over and answer do the same as you did here, answering the questions as well for that room as duplicated on the other side of this page. When you have been to both rooms, we will meet up in the Hanukkah room for a discussion of our findings, three couples will explain why they either a) have a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home, b) have only a menorah for this season c) have neither. We will conclude with a Hanukkah teaching with Reb Goldie.

What Do These Symbols Tell Us?

It was so moving to watch laughter and tears flow softly as congregants moved from room to room experiencing the differences among the holidays. The sharing was profound and interesting. What does the wine mean on the seder table? Jews would say joy, several Christians reported it symbolizing the blood of their Lord Jesus. Wine in Judaism actually symbolizes the joy of the gift of life, the life-force itself.

The painting of Jesus on the Cross that we were given to put up in the room with tree, presents and carols, Yule log (both aflame in fire place, and a yummy cake), Wassail bowl, etc. Jews reported sadness and some fear at seeing a young Jewish man dying a horrible death as a religious symbol, Christians reported the symbol of what their Lord Jesus did for them that their sins might be forgiven.

We listened to each other, educated each other, forgave each other our misunderstandings, appreciated fears of loss of identity, of family connections and histories, made room for respective persecutions across the ages. The power of Passover, one of our major holy days, became so palpably meaningful it seemed to all present. Dealing with the bitterness of slavery and taskmasters of old, within and present employers on the metaphor level. The importance of a holy day that values the tears of effort and pain shed on the way to eliminating slavery. Breaking the bread of affliction, the matzah over our hearts to led in the Light of healing…and so much more.

Balancing a Festival against a Holy Day – Ahhh, We Get It

Christmas tree envy was indeed described and receded as the program progressed and a striking concept emerged through our studies. The Hanukkiah, the menorah, is mentioned twenty-seven times in the Torah. Precise details of its construction are given when Moses is alone on the mountaintop, listening to G*d and seeing the Architect’s vision (Exodus 25:31-40). The menorah, then, becomes a symbol of this listening and holding of the Light of awareness that began for him at the Burning Bush. The menorah’s original shape is, indeed, that of a tree.

More on Menorah as Inspiring Metaphor

Torah (The Five Books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life and is made of the original light filtered, condensed, formed into creation, and encoded in letters dancing with energy. The menorah symbolizes the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the awareness it only takes one person of vision to lead the way to face the pharaoh’s of our times and all times, the menorah is our Burning Bush. Its light is God as Torah, filtered through the prism of your soul and actions, focusing us on the mission of the Jewish people, to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self centered lives.

The original menorah had seven branches. The Hanukkah menorah has nine, to commemorate the Maccabees’ eight day festival for rededication of the temple, plus one extra branch for the shamash, a helper candle to ignite the others.

What about the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days? This and many other stories arose long after the event, entering the realm of our tribal sacred myth. The Hanukkah menorah, however, does recall miracles-that there was enough “oil,” then and now, enough of the Jewish soul left after so much assimilation and trauma, to rededicate ourselves to the covenant of living as Jews. Even today a huge menorah engraved with scenes from Jewish history stands outside Israel’s parliament, an enduring symbol of that dedication.

The Seleucid Empire, part of the Greek Empire and its intent for homogeneous practices among its citizens, had enacted edicts prohibiting Jews from living our Torah. We were prohibited at peril of death to observe the sabbath, have a Jewish name, keep separate milk (the gift of life) from meat (life taken away), and worse. Hanukkah also symbolizes the courage it takes to trust and maintain our ways. We are one of the longest continually existing peoples on the planet with much of depth, importance and beauty to transmit across the generations. We exist for a purpose.

On the Roman arch of Titus, commemorating the conquering of Jerusalem, the Romans are shown carrying off the menorah in triumph. Those Romans didn’t know that the most precious part of all had been left behind, carried in the soul-sparks of our people, every one of us a branch of a hidden menorah, carrying the light of Torah.

Through our congregation’s program and studies we became a menorah of community in the room; each soul a candle burning brightly with a vision of God’s light coming into us as inspiration for living mitzvah-centered lives.

Making Each Night of Hanukkah Remarkable

We began to brainstorm how to make each night of Hanukkah a gift of awareness, spiritual growth, family and friend connection, and caring beyond our immediate circle. Jewish families, someone noted at that program, tend to randomly come home with gifts for our children throughout the year. Those presents are one way we show love and recognition of the interests and abilities of our child. On Hanukkah, we realized, the present is how we receive and utilize the light of Torah.

To transform from consumer consciousness to mitzvah consciousness on Hanukkah, over the years with communities, we’ve brainstormed:

On the first candle of Hanukkah some of us venture with into attics, closets and garages to find surplus things – bikes, tv’s, vcrs, computers; and after school and before lighting the menorah, brought these goods to family service professionals who know those in need…

Some of us focused on saving energy and care for the planet by putting in more efficient light bulbs, having energy audits, doubling up on blankets and lower thermostats for another day of Hanukkah…

Some hold an Israel arts evening as the Hanukkah candles glow, each family showing something they’ve acquired to symbolize the miracle of Israel realized in our times in their hearts and homes….Some also hold out a light to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and hold a Hanukkah fundraiser for joint learning centers and summer camps…

The fifth candle might include an invitation to bring a photo of Hanukkah family times past, to tell and video stories of those no longer with us whose lives added light to our own… Some consider our own inner light on Hanukkah, is our spark dim or bright? What do we need to do to heal in order to become better able to serve and savor in this life?

By the sixth candle some of us take our tzedakah boxes (where we regularly drops coins and bills to accumulate for charity) and open them to count what has accrued over the year for distribution. Each person brings information about a good cause and those present become a holy allocations committee, sometimes adding Hanukkah gelt – funds dedicated with care on Hanukkah…

The seventh candle might involve bringing a menorah, candles and home-made latkes over to share at a shelter for abused women and children, homeless persons, or a home for elders…

The last night of Hanukkah, as eight lights blaze in the menorah sometimes we do an Internet search on the meaning and places in Torah and Jewish literature and history of  our Jewish names and make or give a piece of jewelry to honor the freedom we have to hold those names dear…

The eighth night is also a time to dream of peace and good lives for all, to discuss and donate to causes that work for education, well-being, the environment and peace. The root letters of Hanukkah come from the term for education and dedication. All ages who can be present for such discussions increase the light of understanding and let it fuel constructive action.

How the Christmas Tree Question Received Closure

My first pulpit showed me how to cast light on making Hanukkah spiritually meaningful. On the Shabbat of Hanukkah they brought their handmade menorahs from a congregational workshop and in front of the lights dedicated themselves to advancing their learning and practice. Each year I taught a series on one of the ten major aspects of living a mitzvah-centered life – Prayer, God, Torah, Shabbat, Hebrew, Halachah (guidelines), Mitzvot (actions to engage in and refrain from), Life Cycle Rituals, Peoplehood and Hebrew, our sacred language wherein so much wisdom and light abides. These teachings became my first three books.

My first congregation’s farewell service to launch me into a new career chapter as a seminary dean offered closure on the original Christmas tree question. After a quilt with a square of learning from each family was presented as part of the ritual, the president asked, “How many present put up a Christmas tree for the family at your home on the holidays?” As I recall, one new member family and one long-time member family raised their hands. I encouraged them to go to extended families for Christmas with love and joy, bearing and receiving gifts if that is expected. Their own homes had become Jewish homes with a tree of the light of Torah, the menorah at the center of their holiday season.

Blessings this Hanukkah to experience and increase “de”-Light.

See the Reclaiming Judaism Website for books by Rabbi Goldie Milgram.