Education Jewish JTS Prayer Spirituality

The Marley Minyan

In Jewish prayer there are some liturgical tunes known as “Mi-Sinai tunes.” Not that they are literally from Mt. Sinai, but the terminology expresses their authenticity. As the Congregation Emunath Israel website explains about the history of chazzanut (Jewish cantorial singing):

The Maharil was the Posek (Halachic authority) for the largest Jewish communities of the day – Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Regensberg, etc. He was upset at the “foreign” elements intruding in the melody of tefillah, and he set out to determine which versions were the true ones (Mi-Sinai or Scarbova). He was able to do that because of the Crusades that brought Jews from all over Europe to seek safety in the Rhineland. He examined the different musical strains, and determined which were authentic. His P’sak (Halachic ruling) – that “Ein L’Shanos” – one may not change the musical Nusach of a community, is standardized as Halacha by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 619). You can, of course, see that in the Mishneh Brura as well. He was also responsible for standardizing Nusach Ashkenaz in the form that our Siddur takes…

Well, at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Jewish Education (my alma mater), there is now a monthly prayer group that incorporates tunes that are not “Mi-Sinai” but more likely “Mi-Woodstock.” The JTA reports that this prayer group is “part guided meditation, part sing-along, part traditional prayer and part dorm-room musical jam that includes instruments ranging from guitars to didgeridos.”

My feeling is that this is what the Davidson School is all about: Jewish educators praying together, experimenting with tefillah, and finding the spiritual nexus between the Jewish liturgy (psalms, blessings, etc.) and popular music (Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, etc.). For those who would object to the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, rest assured that this “Jam Davening” takes place during the week.

Rabbi Danny NevinsMy teacher Rabbi Danny Nevins (right), who is the new dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, is a great drummer who has been hosting drum circles in his office for rabbinical students at the Seminary. The fusion of jamming and davening will bring more passion to JTS and by extension to Conservative synagogues. As evidenced by the popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (B.J.) synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lively music during prayer draws crowds and helps bring people closer to God.

Jacob Berkman writes in the JTA article:

Jam Davening draws about double the audience of a typical learning minyan, participants say. Now the group is trying to figure out how to bring Jam Davening to a wider audience, first by inviting the broader seminary community into the minyan, then by taking the idea to individual synagogues. This comes at a time when music is rapidly being introduced into Conservative synagogues.

Musical instruments had been excluded from Conservative synagogues on Shabbat partially because of Jewish law and partially as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. But starting in the 1950s, the movement allowed Conservative congregations to decide for themselves whether to use instruments.

Now as the movement debates whether Jews should be praying for the rebuilding of the Temple or just Jerusalem — and about whether or not the use of electricity on Shabbat is banned — the use of instruments has also come under “healthy debate,” according to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, the director of the Committee on Congregational Standards for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Also, members of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly are working on a paper to address the issue, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law and formerly the head of the committee.

What do you think about Jam Davening? Leave your comments below.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
History Holidays Israel Torah

Introducing Shek 2

2Shekel JohnHyrcanusIt is appropriate that Israel unveiled its new two shekel coin last Tuesday on the first night of Hanukkah. As reported on The New Jew blog, “The new two shekel coin features a pomegranate and horn of plenty symbol, modeled after an ancient insignia by Johanan Horcanus. Horcanus (also known by the Greek name John Hyrcanus) was the Jewish high priest from 135 to 105 BCE. He was the son of Simeon Maccabaeus, one of the original Maccabees from the Hanukkah story.”

Two Israeli shekels are currently worth fifty cents.

Interestingly, the the new two shekel coins are not made in Israel. Rather, like all Israeli currency they are produced in South Korea and shipped to Israel for circulation since Israel has no mint in operation.

Unfortunately, Israel will now be phasing out the five-shek coin, which next to the ten-shek is my favorite shekel coin.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish

Jewish Traverse City

A few months ago, I received an odd e-mail from the brother of a high school classmate. He explained that his synagogue in Traverse City, Michigan had found itself without a rabbi. He asked if I could help. My first response was, “There are Jews living in Traverse City?”

That initial e-mail message turned into several back-and-forth messages until we finally settled on a Shabbat that I could visit the congregation as a guest rabbi. There is something very special about small town Jewish communities in remote areas. The Jewish men and women living in the Northern Michigan town of Traverse City might not be active synagogue-goers or Jewish communal leaders if they lived in a more densely populated Jewish community. Like Congregation Beit Kodesh in Livonia, Michigan (the small synagogue I consult as Rabbinic Advisor), I was very impressed with the close-knit, do-it-yourself atmosphere I found at Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Traverse City. I found a similar positive “small shul” atmosphere as well at Sha’are Shalom, the fledgling congregation I led in Leesburg, Virginia during rabbinical school. Without the presence of a rabbi, lay people truly rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done.

Unlike larger congregations where the members might take it for granted that there are a plethora of Torah scrolls in the ark when they arrive at services, at Ahavat Shalom this past Friday evening I met synagogue president Fred Goldenberg as he walked into the Unitarian Universalist church carrying a large white duffel bag with the Torah inside. As soon as we started talking it occurred to me that the game of “Jewish Geography” can still be played no matter how far “Up North” one is in Michigan (Fred’s son David went to college with me and was involved in Hillel).

A nice story about this Northern Michigan congregation and how they celebrate Hanukkah, featuring the Goldenbergs (at right) and our hosts Jay and Rachel Starr, was published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. I hope this congregation, and other small Jewish communities in remote areas like this, persevere and go from strength to strength.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Antisemitism Humor Jewish Kosher

Hanukkah Ham

Ham for HanukkahEveryone is talking about the faux pas at Balducci’s, the “food lover’s market” in New York City. Last week, blogger Nancy Kay Shapiro saw that Balducci’s had labeled its hams with pricing signs advertising “Delicious for Chanukah” and returned the next day with her camera in hand. Just about every newspaper in the country picked up the story leading the Greenwich Village gourmet food store to issue an apology on its website.

Personally, I think this is a forgivable error by a store employee who didn’t know better and not an offensive act toward the Jewish people during Hanukkah as some are labeling it. I can’t imagine any Jews were actually misled by this erroneous signage and ate treif on Hanukkah as a result.

In fact, I’m sure erroneous labeling like this happens quite often and religious groups should laugh about it rather than taking offense. Here are some of my examples:

Easter Knish by Rabbi Jason MillerNothing says Easter like a hot Knish!

Ramadan Bagel Lox and Shmear Basket by Rabbi Jason MillerRamadan: It’s all about the lox and shmear!

Mormon Booze by Rabbi Jason MillerCelebrate the Sabbath with a bottle of vodka for your favorite Mormon!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish Technology

Light From Left to Right

There’s a great new animation from the Jewish Robot (AKA Ben Baruch; AKA William Levin) on the My Jewish Learning website to teach how to light the Hanukkah candles (see below). This is the first in a new series of viral marketing animations called “The Adventures of Todd and God.” It’s great that Levin’s using his creative talents to deliver Jewish learning through new media.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Business Celebrities Jewish Music

Norman Lear and Starbucks

With the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike meaning no Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Colbert Report (although the writers are putting funny stuff on YouTube), I’ve been forced to find other TV shows to watch.

Howard Schultz and Rabbi Jason MillerOne of my favorites has been the Iconoclasts series on the Sundance Channel. I first saw one of these programs several months ago when they featured Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and surfing icon Laird Hamilton. The other day I watched the Iconoclasts episode matching Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz (with me at right) and Norman Lear. The two men are very fond of each other, have much more in common than anyone would imagine, and have teamed up in some very lucrative ways. The combination made this a very Jewish episode.

I actually knew a great deal about Howard Schultz before I saw this program. I heard him speak about his upbringing, influences, and vision at a Jewish Federation event in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Earlier in the day of the event, I happened to be at a local Ann Arbor Starbucks having a meeting with a Hillel donor and Howard Schultz walked in. I observed him doing exactly what he says he does and what is portrayed in the Iconoclasts episode about him. He walked up to each worker (“partner”) in the Starbucks store, shook their hand, patted them on the back, and told them that he genuinely was proud of their hard work. He then made his way over to our table, sat down, and shmoozed for a few minutes as if he wasn’t the busy executive running a billion-dollar corporation that opens eight new stores per day. At the Jewish Federation event later that evening he remembered our conversation without any prompting.

Howard Schultz and Norman LearSchultz speaks openly that his Judaism influences his code of business principles and I have used him as an example many times when teaching about Jewish business ethics. Our nanny, who has become a part of our family, moonlights as a part-time Starbucks manager and has confirmed to me that it really is a great place to work (full health care benefits for all part-time staff).

How much I knew about Howard Schultz is how little I knew about Norman Lear, the Jewish creator of all those 70’s TV shows (All in the Family, Good Times, the Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, etc.). As Norman Lear describes in an online interview with, Judaism has infused his life’s work. In the interview, as in the Iconoclasts presentation, Lear explains the Talmudic story that he loves and and lives by:

There’s a Talmudic story that I love, that seems to cover everything to me. A man should have a jacket with two pockets. In the first pocket there should be a piece of paper on which is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the second, a piece of paper on which it is written “For me the world was created.” That’s mama loshon to me, real common sense. The person who can live between that ying and yang has it made.

The two men appear like a loving father and son that had been separated for years. They share similar ethics and have each revolutionized their own trade (Schultz by selling coffee in new ways and treating his workers in better ways, and Lear with racy TV characters like Archie Bunker to get Americans to think about racial and religious tolerance in new ways). Together, they have teamed up on entrepreneurial initiatives like selling music at Starbucks (the award-winning Ray Charles CD — the last of his life — being their first attempt) and on social and political issues (getting young people to vote).

The highlights of the presentation are in Lear’s home, where he shows his original copy of the Declaration of Independence to Howard Schultz, and in their tour of the Seattle warehouse where Starbucks coffee is produced. Each man shows remarkable pride in the other and the Jewish people should take great pride in these men. It is their Judaism that has made them who they are.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish

Hanukkah Lights

Rabbi David Ari SchuckRabbi David Ari Schuck, my friend and colleague, posted some really beautiful and inspiring thoughts about Hanukkah on his blog.

When we give something that we own to someone else, by definition, we lose the object. This means there is some type of loss involved in the giving. Often, the loss we experience is offset by the joy that we experience by seeing this object in the hands of its new owner.

Rabbi Schuck goes on to explain how the light of the candle enables us to give on a different level:

Light is different. When you light a candle, the light of the candle fills the room; it enables us to see things that would otherwise remain unseen in the dark. Despite the giving of the candle, the light is not diminished. It is one of the few exceptions to the rule of giving. A candle gives and gives, it illuminates everything in its vicinity, but loses nothing. We stand before the candles and we are bathed in their light. There is no shame in taking that light. The more of it we take, the more we will then emit. We will be moved, in a sense, to imitate the candles and learn how to give without feeling loss, without feeling that in some way we are diminished by the act of giving. This is very difficult, but it is a path on which those who work to refine their moral character must set out.

Read all of Rabbi Schuck’s “Hanukkah Thoughts for 5768” on his blog.

My family joins me in wishing everyone a Chag Urim Sameach – a very happy Hanukkah!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish Kosher Orthodox Judaism Pluralism Reform Judaism

Samuel Freedman on Hechsher Tzedek

In today’s Jerusalem Post, Samuel Freedman, the author of Jew Vs. Jew, wrote the best article about the new Hechsher Tzedek that I have yet to see. Freedman does a balanced job of explaining the rationale behind Rabbi Morris Allen’s idea for a “new form of kosher certification, which reflect[s] a commitment to justice on behalf of kosher food companies rather than solely their adherence to the laws of kashrut in food preparation.”

What I liked most about Freedman’s article is how he returned to the civil rights era and Martin Luther King, Jr. to portray the history of what we now call tikkun olam (social justice) in Judaism. The Jewish men and women who joined the Civil Rights Movement were passionate about their activism but, for the most part, dispassionate about the basis for their activism in their Jewish heritage. Freedman writes,

One of the whopping paradoxes of the civil rights movement was that the Jews who comprised a disproportionate share of white activists and volunteers were largely ignorant of the theological roots of their idealism. With some rare rabbinic exceptions like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jack Rothschild, they had to learn their own Bible from the black Christians in the campaign.

As Freedman understands it, there has long been a disconnect among Jews between the social activism that is practiced and the textual tradition that promotes such activism.

In the parts of the Jewish spectrum with the strongest involvement in tikkun olam, particularly among the secular and unaffiliated, there is the least awareness of the Judaic foundations of that concept. (In fact, there is often an antipathy to religion itself as mere superstition.) In the parts with the deepest knowledge of text and tradition, particularly the Orthodox sector, a formidable apparatus of charities exists almost entirely to serve internal needs.

Freedman points to the American Jewish World Service, led by social justice trailblazer Ruth Messinger, which has become such a phenomenon because it has “overtly connected activism to a disciplined, ongoing study of Jewish texts.” I agree. I would also add the work of two Conservative rabbis in two other Jewish organizations that are both successfully connecting their passion for activism with their devotion to Torah. Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, started by Rabbi David Rosenn (left), integrates work for social change, Jewish learning, and community building. Rabbi Jill Jacob’s work with Jewish Funds for Justice helps achieve social and economic security and opportunities for the poor in our country, but is deeply grounded in her scholarly and passionate Torah. Jill’s ability to mesh her Torah with her Jewish values of tzedek are often expressed on the jspot blog (although I disagree with her take on Thanksgiving).

The Conservative Movement, through the Hechsher Tzedek, is also bridging the divide between justice work and the Torah’s mandate to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:10). There is textual bases for the Hechsher Tzedek in our sifrei kodesh (the Jewish textual tradition from the Bible to the Talmud and through the rabbinic codes of law and modern-day commentaries). So rather than call Conservative Judaism a “wishy washy” branch on the American Jewish scene, I choose to look at it as the best of both worlds. We can have the commitment to social justice that is so prioritized in the Reform Movement while also having the commitment to Jewish law and lore (the Halakhic and Midrashic traditions), which is the primary focus of Orthodoxy.

Perhaps Samuel Freedman’s article serves as the best response to the comments posted to this blog regarding my thoughts on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s article in the recent Conservative Judaism journal.

How does the Conservative Judaism of today differ from an increasingly more traditional Reform Judaism? Conservative Judaism emphasizes a commitment to the system of mitzvot (Halakhah), while also emphasizing social justice and k’vod habriyot (human dignity). And while we’re at it, How does Conservative Judaism differ from Orthodox Judaism? Conservative Judaism wants its adherents to be committed to the 613 mitzvot and to engage in an ongoing ascension up the ladder of Jewish commitments (Shabbat and holy days, Kashrut, prayer, study, tzedakah, etc.) while still being able to brush their teeth on Shabbat without buying one of these.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |