10/10/19

When my Father was Rabbi at the Park East Synagogue

Praying and the synagogue were central to my life since my early childhood. My father, Zev Zahavy, was the rabbi of several distinguished New York City synagogues on the West side and then the East Side of Manhattan. I recall many times accompanying him to his work. His study in the synagogue was off to the side of the main sanctuary, lined with books, filled with a musty smell and having the creakiest wood floor I ever walked on.
The author (right) with his Dad (center) in 5715 in the synagogue sukkah

The synagogue in Manhattan at that time was a stately place with formal services, led by a professional Hazzan. My dad wore a robe and high hat - black during the year and white on the High Holy Days.

He was famous in the city for his sermons. He labored over them for hours. He would send "releases" to the local papers (like the NY Times' 230+ citations of his sermons -- here in online book form) to let them know about what he would be preaching on Saturday. Those were the fifties and the Times and other papers covered the Saturday and Sunday sermons. Frequently we would look around the sanctuary to see if the reporter from the Times was present. We'd know because he'd sit in the back and be writing feverishly on his reporter's pad. (Not iPad... real paper pad.)

My father was ambitious especially about increasing the attendance at the services. We had to count the number of people in shul and discuss that at the lunch table. Then he'd ask us how the sermon was and we all answered enthusiastically every week, "It was terrrrrrific!"

Rude Reader or Right Reader? Your Dear Rabbi Zahavy Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for October 2019

Dear Rabbi Zahavy
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

During the lengthy Rosh Hashanah services, I was reading a personal book in synagogue to help me pass the time. A person I know saw me doing this and criticized me for my rude behavior. I feel like he was out of line and want to tell him that I did nothing wrong. What is your advice for the best approach to doing this?

Reader in Ramapo


Dear Reader,

Up front, my advice to anyone who receives unsolicited advice or criticism for behavior that is mainly innocuous is to reply to the critic, “Thank you for your suggestions,” and to avoid further confrontations. So that’s what I suggest here as well, because I am assuming that in reading your book, you were not doing anything distracting or disruptive to others during the services.

In fact, what we do during our synagogue services are mainly activities that we could describe generally as “reading a book.” The sanctioned books that we use, of course, are the siddur for most services, the machzor for the holidays, and the Tanach for the Torah and haftarah scriptural readings.

Now if you want to know if by reading your own book you “did nothing wrong” and argue that viewpoint with your friend, well, that involves some further contextual analysis and some lengthier discussion of social norms.

Context does matter. Reading a book quietly in a public setting ordinarily is not rude or improper. So, you start off with a strong justification of the propriety of your actions. And in a general way, your friend was out of line for nosing into your activity.

10/5/19

Ten years later I still agree. Here is what is wrong with our Jewish prayer book commentaries

After reading in a June 2009 morning at KJ some initial and random comments in the new Koren-Sacks Siddur, I was reminded of what in the past I have found lacking in prayerbook commentaries.

They are not complicated enough.

They portray our services as if they are beautifully woven together and, in the case of the longer services, as if they unfold in a gentle rising crescendo of drama from initial inspiring prayers, through more meaningful and expressive liturgies to our culminating praises and petitions.

When you read our most popular prayer book commentaries, you think the correct background music for our prayers would be say something soothing and nearly seamless, like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

I have logged many davening hours and I never saw the Orthodox Jewish services projecting this sort of connected and calm mood.

No I've always thought the services were at best symphonies with abruptly varying movements, often characterized by stark contrasts and even at times by cacophony.

Our Siddur is in fact a complex composite document that evolved over many centuries. Many hands had a role in expressing the values and beliefs that our collective prayers represent. By its own definition, such a work should not be a smooth fabric.

A few times I have attempted to say just this in the modes of expression that characterized our scholarly writings. For instance in a paper I wrote, "The Politics of Piety: Social Conflict and the Emergence of Rabbinic Liturgy," I summarized at the outset a major theme of our more lengthy arguments as follows,
Prayer services do not emerge spontaneously or arbitrarily in a vacuum. They are the public pronouncements of the central values and concepts of the religious leaders who initially propounded them and are social rituals that often emerge out of intense conflict and hard-fought compromise. Specific historical, social, and political conditions contributed to the distinct origin of two major rabbinic services. In the crucial transitional period after the destruction of the Temple, the Shema emerged as the primary ritual of the scribal profession and its proponents. The Tefillah at this formative time was a ritual sponsored mainly by the patriarchal families and their priestly adherents. Compromises between the factions of post-70 Judaism later led to the adoption of the two liturgies in tandem, as the core of public Jewish prayer. But this came about only after intense struggles among competing groups for social and political dominance over the Jewish community at large and concomitantly for the primacy of their respective liturgies. The political, social, and even economic dimensions of the religious life of the synagogues were crucial to the formation of nascent rabbinic Judaism.
I think this is what brings our Siddur alive. It's a story of sharply competing ideas and values all striving for attention within a closed but utterly vibrant religious world. That's the story I'd like to see in some variant form in our prayer book commentaries. It's the narrative of a dialectical theological universe of debate and dispute over which notion we ought to employ to express our most urgent needs before our creator. For instance, do we put our scribal needs at the top of our agenda? Or do we cast our priestly yearnings at the top of our list?

In our Siddur we see a constant flow of traffic, changing of lanes, jostling for position of values and notions, ideas and concepts. And more than this, we see layer upon layer of meaning imposed upon our every practice and festival. Sacred time in our prayer book has mystical, agricultural, historical and Torah-logical importance, all at once. And all of us see different angles of this "lasagna" of religious life.

(When I start using such metaphors, that means uh-oh, I must be getting hungry and it's time to wrap up the post.)

See these among my published writings for more details.

God's Favorite Final Yom Kippur Prayers and the Shofar Blowing that Ends the Fast

Here is what we say in the final pages of my recent book about God's Favorite Final Yom Kippur prayers and the Shofar blowing that ends the fast:

[At]…the final shofar blast at the close of the Yom Kippur fast, …the six disparate synagogue voices coalesce in brief shared characteristic prayers.

So let me recall for you one moment of recurring spiritual grandeur each year—the shofar blowing at the end of Yom Kippur in my unorthodox imagined synagogue.

I stand at the bimah with my friends. We are cleansed of our food and drink, and of our sins. After a day of prayer filled with compassion, we have let go of those negative habits, ideas and actions that separated us from one another. We see each other for who we are, separate personalities with diverse values and goals, united under a roof, in a community, sharing a past and future, and alive together in a productive, vibrant and respectful present. 

Here is my paper, "Yom Kippur: My Day of Compassion" - for your inspiration and enjoyment

Here is my paper, "Yom Kippur: My Day of Compassion" - with some 2017 review and comments.

Use this link if you do not want to go to Academia 

Is Bernie Sanders Jewish?

Yes, Bernie Sanders is a Jew, but the Times (2016) says that, "He Doesn't Like to Talk About It."

I was disappointed in Joseph Berger of the Times for interviewing his brother and not getting Bernie to talk about this.

And trust me, there are dozens of rabbis who would be happy to slam him in the Times for not being a good enough Jew.

The Times didn't give both sides very well and it skipped lightly over the surface of this complex issue

Here is the story:

When Senator Bernie Sanders thanked supporters for his landslide victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, he wistfully reminisced about his upbringing as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money.”

While the crowd cheered, Rabbi Michael Paley of New York was among many Jews watching the speech who were taken aback. He said he was surprised that the Vermont senator had not explicitly described his father as a “Polish Jewish immigrant,” a significant distinction given Poland’s checkered history with its Jewish population.

“Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole,” Rabbi Paley said.

For 5780 Online Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Kol Nidre services, on Video, on a Live Webcast

Our sincere and heartfelt best wishes to all our readers for a Year of Blessing and Health, Prosperity and Good Cheer.

Rosh Hashanah 5780 - 2019 falls on Monday, the 30th of September and continues for 2 days.

Yom Kippur 5780 - 2019 falls on Wednesday, the 9th of October.

From Central Synagogue in NYC come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur online services and videos. Scroll down to find the feed and schedule. See the LIVE webcast of Kol Nidre services this year.

The 92nd Street Y also plans a webcast of services.

Rabbis on videos at various places discuss atonement and repentance. There also are holiday video recipes for tzimmes, honey cake and tagelach that you can find online.

And see Video-streamed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services.

In these coming Days of Awe all of this is good nourishment for the soul.



Purchase some of these wonderful books for the holidays.


9/5/19

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for September 2019 - Your talmudic advice column - What should I do about our tribal rituals and knowledge

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for September 2019
Your Talmudic advice column
What should I do about our tribal rituals and knowledge

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I was shocked to read an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper by a writer who made radical assertions — seemingly without much evidence to support his assertions — that circumcision (bris milah) was not a central ritual of ancient Israel. The writer, moreover, proposed eliminating circumcision from Judaism, seemingly reflecting his blindness to his own Jewish culture and religion. Is eliminating circumcision now a trend among some secularist Jews? What can we do to stop this trend?

Bris Defender in Bergenfield


Dear Defender,

While many Jews assume that circumcision is a universal practice among their fellow Jews, that has not always been entirely true. In the early days of Reform Judaism in the 19th century, some classical Reform Jews openly opposed all rituals, including circumcision. And today, as you suspect, there are some young Jewish Israeli parents who refuse to circumcise their sons.

I have a devout Jewish friend who was terribly upset when her son in Israel did not circumcise her new grandson last year. I observe that it is trendy now in some progressive communities in Israel not to circumcise baby boys.

The article you cited provides some rationalizations for those people, but it is based on dubious historical claims.

8/10/19

My Jewish Standard - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - Talmudic Advice Column for July 2018 - Let's Fix The Ninth of Av

My Jewish Standard - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - Talmudic Advice Column for July 2018 - Let's Fix The Ninth of Av

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

Our U.S. government recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel on May 14, 2018, and dedicated its embassy there, moving it from Tel Aviv. I don’t understand how we can continue to commemorate the 9th day of Av as a sad fast day that memorializes Jerusalem as a destroyed desolate city, when the facts of today totally contradict that. Doesn’t the reality of today’s circumstances make it time to abolish the fasting and mourning of that day?

Puzzled in Paramus

Dear Puzzled,

We need to ask in general — why should we cede to religion the ability to legislate our emotions? What is the benefit of making people sad and mournful through rituals? Religion can do this, to a degree. By requiring fasting, by forbidding weddings from taking place, banning music for three weeks, by prohibiting haircuts and shaving, religion can try to manipulate moods and motivations. But why?